E Unibus Plurum

The casual observer of the current presidential polling data requires little expertise to identify a trend stretching back over the last two presidential elections. The population of the United States has been, and continues to be, split almost 50-50 in their support for a national leader.

At the same time, however, the division of country on a national level stands out in sharp contrast to what is happening locally. In his new book, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart, author Bill Bishop demonstrates how communities are becoming increasingly homogenous as people sort themselves into demographic cliques. The most striking irony, Mr. Bishop explains, is how the increasing singularity of ideas and values in neighborhoods across the country is resulting in increasing divisiveness throughout the country as a whole.

The statistical evidence is compelling. In 2004, in an election decided nationally by one closely contested state (Ohio) and less than 1% of the electorate, almost half the counties in the country recorded landslide victories locally for either one candidate or the other, nearly double the percentage recorded in 1976.

Here are a few samplings from Mr. Bishop’s introduction:

Freed from want and worry, people were reordering their lives around their values, their tastes, and their beliefs. They were clustering in communities of like-mindedness, and not just geographically. Churches grew more politically homogeneous during this time, and so did civic clubs, volunteer organizations, and, dramatically, political parties. People weren’t simply moving. The whole society was changing…

Marketing analyst J. Walker Smith described the same phenomenon as extreme and widespread “self-invention,” a desire to shape and control our identities and surroundings. Technology, migration, and material abundance all allow people to “wrap themselves into cocoons entirely of their own making,” Smith wrote. People are unwilling to live with trade-offs, he said…

As people seek out the social settings they prefer — as they choose the group that makes them feel the most comfortable — the nation grows more politically segregated — and the benefit that ought to come with having a variety of opinions is lost to the righteousness that is the special entitlement of homogeneous groups. We all live with the results: balkanized communities whose inhabitants find other Americans to be culturally incomprehensible; a growing intolerance for political differences that has made national consensus impossible; and politics so polarized that Congress is stymied and elections are no longer just contests over policies, but bitter choices between ways of life.

Is it ever possible for there to be too much agreement? The mishna teaches that if the entire Sanhedrin votes to convict the defendant in a capital case without a single dissention, the death penalty cannot be given. No matter how overwhelming the evidence, the sages did not trust their own objectivity if none of their members could find even one mitigating factor. Brothers cannot testify together in beis din because they share a common perspective that calls into question their collective objectivity.

The more single-minded a group becomes in its opinions, the more calcified its thinking becomes in its evaluation of unfamiliar ideas, and the more quickly it rejects and condemns opposing viewpoints. Moreover, homogenous groups are more likely to devolve into parodies of themselves, shifting to ever-more extreme positions and allowing arguments that might once have been rational to descend to dogma and character assassination.

This is why candidates lean to the extremes in primary elections, laboring to attract support from the farthest wing of their respective parties, the one that is generally the loudest and most vehement. Then, once they have secured the nomination, the candidates tack back to the center for the general election to try and attract voters from across the political divide. Whichever side eventually claims victory will almost inevitably shift back again to the extremes, fearful of antagonizing the clamoring minority by appearing too moderate.

This is certainly one angle of the mishna in Pirkei Avos that praises machlokes l’sheim shomayim: when debate and dispute are motivated by a genuine desire to achieve true understanding, then such debate endures by producing greater clarity, by yielding new truths, and by bringing together ideological opponents who are devoted to intellectual honesty and ideological integrity.

Such was the nature of Beis Hillel and Beis Shammai, who fought fiercely in the study halls but retained love and respect for one another. One has to wonder, given the increasing factionalism within the Torah world, whether students of the two academies would even speak to one another if they were alive today.

After the death of his main disciple, Reish Lakish, Rabbi Yochanon lamented that he had no one to challenge him any more. By posing 24 problems to every law his rebbe taught him, Reish Lakish stimulated the learning of Torah in a way that benefited both students and teacher. The replacement the sages found, Rav Eliezar ben P’das, brought 24 proofs for everything Rabbi Yochanon said, literally driving him mad.

The ideological differences between the different camps within the Torah world are not (yet) so insurmountable that we have any justification for refusing to bear one another’s company. This does not require compromising one’s principles. Rather, it requires a willingness to concede that the world is a sufficiently complex place to allow the coexistence of different but equally legitimate points-of-view, and to not be afraid that the slightest exposure to alternative outlooks within the mainstream of Torah thought will somehow lead to a swift descent down the slippery slope of apostasy.

When two or three schools in one neighborhood, only marginally different in Torah philosophy and united by their inability to make payroll, are each graduating classes of only five or ten students, when men choose to walk into one shul half-an-hour late on Shabbos morning rather than walking into a shul across the street on time because its parishioners wear a different style of kippot, clearly our commitment to the unity of Klal Yisroel is sadly wanting.

From the earliest days of the twelve tribes, the greatest strength of the Jewish people has been our ability to forge diversity into unity. How ironic, and how tragic, that now we have become united against one another.

Parshas Bo — The Crossroads of Repentance

During the last days of prophetic vision, some 25 hundred years ago, the sages divided the Torah into parshios – portions, and decreed that successive parshios should be read publicly as part of the Sabbath morning prayer service, so that the Jewish people would hear the reading of the entire Torah from year to year. The divisions of these parshios followed either historical, philosophical, or narrative patterns, so that each was, to some extent, self-contained with a particular thematic focus.

It is curious, therefore, that the sages saw fit to place the first seven of the of the Plagues upon Egypt into last week’s parsha, while leaving the final three for this week’s Torah portion. The commentaries discuss at length the arrangement of the plagues into three sets of three, with the final Plague upon the Firstborn in a class by itself. Consequently, if it were necessary to divide the plagues at all, it would better have been placed the point of division after the sixth plague – which completed the second set of three – than after the seventh.

Nevertheless, a careful reading of the narrative reveals that the seventh plague does stand out from all the rest by virtue of Pharaoh’s unprecedented reaction. After each of the previous plagues, Pharaoh had either stubbornly refused to yield or else promised to send the Jews out, only to revoke his permission once the plague had abated. But after the plague of fiery hail, Pharaoh makes an astonishing admission: This time I have sinned; God is righteous, and I and my people are wicked.

Read more Parshas Bo — The Crossroads of Repentance

Parshas Vayeitzei — Bringing the Well into the City

And [Yaakov] saw that there was a well in the field. Three flocks of sheep were there lying beside it, since it was from this well that the flocks were watered, and a great stone [blocked] the mouth of the well (Bereishis 29:2).

This is how the Torah describes Yaakov’s arrival at the house of Lavan, his uncle, after fleeing from his wicked brother, Eisav, and beginning his search for a wife. Curiously, when Eliezer, servant of Yaakov’s grandfather Avrohom, arrived at the same place a generation earlier, the Torah describes the location of the well not “in the field” but ”at the edge of the city” (Bereishis 24:11).

This seeming inconsistancy provides the basis for an enigmatic debate recorded in the Talmud (Bechoros 8b):

The Elders of Athens said to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah, “We have a well out in the fields; bring it into the city.”

Rabbi Yehoshua took chaff and threw it before them, saying, “Make me a rope out of chaff and I will bring it in.”

They asked, “Who can make a rope out of chaff?”

He replied, “Then who can bring a well from the field into the city?”

Last week, we explained that the Torah employs the imagery of a well – the source of water, which is the basis of physical life – as a symbol for Torah itself, which is the source of spiritual life.

The Malbim explains that when peace and a sense of unity exist among the Jewish people, when they live in the Land of Israel with the Divine Word guiding their actions and their attitudes, then the “well” of Torah is “in the city,” providing the people with security and their settlements with prosperity.

However, when our spiritual negligence and complacency cause us to be exiled from our land and subjected to the uncertainty and unpredictability of life among the nations of the earth, when we have to struggle against all manner of obstacles to keep G-d’s word and His commandments central in our lives, then the well of Torah is “in the field.”

This was the assertion of the Elders of Athens, the scholars of the Roman Empire who based their wisdom on the teachings of the ancient Greeks: If you Jews are divided against one another, if you yourselves recognize sinas chinom, the senseless hatred among you, as the cause of your exile, then how can you ever expect to earn your redemption? How can you believe that the well “in the field” will ever become transformed into a well “in the city?”

