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?

Aug 10, 2012

In the Name of Achdus

I heard a shiur recently in which the speaker spoke about respecting shomer Shabbos Jews with different ideologies and lifestyles than yourself.  In an attempt to promote achdus, problematic ideologies and lifestyles were glossed over.

As important as achdus is, when moral relativism gets mixed in, that spells trouble.  I see this in statements such as, "We need to be able to see people who feel differently than we do, as people with a valid opinion, albeit different from our own ..." without qualification.

Even when referring exclusively to opinions seemingly sourced in Torah, we know that even such views can be wrong! I would give examples but prefer not to be that controversial.

In this era of moral relativism it isn't considered proper to view anything as wrong, but that doesn't change the fact that sometimes, people have wrong views.  We are not allowed, according to Torah, to validate these views! We might try to understand why they hold the wrong views they hold, and love them despite their wrong views, but wrong is wrong!

A similar sentiment is expressed when a frum psychologist writes, "All feelings are legitimate … All feelings are valid."  This is certainly the prevalent view in America today, unfortunately so, but it certainly doesn't reflect Torah values! Regarding anger specifically, rather than say we have the "right" to be angry, the Gemara equates anger with idol-worship!

We are supposed to be work on ourselves to ensure that invalid and illegitimate feelings such as anger, jealousy, hatred, glory-seeking, arrogance etc. do not find a place in our heart.  And if we, or our children or students, experience these feelings, we need to know how to get rid of these bad feelings, not legitimize them.

Aug 8, 2012

What is the Torah Perspective on Stigmas?

A letter I wrote to Hamodia four and a half years ago:

Dear Editor,

Re stigmas - can you please devote an article to the Torah perspective on stigmas? I am afraid that many well-meaning frum Jews think that secular democratic ideas of egalitarianism are in sync with halacha, when they are not.  Take, for example, the halachos that enumerate dozens of physical blemishes that invalidate a kohen from the avoda in the Beis Ha'Mikdash.  Are kohanim to blame for physical blemishes? No, but nevertheless, they cannot do the service.  In our egalitarian world, this is "not fair."  In the world of Torah, this is Hashem's will.

Another example, there are people who are disqualified from serving on the Sanhedrin for various reasons due to lack of yichus.  Is their ancestry their fault? No, but nevertheless, they cannot serve on the Sanhedrin.  Is this reasonable? According to Hashem's will it is.  Then of course, only those from the tribe of Levi are eligible to serve as Levites and Kohanim, and only those from the tribe of Yehuda can be kings, and certain people are desirable and others undesirable as the shliach tzibbur

Some frum people have the idea that egalitarianism applies to shidduchim too, as though all are equal and deserve an equal chance at all types of shidduchim no matter their health, their family background, and personal history.  This was never the Jewish way! It smacks of the "ess kumt mir" syndrome that has been observed and decried.

Looking forward to the Torah perspective on this sensitive topic.