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!