Stressed Out

Right now (although by the time you read this it would have been Sunday afternoon), I should be mired in preparation for a multi- defendant enterprise corruption trial which is scheduled to begin tomorrow morning. Yet the more I try to delve into transcripts of the hundreds of recorded telephone conversations and thousand of documents, the more I am distracted over some perplexing phenomena. Perhaps I am just procrastinating or maybe I’m in denial that the trial will actually start, but it troubles me that the more stressed out I become while attending to my daily mundane pursuits, the more spiritually disconnected I become.

Isn’t this counterintuitive? Shouldn’t it be the exact opposite? Aren’t we at our spiritual zenith during challenging or difficult periods in life? Isn’t that when, more than any other time, we achieve focus and clarity by crying out with fervor and sincerity to connect with Hashem? Why then, when it comes to the daily hustle and bustle, it seems that we’re just “too busy” to daven or learn
? Funny, but we don’t seem to have that problem with kashrus. When was the last time you said to yourself, “Gee, I’m too swamped to eat kosher. I better eat some treif.” I know what you’re thinking. Hey Kirschner, that’s not the same thing. Eating treif would require you to do something when you’re already too busy doing something else. It’s an entirely different matter to omit davening or learning because you’re too busy to stop doing what you’re doing. Somehow though, being armed with this knowledge doesn’t seem to prevent us from repeatedly falling into this abyss. At first glance, the obvious answer is that such is the very cunning work of the yeitzer hora. Fair enough, but simply recognizing that, by itself, doesn’t necessarily mean we will escape its grip. Frankly, if it were that easy, we would have little difficulty overcoming many of our challenges just by understanding that it is the work of the yeitzer hora.

Unlike many things in life, where a lack of clarity precludes us from sifting through the fog of the yeitzer hora, it really shouldn’t be that tough here. If anything, the busier and heavier our daily secular pursuits become, the need to spiritually connect with the Borei Olam becomes clearer. This is true if for no other reason than from a selfish desire to throw up our hands and beg Him to relieve us from our burdens. We seem to have little, if any, difficulty doing it for Shabbos. Why then is it so difficult to take the time out to daven, find a minyan or learn even for a few minutes each day to fulfill the mitzvah of kvias itim – setting aside a fixed time for daily Torah study?

Sure, the yeitzer hora relentlessly attempts to convince us that it is a mitzvah to miss a mincha or a maariv because we need the parnussa to pay yeshiva tuition. He tells us, “Don’t worry, while performing one mitzvah, you’re exempt from performing another mitzvah. It’s okay if you miss your shiur or cancel your chavrusa (learning partner) because you’re very tired, you worked very hard and you need your rest to be fresh for work tomorrow. You have to pay the bills, don’t you? You have to work hard for that promotion which will bring your more money with which to perform more mitzvos.”

It’s all quite perplexing. We can actually feel ourselves becoming disconnected the more we buy into that gibberish. Even if we overcome it and go to minyan or daf yomi, we do so by ruminating over that which still needs to be accomplished. And that’s if we’re awake!

Some years ago, I observed a well-respected rabbi in shul take out his pocket date book and make a few notes (that was before the PDA) after completing his shemonah esrei. After davening, I commented to him that it surprised me to see even rabbis have things pop into their head during davening. He responded, “Of course, that’s the best time for the yeitzer hora to disrupt us.” Then he shared with me a very effective tactic. Speak to Hashem and tell Him your thoughts during the day when you’re in the middle of your mundane pursuits. It doesn’t take much time, you can connect with Hashem in mere moments and best of all, by the time the yeitzer hora figures it out, you’ll be done. That, in turn, will provide the impetus to make minyan, attend shuir and learn with your chavrusa.

Now, if only I can figure out a way to “connect” with the judge tomorrow and beg him to adjourn that trial.

Originally Published on Dec 6, 2006

Looking Good

Remember “Fernando,” Billy Crystal’s Saturday Night Live character whose mantra was, “I don’t feel mahvelous, but I look mahvelous, which is okey dokey with me ‘cause you know my credo, it is better to look good than to feel good?” Satirical? Sure. But a true word is often said in jest and in this case, it highlights secular society’s obsession with looking good. Of course, since most people recognize that much of what we see is merely a facade, who cares if the popular culture indulges?

