Shavuos – Not Just Another Uber Driver

The Talmud relates [Pesachim 68b] that Rav Yosef would make a tremendous party on Shavuos. He would say, “If not for this special day (on which the Torah was given), look how many Yosefs there are in the market place”. Rabbi Frand explains “If not for the fact that I as a Jew have that precious gift of Torah, I would literally be ‘just another Joe'”.

On an Uber drive a few years ago, one of my kids got into a discussion with the driver about Judaism. The driver was amazed that a Torah Observant Jew can’t eat whatever they want, can’t wear whatever they want, can’t say whatever they want and can’t do whatever they want. The driver remarked that he does basically anything that he wants.

What the driver missed, and what we often take for granted, is that basic Torah observance, Shabbos, kashrus, etc, makes us great. Chazal teach that Hashem created man with a yetzer hara for desire, egocentricity and laziness and only by following the antidote of Torah and its commandments, can we rise above our base nature and become great human beings, with the possibility of connecting to people and connecting to Hashem with all our actions. When we heed the directives and follow the mitzvos of the Torah we unify the world and create a reality in which “Hashem will be One and His Name will be One”.

The Mesillas Yesharim is structured around the beraisa of R. Pinchas ben Yair which states:
“Torah leads to Watchfulness; Zeal; Cleanliness; Separation; Purity; Saintliness; Humility; Fear of Sin; Holiness; Divine Inspiration; the Revival of the Dead.” It starts with Torah and every step is infused with different aspects of the Torah: the warnings of the Torah, the mitzvos of the Torah, the learning of the Torah, the middos of the Torah and more.

Shavuos is the time for us to raise our commitment to Torah and to growing well beyond an Uber driver in the marketplace. Chag Someach!

Calibrating Covid Fear

In the Ninth chapter of Mesillas Yesharim on Zerizus (Positive Mitzvah Performance), the Ramchal explores the factors that undermine the proper performance of mitzvos. One of the undermining factors he discusses is fear. The Ramchal makes an important distinction between justified fear and excessive fear. Excessive fear creates an atmosphere which inhibits proper mitzvah performance.

In the last month or so, vaccinations have been effective in reducing the health risk of Covid. The CDC website states that if you’ve been fully vaccinated then you can gather indoors with fully vaccinated people without wearing a mask or staying 6 feet apart. They do add the caveat that you should avoid medium or large gatherings.

The difficulty with Covid is that it is travelling across the continuum from justified fear to possible excessive fear, in mostly vaccinated Shuls. There is no exact measurement to determine whether a Covid fear is excessive, and therefore different Shuls have implemented a wide range of mask policies.

Let us pray that we continue on the path of transforming our Shuls from Houses of Fear to Houses of Trust in G-d.

Matzah with a Shmear of Spiritual Sensitivity

We experience the world through our fives senses which makes our primary orientation a physical one. We also experience qualities like love, caring, gratitude and justice which are not perceivable through our five senses. Let’s call those qualities – spiritual sensitivities. Another spiritual sensitivity is the awareness that there is a loving G-d, Who created the world and wants to help us bring the world to a more perfect place of universal love, caring, gratitude and justice.

The path to perfecting the world and ourselves is through quieting our self-involved physical sensitivities and increasing our spiritual sensitivies. Passover provides us with a tremendous opportunity with the mitzvah of eating Matzah. Food is a tremendous source of physical and emotional pleasure and the Torah encourages us to fully experience that pleasure on Shabbos and the Holidays. However, the primary spiritual purpose of food is to provide us with the energy to carry out the worthwhile day to day activities of our life. On Passover we are instructed to eat Matzah, a plain basic staple of water and flour, to increase our sensitivity to the spiritual nature of food.

Spiritual sensitivity provides us with increased life fulfillment opportunities in every bite we take and every step we make. We can transcend the limits of our own physicality and look at the constant connection opportunities with our fellow human beings and with G-d. We should all be blessed with enhanced spiritual sensitivity this Passover.

Happy Passover!

The Seder in Four Hours, Five Minutes or One Minute

The Beyond BT Guide to the Seder contains all the steps of the seder along with some commentary and halachic instructions.

A few years ago I edited the above guide and compiled a Five Minute Seder for a non-observant friend and his family. Five minutes may be stretching it, but it’s pretty bare bones for those who have trouble going through the whole thing.

And here’s the One Minute explanation if you’re really pressed for time.

The Events of the Exodus
The process of the Exodus began when our forefather Jacob, the son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham, and his family settled in Egypt as the honored guests of the Pharaoh at that time. The process continued through the Jewish enslavement by the Egyptians; the 10 nature-defying plagues prophesized by Moshe and activated by G-d over a period of 12 months; the subsequent release of the approximately 3 million Jews to freedom after the plague of the death of the first born; the splitting of the Red Sea 7 days after their release; and the receiving of the Torah at Mount Sinai 7 weeks after their release.

