We’re All Broken Vessels – The 17th of Tammuz

By Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller Gottlieb

Internalized Confusion Leads to Tragedy

The first major tragedy in history was when Adam ate the fruit and internalized confusion. Prior to that sin, confusion was external, but after the sin the confusion was internalized. Man went from an objective reality of true and false to an often confused subjective reality of good and evil.

Much of the negativity in the world is due to this confusion, where collective mankind brings upon itself tragedies such as hunger, poverty and war. This is the negative side of free choice and these tragedies result from our confusion. If we had G-d awareness, we would be able to get past these tragedies. If we had a strong sense of G-d’s presence, confused negative traits like selfishness, violence, cruelty and abusiveness would not exist.

With Spiritual Diminishment, We Make G-d Small, Instead of Making Ourselves Big

After the first sin, G-d withdrew His presence from the world, but it was restored by people such as Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov until a full awareness of G-d was acheived at Sinai. So how did the people worship the golden calf shortly thereafter?

Nobody thought the golden calf was the creator of the world. Nobody creates an idol in the morning and thinks that it created him in the afternoon. The golden calf was representative of the powers of nature and strength, it was a representation of G-d. What is so bad about this? What’s so bad about idol worship is that we were created to elevate ourselves. Idol worship brings G-d down to man instead of man rising up to G-d. When we try to make G-d small, we fail as humans, we stop moving upwards. This lack of spiritual ambition was the second great tragedy.

Many people today are not intellectually confused, they are spiritually lost. They don’t see the value of becoming “big”. When we build golden calves we weaken spiritual ambition and cause spiritual diminishment.

We Live in a World Where Spirit is Gone and What is Left is Stone

When Moshe came down from Sinai on the 17th of Tammuz and saw the Golden Calf, he smashed the tablets. The Midrash says the tablets were very huge and the letters of the tablets carried the weight of the stone, the spirit carried the body. When he saw the golden calf, the spirit was gone and all that was left was stone, so the tablets fell under their own weight and were smashed.

Today we live in a world of rampant materialism and foreign lifestyles. It is a world where spirit is gone and what is left is stone. This is one reason why we fast today.

We’re Fine with using Animals for Food and Clothing, But not for Spiritual Purposes

The next significant event is that the sacrifices were stopped before the destruction of the temple. Even during the siege of Yerushalayim, the Jews would offer sacrifices. They would send down money over the wall and an animal would be sent up. One day they sent down money and a pig was sent up. It was at that point that the sacrifices stopped.

Today, many of us have trouble with sacrifices both emotionally and intellectually. But most of us have no problem using animals for food or for leather. We are fine with exploiting animals for our physical purposes, but if we talk about using an animal for spiritual means it becomes barbaric and ridiculous. This is because we have stone and we don’t have spirit, we can relate to eating, but we can’t relate to worship.

Animal sacrifice is a way of experientially relating to G-d. The person offering the sacrifice had to put their hand on the animal, saying I am mortal, I came from you and I will return to you. It was an extremely powerful way of relating to G-d. The reason we’re concerned about the day the sacrifices stopped is because of what it says about it. The fact that the temple could be destroyed is an example of spirit turning to stone and the animal sacrifices being another symptom.

The Temple Was our House for Spiritual Self-Expression

The other tragedies on this day were the Torah was burned, an idol was brought into the temple and the walls of Yerushalayim were breached, leading to the destruction on the 9th of Av. When we talk about losing the Temple, it’s hard to grasp what that means. The temple was called a mountain by Avraham, a field by Yitzchak and a house by Yaakov. A house is a place where you can personally express yourself. For a Jew, personal self-expression means putting back spirit where there is only stone. The Beis Hamikdash was a place where spiritual experience was a part of physical experience, it wasn’t two different worlds like it is today.

We can’t relate to what we are missing in the temple experience, because we have never met anybody who met anybody who met anybody who saw the Jewish people when our major identity was spirit and not stone. We don’t know who we are anymore.

The 17th of Tammuz is Meant to Be a Heavy Day of Introspection

What does this have to do with us personally? When we think about what gives our life joy it comes down to two things, triumph and love. If we think about our happiest moment, there is no doubt there is triumph and love. Triumph and love only happen when spirit is greater than stone. Our world is very banal and grey and the only thing that allows us to rise above this physical existence is the moments of triumph and achievement that are truly spiritual that come to us through the mitzvos.

The 17th of Tammuz is a personal day when we have to do an accounting of our soul, a cheshbon nefesh. We have to figure where we are, where we want to be, where we want to be next year. What do we want people to say about us in the end, how would we want today to look if it was our last day? It’s a heavy day, it’s meant to be heavy.

In addition to looking at this personally, we have an obligation to look at this collectively. Collectively, we are not in such great shape, especially in regard to events in the Middle East. We are all collectively responsible for the state we are in.

G-d Wants to Give, But Do We Want to Receive

Today we have to say, can we be the person we talk about every day in the Shema? Can we love G-d with all our heart, with all our soul, with all our possessions? Do we live up to the ideal of spirit over rock. G-d has promised us that when we live up to our potential, He will give us the land and He will give us peace. When we fail, we are expelled. This is what we say in the Shema, if we serve Hashem with our heart and our soul we will get blessings. But be careful that your heart is not seduced. We can’t let our emotions lead us to choosing the physical over the spiritual. This will lead us to worshipping and serving other G-ds, our own private golden calves. We all know at least one person who is enslaved to their ego, or their income or their career. This is personal enslavement. When we reach that state of enslavement, G-d will expel us from the land, because He cares for us. G-d on his side wants to give, but do we want to receive?

Fasting has two purposes to move us away from the physical and to recognize our fraility. We move away from the physical pleasure, specifically eating which is a big part of our life. As it gets late in the day, many of us will ask, when is the fast over. We will be concerned about the phyisical. This need for the physical reminds us that we are frail and we are physical. Part of raising the spiritual over the physical is being forgiving of each other. The more we are aware of our own fraility, the easier it is to remember that every person we encounter is a member of the brotherhood of the frail. Everybody else faces the physical and gratification struggles that we do. We need to forgive them like we want G-d to forgive us.

We’re All Broken Vessels

In the time of the sacrifices in Shilo, after pottery vessels were used for libations, they had to be broken within sight of the alter. After coming in to possession of some of these pottery shards, Rebbetzin Heller realized that these shards were pieces of someone else’s Teshuva. She sent some of these shards to a friend in the States who had suffered some great losses. She asked her what she thought about the shards. Her friend told her, “We’re all broken vessels”.

Once we see everybody as a broken vessel, we can forgive them, we can love them, we can let what we see of their spirit overcome what we see of their stone. This is the key that will help us overcome the destruction that we find ourselves in now. This is the way the Third Temple will be built.

First Posted on July 3rd, 2007
Based on a lecture By Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller which can be found here.

Inspiration in Everyday Life

When I was a Yeshivah student, one of the rabbis brought us to a meeting with Rav Shlomo Wolbe. A question was raised in that meeting by a married student, which I didn’t really grasp. “How can someone deal with the spiritual letdown of being involved in mundane affairs? After a day learning in Kollel, I come home and have to deal with diapers, shopping, bills, dirty dishes, etc. How does one remain spiritual in face of this? What can I tell my wife, who has to deal with this all day?”

At the time, being unmarried, I couldn’t relate much to the question, except in a theoretical way. Years later, I was returning from the Beis Midrash on Yom Kippur, during the break between Mussaf and Minchah. Wearing my white kittel, feeling spiritually elevated, the nigunim of the Yom Kippur service reverberating in my mind, I entered my apartment and soon found myself in an encounter with a six month year old baby and a heavily soiled diaper. That’s when the question finally sunk in and I recalled Rav Wolbe’s answer:

“Once, I went with one of the students of Beer Yaakov to buy a piece of jewelry for his kallah. We took the bus to Tel Aviv, and while we were walking down a thoroughfare, he asked me: ‘Rebbe, what are we doing here? Why should we leave the spiritual environs of the Beis Midrash to walk in this commercial district, a completely materialistic environment, for the sake of a piece of jewelry?’