Putting aside the propriety of engaging in behavior merely to portray a certain image, permit me to pose the following question: is it better to act your way into a new way of thinking or think your way into a new way of acting? In other words, if a person dresses and behaves as a frum yid, that person may eventually be constrained to live as such. Indeed, we see this in the performance of mitzvos. Chazal tell us that it is better to perform a mitzvah without the proper intention since it will hopefully lead to its performance with the proper intention.
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Rightsizing Our Children’s Education

Educating our children l’derech Hashem is a chiyuv that we have as adults, rabbonim, educators, parents and a community. This is certainly not a newsflash. So why do I raise the issue?

Imagine that after camp ends in August, you take your child shopping for new Shabbos and school clothes. Money, of course, is usually a factor but you look for the one store that has the proper size and best selection. After spending several days going to numerous clothing stores, you’re unable to find one that carries your child’s slim, husky, tall or short sizes. Even the few shops that carry those special sizes have merely one shelf or rack to select from. With school starting the next day and your child experiencing meltdowns from the boredom of shlepping and shopping you decide to look no further and, out of convenience, settle on the regular sizes. Besides, the store is filled with attractive, regular size, and since everyone else from the neighborhood is buying their childrens’ clothes there, it makes sense to do the same. Sure, it’s a half size too small or big, a little short, tall, tight or big, but, hey, it’s good enough. For the most part, it works. So what if it isn’t the best fit. Nothing’s perfect. Admittedly, it’s not very comfortable but it’s okay. Most parents would obviously want their children to look and feel their best. Why then, do we do routinely send our children to a yeshiva or bais yaakov merely because it is ostensibly the frumest, the largest, the toughest, convenient, popular or they’ll be able to get a better shidduch?
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Same Place Last Year

As Rosh Hashana davening concluded, I once again felt an ambivalence of relief that I made it through the lengthy tefillos and contentment that for once during the year, I reached down into the depths of my neshama and attempted to spiritually connect with Avinu v’Malkeinu.

Rosh Hashana has always been the most difficult day for me – and that includes Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, it’s all about my foibles, my inadequacies and my abject failures. The person I am today, as an individual, a husband, a father and above all, a Jew, is completely exposed to the Borei Olam. And to the extent that I can articulate the viduy with kavanah and sincerity, I have bitachon that I will indeed be forgiven if for no other reason than He loves me. I certainly don’t intend to trivialize my aveiros, but He’s forgiven us so many times since Adam HaRishon and for far greater aveiros than mine, there’s no reason to think now will be different. Regardless of what we’ve done or failed to do, He still loves us and protects us. Rosh Hashana, however, is an entirely separate matter.

Honestly, I dread Rosh Hashana. Part of it, of course, is the long davening. But the trepidation I feel even before we begin blowing shofar on Rosh Chodesh Elul is rooted in the absence of that which embodies Yom Kippur. It’s not about kapora. It’s not even all about teshuva. Sure, we’re obligated to begin the teshuva process. But it is not about me, or at least not the person I am today. It’s about the person I can, and should, become tomorrow. Who will I be during the coming year? It is taught that after a hundred and twenty years, one of the questions we will be confronted with isn’t why we weren’t as great as Moshe Rabbeinu, but why we weren’t as great as our own selves. That sends shivers down my spine. Each year, I worry whether I will actualize the potential that Hashem knows I possess and expects of me? And each year like the year before it, I fear that I will fail. Standing before HaKodesh Borochu in the same place I was last year is terrifying. What will I say? How will I know whether He’ll accept me? Worse yet, given my track record, what exactly do I say to persuade Him that I am worth His taking another chance on me?