Rabbi Yehoshua’ s answer finds its meaning in the continuation of the Torah narrative:

And all the flocks would gather there, and they would roll away the stone from the mouth of the well and allow the flocks to drink, and then they would return the stone to its place over the mouth of the well (Bereishis 29:2).

To bring the well from the “field” into the “city” requires a spiritual “rope” to bind the future with the past. The Malbim explains that the three flocks represent the three eras of Jewish exile, each imposing upon the people the challenges and crises. Only by working together to overcome these challenges will the people achieve a level of unity to become worthy of redemption and acquiring the merit to build HaShem’s Temple so that the Divine Presence can dwell in their midst.

In the course of the first two exiles, the collective merit of a unified Jewish nation ultimately ”rolled away the stone” of temptation and transgression, allowing the waters of spirituality to flow free and revive a spiritually thirsty people. And each time, prosperity encouraged the people to stray after the inclinations of the hearts, so that the stone of self-indulgence and self-interest rolled back to its place and drove the people back into the parched desert of exile.

The first era was galus Mitzrayim, the exile in Egypt, which forged the people into a nation and culminated in their entry into the land and their ultimate construction of the first Beis HaMikdash. Tragically, without the external pressure provided by enemies around them, their commitment to one another dissolved and, over time, led to the erosion of their collective merit and their exile to Babylon.

Thus began the second era, in which the Jews gradually earned back the privilege of living in their land, rebuilding the Temple, and regaining political autonomy in the aftermath of the miracle of Chanukah. But infighting among the descendants of the Hasmoneans eventually led to the disintegration of political stability, the conquest by the Roman Empire, and the destruction of the second Temple.

Out of the ruins of the Roman Empire grew Western Civilization, the final exile of Jewish history, in which the twin attractions of material prosperity and cultural assimilation have exceeded all the obstacles to spirituality that have confronted the Jews throughout all previous ages. And once again, the divisiveness that traces its roots back to the senseless hatred of 2000 years ago stands in the way of bringing the well of Torah and spiritual redemption from the “field” into the “city.”

Scattered like chaff, the Jewish people will remain in exile until, by bonding together in unity, they form the “rope” that connects them back to their origins as a cohesive people. When that happens, Rabbi Yehoshua told the Elders, when the “chaff” of disunity becomes a “rope” of redemption, then the Jewish people will find their way home.

But how is that possible? the Elders asked. Just as chaff cannot make a rope, disaffected and disparate individuals cannot form a people.

That may be true, answered Rabbi Yehoshua. But the image of chaff only describes the Jewish people in the most simplistic and superficial way. We may appear cut off from one another, but we share the collective soul of the Almighty’s chosen people. The more we become distant from one another, the more we yearn to return to our common roots. As the exile grows darker and deeper, we come closer to the time when the very depths of our spiritual darkness will compel us to pull together, thereby pulling ourselves forward into the light of the messianic era.

Rabbi Goldson writes at Torah Ideals

Laying the Foundations of the Future

As a high school rebbe, I often find comfort in the following midrash:

On one occasion, Rabbi Akiva looked up from his lesson to discover his students dozing. (If even Rabbi Akiva couldn’t always keep his students engaged, who I am to think I can?)

Rabbi Akiva employed a curious solution. “In what merit did Queen Esther rule over 127 provinces?” he asked. “Because her ancestor Sara lived for 127 years.” This seems to have roused his talmidim from their stupor and returned them to their study (Bereishis Rabbah 58:3).

I’ve tried Rabbi Akiva’s solution a few times. I’m sure it will surprise no one that his method produced far less success for me than it did for him. And although it may be easy to attribute my failure to yeridas haDoros, the decline of the generations, perhaps a more relevant lesson can be found elsewhere in the parsha.

So much of the parsha is devoted to Eliezer’s repetition of his instructions from Avrohom, concerning which the sages offer their famous comment that HaShem finds the conversation of the patriarchs’ servants more pleasing than the teachings of their children. For his sincere service to his master, Eliezer earned the appellation eved Avrohom (servant of Abraham), only one step removed from the highest possible praise, eved HaShem.

It seems inconsistent, therefore, that the Torah alludes to an ulterior motive at the very outset of Eliezer’s recapitulation. When he recounts the history of his search to Rivka’s family, Eliezer explains how Avrohom assured him of HaShem’s guidance when Eliezer expressed his fear that, “Perhaps the woman will not follow me.” Rashi observes that the word perhaps, ulai, is written so that it may also be read, eilai — to me, suggesting that Eliezer had hoped to wed his own daughter to Yitzchok. If so, how can we understand the sages’ praise of Eliezer as a selfless eved?

To make matters more difficult, why does the Torah allude to Eliezer’s self-interest here, now that he is repeating the story, rather than earlier in the parsha, when he actually stated his question to Avrohom?

In fact, the second question answers the first. The Kotzker Rebbe explains that when Eliezer originally expressed his question to Avrohom, he genuinely believed that he was asking in the best interests of Yitzchok. Eliezer had convinced himself that he truly sought Avrohom’s guidance should he fail in his mission to find Yitzchok a suitable wife.

It was only when he recounted the episode to Rivka’s family that Eliezer realized his real motives. Only from a vantage point of objective distance could Eliezer finally see that his well-intentioned request had truly been prompted by personal bias.

And so we find no inconsistency in the sages’ portrayal of Eliezer. He was indeed a true eved. But even a true eved is not immune to the seductive influence of self-interest, and even a true eved may be unable to recognize personal bias at the moment when it afflicts him. The same Eliezer for whom the way was miraculously shortened, for whom the waters rose to identify Rivka as Yitzchok’s match, for whom the curse of Ham transformed into a blessing, this same Eliezer who so loyally served Avrohom could not identify in himself the self-deception that sought to undermine Avrohom’s plans to find Yitzchok’s bashert.

So too, perhaps, the students of Rabbi Akiva. Rav Mendel Weinbach explains that Rabbi Akiva intended to impress upon his talmidim a sense of responsibility not only to themselves but also to future generations. What would have happened had Sara not devoted every moment of her 127 years to her service of HaShem? Without her merit, Esther would not have become queen. And had Esther not become queen, she would not have been positioned in the house of King Achashverosh to save the Jewish people.

Rabbi Akiva admonished his students by impressing upon them that, even if each might be willing to forgo his own portion in the World to Come, future generations might need the merit of their learning just as Esther had needed Sara’s merit so that she could save the Jewish people. You may be prepared to sacrifice a measure of your own reward, Rabbi Akiva suggested, but are you prepared to sacrifice your children and grandchildren as well?

Indeed, Rabbi Akiva’s rebuke to his talmidim reminds us how easily we make excuses for our own lack of mesiras nefesh (self-sacrifice) and how cheaply we are prepared to sell the priceless benefits of our portion in the World to Come. The momentary attraction of slackening in our divine service, of taking the line of least resistance even at the expense of our own heavenly reward, seems so reasonable that we our own rationalization for what it is – the most subtle tactic of the yeitzer hara.

Like Eliezer, however, the students of Rabbi Akiva could be shaken out of their lethargy, both literally and figuratively. The words of their rebbe penetrated their momentary carelessness and roused them to return to their study of the Divine Word. How inspiring that those students allowed themselves to be so easily inspired!

But we are not merely careless. We are committed to our carelessness, determined to sink into the drowsiness of indifference and ignore our rebbes’ reproof, whether that reproof comes from the rabbi or the rosh yeshiva, or even from the Torah itself. We offer a whole litany of excuses why we don’t need reexamine our ways, indulging the routine of habit just like, the Mesillas Yesharim tells us, a blind man walking in darkness.

We all have moments, however, when a window of opportunity opens, when our resistance to self-awareness drops, if only for a moment, and we can look back and take stock of ourselves. And, as those fleeting moments become fewer and fewer, they become ever more precious.

If we are honest with ourselves then, in the light of objectivity, we all know what’s at stake. No matter how difficult it is to be consistent models of kindness, of character, of diligence, of kiddush HaShem before our children’s eyes, we appreciate the potential cost and risk. If we make excuses for our laxity, if we exempt ourselves from our service, then we will have failed not some distant generation, as Rabbi Akiva warned his talmidim. Rather, we will be failing the next generation, our own children whom we brought into the world and with whose spiritual development HaShem has entrusted us.