The Centrality of the Exodus
The centrality of the Exodus in Judaism is predicated on the fact that the Jewish people were freed and separated as a unique nation through the clear actions of G-d Himself. Besides the physical freedom achieved, G-d chose us to be the world’s spiritual leaders by giving us the mitzvos of the Torah at Mount Sinai The mitzvos free us from a purely animal-like physical existence, to one in which we can elevate all our actions to be spiritual and G-d connected. Passover is a time where we commemorate the Exodus and renew our spiritual focus.

The Seder
The Seder with its focus on the telling of the story enable us to experientially reconnect with the slavery and freedom of the Exodus and express our appreciation to G-d for our redemption and selection as His chosen people. The salt water in which the green vegetable is dipped and the bitter herbs are associated with our bondage. The four cups of wine and the festival meal help us relive our freedom.

The Holiday of Matzah
The Matzah is the central component of both the Seder and the 8 days of Passover. Matzah, consisting of just flour and water was our no frills food when we were slaves in Egypt. It’s also a symbol of our freedom because we hastily left Egypt without time to bake bread.

On a spiritual level, the leaven in bread makes it more digestible and flavorous. This is appropriate for the rest of the year when our main challenge is to integrate the physical into the spiritual. On Passover, we eat only Matzah and abstain from the physically oriented leaven. This allows us to keep spiritually focused as we recharge our spiritual mission and focus during the holiday of Passover.

Missing an Opportunity

People come to Shul on Shabbos morning for one of the following main reasons: 1) The Davening; 2) The Rabbi; 3) The Socialization.

Some attribute the spectacular rise of Covid backyard minyans, to the fact that socialization is the main driver for many, and the backyard minyanim provide a better socialization venue. They’re like Shteibels on steroids, where the participants make the rules.

I personally value the socialization aspect of our Shuls very highly, and long for the days when we can gather for a kiddush, Shalosh Seudos and public shiurim. However, I think we have unfortunately missed an opportunity for serious spiritual growth through improved davening.

Remember our renewed commitments to davening as we prayed alone in our homes for 10 Covid weeks? And now that we’re back, what happened? Yes, we have to deal with the whos, wheres and how longs of social distanced davening. But when we’ve stepped into that first brocha of Shemoneh Esrai, what’s our excuse? Maybe it’s only me, but I suspect others have also not taken full advantage of this once in a lifetime opportunity.

It’s not too late. We can still show Hashem how much we appreciate the return to our Shuls.
You give Hashem your attention for 7 minutes, and He’ll give you the world.

When Adar Enters, Focus on Connection and Completion

The Gemora (Ta’anis 29a) tells us that “Just as from when the month of Av enters, we minimize our happiness, so too from when the month of Adar enters, we increase our happiness.”

Although we are taught to increase our happiness, there are no specific mitzvos commanded to accomplish this increase. The Maharal in his commentary on Avos (6:1) says that happiness flows from completeness, just as grief is the result of loss and deficiency. When we are connected within ourselves, to Hashem, and to other people, we are more complete and the happiness flows. Happiness is not the goal of Judaism, but when we accomplish our purpose through the pursuit of three types of connection, happiness is the result.

Rav Itamar Shwartz, the author of the popular Bilvavi and Da Es seforim, points out that our purpose in this world is rooted in these three types of connection: connection between our body and soul, connection between ourselves and Hashem, and connection between ourselves and other people.
The Mishna in Avos (1:2) says the world stands on three things, Torah, Service of Hashem, and Acts of Kindness. The Nesivos Shalom says that the world refered to in the Mishna is our personal world which we build each and every day. Torah provides us with the concepts and mitzvos that enable us to use the material world in a spiritual way – which connects our physical bodies to our spiritual soul. Service of Hashem is accomplished through prayer which connects us to Hashem on a daily basis. Acts of Kindness, both large and small, connect us to our family, friends and community.

When we actualize these connections, through learning Torah, prayer, and chesed, we should focus on feeling the increase in our sense of completion. If we do this our happiness will increase.

The Biggest Problem in Judaism

What’s the biggest problem in Judaism. A lot of things come to mind, the Covid Crisis, the Yeshiva System, the Shidduch System, the Chinuch System, the Left, the Right, the Middle, the Open, the Closed, the Leadership, the lack of Leadership, etc.

However, I think the biggest problem in Judaism is clearly stated in the pasuk in Devarim:
And now, Israel, what does Hashem ask of you, that you
1) fear Him, 2) walk in His ways, 3) love Him, 4) serve Him with all your heart and all your soul and 5) observe all the mitzvos.

That’s what’s expected of us!

