Lessons from T-Shirts

Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv (the Alter of Kelm) is quoted as saying that the whole world is a house of Mussar (ethical instruction) and that each person is a mussar sefer (book). If we look around there are lessons everywhere.

Here are two T-Shirt slogans that contain mussar vorts.

Shirt #1

I once was on a subway going from Queens to Brooklyn erev Shabbos. As I was sitting, (yes I got a seat) I couldn’t help but notice the t-shirt of the man standing in front of me. It was a “Champion” brand shirt. I will never forget what it said. The shirt simply stated: It takes a little more effort to make a Champion.

It has been twelve years since that subway ride and I haven’t forgotten. In my day to day life I often find that, as I trek forward with tasks, responsibilities, and spiritual pursuits I sometimes lose momentum. On the rare occasions that I am consciously aware of this (usually it’s well after the fact) I think of that T-shirt. In my life as a Torah observant Jew there are plenty of times when just a little more effort will produce a more substantial result. Whether the effort is applied to getting up 10 minutes earlier, going a little out of my way to do a chessed, or even speaking softly to someone in my own family. There is a fine line between getting by and rising about our own mediocrity. For me, it’s as thin as a T-shirt.

Shirt #2

Last year, while sitting in the Jewish Community Center of Indianapolis, I saw another great T-Shirt. This one was from Nike (the folks that came up with “Just Do It”). It said: You’ve got to start to finish.

This echoes the line from Lecha Dodi: sof ma’aseh bemachshavah techilah translated as “last in deed, but first in thought” or the final outcome has been thought out at the beginning. Often the biggest struggle I face is just starting something. When it comes to Avodas Hashem (serving our creator) it’s easier to be ho-hum about coming up with all the ‘right’ reasons why we should take upon ourselves a new mitzvah, start being a little more careful about a particular halachah, or open up a particular Jewish book. Saying or thinking about doing something is only the beginning. The next step is coming up with a plan and taking action. In order to finish, one first has to actually start.

The Race

By Gregg Schwartz

After reading David Linn’s “The Monster”, I felt as though I also had a story and lessons to share. Many of you might remember me from the beyondbt.com shabbaton as the guy who was going to be running the New York marathon. Whenever I would tell a person that I’m training for a marathon, the question that inevitably follows is “how long have you been running for?”, to which I say, “about 5 weeks”, to which they just think I’m joking. But in truth, I went from running to catch the Q65A (Queens bus-about a block’s distance from my house) to 10 miles in about a month.

Last November, I had a few personal issues that had really gotten me down, and in turn, my yetzer ha’ra really got the best of me. Any food that I wanted to eat, I ate, kosher or not. I literally gained close to 20 lbs, and reversed all the growth I had built up yiddishkiet wise over the past six years. If I needed an escape, I would go out with my friends on a Friday night (not to shul). I was in a sad place and decided that I needed a way out, and a goal which would get me out of my muck. I was reading the paper and saw a section that said that you could enter the lottery for the NYC marathon. I decided that I would try it. I’ve never been known for my physical ability and decided that would be how I would get myself back on track. If G-d wanted ME to run this race, he would let my random number be picked in the lottery. Sure enough, I got in. At first, let me say, I wasn’t happy. Training for the marathon requires dedication and hard work. You have to run miles and miles almost each day, and change you diet.

I found out early in the summer that I had gotten in, and there began my training. Week 1, I was able to walk/jog up to 3 miles, Week 2 run/jog 3 mile……. Not only was I able to dedicate myself to the training, but I was able to get other areas of my life back in order, now that I was getting myself back on track. I no longer ate whatever I wanted, I ate healthy, and cut out the junk/fried food. I stopped eating out and, in the process, got back to eating kosher. I was fitting into pants that I had given up on! Additionally, I was getting into a schedule. Running Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday, which included going to shul regularly on Friday and Saturday- something that I hadn’t done in close to a year.

To take the story back to the beyondbt.com shabbaton, I was gearing up for the half-marathon, 13 miles. Come Sunday, I woke up at 8AM, and ran the 13 miles in 2 hours and 45 minutes. Wow, what a feat! I went from nothing to 13 miles in 5 weeks. I was on top of the world. The nextmorning, I woke up and got out of bed…OUCH, my left foot (not the movie) was KILLING ME. After not being able to walk on it for two days, I went to the doctor. Turns out I had injured my foot. Even though my mind was ready for the 13 miles, my body wasn’t. I didn’t condition it properly to run such long distances. It turned out that, due to my injury, I was not able to run the marathon and had to postpone the race until next year. (don’t be sad, the lesson is about to follow)

In life, it’s not always about the end result, but the process that gets you there. While I wasn’t able to run the marathon this year, I have accomplished much in the process, by taking back control of MY life. I’m in great shape, feeling spiritual, and overall am feeling much better about myself. I also learned that growth isn’t something you can jump into, it’s a process. You can’t go from zero – 500 miles per hour (unless you’re a plane, but that doesn’t count). Growth must be taken on gradually, even though your mind may think it’s capable of going much faster. I wanted to run the marathon, but my body wasn’t ready for it. Having to wait another year to run the marathon offers a new oppoetunity. An opportunity to spend this coming year growing at a normal rate rather than exponentially.