The 127 years of Sara’s life, years equal in beauty and righteousness, did not end with Sara’s death. The blessings of Sara’s tent continued in the next generation through the merit of Rivka, and Sara’s own merit transcended a thousand years to the generation of Esther. The benefits of her effort and her service are beyond measure, and they teach us that ours can be, too, if we strive to live as she did.

Visit Rabbi Goldson’s website at Torah Ideals – Seeking Direction in a Misdirected Worlds.

The Sukkah of the World

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson
Torah Ideals – Seeking Direction in a Misdirected Worlds

A famous story, probably apocryphal but possibly true, recounts the origins of a shul in Poland named for its founder, Reb Itzele of Cracow. Reb Itzele was a poor peasant who dreamed recurrently of a great fortune that lay buried beneath a certain bridge in the city of Vienna. Night after night the same vision came into Reb Itzele’s head while he slept. Eventually, he could bear it no longer.

With no money to pay his way, Reb Itzele set out on foot to make the long journey to Vienna, hitching rides on the back of carts when he could, but mostly walking, begging for food, sleeping by the roadside when he could not find a barn or stable in which to spend the night.

Finally arriving in Vienna, Reb Itzele wandered the busy streets of the city until he recognized the bridge he had seen in his dream. But what then? People were coming and going constantly. He, a poor peasant from Poland, could hardly begin digging up the earth in the middle of a great cosmopolitan city.

A policeman noticed the poor man loitering under the bridge and accosted him. Disconcerted, Reb Itzele blurted out his whole story. The policeman’s eyes widened in disbelief. “You truly are a fool,” the officer laughed, “to travel half way across Europe because of a dream. Well, let me tell you: I, too, have had a dream. I dreamed there was a treasure hidden beneath the house of a poor Jew in Cracow. But do you think I would travel all that way to look for the house of someone named Itzele just because of a dream? Off with you, now, and be grateful that I don’t arrest you.”

Back went Reb Itzele to his house, where he tore up the floorboards and uncovered a great treasure, which he used to build the shul that bore his name.

* * * * *

The moral, obviously, is that we often have right under our feet the very thing we go off searching the world to find.

But the story has a second, more subtle message: sometimes we may have to search the world over in order to discover what we have had all along. Perhaps that is why the great chassidic masters exiled themselves in the days of their youth. And perhaps that is why the Master of the World has exiled our ethereal souls to this world of spiritual darkness, so that we must find our own way back to the light of His Divine presence.

Finally, perhaps this is why the Torah commands us to exile ourselves for seven days a year, abandoning the comfort and familiarity of our homes for the austerity of the sukkah. Paradoxically, this little hut that affords scant protection from the elements enables us to remember how HaShem protected our ancestors in the desert with the anani haKovod, the clouds of glory, and that it is His hand alone that protects us still.


Wheras the Talmud refers to the Passover Festival by its familiar name, Chag HaPesach, the sages identified the other festivals by descriptive names of their own design. Shavuos they called Atzeres – literally cessation: lacking any distinguishing positive commandments, Shavuos is characterized primarily by the forbidden categories of work common to all Torah holidays. Sukkos they called HeChag – The Festival – implying that this holiday somehow includes or completes the other two.1 And although Sukkos does indeed conclude the cycle of the Shalosh Regalim, the three Pilgrim Festivals, the sages’ reference to it as The Festival appears the diminish somewhat the stature of Pesach and Shavuos. What did the sages intend for us to understand?

Citing Rabbi Elazar HaKappar, the Mishna identifies the three character traits considered most destructive, through which a person a person may forfeit his portion in the World to Come.2 These are kinah (jealousy), ta’avah (lust), and kovod (craving honor). With characteristic penetrating brilliance, the Sfas Emes explains that the three festivals provide the tikkun, or antidote, for these three flaws.3

On Pesach, we celebrate our redemption from slavery at the hands of the Egyptians. A slave lives without either possessions or self-determination. He owns nothing and enjoys no benefit from his efforts. He toils without rest, without thanks, and without reward.

But there are many contemporary forms of slavery. An alcoholic is a slave to his drinking. A smoker is a slave to nicotine. A workaholic is a slave to his business. For many in the modern world, freedom is merely an opportunity to exchange one kind of slavery for another.

Consequently, the freedom we celebrate on Pesach is the freedom to choose our own master. By entering freely into the service of the Almighty, the Jew affirms that everything he does and everything he has is for the sake of the Master of the Universe. And if the Master grants different servants different tools and resources to perform their respective duties, what cause for jealousy is there in that? Ultimately, everything belongs to the One Master before whom we are all in equal service.

* * * * *

Having confronted jealousy, man must address an even more dangerous impulse. Desire. Even one who has gained control over his attraction to material acquisitions may still grapple with the internal longings for pleasure and gratification. Although desire cannot be quantified, the human obsession with food, with power, or with physical intimacy may become so overwhelming that it leads men into irrational acts of self-destruction.

The Festival of Shavuos adjures us to stop! By re-experiencing the giving of the Torah at Sinai, we reorient ourselves to the true purpose of freedom and the enduring satisfaction of spiritual achievement that can never be equaled by the transient pleasure of physical indulgence.


The cycle of holidays concludes with Sukkos, which addresses the final stumbling block of the human psyche: the longing for recognition and honor. Having subdued our physical and spiritual impulses and inclinations, we expect acknowledgment of what we have achieved. We measure ourselves against our fellow Jews and, inflating our own sense of value, we resent others for not according us the credit we believe that we deserve. At best, our arrogance may tarnish our successes. At worst, it may lead us astray and cause us to undo all that we have done.

The solution is exile. We move out of our homes, abandoning the material comforts of freedom and symbolically taking up residence in the shadow of the Sh’chinah, to dwell in the Divine Presence as our ancestors did at the foot of Sinai and in the desert. The leaves and branches of the s’chach above our heads provide only the most superficial representation of a real roof and scarcely a modicum of shelter. Merely by raising our eyes can we recall that only by the grace of G-d are we protected from the elements and the outside world. By implanting this humbling reflection to echo in our memories when we move back into our homes, Sukkos enables us to conquer our craving for honor and thereby preserve the material and spiritual accomplishments of Pesach and Shavuos. In this way, it is truly HeChag – The Festival.

* * * * *

It would appear that together, Pesach, Shavuos, and Sukkos provide all the psychological and spiritual reinforcement to offset the influence of jealousy, lust, and honor. However, human experience suggests that 15 days scattered across half the year are hardly adequate in our battle against the yeitzer hara. How can we guarantee that the lessons of the three Festivals will not be forgotten?

Our sages teach us that anyone who properly recites Ashrei three times a day is assured of a place in the World to Come.4 With its central theme expressed in the verse, You open Your hand and fulfill the desire (ratzon) of every living thing, King David’s 145th Psalm extols the limitless mercy through which HaShem responds to the desire of all the living. By contemplating the message of Ashrei, that HaShem provides us with our every wish and need, we remain focused on the ultimate purpose of our own lives.

But is it true?

The world is filled beyond imagination with unfulfilled desires. The ill who do not recover, the poor who are not sustained, the righteous who suffer a seemingly endless succession of broken hearts and broken dreams. Where in human experience do we find that HaShem fulfills the desire of every living thing?

* * * * *

On the simplest level, HaShem has created a world containing more than sufficient resources to sustain all living things. Since the desires of all the living are primarily material, what the verse claims is ostensibly true: as a whole, the community of life on earth has enough to fulfill the desires of all.

However, the Sfas Emes explains that the Jewish people are different. In contrast to the rest of the world, HaShem has placed within each Jew “the will (ratzon) to know what to request.”5

Most creatures, including the majority of human beings, are driven by ta’aveh – desire resulting from physical or psychological impulse. But the nature of the Jewish neshoma is such that it is the source of ratzon – the will to know and carry out the Ultimate Will of the Creator. Only through knowledge and fulfillment of HaShem’s will is it possible for one to achieve deveikus – spiritual intimacy with the Almighty. It is for this, above all else, that the soul of the Jew yearns.

