Self-Actualization and the Focus on Your Self

My senior year in college, my friends and I organized a party. Having exhausted such themes as “Come as your major” and “sixties revival,” we hit upon what seemed a novel idea: Come as you will be in ten years. Attendees rose to the occasion, coming as Greenpeace activists or genetic engineers. (For the sake of my children’s shidduchim, I decline to state how I came.)

My favorite costume, however, was that of Keith, who dressed in his usual sleeveless sweatshirt and jeans, adorned only with a name tag that read: Keith — self-actualized.

We used to joke that even after achieving self-actualization we would still need therapy to cope with the loneliness of being self-actualized in a world of chronic and pervasive neuroses. I periodically wonder whether this is not an apt description of the successful ba’al tshuva who has “made it.”

Readers may be familiar with the story of Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva. Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva is gabbai of the shul. Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva is ba’al tefillah for the Yomim Noroyim. Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva fills in for the rav giving the Shabbos shiur. Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva is respected by everyone in the community. So why do they still call him Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva? Because Reuven the Ba’al Tshuva still insists on not talking during kriyas haTorah.

How many of us became ba’alei tshuva because the ideals of Torah attracted us by their truth and their beauty, because of the kedusha of the Shabbos table and the exultation of Simchas Torah? And how many of us subsequently came to question why, if the ideal was so inspiring, did the reality leave so much to be desired? How many of us gradually learned to cope by lowering our expectations for the community, and then, inevitably, for ourselves, only to wonder somewhere down the line what happened to us, to our enthusiasm, to our idealism?

And how many of us grew bitter, convinced that if only our communities were stronger, we could be so much stronger ourselves?

Is this self-actualization?

In a series of letters I exchanged a few years back with Rav Mendel Weinbach, shlita, of Ohr Somayach, I repeatedly vented my frustrations with this or that failing of Klal Yisroel. Rav Mendel never told me I was wrong, never chastised me for my intolerance, never ordered me to clean up my own house before I condemned others and theirs.

What did he tell me? Quite simply, he said: We’re in galus. This is galus.

It’s easy to become cynical, and it’s easy to justify our cynicism because there’s so much about which to be cynical. But we gain nothing through our righteous indignation, except to distract ourselves from our real avodah. Indeed, it’s possible that the ikkar avodah of the self-actualized Torah Jew is to accept the imperfections in the world around him, to understand that the world will only be perfect when we have perfected ourselves as avdei HaShem, and that fixating on the shortcomings of others only serves to prolong the galus. On the other hand, by striving to better ourselves we not only shorten the galus but ease our own passage through galus until Moshiach brings it to its final end.

Originally Posted on Jan 16, 2006

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow – What a Supportive Community Looked Like in 2006

Ed. note: This posts and the comments show what a supportive community looked like in 2006. It was all hugs and kisses, but it was a good discussion with many people looking to give support.

I recently started growing my payis. They have gotten long enough so that when I tuck them behind my ears you can see a little bit of them peeking out from the bottom of my ear.

When one of my coworkers, an FFB, noticed that I had started growing my payis he said, “Don’t be such a ba’al t’shuvah.” Even though he didn’t say it, what he meant was if I wanted to be more frum, growing my payis was not the way to go about doing it. Instead, I should focus more on torah learning and middos development.

I like having them, but at the same time I am definitely very self-conscious of them and find myself often hiding them behind my ears especially in the presence of teachers and mentors for fear of feeling foolish because I know they would disapprove.

I always wanted to grow my payis but now that I have them I need to ask myself if my decision to grow them is truly serving G-d, or is it serving myself by helping me to feel more like someone I would like to be instead of who I truly am.

O Daddy … Where Art Thou?

Parshas Zachor-An installment in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK
By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

Remember what Amalek did to you on your way out of Egypt. When they encountered you [lit: cooled you off] on the way, you were tired and exhausted … they did not fear Elokim.

–Devarim 25:17,18

When they encountered: Heb. קָרְךָ, an expression denoting a chance occurrence (מִקְרֶה) … Yet another explanation: an expression denoting heat and cold (קוֹר). He “cooled you off” and made you [appear] lukewarm, after you were boiling hot, for the nations were afraid to fight you, [just as people are afraid to touch something boiling hot]. But Amalek came forward and started [waging war with you] and showed the way to others. This can be compared to a bathtub of boiling water into which no one could immerse himself. Along came a reckless man and jumped headlong into it! Although he scalded himself, he [succeeded in] making others think that it was cooler [than it really was]. [Tanchuma 9]

–Rashi ibid

Our Rabbis taught: [vis a vis parents] What is [i.e. how does one fulfill the mitzvah of] ‘fear’ and what is [i.e. how does one fulfill the mitzvah of] ‘honor’? ‘Fear’ means that he [the son] must not stand nor sit in his [the father’s] place, לא יסתור דבריו, nor contradict his words, nor tip the scales against him. ‘Honor” means that he must feed and hydrate him, clothe and cover him, lead him in and out.

–Kiddushin 31B

The relationship between the Jewish people and HaShem, and even between individual Jews and HaShem, is multifaceted.  Two familiar facets are those of our being subjects in G-ds Kingdom and of our being His children.  On every public fast day, most recently on Taanis Esther, we beseeched Avinu Malkenu– our Father/ our King.  To our detriment, true kings are very hard to find in contemporary society and, as such, we lack one of the primary role models for our relationship with HaShem.

Thankfully, at least fathers are ubiquitous and our relationships with our fathers can serve as ready metaphors from which we can draw relevant lessons in how to relate to HaShem.  And while, for many of us, the child-father relationship falls short of the ideal, if not being utterly dysfunctional, at least we have concrete, black on white parameters for what the ideal relationship ought to be as set down in Shas and in Shulchan Aruch in Hichos kibud av v’eim-the laws of honoring and being in awe of parents.

We are not permitted it to be soser the words/ matters of our fathers’.  This word, soser, is conventionally translated as “contradict.” But Rav Laibeleh Eiger reveals another layer of meaning in this word that impacts our understanding of the eternal war that we wage against Amalek:

Moshe Rabeinu was instructed to deliver this message at his first meeting with the Egyptian pharaoh as HaShem’s ambassador and as His agent to redeem His people from slavery: “this is what HaShem says: ‘Israel is My son — my firstborn. I’ve told you to send My son away [out of Egypt] to serve Me. If you refuse to let him leave I will ultimately kill your own firstborn son.’”(Shemos 4:22,23) As a result of the Exodus from Egypt HaShems Paternal relationship with the K’lal Yisrael-the Jewish People, became manifest and obvious for all the world to see.  Moreover, it revealed the fact that HaShem was a very involved Parent; a “helicopter Dad” kivyachol -if you will, who was very concerned about his son’s welfare and insinuated himself directly into the sons affairs in order to relieve the sons suffering and to liberate him.

After the Exodus from Egypt K’lal Yisrael was cognizant of the special relationship that they enjoyed with HaShem.  However, around the time of their being attacked by Amalek, perceptions began to change.  For the nations of the world who were awestruck by the plagues of Egypt, the slaying of the firstborn and the utter destruction of the Egyptian military at the Sea of Reeds, it was not merely that the bloom was off the rose; it was that K’lal Yisrael had lost their air of invincibility.  Although Amalek had gotten its collective nose bloodied and had been “weakened” by Yehoshua; in launching their unprovoked attack on K’lal Yisrael they had blazed a trail and set the precedent for all future attacks, wars, ethnic-cleansings and genocides perpetrated by all future Jew-haters.

But, more significantly, doubts began creeping into the collective consciousness of K’lal Yisrael.  The Jews themselves internalized the implied message of Amalek’s attack. “If this could happen” the reasoning went “perhaps we are not really the apple of HaShem’s eye, maybe we are not so much different from the balance of humanity.  Who can still claim with confidence that we are His son and that He is our Father?” While the facts on the ground such as the manna bread from heaven and the miraculous cloud pillar should have eased these anxieties, nagging doubts remained.  They reasoned that HaShem must have some “hidden” agenda, something that is characterized by hester Panim-a concealment of the Divine Countenance.