On top of that we have an animal soul that’s impulsive, loves physical pleasure, and detests exertion. We have a yetzer hara that makes us ego-centric leading to selfishness, anger, envy and honor seeking. And we live in a world loaded with intellectual, emotional and physical distractions like politics, business, sports, shopping, gadgets, social media, and entertainment.

And even when we are able to overcome the physical, emotional and intellectual deterrents and create some connection to Hashem through fear, middos development, love, wholehearted service, and meticulous mitzvos observance – the major payoff for most people, will not even be received in this world, but in the World to Come.

This challenge is a tall order and it’s not really emphasized to children or adults, because it would discourage them. So Yeshivos focus on the information and thought development of Torah study, and Kiruv and non-Yeshivish environments offer Torah as a lifestyle choice. So it should be no surprise that many of us want to move to a town where we can sit back a little and enjoy the Torah lifestyle. And some of us choose a mostly physical lifestyle, with a side order of spirituality.

That is the Biggest Problem in Judaism – a lot is expected of us and it’s really hard given our nature and environment. However, this is a problem that Hashem created. And if He created this problem, we know that He created a solution. The solution is following a Torah based spiritual growth path. With such a path, a person can truly connect to Hashem and receive the greatest pleasure possible in this world and the next.

Four Words that Fuel Spiritual Growth

Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains that the key to establishing a palpable closeness to G-d when we say the Shemoneh Esrai, are the words Melekh (King), Ozer (Helper), uMoshia (Rescuer), uMogen (Shield) in the first brocha. We start off addressing G-d as a majestic but somewhat distant King. A Helper is more available and closer than a King, like a friend who we know we can call on. A Rescuer is closer than a Helper, because he is right there to save us when we need help. A Shield is closer than a Rescuer because he is surrounding us, protecting us from harm. If we say these four words slowly (4+ seconds per word), focusing on the different perceptions of closeness, we can sense Hashem’s protection.

This four word progression is also applicable to the Yomim Noraim. On Rosh Hoshana we focus on Hashem as King. In the ten days of Teshuva, we call out more in Selichos to Hashem, our Rescuer, because He is more available in this period. On Yom Kippur, we pray and confess to Hashem, our Saviour, as He saves us from the consequences of our sins. On Succos, we focus on Hashem, our Shield, through the mitzvos of the Sukkah and the feelings of protection that it generates.

The idea of the progression from King, to Helper, to Rescuer, to Shield, might help explain a question regarding brochos. Every standalone or sequence-beginning brocha must contain Hashem’s name and the word Melekh. However, the beginning of Shomeneh Esrai is missing the Melekh. Tosfos gives the most quoted answer: the first Brocha mentions Avrahom, who was the first one who made Hashem King over himself. The question still remains: why not just put the word Melekh, like we find in every other brocha?

Perhaps we can say that the word Melekh by itself represents a distant King. However in Shomeneh Esrai we are talking directly to Hashem, To help us create that conversational closeness, the Men of the Great Assembly, put the word Melekh at the end of the brocha in the progression leading to Magen. This is the relationship Avrahom personified, and that is the relationship we are pursuing in the first brocha and in the entire Shomoneh Esrai.

May we all merit to make the progression from Melekh to Magen in these upcoming Yomim Noraim, and in every tefillah that we daven.

Inspiration, Information and Internalization

We are so fortunate in these difficult times to have so many inspirational speakers helping us use our situation to grow. Go to TorahAnytime.com on any given day and you will find 10-20 new inspirational shiurim. Inspiration provides us with the important motivation, but we need more.

In addition to the inspiration, we need information. Let’s say we want to improve or kavanna when we daven and say brochos. How do we go about it? What are the steps that will lead to a permanent improvement? Let’s say we start small, and commit to thinking that Hashem is the “Master of All”, as the Shulchan Aruch says, when we say His Name in the first brocha of Shemoneh Esrai.

The third crucial component is internalization. We have to take the information and implement it until it becomes second nature. It starts with doing it the first time and then again and again and again, until it’s internalized. It’s useful to review each day whether we were successful with our commitment, to aid in the internalization process.

One of the reasons for the popularity of the Mesillas Yesharim is that not only does the Ramchal give us the inspiration to improve our Divine Service, but he also gives us the step by step information on how to improve. In addition, the Ramchal describes important tools for internalization, such as repeated review of the sefer and a daily cheshbon hanefesh.

Below is an outline of the introduction to the Mesillas Yesharim to help illustrate the importance of inspiration, information and internalization. In this week’s Spiritual Growth Zoomcast on beyondbt.com, we will talk about the inspiration, information and internalization process.

Introduction to the Mesillas Yesharim

We need to study about Divine Service

00.01 Forgetfulness is prevalent in that which is well known.
00.02 We need to review and study those things which we tend to forget.
00.03 People devote much time to studying secular subjects and Tanach and Halacha.
00.04 Few people spend time studying how to perfect their service of Hashem.