This, however, does not provide an answer to our original question. If we are never completely satisfied by the fulfillment of our physical desires, how many of us feel satiated in our quest for spiritual fulfillment? Even more so, how can the Psalmist claim that HaShem satisfies the spiritual desires of all the living?


Rabbi Akiva Tatz offers an intriguing insight into human nature. Most of us spend much, if not most, of our time wishing we were somewhere other than where we are. At work we long to be at home; at home we long for some kind of entertainment or recreation. We dream of travel to far away and exotic places, of experiencing the new and the unfamiliar.

When we actually have the opportunity to travel, however, we often grow homesick, disoriented, or ill at ease. We can’t stop our minds from wandering back home, from missing what we left behind and looking forward to our return.

Homesickness, says Rabbi Tatz, is a symptom of the neshoma in exile. Trapped in the physical reality of this world, the spiritual can find no rest and no consolation. The neshoma is like the daughter of a king who marries a commoner. No matter what he gives her, she is never satisfied, for the pleasures with which she grew up in the palace of the king exceed anything her new husband can imagine.6

So too the neshoma. No matter what it has in this world, it longs for the spiritual radiance that surrounded it in Olam HoEmes, the world of pure kedusha from which it came. Its perpetual longing to return home causes every human being, as a physical creature within whose body the neshoma resides, to feel restless, discontented, and far from where he belongs. We seek to quell these feelings by seeking satisfaction in travel to other places but, instead of satisfying the yearning of the neshoma, we feel even more unsettled and drawn to return to the place we think of as home.

* * * * *

Nevertheless, as King David declares in Ashrei, HaShem’s greatness is unfathomable. If it were possible to find satisfaction and contentment in this world, what would become of the Jew and his neshoma? Despite the persistent, inescapable beckoning of our souls, the attractions of the material world distract us continuously from the purpose for which HaShem created us – to earn our eternal reward in this prozdor, this entryway, that precedes the World to Come. How much more easily would we forget the reason for our existence if we could rejoice in the fulfillment of our every desire?

This is the meaning imparted by Ashrei’s central verse and the great paradox of our world: by having placed within us a spiritual will that can never be satisfied and having thereby denied us all but the most fleeting temporal satisfaction, HaShem forces us to remain conscious of the only source of true satisfaction – the pleasure of the World to Come for those who have earned it through Torah and good deeds.

This, too, is the lesson the sages sought to teach by describing Sukkos as the quintessential festival. Whatever our accomplishments, whether physical or spiritual, and however much we strive for satisfaction and fulfillment, the world we live in is in fact little more than a sukkah, a temporary dwelling that bears only the faintest resemblance to our true home in the World to Come.

It is for this reason that the sages introduced King David’s most famous Psalm with the closing lines of his previous chapter: Ashrei yoshvei veisecho – Fortunate are those who live in Your house. The one who recognizes this world as HaShem’s house, constructed not as a place of comfort but as an antechamber in which to earn his ultimate reward in the World to Come – it is he and he alone who is truly fortunate.

1. Rosh HaShanah 16a
2. Avos 4:28
3. Beginning of maamarim on Sukkos
4. Brachos 4b
5. End of Parshas Beshallach
6. Mesillas Yesharim, Chapter 1

Originally published in the Jewish Observer, October 2008

Spice of Life

Salty. Bitter. Sweet. Sour.

These are the tastes traditionally understood to describe the flavor receptors of the tongue and, consequently, the available range of culinary experience. However, according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, there is one more. The fifth taste.


Even if the name is strange, the savory character of the flavor is not. Parmesan cheese. Soy sauce. Roasted meat. Sautéed mushrooms. Dry wine. All of these are characterized by umami, a taste identified a century ago by Kikunae Ikeda, a Japanese scientist who named it with the term in his language for “deliciousness.” Nevertheless, it was only in 2000 that scientists at the University of Miami identified tongue receptors having no other function than to recognize that flavor.

In contrast to the instant but fleeting pleasure of sweet or salty, umami provides a taste sensation that yields lingering satisfaction. The discovery that foods with umami possess high levels of glutamate, an amino acid that is a building block of protein, led Mr. Ikeda to develop and patent his method of producing monosodium glutamate, or MSG.

Perhaps it was MSG’s reputation for contributing to a variety of health ailments that caused umami to go overlooked for so long. However, new studies indicate that a moderate intake of MSG poses no concern for most consumers, according to Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

The food industry has responded with gusto. Gourmet chefs and manufacturers of mass-produced, packaged foods are searching for ways to incorporate umami into their products. However, not for the first time, Jewish tradition is way ahead of the curve.

The sages teach that, because each seasonal festival is a time of joy, the menu of every holiday meal should include meat and wine in order to contribute to the festive atmosphere. Says the Talmud: there is no joy without meat and wine — both of which are among the classic sources of umami, which is produced by drying, aging, curing, and slow cooking.

Apparently, the sages recognized that the joy of the festivals could be enhanced not only with good food, but with the right kind of good food. Cake and pie may be delectable and filling, but meat and wine satisfy a physiological need and produce a feeling of contentment that helps foster the proper mood for helping us appreciate the spiritual distinctiveness of the holidays.

Just as our craving for sweets is hardwired, so is our attraction to umami. According to one study, babies are more likely to finish foods that contain glutamate. Paradoxically, the difficulty we have defining umami suggests a subtlety associated with acquired taste. Where children respond naturally and immediately to sugar and salt, only a sophisticated palate will appreciated the savory quality of slow-cooked meat or well-aged wine.

Perhaps this offers a clue to why the sages referred to the Torah itself as the “spice of life.” For the pleasure-seeker who thrives upon instant gratification, the notion of acquired taste must be as incomprehensible as smothering his French fries with chocolate syrup. Indeed, an approach to life defined by mere moments of sensory buzz is the equivalent of a dietary menu comprising little more than fries and sundaes. The pleasure fades instantly away and leaves one perpetually hungry for more.

The reward for training one’s palate to enjoy the finer things is an enjoyment of the finer things. This applies equally to the palate of one’s tongue and to the palate of one’s character. Perhaps Jewish culture’s seeming obsession with food reflects a deeper appreciation that true happiness derives not from momentary physical stimulation but from true inner satisfaction. Good taste extends beyond what tastes good. And it extends beyond fashion as well. The cultivated ethical palate appreciates that the finest things in life come from a commitment to doing what is right and developing oneself into the best person one can become.

Aside from the insights of the sages revealed through the maturation of science and cooking, there is an even more obvious connection between umami and the divinity of Jewish wisdom. Of all the dishes that contain glutamate, there is one that appears on every list that attempts to describe umami’s savory and satisfying character: Chicken soup.

What could be more Jewish?

A Call to Freedom

A few years ago, I received this anonymous email outlining the fate of the 56 men who signed the Declaration of Independence:

Five signers were captured by the British as traitors, and tortured before they died. Twelve had their homes ransacked and burned.

Two lost their sons serving in the Revolutionary Army; another had two sons captured. Carter Braxton of Virginia, a wealthy planter and trader saw his ships swept from the seas by the British Navy. He sold his home and properties to pay his debts and died in rags.

Thomas McKeam was so hounded by the British that he was forced to move his family almost constantly. He served in the Congress without pay, and his family was kept in hiding. His possessions were taken from him, and poverty was his reward.

Vandals or soldiers looted the properties of Dillery Hall, Clymer, Walton, Gwinett, Heyward, Ruttledge, and Middleton. At the battle of Yorktown, Thomas Nelson, Jr. noted that the British General Cornwallis had taken over the Nelson home for his headquarters. He quietly urged General George Washington to open fire. The home was destroyed, and Nelson died bankrupt.

Francis Lewis had his home and properties destroyed. The enemy jailed his wife, and she died within a few months. John Hart was driven from his wife’s bedside as she was dying. Their 13 children fled for their lives. His fields and his gristmill were laid to waste. For more than a year he lived in forests and caves, returning to find his wife dead and his children vanished. A few weeks later he died from exhaustion and a broken heart. Norris and Livingston suffered similar fates.

