Profiles in Courage – BTs and the Trait of G’vurah

Rabbi Dovid Schwartz zt”l

In their Yeshivas and Batei Ya’akov our FFB children benefit from the study and inspiration-by-osmosis of the classic Mussar literature. In the tables of contents of these works one will find a profusion of fine and noble middos = character traits. There’s alacrity, humility, love, mercy, magnanimity and fear of heaven, et al. on the menu. But there is one trait that is conspicuously absent. While it may not have been expunged from the actual literature the midah of G’vura(=might) and personal courage has been deemphasized in the culture and in the curricula. I have theories as to why this is so but that would be a subject for another post.

For now, suffice it to say we associate “being macho” with some of the more unseemly diffusions of the dominant culture that we broke with when we began our return to Torah and Mitzvahs and that we continue to strive mightily to avoid being influenced by. *2

Many of us operate under the conviction that courage and strength are somehow un-Jewish characteristics. Every stereotype contains a kernel of truth and the Woody Allenesque weak Jewish Nebbishes of the popular imagination were not spontaneously generated in a cultural vacuum. Sure, we are proud of the military prowess of the IDF and may even take some “guilty pleasure” in reading the Holocaust literature that deals with the exploits of the forest partisans and the insurgents of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising. Yet we view these as the exceptions that prove the rule of the historical Jewish personality makeup that is mild, non-violent, non-confrontational, deferential, and passive to a fault.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Our sages, OB”M, in Pirkei Avos teach us: “Who is mighty? He who vanquishes his evil inclination. As it is written: ‘And one who dominates his own spirit (is mightier) than the champion who captures a city.’” In other words, self control and vanquishing one’s Yetzer HaRah =inclination to evil is identical in kind but superior in degree to the strength, the personal courage, and the steely nerves of the victorious battlefield general. It requires more courage G’vurah- to vanquish the Yetzer HaRah than to finally conquer the besieged city.

It is peculiar that in contemporary Torah Observant Jewish culture the midah of G’vurah should have been so marginalized seeing as it is, as per the Shulchan Aruch, square one of Judaism:

“One should be misgaber*as a Lion in order to rise in the morning for the service of their Creator”

-Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 1:1

IMO BTs are uniquely positioned to raise the consciousness of Jewish Society at large to the indispensable centrality of the Midas haG’vurah and to infuse the cowardly “lions” with new strength. For while the trait of g’vurah is something that all Jews aspire to, it is a trait that the BT excels at and identifies with. Rishonim explain that the famous dictum of Chazal : “in the spiritual station where Ba’alei T’shuva stand even the Tzadikim who never sinned cannot stand” is predicated on the Ba’al T’shuva’s relative superiority in the middah of G’vurah. Having tasted the forbidden to the point that all sense of taboo has disappeared (don’t get offended… as per Chazal this happens after two repetitions!) the level of G’vurah required for the BT to resist future seduction of his/her Yetzer haRah is greater than the level required by the Tzadik to resist an equivalent temptation.

We all know people who possessed the inner strength, the awesome g’vurah, to turn their backs on lucrative careers, break off relationships with significant others, render some or much of their higher education irrelevant, and/or willingly begin to re-educate themselves at an advanced age at institutions where, despite being highly accomplished, they would have to begin anew literally from the ABCs. Many of us even see these people when we gaze at our reflections in the mirror.

Those FFB’s who had the benefit of a Torah enriched early childhood education can hardly fathom and never replicate the courage and strength of the BT. But they can certainly draw lessons in G’vurah… “Profiles in Courage” from them.

There is a most beautiful tradition rooted in the works of the classical Kabbalists to utilize the days of Sefiras HaOmer for Tikun haMiddos = the refinement of character traits in preparation for receiving the Torah on Shavuos. There is a veritable rainbow of goodness to behold when perusing the siddur’s listing of these middos: yet tonight the color most vivid in the middos rainbow is that of g’vurah = personal courage and strength.