Divine Service is misunderstood

00.05 People don’t spend time on this because it seems so obvious.
00.06 Most people have misconceptions of what service of Hashem entails.
00.07 Desirable service is misunderstood because we don’t think about it or act on the opportunities for such service.

Proper Divine Service needs work to achieve

00.08 Aspects of service, like love and fear of Hashem, and purity of heart are not natural states so we need to work to acquire them.
00.09 There are many deterrents to desirable service, but they can be overcome.

Inadequate Divine Serice is not acceptable

00.10 Lackadaisical service of Hashem is unacceptable.
00.11 We can not justify inadequate service because that is the essence of what Hashem asks of us.
00.12 If we don’t put in effort, we will certainly not achieve adequate levels of service.
00.13 To understand service of Hashem we must pursue its understanding, like we would pursue a treasure.

Defining the Components of Divine Service

00.14 Only acquiring awe of Hashem is considered the ultimate wisdom to be acquired and attained.
00.15 Hashem wants: 1) awe of Hashem 2) walking in His ways 3) love of Hashem 4) wholehearted service 5) observance of all mitzvos.
00.16 We should be in awe of Hashem as we would a great and mighty king.
00.17 Walking in His ways is improving our character traits and doing things that strengthen Torah and achieve societal harmony.
00.18 We should love Hashem and try to please Him as we would try to please a parent.
00.19 Wholehearted service is focused solely on Hashem, not mechanical, and with complete devotion.
00.20 We should observe all the mitzvos with all their fine points and conditions.

The order necessary to internalize the above traits

00.21 Rabbi Pinchas Ben Yair taught the order necessary to fully internalize the above traits.
00.22 The order is Torah, Watchfulness, Zeal, Cleanliness, Separation, Purity, Saintliness, Humility, Fear of Sin, Holiness, Divine Inspiration, Revival of the Dead

The Shul Zoom Boom

It’s been a long haul for us Shul lovers. But we’re making the best out of difficult situation, thanks in part to technology, and particularly Zoom.

Our first use of Zoom was for online Kiddushim. A small group of us joins a Zoom meeting before Shabbos and we share a L’chaim, some words of Torah, and a discussion of the issues of the day. It’s usually about 20 minutes long. It’s not the same as a Shabbos Kiddush, but we look forward to it and it keeps us connected on a weekly basis.

We’ve also had a few Zoom life cycle events. We’ve had a vort, a wedding, and unfortunately there have been levayas and shiva visits. Of course it’s not the same as the in-person equivalents, but it does enable a degree of connect to the baal simcha or aveilah.

Another use of Zoom is for our daily Shacharis minyan. Someone davens, saying every brocha and the beginning and ending of every paragraph out loud. There are no Devarim Shel Kedusha as it is not a halachic minyan. We pace it consistently and many people have found it very helpful for their Kavana.

This cycle of the Daf Yomi has seen two major changes. More people in our Shul are learning the Daf and the OU Daf app (https://alldaf.org/) has been a tremendous additional asset. All of our Shul Daf Yomi shiurim are functioning on Zoom. Despite the availability of the OU Daf resources, people like their shiur leaders and their chaburas, and continue to attend them on Zoom. We’ve also continued all our weekly shiurim, given by members of our shul via Zoom.

Perhaps the most impactful use of Zoom has been our Rav’s online Zoom shiurim. He gives shiurim from Sunday to Thursday at 7:30 p.m. for about 30 minutes. We get very nice attendance and it’s a real chizuk to see many fellow members on a regular basis. At the end of the shiur we unmute everybody and we shmoose for a few minutes with the Rav greeting everybody in attendance. It’s a great experience and I wonder how we’ll use Zoom to supplement the live shiurim when we return.

We anxiously await returning to Shul, but we’re thankful that Hashem has provided us with the Zoom refuah in the face of our quarantine machala.

Cross Posted from http://www.shulpolitics.com/

Improving Our Davening at This Critical Time

We’re in a crisis situation. A situation which calls for us to storm the heavens with our prayers. So we step into our Shemoneh Esrai committed to do our best, and before we know it we’ve lost focus. What can we do? The first thing to know is that you’re not alone, almost everybody has the davening problem to some degree. The second thing to know is that we can improve. Here’s a path.

Davening is about connecting to Hashem in heart and mind. To connect to Hashem, we have to think about Hashem. A very important time to think about Hashem is when we’re praying and saying His Name. The Shulchan Aruch teaches that when saying the name Hashem, “we should concentrate on the meaning of how it is read, referring to His Lordship, that He is the Master of all.”

The Shulchan Aruch also says that “we should concentrate on (how it is written) the Yud-Hei – that He was, is, and always will be”, but the Mishna Berurah brings down in the name of the Gra, that this second meaning is only required when we say Hashem’s name in the Shema.