“I answered: ‘Here, we are walking in the world of chesed. The Beis Midrash is the world of Torah and Tefillah. This is the world of chesed.’”

The world of chesed (loving-kindness). The Mishnah says: “The world stands on three pillars: Torah, Divine Service, and acts of kindness.”

For many years, I used to condition myself for 30 seconds before I entered the home: Now, you are entering the world of chesed. Put aside the intricacies of the Gemara, leave the yearning to be close to Hashem in prayer, and focus on chesed!

Different parts of our day have a different focus, and different stages of our lives have a different focus. Focusing on the great opportunities that await us in the world of chesed brings a spiritual uplift to the mundane affairs of everyday life.

Originally posted in February, 2008

The Chofetz Chaim’s 85th Yahrzeit is the 24th of Elul – Here is His NY Times Obituary(1933)

Chofetz Chaim, 105 Is Dead in Poland

Venerated by Orthodox Jews as one of the 36 ‘Saints Who Saved the World’.

Lived Long In Poverty

Gave Up Store When Popularity in Village ‘Deprived Other Mechants of a Living’.

WILNO, Poland, Sept 15 (Jewish Telegraph Agency) – The famed Chofetz Chaim, venerated by Orthodox Jews throughout the world as one of the 36 saints because of whose piety the Lord has not destroyed the world, died today in the village of Radin, near here, where he had spent most of the more than 100 years of his life. He had been ill only a short time

The Chofetz Chaim, whose real name was Rabbi Yisroel Meier Cohen, had been a figure of almost legendary importance for almost half a century. Stories of his piety sprang up in the lore of Eastern Europe and among orthodox Jews all over the world. The village where he had served for a few months as a rabbi was the scene of pilgrimages of thousands of orthodox Jews seeking the blessing of the Chofetz Chaim.

In 1873 Rabbi Cohen published a book in Hebrew, entitled the “Chofetz Chaim”, listing all the forms of slander from which a pious Jew must guard himself. It was because of this book that he became known as the Chofetz Chaim.
Age Believed to Be 106.

He was born in the village of Zhetel, Poland. After a brief period as a rabbi in Radin he founded a yeshiva, a school for teaching the Talmud, and supported it for many years. He gained renown as a Talmudic scholar and many of his works on the regulations of the Jewish religion have been accepted as definitive.
Funeral services will be held Sunday at Radin.

The Chofetz Chaim was 105 years old, according to information from his family, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported. He never would reveal his age, however, and several years ago, when friends and relatives planned a birthday celebration in his honor, the scholar was very much perturbed.

Despite his fame as “the uncrowned spiritual king of Israel”, the Chofetz Chaim was a modest and humble man. His career as a merchant was of short duration. Because of his popularity all the Jews of the town flocked to his store. The Chofetz Chaim thereupon closed the store on the ground he was depriving other Jewish merchants of a living.

At the age of 90, when he was already a legendary figure among the Jews, the Chofetz Chaim became convinced of the imminent arrival of the Messiah, who would lead the Jews back to Palestine and he regarded it as his special duty to assume the functions of the high priest.

He was the author of a score of works surrounding the religious and ethical principals of the Jewish religion, including one which became a handbook for all rabbis. Despite his great distinction the Chofetz Chaim lived in povery all his life.

Chofetz Chaims Obituary

Aish Appreciation

One of the foundations of spiritual growth is connecting to Hashem through appreciating all that He does for us on a regular basis.

Another foundation of spiritual growth is connecting to people through appreciating all that they do or have done for us.

With that being said, we at Beyond BT, would like to express our appreciation for Aish HaTorah and their web site Aish.Com.

Another source for Aish Appreciation is their web site Classic Sinai where they have a number of free mp3s on Torah Fundamentals. Here are some of the Classics available for instant download at that site.
Great for a dose of inspiration!

Our Bodies Our Souls – Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller
Forget the glass ceilings you are expected to exceed. Take a different route to smooth out the impossible juggling act between life, work and everyone else’s expectations.

Happiness – The 48 Ways – Rabbi Noah Weinberg
Happiness is today’s most sought after pleasure – and also the most elusive. Hear sound advice to break common unhappiness habits, regain lost optimism, and increase your energy level for a more rewarding life.

The Matrix and Jewish Reality – Rabbi Motty Berger
This probing discussion on ‘The Matrix’ explains how the movie is an excellent representation of how Jewish philosophers have always perceived reality.

World Perfect – Rabbi Ken Spiro
Rabbi Spiro exposes the secret immorality of ancient civilizations and gives a surprising glimpse of where modern society really draws its existing moral lessons from.

Mysticism, Meaning & Life – Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb
To what extent is it possible to make life decisions without pride or passion getting in the way? Go beyond the mask of self-interest to deepen your objectivity and discernment.

And many more at Classic Sinai.

A Member of the Tribe

By Rabbi Shmuel Simenowitz

Before my family moved to Baltimore, I spent a great deal of time traveling internationally as a scholar in residence, speaking primarily on the topic of sustainability as refracted through the prism of a Torah-true lifestyle. My venues typically included shuls, Hillel and Chabad houses, JCC’s, Pesach programs and various environmental conferences. This week marks the anniversary of one of my most memorable teaching – and learning – experiences.

Several years ago, I was asked to participate in the Tribal Lands Climate Conference jointly hosted by the Cocopah Nation and the National Wildlife Federation. The conference, which that year was held on the Cocopah reservation on the outskirts of Yuma, AZ, highlighted the debilitating challenges facing the Native American population and their fight for survival in the face of crippling poverty, disease, rampant alcoholism and drug abuse all set against the backdrop of the tragic loss of tribal traditions which for a variety of reasons are not being transmitted to the next generation. I felt simultaneously honored and humbled that I was being asked to present a Torah perspective in an effort to help address their existential threats.

To be sure, despite the serious nature of the conference, there were lighthearted moments. A question on the registration form asked “What is your tribal affiliation?” Naturally, I responded in kind – “10 lost tribes – not sure which one”. Similarly, several of the media figures asked me to pose for photos with several of the tribal elders. One of the elders quipped, “Back in the day, we used to get 50¢ to pose for photos” to which I responded “Surely then a photo of a rabbi out here has to be worth at least a dollar!” He began asking me questions about shrouds and sitting shiva – it turns out he had done a stint with the Chevra Kadisha in California! Truth is often stranger than fiction!

So there we were – 155 Native Americans, including tribal elders from a score of tribes together with members of the AYEA (Alaskan Youth for Environmental Action – sort of an NCSY for Native American youth) and one bearded Orthodox Rabbi. One by one the speakers approached the podium each greeting the audience in their native tongue. Each tribal elder articulated their tribe’s historic but now tenuous relationship to the natural world. One of the elders lamented that his people were the People of the Salmon. Now that the (Colorado) River had been diverted, the salmon were disappearing and “once the salmon disappear, the People of the Salmon disappear”. Similarly, a tribal elder from Alaska (who lived more than 200 miles from the nearest road!) added that his people were the People of the Bear. Now that the bear were disappearing, it spelled certain death for the Bear People.

When it came my turn to speak, I greeted the crowd with a “shalom aleichem” to which the attendees joyfully responded “shalom” and “peace”. I explained that in my world there were no coincidences – that this conference could have been held anywhere in the universe but instead it was being held here in Yuma which in my sacred tongue meant “judgment day”. Further, I pointed out that 364 days a year, my people were people of the moon but on one day a year – December 5 – that very day – we were considered the people of the sun as we shifted the language of our prayers using the autumnal equinox as a baseline.

After my presentation, in a ceremonial gift exchange, one of the tribal elders presented me with a vial of what he called “living waters” from the pristine Navajo aquifer which his tribe (the Hopi) safeguards. The aquifer is reputed to be one of the purest water sources in the world. As the author of an article entitled “Water Conservation and Halacha – An Unorthodox Approach”, the gift was especially meaningful to me. I explained that in our culture as well the waters were similarly designated as “mayim chayim – living waters”. According to chassidic tradition, the well of Miriam – which sustained B’nai Yisrael through the desert until Miriam’s passing -courses through the veins of the earth and ascends every motzaei shabbos through all water sources the world over – even running up and down the maple trees on our farm as sap. I then closed the circle by presenting him with a bottle of maple syrup that we had produced on our farm in Vermont, ostensibly including the waters from his aquifer.

