Jan 30, 2013

Climbing towards Kabbolas Ha'Torah


The Jewish people were on the 49th level of impurity in Egypt.  Then they were taken out of Egypt and they prepared for 49 days in order to receive the Torah.  We commemorate this by counting the 49 day period between Pesach and Shavuos.

So the question I have this year, on the parsha, is - what about those days when they complained about the manna, about not having water, about bitter water? Those were part of the 49 days.  Did they elevate themselves out of impurity on the very days that the provoked Hashem?

I've asked this question here and there and the answers I've heard haven't been satisfying.  One said, it was the eirav rav.  Another one said that it is the nature of a nisayon to elevate a person as a nes-flag waves on high.  Still another said that is how we grow, we move forward and slip backward.  But these were 49 days of continuous growth! True, Rashi says they did teshuva when they left Refidim, but what about their other complaints? And if it was just the eirav rav, I don't think the mishna in Avos would refer to the ten times we tested G-d. 

So if you have anything to offer, go ahead and post a comment.

Jan 29, 2013

Lilmod U'l'lamed

In an article by R' Mordechai Kamenetzky about R' Aharon Kotler, he states that it was R' Aharon's trailblazing commitment to the ideal of instilling Torah lishma that completely changed the face of Jewish life in America.   

He defines this as learning Torah without any aspirations to be a rabbi or even a teacher, but only for the sake of learning.  This is despite the fact that in Europe, the talmidim of the Lithuanian yeshivos invariably went on to take rabbinic positions.  There was one famous contemporary of R' Aharon who never took a position and that was the Chazon Ish, but who else did the same? The rest became rabbonim, magidei shiur or roshei yeshiva.   R' Aharon invented something new which hadn't been the goal of the roshei yeshiva back in Europe.

In fact, in bulletins published by Beth Medrash Govoha in the 1970's it states, "The perpetuation of Jewish peoplehood depends on the development and growth of authentic Torah scholars ... In the absence of Torah scholars, Jewry lacks the great teachers who are the links in the great chain of tradition spanning the ages.  It lacks the educators to instruct the coming generations  ..."

So apparently, according to the Lakewood yeshiva manifesto, the goal is to produce Torah teachers! In fact, aren't there hundreds (thousands?) of men in Lakewood who would be thrilled to get a shteller?  Does that mean they have dropped the "lishma" goal in which someone continues to sit and learn for himself without teaching others? And is that what learning Torah lishma actually means?

Jan 28, 2013

Mastery or Mystery

I'm reading Mastery by Greene, which illustrates how to become a master of a subject or field of interest with examples of people famous and obscure.  The claim is that mastery lies within each of us, should we choose to develop it.  And you develop it with years of hard work as an apprentice under a mentor.

As I'm reading this, I read an article in a recent Mishpacha magazine about a frum English fellow who is considered the "king of comedy" in the mainstream media.  This is rather extraordinary, of course, since the mainstream media and its comic productions aren't quite the environment we would expect a frum Jew to thrive in.  In any case, he had no intentions of becoming a producer or having anything at all to do with the entertainment industry.  He was an intellectual who was studying, of all things, 17th century Christian theology, in Cambridge (not that he believed this theology).  So how does someone doing graduate work in an obscure academic subject become king of comedy?

He was looking for a job and a friend suggested he look at the want ads in a certain paper.  He saw that the BBC was looking for a comedy producer and he applied and was accepted.  His first week on the job he met an old childhood friend and they did a show together which made his friend a star and made him a star producer.  Just like that! No years of study, no apprenticing under a mentor, no honing his skills and being faced with failure and having to persevere.  Simply a completely new field that he stumbled across in which he was and is wildly successful.  He has found his passion.

So what the moral of the story is, I don't know.  Who needs a book on mastery and years of perseverance when a fabulous job one never dreamed of, could fall into your lap? Ah, but who says it will ...

For those who have always had a interest in a particular field, the guidelines of how to become a master are pertinent. 

The Chovos Ha'Levavos says to choose a profession by what you are attracted to and for which you have a natural talent.  But then there are the life stories which I periodically come across in which a person ends up with a job or hobby which was completely unexpected and delightful nonetheless.