Such were the stories and sacrifices of the American Revolution.

Two centuries later, few of us ever contemplate making sacrifices for what we believe in. Perhaps we are too preoccupied profiting from our freedom to bother thinking about what we owe to the system that enables us to prosper. It is a deplorable failing for an American.

It is even more deplorable for a Jew.

Our patriarchs Avrohom, Yitzchok, and Yaakov suffered alienation and persecution for the sin of rejecting paganism and moral anarchy. The generations in Egypt endured 210 years of escalating oppression, slavery, and infanticide. The generation of Moshe wandered for 40 years in the desert to merit entering their land. The generations of the judges and kings fought against internal and external enemies to build and preserve the spiritual integrity of their nation.

And generations of exiles have struggled against religious persecution, genocide, and assimilation at the hands of Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome, against pogroms at the hands of Crusaders and Cossacks, against holocausts at the hands of Hitlers and Stalins. They sacrificed their lives, their fortunes, and their children — sometimes willingly, sometimes forcibly — for no other reason than because they were Jews.

What have we sacrificed?

It’s easy to credit ourselves with having sacrificed cheeseburgers, shrimp scampi, mixed swimming, Friday night movies, Saturday golf games, and sleeping in late on Sunday mornings. But do we dedicate enough of our time and energy to learning, to chesed, to showing respect to our parents and teachers, to being patient with our children, to conducting ourselves respectfully in shul, and to guarding our tongues from gossip and slander?

It’s a good time of year to reflect upon the responsibilities of freedom. It’s a better time show our appreciation for the freedoms that we have by recommitting ourselves to using those freedoms the way HaShem wants us to.

How Will Freedom Look Tomorrow?

In 1648, the Cossack massacres in Poland led by Bogdan Chmielnicki plunged European Jewry into nearly a century of spiritual darkness. Peasant uprisings fomented against the Polish nobility, with the Jews caught in the middle, left at least 100,000 dead, and perhaps many times that number.

Many Jews sought meaning within the senseless violence by imagining that the bloodshed constituted the chevlei Moshiach – the birthpangs of the messianic era. The appearance of the false messiah Shabbtai Tzvi raised, then dashed, the hopes of thousands, spreading depression and despair through Jewish communities across Europe.

The sages of Europe, fearing the rise of other charismatic personalities that might draw Jews desperate for hope into folly, issued decrees against the teaching of mysticism and against practices that might, by enflaming the emotions, lead the people astray. According to the law of unintended consequences, these edicts left many Jews without the means of expressing themselves spiritually and condemned them to life without either joy or inspiration.

It was a dismal time for European Jewry. The average Jew lacked sufficient scholarship to find inspiration in learning. Expressions of the heart and soul were not allowed. Potential leaders, like the saintly Ramchal, were literally chased out of Europe.

The appearance of Rav Yisroel Ba’al Shem Tov changed everything. Controversial, contested, and at first universally condemned, the Ba’al Shem Tov persisted against his many detractors and spread his message of inspired joy. The Chassidic movement transformed Europe, until even its most vehement opponents could no longer deny that it had saved the soul of European Jewry.

In stark contrast to many the reformers who would soon attempt to revitalize Judaism by stripping it of both form and content, the Ba’al Shem Tov offered no new ideas. Rather, he sought to re-emphasize that which had fallen dormant, stressing aspects of traditional Torah philosophy that had been actively suppressed. For his efforts, the Torah establishment demonized him and persecuted his early followers with vitriolic passion.

Perhaps, as we enter into the Festival of Freedom and prepare to celebrate HaShem’s overthrow of the Egyptian nation that oppressed us, it’s worth our while to contemplate whether a bit of revolutionary spirit is not consistent with Torah ideology. Condescension for – or outright contempt toward – legitimate expressions of Orthodoxy characterizes too much of today’s Orthodox community. When superficiality increasingly characterizes the right, when complacency increasingly characterizes the left, when arrogance and indifference frequent every quarter, uncompromising adherence to the status quo seems an unlikely recipe for redemption.

Virtually no one today would question the legitimacy of the Ba’al Shem Tov and his movement. It is sobering to contemplate how much violence was justified in the name of Truth and Torah in the early conflict between the Chassidim and Misnagdim. If the tensions and frustrations that afflict so many Torah Jews today can be directed and channeled by our leaders, perhaps we can prevent a similar upheaval. If not, the tortured history of those ideological adversaries may provide a solemn prophecy of what lies ahead.

Spiritual Gridlock

A proposed solution for New York traffic echoes the ancient wisdom of the Talmud

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg wants to end traffic congestion in Manhattan. However, as sympathetic as New Yorkers may be to Mr. Bloomberg’s vision, his proposed method is most likely to produce madness.

To curb the number of vehicles entering downtown (which has grown annually by an average of 8000 per day since the 1920s, according to U. S. News and World Report), the proposed law would encourage (or coerce) commuters to rely on public transportation by imposing a daytime tax of $8 per car and $21 per truck traveling onto the island. City officials believe that this “congestion pricing” would reduce traffic by as much as 12 ½ percent.

Whether or not commuters can be persuaded to practice even occasional abstinence in their love affairs with their cars makes for interesting speculation. However, the concept itself is sound. In fact, it has been used for some time on a much larger scale, implemented throughout every borough of the world by the Mayor of the Universe.

The most the dramatic experiment in mass transit came 3320 years ago when the Almighty split the Sea of Reeds, allowing the Jews to pass through and escape their Egyptian pursuers. In contrast to Cecil B. DeMille’s famous recreation, the sages teach that the sea opened up into twelve distinct passageways, one for each of the Tribes of Israel. As they passed through, the water separating the passages turned clear like glass, so that each tribe could see its fellow tribesmen traveling alongside them.

The design of this miracle teaches three lessons. First, the division of the sea into separate passageways demonstrates that there is more than one way to have a relationship with G-d. The Almighty does not want us to be automatons or clones, sheepishly following whoever is in front of us. Each individual is unique, and his divine service should be tailored to the nature of his singular soul.

Second, the water turning clear like glass reveals the lengths to which we must go to master the human ego. Had the walls of each passageway remained opaque, each tribe would have thought that it alone had discovered the correct avenue to reach the other side, and that it alone was traveling in the right direction to serve G-d. When they saw the other tribes traveling along side them, the Jews of each tribe recognized that they were not the only ones who had discerned the proper path.

The final lesson can be learned from recognizing that there were a limited number of paths. Anyone who did not follow one of the twelve passageways was, literally and figuratively, under water. Every spiritual movement does not become legitimate simply because it declares itself so, no matter how sincere its leaders or followers may be. Every self-proclaimed “holy man” is not genuine simply because he hangs out his shingle or attracts parishioners. Natural laws govern the operation of the spiritual universe just as they govern the workings of the physical world. One cannot render those rules null and void simply by wishing them out of existence or declaring them defunct, any more than congress can annul the force of gravity.

There is yet one more insight to be gained from the illustration of the Jews’ passage through the sea, one that is echoed by the New York mayor’s effort to cure his city’s traffic woes.

Consider the car as an allegory for personal autonomy. In a very real sense, we are all control freaks. We want to control our destiny, to chart our own heading, to have our hands on the wheel. Often the greatest demonstration of inner strength comes through humbling ourselves, giving up control and placing our fate in the hands of another. Often this is a concession we are either unwilling or unable to make.

But do we consider the cost? For car owners, the cost is rolled up in the price of the vehicle itself, of gas, insurance, repairs, parking fees, tolls and, perhaps, congestion tax. Public transportation is far cheaper and often more efficient. But still we refuse to relinquish control.

In business, the most efficient workers are those who work as part of a team, who coordinate their efforts with the efforts of others and trust their coworkers to get their own jobs done. Those who try to do everything themselves, or to micromanage others at their work, create confusion, inefficiency, and frustration.

Our relationships, marriages, and families function best when the individuals within them tend to their own responsibilities and allow others to look after theirs. Hovering, ordering, or criticizing before a spouse or child has even had a chance to complete an assigned task breeds resentment and destroys trust.