On the flight home from Phoenix, I contemplated why Hashem had sent me to this remote corner of the earth to speak. What was I doing there? Was I sent to “give over” or to receive or both?

Several months later, I was invited to conduct a “maple tisch” at a Jewish food conference where the sweetness of Torah, chassidishe stories, zemiros, niggunim and maple syrup flowed freely. I was sharing my experiences out in Yuma and then touched upon my unsettledness – as of then still unresolved – as to why I had been sent. I began to narrate the famous passage in Rashi’s Torah commentary wherein he describes the ephod worn by the high priest as an apron worn by noblewomen while they ride horseback. I explained the celebrated back story of Rashi seeing a noblewoman riding one day. Characteristically modest, he was bothered by the sight and he wondered why he had had to experience it. It was only years later when he sat down to compose his immortal commentary on the Torah and needed to describe the ephod, that he realized that in retrospect, his seeing the noblewoman afforded him an insight as to what the ephod probably looked like as well as what function it served.

I shut my eyes during a soulful niggun and began to hear the words of the Native American tribal elders in my head – “When the salmon disappear, the Salmon People disappear – when the bear disappear, the People of the Bear also disappear.” Suddenly it became clear why I had been sent. When we concluded singing, I continued to the mostly not yet frum audience, “So too, we are the people of the Shabbos – the Shabbos People. When Shabbos disappears, the Shabbos People also disappear. We are the People of Kashrus – the Kosher People, if you will. If kashrus disappears, then the Kosher People also disappear. Heads nodded knowingly, smiles all around, glasses raised, throaty “l’chayims” offered and the niggunim continued to echo over the frozen lake into the small hours of the wintry Shabbos night.

INSPIRATZON – the Process of Transforming Inspiration into Willpower

By Aryeh Goldman who writes at hitoreri.com

The function of inspiration is to give us an insight into whom we are and offer us an opportunity to realign ourselves with our inner purpose. However, when inspiration is not converted into something tangible and real it is wasted and the lost opportunity can leave us feeling empty and unfulfilled.

I have created a new term – INSPIRATZON – based on what my teachers have taught me. In order to make inspiration meaningful, for it to be sustained, we must almost instantaneously make a vessel for it. That vessel, is referred to as Ratzon or willpower. Our Ratzon is the driving force behind all our spiritual movement and development. Once we convert inspiration into a focused and burning willpower, no obstacle can stand in its path. You see, the inspiration usually comes from outside of us, driven by the G-dly intent of redirecting our desire away from physical and temporary pleasures towards a more spiritual and meaningful existence.

We all have our challenges. Mine has always been my weight. My library is full of diet books, my pantry packed with vitamins, meal replacement bars and protein shakes. My cupboards are crammed with juicers, blenders and other diet promoting paraphernalia. I possess multiple exercise machines, sneakers, training shorts, pedometers and sweat bands. My parents, friends, teachers and doctors have all tried to persuade me and I have been inspired on multiple occasions to lose weight. However, my weight challenge will only be addressed once I cultivate an unwavering inner ratzon/willpower to be healthy. Once I commit to that, then all the other tools will be at my disposal to affect the necessary restoration. But until I am prepared to make that commitment, the exercise equipment will continue to gather dust and the unworn running shoes bare testimony to my failure to convert inspiration into Ratzon.

Many of us begin a program of transformation with the best intentions and are highly inspired. However before long we lose the initial excitement and hit a plateau. This is usually when our true Ratzon is tested. At that moment our persistence waivers and we usually just give up. Champions are born out of a resolute persistence, even in the face of adversity. These legends see the moments of stagnation, the plateau, the challenges, as opportunities to draw upon and reveal their inner Ratzon. And in so doing, inevitably bring themselves closer to their goals.

The Talmud (Avodah Zoro, 17b) tells a fascinating story of Elozor ben Dordoi, who was a man with an insatiable lust. He pursued his temptation at great expense, crossing seven rivers to be in the company of one particular lady. While in her presence and defiling himself, she commented that Elozor ben Dordoi will never repent and return to his source. Her words pierced his heart and he immediately withdrew to the fields. He began beseeching the mountains and valleys, the heavens and earth, the sun and the moon to pray on his behalf…to no avail. Finally he realises he cannot shift the responsibility and declares: “I see that it now depends on me.” He places his head between his knees and begins to cry. In a tragic ending to the tale Elozor reaches such a state of purity that he resembles the innocence of a child and his soul leaves his body. A heavenly voice pronounces that Rebbe Elozor ben Dordoi is invited to Olam Haba and hearing this proclamation Rabbi Yehuda begins to cry. Through his tears he says the words, “Yesh koneh olamo besha’a achat – in just one moment of inspiration one can acquire one’s entire eternal reward”.

This is a powerful tale. Elozor ben Dordoi teaches us that we cannot blame anyone but ourselves for our lack of happiness and success. He teaches us not to ignore the inspiration and that if even he, Elozor ben Dordoi, can hear the embedded message, generate a powerful Ratzon and immediately act on it – then anyone can.

Rabbi Yehuda’s tears bothered me for a long time until a mentor explained that Rabbi Yehuda was not crying for Rebbe Elozor. Rabbi Yehuda was acutely conscious of the incredible potential contained within mankind and realizes how critical it is to transform inspiration into Ratzon if that potential is to be realized. He was crying for each and every one of us who mute the call to self-discovery, fail to create a vessel for the inspiration, fail to seize the opportunities inspiration offers, fail to take immediate action or fail to persist when success isn’t instantaneous.

Ask yourself, what are your challenges? What do you willpower more then anything else in the world? It is critical to have a conscious awareness of our desires for our success depends upon it.

Rabbi Zev Cohen Sets the Torah Mesorah Convention on Fire

I had the pleasure of spending May 8th through 11th at the Torah Mesorah Convention at the Split Rock Resort in the Poconos. I get to spend most of the time talking to Mechanchim/Mechanchos (teachers) about education at my InfoGrasp Education Software Booth, but on Shabbos my wife comes up and we get a great boost with 1,800 other growth oriented Jews and some of the top Roshei Yeshiva in America.

The theme of the conventions was Preparing All Our Talmidim. Rabbi Shmuel Kamentsky (Philadelphia) gave the opening address on Thursday night and Rabbi Aharon Feldman (Baltimore), Rabbi Yaakov Perlow (Brooklyn), Rabbi Dovid Harris (Queens), Rabbi Malkiel Kotler (Lakewood), Rabbi Hillel David (Brooklyn) and Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Levin (Chicago) gave addresses on Shabbos. In addition to acknowledging the tremendous distractions talmidim face in our time, the messages of seeing each individual, recognizing their greatness, and reaching their hearts, not just their minds, were some of the shared thoughts that stayed with me. Besides the good divrei Torah, it’s a treat to shake hands and say Good Shabbos to all of the above Roshei Yeshiva after davening on Friday night.

In addition to the addresses above, the Shabbos guest speakers included Mrs. Shifra Rabenstein (Baltimore) for women, Rabbi Moshe Brown (Far Rockaway), Rabbi Zev Cohen (Chicago), Rabbi Avrohom Mordechai Segal (Bnei Brak) and Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman (Monsey). I was particularly looking forward to the always electrifying address of Rabbi Wachsman, but I knew from past experiences that the other guest speakers would be informative and inspirational.

I wasn’t the only one taken off guard as Rabbi Zev Cohen won the hearts and minds of the attendees. He got everyone’s attention from the start by telling us that he was going to talk about his being a Baalei Teshuva and a recovering addict. He explained that he wasn’t a BT in today’s technical sense of the term, because he grew up in a frum home in Brookline, Massachuset near Boston. In a time when there were a few hundred people learning full time, post high school, in America, he told his personal story about how learning Torah set him on fire and he admitted that although he loved to learn, it took many years before his love of learning surpassed his love of playing basketball.

