Jan 31, 2014

Putting in the Work

Miriam Stark Zakon wrote an article about having completed a year long study of bitachon which is all about putting Hashem in the picture, and then encountering a frustrating situation in which Hashem wasn't in the picture for her at all.

"I realized that in my search for bitachon, I'd been enjoying the company of a fantastic group of women, basking in the intellectual and emotional stimulation of a shiur, maybe taking a few baby steps in the direction of self-improvement."

Her epiphany was, "Baby steps don't win marathons.  You want to win bitachon? You've got to work.  You've got to do more than you ever thought you could do."

She had felt so good about spending a year studying an important subject.  It took a temper tantrum for something not going her way to make her realize the dissonance between what she had spent the year studying along with the pride she took in it, and how much it had actually changed her.

I found this a valuable insight.  For those who like to learn, it can be gratifying just getting through the material and feeling that sense of satisfaction.  For those who do this in groups, it can be stimulating and delightful to learn along with others.  It all makes an impact, but like the author points out, if you want more than that, you need to put in work to master anything.

Jan 29, 2014

"The Naomi Principle"

Rabbi Dr. Lob wrote a nice piece in Mishpacha called "The Naomi Principle."  He heard the idea from R' Nosson Wachtfogel z'l.  It goes like this:

If you look at the dialogue between Rus and her mother-in-law Naomi when Naomi urges her to go back to her people, Rus says the famous words, "Wherever you go, I will go, and wherever you live, I will live; your people are my people and your G-d is my G-d. 

Rus doesn't say, I commit to Judaism because the concepts are deep and beautiful, because Shabbos and the Yomim Tovim and the mitzvos are so meaningful and I love them.  R' Wachtfogel learned from this: "The primary mission of parenting is to create the kind of relationship with each child that will naturally inspire within him/her the desire to proclaim, "I want to be like you."

Lob goes on to ask, what does "like you" mean? What does your child see when he or she looks at you? Are you living the Judaism you want your child to live?

A few weeks later, the editor of Family First magazine (supplement to Mishpacha) wrote a story that illustrated the point.  Three boys were accepted into an excellent yeshiva but although they were accepted, they were not great kids and they were expelled.  They switched to a yeshiva that wasn't as excellent and they were expelled from there too.  The only yeshiva left for them was a yeshiva for problem kids.  Even there, two of the boys did not last more than a few months while a third kept out of trouble. 

When the third boy was asked why he didn't continue downward with his friends he said, "I couldn't do that to my father.  Up until this point, I let my yetzer hara get the better of me, but I love my father and I couldn't have him see me end up on the street."  Today his friends are not religious while he is.

So I know, it's not quite the same.  Loving his father and not wanting to hurt him anymore is not identical to identifying with his father's way of life, but it's close.

Jan 28, 2014

An Honest Critique

R' Berel Wein is intriguing because his books are published by Artscroll, which means he has the imprimatur of the black hat-brand of frum Judaism.  And yet, his views are not party line.

He wrote a column earlier this winter (which I read eight days ago) entitled "The Truth of Satire." In it, he refers to a satire that describes the dissonance between the lifestyle of the Chashmonaim heroes of the Chanuka story and Israeli chareidim.  He then goes on to say that today's black hat rank and file and their leadership are out of touch with reality.  Rather than castigate the gedolim, he lambastes their "handlers" (as though that helps take the onus off the gedolim).

His primary complaint is that they support a system which cannot sustain itself, i.e. deliberate poverty and expectations of support, and refuse to consider change.  It was refreshing to read an open critique by "one of our own."  Read it here

Jan 27, 2014

Does It Work Both Ways?

There is an ongoing discussion in R' Grylak's column in Mishpacha magazine about parents who expel their wayward children from their homes.  He is incredulous that parents can do this, especially to 15-16 year old girls.

A rabbi who founded a home for these homeless girls tells R' Grylak that it is the shame the parents feel because of their child, the feeling of betrayal, that she humiliated them in front of the world.  "After we sacrificed so much for her, after we nurtured and raised her, she turns around and spits in our faces?" And he says that throwing her out is their revenge.

R' Grylak then goes on to elaborate on the erroneous idea that parents have that their children are their personal property which is why they feel so deeply ashamed and hurt when their children reject their upbringing.

When I read this, my mind went off on a tangent.  According to R' Grylak's reasoning, there would be no good reason for parents to kvell and feel nachas when their children do well.  If, according to him, we should not feel ashamed if our children do things to reject our teachings, by the same token, should we not feel proud and thrilled when our children embrace our teachings?

Jan 24, 2014

Kashering the Material

In the previous post, the message was Torah-true but the one conveying it was not up to par.  What about the other way around, when the message isn't coming from Torah but the one conveying it is a fine, frum Jew?