Is there any doubt in our mind that Hashem is the Master of all? He has brought the entire world to a standstill before our very eyes! When we say Hashem’s name in the brochos of Shomoneh Esrai, we should think and recognize that Hashem is the Master of all.

Start with the the first Brocha. If you catch yourself wandering in the middle of any brocha, bring yourself back to thinking about Hashem’s name when you conclude the Brocha. Don’t get discouraged when you’re not successful, just keep on making the effort. With repeated step by step effort, you’ll develop the ability to focus on Hashem’s name during davening.

We have to do our stop-the-spread hishtadlus. But more importantly, we have to turn and think about the Master of all in prayer. If not now, when?

Cross Posted on http://www.shulpolitics.com/

The Five Minute Seder and the Five Minute Plus Seder

Some people want to have a very fast seder. This guide is for them.

A few years ago a non-observant friend asked if I could put together a five minute seder.
I had written a A Longer Guide to the Seder. I pared it down to just the essential steps.
Pass it on to anyone for whom it might be helpful.

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1) Kaddesh – Sanctify the day with the recitation of Kiddush
*Leader says

On Shabbos add:
Vay’hi erev vay’hi voker yom hashi-shi. Vay’chulu hashamayim v’ha-aretz v’choltzva’am.
Vay’chal Elohim bayom hashvi’i, m’lachto asher asah, vayishbot bayom hashvi-i,
mikol-mlachto asher asah. Vay’vareich Elohim, et-yom hashvi’i, vay’kadeish oto,
ki vo shavat mikol-mlachto, asher-bara Elohim la-asot.

On all days continue
Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Boray P’ri Ha-Gofen.

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, asher bachar banu mikol’am,
v’rom’manu mikol-lashon, v’kid’shanu b’mitzvotav, vatiten-lanu Adonai Eloheinu
b’ahavah (shabatot limnuchah u) moadim l’simchah, chagim uz’manim l’sason et-yom
(hashabat hazeh v’et-yom) chag hamatzot hazeh. Z’man cheiruteinu, (b’ahavah,)
mikra kodesh, zeicher litziat mitzrayim. Ki vanu vacharta v’otanu kidashta mikol
ha’amim. (v’shabat) umo’adei kod’shecha (b’ahavah uv’ratzon) b’simchah uv’sason
hinchaltanu. Baruch atah Adonai, m’kadeish (h’shabbat v’) Yisrael v’hazmanim.

Ba-ruch A-tah A-do-noi E-loi-hei-nu Me-lech ha-o-lam
she-he-chee-ya-nu v’ki-yi-ma-nu vi-hi-gi-ya-nu liz-man ha-zeh.

*Drink the 1st cup of wine. Lean to your left while drinking.

2) Urechatz, – *Wash your hands before eating Karpas.

3) Karpas – *Eat a vegetable dipped in salt water.
*Leader says Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Boray P’ri Ho-adomah –
*Everybody eats the vegetable. Lean to your left while eating.

4) Yachatz. -* Break the middle Matzah. Hide the larger half for Afikoman.

5) Maggid – *Tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt
Here is a summary of the story. (Alternatively go around the room reading in English from a translated Haggadah.)

The main mitzvah of the night is telling about the Exodus from Egypt.
*Pour the 2nd Cup of Wine
*Four Questions are asked

*The answer to the four questions is given.

According to one commentator, it’s broken up into 6 parts based on the verse in the Torah which describes the mitzvah of telling the story at the Seder:
“And you shall relate to your child on that day saying: it is because of this Hashem acted for me when I came forth out of Egypt.”

a)– And you shall relate to your child – four types of chidren/people with different belief levels are discussed.

b)– on that day – explains that we should tell the story on Passover night and not earlier in the month,

c)– saying – the actual story:
Our ancestors were idol worshippers;—– through Abraham;—– Egyptian Enslavement;—– We cry out;—– G-d hears our cries
G-d saves us with the 10 plagues;—– We express our thanks for G-d saving us
Dip your finger in the wine for the 10 plagues
1) Water, which turned to blood and killed all fish and other aquatic life
2) Frogs
3) Lice
4) Wild animals
5) Disease on livestock
6) Incurable boils
7) Hail and thunder
8) Locusts
9) Darkness
10) Death of the first-born of all Egyptian humans and animals. To be saved, the Israelites had to place the blood of a lamb on the front door of their houses.

d) — It is because of this — “Rabban Gamliel explains why we use the Passover offering, Matzah and Maror.
The Passover lamb, represented in our times by the roasted bone, recalls the blood on the doorposts and the terror and anticipation of the night of the plague of the first born.

Matzah is what we ate in the morning when Israel was rushed out of Egypt with no time to let their dough rise.