He related his struggle with wearing a hat. When he was first told he had to get a hat for his attendance at the Mesifta of Long Beach, he chose a brown corduroy one. That mistake was easy to correct, the real battle was when he returned home and chose to wear his black hat in his hatless community because of the Torah learning commitment that it represented to him. He was questioned, confronted and ridiculed by friends, extended family and neighbors for that choice and for his choice to continue to learn Torah.

The fire of Torah was not extinguished and till this day it continues to burn as he is constantly focused on further growth. When a child tells him that they are in third grade, he responds that he’s now in 55th grade, always learning always growing.

As for the addiction, it was TV and it wasn’t easy to give up. This is why he still carries an outdated Palm Pilot and flip phone for his contact manager despite the pleas from some in his Chicago community to upgrade to a smartphone. He sees the smart phone addicted men who check their email and text during Chazaras HaShas and despite his immersion in Torah, he doesn’t want to expose himself to that test. His parting message on Shabbos was that we have to make the excitement of Torah greater than the excitement of the plastic gadgets in our hands.

On Sunday, he pointed out that this period between Pesach and Shavuos was the time that Amalek attacked us. After bringing many references to fire associated with Pesach including the burning of Chometz and the roasting on fire of the Korbon Pesach, he pointed out the Amalek’s role was to cool down the fire. There is a piece of Amalek in everyone of us, trying to cool down the fire, and our job is to keep it burning.

In addition to his self-effacing nature, sense of humor and oratory skills, the reason Rabbi Zev Cohen’s address made such an impression on me was because he revealed his inner struggles, and they are the same struggles that I’ve heard from the thousands of posts, comments and emails here on Beyond BT. When we started out, almost us all of us were filled with the fire of Torah. Sometimes that fire caused us to make mistakes with friends, family and our own personal decisions, but most of us got past that. I think the biggest challenge we collectively face, is keeping the fire of Torah burning. For some the flame was almost completely extinguished and observance was abandoned. For many more the pilot light of observance was kept, but the focus turned to complaints about the community, about the Gedolim, or whatever else is the external target of the day.

But if we really want to acquire what we had in our sights when we began our Torah journey, we’ve got to keep the fire burning. It has to be a fire fueled by a deep commitment to growth in Torah, Avodah and Gemillas Chasadim. Rabbi Zev Cohen illustrated that a BT is not defined by the lack of knowledge and experience before we started our journey, but by the fire that burned inside once we began. I think most of us had that fire when we began, because it would be impossible to make the formidable lifestyle changes without it. But the real take away is that we can reignite it, and keep it burning everyday, just like Rabbi Cohen and many others do on a daily basis.

From the Waters of the Shiloah – Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School

Many veteran Chozrim B’Tshuva grapple with the problem of “plateauing”. The epiphanies and ecstasies of our journeys beginnings become ever-fading memories nearly lost in the mists of time. We yearn for those tempestuous days when every Torah thought was revolutionary and every insight was likely to generate a paradigm shift wherein one conceptual world view is replaced by another. Such insights fast-tracked our spiritual growth, empowered us to make major lifestyle changes and fueled our passion for Torah, Jewish community and our integration into K’lalYisrael. As months turned into years and decades we found ourselves confronted with the same sort of enthusiasm killing rote-Mitzvah-performance and been-there-done-that Torah study that dogged our FFB brethren. Now as we gray about the temples we’ve “arrived” as solid/stolid, well-established members of the Torah middle class. Yet in quiet desperation we ache for some miraculous elixir that will jump-start our growth and ascent.

The Izhbitzer Rebbe, HaGaon Rav Mordechai Yoseph Lainer OBM was the scion of a great Rabbinic dynasty and a leading disciple of the Chasidic schools of Przysucha (P’shischa) and Kotzk. In time he formed his own school. As a Rebbe-Chasidic Master in his own right he groomed and mentored such towering intellects and soaring spirits as Rav Leibeleh Eiger, Rav Tzadok-the Kohen of Lublin, his sons the Bais Yaakov and Rav Shmuel Dov Asher-the Biskovitzer and his grandson the Radzyner-Rav Gershon Henoch, the Ba’al HaT’cheles zecher kulom l’vracha.

Chasidic folklore has it that when Rav Mordechai Yoseph first visited Przysucha the Rebbe Reb Binim challenged him to…“see who’s taller”. Standing back to back, the strapping Rebbe towered over his diminutive neophyte disciple. Still, the Rebbe Reb Binim graciously conceded “Now I’m the taller one. But you’re still young. With the passage of time you shall grow” clearly implying that, ultimately, Rav Mordechai Yosephs level would exceed his own. That the student would grow taller than the mentor.

It was the Rebbe Reb Binim who first nicknamed Rav Mordechai Yoseph the Mei HaShiloach – “The Waters of the Shiloah”. This refers to the Silwan Brook that, by tradition, flowed slowly and deliberately through the Bais HaMikdash Courtyard. This flattering moniker is the Hebrew cognate of “still waters run deep”. The Rebbe Reb Binim said of Rav Mordechai Yoseph “He is like the waters of the Shiloah which flow unhurriedly and reach the deepest depths.”

The Rebbe Reb Binims assessment of the Izhbitzer was both apt and prescient. His Torah insights, and those of the school that he formed, eschew superficiality. While firmly anchored in Torah and Chasidic tradition the Torah of the Izhbitzer school is ground-breaking and, often, radical. An Izhbitzer insight turns everything we knew, all of our conventional Torah wisdom, on its ear. Not by overturning the apple cart but by digging more deeply and, as in the game of Boggleâ„¢, by shifting our vantage point. By turns genuine, profound, authentic and revolutionary the Divrei Torah of the Izhbitzer school have the power to help those of us who have flat-lined spiritually rediscover our red-blooded beating hearts and those of us on autopilot along the broad, well-traveled Torah information super-highway blaze new trails and ascend the roads less traveled.

This series, concentrating on the Parsha or the Jewish calendar, will attempt to draw still waters that run deep from Rav Mordechai Yosephs wellsprings for imbibing by the English speaking public. It is hoped that the refreshing Mei HaShiloach will serve (Mishlei 25:25) “As cold waters to a faint soul, so is good news from a far country” to recapture our youthful ardor to ascend for life.

The Limits of Inspiration

One of the most popular articles in the last Klal Perspectives Issue, focused on the crisis of spiritual connection in the American Orthodox Community, was Rabbi Moshe Weinberger’s titled “Just One Thing is Missing: The Soul”. BTs might particularly appreciate Rabbi Weinberger’s reference to a line from an old song “Something inside has died, and I can’t hide it, and I just can’t fake it”. As Rabbi Weinberger cataloged a multitude of ills of the Orthodox community the lyric that came to my mind was “Your no good, your no good, your no good, baby your no good”.

Last week, the Five Towns Jewish Times ran Rabbi Weinberger’s article on the front page. This week there were four letters to the editor, starting on page 73, two of which expressed a preference for the more traditional learning Torah approach as opposed to the emotional inspiration approach of Rabbi Weinberger.

I always found Rabbi Tatz’ article on “Why Inspiration Doesn’t Last” to be very instructive on this issue. Rabbi Tatz points out that initial inspiration is necessary in the beginning of a growth process, but after that “determination, perseverance and a stubborn refusal to despair” are needed to achieve lasting growth. Rabbi Tatz warns us not to be misled into thinking that the world is supposed to be a constant thrill, and then to feel only half-alive when it’s not.

Spiritual work is hard and it’s easy to see why a person might prefer a more passive “Inspire Me” approach. My experience as a Baal Teshuva with it’s unreal initial growth phase followed by the slow going plateau period, as well as the teaching of my Rebbeim has shown me that you have to put in the work day in and day out. Torah. Avodah. Gemillas Chasadim. There are ups and downs, and it’s certainly not a life of “We will, we will Rock You”, but there’s growth and there’s connection and the depth, meaning and beauty of the Torah life lies before us.

You can get it if you really want
You can get it if you really want
You can get it if you really want
But you must try, try and try
Try and try, you’ll succeed at last

NCSY and the Sweet Sounds of Gratitude

It always happens to me during mussaf of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. On a good morning it will hit me during Hallel. On a recent Shabbos, I thought about it while an excellent baal tefillah was davening the kedusha of mussaf.