Spirituality is much the same. We like to think that we are in control of defining our own relationship with the Almighty. We strike out in whatever direction seems right to us, often without any roadmap or compass to guide us in distinguishing good from bad, right from wrong, moral from immoral. We believe that intuition alone will get us to our goal, when we have only the faintest notion of where we are trying to get.

Worst of all, there is available transportation ready to take us to our final destination in the most efficient way. By keeping G-d’s laws and following in His ways, we guarantee ourselves the smoothest possible journey through this world until we arrive at the World to Come.

But still many of us won’t give up control. So the Almighty levies His “taxes,” creating obstacles that make the paths of personal autonomy increasingly difficult. We feel stifled in our jobs, unhappy with our families, and discontented with the direction of our lives. So we seek out “detours,” looking for fulfillment in the least likely places: alcohol, drugs, gambling, or extramarital affairs. We think change will make us feel better, but we usually find ourselves worse off than before.

Rabbi Elyahu Dessler explains that we find ourselves in emotional or spiritual darkness at those times when we have cut ourselves off from the source of spirituality in the world. But when we “look into the darkness,” when we recognize that we have created the darkness for ourselves by distancing ourselves from the ways of the Creator, then and only then will we begin to find our way back to the light. By giving up control over our destiny, we regain mastery over our soul.

Whether taxing drivers will solve New York’s traffic problems remains a mystery. But it is in our hands to solve the mysteries of the spirit by following the well-trodden path of the generations that have gone before us. By retracing their steps, we can have confidence that we are not solely dependent upon our own devices to chart our way out of the darkness of confusion, but that we have a clearly marked path to follow toward the light of true meaning.

This article first appeared in the Jewish World Review.

You Don’t have to be in the Middle to be in the Middle

Last February 12, my post titled “I’m back in the middle again” appeared on this site.

It was a follow-up to an earlier post, “It’s lonely in the middle.”

A few people still aren’t talking to me, outraged that I dared to suggest that there’s anything wrong with frum Jews dividing themselves up into smaller and smaller enclaves, despite the strain upon already inadequate financial resources, or that fear of different legitimate hashkofos within Yiddishkeit is symptomatic of the very reason why the Beis HaMikdash was destroyed and we remain in galus.

I was delighted and gratified, therefore, when barely a week later the current issue of Jewish Action arrived containing an article by Rav Emanuel Feldman, in which the preeminent author laments the increasing divisiveness within the Torah community. I urge everyone to read it here.

With his characteristic eloquence, Rav Feldman laments a state of affairs wherein many Chareidim look down on Modern Orthodoxy as essentially irreligious while many Modern Orthodox prefer the company of irreligious Jews to that of Chareidim. Instead of looking toward the vast ocean of halacha and hashkofoh we have in common, we pick on the few differences, magnify them beyond proportion, declare they are symptomatic of some profound spiritual contagion, and keep our distance lest we or our children become infected by the ideological illness of the other side.

Frum Jews to the right or the left of us are not our enemies. Perhaps our children could benefit from experiencing the broadening reality of a multifaceted Torah community in which sincere people can recognize that their differences are a source of strength. A single school might have different tracks, with more gemara for some students and more secular studies for others. Weaker or less committed children would grow from association with more serious students, while stronger students would learn to feel a sense of obligation and connectedness to Jews not exactly the same as they are.

Would it not be good thing for the next generation of b’nei Torah to learn to appreciate other Torah Jews without having to “convert” them to their own hashkofic perspective or else invalidate them for being different? Could we not at least try a little harder to emulate the twelve tribes as they were back in the glory days of the Jewish people?

I have heard Rav Noach Orlowek comment more than once that he recommends families to choose smaller communities where frum Jews on the street say hello to people they don’t know, or to people from other shuls. As one who has lived in both types of community, I know the value of a “Good morning” or a “Gut Shabbos,” or even eye contact and a cordial nod. It’s a travesty that there are communities in which these are rare.

But why are we so afraid to show our children that Jews not exactly like us can still be good friends, good neighbors, and good Jews, beyond the five seconds it takes to say “hello”? Maybe, amidst all the different agendas, a little more mesiras nefesh for achdus should find a place at the top of everybody’s agenda.

You Have Reached the Voice Mail of Shloimie Sprintzer

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The Man on the Street

Hungarians are not shy. At least during the year I spent teaching in their capital, Budapest, I never observed the slightest reticence among the city’s residents.

No doubt I stood out a bit, riding the local trolley with my untrimmed beard and black fedora — a combination that had blended naturally into the scenery of Jerusalem, from where I had come.

I soon became accustomed to the gazes I drew from other passengers. Unlike most westerners who look quickly away when caught staring, the Hungarians just kept right on staring, as if I were a curiosity on display in the Castle Museum or, perhaps, the Budapest zoo. I tried returning their stares with a pleasant smile, but that just seemed to make their gazes harden, like silent admonitions for daring to draw so much attention to myself and not having the courtesy to instantly make myself vanish.

It was 1992, only four years after the iron curtain had come down, and although traditional Judaism hadn’t disappeared entirely in Hungary, it wasn’t thriving either. The three orthodox synagogues counted barely ten Sabbath observant families among them. In the cavernous Kaszincky shul, founded in 1893, sunlight streamed though cracks in the ceiling on clear Sabbath mornings. On one occasion, my wife found her way up to the women’s balcony where the thick layer of dust she discovered convinced her that no woman had preceded her for at least a decade.

The state of Jewish life was hardly surprising. Although the Nazis had occupied Budapest for only six months before the end of the war, they succeeded in exterminating virtually all the Jews outside the capital. The years of Communist rule after the war brought even greater spiritual devastation, with most Jews forced into adopting gentile names and coerced into discarding the last vestiges of a Jewish identity already unraveling after three generations of widespread assimilation.

So any bearded, black-hatted Jew wearing his Judaism on his sleeve was bound to attract attention. One episode in particular stands out.

I was waiting at the trolley stop when a man passed in front of me. I wouldn’t have noticed him at all if he hadn’t noticed me.

He might have been in his fifties, but the crevices etched into his face would have suited a man nearing a hundred. His flushed and ruddy complexion suggested an intimacy with alcohol; his clothing was soiled and threadbare. With downcast eyes and bleak expression, he shuffled along as if the strain of miserable year after miserable year had wrung every ounce of resilience from his body and every scrap of purpose from his soul.

He glanced in my direction, his gaze briefly met mine, and he stopped. His eyes grew wide as looked me up and down. He raised his hand tentatively and uttered a few incomprehensible words.

I smiled and shook my head, spreading my hands to show that I didn’t understand.

Slowly, almost fearfully, he reached out and touched my tzitzit, the fringes hanging from my waist, then brought his hand to his lips. He reached up and touched his fingers to the brim of my hat, then kissed his fingers once again. Again he spoke, and again I shook my head.

By then, a remarkable transformation had come over him. The beaten down expression had disappeared, replaced by a look of astonished exhilaration, as if he had just witnessed the resurrection of the dead.

He raised his hand above his head and shook it as he turned his eyes toward heaven and uttered what could only have been a benediction. He reached toward my face, stopped himself, tenderly touched his fingers to the lapel of my jacket, kissed his fingers one last time and, with a look of wonder and restored hope, shuffled on his way.

I can only imagine what prompted his reaction. Did he recall the days of his youth, before Communism cut him off from the faith of his people? Did he remember the trappings of a sainted grandfather or teacher?

His astonishment was born from his conviction that, at least in his homeland, people who looked like me were extinct. The discovery that some remnant of his past still survived lifted the weight of misery and hopelessness from his shoulders, if only for a moment.

One man on the street, one minute of nonverbal rapport, left a more poignant impression upon my memory than one whole year in the “Paris of the East.”

One man on the street reflected all the despair and all the hopeful triumph of the Jewish people in exile.

One man on the street, who had all but forgotten who he was, not only found his hope reawakened, but reawakened my own hope in return — that the countless Jews who do not remember, Jews who still don’t know who they are, Jews like I was once myself, may one day find their own way back home.

I’m Back in the Middle Again

My last post is hibernating in my hard drive, still unsubmitted and unpublished. It’s pretty dark, as I was in a pretty dark mood when I wrote it. And even though I tried to lighten it up the second time through, I decided in the end it wasn’t something I wanted to post. Maybe I’ll wait till my next fit of melancholy and send it in then.