Over the past half century the Kiruv revolution has empowered the mighty and encouraged the courageous. It behooves us to offer thanksgiving and praise to the Kel Gibor = the Almighty G-d, who taught us His Torah from “the mouth of His might” and who continues to manifest the divine attribute of g’vurah by stemming and reversing the hemorrhaging of our people in fulfillment of His promise “Ki lo yamush m’pi zarakha v’zerah zarakha mey’atah v’ad olam” = “And the Torah will not withdraw from the mouths of your children or their children now and forever.” But we mustn’t forget that imitation is the sincerest form of praise. As such we ought to search for ways and means to grow even stronger and more courageous ourselves and, leading by example, empower the weak and encourage the frightened. In a paradoxical duty of Oz-like chesed it’s “on us” to grant courage to HaShem’s cowardly lions.


* (reflexive conjugation of the word gavar- verb form of g’vurah and all the strength and fearlessness that it implies)

*2 When I speak of G’vurah I don’t mean Jewish street gangs or even JDL like neighborhood patrols. Nor is this limited to more Torah observant Jews enlisting in the IDF. I’m talking about an emphasis on g’vurah that will replace a “passing-of-the-buck”, dodging of responsibility with a buck-stops-here assuming of responsibility. G’vurah that leads to greater emotional and financial independence, a willingness to move away from the frummest population centers to places where Yiddishkeit will not be as convenient, or to make aliyah in spite of the daunting challenges. I’d love to see more nerve to confront social problems instead of the terror that denies them, communal courage and self-confidence that would ameliorate (to a degree, not a reckless one) the current fear-of-contamination informed snootiness and exclusivity that one finds at all too many Yeshivas. I’d love to see more of the individual self-confidence and courage that is required both for a lifetime of spiritual growth and for the serenity and mental-hygiene that comes from realizing it’s OK to be me (so long as it’s within Torah parameters)

Originally Published in May 2007

Strike the First Blow and the Fix is In

Why is the war mentioned at the beginning of Ki Seitzei offensive while the one mentioned in Behaaloscha defensive?
Why is victory guaranteed in the war mentioned at the beginning of Ki Seitzei ?

 And when war will come in your land against the tormenter that puts pressure on you, you shall sound a staccato on the trumpets. Then HaShem your Elokim will remember you and will save you from your adversaries.

— BeMidbar 10:9

When you set out to wage war against your adversaries HaShem your Elokim will give you victory over them such that you will capture [his] prisoners.

— Devarim 21:10                                                                                                                         

In the day of good be absorbed of good, and in the day of evil observe; for Elokim has made one parallel the other.

— Koheles 7:14

And the two of them were naked, the Adam and his wife, but they felt no shame.

— Bereshis 2:25

 Prior to the sin they were purely good and they related to “the face below” as they did [and still do] to “the face above” [i.e. as there is no shame in eating, hearing, smelling or seeing or in the organs that are the channels of these senses so too there was no shame in reproduction or the organs of reproduction]. For the component of evil that became incorporated in human beings is what differentiates between the two “faces”.  It is in the lower portion of the human gestalt where evil acquired an abode. By way of proof observe: The sign of the holy covenant is surrounded by a husk, the foreskin, which HaShem commanded to excise for it is there that shidah rested [see Yeshayahu 34:14].

— Ohr HaChaim ibid

There are several marked differences between the two pesukim-verses; describing the wars of the Bnei Yisrael– the Nation of Israel.  The pasuk in BeMidbar describes a defensive war, a war that “will come” to you while the pasuk at the beginning of our sidrah-weekly Torah reading; speaks of an offensive, aggressive war: “When you set out to wage war”.  While rescue and living to fight another day is promised in the former pasuk, victory over the opponent is guaranteed only in the latter pasuk.

When weighing the decision of whether or not to wage war there are a myriad of factors that require consideration. The first among them is if the projected war or fight is winnable. No individual, nation, tribe or even terrorist entity launches a fight or a war that they know that they can’t win.  While combatants may be prepared to lose many rounds or battles and to clash for years and even decades; no one sets out to lose the war.

That said few war decision-makers are 100% certain of their ultimate victory. Military history is replete with many “David vs. Goliath” upset victories. Hubris, megalomania, underestimation of the enemy, bad intelligence, poor diplomacy and a host of other uncontrollable factors may delude combatants into thinking that their victory is assured. Still, most rational military men understand that it takes more than valor or superior technology and manpower to win a war.  They understand that they must remain ever vigilant, persistent and brave because; “it ain’t over till it’s over”.