Even before encountering Amalek the seeds of doubt had been planted in the national consciousness.  When K’lal Yisrael arrived at Rephidim there was no water readily available for them to drink.  Although Moshe Rabeinu worked the miracle producing the nomadic wellspring that would travel with K’lal Yisrael throughout their sojourn in the wilderness until death of Miriam; the upshot of that particular episode was this: “Moshe named the place Testing-and-Argument because the people had argued and had tested HaShem. They had asked ‘is HaShem within us or not?’” (Shemos 17:7).

Chaza”l provide a biting, acerbic characterization of  K’lal Yisrael’s ambivalence and under-confidence. “This can be compared to a man who carried his son on his shoulders and set out on the road. Whenever his son saw something, he would say, ‘Father, take it and give it to me,’ and he [the father] would do so. They met a man, and the son said to the man, ‘Have you seen my father?’ So his father said to the boy, “You don’t know where I am?” He threw him [his son] down off him, and a dog came and bit him [the son]. (Midrash Tanchuma, Yisro 3; Shemos Rabbah 26:2).  The boy in question never doubted whether or not he had a father.  He merely asked “do you see him … because I can’t!” The boy thinks that his father is out of sight — concealed.

The episode of Rephidim is the immediate preamble to the preemptive, unprovoked, initial attack of Amalek.  Amalek’s “chilling effect” did not merely cool down K’lal Yisrael in the court of public opinion but in their own self-perception and in their perception of HaShem as well.  While they still believed that they had a heavenly Father in the abstract, they were no longer able to “see” Him.  His administration of their affairs was now being orchestrated long-distance from behind a curtain, as it were.

In Lashon Kodesh-the holy tongue, there are many words synonymous with a contradiction; listor-to demolish/deconstruct, l’chalek-to argue/separate, l’hakchish-to deny/thin-out, l’hitnaged-to oppose.  Yet the verb that our sages chose to impart the lesson of not contradicting ones father is the verb in that is etymologically related to hiddenness and concealment; לא יסתור דבריו.  Rav Laibeleh Eiger maintains that one of the subtextual messages of this halachah is that a son is prohibited from characterizing his father’s words/deeds as being covert and clandestine.  The prohibition can be translated “he should not hide his father’s words/matters.” On a national level as a result of the chilling effect of Amalek’s onslaught, this is precisely the prohibition that K’lal Yisrael contravened in their relationship with their Father in heaven.

Rav Laibeleh teaches that part and parcel of our mitzvos to remember and to wage war against Amalek is to fight and suppress our own internal Amalek; the self-sabotaging a voice within our individual and collective psyches that mitigates and that dilutes the unique son-Father relationship that we enjoy with HaShem.  We need to scrap and claw to move beyond an abstract philosophical recognition of HaShems Administration of our affairs.  Knowing that we have a Father in heaven is insufficient.  We must fight the good fight to achieve a visceral awareness that we are riding on His shoulders and that He is always carrying us.  We need to develop the vision to see that our merciful father is directly and intimately dealing with us;  His firstborn son.  As the prophet thunders “O Why Yaakov do you say, and speak, O Israel: ‘My way is hidden from HaShem, and my justice is passed over by my G-d’”? (Yeshaya 40:27)

We must always remember and never forget that while our King may be remote and inaccessible and may be conducting a clandestine foreign policy or waging a covert military operation our Father is loving, merciful, intimate and directly involved in our affairs. Parshas Zachor would be a great time to start remembering this and, while listening to Megillas Esther is something that we do with our ears, in order to truly vanquish Amalek we needed to sharpen our eyes to abide by the halachah of  לא יסתור דבריו, do right by our Father in heaven and do our own personal Megillas Hester-revealing of the concealment.

~adapted from Toras Emes Zachor/ Tetzaveh 5628/1868 D”H Amru

10 Years of Beyond BT – The State of the Union

We started Beyond BT in December 2005 to offer friendship, support and advice to those who have committed to a Torah lifestyle. The main issues BTs face are still here, and that should be expected. Hashem wants us to grow, so he sends us challenges. Everybody I know, FFB and BT alike, has them. With that caveat, let’s take a quick look at the current State of the Union of the BT.

Demise of Blogs
Changes in Social Media, specifically the rise of Facebook, have lead to the decline in the use of blogs and their longer lasting discussions. That’s unfortunate, because there’s a lot to be gained from connecting and learning from other Torah Observant Jews in similar situations. On the plus side, it takes much less time to maintain BBT, so we’re planning to keep it going with a mix of posts and comments from the past along with new posts.

I may be wrong about this, but from my vantage point it seems like integration has become less of a problem for the typical BT. Perhaps this can be attributed to the growth of Torah communities in America and the ability to accommodate more diversity. This does not mean that BTs will find it easy in all communities and I would still recommend Far Rockaway, Passaic, Kew Gardens Hills and Baltimore as great places for a BT to live.

The Shidduch situation has become more difficult. I think the main reason is that there are a lot more Torah-centered and growth oriented girls than there are boys out there. Perhaps, that’s because the requirements, in terms of becoming less ego-centric, learning Torah and davening, coupled with the need for a good livelihood and man’s greater tendency towards distraction, make it more difficult for men than women to be growth oriented and Torah-centered.

Choosing a High School for boys who are not natural learners has become harder. This is an unintended consequence of the continual raising of the bar of Torah learning, which is a good thing for the community. My advice is to make sure that you choose a high school that does not damage the self-esteem of the B-class learner, and provide supplemental learning opportunities (specifically tutors) if you have a B-class student.

Keeping that growth candle burning is as hard as it ever was. There are no shortcuts and it’s not a communal issue. Chazal have given us the prescription, and it comes down to Torah, Avodah and Gemillas Chasdim/Middos. It’s hard to work on all those things, but they truly are requirements of being higher-level functioning Torah Observant Jews.

Organized Kiruv in America has declined noticeably in the last 10 years. I think that’s primarily because we’re still using the same playbook from 30 years ago–marketing “Torah as a better lifestyle”. After the successful harvesting of the low lying BT fruit, this message in no longer effective, although it’s certainly still true. I think the next stage of bringing Jews closer to Hashem and His Torah will require that we, as a community, BT and FFB together, markedly and noticeably improve our Torah-observant game. The ball is truly in our court.

Here’s to the next 10 years of Beyond BT. Lechaim!

The Deluge of Youth

What do mankinds greatest and worst generations have to do with one another?
“The Fountain of Youth” … why has mankind been searching for it from time immemorial?

And HaShem said: “My Spirit shall not keep on judging man forever, for he is nothing but flesh.  His days will be a hundred and twenty years.”

— Bereshis 6:3

I will be slow to anger for 120 years. If they do not repent I will bring the Flood upon them.

— Rashi ibid

Where is Moshe alluded to in the Torah? — In the verse: “For he is nothing but flesh” [the gimatriya-numerical value; of the Hebrew words משה –“Moshe” and בשגם  – “For (he) is nothing but” are equivalent. Moshe lived exactly 120 years]

— Chulin 139BR

Go [My prophet] and call into the ears of Jerusalem, declaring: HaShem says as follows: For you[r sake] I will remember the affection of your youth, the love of your nuptials; how you followed Me into the wilderness, into an uncultivated land.

— Yirmiyahu 2:2

Remember, HaShem, Your compassion and Your loving-kindnesses; for they began before time. Do not remember the sins of my youth, nor my transgressions …

— Tehillim 25:6,7

Who Satiates your old age with good; so that your youth will be renewed like the eagle.

— Tehillim 103:5


Youth is an uncanny time in our lives.  While imprisoned within it we want nothing more than to escape it. Once we have escaped it we spend the balance of our lives yearning wistfully and futilely to return to it. By turns we long for the carefree times, irresponsibility, limitless possibilities, direction-changing impressions, dependence
on-others, physical attractiveness, good health, idealism and the simplicity of time when we were young.  From ancient and 16th century legends of Ponce de León searching for the Fountain of Youth to the contemporary multibillion dollar cosmetics and cosmetic surgery industries; vast swaths of mankind have never ceased looking for ways and means of recapturing youth.