What plagues my mind at these odd times? Basically that I am thankful to NCSY (the youth movement of the Orthodox Union). Ok, I said it.

Why, you might ask? Well, not for the obvious “opening my eyes to the beauty of Torah observance” reason (that’s for another time). I have hakoras hatov to NCSY because had I not spent 8th-12th grade as a participant of their programs (and a number of years as an advisor), I probably wouldn’t know 75% of the songs/niggunim I hear in shul during the year and at simchos. I would feel like the odd man out.

I think it’s important for both men and women to know niggunim and zemiros. It helps with inclusion and isn’t something that is stressed enough in the more popular adult outreach organizations. For me, music has always been something I’ve been into. While the current state of popular Jewish music doesn’t always leave me satisfied, I know that music is an important component part of Jewish life. Over the years I’ve been able to find musicians that I like and music that directly goes into my neshama.

If you have kids, eventually they will start singing songs they hear in school, camp, or in carpool. That’s just how it is. Personally, I find being able to sing with my children to be an incredible bonding experience. A great resource that I first saw on BeyondBT is a website called called ShirHalev, http://shirhalev.com/ , where they have posted downloads of dozens of commonly sung songs. I think you can even submit your own.

As I alluded to at the beginning of this post, on Shabbos the baal tefillah used an old tune from D’veykus IV (1990). It was an interesting moment, because I quickly realized exactly which people davening with me had been around the observant block long enough to know the tune. I did, and I was thankful.

Feeling Inspired is a Means, Not an Ends

By Yakov Spil

I heard a story last week that touched me and helped clarify an aspect of our avodas Hashem.

The maaseh occured in the days when Rav Yechezkel Levenstein zl was the Mashgiach of Ponovezh. There was a talmid chochom who was close to death and a few talmidim went to be with this adom choshuv in his last hours. This talmid chochom knew that he did not have much time left and he knew when to say shema, vidui, pesukim etc. etc. The talmidim were all davening with him and they were very touched as they witnessed this man’s lofty madrega in his last hours in this world.

He passes away and they cover him and stay with him until the Mashgiach zl comes.

Rav Chatzkel came and said to them, “Genug mit dem bitul! Geit zurik zu di Yeshiva!” “Enough with the waste of time. Go back to the Yeshiva.”

The talmidim answer him, “But, Rebbe, how can this be a waste of time. We were melaveh him to the Next World. We had such hisorrerus from it.”

Rav Chatzkel’s answer is so important I think.

“Hisorrerus iz nisht kein avodah.”

“Feeling inspired is not what constitutes a person’s avodas Hashem.”

When we think about it, there are so many aspects of our avodas Hashem that really and truly are inspiring events or activities, but we are thus missing out on meat and potatoes because this is not true avodas Hashem, they are ancillary. Important and life changing as they may be, they are not what really build our avodas Hashem and our connection to Avinu Shebashomayim.

This hits me because perhaps this is why there are so many “Kinus Hisorrerus” today. This is why so many are looking for chizuk. Could it be we are looking for chizuk because we have not built the proper foundation within ourselves?

Of course, one should go and hear a Rov or a Mashgiach about seminal life events and current events as we recently endured. But one should not think that he has fortified himself in his own Avodas Hashem by going.

It only comes through the struggle and toil we all have experienced in working over a Gemora, or working through some loshon in a sefer and we get it better because we “chorvened” over it. We worked on it. We made a kinyan on it. We all know that feeling.

My question to everyone is, with all of our family obligations and being kovea itim, how do we still make those kinyonim being older? It was much easier when we were younger! I have that longing to achieve still and find it so challening.

Until I heard this vort, I might have thought I was spending my time wisely. Now, I realize that there’s this and there’s that. There’s the need for outside chizuk and inspiration which is always welcome. And there’s the personal yegia.

I wish everyone the brocho to achieve in their own yegia and to reap tremendous nachas from it which encourages us to move on and acquire more Torah.

By the way, I hope we can approach this maaseh on its merits and not go with an idea, “Why did he have to be so critical?!” etc.

The talmidim of those days were extraordinarily special and only wanted to do what would bring nachas to their Rebbe who they admired immensely.

What mourning taught me

My father A”H passed away in early June. It wasn’t sudden-sudden, but it was sudden enough. He wasn’t young, but he was certainly not old enough. We loved him and we let him know it, and that we were going to be okay, and he shouldn’t worry about us as he approached his end . . . but that probably wasn’t enough either, for he cared and worried about us so much. Yes, it was tough. It is tough. I miss him so much. I wrote a little bit about this, for a general audience, here, but it’s a sliver of the crust of the matter.

I’m not posting this to eulogize my father here, or even to write at length about how he, who was not religious, and never became religious, did so much good in raising his children as Jews that he has left behind so many frum descendants K”EH. Part of the reason for that is that it is too painful, though I do think it would be a good topic down the road here. So many of our parents need to know how it is that, contrary to how some of them feel, frequently BT’s are not rejecting their values: Many of us have made the choice we did because we were acting on those values in ways they did not have the opportunity to do, given their time, place and situations.

For now, though, I wanted to share a few thoughts about something really kind of neat — yeah — that I learned over the course of shloshim — the thirty day period of intense mourning following a close relative’s passing. Mainly, it’s this: The Torah is amazing.


The Torah is amazing in many ways, but if chas v’sholom [Heaven forfend] it gave us nothing but instruction in how to mourn (which are by and large rabbinical enactments), it would still be phenomenally brilliant.

Here are some of the things I didn’t know that I know now, because of how Chazal [the Sages] arranged the Jewish way in mourning:

  • People who extend themselves to comfort a mourner by traveling long distances or taking time off from work or otherwise inconveniencing themselves to attend the funeral or to make a shiva call are seen by the mourners as having expressed a statement of love and caring that is so exquisite, so precious, that … I can’t really describe it. But it is very, very great.
  • Observing shiva in as close to the halachically prescribed way as possible, under the circumstances, does not make the hurt go away, but it is a phenomenally powerful tool that actually “makes” mourners focus, not on “cheering up” or distraction from their pain, but on a full, complete and evolving appreciation of the person they loved and lost.
  • Shiva is utterly exhausting. And there will be repetition. But the “story” we each told on the last day of shiva, while entirely consistent with what we said in the hespedim [eulogies] and on the early days afterward, was so much richer, deeper and logical than when it started. It was stunning to me to be part of, and yet to observe, this process as we listened to each other and embroidered each others’ respective narrative threads into our own thematic focuses. We came to understand, in a week’s time, so much we didn’t know that we knew about who our father was, why his life mattered so much and how his death teaches so much. We came to understand our responsibility as his survivors.
  • The way in which our community coalesces across “political” religious lines and springs into action to support a mourner’s needs during this period is a wondrous and Godly sociological phenomenon. For BT’s, who feel so “left out” so often while others in our communities enjoy the support of large extended families and lifetimes networks developed through school and other experiences we don’t have, this experience can be very uplifting indeed.
  • The main thing I kept wanting to say — and, being me, I finally did say it — was that, “This is so amazing… it would just be so perfect if Dad could be here with us to experience it.”

    And yes, we truly believe he was. And he is.

    Thank you.