This is what makes the opening of our sidrah so odd. The prophecies of war should have been stated conditionally; “When you set out to wage war against your adversaries IF HaShem your Elokim will give you victory over them and if you will capture [his] prisoners.” In point of historical fact the Bnei Yisrael were not victorious in every war nor did they always capture prisoners. Why then does the pasuk guarantee victory?

Understanding that all of the wars of Bnei Yisrael are not merely physical and geopolitical but metaphysical and spiritual and that, when applied to the microcosm of individual Jews, they translate into milchemes hayeitzer-the war against our inclinations to evil;  Rav Leibeleh Eiger explains the distinctiveness of the war described at the beginning of our sidrah allegorically.

Imagine a great warrior king whose crown prince is his only son. While the king wants the prince to achieve the glory and honor that only military victory can accord, he is unwilling to actually risk his only, irreplaceable son’s battlefield defeat and death. And so the king, aware of the tactics, strategy and covert intelligence reports, waits until “the fix is in” and does not dispatch the crown prince to wage a war until and unless he, the king, knows that victory is not only probable — but a foregone conclusion. Military observers, combatants and reporters following the war may imagine it to be a closely contested competition — but the king knows better.

When it comes to milchemes hayeitzer our Heavenly Father and King, HaShem, would never risk the death and defeat of His only son; the Bnei Yisrael. While the war may endure a lifetime for individuals and the entire span of human history for the nation as a whole; the ultimate victory is not a question of “if” but of “when”. There is no possibility of defeat. In the end HaShem your Elokim will give you victory and deliver the enemy into your hands … including all that had been yours that the enemy had temporarily captured.

To carry the metaphor a step further: After deciding to wage a war because of its presumed winnability the first strategic consideration is whether to launch a preemptive or even surprise attack or to wait until the enemy makes the first move and, only then, to retaliate.

Rav Leibeleh Eiger goes on to view our sidrahs opening pasuk through the prism of the doctrine of Sefiros-Divine Emanations; in order to understand the offensive, aggressive nature of this war.

As this is the sixth sidrah in Sefer Devarim-the Book of Deuteronomy; it corresponds to sixth Sefirah of Yesod-Foundation. The Kabalistic tradition associates with the Sefirah of Yesod with the reproductive organ as this is the font and foundation of life and of the holiness of life.  It is precisely because it is the foundation for the entire structure of life and sanctity that so much passionate, powerful opposition to life and holiness concentrates against Yesod. For “Elokim has made one parallel the other.” It is there that many of the greatest battles of milchemes hayeitzer are waged.  This is why the war must be waged preemptively and aggressively. The only effective defense in this primary war is offense. This is why the bris milah-covenant if circumcision; is performed as soon as the human is born before any sentience of evil and lust inherent in the organ is even felt, i.e. before the enemy brings the battle to us … we strike a blow, and draw first blood.

Once the first, preemptive strike is struck there will still be many battles. These will be incessant and exhausting. There may even be many battles lost and much ground relinquished but “the fix is in”.  The war will be won. The King would never allow his only son to be vanquished and killed.


~adapted from Toras Emes Ki Seitzei the third D”H Ki

This post is an installment for Ki Seitzei 5774  in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK

Dealing With The World’s Inherent Conflicts

Korach is the parsha of Machlokes or conflict. The Gemora in Sanhedrin 110a says:
The Torah states: “Moshe rose and went to Dasan and Aviram” – Reish Lakish said: From here we learn that one should not persist in a quarrel. For Rav said: Whoever persists in a quarrel violates a prohibition as it is stated: “He should not be like Korach and his Assembly”.

Hashem created the world with conflict. The most fundamental conflict is between our physical side which includes our desires and ego, taiva and gaiva, and our spiritual side, our soul, composed of our nefesh, ruach, and neshama. Dr. Dovid Lieberman phrases this conflict as “the body wants to do what feels good, the ego wants to do what looks good, and the soul wants to do what is good”.

Torah is the antidote for the man vs himself conflict – as it teaches us how to properly integrate all our actions, emotions and thoughts with our soul.

