Jul 31, 2013

The Devil Made Me Do It

Rabbi Wolbe is quoted as saying that the most prevalent kefira (heresy) in our generation is in the realm of free will.  "I couldn't help it," and "My circumstances forced me," are some of the most common excuses given today to explain one's behavior and choices.  This week's parsha Re'eih begins with, “See that I am placing before you today a blessing and a curse.”  As the Rambam puts it in Hilchos Teshuva:

Freedom of choice has been granted to every man: if he desires to turn toward a good path and be righteous, the ability to do so is in his hands; and if he desires to turn toward an evil path and be wicked, the ability to do so is in his hands... This concept is a fundamental principle and a pillar of the Torah and its commandments.

A recent magazine cover had a picture of the Boston bomber which annoyed many people as it seemed to glorify him.  What bothered me more than the picture was the accompanying text:

"How a popular, promising student was failed by his family, fell into radical Islam, and became a monster."

When I saw the phrase "failed by his family," it was, here we go again ... I read many articles about him and don't recall that part of his bio.  He seemed to be doing well in college and had friends.  But if we can say he was failed by his family, maybe we will feel bad for him and understand "where he is coming from."  It's a good thing we didn't psychoanalyze Hitler and his cohorts; just labeled them as evil and fought to destroy them. 

And the phrase "fell into radical Islam," sounds accidental.  You know, you only fall accidentally, not on purpose.  So poor guy, he was failed and he fell and he became a monster.  Do all those crippled and bereaved by him feel for him too?

Jul 30, 2013

Bon Appetit

A quote from a food editor in a frum magazine:

"These days, whether we're reading about it in a magazine, or watching it live on stage at a fundraiser, cooking has become great entertainment.  It's a positive thing.  In every Jewish community, our interest in cooking is being leveraged to plan events and raise tzedaka for both chesed and Torah institutions."

I'm thinking there just might be a bias there, considering who said that ...  Are there any Torah sources that say that immersion in the world of food is a positive thing? The sources I've come across have a different perspective:

* The Gemara interprets "kedoshim tihiyu" (Vayikra19:2), "Be holy" as a mitzva to "abstain also from that which is permissible to you" and a warning against being  a naval b'reshus ha'Torah (a hedonist with the Torah's permission) who indulges in every permissible pleasure.

* A quote from Chovos Ha'Levavos (Duties of the Heart) in the introduction to Shaar Avodas Hashem says: "Desires for worldly pleasures are unable to dwell in the heart together with a love of G-d."

* Tosfos in Kesubos (104a) quotes the Medrash. It says before a person prays that Torah goes into his system, he should pray that delicacies don't go into his system. Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi had the finest foods in the winter and in the summer. The Gemara says that when Rav Yehuda HaNassi died, he lifted up his ten fingers and said Ribono Shel Olam, it is known and revealed to you, that I toiled with my ten fingers and I didn't even have the pleasure of my smallest finger. Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi was at such a high spiritual level that despite his extravagant lifestyle he could testify that during his entire lifetime nothing was consumed for his own enjoyment.

We may not have to eschew trying a new recipe, but to glorify gastronomic delights and to say that immersing oneself in the culinary world is a good thing is something else entirely.

Jul 29, 2013

Acting on our Faith


Every Wednesday, there is a circular from my frum supermarket with the week's specials.  I often find myself planning my Shabbos meals around the sale items.  Eggplant is on sale? So let's have eggplant salad.  Fresh mushrooms and grape tomatoes are on sale? So let's have the salad that calls for those ingredients.  Napoleon is on sale in the bakery department, let's buy that for Shabbos.

I feel bad about it because I believe the Gemara that says that the amount of money we are designated on Rosh Hashana for the year, does not include Shabbos and Yom Tov expenses.  So why should items on sale have any bearing on the Shabbos menu? Then again, just because our Shabbos expenses are not taken off our annual monetary allotment, doesn't mean people have the actual money to lay out for full-price food items.  True, we will be repaid for our Shabbos expenses, but right now, I might not want to use up my available cash.