Most of all we long for the sheer vitality, power and strength that marks our early lives.  When we were young we had the speed, strength, stamina, mental acuity, inquisitiveness, reckless courage and optimism to accomplish great and meaningful things.  Many used their youthful, robust powers for good. However, lacking the skill and wisdom of age and experience; youth is also characterized by catastrophic mistakes, crimes and misdemeanors. Accelerating at youthful takeoff velocity, the young often take forks in life’s road that make U-turns impossible. The lion’s share of crimes is committed by the young.  Maturity and old-age are marked not only by longing for the restoration of youthful energy, but by remorse and regret over youthful indiscretions and catastrophic misdeeds.

Rav Tzadok, the Kohen of Lublin, teaches that this is not merely true of individuals but for mankind as a whole. In its youth mankind was capable of great virtue and good — chessed neurim-the lovingkindness of youth; and of incredible transgression and evil — chatas neurim-the sins of youth.

Read more The Deluge of Youth

Defeating Self-Defeat

Why do people constantly sabotage themselves?
How does the scapegoat atone for the sins of Uza and Azael?

And Ahron [the Kohen Gadol-high priest] should place two lots on the two goats; one [marked] for HaShem and the other [marked] for Azazel

— Vayikra 16:8

And Ahron should press his two hands on the live goats head and confess all the sins of the Bnei Yisrael-Jewish people; on it, rebellious acts and unintentional offenses.  When, by doing so, he has placed them [all of these sins] on the goats head, he should send it into the desert with a man of the hour.

— Ibid 16:21

What would he [the man of the hour] do? He would take a crimson ribbon and tear it in two.  Half was tied to a sharp boulder while the other half was tied between the goat’s two horns.  He then pushed the goat backwards [over the peak] and it would roll down the mountain.  The goat was ripped limb from limb before it got halfway down the craggy mountain.

— Mishnah Yoma 6:6

The Rabbis taught: [why] “Azazel”?  That it should be strong and hard … the academy of Rabbi Yishmael taught [why] “Azazel”? for it atones for the deeds of Uza and Azael [two fallen angels].

—Yoma 67B

Rami bar Chama taught: the numerical values of the word Hasoton-the Satan; is 364. This implies that for 364 days of the year he has authorization to prosecute but that on [one of the year’s 365 days] Yom Kippur … he does not.

—Yoma 20A

Reish Lakish taught: The Satan-the prosecuting attorney on High; the Yetzer Hara-the inclination to evil; and the Malach Hamaves-the Angel of Death; are one and the same entity.

—Bava Basra 16A

It is odd and almost counterintuitive that man, allegedly the most highly evolved of all organisms, should have the weakest of all survival instincts.  From the cradle to the grave humans are capable of reckless behaviors that endanger lives and limbs.  Humanities self-destructive tendencies manifest themselves in a wide variety of ways.  From subconscious acts of self-sabotaging predicated on the excessive fear of failure, to cuttings and other forms of self-inflicted mutilation; from anorexia to obsessive overeating; from rampant consumerism that spells ecological disaster to nuclear fueled geopolitics that continue to push the envelope towards assured mutual destruction.

The most striking expression of the inclination to self-destruct is found in individuals who commit suicide including the most faddish and trendy iterations of murdering oneself including physician-assisted suicide, cop-assisted suicide and murder-suicides characteristic of both domestic violence and terrorist bombings. All in all both individual humans and humanity as a whole seem hell-bent on self-destruction.

Whence this uniquely human drive to destroy ourselves?

The centerpiece avodah –Divine service; of Yom Kippur was the lottery of the two goats; one goat dedicated to HaShem whose blood was sprinkled in the inner sanctum while the other goat was designated as the sair laAzazel-the goat “dedicated” to Azazel; and was pushed off of a jagged cliff in the desert wilderness.  In the popular vernacular the goat that “lost” the lottery is commonly known as the scapegoat.  Many a proverbial quill has been broken in the commentaries attempts to explain such a puzzling avodah, especially on the holiest day of the year. The Ramban characterizes it as a bribe to the sitra achara-“the ‘other’ [dark] side”; while the Lubliner Kohen does not mince words and calls it an act of idolatrous worship that is, nevertheless, the Will of HaShem.

The Bais Yaakov, the second Izhbitzer Rebbe, offers a novel approach that recasts the sair laAzazel as the antidote for the human drive for self-destruction. But before presenting it I must introduce the foundation to unlocking the mystery of human self-destructiveness upon which the Bais Yaakov’s approach is based. It is a teaching found in the text and a hagahah-margin gloss; in Rav Chaim Volozhiners Nefesh Hachaim (pp.21, 23).

Read more Defeating Self-Defeat

Shabbos … the Great Unifying Principle

Vayakhel 5774-An installment in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK
By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

Moshe gathered the entire assemblage of the Bnei Yisrael , and said unto them: ‘These are the words which HaShem has commanded, that you should do them. Six days creative activities shall be done, but the seventh day t shall be holy day for you, sabbath; a day of complete respite for HaShem. Whoever actively creates in it shall be put to death.

-Shemos 35:1,2

And let every wise-hearted person among you come, and make all that HaShem has commanded. The Mishkan-tabernacle, its tent, and its covering, its hooks, its vertical boards, its bars, its pillars, and its sockets. The Ark etc.

-Shemos 35:10-12

 All that is called by My Name, and whom I have created for My glory, I have formed him and even made him.’

– Yeshyaya 43:7

 Rav Yehudah said in the name of Rav: Betzalel [principal artisan of the Mishkan] knew how to bond and combine the letters through which heaven and earth were created.

-Brachos 55A

How did Moshe gather everyone together, and forge them into a unit? Why is the commandment of building the Mishkan preceded by the commandment of Shabbos?

The Maharal of Prague explains that anavah-humility, is rooted in pashtus-generic simplicity and the lack of any specialty. There is a certain infinite quality to simplicities non-delineation. Simplicity specializes in nothing in particular and so; can be everything at once. Committed to nothing, simplicity enjoys infinite possibilities. This is how the Maharal explains the hanhagah Elyonah-Divine administration of the cosmos, expressed in the theological concept of “Wherever one discerns the Holy blessed One’s Might and Greatness there one will find His Humility.” (Megillah 31A) The Humility/ Simplicity IS the Greatness/ Infinity. Considered more deeply, this is the basis of monotheism. It is the Divine “property” (for lack of a better word, for this word implies specialization, chiseled-definition and constraining lines as well) of anavah that “makes” HaShem k’vyachol-as it were, both the undivided “One” and the encompassing “All.”

The roots of human ga’avah-ego and egotism, lie in the self-perception of individuality and specialization. That which we specialize in is what makes us salient and exceptional. “I am what YOU are not. I am capable of what you are incapable of, or, if your are capable of the same, I can do it better than you can.”  We are proud of what sets us apart and so; what separates and divides us is our pride. As any manager will tell you, a major part of teamwork is the surrender of ego.  There is nothing more ego-deflating than to feel that one is a fungible, interchangeable part in a larger entity, a mere cog in the machine. But for collective entities to coalesce and integrate the balloons of ego must first be deflated.

The Izhbitzer explains that when a craftsman works to produce something it is intrinsically a distinctive, one of a kind item.  Produced by his own individual mix of perceptions, tastes and faculties; it is as unique to him as his fingerprints and the antithesis of a mass-produced article.  As our sages expounded “just as their faces are dissimilar so too are their attitudes and perceptions (deos) divergent.”(Midrash Tanchumah-Pinchos) This is true even in as rarified and superhuman a “craft” as prophecy. As Chazal taught “No two nevi’im-prophets prophesize in the same style.”(Sanhedrin 89)

Logically, custom-made items should not be able to dovetail or interlock. Yet;  although the Mishkan was fabricated by individual craftspeople, each proud of their own unique talents and style, the individual components that they crafted were stitched, hooked, inserted in sockets, ringed or staved together to form a seamless whole. Oblivious to it at the time they plied their supposedly unique, inimitable specialties; they all conformed to the precise specs of a master plan. The Mishkan reduced one-of-a-kind artists to molds and die casts in a mass production assembly-line. When the Mishkan was complete and all could see how harmoniously everything fit together this observation raised their consciousness of the siyatta diShmaya-the Divine assistance that worked It’s Will through them.