    Embracing my Own Intrepid Spirit

    By Varda Branfman
    Varda blogs at http://writingforhealing.blogspot.com/

    Where I walk
    The angels fear to tread

    At three a.m.
    I’m alone
    On East 2nd Avenue
    While junkies climb
    The fire escapes

    I pull all-nighters
    When others sleep
    Safely in their beds

    That’s not
    The half of it

    I push the limits
    Riding stick-shift
    For three days and nights
    To reach the other coast

    I’m a drop-out
    From Library Science School

    I could have learned
    The information
    Could have landed the account
    For cold lozenges
    Could have delivered
    Those speeches

    I’ve left many promising futures

    I’m always leaving
    Their harbors of safety
    And hearing their invectives
    Flung at my back
    “You’re a flake”
    “You’ll never have money”
    “You’ll be sorry,”

    And they’re right–
    My sorrow does grow
    Day by day
    And I’m always digging
    Myself out
    With bare hands

    I climb for hours
    I walk for miles
    And never get there

    I’m always missing the last boat
    And don’t know when I’ll be lifted
    Off my islands

    I speak into the microphone
    As the regulars drift off to sleep
    Over their beers
    And the other poets hackle

    I empty the pipes before winter
    So they don’t freeze and burst
    I pay the bills
    But don’t leave a forwarding address

    Once when I’m driving alone
    On an icy road
    The wheels start spinning
    And I see trees
    On the side of the road
    racing towards me
    I think “Dead”
    My whole life sucked
    Into that wave of trees

    I wait for impact
    Wait to pass through those trees
    A changed person

    But a force in my hands
    Not me
    Grasps the wheel
    And turns against the skid
    Which is sure disaster

    The car is lifting
    Up in the air and landing
    Back on course
    Without skipping a beat
    I’m driving as if nothing happened

    I don’t belong
    I hear applause from those angels
    Assigned to me

    I get the feeling
    That Someone up there
    Loves me

    He’s the One
    Who makes the redwood forests
    And grand canyons
    Who never plays it safe
    Never sleeps
    Or slumbers

    If I weren’t so intrepid
    And didn’t keep moving
    I would still be installed
    In place
    And easily missed Him
    I could have been successful
    At doing what they do
    And living what they live

    I would have never followed Him
    Into the desert
    Or forfeited a return plane ticket
    To stay
    Or found my soul mate
    By following a slender lead
    To a hotel lobby

    Or lived in a tiny 3-room apartment
    Without central heating
    Or had all those beautiful children
    On a salary that didn’t exist

    I would have never
    Crouched on hands and knees
    To check the house before Pesach

    Or stood guard

    waited an hour and
    Balanced on a ledge
    To see a holy face

    Or looked into a goblet of wine
    As I hung on
    Every word of blessing

    If I weren’t so intrepid
    I would have never
    Followed that trail of crumbs
    In the forest

    Mind Your Step

    Looking on the bright side, I’m fortunate to have made through nearly half a century of life without breaking a bone. I’m fortunate to be in good enough physical condition to hold my own on the racquetball court, even if don’t usually win. I’m fortunate that it wasn’t my left ankle, so I can drive myself to work every day. I’m fortunate that it was a clean break, uncomplicated by torn ligaments or splintered bone. And I’m fortunate that, aside from the initial stab of pain that seared through my body like a white-hot skewer following the distinct crack of rending marrow, I experienced relatively little discomfort and seem to be on my way, bli ayin hara, to a quick recovery.

    Nevertheless, for all that I have to be thankful, I still come home exhausted every day and have trouble meeting my responsibilities with adequate energy and attention, even when I’m stationary and pain-free. As it turns out, the amount of concentration required to think about every single step is profoundly debilitating. I can’t follow my routine on autopilot. Every movement demands intense planning and caution so that, after the most insignificant foray from here to there, my mind rebels against further taxation.

    Needless to say, the loss of any capacity serves to restore our appreciation for those things we take for granted. In this case, my broken ankle has prompted me to give more thought to a bracha we recite every morning.

    Boruch atah Hashem, Elokeinu Melech ha’olam, HaMeichin mitzadei gover – Blessed are You Hashem, Our G-d, King of the universe, who prepares the steps of man.

    Rav Shimon Schwab explains that all the preceding blessings we recite at the outset of each day serve to reflect upon the past – our spiritual identity and the resources with which the Almighty has endowed us to fulfill our potential. With the blessing HaMeichin mitzadei gover, however, we turn our attention to the future.

    Hashem creates every human being with free will, so that we can earn our eternal reward by resisting temptation and doing good. But Hashem has not left us to grope in the darkness of moral confusion. Rather, He has illuminated our way with the mitzvos of His Torah, requiring us only to follow the derech ha’emes – the path of truth that He has laid out before us. By providing us with a clear path, Hashem has prepared our steps; all we have to do is follow the path and not stray to either side.

    But familiarity and habit are powerful opiates, and we easily slip into the narcotic rhythm of routine. To concentrate on every step, to weigh and calculate every action, exhausts us to the point that we would rather trust the unreliable patterns of yesterday than reevaluate our actions from day to day and moment to moment.

    And so Hashem has no choice, so to speak, but to trip us up from time to time, to place obstacles in our way and sometimes let us fall, thereby forcing us to mind the path that lies ahead.

    “If one comes to purify himself,” teach the sages, “then his is enabled to become pure” (Shabbos 104a). If we mind every step and choose our path carefully, Hashem will lead us along the road to spiritual success. If we drift into a trance of routine and thoughtlessness, then we have only ourselves to blame for the consequences of inattention.

    When that happens, Hashem has countless ways of steering us back on the straight path. So I’m not complaining about my broken ankle. If that’s the worst I need to remind me to mind my step, I’ll try to be more attentive and be grateful for the warning.

    With praise for and gratitude to the Master of the World, Rabbi Goldson is pleased to announce the publication of his first book:
    Dawn to Destiny: Exploring Jewish History and its Hidden Wisdom

    A comprehensive overview of Jewish History from Creation through the redaction of the Talmud, illuminating the intricacies and complexities of Torah tradition and philosophy according to the sages and classical commentaries, spanning the length and breadth of Jewish experience to resolve many of history’s most perplexing episodes, offering profound insights and showing their relevance to life in the modern world. An invaluable resource for scholars and laymen. A priceless tool for education and outreach. For more information click here.

    A Cure for Troubled Times

    A Teenage Beyond BT Fan

    As we all know the world that we live in has gone out of control.

    To start with, the recession we are in now is just terrible. Thousands of people have been laid off this past year. And that’s just the least of it.

    We are in danger regarding North Korea. They have nuclear bombs that are ready to rock. There’s also the problems of the Middle East, especially in Israel. Iran says straight out that they want to wipe Israel off the map!

    We may look at all this and say, “There’s no hope”, but that’s not true. There is hope. If we Jews do what we are supposed to do this will all end!

    It is brought down that if every Jew keeps two shabbos in a row, Moshiach will immediately follow. Some people think “I can’t bring moshiach.” But that’s not true. Every jew can help bring moshiach!

    What could you do?

    Learn one Mishnah every day. Say Tehillim. Pick up a Hebrew or English sefer and learn. Do an extra chesed. There’s an endless list of things that you could do!

    As I said before every Jew can help bring moshiach. What Zchus it would be if every Jew did his or her part.

    May Hashem bring Moshiach through joyful means and let this year’s Tisha B’Av be a Yom Tov.

    Seizing the Moment in Time of Crisis

    Rabbi Yakov Haber

    I would like to share two “war stories”.

    The first concerns a Yeshiva catering to Anglo students studying for their “year in Israel”. There’s an organization called “Grandma’s Packages” (www.apackagefromhome.org) which sends care packages to Chayalim in Tzahal. Apparently they ran out of funding and couldn’t send any more. The Yeshiva found out about this and asked how much it would cost to send a thousand packages to which the organization replied, “$16,000”. The menaheil of the Yeshiva addressed the students pleading with them to call their parents and raise the necessary funding. Within days, they had the $16,000. Two non-observant soldiers came to the Yeshiva to express gratitude on behalf of the recipients of the students’ families’ generosity. They put on Kippot for Mincha, davened with the boys and then addressed them after Mincha. They said, “what we have seen so far in Azza are ‘nissim v’nifla’ot’! By mistake, the army supply center where the soldiers were equipping themselves was next to an open room where they were preparing hundreds of body bags. Information received was that the Israeli army was anticipating 150 casuaties a day. Although each life lost is an olam malei, the relatively few casualties so far can be described as nothing short of obvious Divine protection. You here in the Yeshiva are our partners in battle. Your Tehillim , your Torah protects us!” The Yeshiva boys then sang and danced with the soldiers who were moved to tears.