When Hashem created us as Tzelem Elokim he gave us the ability to create our own spiritual reality and become a creator like He is a Creator. This creates a conflict between ourselves as creators and Hashem as Creator.

We address the man vs God conflict through prayer in which we regularly acknowledge that all our accomplishments are dependent on Hashem.

The third conflict is man vs man. In the Mesillas Yesharim Chapter 11 on Nekiyus, the Ramchal discusses the big four negative character traits of pride, anger, envy and honor – which are all rooted in gaiva. The Ramchal says “a person would be able to overcome his desire for wealth and the other pleasures and still be pressed by the desire for honor, for he cannot endure seeing himself as inferior to his friends”.

The antidote for the man vs man conflict is Gemilas Chasadim. When we give to another person we connect to them and we no longer view our relationship from the ego perspective of superiority and inferiority, which is at the root of the big bad four.

One final helpful piece of advice from Rabbi Itamar Schwartz author of the Bilvavi and the Da Es Atzmecha seforim. He says that we need to change our perspective from a body with a soul – to a soul clothed with a body – which takes mental work, given that we experience the world primarily through our bodies. The nature of spiritual souls is to connect whereas the body and ego cause desire, division and sadness.

We can’t eliminate the world’s inherent conflicts, but we can lessen their divisive effects and work on the connection generating properties of our spiritual soul-oriented world.

Healthy Self-Love

A friend of mine told me his daughter bought him a kipah that’s half velvet and half knit, that says “I love every Jew” in Hebrew. Cute idea that expresses an important point we all need to think about more. Many of my fellow baalei-teshuva have an easy time saying “We should love all different kinds of Jews”. But some of us don’t easily fit in anywhere so it’s easy to say lets love everyone when you don’t really love anyone. Not that “not fitting in” is synonymous with not loving, but we all tend to develop a love for the members of our “group”, and cast aspersions on the others.

Within Orthodoxy against other Orthodox Jews or between Orthodox and Reform etc. Do we really need to puff ourselves up by denigrating others? If you really felt one with the Almighty, that you were an emissary of the Infinite Creator, would you feel the need to denigrate Reform Jews? As Baalei Teshuva, do we have an easier time loving all Jews or a harder time loving all Jews? If we have an easier time we need to share our thoughts with our fellow FFB’s. If we have a harder time, we need to learn from great people like R. Zelig Pliskin, and others how to generate more ahavas Yisroel.

Here’s one tip from our sages:

Healthy criticism is important and we do need to point out flaws in others to avoid them or help others avoid those flaws, but that mitzvah seems to be a little overdone. (The Chofetz Chaim cautions us regarding this in Clal Ches.) There’s more than enough of that going around.

Why does it say to love your fellow man like yourself? Why not just say “love your fellow man”? R. Moshe Rosenstein wrote that a person cannot properly fulfill the mitzvah of ahavas Yisrael if that person doesn’t feel good about his/herself. When you have a healthy self-love you can magnanimously pour your thoughts prayers and actions into others. They are an extension of you. When you feel crummy about yourself, you often will project that onto others. As the gemara says, “kol bmumo posel”. All people criticize others with their own flaws.

Whatever particular group you align yourself with, even if it’s just “observant Judaism”, or the Jewish people, or even just humanity, it’s crucial to feel good about yourself and that group. This doesn’t mean excusing flaws or ignoring areas in which we need to grow. It’s also crucial to be interested in growth. But we especially need to focus on our good points. We need to constantly reflect on what we are doing right, and what is positive about us. Not to put down others, but to appreciate ourselves.

From that base of healthy self-love we can spread it to everyone else.

Originally Published 11/05/2009

A Powerful Middos Enhancer – Skip Step Two

By Jonathan Rosenblum

Mishpacha readers could be forgiven for concluding that most of my time on trips to America is spent sponging rides from anyone who expresses so much as a word of appreciation for any column I have ever written. Yet what I inevitably gain from those rides is much more valuable than the cab fare I save.