Many of us wonder about various approaches to life's issues that are taken by those in the helping professions.  Often, these approaches are not coming from Torah, but they are adapted for a frum audience.  For example, frum authors like R' Zelig Pliskin study secular self-help sources and then present the material for frum audiences with relevant examples.  Does this "kasher" the material? Do we say, there is wisdom there and we can and should benefit from that wisdom?

Perhaps the truth and the benefit of the model depends on how it was come by.  By that I mean, did the person already have an approach that he or she used, and only afterward try to see how it fit with Torah sources? In other words, it wasn't Torah that informed their decision.

Or, were they not invested in any approach but looked to see what tools "out there" might be useful to a Yid in his avodas Hashem, middos improvement, and general life.

For the most part, I read and hear of frum people who have already invested in a non-Jewish approach who then try and show how it "fits" with Torah. 

Jan 22, 2014

The Medium Must Match the Message

The story is told of a maggid (itinerant preacher) who gave inspiring speeches but did not live by the standards he preached.  However, people did not know of the indiscretions in his private life.

He was once invited to speak in Brisk.  His personal conduct became known to R' Chaim Soloveitchik who did not allow the man to speak.  The maggid tried to convince him otherwise saying, "But every thing I say is true! I quote the sources and the stories and points that I make are all appropriate to my audience!"

R' Chaim did not accept this reasoning.  "Even kosher meat, shechted by an expert shochet and soaked and salted according to halacha, becomes treif if cooked in a treife pot!"

This story left me wondering, when do we apply "kabel es ha'emes mimi she'omro" (accept the truth from the one who says it)? If what the maggid taught was true, how did his imperfect personal life which was not known to his audience, affect his message? Maybe because his words did not "emanate from his heart" and therefore, they would not enter the hearts of his listeners.

to be continued

Jan 20, 2014

Mind Your Own Business?

* Someone says, "They say that we should let young couples make their own mistakes.  I think that's ridiculous! What sense is there in that? I was happy to be told how to avoid mistakes."

* Someone says, "I used to think it was a good idea, a chesed, to offer good advice.  My father says, don't offer advice to people unless they ask for it.  Why? Because unless they ask for it (and even if they do), they are not receptive to listening to it."

* Someone asks, "I have a tendency to tell people what to do because I really care and because often I am knowledgeable about a subject that the other person is not.  I always thought of myself as helpful, but a relative told me that my constant advice giving is annoying."

We live in a country in which independence is championed and "mind your own business" (MYOB) is a value.

And yet, what are we to learn from Yisro? He observed the situation of Moshe and the Jewish people in the desert and he critiqued it.  Without being asked.  (And he was an in-law, no less, who is warned to MYOB!) And then he gave advice.  And Moshe accepted it.

Should we emulate Yisro when we see something amiss? Or maybe the lesson to learn from this is to emulate Moshe who, when told that the way he was handling the situation was detrimental and was given advice, accepted it!

Jan 14, 2014

It's Inherently Contradictory

"I have a disease.  It is called Compulsive Overeating.  I do not have the ability to control food choices or portion size.  This is the way Hashem made me."

That is a quote from a letter to the editor of a frum publication.  The author goes on to say that he joined OA and since then he has maintained a 150 pound weight loss.

After reading contradictory statements like these time and again, I can't help but wonder.  Is it possible that I am the only one who notices that he is not making any sense? He just said he has a G-d inflicted disease in which he lacks the ability to control food choices or portion size.  In the next breath he extols an organization that he joined which has helped him control food choices and portion sizes.  Nobody comes to his home and monitors his food intake.  There are no cameras recording all his eating.  No penalties if he makes the wrong choices.

What happens is, he decides to control is food intake.  So does he have a disease or not? Can he control himself or not?

Aren't the answers obvious? I.e. He acquired terrible eating habits and is working to overcome them.  That is commendable.  I don't see why they have to falsify the facts.  Why the need for the disease lie? Why the need for an illogical claim of lack of control when those who "work the steps" are controlling themselves?

He concludes the letter by saying, "There is a solution.  It is not surgical.  It is not in taking supplements.  It is not counting points.  It is not by tricking your body into burning its own fat.  Rather, the solution is Overeaters Anonymous."

Why not this alternate conclusion: There is a solution.  It is neither surgical nor does it involve supplements nor counting points nor tricking your body.  It's about free will and acknowledging that as a human being we have free choice and can exercise this power.  For ain davar ha'omed bifnei ha'ratzon - nothing stands in the way of one's will, as the author has shown.

Jan 12, 2014

The Long View

Due to extenuating circumstances, I did not attend my usual exercise class one day, quite an anomaly for me.  When I sounded a bit discomfited by my absence, someone said to me, in twenty years it won't make a difference ...

Now that is true.  But I think my habit of exercising will made a difference in twenty years or I wouldn't be doing it.  So although missing a single class won't made a difference, it is the aggregate of my weekly exercise sessions that will make a difference. 

So is the "it won't make a difference in twenty years" a good outlook or not to have? As is often the case, it depends what it is applied to.  If it is something trivial that will be long forgotten twenty years hence, but is disappointing or annoying now, then yes, it is a positive outlook.  But if it is applied to life's daily decisions ("one cookie now won't make a difference in twenty years"), those decisions add up.