They experienced a collective epiphany that it was HaShem, not they, who had actually built the Mishkan.  They came to realize that they were no more than the proverbial garzan b’yad hachotzeiv– the ax in the hands of the lumberjack. The ax is an integrated implement uniting blade, handle and the pegs that bind them.  Even if the ax was composed of sentient beings the blade could still not lord it over the handle or the pegs for none could accomplish their task or fulfill their role without the others. Moreover, even when their tree-felling missions are accomplished , the humbling realization that “axes don’t  fell trees … lumberjacks do” would unite them in their true, cooperative, integrated identity as the lumberjacks implement, rather than as free-lancers working on their own.

The Izhbitzer asserts that Shabbos is the key to this awareness.  The Shabbos concept lies at the core of every mitzvah performed l’shemShamayim –purely for HaShem’s sake with no ulterior motives whatsoever. He goes so far as to say that they are synonymous, that intent l’shemShamayim IS Shabbos by another name. I’ll attempt to offer a possible explanation for the Izhbitzer’s enigmatic axiom.

The Midrash teaches that the Divine Will for creation is described as nisaveh lo dirah b’tachtonim –He yearned for an abode amidst the lower spheres. (Tanchumah Naso 16) This seems odd. HaShem is transcendent, Existing outside of time in non-chronological terms; so how can any given time play host to HaShem? HaShem is omnipresent, Existing outside of place in non-spacial terms; so much so that Chazal tell us that HaShem is nicknamed HaMakom-The Place, because “He is the Place of the cosmos, the cosmos is not His place” (Bereishis Rabbah 68) so how can any given location serve as His abode? Yet … we also know that kedushas haz’man and kedushas hamakom – sanctified time and space are real, not delusions. HaShem’s dwelling place within the lower sphere of time is Shabbos. He ceased creating on the seventh day for His Will, that all of creation declare His Glory, had been done.

When, in perhaps the ultimate act of halicha b’drachav- imitatio dei, shomrei Shabbos cease their creative activity, they bear witness to the veracity of the Torah’s Genesis narrative. More than that, they bear witness that the creative activity of Genesis could cease because the goal of creation had been achieved. HaShem had his abode in the lower spheres in a cosmos in which every infinitesimal component part, and the grand macrocosmic whole that is greater than the sum of its parts, declare His glory.  And so, every mitzvah performed l’shemShamayim, for HaShem’s Will and Glory alone, is yet another iteration of Shabbos; the accommodating time in the hospitable place in the lower spheres that provide HaShem k’vyachol, with a glorifying abode.

How did Moshe congregate everyone?  How did he instill unifying humility in the hearts and minds of the formerly prideful, specializing craftspeople who, collectively, built the Mishkan for the Shechinah-HaShems Divine Indwelling? By first commanding them to observe Shabbos and by making the Shabbos concept clear to them.

Just as HaShem did not bless and sanctify the seventh day until all the work was done, until the cosmos was complete and perfect so too He would not allow His Shechinah into the Mishkan until it was complete and perfect. Had one peg anchoring the curtains of the Mishkan’s courtyard been missing or not engineered according to specs, the Divine Indwelling would have remained in the upper spheres. How then could the fabricator of the aron habris-the Ark of the Covenant have felt superior to the peg maker?  One and all the artisans and craftspeople had been an implement, the ax wielded by the Divine Lumberjack.

 ~adapted from Mei HaShiloach Vayakhel D”H Vayakhel
Nesivos Olam-Nesiv Anavah 1

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Dreaming but Not Sleeping

Vayeshev 5774-An installment in the series

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

For series introduction CLICK

 By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

 Soon thereafter the Egyptian king’s wine steward and the baker offended their master, who was the king of Egypt.

-Bereshis 40:1

 [Regarding] this one (the wine steward) a fly was found in his goblet, and [concerning] that one (the baker) a pebble was found in his bread.  (Bereshis. Rabbah 88:2)

-Rashi ibid

The kingdom of the earth is analogous to the Kingdom of Heaven.

Zohar Miketz 197A

Throughout this Sidra there’s a marked disparity between Yoseph and Yehudah. All of Yoseph’s well-intentioned plans go awry First, he shares his prophetic dream with his brothers and they grow jealous of him. Then he tries to edify his brothers and some are ready to kill him while, in due course, they sell him to an Ishmaelite caravan consigning him to near-certain doom. He serves his master faithfully, resisting all temptations, but then gets framed for an infidelity that he was innocent of. Finally, he makes a minor effort at self-help, asking the Pharaoh’s wine steward to say something favorable about him to Pharaoh and, as a result, ends up spending another two years prison.

On the other hand, Yehudah seems to be living the proverbial charmed life. Even though he was the one who presented Yoseph’s goat-bloodied garment to their father, causing their father overwhelming anguish,  he still merited being in Yaakov’s proximity all those long years that Yoseph was in exile.  In the, apparently, very sordid affair of Tamar, all ended well and the progenitor of the Messianic line was born.

The Izhbitzer teaches that Yoseph envied Yehudah and had grievances about HaShem’s conduct of his own affairs. He wondered why HaShem crowned all of Yehudahs endeavors with great success, even those that were overtly risky or that ventured far into moral and ethical ambiguity.  Whereas all of his own actions, no matter how purely motivated, came under the closest Divine scrutiny, the “precision of a hairsbreadth” and, invariably, were found wanting.

The dreams of the Pharaoh’s wine steward and baker were meant to serve as an allegorical response to Yoseph’s grievances. Every king, including the King of all kings, has a servant like the wine steward and a servant akin to the baker.  The wine steward was restored to his position because he was not responsible for his offense.  There’s really nothing that he could’ve done to prevent a fly from buzzing into the wine goblet.  A fly is animate and has an instinct if it’s own. It’s even possible that the fly fluttered into the goblet after it was already in the Pharaoh’s grasp. However, the baker’s offense was unpardonable as an inert pebble should never have found its way into the king’s bread loaf. Yoseph was like the baker and Yehudah was like the wine-steward.

King Dovid, the quintessence of Yehudah, is described by the Zohar (Mishpatim 107A) as the Kings “jester”. As a powerful king himself how should we understand this unusual title? We know that King Dovid’s songs of Tehilim were sung as the wine libations were poured in the Beis HaMikdash on HaShems “table” kivayochol -as it were. If the purpose of a jester is to dispel sadness from, and bring merriment to, the king’s heart, then jesters and wine stewards employ different means to achieve the same goal. So, the jester designation can be understood in wine steward terms.

But the “jester” designation refers to the something deeper as well. Yehudah’s offenses, and those of his descendants, were deemed to be beyond the range of their  bechirah chofshis– free-will. As our sages taught; “the Angel appointed to preside over desire forced him” to consort with Tamar (Bereshis Rabbah 85:9).  Jesters allow their kings to toy with them and to defeat them at the royal courts’ games. When a person loses his bechirah chofshis he becomes G-d’s plaything, a mere puppet on HaShem’s string, as a jester might, a man who has lost his bechirah chofshis “lets” G-d win kivayochol.  The pasuk states: “that You may be justified when You speak, and be in the right when You judge” (Tehilim 51:6). When expounding on the episode of Dovid and Bas-Sheva the Gemara understands that what Dovid meant to say here was “let them [the people] not say, ‘The servant triumphed  against his Master’.” (Sanhedrin 107A). In other words, Dovid is telling HaShem “I’m your jester, I let my King win”

On the other hand, Yoseph was like the baker. HaShem had instilled Yoseph with a fiery clarity and brilliance and the passionate strength to withstand all tests. After all, the House of Yoseph was to be the flame that would consume the House of Esav (see Ovadiah 1:18). HaShem had placed Yoseph in a crisp, brilliant and immaculate place. He and his descendants needed to stay spotless in order to refute any of Esav’s contentions. As trying as Yoseph’s trials were they were never outside the scope of his bechirah chofshis. Yoseph was in complete control of his choices.