Recently, I was met at the Denver airport by Mrs. Aliza Bulow, a writer, speaker, and educator, whose work I had admired from afar. She had expressed an interest in speaking to me while I was in Denver, and it turned out that she would be dropping off her daughter at the airport just as I would be exiting the baggage claim area.

As it happened, I preceded Mrs. Bulow. She did not arrive at the airport until half an hour before her daughter’s flight. By that time, there was no hope of her daughter returning to Detroit with the suitcase she had brought. “I’ll pick it up at Pesach,” she told her mother matter-of-factly. Meanwhile, there was still the matter of getting through security control with two children in strollers with just half an hour before flight time.

Clearly, she would have to rely on the kindness of many strangers to do so. (She did make the flight.)
I remarked to Mrs. Bulow that both she and her daughter had seemed preternaturally calm about a situation that would have tested my nerves to the breaking point.

In response, she told me that she has a rule in her family called “Skip step two.”

My ears picked up in anticipation of learning the magic formula for never losing your cool. She explained that in most situations that try us, first comes the triggering event — e.g., a dentist appointment that goes way overtime when you have to make it to the airport. Then you lose yourself in either panic or anger. Finally, you realize that you have to deal with the new situation one way or the other. Since you are going to have to deal with the situation eventually, why not just skip step two?

Mrs. Bulow gave me another example of “skipping step two” from the same daughter’s year in seminary in Israel. She and her roommates had been instructed that their closets were old and not overly stable and should not be moved. Nevertheless the roommates decided to rearrange all the beds in the room, which entailed moving the closets as well. Sure enough, the closet of Mrs. Bulow’s daughter collapsed and all her clothes were strewn around the room.

When her roommates came to tell her what had happened, she just went upstairs and put her stuff back. “Aren’t you even angry?” they asked.

“How would that help me?” she replied, without breaking stride.

Don’t we all waste a lot of time and energy losing our cool over things we are going to have to deal with anyway? Why not just skip step two?

Originally published in Mishpacha.

The Holiness of “Going like a Sheep”

Vayechi 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

The Elokim before whom my fathers , Avraham and Yitzchak, walked is the Elokim who has led me like a Shepherd from my inception until this day.

-Bereishis 48:15

After the revelation at Sinai various directives of the Torah, some actually counted among the 613 mitzvos, express HaShem’s will for imitatio dei– by which man finds sanctity and goodness by endeavoring to imitate HaShem.  Be it “walking in His ways”(Devarim 8:6 & 11:22), “sticking to Him”(Devarim11:22&30:20)[ which Chazal interpreted as sticking to His middos-characteristics] or “be holy for I am holy”(Vayikra 19:2) the idea is the same one. To wit; that we humans should make our own behaviors, and the spiritual-psychodynamics that underpin them, as consistent with those of HaShem as the limits of our theology allows.

Rav Moshe Codovero’s classic work, Tomer Devorah is predicated on this principle.  First the author analyzes the thirteen Divine Attributes of Mercy and then offers guidance and advice as to how to integrate them into our own lives,  Some have described the principle lyrically as dimui hatzurah l’Yotzrah– making the painting grow similar to the artist. (Cp Koheles Rabbah 2:26)

One of the twentieth century’s preeminent gaonim and chachmei hoavodah taught that while all this is true, that prior to the revelation at Sinai, in our Nations developmental period “walking in His ways” was not just one among many mitzvos or even the best technique for performing all the others. It was the be all and end all of the life’s-work of the patriarchs. HaShem proclaims His mission for Avraham as follows: “For I have paid special attention to him, so that he may command his children and his household after him, that they will keep the way of HaShem, to do charity and justice; HaShem will then bring about for Avraham everything that He promised.”  (Bereishis18:19)

The “way of HaShem” is not the merely way that He commands us to walk but that k’vyachol-as it were, the way / path that He treads Himself.  HaShem is our King, but also our Father, and in Divine Parenting “Do as I say, not as I do” is an anathema.  The “way of HaShem” is why He formed a covenantal relationship with Avraham and the nation that will spring from his loins. As such “walking in His ways” is the very cornerstone of Jewish patriarchy.

Still, the Izhbitzer explains, there are subtle yet defining differences between the various patriarchs approach to “walking in His ways.”