Maror captures the bitterness of the enslavement.

e) — Hashem acted for me…” – “In every generation, we should see ourselves as if we had gone out from Egypt.

f) – when I came forth out of Egypt.” –We recite 2 songs of praise to G-d similar to the songs recited when we left Egypt.

*Leader of Seder recites Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Boray P’ri Ha-Gofen.
*Drink the 2nd cup of wine. Lean to your left while drinking.

6) Rachtzah – *Wash the hands prior to eating Matzah and the meal.
*After washing and before drying say
*Say Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melcch Ho-olom Asher Kidshonu B’mitzvosov V’tzivonu Al N’tilas Yodoyim.

7) Motzi – *Recite the Hamotzi blessing over eating Matzah before a Meal
*Say Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Hamotzi Lechem Min Ho-oretz.

8) Matzah – *Recite the blessing over eating Matzah
*Say Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Asher Kidshonu B’mitzvosov Vtzivonu Al Achilas Matzah.

*Eat the Matzah. Lean to your left while eating.

9) Maror – *The Maror is dipped in Charoscs
*Say Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Asher Kidshonu B’mitzvosov Vtzivonu Al Achilas Maror.
*Eat the Maror.

10) Korech – *Eat a sandwich of Matzah and Maror.
*Eat the Sandwich.

11) Shulchan Orech – *Eat the festival meal

Find the Afikoman.

12) Tzafun – *Eat the Afikoman which had been hidden all during the Seder.
*Pour the 3rd cup of wine

13) Barech – Recite Birchas Hamazon, the blessings after the meal

*Leader of Seder recites blessing Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Boray P’ri Ha-Gofen.
*Drink the 3rd cup of wine. Lean to your left while drinking.

*Pour the 4th cup of wine;
*Pour the cup for Elijah

14) Hallel – Recite the praises of G-d
*Leader of Seder recites Boruch Atoh Ado-noy Elo-haynu Melech Ho-olom Boray P’ri Ha-Gofen.
*Drink the 4th cup of wine. Lean to your left while drinking.

15) Nirtzah – Pray that G-d accepts our praise and speedily sends the Messiah.
Sing the songs of the Haggadah

photo credit: dcJohn via photopin cc

Taking a Step Forward after Three Hard Steps Back

It’s a tough time for worldwide Shul goers: no public shiurim, no social contact, no davening with a Tzibbur. However, there is a tremendous opportunity here to take a step to improve our davening. Let me share a practical idea.

Our spiritual purpose in life is to connect to Hashem and to His creations. The collective end point of that process is one world under G-d, with unity, love, peace and happiness for all. We connect to Hashem by thinking about Him, feeling emotionally connected to Him, and doing physical acts of spiritual connection.

Davening contains all three of these components, but the essence of davening is feeling emotionally connected, as we learn in the Gemora in Taanis, “Prayer is the Service of the Heart”. It’s also the hardest component. We can arrive at Shul, say the prayers, and because we are distracted, barely think about Him, much less feel emotionally connected.

The emotional connections that we are seeking to develop during davening are love of Hashem and awe of Hashem. Let’s look at love, which is the feeling of a deep connection. A foundational spiritual thought, and the first of the 6 constant mitzvos, is that there is one G-d who is the cause of all that exists. If we look at the wonderful things in our life, we can appreciate that Hashem caused it, with love for us. We can then start to reciprocally return that love to Him.

Every time we say the word Boruch, which is usually explained as Hashem being the source of blessing, we can appreciate the love that Hashem is showering on us with His gifts in this world. We can then try to direct our love right back at Him. There are 100 opportunities a day to feel this love, and we can try to connect at least once a day, when we say Boruch.

Spiritual growth is a step by step process. Today we have a tremendous opportunity to take one step forward, after having been propelled three hard steps back.

Reposted from http://www.shulpolitics.com/

Developing Our Spiritual Side

Now is a tremendous opportunity to work on our spiritual growth. Sometimes it’s helpful to step back and take a fresh look at what we are trying to achieve.

I was having dinner with a childhood friend a while back, and he lamented that he wanted to do more to develop his spiritual side. In my current neighborhood, I have many friends who express that same concern, including myself. Since I have studied much about this subject and have discussed it with others, I thought I would share some practical ideas in these anxious times.

If we want to develop our physical side, we might pursue a better exercise routine and healthier eating habits. To develop our emotional side, we might work on reducing anger and anxiety, while increasing our capacities for love and happiness. Development of our mental side might include learning and remembering new things, as well as increasing our capacity to understand, apply, analyze, evaluate and create.

In Judaism, developing our spiritual side means increasing our capacity to connect to G-d and His creations. The collective end point of that process is one world under G-d, with unity, love, peace and happiness for all. Individual spiritual development is like physical, emotional and mental development, in that it is a step by step process.