Jan 27, 2013

Extreme Bitachon

In continuation of two posts ago about bitachon, my favorite bitachon story is about the talmidim of the Baal Shem Tov who were sent by the Besht to a man to learn about bitachon. As they visit with him, a man comes in and pounds on the table and then leaves. Their host explains that this is the first warning from the poritz (squire) that he must pay the rent. He seemed relaxed about it, and when the man came in a second and a third time and banged on the table, he still seemed calm. The talmidim said: So you have the money? and to their surprise he said he didn't.

The talmidim watched in great curiosity as the man set off to the poritz's mansion to pay the rent, with no money in his pocket. They wondered how it would play out.

In the distance they saw a wagon approaching the host, stopping, and then travelling on, then stopping again, turning around and going back to their host. Then their host continued on to the mansion.

When he returned, the talmidim were eager to hear what had happened. So, did you pay the rent?!

Of course, he said. How did you do that if you had no money? they wondered.

He explained that the farmer in the wagon that approached him had offered to buy the produce that would eventually grow on his land. He made an offer but the amount was not enough to pay his rent, and so he DECLINED. That's why the wagon drove on.

But then the farmer changed his mind and drove back. I know you to be an honest person, and if that's what you think you should get, I'll pay you. And the farmer gave him the full amount, whereupon the man could pay his rent!

The certainty, the equanimity, that he was apparently an ordinary man, not a tzaddik.  Gevaldig!

Jan 23, 2013

Where is the Emes?

What can we do about truthfulness when it comes to timing?

I spent time today, talking with someone about an event, the speakers, the performer, and above all else - the timing.  What time should the event start? How much time should the speakers be allowed to speak? What time should they aim to end the event? 

The main problem is that when a time is stated on an invitation or orally, people will most often not show up at that time. Why? Because they want to arrive when things are underway, not just beginning.  They don't want to sit around.  And in their experience, if an event is called for 8:00, nothing will be happening before 8:30. 

People who have tried showing up at a wedding reception for the time stated on the invitation have found that they have the waiters to talk to, no guests and no wedding party.  So those who don't want to waste their time hanging around, add a half an hour, an hour, or more, depending on the event.

In my recent experience, the times stated for the chuppa have been fairly accurate, so I don't see weddings as the major problem here.  If you can't or don't want to stay from the beginning to the end of a wedding, you choose the event (badeken, chuppa, meal, simchas chosson v'kalla) you want to attend and show up for that.

Also in my experience, if the event is a shiur, it is likely to start 15 minutes after the stated time.  The clue is, the shiur is called for 8:15.  That means, they want to start the actual shiur at 8:30 but want people to have a chance to settle down, eat, socialize a bit.

The problem lies mostly with events which are combinations of guest speakers and entertainment,  maybe an auction drawing too.  What happens is, those running it don't want to start until they have a decent crowd.  The decent crowd appears late.  Those who showed up on time or only moderately late (having known that of course they won't start on time) are kept waiting.  So those who are on time are penalized, i.e. made to wait, and the late-comers are the ones who are accommodated. 

We have role models of what we may consider "extreme" emes such as when Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky said he did not eat gebrokst (when that was his practice up until that time) in order to get out of a sticky situation on Pesach.  Not only did he not eat gebrokst that Pesach, but he kept up this practice from then on.  Why? Because if he said he did not eat gebrokst, he meant it.

If he was running an event, or guiding those who were, I can guess what he would say to do.  The problem is, nobody wants to be the first.  It can ruin my event if I actually start at the designated time, so I'd rather someone else be the one to start being punctual ...

Perhaps the only solution is to write, "Doors Open" at whatever time you choose.  Open the doors then, so you were truthful, and then give no further times.  People will show up "whenever," and you start your program when you want to.

Jan 14, 2013

Financial Strategies from the People at Mesila

In response to the question in the comment posted to the previous post, what they can do is read the book, Your Money and Your Life: Mesila’s down-to-earth, Torah-based strategies for managing your finances. This book is a compilation of Mesila’s financial advice columns that ran in Hamodia.

Shmuli Margulies, Mesila’s chairman, said “The material in this book is very different from the material you will find in other books on financial management. Our goal in writing this book, like our goal in all of our activities, was to combine Torah hashkafah, professional knowledge, and the experience we have amassed in our years of experience working with families and businesses, in a way that will help people to successfully navigate contemporary financial challenges and achieve financial stability.”