What had soured my mood was the set of circumstances that had prompted me to write another recent post, “It’s lonely in the middle.” Here you have it:

I teach in a yeshiva high school. Yeshiva high school is a curious phenomenon, an apparent oxymoron that attempts to create a hybrid combining the standard of learning and Torah commitment of a traditional yeshiva with a solid program in secular studies. And although Rav Hirsch invented this very approach and used it to save much of German Jewry from the influence of Reform, yeshiva high schools have, for the most part, gone the way of the dinosaur.

Like politics, the world of Torah has been steadily polarizing. The right gets farther right, and the left gets farther left. My principal gets calls from all over the country from parents who want a secular study program that will leave college open as an option for their children without sacrificing Torah study standards or separate education. Few such options exist.

But we exist, taking students from almost every background, providing boys and girls on separate campuses with first-rate Torah and secular educations. We’ve earned for ourselves an exceptional reputation from yeshivas, seminaries, and universities, beating private school SAT averages every single year for over a decade, and turning out class after class of committed young b’nei Torah. Some are chareidi, some are tzioni, some are learning in kollel, most go to college, many become established professionals. And the overwhelming majority continue to demonstrate the same level of Torah observance that I hope for in my own children.

So what’s the problem? Well, on the right: “You’re not a REAL yeshiva.” Possibly a good thing, since we’ve saved a number of kids severely damaged by real yeshivos. True, most of our boys don’t daven with black hats (well, one does — my son). Only a few wear jackets. Many of the families have televisions (or perhaps I should say, ADMIT to having televisions). And many of our students actually plan on having jobs when they grow up.

On the left: “You’re not Zionistic enough.” Never mind that 90% of our graduates go to learn for a year or more in Eretz Yisroel, and that our fourth student in three years is about to enlist in the Israeli army. Oh, don’t forget about the “benefits” of coeducation that our students are missing out on (since, as we all know, all those recent studies proving the benefits of separate education are wrong).

What do these people think about, I wonder, when they’re sitting on the floor on Tisha B’Av mourning the Beis HaMikdash that was destroyed for sinas chinom? The persistent, passionate rationalization of this war of ideologies that turns every one who doesn’t agree with MY VIEW OF THE WORLD into a heretic or a fanatic can’t possibly be bringing Moshiach any closer.

But the superficiality of so much of the frum world only seems to be getting worse, with a white shirt and a black hat becoming the line in the sand, either the hill I have to die defending or the enemy I have to kill at all costs.

Meanwhile, the boys I teach, despite their variegated backgrounds, demonstrate a degree of achdus the most shuls could envy, and the girls I teach are still complaining that our curriculum isn’t allowing us to continue learning Mesillas Yesharim.

Pity we aren’t a REAL yeshiva, isn’t it.

Yahrtzeit of Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch

Remembering the first Jewish warrior for tradition in the modern era.

There is no such thing as an Orthodox Jew.

Or, more accurately, the term “Orthodox” has no basis in Jewish tradition. The appellation was coined by the earliest Jewish reformers in 17th Century Germany to differentiate between themselves and the Torah establishment. In the minds of these newly “enlightened” Jews, the practices of traditional Judaism were, like the Jewish ghettos of Europe, anachronisms with no purpose than to shackle the modern Jewish world in a self-imposed Dark Age.

In those intoxicating times when Jews found themselves with unprecedented freedoms and opportunities, in the midst of their zeal to find acceptance among their cosmopolitan gentile neighbors, German Jews recoiled from the antiquated style of Jewish dress and Jewish speech, from the rejection of secular studies common in formal Jewish education, and from the Torah observance of those who perpetuated the stereotype of the “wandering Jew.” Thousands upon thousands turned away from what they denounced as “Orthodoxy” to embrace the modern Jewish reformation which, they believed, would lead them into an era of enlightenment.

Seduced by the attraction of modernity, observant Jews throughout all of Germany cut off their side locks and cast off their religiosity. Devout but poorly educated parents mourned over children who found little reason not to forsake the archaic customs and rituals of their fathers for the wealth of opportunity offered by the modern world.

In neighboring Bohemia-Moravia, however, Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch took notice and could not sit idle. A member of Parliament as well as a rabbinic leader, Rabbi Hirsch left his secure position to accept the post as rabbi in the undistinguished community of Frankfort-am-Main. There he would build his bulwark against the tides of change.

In 1729, almost 80 years before Rabbi Hirsch was born, a brilliant thinker by the name of Moses Mendelssohn had introduced a new approach to Judaism to the Jews of Germany. Believing that he had identified the cause of anti-Semitism as the visible “otherness” of Jews living in gentile society, Mendelssohn’s solution adjured each of his brethren to live as “a cosmopolitan man in the street and a Jew in your home.”

With his extraordinary intellect and the convictions of his own philosophy, Mendelssohn managed this ideological tightrope walk in a way that his followers could not. Four of his six children abandoned Torah observance completely, and within two generations the reformers who looked to him as the father of their movement had forsaken the most cherished and time-honored precepts of Jewish practice.

By the time Rabbi Hirsch arrived on the scene, traditional Judaism was in full retreat. Recognizing the gravity of the crisis, Rabbi Hirsch crafted a response that at once strengthened the traditional community while drawing the teeth of those who sought to dismiss tradition as irrelevant and headed for extinction.

Observant Judaism’s detractors argued that traditional Jewish dress was a throwback to the dark ages, that the pidgin tongue of Yiddish was a gutter language unfit for the modern world, that the traditional community knew nothing beyond their Talmudic tomes and, even worse, wanted nothing to do with the secular world. To the Jews caught up in the excitement of a new age, their indictment effectively equated Torah observance with social leprosy.

Rabbi Hirsch met their objections head on. Within his community in Frankfort, he instructed his congregation to dress in the modern style, to learn and speak High German, to attend university, and to acquire professional positions in the heart of German society. He instructed his community to take on the outer trappings of the secular world, while creating a K-12 dual-curriculum educational system that built a rock-solid foundation in Torah study while providing the tools to succeed in the secular world.

Applying and adapting the philosophy of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Yishmoel, Rabbi Hirsch described his approach as Torah im derech eretz, “Torah study and observance together with secular culture.” In Rabbi Hirsch’s vision, professionalism, secular education, and a familiarity with ways of the world pose no threat to the devout and committed Jew, so long as Torah law and Torah philosophy remain both the compass that points his way in the world and the anchor that prevents him from being carried away by the tides of intellectual fad and fashion.

In 1836, when he was 28 years old, Rabbi Hirsch published The Nineteen Letters of Ben Uziel, a dialogue between an “enlightened” Jew and his traditional childhood friend. Writing anonymously, so that the personality of the author would not interfere with the book’s message, Rabbi Hirsch articulated the fundamentals of Jewish belief powerfully and concisely. His discourse forced many attracted to reform to look with new respect upon the wisdom of tradition.

Indeed, how could one not respond to words both reasoned and impassioned, to observations founded upon both human logic and the empirical evidence of history, to the inspiration of the divine spirit calling out from the depth of the human heart: “Not to see G-d, but to see the earth and earthly conditions, man and human conditions, from G-d’s pinnacle is the loftiest height that can be reached by human minds here on earth, and that is the one goal toward which all men should strive.”

Over the course of his life, Rabbi Hirsch produced many volumes in which he developed his ideas into some of the most profoundly thoughtful writings in contemporary Jewish literature. His commentary on the Torah is a modern classic, and his insights into the meaning and understanding of the commandments in Horeb are illuminating for laymen and scholars alike. “Dear friend,” writes Rabbi Hirsch, “forget what you know about Judaism, listen as if you had never heard about it — and not only will you be reconciled to the Law, but you will embrace it lovingly and will allow your whole life to become a manifestation of it.”

In our world today, where politics and religion are driving a polarizing wedge ever deeper into society, it’s hard to imagine a body of literature more relevant than the writings of Rabbi Hirsch. Unwilling either to negate the relevance of the secular world or to compromise the values that have enabled the Jews to survive two thousand years of exile, Rabbi Hirsch elucidates a vibrant synthesis of the body and the soul, of engaging the physical world in pursuit of spiritual goals.