If something unseemly crept into Yehudah’s affairs it was as though the zigzagging fly splashed into the King’s wine goblet after it was already in the King’s hands.  There was absolutely nothing that the jester/wine steward could have done to prevent it.  If something inappropriate contaminated Yoseph’s affairs it was as though a tooth-shattering pebble was in the King’s bread.  The King grew furious and bitterly disappointed because this was absolutely something that the baker could have, and should have, put a stop to.


The righteousness of the unblemished will straighten his way; and by his wickedness, the wicked shall fall.

-Mishlei 11:5

 When an otherwise unblemished Tzaddik sins, the Divine trait of Strict Justice demands the harsh and “precision of a hairsbreadth” punishment to expiate the sin. But the Divine trait of Mercy seeks alternatives modes of Tikun-sin repair and amelioration.  It will not allow the Tzaddik to take the punishment. Instead It allows the Tzaddik to observe someone guilty of a coarser, more overt expression of the same sin taking their punishment.  This sensitizes the Tzaddik to his own misstep.  The Tzaddik sees the retribution being executed and, growing reflective and insightful concludes, in essence, that “there, but for the Grace of G-d, go I”. This is why the pasuk says “and by his wickedness, the wicked shall fall.”,  when the correct poetic meter of the sentence should have been “and the wicked shall fall by his wickedness.” The truth is that there are times and situations when the wicked fall due to the wickedness of the unblemished! They do so in order the enable the unblemished to straighten his way.

As sternly as Yoseph was judged compared to Yehudah, it could have been even more severe. In fact, mercy tempered the justice that he was dealt. The Pharaoh’s baker became the punishment proxy for Yoseph, the Divine King’s “baker”. The dissimilar dreams of the wine steward and the baker were not just revealed to Yoseph because he happened to be the best dream-interpreter available in the dungeon. They were revealed to him to help him understand the difference between Yehudah’s relationship with HaShem and his own, to help him identify with the baker rather than with the wine steward, to stop grumbling about alleged Divine miscarriages of justice, to realize his own strengths and responsibilities, to shift the responsibility for his tribulations to his own broad shoulders and thus be metaken– repair and repent for his shortfalls. 

Adapted from Mei HaShiloach I Vayeshev end of long D”H Vayeshev

 And Mei HaShiloach II Vayeshev D”H B’Inyan


The “Absolute Value” of Middos

VaYetzai 5774-An addendum in the series

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

For series introduction CLICK

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

Conventional wisdom dictates that when taking inventory of ourselves, that we should use a bookkeepers ledger sheet as a model. We divide our strengths and weaknesses along the lines of credits and debits but, generally speaking, we never insert the same item into both columns. We catalogue anger, stinginess and haughtiness as our bad middos – character traits on the negative side of the ledger and patience, humility and generosity as our good middos on the positive side. Never shall the twain meet.

But earlier this week, when probing Rachels middah of jealousy we learned that the Izhbitzer disabuses us of this notion and, basically, invalidates this bifurcated model of our kochos hanefesh-faculties of our souls.  He taught that (I paraphrase, remember, these are interpretive adaptations, not verbatim translations): “HaShem provides every individual soul with a unique makeup and an incomparable defining middah– characteristic, a leitmotif that colors all their perceptions, impacts all their decisions, tests them at every juncture and motivates all of their thoughts, words and deeds. The Divine Will desires that one’s leitmotif  be both their greatest strength, their supreme source of good and their worst weakness, their most horrible enabler for evil. “

A good way to understand the Izhbitzer is by drawing on the mathematical concept of “absolute value”. The absolute value of a number is its distance from zero on the number line and it makes no difference if it is a positive or a negative number.

The absolute value of x, denoted “| x |” is the distance of x from zero. This is why absolute value is never negative; absolute value only addresses “how far?” not “in which direction?” This means not only that | 3 | = 3, because 3 is three units to the right of zero, but also that | –3 | = 3, because –3 is also three units to the left of zero.  It is the same for middos and kochos hanefesh, the absolute value of the negative/ evil ones and their positive/ good counterparts are equal. E.g. the | zealousness| (which is read as “the absolute value of zealousness) = passion.  But the | anger AKA – negative zealousness | = passion as well. Understanding that they share the same root “value” illustrates why sublimating the negative into the positive is eminently doable.

The Izhbitzers disciple, Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, develops this concept making it a source of encouragement and a beacon of hope.

Each of us has a visceral awareness that our yetzer haras obsession should be our own. Those tendencies that the yetzer hara presses us most incessantly about are the precise ones that we could utilize to excel at with pristine goodness free of even a trace admixture of evil or ulterior motives.   The faculties that we’ve abused to sin most egregiously with are precisely the ones that we may use to maximize our capacity for goodness and holiness with.

This is why the Midrash teaches that we ought to do Mitzvahs with the same limbs that we’ve used to sin with. (VaYikra Rabbah 21).  This is much more than a mere means to repair the damage done by the sin midah k’neged midah -quid pro quo.  It is a mending of the sinners soul as well.

Every individual was created to be mesaken-repair and sanctify one particular thing.  Each of us is a super-specialist with a unique and inimitable mission of tikun. No two faces are clonishly alike because the face is the portal through which ones tzelem Elokim-image of G-d, may be perceived. Our faces are reflective of our Divine singularity for HaShem is not only אחד=one but יחיד ומיוחד=singular. Thus the subtext of the famous Talmudic query (Shabbos 118B) “Which matter was your father most careful about?” is; what was your fathers uniqueness? What was his understanding of his soul’s peerless mission that expressed itself in his placing the emphasis of his Avodah-Divine service, in a particular area?

The Gemara that teaches that “One does not stand on Torah matters until and unless he’s been tripped up by those (particular) Torah matters” (Gittin 43A) can be understood in the same vein. One doesn’t trip on generic, fungible Divrei Torah. The particular Divrei Torah that served as his customized stumbling blocks attune him to those selfsame Divrei Torah’s potential for being his personalized stairway to heaven.

Tzidkas haTzadik Inyan 49


Don’t be Bailed Out. Be Vindicated!

An installment in the series

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

-For series introduction CLICK

 By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz-Mara D’Asra Cong Sfard of Midwood

G-d’s angel called to him from heaven and said “Avraham, Avraham’!  Do not put forth your hand towards the youth (i.e. do not harm him) for now I know that you fear G-d as you have not withheld your only son from Me.   

-Bereshis 22:11,12

And today, recall with mercy the binding of Yitzchok on behalf of his offspring. Blessed are you Hashem who recollects the covenant.

-Conclusion of the Zichronos blessing- Rosh Hashanah Musaf Service

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah the Torah reading is the Akeda– The binding of Yitzchok. The Meforshim explain that this in order to evoke the merit stockpiled by the Patriarchs at this seminal event in Jewish History. The legacy of this merit will help us, their offspring, be more likely to be adjudicated favorably on this Holy Day of Judgment. Per the Talmud and Rav Saadiya Gaon the Akeda is among the reasons underpinning the Mitzvah of Shofar and, in particular, the use of a ram’s horn to fulfill the Mitzvah as Avaraham ultimately sacrificed a ram in a burnt-offering as a surrogate for Yitzchok.

Conventional wisdom maintains that of the two patriarchs involved it was Avraham who played the pivotal role in earning the incalculable merit of the Akeda by withstanding daunting, superhuman challenges to his faith in a kind Creator, his life’s work in disseminating a theology predicated on that faith, his defining characteristic of Chesed-lovingkindness in general and, in particular, his unprecedented and peerless love for Yitzchok.

Rav Gershon Henoch, the Radzyner Rebbe takes a decidedly different approach maintaining that while Yitzchok may have been relatively passive his was the predominant role in shaping the everlasting impact of the Akeda.