That leads to the another point - is it said after the fact or before.  If it is a way to minimize the discomfort of something that already happened, that could be a good thing.  If it is used as a way of making decisions, it could easily lead to poor choices.

Jan 11, 2014

What Brings Us Joy?

Is human nature such that I can only enjoy something if it is unique to me?

A recent article in Family First quoted a teacher as saying that because our hearts contain evil, we can only enjoy something from which we derive the sole benefit.  Something that is part of nature, like the sun, can be enjoyed by everyone so it doesn't make us happy.

The article goes on to illustrate this with an anecdote about buying some nice clothing on sale for her daughters.  Her 11 year old was very pleased with her selection.  By the afternoon, she was looking downcast.  Why? Because five other girls had the same sweater and seven other girls had the same skirt.

Why did this take away the pleasure she had in her new clothes?

The author goes on to say that when one of her children brings home a note that says they were excellent, she has to refrain from asking how many other children got the same note.  She wonders why she should care? Why would it take away from her nachas if other parents are proud too?

The answer seems to lie, at least in part, in whether something is personal or not.  If an entire class was sent home with the identical note, saying that the child was excellent, why not write, "Dear Parents, I am pleased to inform you that the entire class was excellent today." By sending home a note highlighting the accomplishments of the individual, the implication is that the child stood out in some way.  If it turns out that every parent received that note, the message seems not quite honest.

With clothing, although often girls and women want to fit in and will wear similar clothing to others, they usually do not want to appear identically dressed.  It is an uncomfortable feeling for someone to show up at a wedding with something they carefully picked out, only to find someone else wearing the identical thing.  Why? Because Hashem created us in such a way that each face is unique.  Women consider their clothing as part of their appearance so when encountering someone wearing the identical item, they feel duplicated.

As for nature, I think many people do feel joy over a beautiful day, over flowers that are there for all to see, over a sale which will benefit many people, with a bonus even when other employees also received one.  Many are "generous" in that way, being happy even as others are happy with the same thing.  It's being happy for others when they gain something we need and don't have that's tougher for us.  Even though their gain is not our loss, it takes straight-thinking which affects the heart to truly feel this.

Jan 10, 2014

Strength of Character

Hamodia magazine had an article about Mrs. Ruth Ebstein, wife of a teacher of mine.  She and her husband were from Germany and survived the war.  He spent six years in Siberian labor camps.

From the age of 13 and on, Ruth experienced Kristallnacht, being sent out of Germany by her parents, living with a distant relative in France for two and a half years, living in an orphanage, and leaving with the other children for America via Spain and Portugal.  She was 15 and a half and on her own in an orphanage in New York and and was then sent to California.

"I may have been out of physical danger, but the spiritual danger was enormous.  It was so easy to be pulled in by the gashmius.  Out of the 75 Orthodox children who were on the ship with me, only ten remained frum.  Many simply had no one to guide them, for there were no religious communities [in California] back then."

Ruth attended Hollywood High School and found work.  She lived on fruits and vegetables for four years in order not to eat treif, even as she lived with Jewish people.  "The family I lived with went to temple, but they told me about a shul with a 'religious rabbi' a mile away.  I walked there every Shabbos, once in the morning for davening and again for seuda shlishis to hear the rabbi's inspiring dvar Torah and the zemiros sung by the old men."

What struck me as I read her account was the contrast between what she endured and overcame and the fragility of today's frum teenagers and their petty problems.  I am not talking about those with genuine hardships, but of the angst, i.e. emotional problems that come from not properly dealing with normal life.  Rabbi Benzion Shafier noted this as referred to in this post: here

Jan 1, 2014

Perdue Chicken, Oy Vay

A woman was shopping in a Shoprite supermarket which is not a Jewish supermarket but carries many kosher products, especially in Brooklyn.  She is the kind of person who seeks to engage others and to "spread the word" about Yiddishkeit.  She is not shy.

And yet, in an encounter the other night, she did not know what to say.  She was on line when she noticed someone else on line who was speaking Hebrew.  She glanced into his shopping cart and saw Perdue (not kosher) chicken).  She wanted to speak up but did not know what to say. 

As someone who usually speaks up, she was particularly disappointed that she could not think of anything appropriate to say and so she said nothing.

Someone hearing her story suggested that she could have said, "They carry Empire (kosher) chickens and they're much better."

We never know whether, if we speak up, the person will be receptive or defensive or hostile.  But if we don't try, we'll never know. 

What would do if we saw someone about to ingest poison? Wouldn't we scream a warning? Isn't treif for a Jew like poison to the neshama? So why don't we scream? In our defense, we are afraid of angering someone, of someone saying, "Mind your own business."  But would we be reticent if it was actually poison?

What would you do if you saw a non-kosher product in a Jew's shopping cart?