Avraham Avinu was defined by his middah of Chesed– loving-kindness, giving to, and pouring out upon, others. Avraham utilized love and kindness in every given opportunity to assimilate himself to His Creator. Yitzchak Avinu was defined by his middah of Gevurah-forceful self-restraint.  Yitzchak utilized awe and forceful self-restraint in every circumstance to emulate the way of His Creator. Yet Avraham was unfamiliar with the notion of mimicking Divine Contraction and Yitzchak was unaccustomed to imitating Divine Expansion.

But Yaakov was not defined by, and thus not restricted to, any particular middah. Yaakov’s very being was imitatio dei. Yaakov was a living self-portrait of HaShem that continually developed ever-higher fidelity to the Likeness of the portrait Painter.  Yaakov possessed the spiritual dexterity to copy HaShem in all of HaShems Divine middos. Whether the given situation called for chesed, gevurah or any other attribute across the theological spectrum, Yaakov, chameleon-like, conformed to the ways of His Creator.  In this respect his father and grandfather were, relatively speaking, more rigid and limited.

When Yaakov says that his fathers walked before HaShem he was humbly voicing a feeling of comparative inferiority.  He is expressing his observation of the proactive way in which they served HaShem. Capable of standing on their own two feet they, k’vyachol, walked ahead of HaShem. As Rashi (Bereishis 6:9) says “Avraham strengthened himself and walked in his righteousness by himself.”  Defined by their own particular middos, Avraham and Yitzchak were able to improvise and adapt these middos in Divinely imitative ways to new situations. This was especially so in those situations that seemed to be repeating the past, situations that precedents had been set for.

In contradistinction, Yaakov himself needed constant shepherding by HaShem. “Elokim…has led me like a Shepherd from my inception until this day.”  A sheep follows every move of the shepherd.  When the shepherd goes to the right or to the left, up or down, slow or fast, the sheep follow. Yesterday, watering his flock, the shepherd may have brought them right up to the riverbank. Today, floods have caused the waters to overflow and to repeat yesterday’s livestock management would not result in hydrating the sheep, but in drowning them.   Similarly Yaakov felt the need to follow HaShem like a sheep with no internal GPS to guide himself. Even if he confronted the “same” situation for the hundredth time, he awaited Divine guidance and then precisely shadowed HaShem’s Movements k’vyachol.

In fact, this was no inadequacy on Yaakov’s part but the very characteristic that made him the “choicest of the Patriarchs” and why it is his visage, and not those of Avraham and Yitzchak , that is chiseled on the Divine throne of Glory.

Yaakov lived the life that king Dovid prayed for “(When) HaShem is my Shepherd I will lack for nothing!” HaShem always leads a person, yet most people, bristling at the sheep-Shepherd relationship, turn their faces aside and willfully refuse to follow the leader.

The second Izhbitzer explains the relative advantage of Yaakov’s sheepishness in light of the following gemara:

And many nations will go and say: ‘ let us go and ascend up HaShem’s mountain, to the house of the L-rd of Yaakov; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion will Torah go forth, and the word of HaShem from Jerusalem.

Yeshaya 2:3

Rabi Elazar observed; “to the house of the L-rd of Yaakov” (why is this place referred to as the house of the L-rd of Yaakov) and not the L-rd of Avraham or the L-rd of Yitzchak? Avraham referred to the site of the Beis Hamikdash as a mountain (Bereishis 22:14), Yitzchak referred to it as a field (Bereishis 24:63), but Yaakov called it a house “and he called the name of the place Bethel (Bereishis 28:19).

-Pesachim 88A

There is an inherent danger in being fixed in a particular middah. One who is intransigently stuck even in the noblest of middos may be found wanting in particular situations.  No middah is more splendid than rachmanus-mercy, rooted in the chesed that is the very foundation of the world. Yet our sages teach us that one who can never let go of mercy will first abuse it by bestowing it upon unworthy recipients and then overcompensate for that abuse with its antisocial antithesis. “All who are merciful to the cruel will ultimately be cruel to the merciful” (Koheles Rabbah 7).