Spirituality consists of thinking about G-d, feeling emotionally connected to Him, and doing acts of spiritual connection. A foundational spiritual thought is that there is one G-d who is the cause of all existence. Any time we actively think that thought, we are doing an act of spiritual connection. If we look at our beautiful world, or any of the wonderful things in our life, and feel an emotional connection to G-d, the creator of all existence, then we have taken a step in creating an emotional connection to G-d.

Thinking about the ideas stated here is taking a step in our spiritual development. If we take the time to think about G-d as the source of something in our life, we will have taken another step. There are many opportunities for spiritual development and we each must take our own steps. To be continued…

Beyond Corona – I

We are taught that our purpose in life is to connect to Hashem and to create a world where Hashem is One and His Name is One. Since we’re spending more time alone, perhaps we can work on connecting to Hashem, so we can get Beyond Corona.

One way to connect to Hashem is to think about Him. The first constant mitzvah is “To believe that there is one G-d in the world that caused all that exists to be so”. When we read about Corona, if we add the thought that Corona and everything in the world comes from Hashem, we have performed a mitzvah and strengthened our connection to Hashem. When we try to put this into practice we will see that it is difficult, because the distraction of reading makes it difficult to think about Hashem.

Perhaps it will be easier to think about Hashem when we say His name in davening and Brachos. The Shulchan Aruch says that when mentioning the name Hashem, we should concentrate on the meaning of how it is read (Adon*i): that He is the Master of all. We should also concentrate on the Yud-Kei-Vav-Kei spelling: that He was, He is, and He always will be. This is also difficult, because we are not in the habit of concentrating when we pray. So perhaps we can try to put this in practice during the Shema and the first Brocha of Shemoneh Esrai.

If many of us try and think about Hashem’s name when we say the Shema and the first Brocha of Shemoneh Esrai, then we will have taken a tremendous first step in getting Beyond Corona.

The Love and Happiness of Adar

Increasing Our Happiness During Adar
The Gemara in Taanis (29a) teaches us that Mishenichnas Adar Marbim B’simcha, when Adar begins we increase our happiness. Rashi comments that “Purim and Pesach were days of miracles for Yisrael” and therefore Adar and Nisan are joyous months. Let’s take a brief dive into the Torah concept of happiness so that we can maximize our joy during this wondeful time.

What is Happiness
The Maharal in his commentary to Mishna 6.1 in Avos teaches that happiness flows from completion just as grief is the result of loss and deficiency. Happiness takes many forms. When we crave a favorite food, attaining it creates a sense of completeness, and generates happiness. Much of our lives is composed of wanting things, getting them, and achieving a small dose of happiness as a result. When we do the right thing in a difficult situation, we feel more complete in the use of our strengths and capabilities, and this generates happiness.

Happiness from Love
When we feel connected to friends and family through the emotion we call love, we feel more complete and happy. The Chovos HaLevovos, the Mesillas Yesharim and the Rambam teach that love of Hashem generates the highest sense of completion and therefore the greatest pleasure and happiness.

Developing Love
The higher, love-based levels of happiness take more time and effort to attain, are deeper, and are high Torah priorities. “Loving Hashem” and “Loving Your Neighbor as Yourself” are two cornerstone mitzvos. When we appreciate the miracles that Hashem did for us on Purim and Pesach, we deepen our connection and love of Him, which increases our sense of completion and our happiness. It takes thought, focus and effort, but we are all capable of developing a love and a connection to Hashem and of enjoying the resulting happiness.

Chessed, Gratitude and Love

In his sefer “Getting to Know Your Soul”, Rav Itamar Shwartz, the author of the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh teaches us some important lessons about Chessed:

“Love has three layers in the soul. The outermost layer is chessed (kindness), the middle layer is ahavah (love), and the innermost layer is echad (unity)…The real significance of chessed is its power of unifying the world into one cohesive unit…An act of giving is not chessed unless there is some love in it, either an expression of existing love, or the intent to foster love.”

Rav Shwartz also points out that every act has both lishma (pure) and lo lishma (alterior) motives. We should focus on the lishma components of our acts to strengthen that component. I think we can add that we should also focus on the lishma components of the acts of others. If we do this, accompanied by a feeling or showing of gratitude, we can build love and create deeper unity between ourselves and our fellow Jews.

I send out the davening times for my daily minyan every two months. It takes about 5 minutes and I usually don’t get a response from any of the recipients, nor do I expect one. However this week, as I was marinating this post in my head, I received a thank you from someone in the minyan. It was nice and I felt the love. I also took it as a sign that the message in this post is on target.

Have a Happy Gratitude Day!

Cross posted on ShulPolitics.com

Simple Kavannas for Elul

Elul is the Time to Start on the Little Things
At the beginning of Shaarei Teshuva (The Gates of Teshuva), Rabbeinu Yonah teaches that if we make our efforts in Teshuva, then Hashem will assist us in return, even to the extent of reaching the highest level of loving Him. But we have to make our efforts. Rabbi Welcher says that Elul is the time to start making efforts on the little things as we work up to dealing with some of our bigger issues.