Rabbi Mordechai Rhine, a Rav in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, writes a weekly Torah “Parsha Message.” As Musaf concluded on the Second Day, I read his Rosh Hashana message in which he recounted a moving and inspiring story. A young boy ran away from home. Years later, having regretted his rash decision, he wanted to return home to his parents but was unsure if they would accept him so he decided to write them a letter. He wrote, “Dear Mom and Dad, I know that I must have hurt you very much when I ran away. I would like to come back but I will understand it if you don’t want me to. So here is what I ask. If you would like me to come back, please place a kerchief on the apple tree in the backyard. When I pass by on the train, I will be able to see the tree. If the kerchief is there, I will get off at the next stop and come home. If not, I will understand and just continue on my way.” Several days later, the young man boarded a train to his hometown. As the train got closer to his home, he sensed a fear beginning to overtake him. What if his parents didn’t want him back? What if the kerchief was not tied on the apple tree? As the train neared the final bend before the backyard would come into view, the young man couldn’t bear to look. He turned to his seatmate and said, “Excuse me sir, but can you do me a favor. As we turn the bend, can you look out for the big apple tree in the yard? Just glance at it and tell me if there is a kerchief hanging from its branches.” The seatmate, unable to figure out why the young man was so agitated about a kerchief, graciously agreed to look. As the train turned the corner and the tree came into view, the seatmate gave a gasp. “What is it?” the young man asked, “Is there a kerchief there or not?” Those seconds seemed like hours to the young man. Finally, the seatmate responded, “Who would have thought? The whole tree is adorned with kerchiefs.”

With tears welling up in my eyes, I finally achieved clarity on the ambivalence that had eluded me all these years. Hashem has far more emuna in me than I do in myself. I have no doubt that He will always do His part, because He loves me and knows what’s best for me and my family. And above all, He believes in me. The young man that couldn’t bear to look at the tree was, at least in his own mind, that same little boy who had run away years before. To his parents though, he was anything but. Everyday, we’re running. Running to work, running at work, running home, running at home, running to bed and running to do it all over again. Some run faster than others and some run farther. But very few of us run toward Hashem. After an entire year of running, we arrive at Rosh Hashana and can’t bear to look for the kerchief because all we see is that we’re in the same place we were last year. We can’t, or don’t, see ourselves as any different and can easily understand if He won’t either. And yet, to Him we are neither the same person nor are we in the same place as last year. He clearly sees where we were yesterday, last week, last month and last year. If we’re lucky, we might recognize our accomplishments and improvements over ten, twenty or thirty years. But for that ever so slight, even microscopic, difference He sees in us, we’re still worth the world to Him.

May we all be granted a G’mar Chasima Tova, a gut g’bentched yohr and the strength to spend Atzeres Yemai Teshuva implementing even the most modest measures that will allow us to be zoche to stand before HaKodesh Borochu in a better place next year.

The Company Picnic

Years ago (like eighteen), when I first decided to wear a kippah at work, something seemed strange also. At the time, I felt self-consciousness about wearing it in public. But then it occurred to me that in New York City, people aren’t pretentious about going out in public with purple-dyed hair, a chain as a belt and piercing in their eyes, nose and mouth. I realized that if I had some physical or psychological barrier, it was of my own creation, not anyone else’s. But upon showing up at work wearing it after a two-week vacation, no one said a word.

At first, I thought my friends and colleagues, all of whom I had been working with for at least a year, all knew that I was Shomer Shabbos. I wondered whether they thought it looked strange but were just too polite to say anything. After a few days, two of my colleagues asked if they could ask me a personal question. Of course, I said yes to which they asked, “Have you always been wearing a kippah or did you just start?” After telling them that I started several days before, I asked, “Why do you ask, wasn’t it obvious when I showed up after vacation the other day with it on?” They told me that they had a bet. One said I just started and the other said that I had been wearing it all along.
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Davening in Shul or Yeshiva

For the past several years I have been davening Shabbos mornings in one of the local yeshivos. It is comfortable, quiet and my chavrusa sits across from me. Immediately after davening, we learn and I don’t have to involve myself with the inevitable politics that occurs in some shuls. My family and I are also members of a well-known and prestigious shul. The Rav is an extraordinarily respected talmid chachom and posek. The people are chashuv and menschlich. It’s also quiet and there are no disparaging conversations. However, the needs of the yeshiva are few while the needs of the shul are many. After nearly two years of the Rav saying to me with a big smile, “Come around a once in a while, we miss you,” combined with my boys’ (ten and seven) desire to attend Shabbos groups and my wife’s thirst to develop and bond with others, I relented. Considering that I am not easily persuaded about most things, my wife was shocked at how efficiently and effortlessly I began davening at our shul. Of course when the Rav finally looked at me straight in my eyes and ominously stated, “You’re making a very big mistake, ” I had little choice.
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