HaShem is omniscient and exists above and beyond time.  As such when His spokesbeing the angel stayed Avrahams slaughtering knife at the last moment categorically admonishing him “Do not put forth your hand towards the youth” HaShem was doing far more than providing the individual person Yitzchok with a stay of execution and a new lease on life. He was giving his Divine seal of approval on the life of Yitzchok AND on the lives of all the souls that would issue from Yitzchok.  The life and lifework of each and every Jew, each and every human being who can be described as the offspring of Yitzchok, received HaShems imprimatur when the Divine voice reverberated through the angel and decreed “Do not put forth your hand towards the youth” . When HaShem issued this decree the Divine Mind was perfectly and infallibly aware of all the future generations about whom He’d assured Avraham “It is (only) through Yitzchok that you will gain posterity”(Bereshis21:12). The conception, birth and ongoing existence of every single Jew who was ever born or who will ever be born, down to the last generation, are thus firmly rooted in the Divine will.

Consider, says the Radzyner, the enormity of what this implies. Sin, ruin, hazards and stumbling blocks are inconsistent with the Divine will. So with the words “Do not put forth your hand towards the youth” HaShem affirmed that no sin, ruin, hazards or stumbling blocks can stem from any Jew. Otherwise a strong claim of injustice, K’vyachol, could be lodged against HaShem. After all, Avraham had already given Yitzchok up.  Yitzchok  had been elevated as a sacrifice. He was no longer of this world.  He was as good as dead.  Yet HaShem, in effect, resurrected a corpse that had not yet fathered children. Had it been possible for any sin etc. to result from this future offspring why would an omniscient transcendent G-d have reinstated Yitzchoks existence?

Accordingly the concept of invoking the merit of the Akeda is about much more than a wayward child who’s run afoul of the law drawing on the deep pockets of his mega-rich and politically well-connected father to bail him out for the umpteenth time. The merit of the Akeda inheres in it demonstrating, against all apparent evidence to the contrary, that the wayward child never ran afoul of the law in the first place.  Thundering across time and space the Akeda admonishes one and all “Do not put forth your hand towards the youth”! It is the quintessence of exoneration through merciful justice that overturns the sentence of nonexistence and validates the life of all of Yitzchok’s offspring on this Holy Day of Judgment.

The Rosh Hashanah liturgy (or any other) that superficially asks HaShem to remember, recall or recollect is troubling. For the transcendent Creator memory cannot possibly mean the cognitive bridge connecting the no-longer-existent with the present as it does for His temporal creatures. Instead concludes the Radzyner, “recalling with mercy the binding of Yitzchok on behalf of his offspring” means that through the Akeda it is within the grasp and recollection of every Jew to gaze into the depths of his heart and the inner recesses of his memory to behold how he is rooted in, and bound up with, the Divine Will.

Adapted from Sod Yesharim Rosh HaShanah Chapter 77 (page 84)


Thirteen years ago, The NY Times ran a puff piece on the Weddings page about me. A unique angle for their “Vows” column–anti-establishment editor burns her Ms. Magazines and ties the knot in all-concealing gown. Driven by the kiruv fever that often hijacks the newly frum, I was quoted insisting that my new lifestyle was the truly liberated way, and declared that I certainly wouldn’t be one of those sterling-polishing housewives.

All these years later, I wish I had a second in my carpool driving, toilet scrubbing, challah kneading, essay-grading, homework-supervising, grocery-shlepping life to polish some silver. Instead, I long ago packed the good stuff away and substituted ersatz silver from the local Odd Lot.
Read more UnInspired

Hemmed In

We train ourselves to respond to limitations on our actions — especially those of us who had once been accustomed to not having such limitations — by intoning that these limitations are what help us grow. This sense of loss over participating in something, eating something or being somewhere you might otherwise been if not for that seminar, that bit of challah, or whatever it was that got you here is, we say, the very fertilizer of spiritual growth.

I’m fine with that. It works for me. I’ve said it many times, written about it many times here, and I believe it.

Does that mean I have to like it?

I don’t think so. Even if I know it’s “good for me,” it’s okay to admit that I feel the loss. Not just okay because, yes, it is the realization of that pain that makes the teshuvah happen, if you must. But also it’s okay to admit, hey, I feel badly about this. I feel left out. I used to like doing that. I always wanted to do that.

Denying this feeling, or forcing it into some construct that fits one’s “revised” worldview without acknowledging what it really is, is a bad idea.

Now, there are parts of my inner workings that have completely transformed over a quarter century of mitzvah observance. In certain areas, my preferences, sensibilities and desires have actually changed. You would hope so, wouldn’t you?

But some things you never stop missing. I am not referring to sensual experiences, but things I have written about in the past here: dining out, college reunions, singing in a choir. Have I beaten the corpse of this horse enough already?

Maybe, but I am trying to focus here just on this point: I decided, and not so long ago, not to feel guilty about missing these experiences. And not to feel guilty for not exulting in the pain of missing them either. Well, okay, I probably should feel guilty for the occasional bout of self-righteousness over the whole thing, but that’s a post for another day. (Mussar [ethical considerations] complicates everything.)

I am who I am. I don’t mean that in the excuse sense of the cliche, which some of us employ to avoid doing something we know we ought to do to improve ourselves. Rather, I mean that whatever I am today, for better or for worse, is the sum total of 48 years (who’s counting?) of being me, in a number of modes.

At this point, I don’t see any benefit in trying to fool myself about what I feel and think, or to regret not having the appropriate “growth” response to feelings of loss and pain. Denying a voice to my interior life had been a source of stress and conflict, which did not make the challenge of doing the right thing despite what I feel easier or healthier. It’s there, it’s me, and I’m still going to do the right thing. That’s just the way things go when you make choices that have meaning. This isn’t necessarily a BT thing.

It’s an adulthood thing.

The Road to Spirituality: Keep That Head Bowed

Although most of my fellow students in high school were in fact Jewish,only a handful attended the local synagogue, and almost always for social reasons. Some learned the art of feeling guilty from at least one of their parents, and donned the yarmulke inside the solemn sanctuary on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Really, they couldn’t wait until it was over, but at least they were yotzei. I wasn’t one of them…my parents never went either.

The word “spirituality” was a corny word, and either conjured up images of shaved heads, flowers and tamborines, or gurus on mountaintops (like the ones in Ziggy cartoons, if you’ve ever seen.) Sometimes it evoked pictures of insanely angry preachers who seemed to be attempting to create their own violent thunderstorms at the pulpit, despite the weather being quite nice outside. And once I even thought about the dalai lahma, and wondered if he ever felt he was too old for this stuff.

After I became frum, I realized that spirituality doesn’t just turn on like a switch. There’s no program, and “dveikus” seemed to be a bit subjective. Would I ever experience it? What was it? One day, I came to the realization of what spirituality means to me.

I was at a bris, and I was listening to the new father trying to tie a complicated vort about the parsha into the subject of bris milah. He had his work cut out for him. In the end, it seemed a bit forced, but after, he concluded by showing how we always need to thank the A-Mighty for what we have. I was thinking about his speech, and realized something amazing: Almost every shmooze, vort, speech, words of chizuk etc. which I have ever heard, no matter what the subject, no matter how lumdish or simple, has always included something about thanking H-Shem for something, in some form or another! It’s interesting that even after listening to so many Rav Miller tapes that it took so long to really click. Spirituality and dveikus is about sincerely coming to the realization that every single thing that we possess is a chesed from Above.

It sounds corny until you start feeling it. (Yeah, count your blessings, blah blah….) This is why sprituality is so, so hard to achieve…because by nature, humans don’t like to thank or feel indebted to others. We hate to admit that it wasn’t me who landed the million dollar deal, or dunked the full court shot, or made a friend out of someone I admired. And we take everything for granted, of course. We are warned about this in the Torah a few times, because it’s something we’re meant to work on our whole lifetime. So I decided to work on this everyday.