I had a conversation with someone who said, there is no way they are going to pay $12 a pound for flanken, it's too expensive! Their alternative was to use another, cheaper type of meat.  All I said was there are often sales on the meat that goes into chulent which they can look out for.  What I thought, but didn't say, was - if you believe the Chazal about repayment for Shabbos expenses, what difference does it make if it's $12 a pound or half that?

It might be a good idea to occasionally buy something expensive at the full price just to demonstrate our belief that we will be repaid for Shabbos expenditures.  Otherwise, do we genuinely believe or not?

Jul 26, 2013

East and West

Two views about parenting/chinuch and the results:

View #1: I am responsible for how my children turn out.  If they turn out well, I will take a lot of credit because I put so much into them.  Whatever flaws they have are my fault for not parenting them properly.  Siyata dishmaya plays a role, as it does in everything, as to what teachers they have, what friends are available, their temperament, etc. but the bottom line is, yogaata u'matzasa, taamin.

View #2: I am not responsible for how my children turn out.  If they turn out well, I do not take the credit.  If they don't turn out well, I am not to blame.  I put a lot into my children but I see all around me that parents who do their job seriously and have many fine children, sometimes have a child or children who are not fine.  I don't hold them responsible.  Children have bechira and things happen that are beyond our control.

I had a conversation with someone who has view #2, while I have view #1.  Boruch Hashem, they have fine children and I had complimented them.  But the compliment was deflected because "they're good kids" and they were given good sechora to work with.  That led to speculating about how their children would turn out in a different family. 

Although I understand View #2, it doesn't seem to be what the rabbis and teachers out there are saying.  If you look back to my chinuch posts of April of this year, they are clear that it's up to the parents to produce good children. 

Jul 25, 2013

Child Brides

I was reminded of this old post: here,  when I read an article that referred to the letter that Rabbi Akiva Eiger (1761–1837) wrote after his first wife, whom he married when he was 16, passed away.  As a side point, I wonder why this very personal letter has been made public but, be that as it may, he was 34 and had one married child and three single children.

When he remarried, it was to his 16 year old niece.  They were married for 39 years and he survived her too!

I wonder how the second shidduch came to be.  When he first married at 16, his wife was very close in age to him, but in the second marriage, the age difference was so large.  Why would a 16 year old girl be married off to a widower with children? Was it because of his stature, that she and her family were thrilled to be doing such a chashuve shidduch?

Jul 19, 2013

The Popularity of Sharing Near Death Experiences


I'm been reading a lot about NDE (Near Death Experiences) lately.  There's The Proof of Heaven book by Dr. Alexander, which has been making waves lately.  He was a skeptic until he was critically ill, practically dead, and then he miraculously made a comeback. 

He was a changed man and he shares the otherworldly experiences that changed his way of thinking.  I found some of the descriptions fascinating because they echoed ideas I had learned in Jewish sources.

I'm also reading Forever Ours: Real Stories of Immortality and Living from a Forensic Pathologist with odd, otherworldly stories. 

The Shavuos issue of Ami magazine had an article entitled, I Was Declared Dead about near-death and out-of-body experiences.  The article reminded me of an extraordinary account by someone who became a baal teshuva (picture above) because of his NDE.  You can watch it here.

What puzzles me is when the person who gets to see a vision of what seems to be the Next World, or who gets a visitation from a departed relative, is not Jewish.  Most of these stories have someone being reassured that the world beyond ours is a wonderful place.  I don't have reason to think that all the millions of gentiles who had these experiences are observers of the Noahide Laws.  I wonder what this is about.

Jul 16, 2013

So, Is it a Meaningful Fast?

At some point in the past few decades, we went from wishing one another "an easy fast" to a "meaningful fast." Question is, do we want a fast altogether? Nobody does.  We want Moshiach.

I have noticed though, more people saying things like, "It should be a Yom Tov," or "I hope we don't have to fast this year."  That sounds better to me than wishing one another a meaningful fast.  Nobody wants the day to end and to think, "Moshiach didn't come, but at least the fast was meaningful." There is something that seems so "off" to me about seeking a meaningful Tisha B'Av experience, even though I will look for appropriate books and lectures and videos for Tisha B'Av which actually do make the day meaningful.