    The second story concerns an American Oleh of some time ago who is a regular Rav Tz’va’i, an Israeli army Rabbi. As the soldiers got the call for the ground incursion on last Shabbos, the Rav, together with his colleagues debated the halachic permissibility of their riding with them to the embarkation point to provide moral support. They compared this case to a husband traveling with his wife in labor to the hospital which is permitted according to many for similar reasons. They went and took a Seifer Torah with them for Mincha (presumably also for morale boosting purposes). When they arrived, the Rav, after exiting the bus, requested of a soldier to pass him the Seifer Torah from the bus to minimize the prohibition of carrying. After waiting a while with the Torah not coming, the Rav re-entered the bus to find each soldier hugging and kissing the Seifer Torah not wishing to part with it. Finally when they left the bus, one Rav was wrapped in a Tallis, the other held the Seifer Torah, looking like Kohanei M’shuchei Milchama perhaps. The soldiers one by one approached the Rabbanim asking for b’rachot. (Mostly the secular , not the Yeshiva boys!) Due to time constraints and the great demand, the Rabbanim spread the Tallis over a group of soldiers’ heads as on Simchat Torah and blessed them all together. Some soldiers told the Rabbanim that their presence strenghtened them more than all of the professional talks they received from their commanders earlier! As the soldiers entered into Gaza, the Rabbanim, with Torah in hand, called out after them, “Hashem Imachem!” (Hashem is with you) “Y’varech’cha Hashem!” (Bless Hashem) and passages from the Rambam’s directives in the Mishna Torah to Jewish soldiers. The soldiers, in turn, turned back to kiss the Torah as they passed it. Although a higher Rav in the army structure later rebuked them for their actions claiming that the soldiers were “strong enough” without the Rabbis’ accompanying them, they felt thoroughly justified retroactively in their actions.

    I leave the formal halachic issues to the Poskim . But these stories indicate an enormous awakening of reliance on Hakodesh Baroch Hu (Hashem – HKB”H). Much has been written of the utter sense of helplessness caused by the disastrous havoc wreaked by the descendants of Yishmael. This in turn should cause a greater sense of reliance on HKB”H by Klal Yisrael. We B’Ezras Hashem (with the help of Hashem) beginning to see this in all segments of Israeli society. Of course, those who are Shomrei Torah U’Mitzvot all the more so must increase their sense of reliance on Hashem.

    These two stories I believe also teach us of the ability to “seize the moment”. Times of distress for Klal Yisrael can also serve as occasions for enormous uplifting: in increased Tefilla, in increased Torah study, in increased Chesed and Tzedaka to worthy causes in Eretz Yisrael or in the US.

    Writing an Inspirational Story

    By William Kolbrener – First Published at OpenMindedTorah.blogspot.com

    I re-connected with an old friend last week. We had been in high school together (though not in the same class), and when a mutual friend let me know that Justin (not his real name) was going to be in town, the two of us set up a meeting. Justin recognized my name (‘I knew a Billy Kolbrener when I was in high school!’; yes, that is how I was known back then), but when we met, he couldn’t link my name to my face. Over cafe hafouch at David’s Citadel in Jerusalem, we shared the pleasure of discovering similar paths taken. Though many of our fellow-classmate in Roslyn High School all strongly identified as Jewish (though it didn’t stop many of them from intermarrying), only Justin and I (with just a handful of others of whom I know) overcame the suburban prejudices against orthodoxy to discover what Justin described as the “treasures” of Judaism. And he was not talking about the tunnel tour in the Old City or the laser show on the City’s Walls…

    In the process of catching up, Justin asked if among my books and articles, I had anything that I might want to pass on–mentioning that he had an interest in stories providing inspiration, of people who had overcome challenges as they maintained and strengthened their faith. I’ve admittedly never written in that mode, and I wondered if I could come up with anything. Certainly, there are no shortage of such stories. In Jerusalem, you hear about them all the time. A friend of mine had just the previous day recounted a hesped (or eulogy) from a funeral service he had attended. In this case the eulogy was simple, a sparse recounting of the facts of a life: from a birth in Austro-Hungary, to a loss of parents in Auschwitz, to the beginnings of a life in France, to an eventual re-settlement in the US and then Israel–the story of a woman’s life (or what seemed to be different lives) interspersed with the challenges and tragedies that someone from my background (and Justin’s) can hardly even begin to imagine. My mind turned also to the pair of men who sit in front of me in shul–‘regulars’ (always precisely on time; “early is also not on time,” one of them often tells me). Over sixty years ago, they had been among the children of the kinder transport–German Jewish children who were sent away from their homes by their parents who sensed the horrors to come. Brought on one of the special trains from Germany which carried children during the period that began shortly after kristelnacht and ended with the blitzkrieg), they were ‘re-located’ with British families–many of them not even Jewish. The two bonded as young refugees in England while the war spread and the fate of their parents was sealed. At war’s end, they were separated (one remained in England, the other to the US) until they were reunited in a little synagogue in Bayit Vegan in Jerusalem, my neighborhood shul. In Bayit Vegan alone, there must be hundreds of such stories, of enormous spiritual resilience in the face of adversity.

    These are stories which can’t fail to make an impression, but I was struck, by the end of our meeting by another story–Justin’s. By any possible measure, Justin was wildly successful, having risen to the top of his field, with access to all of the accoutrements of luxury, wealth and privilege which his position afforded. But here he was in Jerusalem. Although I did not hear all of the details, I know that the path which brought him to the Holy City was also not without sacrifice–not the sacrifice of the previous generations, but sacrifice nonetheless. For Justin (to the mixed admiration and disbelief of friends and relatives) had made his own sacrifices, given up many of the benefits and entitlements that the fast track has to offer–moving his family to a community with a shul, placing his children in Jewish day school, and committing himself to a life of connection and service to G-d and others.

    Our tradition teaches us that there are six hundred thousand letters in the Torah–one for each of the six hundred thousand who gathered on the foot of Mount Sinai at the time of matan Torah, the giving of the Torah. So every Jew has his or her corresponding letter in the Torah, and it’s the task of a lifetime to discover that letter. No letter is the same; there is no ‘objective’ Torah template of how Torah observance should look. Achitophel, our sages tell us, wore all of the outward trappings of a frummer yid, a religious Jew, but G-d rejected his service, because the service was not his own. G-d wants the whole person–that is, he wants our subjectivity to express itself in and through our service. Achitophel did not search for and write his own letter, he merely imitated the service of others. Again, G-d wants our letter, not someone else’s. As we write that letter–carving it’s shape, adorning it with embellishments, deepening it’s hues–we may gain strength and inspiration from the letters of others, but we should also own up to both the challenges and pleasures of writing ourselves. Making too much out of ourselves leads to egotistic self-satisfaction and stagnation; but making too much out of the stories of others may lead us to a resigned humility preventing us from finding and writing our own letters. (A friend relates to me that his Rebbe tells his students to avoid reading too many stories of great contemporary figures, lest they fail to develop their own distinctive avodas Hashem, service of God).

    In Jewish practice, the absence of only one single letter from a Torah renders it invalid: for the Torah to show itself fully in this world, each Jew needs to find his or her own letter. Once found, we spend a lifetime crafting that letter, writing our letters for all to see. Sometimes, it’s true, it takes someone else to see the beauty of the letters we have already begun to craft, to feel the inspiration of the stories we have begun to write.

    On our way out, as Justin and I walked through the revolving doors of David’s Citadel, he turned to me with a sudden realization and said, “you are the Billy Kolbrener I once knew; when you smiled, I recognize you; it is you!” So surely, people like Justin and I find inspiration in the stories of gedolim and tzaddikim–great and righteous people. Though sometimes we may also find evidence of letters in unanticipated places, and in recognizing them, discover how those letters are shaping us and others in ways we did not expect.

    What the Ba’alei Teshuva Do for Us

    By Jonathan Rosenblum
    Jewish Media Resources

    The theme of this year’s annual convention of Agudath Israel of America is the necessity to “Wake the Sleeping Giant” by involving all members of the Torah community in efforts to reach out to non-Orthodox and unaffiliated Jews. We are fast approaching the point where intermarriage and assimilation will have so reduced the general American Jewish population that there will be little left to rescue.

    The relatively short window of opportunity remaining and the untapped potential of all Torah Jews – and not just kiruv professionals – will be the focus of most of the speakers. But I would like to address another aspect of the ba’al teshuva phenomenon that is too frequently overlooked: the positive impact that ba’alei teshuva have had on American Orthodoxy over the past 25 years.