The best advice I ever heard which changed my life significantly, was to thank H-Shem in the bracha of Modim for two very specific things for which I should thankful, and try to make it different every day. It’s really hard, but with practice, and by forcing myself to think of two, it gets easier, and it changed me. It could be from any aspect of life: Thanks for making my son’s doctor appt. end up well, thanks for the new suit, thanks for not letting me trip on the ice on the way to shul, thanks for the cop pulling me over at 11PM when it was dark so that nobody could see me, thanks for letting me be inspired by the divrei Torah at the speech last night. (Here’s where Rav Miller’s tapes come in, for every idea including working toilets to steps,to level pavements etc.etc(!) And thanks for letting me be part of Am Yisroel, a nation full of special people, including a shopkeeper who enters his competitor’s empty store, answers his phone and takes an order so that “my brother shouldn’t lose out.”, and a fifth grader who won’t announce where he went on Chol HaMoed so that his classmate, who couldn’t afford to go anywhere, doesn’t feel bad, and a Bar Mitzvah bachur who lains in a terrible voice on purpose so not to embarrass his friend who really does have a bad voice. So spirituality is subjective, especially when it comes to thanking for the extremely challenging stuff, each person on his own level and time frame, because it does take time.

The greatest expression of thanks is completely bowing down, but we can’t do that today, at least on a regualr basis. But there’s twice a year that we can, and this is personally when I feel my most intense deveikus. During mussaf on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, we get to fall on a paper towel (or a real towel if you remember it from home). I don’t say the correct nusach, though. Instead, I budget my very short time and think about the biggest things for which I can thank. I wait for this the whole year.After the final bowing, I’m almost sad, but I try to remember the experience when I bow my head at Modim during the rest of the year. It’s humbling, as it should be, but it’s wonderful. It helps me in ahavas H-Shem, it drives me to do mitzvas, to work on my pathetic middos, and to sweat over a difficult gemorrah or contradictory Rambam (but not for long, so I still have a ways to go.)

This is what spirituality means to me, and no matter how many setbacks I have, at least I truly believe I’m heading in the right direction.

The Unsung Victories of the Ba’al Teshuva

David on the Lake

The guest speaker was the world famous Ba’al Teshuvah Moshe (Mark) Wahrburg. Moshe’s story was so inspiring it never failed to fill halls and shuls with enthralled audiences. He had reached the pinnacle of fame and success in Hollywood and lived a life of debauchery and excess. And then he threw it all away after discovering his heritage, eventually becoming fully Orthodox.

The men and women in the audience were taken in by the drama and ultimate glorious ending.

A group of angels were congregating at the window, unseen. They were staring at the man in the last seat of the second row.

He was a very unspectacular looking middle aged fellow dozing off. Yet, the angels were staring at him and whispering in awe. He was a somewhat successful accountant whose biography for the most part mirrored 90% of the rest of the room.

But what no one could possibly know, and if they would know they would most likely look at him with disgust and disdain, was how he had in the past done some pretty immoral things and had somehow pulled himself away and quietly done true teshuva. In fact he himself cringes when he thinks of his past actions.

There’s no glamour in that Teshuva. No one will come hear his sordid tale. And he himself has no clue of his heroics and that is precisely what makes it so lofty…

Yet here was a group of angels quivering in his shadow..because angels..they see a different world.

Are You Feeling It?

Imagine you bought a new car and after six months it starts to get very sluggish. You take it to the mechanic and he recommends a good wash and wax. “What? Are you crazy? There’s an internal problem,” you say. “Okay,” he says, “how about putting on some of those fancy rims?”

Believe it or not, this is what we do with something even more precious than a new car. When people are feeling negative, sad, or unresourceful, they often opt for an easy superficial solution that is more of a distraction than a cure. Go to a movie, have a drink, eat some ice cream. Sleep. These bandaids don’t address the core issue. The reason why we opt for them is because we really aren’t used to delving into our insides. If you are able to get in touch with what’s on the inside, it’s a very useful thing to do.

One of the elusive things in life is surprisingly very close to your beating heart. It’s called intuition and for most people it has a life of its own. Do you want to have more of a handle on it?

Actually, your mind and heart are in cahoots to form an inner sense called intuition. This elusive part of us can be a powerful tool, if we understand it. Since you’re more familiar with your mind, let’s start with that. The sixth chapter and sixth mishna of Pirke Avot lists “binat halev” as a tool for Torah, and some girsot have “sichlut halev”.

Mental Intuition

In Hebrew the word Binah sometimes refers to intuition, and is one of the main spiritual connections to the Almighty, as explained in Kabbalah. Binah can mean knowledge that comes to a person without an intellectual process. A flash of insight or an uncomfortable feeling about a person or situation can come to us for a variety of reasons. But usually we think of this as intuition.

Technically, binah is a word that grammatically implies making connections between two different things. (Similarly the word “bein” means – between.) Sometimes it refers to the type of analysis that takes an idea and compares and contrasts it to everything else we know to be true. We can do this naturally, or we can do this intentionally. If I say “I’m not really 47 but I’m actually 35,” you will automatically, not necessarily intentionally, start matching that statement with internal knowledge in a split second. Does he look 47 or 35? Why would he have said he was 47 if he isn’t? Does he have an expression on his face that shows he’s joking?

On the other hand, a process of comparing a statement with everything else you know to be true can also be done intentionally. The Torah states God said to love your fellow man. Here are some analytical questions: Can I choose to love? What if my fellow man is a moron and a jerk that leaves his garbage cans in front of my driveway every week? Why isn’t it enough for me to merely like my fellow man? Can I just love my fellow man in my heart or is God asking me to try to stop famine and war in the world also?

You can develop, with practice, an analytical intellect that naturally breaks information down, clarifies, defines, and then compares and contrasts. The Gemara trains people to do this, and learning this process is a large portion or any “traditional” scholar’s training.


Have you ever had a premonition? Have you ever felt like something was going to happen before it did? The heart knows when something is about to happen. The Gemara calls refers to this as the person doesn’t know but his/her mazal knows. We all have intuitive feelings all the time, but we ignore them because they are distractions. We have no idea, usually, what information these feelings carry. Is it heartburn? A headache? Or an inkling that something is about to happen. Job, the quintessential sufferer of the Bible, had three friends that sensed something was wrong and all showed up at his door on the same day. Their friendship was so strong that they were able to get in touch with their intuition. Many people have had an experience similar to this. They say “I don’t know why, I just felt I had to call my mother or my brother, etc.” and the phone call was needed at that moment.

There is a spiritual world all around us that is complex. There are thousands of spiritual beings on your left and on your right. And there’s a good reason why we are unaware of the spiritual world. It’s too much for us to handle. But many generations held onto sensitivity to spirituality and didn’t leave it completely. For the past one hundred years people have gone away from the unseen and the mystical. They wanted facts and science, not religion and superstition. But they threw the baby out with the bathwater.

The truth is that you are not required to get in touch with your intuition. But if you do, it can be an extremely powerful tool.


Graphology is the study of handwriting and is used by psychologists, criminologists, (some yeshivos), and job application analysts. A good graphologist can tell you many things about your personality. They can describe your relationship with your parents; they can assess your general level of honesty, tell if you’re happy or depressed. But it takes time to learn this skill, and you have to have an intuitive ability also. They studied children’s ability to assess handwriting based purely on intuition. It turns out the children were extremely accurate until they reached puberty. After that, as pre-teens they began to rely more on intellect or visual factors and less on their intuition. Children are naturally intuitive. If you want to relearn your intuition, you need to get in touch with your “inner child.” You have to choose a time and a place to feel childlike. Not immature, but more like going with the flow, having unstructured fun. Sometimes spending time with a child and letting the child dictate the flow of activities and conversation can help. Sometimes being around other people who are intuitive like artists and musicians can help too. When was the last time you sat on the floor with a child and played?

The Gemara mentions that women have extra Binah, and many people understand this to mean something similar to what people refer to as “women’s intuition”. (How this relates to “daatan kalos” is an interesting discussion but beyond the scope of this article.)


People tend to think of “feelings” as emotions like anger or jealousy, but there are various feelings that aren’t emotions. You can feel tired, hungry or thirsty. You can feel “funny”. You can feel out of sorts, awkward, uncomfortable, upbeat, or “on your game”. You can feel like something isn’t quite right. Feelings can be synonymous with intuition. Feelings come and go all day long. An exercise you can do to get control of the power inside you is to write down on a piece of paper numbers one to ten. Carry the paper with you and every once in a while write down exactly how you are feeling. It may not be easy, but with effort you can articulate what you are feeling. This act puts your internal barometer more in the palm of your hand.