If Tisha B'Av was really meaningful for someone, how would you expect them to act the next day? the next week? As someone put it, sadness was the scheduled activity for the day, and the next day we're happy again. People who are, lo aleinu, in aveilus don't bounce back that way after shiva or shloshim (and certainly, no one wishes them a meaningful aveilus).  They don't return to normal life like nothing happened. The aveilus metaphor is more than a metaphor because the laws of the day stipulate that we do as mourners do.

If we can easily go back to swimming, music, meat and laundry, how did our getting "into" the Tisha B'Av "experience" differ from watching a sad movie and going through a box of tissues? How real is that? How superficial?

Can life go back to normal after chatzos, if we still don't have a Beis Ha'Mikdash? If it can, was something lacking in how Tisha B'Av was spent?

The goal of Yom Kippur is teshuva, the goal of Pesach is cheirus. The goal of Tisha B'Av is not meaningfulness.  It's to mourn what we lost, mourn where we're at as a result of our losses, and like every fast, to do teshuva so that we reverse the situation.  From mourning to celebration!

Jul 15, 2013

Any Apologies in the Torah?

I've asked a number of people whether they can think of examples in Torah-Tanach where someone apologizes to someone else and asks for forgiveness.  I can't think of any and so far, neither has anyone else.

I find it strange because the halacha is that Yom Kippur does not atone for a wrong done bein adam l'chaveiro unless the person asked and was granted forgiveness.  It's a crucial part of teshuva for interpersonal wrongs.  How is it that no example of this appears in Tanach? I thought that the Torah contains role models for all aspects of our behavior. 

Why did I think so? Probably because many Torah lessons are about turning to the sources for examples of what we want to achieve, and the idea of "hafoch ba, hafoch ba, d'kula ba" (everything is contained within Torah).

Jul 11, 2013

Life Lessons

Every now, and then I read something written by a parent who describes an important life lesson that children ought to be taught.  Things like teaching children to pick their battles and to lose gracefully.

Perhaps what is needed is a chinuch curriculum for parents.  It would be useful to have a list of Life Lessons, not just traits like honesty and responsibility but things like:

teaching children to pick their battles

teaching children to lose gracefully

teaching children to pay attention to the messages they tell themselves about themselves

teaching children the value of time

teaching children to speak up (politely, when appropriate)

teaching children goal-setting

teaching children the power of thoughts

teaching children that happiness is a choice

teaching children to seek win-win solutions

teaching children that feelings are just feelings and they come and go

teaching children to stand up for what's right

What else?

Jul 2, 2013

Kings and Queens, Princes and Princesses - What do they have to do with us?

When Czar Nicholas II was overthrown in the Russian Revolution, a Chassid by the name of R' Dovid Horodoker was seen crying.  Since life wasn't all that wonderful under the czar, he was asked why he was crying.  He said, because now we've lost a mashal in Chassidic teaching."

It seems to me that the concept of a King is quite important regardless as to what teachings you want to convey, Chassidic or otherwise, because of its centrality in Jewish life.  In our daily brachos we constantly refer to Hashem as "King of the universe." There is Avinu-Malkeinu. What does Hashem as a King mean to us who don't have a human king?

In America there is no king, no royal family, no palace, no ministers.  What is a child who grows up without any concept of royalty whatsoever, to make of a mashal about a king? Why should this be meaningful to him?

If, as in some cases, the mashal can be told just as well about someone who is not a king, then it doesn't matter.  But if you want to convey the majesty and omnipotence of a king, this has no counterpart in real life. And isn't that what a mashal is meant to be, an example taken from a person's daily life which he can readily relate to?

So if there is no royalty in our lives, meshalim that use it as the centerpiece are useless to us.  Which is why I've been thinking about fairy tales.  After reading one mashal about a king after another recently, it occurred to me that perhaps the hours I spent in my childhood reading fairy tales, were not all wasted after all.  

For those who want to provide only Jewish stories in their homes, there are only a few R' Nachman of Breslov tales about royalty.  I haven't looked through fairy tales recently, but I'm sure there are some (if not many) that can be safely read by frum children which will give them an idea of the glory of the royal palace.  It might be an idea to go through the hundreds of fairy tales out there in order to pick those that align with our values.  In this way, children growing up in today's day and age will have an inkling of what Malchus is about.