Mesila's stated mission is to empower families and businesses to seek, achieve and maintain financial stability.
Mesila is dedicated to combating poverty by:
  • Raising public awareness of the importance of financial stability and independence
  • Promoting the development of attitudes and habits that lead to financial stability
  • Giving business owners the professional tools to manage their businesses correctly
  • Guiding people to create and implement sustainable, long-term solutions to the economic challenges they face
Contact information for Mesila is here

I read the book and overall, it sounds sensible.  It bothers me a little that although they talk about bitachon, they place such an emphasis on hishtadlus that I don't see where bitachon really comes into the picture.  For example, they believe in constantly upgrading your skills and marketability.  Why is that necessary if a person did reasonable hishtadlus? They will say that upgrading your skills is part of reasonable hishtadlus. 

I also wonder about their seeming belief that everyone can attain financial stability.  That seems to come from the mindset that if you put in the effort and handle your finances right, you will succeed.  Where is Hashem in this picture?

Jan 13, 2013

Thoughts from Rabbi Aisenstark

Here and there I've come across an article either written by Rabbi Shneur Aisenstark, principal of B.Y. of Montreal, or an interview with him.  There are often interesting tidbits.  For example:

In an issue of HaModia magazine it said that he described his dyslexia, his family's constant moving, and how various people in various yeshivos were nice to him and did the right thing by him. He said, "As mechanchim we know that no one, absolutely no one, drops out of a loving situation."
That's a powerful line.  Consider the inverse to that statement.
In a recent Family First interview about girls' chinuch he is quoted as saying, "Students don't want to hear tznius.  It's coming out of their ears.  They turn off.  We're not doing any good by going on and on about it again and again.  Yes, schools must have a dress code policy, but these rules are not what's going to make them tzanuos.  You know what's going to make them tzanuos? If we teach them eidelkeit.  I heard an anecdote about R' Nosson Tzvi [Finkel] that when he saw a young boy drinking from a soda can, he said to him, 'I consider you a ben Torah and a ben Torah doesn't drink out of a can.'  When I see a girl running down the hall, I tell her, "I consider you a bas Yisrael.  A bas Yisrael is like a queen.  Do you think the queen would run down the hall? Could you imagine your grandmother running down the hall?"
Here's a fascinating comment from him in that same interview:
"What I'm going to say may not be very popular but it needs to be said.  My parents left their families behind in Warsaw, Poland in 1935 and moved to 'Palestine' to marry and build a Torah home.  I was born in 1937, and in 1939, when I was two years old, my mother wanted to visit her family back in Poland.  She made all the arrangements for me to be cared for while she was away, but I was such a vilde (wild) boy that she finally decided she simply couldn't leave me, and she canceled her trip.  A few months later, Hitler invaded Poland and that was the end.  Not only single relative suvived from either of my parents' families.  My mother always told me that story and said, 'You saved my life.'
"Now let me ask you something.  If a mother today had a situation where her child needed her time and attention, would she quit her job to care of her children? Never! And if you say, 'Well, mothers today need to work, we can't survive on single incomes, and my husband's in kollel,' well, I'll say to you: It's because we're spoiled.  We want every new gadget, we want every comfort.  I ask you, is it right to have children and then send them out to be cared for by someone else? I don't have a good answer to this problem.  All I'm saying is that we need to at least recognize that this is not the derech that the Riboni shel Olam wanted.  Today's mother is harried. She's in over her head, so she can't parent properly, and we're paying the price!

Jan 1, 2013

Disappearing Jews

From 1952 through 2012, the rate of intermarriage has risen from 3% to 56%.  I read this statistic and thought, that means that the entire kiruv movement with all the Shabbos meals, all the Pesach sedarim, the menorah lightings, the Discovery programs, the matza and mishloach manos, the campus outreach, all the tefillin, all the summer camps, has been a failure.  Shocking.

You can say that without all that outreach, the intermarriage rate would be even worse.  But that's small comfort.

I knew that the intermarriage rate had grown tremendously, so I don't know why I reacted this way when I read about it the other day.  I think it's because this time, I juxtaposed it with all the heartwarming outreach and baal teshuva stories I've read and heard.  It doesn't make the stories any less heartwarming, but the Jewish reality is quite bleak. 

Nowadays, when Cohens and Weinbergers aren't Jewish because their mothers are gentiles, and McDonalds and Prescotts are Jewish, we Torah Jews are the few and the proud (to borrow the Marines' motto) and it's quite sad.