Thanks for reading.

Is Your Turkey a Holy Bird?

Although my wife Chava is working at the hospital Thursday night, she’s still making the turkey, stuffing, orange/cranberry sauce, sweet potato pie with marshmallow fluff, and pumpkin pie. America has its pros and cons, but Thanksgiving is definitely a good thing. Eat, and thank G-d.

Even atheists and agnostics seem to appreciate the spiritual nature of the day. The delicious food and drink remind us that the Almighty wants us to enjoy and experience pleasure. That’s what life is supposed to be about.

In the biblical Creation story, Mankind was originally placed in what is usually translated as the “Garden of Eden”. Did you know that “Eden” is Hebrew for pleasure? Mankind was originally placed in a Garden of Pleasure. The implication of the story of creation should be obvious, mankind was designed for pleasure.

Treat the body well.

But food is merely a pleasure for the body. Why should we celebrate the body, when the main focus of spirituality is the soul?
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A Big Anniversary

Yasher koach to the researcher of the recent post The Chofetz Chaim’s Obituary in the NY Times (1933) and the administrators for putting it up. Here’s another important anniversary to mark, which I saw mentioned on a YahooGroups email list in Hillcrest, NY:

This Friday November 10th, is the 100th anniversary of the completion of the Mishnah Berurah, one of the seminal sources of Jewish law. If you look closely at the last page of the Mishnah Berurah, the Chofetz Chaim, in an unusual move, wrote down the exact date he finished writing his essential sefer:

“I have finished with the grace of Hashem on the 19th day of MarCheshvan 5667”
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Innovation in the Service of Hashem

At the October 2001, “Life After Teshuva” conference in Passaic, Rabbi Yaacov Haber pointed out that throughout history, mainstream Orthodoxy has often needed an influx of talent, creativity and excitement from an outside source for rejuvenation. Today’s growth oriented Baalei Teshuva community has proven this point by helping drive an increased energy and passion around the Jewish world.

A BT friend of ours recently illustrated this creativity and excitement. He wanted to lose some weight and raise money for Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim, so he went around to people and asked them if they would be willing to pledge a certain amount. He signed me up for 50 cents per pound that he lost with a deadline of Rosh Chodesh Elul.

The other day at davening, he informed me that he had lost 52 pounds and the redemption of my pledge was $26. I happily gave him the money as he informed me that he had raised over $15,000 for the Yeshiva!!!

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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What’s So Important About the Number 316?

What’s so important about the number 316?

I find sometimes that it is difficult for me to mourn and feel the natural sorrow that I should for the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash. Of course, this year we are all more sensitive to how much we truly rely on Hashem. Our thoughts, televisions, radios, and web browsers are all turned towards what’s happening in Israel.

As each day brings us closer to Tisha B’av, I think about what I, as an individual, and we, as a people, are missing without the Beis Hamikdash. Several years ago it was explained to me what’s missing. The number 316.

Based on the Chofetz Chaim’s Concise Book of Mitzvos, 316 is the number of mitzvos we, as a people, cannot perform without the Beis Hamikdash. Another way to look at it is that there are 297 mitzvos (including 26 mitzvos pertaining directly to the land of Israel) that we can perform today.

As we all know, mitzvos are ways that we can directly attach ourselves to Hashem. But if we only have the ability to perform 297 mitzvos today, without a Beis Hamikdash, then there are 316 ways to attach to Hashem that we are missing. This is what makes me sad. I know there are times when I feel that I’m very far from Hashem. With a Beis Hamikdash things would be different. Wouldn’t it be great to just go stand outside the Beis Hamikdah? Feeling the presence of Hashem would be an automatic spiritual recharge.

But I can’t. We, as a nation, can’t. We are missing 316 more ways to get closer to our creator. I hope this Tishah B’av will be the last one I spend mourning.

Words to Arouse Our Hearts in This Time of Danger

At a Tehillim gathering in Kew Gardens Hills last night, Rabbi Yakov Haber from YU addressed the audience with words to arouse our hearts in this time of extreme danger for the Jewish People. You can listen to the Divrei Hisorerus here. Here is a summary of what was said.

We Must Feel That We Outside of Eretz Yisroel are at War
Rabbi Herschel Schachter points out that, according to halacha, Jews from all over can be drafted to fight a war, no matter where they live. The only reason we are not drafted is that it’s not practical. Nonetheless, we have to realize that we are all at war and subject to the draft. Even though we’re not actually fighting we have to feel the urgency that those of us outside of Eretz Yisroel are also at war. If we don’t feel that urgency, we have to do soul searching and make sure that we don’t feel separate from the Tzibur, which according to the Rambam would brand us as apikorsim. We have to truly feel that we are at war and are sharing in the battle.
Read more Words to Arouse Our Hearts in This Time of Danger