Rabbi Hirsch passed away on the 27th day of the month of Teves in the year 1888. Through the impact of his leadership and his writings, however, he remains very much alive today.

Originally published at the Jewish World Review.

The Sweetness of Struggle and Success

My first Sabbath taught me an important lesson about training the palate to enjoy the sweet flavor of success.

I had been traveling through Israel on my way from Crete to Kenya, and I was looking to while away a few months volunteering on kibbutz, not attending yeshiva. But it was November, when agricultural work is scarce and kibbutzim don’t need volunteers. So when I happened upon an institution offering room and board, together with a degree of intellectual stimulation, it seemed a remarkable stroke of good fortune, one that would provide a cheap and pleasant distraction for a month or two or three. I miscalculated — by nine years.

It didn’t take me long to recognize the wisdom that permeated the walls of the study hall and to appreciate ancient traditions that guided the Torah community. Committing myself to a foreign way of life, however, was an entirely different matter. I had arrived not knowing aleph-beis, never having heard of Shavuos or Sukkos or Tisha B’av, never having seen a lulav or heard a shofar. Talmudic study was intriguing, the philosophy insightful, but I hadn’t come looking to upend my life or rethink my worldview, and I gave no serious consideration to doing either.
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Don’t Wait for Tragedy

Like any other community, the St. Louis Torah community is not unfamiliar with tragedy. One of our most beloved rebbes died a few years back, barely 40 years old. One of our rebbeim has a child diagnosed with cancer. Too many divorces in such a close community.

But in ten years here I can’t remember anything like the shock we experienced over Sukkos, when a violent car accident sent four children to intensive care, children of the kiruv rabbi most singly responsible for building mitzva observance in our community.

Since then, so many people have commented on the outpouring of chesed and the powerful demonstrations of achdus, the whole community packed into the Aguda shul one Chol HaMoed evening at 9:00 with barely an hour’s notice, the bikkur cholim, the round the clock Tehillim and learning, the children coming for hakafos on Simchas Torah so the rav’s shul would not feel the melancholy of their spiritual leader’s anguish.

I wasn’t able to be there myself. My first obligation was to my students, I decided, after debating long and hard over which loyalty held the higher priority. As it turned out, it was the best Simchas Torah I can remember. I looked about the shul again and again, basking in the nachas of how so many of my students and former students — at least three-quarters of those dancing and singing — blended their energies together to fulfill the words of the niggun they sang: ivdu es HaShem b’simcha!

During a pause in the hakofos, a friend came over and suggested that one of us write an article about the communal response and the Kiddush HaShem of our community’s response to crisis, about the intensity of the achdus and the chesed.

My response was instantaneous: how much greater a Kiddush HaShem, how much greater a step forward to bring Moshiach, if we could do it without the crisis. As a teacher of Jewish History, I come back over and over and over again to how frequently we as a people have made the same mistake, waiting for tragedy to show our quality instead of binding ourselves more closely to our neighbors in times of blessing. If we could rise to the occasion on our own, those occasions of crisis and tragedy would never have to happen.

Then, as I reflected on the demonstration of achdus and simcha going on in shul around me, the dancing, the singing, the unrestrained joy of celebration before HaShem, I realized that we’re really not that far away at all. It’s not one great leap but one simple step that we have to take. The unity and the joy and the kindness are already within us. We just need to let it all out without waiting for it to be ripped out of us by our neighbor’s pain.

Let’s turn the aliyah of these concluded holidays into action. Let’s look for every opportunity to show kindness, to show unity, to express ahavas chinom — unreasoning love — to supplant the unreasoning hatred that plunged us all into darkness two millennia ago and has kept us there ever since. Let’s not wait for another tragedy.

Ivdu es HaShem b’simcha! Serve HaShem with joy!

Please daven for:

Rafoel Dovid HaLevi ben Bracha

Elisha HaLevi ben Bracha

Elyahu Chaim HaLevi ben Bracha

Tehilla bas Bracha

Reuven ben Tova Chaya

Embarrassed by My Mother’s Photo Album

A few weeks ago a visitor in town stepped up to the omud to lead the mincha davening. He looked like a typical product of the yeshiva world — dark suit, beard, black hat. Nothing about him suggested anything out of the ordinary. Then he started to daven.

It’s hard to explain “nusach” — the flowing chant in which we intone our public prayers — to someone who doesn’t have an ear for it. Just as some people have perfect pitch while others can’t tell Brahms from a buzz saw, some people simply can’t recognize, or reproduce, any semblance of the intonation that characterizes davening. And so, as this fellow began to daven aloud, it took less than five seconds for his astonishing lack of nusach to scream out the only possible explanation: BA’AL TSHUVA!
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A Message from the Dungeon

Before I begin, I should apologize. Much of this post is going to sound like I’m kvetching. And, to be honest, I am.

Nevertheless, I hope that by indulging in some moderate venting I might come around to make a point or two of value.

I always feel a certain ambivalence after Tisha B’Av as I start looking forward to the Yomim Noroyim. For the past several years, I’ve led a learners’ service on Rosh HaShonnah and Yom Kippur, forgoing my own personal avodah in the hope that my efforts might bring others closer to Yiddishkeit. The crowd numbers anywhere from thirty to sixty people, and although I can point to a handful of individuals over the years who have clearly benefited from the experience, I can’t conclusively say that I’m personally responsible for bringing any neshomas back to Torah observance.

What I can say, conclusively, is that I miss the inspiration of a regular Yomim Noroyim davening. Even more, I miss the spiritual intensity of serving as ba’al tefillah for a congregation whose members are tuned in to the meaning of the day, not groping their way toward the most elemental awareness of spirituality.

So why do I do it? I suppose partly out of a sense of obligation, to use my talents and acquired knowledge to enlighten and inspire others, as I was enlightened and inspired on my way to becoming a ba’al tshuva.

And, if I’m being completely honest, I suppose I do it because, like so many ba’alei tshuva (and many FFBs as well), I’ve never quite found my place in the frum world. I’m suspect on the right for teaching in a yeshiva high school, I’m suspect on the left for wearing a black hat, and the Pavarotti-like cantorial renditions common in many older congregations inspire me to the same degree as fingernails on a chalk board.
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Rabbi Dilbert

Perhaps it’s because Shema Yisroel is imprecisely translated as “Hear, O Israel” rather than “Listen, O Israel,” but we Jews have a lot of trouble listening. We didn’t listen to Moshe in the desert. We didn¹t listen to Shmuel when he warned us about the responsibilities of accepting a king. We didn’t listen to Yirmyahu during the last days of Jerusalem. We didn’t listen to Mordechai in Persia.

Today, however, the problem has acquired a new wrinkle. Our contemporary sages speak, and somehow the message fails to reach us at all, depriving us of even the opportunity to listen.

Our gedolim have issued proclamations concerning the excesses of multi-thousand dollar custom sheitels, but frum women continue to buy them. Our gedolim have spoken out against the message (prevalent in many high schools and seminaries) that a frum woman measures her success only by how many children she produces, but the attitude persists. Some gedolim have warned against (pardon me while I duck under my desk) the dangers of the internet, but rather than trying to understand their concerns many of us reflexively pass judgment that they are out of touch with the modern world. Fiscal irresponsibility, alcoholism, lack of business ethics, lack of decorum in shul, ad nauseum remain chronic problems despite the admonitions of our greatest sages, whose words seem to go unheard rather than unheeded.
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Yachatz (Step 4) — A Taste of Things to Come

Rabbi Goldson is a well-known author of numerous pieces appearing on the web and in print media. He has quickly become one of the most popular contributors and commenters here on BeyondBT.

The fourth step of the seder, yachatz, is so brief that it can easily slip past us with little notice, depriving us of one of the most profound symbolic messages of the Pesach evening.

The simple, superficial imagery of breaking the matzah reminds us of the poor man rationing his meager fare and protectively hiding away the larger portion (the afikomen) to guard against an uncertain future. This echoes the symbolism of matzah as lechem oni — poor-man¹s bread, the coarse meal accorded the Jewish slaves by their Egyptian overlords.
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