Kabbalists describe the internal workings of the human being. We all recognize that we are not our body. The physical masks the spiritual. Our body is our “mortal coil” that we are enclothed with while in this physical world. Some of us are also aware that we are not our thoughts and feelings. If you can say, “I can’t control my thoughts.” then you are not your thoughts. If you can say, “I can’t stop feeling this way.” then you are not your feelings.

But the act of getting in touch with your thoughts, feelings, and intuition gets you one giant step closer to understanding your true self. Some people say “ignorance is bliss”, but I believe true happiness comes from understanding yourself, God, and spirituality. The tool described here, of getting in touch with your inner self, is a powerful means to greater happiness.

With Kabbalah entering pop culture in a way that makes us frum people uncomfortable, the stance towards Kabbalah in the yeshiva world has become even more closed than before. But its possible that the secular world is grabbing onto something that the frum world is leaving behind. One of the gedolim said that since the frum world didn’t grab the mitzvah of settling Eretz Yisroel, the secularists were able to be zocheh to that mitzvah. I wonder if the same thing is happening with Kabbalah? This is just my personal conjecture. I throw it out as a question to you.

Be that as it may, Binas halev remains a powerful tool unused by many. Teshuva is enhanced by introspection and this requires an accurate assessment of the inner you. We need to not only look at the mitzvah scorecard, but search inside for what inner challenges the Almighty is testing us with. That’s where the real work begins, and that’s where the greatest possible gain may be.

In loving memory of Joan Lipsitz Fried. And in the zechus of a refuah shelaimah to Yisroel Noach ben Hinda and Yisroel Moshe ben Golda Basya, and Yehuda Leib ben Chava Rochel

Going Out of Our Comfort Zone

I’m writing this when I really should be doing some work or packing some boxes, as we are moving out to the Gush tomorrow for 4 months, but what the hey. It’s purim (at least it was, when I wrote this) so let’s live a little dangerously.

I lived a little dangerously yesterday (IMHO), by coming out of my comfort zone to go to a purim seuda in kiryat sefer. To recap, briefly: I’m not haredi myself, but I like haredim a lot, and I think they get a bum deal a lot of the time from the rest of the orthodox world.

My husband has been going to kollel in kiryat sefer for around six months now, and his chavruta and his wife (both BTs themselves) invited us for the meal. It’s not the first time I’ve been there – I’ve been there loads, and even have a lovely chavruta there.

Yet for some reason, yesterday I felt a little out of place. As soon as I stepped out of the car, I was worrying that I wasn’t dressed tzniusly enough (I had a very tight pair of angel’s wings and a halo, over my bandana – oh, and clothes, obviously). Then I was a bit worried that the hechshas on the mishloach manot weren’t up to par (I still haven’t worked out the whole hechsha thing in Israel, and I usually now get round it by shopping Shefa Shuk, which is glatt heaven.)

Our hosts were their usual lovely selves, which reassured me a bit. But as the meal progressed, and the men got progressively drunker, I had the time to ponder on why I was feeling a bit antsy. My husband was in his element – he was dressed like a clown, and I lost count of the number of slightly drunk haredi men who wondered in, took him for a spin round the table or gave him a hug or a pat on the shoulder.

My two girls loved the whole scene so much – they had scores of girls their age to play with – that my oldest told me she wanted to move there. But I don’t. Or at least, I’m not sure what would have to change before I would.

Everytime I go to Kiryat Sefer, I’m struck by how sweet and polite the kids are. And I really want that for my own family. And I’m struck by how generous and giving of their time and energy so many of the people are. My chavruta is a case in point, giving me 2 precious hours of her post-shabbat Saturday evening, when I’m sure she has a million and one more useful things she could be doing for herself, with three small kids in the house.

Or take the teenage girl who taxis in from Kiryat Sefer every Monday, to do a parsha chug for kids in Modiin. At a time when many other girls her age would be in their rooms sulking, or experimenting with who-knows-what and who-knows-who, this kind, lovely girl gives a whole half a day to teach torah to some else’s kids.

And again, I want that for my family. But – and there is a but – there are some things that I still struggle with. I know a lot of people think that you can have all this without living in the haredi world, but I’m not so sure. The kids turn out, for the most part, so well in kiryat sefer because of its emphasis on torah, and nothing but torah.

But it’s precisely the ‘pure’ atmosphere of places like kiryat sefer that puts me a little on edge. Because I know I couldn’t keep it up 24/7. I’d crack, and need to listen to some pop music. Or I’d crack, and need to go and see a film. Or wear sandals without socks. Or something that wouldn’t be ‘right’.

That word is not in inverted commas because I’m being sarcastic. In my heart of hearts, I’m sure G-d thinks that listening to pop music, watching films and wearing slightly risqué shoes is not 100% ok. At best it’s a waste of time or frivolous, at worst it’s, well, going against what he wants.

But at the moment, I just can’t help it. Which is why, at the moment, places like Kiryat Sefer are lovely to visit, but impossible for me to contemplate moving to.

Frummer than Thou

As Mark so subtly pointed out in his last email, I haven’t posted here in a while. Part of the reason for that is that I haven’t been feeling especially enthused about the mitzvos lately. The Lebanon war really did propel me to a higher level, particularly in my davening, but then something happened over Sukkos that really got me down.

What happened essentially is this: Person A, whom I respect, said that Person B, who I also respect, has some incorrect hashkafos. The incident upset me on two counts. First, Person A probably would never have said that if not for my own poor choice of words in presenting Person B’s position. But even when I tried to amend my words, Person A cited an entire frum community to justify her statement. For me, that was the hardest part to take.

In my last post, I wrote about davening for strangers on the street as a means to healing the rift between Modern and Chareidi. I now think that’s the easy way out. Loving one’s fellow Yid is easy from that distance. Having a disagreement with someone makes ahavas Yisroel a lot more challenging. And when matters of hashkafa enter the picture, and the other person takes the “more frum” position, I feel an underlying personal criticism.
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Second Chances

Tomorrow is Pesach Sheni (the Second Pesach). Pesach Sheni takes place one month after erev Pesach, the time when the Pesach sacrifice was prepared and eaten. At the time when the Pesach offering was to be eaten in the desert, a group of men approached Moshe Rebeinu and complained that they were tameh (ritually impure) and, consequently, were unable to join in the mitzvah. They basically told Moshe that it wasn’t fair that they were unable to partake of the Pesach offering. The gemorah (Succah 25a) presents two opinions as to how these men became tameh. One is that they were the men who carried Yosef’s coffin out of Egypt and the other is that they were involved in the mitzvah of burying an unattended body they had found. (Meis mitzvah). Either way they were involved in an “important” mitzvah at the time.

Moshe brought their complaint to Hashem who responded by ordaining a new Yom Tov, Pesach Sheni. One month after erev pesach, all of those who had become tameh through contact with a corpse or who were too far away on the day preceding pesach can offer and consume the pesach offering. A second chance.
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BT, FFB, and FWE

“I feel like I’m on a treadmill.”

The expression seems to have lost its imagery now that so many have invested thousands of dollars on state-of-the-art, high-tech exercisers or dole out hundreds of dollars a month to join gyms that enable us to go steadily nowhere while sweating off calories. But back before treadmills became the defining symbol of the baby-boomers’ desperate pursuit of eternal youth, the expression “on a treadmill” meant, in the language of Torah, avodas perech — endless toil with no meaningful purpose.

So perhaps we owe the boomers a measure of gratitude for restoring the treadmill to where it belongs in Torah philosophy: as a symbol of the very purpose of our existence.
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Still At 61!?

“Still at 61!?” That’s where my “Hair Today Gone Tomorrow” post has been holding for weeks now on the “Most Commented Upon Posts” section of BeyondBT and it’s beginning to really irk me. I mean, is there no one in the whole World Wide Web to bring it up to 62? Come on people! We’ve got lists to top.

But seriously, I do eye that section on BeyondBT every time I log in to have a peek at what’s on the minds of my fellow BTs and FFBs. I think that to some degree it’s even one of the reasons I have neglected to contribute a post for so long. I mean the pressure to outperform the others in your sector can be quite burdensome.
Read more Still At 61!?