Kavanna is a Big “Little Thing”

Where does kavanna fit in? On the one hand, we all know how difficult it is to daven a full Shomoneh Esrai with good kavanna, but on the other hand saying one brocha or doing one mitzvah with the proper kavanna is something that all of us can achieve. Being focused on Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh this year has shown me the importance of kavanna and awakened me to the fact they we can spend our whole lives involved in Torah, Mitzvos, Tefillah and Chesed, but if we are not focused on Hashem during our day to day lives, then we are not properly building our souls and achieving our purpose in this world and the next. The obvious place to start building is when we’re involved in Hashem focused activities like davening and mitzvos.

Kavanna during Mitzvos
There are three basic thoughts to have in mind before performing a mitzvah:
1) Hashem is the one who commanded this mitzvah;
2) I am the subject of that command; and
3) Through the act that I am about to perform, I am fulfilling Hashem’s command.
It’s that simple, the Commander (Hashem), the commanded (me), the fulfilment (the mitvah). So, perhaps we can focus ourselves before we do a mitzvah and have these three things in mind.

Kavanna during Prayer
Shacharis davening consists of four basic components, while Mincha and Maariv and brachos contain some subset of those components which are:
1) Thanking Hashem for the physical goodness He gives to us (Berachos/Korbanos)
2) Praising Hashem for His general awesomeness (Pesukei D’Zimra)
3) Intellectually accepting and appreciating the Kingship and Oneness of Hashem (Shema)
4) Standing before Hashem with spiritual awareness that He is the source of everything
Obviously there’s a lot to talk about here and I highly recommend Aryeh Kaplan’s Jewish Mediation as a primary source for understanding kavanna and prayer.

Kavanna during Shacharis
Let’s go through a typical Shacharis and pick some potential Kavanna points.
1) When putting on Tallis and Tefillin, have in mind the three points of Kavanna during mitzvos described above
2) When saying morning Brachos, be thankful that Hashem has given you the opportunity to say these Brochos
3) During Korbonos, say at least Parshas HaTamid and Ketores with extra focus concentrating on the simple meaning of the words
4) During Pesukei D’Zimra in Ashrei say this line with focus: Poseach Es YoDecha… – You open your hand and satisfy every living thing’s desires”. A basic understanding is that although Hashem runs the world through orderly natural laws (as symbolized by the aleph-beis structure of Ashrei), He is constantly active in running the world.
5) During Shema, before the first verse have in mind that you are accepting Hashem’s Kingship and oneship with the implication of following a Torah way of life. According to some you should have in mind that you would actually give up your life for Hashem, if necessary.
6) Before Shmoneh Esrai have in mind that you are about to stand before Hashem and pray to him, that He is awesome, and that we are relatively small compared to Him, the source of everything.

These are just some ideas. Certainly we can do one a week, or one a day, or possibly more. Whatever works for you, but let’s make the effort and earn the merit to grow closer to Hashem at this time.

Originally published on September 2, 2009

In Search of Neo-Mussar

I was recently learning with a chavrusa about the mitzvah of Ahavas Hashem. We were trying to broaden our understanding of love and I pointed out that a given person probably loves their parents, their children, and their spouses. Now bring that person to Shul on Shabbos and ask him, “Who do you love in this room?”. He’ll look around and perhaps he’ll say “I think I can say that I love that guy. And maybe those two over there”. If you point out that there’s a mitzvah to love every Jew in the room, he’ll probably give you a shrug.

I’ve asked many friends and Rebbeim over the years about the mitzvah of Ahavas Hashem. One Rabbi told me that it’s for people on a higher level. I pointed out that we mention the obligation of Ahavas Hashem in Shema multiple times a day. To his credit, he went to his Roshei Yeshiva, who told him the Ahavas Hashem is in fact a mitzvah for everyone.

Another Rabbi said that he was not sure that Love of Hashem was even an emotion. I told him that was a big chiddush. Other Rebbeim have pointed out that our Avodah is intellectually centered, and we’re cautious about too much emotionalism. In fact, Rabbi Dessler praises the Chassidic custom to arouse emotions through external means, like the use of schnapps, but he also points out that emotionalism is not the same as internalizing love and connection to Hashem.

I recently gave a Dvar Torah at our Hashkama minyan and I said we needed a neo-Mussar to help develop our emotional connection to Hashem. My Rav got wind of the term and asked, “Why not real Mussar?”. I respectively replied that the word Mussar has negative connotations to many people, and even those who have a healthy Mussar diet, seem to have trouble getting to the emotional connection. I’m developing and experimenting with certain practices which I think will provide a path to intellectual driven emotions and connection to Hashem. I hope to share some of these ideas in the future.