    As one who travels frequently to communities on the other side of the Hudson River, I am frequently struck by the extent to which many out-of-town communities are primarily made up of ba’alei teshuva and geirei tzedek. Nor is this phenomenon limited to out-of-town communities.

    At a recent Shabbos meal, we entertained four or five English-speaking bochurim currently learning in Eretz Yisrael. True, they were not learning at Brisk (or one of its satellites). But their yeshiva is for boys who come to Eretz Yisrael already serious about their Torah learning. Each of these bochurim came from a family where one or both of the parents are ba’alei teshuva, and they told me that the same is true for well over half the boys in the yeshiva. In sum, the American Orthodox world is experiencing something of a population transfer.

    But numbers is only one contribution that the ba’alei teshuva have made to the American Torah world – and likely not the most important. For one thing, they have deepened the level of Torah being taught publicly to the benefit of the entire Torah world. Most ba’alei teshuva enter the Torah world after having obtained a sophisticated secular education. Their questions are different than those who enter the Torah educational system at age six, and the level of the answers given them must be correspondingly higher as well.

    Ba’alei teshuva by definition must make a positive choice to become mitzvah observant. Something must attract them and convince them to dramatically change their lives and all their expectations for the future. Most often that attraction involves both intellectual and emotional elements. And among those intellectual elements, the exposure to the depth of Torah thought is crucial. (Some of that depth can be tasted even before the ba’al teshuva develops the technical skills to fully experience the excitement of Gemara learning.)

    It is no accident, I believe, that the Thursday night shiur of HaRav HaGaon Rav Moshe Shapiro, which attracts several hundred listeners every week and is disseminated around the world, was for many years given in the beis medrash of Ohr Somayach, one of the flagship institutions of the ba’al teshuva movement, or that many of those in attendance are ba’alei teshuva. In short, ba’alei teshuva helped to create the audience for some of the most penetrating Torah thinkers of our time.

    Again, because the decision of ba’alei teshuva must be a positive one, they were in many cases attracted by some of the finest individuals the Torah world has to offer – some well-known and some not. They did not grow up in the Torah community, and were attracted to the community – in some cases perhaps a bit naively – by its highest ideals and their exemplars. Part of their acculturation process requires learning to live with the fact that neither all Torah Jews nor the community are perfect in every respect.

    Nevertheless, there will always be some tension for the ba’al teshuva between the ideals that attracted him or her in the first place and the reality that they discover over a period of years. And because of that tension ba’alei teshuva are perhaps more inclined to demand that the Torah world live up to its own highest ideals and not just accept things as “the way it is.”

    Ba’alei teshuva are acutely sensitive to issues of Kiddush Hashem and Chilul Hashem. In part that is a function of the fact that they continue to live in two worlds. Even after they have entered the Torah world, most of their family and lifelong friends are not religiously observant. There remains a part of them that continues to view the Torah world through the eyes of those family members and friends. Because they constantly find themselves having to justify their decision to leave their former lives they are perpetually alert to whatever places frum Jews or the frum community in a bad light.

    There is a positive side to this tendency to view the Torah world through one eye that retains the perspective of the outside world. And that is a heightened concern to avoid any trace of Chilul Hashem and the constant search for opportunities for Kiddush Hashem. Those traits link the ba’alei teshuva, incidentally, to all the gedolei Yisrael about whom I have written, and who, without exception, made Kiddush Hashem one of the centerpieces of their avodas Hashem.

    Finally, ba’alei teshuva have played a disproportionate role in kiruv work. That is not to say that only ba’alei teshuva can be effective working with non-frum Jews – something which is demonstrably not the case. Effective kiruv professionals come from the ranks of both the frum from birth and the ba’alei teshuva. The key is caring about one’s fellow Jews and possessing the Torah knowledge necessary to show non-religious Jews an entirely new world (which is not to deny an important role in kiruv for all committed frum Jews, whether they are very learned or not).

    It is only natural, however, that the passion for drawing other Jews close to Torah is most frequently found among ba’alei teshuva, who have experienced both life without the guidance of the Torah and a life with Torah and know the chasm between the two.

    Much of the discussion of ba’alei teshuva has typically centered on our religious duty to draw our fellow Jews close or how we should be nice to them because they are nebechim, cut off from their families and lacking ready role models to emulate as parents. But it is also good to keep in mind how much the ba’alei teshuva have brought to our community.

    This article appeared in the Yated Ne’eman on November 22 2007.

    Focused Inspiration

    Esti recently commented on the Uninspired post. (Shout out to Shayna, we miss you.)

    Just thought I’d comment on your great post. I watched the women’s Inspired video and was mesmerized. But I admit that I laughed all the way through as I knew most of the women interviewed. As such, I was interested to learn parts of their stories I didn’t know. But I also know that all of the women interviewed, like the rest of us, are real people. We saw one little 5 minute interview of their life. We didn’t see the 364 7/8ths of the rest of their days that year, or their life.

    They have their challenges, I guarantee you they don’t all have polished floors (now that I think of it, NONE of the women I knew on that video have immaculate houses, but they do have happy kids) and their day probably resembles on a day to day basis more of what yours looks like, and they strive for the sparks of spirituality that led them to their life change towards traditional Judaism the same as you do.

    The inspiration is where they choose to try to focus, when they get that 1 minute breath between mopping the floor – do we look up or back down at the floor? None of us are perfect, including all the women on that video. But its where we’re looking that’s important, and for that, if this encourages others to do kiruv to help others focus on the important things, its highly worthwhile, even to give ourselves the shot in the arm we need. Happy polishing!

    When having non observant people over for Shabbos should we just be our normal imperfect selves or should we strive for Inspired-like perfection to showcase Judaism at it’s best?

    You’re the Inspiration…

    My oldest child recently turned 4 years old. I’ve been thinking about her growth in life, and my own growth in observance. And this refrain from a Chicago song kept repeating in my head:

    You’re the meaning in my life
    you’re the inspiration.
    You bring feeling to my life
    you’re the inspiration.
    Wanna have you near me
    I wanna have you hear me sayin’:
    No one needs you more than I need you.

    Before we started having children, my wife and I had discussed how we would raise them. They would be raised keeping kosher, observing Shabbos, etc. At that time though, I was not observing a lot of those myself. It’s only after she was born that I was able to look at our family life using a different set of lenses. It certainly wasn’t an overnight process, but I started to see things that I realized would be sending her confusing messages. For example, on one trip to visit family, we stopped at a rest stop on the NJ Turnpike. My wife pulled out a sandwich she made at home that morning. I went in and bought a beef hot dog. Even though she was only about a year or so old at the time, it struck me that we couldn’t keep doing it this way, we’d be sending a mixed message. Eventually I went completely kosher. (I have a few things to say about that… hopefully my next write up.)

    I also used to use the computer and turn on the TV on Shabbos (usually putting in an “Einstein” kids’ DVD to keep her occupied for a little while). However, the same thing struck me, eventually she would learn that these types of activities are not supposed to occur on Shabbos, and question my doing so. I phased this out, and eventually became Shomer Shabbos myself. Soon after this (when she was two), she started attending a pre-school at our local Chabad. It suddenly felt like she was rocketing ahead of me. She wanted to start saying brachas (when she remembered), saying the Shema at bedtime (with me helping her remember the words), etc. Sometimes I feel like I’m racing to keep up with her. There are things we learn together. For example, I never got the hand washing prayer quite memorized, I used to have to check to make sure I got the words right. Then she wanted to say it and I had to learn and do it word by word with her so she would get it right (otherwise she would wind up saying Motzi when washing, oops!) I still get excited watching her learn more and more. Now at her pre-school (and camp) they bake challos on Fridays to bring home. When I do Motzi over the big challos, and distribute the pieces, she then wants to divide up her little challah, and share that with the family as well.

    My growth isn’t entirely because of her, nor because of my second daughter (now 2), not even because of my wife (who worries occasionally that I do things only because I think I *have* to do them for her, or for the kids). Rather it is because I realize the beauty of what I am raising in my kids, and I want to be a part of it too! Thus my kids truly are my inspiration. And I hope that never ends “’til the end of time.”