No one middah is complete and perfect unto itself. This is why Yaakov eschewed reliance on any particular middah.  Instead, he would assess the changing circumstances and look to HaShem for enlightenment and guidance minute by minute. He would move from middah to middah as the Divine will renewed Itself every moment. This is the meaning of the pasuk “No black magic can (harm) Yaakov nor any occult powers against Yisrael. ‘How is G-d acting at this moment’ is the only question pertinent to Yaakov and Yisrael.”(BeMidbar 23:23).

Through his incessant imitatio dei, his constant cleaving to HaShem Yaakov became subsumed within the Divine Light.  The Divine Light surrounded Yaakov like a house. As a house provides shelter from the elements the surrounding Divine Light lent Yaakov invulnerability. No malevolent powers, nor the excesses or deficiencies of the monomaniacal fixation on a particular middah, could harm him. Nimbly darting from middah to middah Yaakov sheepishly followed HaShem at every turn. Unlike his father and grandfather Hashem, k’vayachol, served as a protective “house” for Yaakov.

Adapted from:

Mei Hashiloach Vayechi D”H Vayomer Elokim
Bais Yaakov Vayechi inyan 7 page 426 (213B)
Also see Pri Tzadik Rosh HaShanah inyan 8 page 170

The Value of Vignettes

Ron Coleman recently wrote about Gedolim biographies and their place within our “literature”. While some of the stories or vignettes that we read about a tzeddaikus (holy woman), an adam gadol (great person), or a baal mussar (ethical leader) might seem somewhat hard to believe and might even fall under the secular label of an “urban legend”.

One such story, that appears below, has several versions. It’s almost like one of those old “Chose your own Adventure” kids’ books from the early 1980s. The versions I have read sort of follow this pattern and you can pretty much switch around any variable:

Once, while traveling at night with a student
a) Rabbi Yisrael Lipkin, aka Rabbi Yisrael Salanter
b) Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, the Alter of Kelm
c) Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagen, the Chofetz Chaim

stopped at
a) an inn.
b) the home of a former talmud.
c) a local eating establishment.

Since it was evening, he decided it was time to eat and asked for some soup. When the bowl was placed before him and he took his first spoonful, he found that the soup had
a) been undercooked.
b) spoiled.
c) way too much salt in it.

Not wanting to embarrass the cook, he order multiple bowls of the soup, until there was none left in the kitchen for anyone else. Even his companion didn’t get any. After their meal, the two travelers left and the student asked is teacher why he ate up all of the soup? The student knew that his pious teacher wasn’t one to give into excessive cravings for any type of food or drink. The teacher then explained what the soup tasted like and that he decided to the entire supply of it, so that he could save the cook the embarrassment of
serving something inedible to others.

Most will admit that this is a cute store (no matter what version you pick). The idea behind it is threefold. Firstly, it emphasizes the important Jewish value of not embarrassing another person. Secondly, it shows that Jewish leader was willing to put his own hunger, health, and nourishment aside at any given moment. Thirdly, it’s important to sometimes share with others the reasons we do what we do, especially if it seems out of the norm.

It happens to be a great story to share with kids or guests at the Shabbos meal (but after everyone has eaten desert and thanked you for the meal). Recently I experienced something that made me not only think of this story, but actually got to “live out” the story. Recently I was eating Shabbos lunch and I decided to pour myself some water from pitcher. As I poured the water into my glass I noticed that several tiny bubbles were forming inside my cup. This meant either one of two things. There must have been soap left in the pitcher or soup was left in my glass. I quickly drank my cup and then became quite thirsty and ended up finishing the entire pitcher of water. Afterwards, offered to go into the kitchen and refill the pitcher and my glass. I rinsed both a few times and returned with a bad taste in my mouth and plenty of water for everyone else.

Am I a nice guy? Usually not. Was I willing to take one for the team? Maybe. Did I end up blowing soap bubble from my mouth? No. However, I did read a store about someone much greater than myself and tried to apply the lesson.

A Call to Normalcy

Whenever I bring my family to the East Coast, they pick up little nuances from the observant Jews of the New York area. “The counselor said I should take two dollars and pick myself up a nawmal swim cap,” my six-year-old daughter told me. Somehow in a NY accent, the word “normal” contains subtleties we don’t have in the Midwest. It seems that lots of observant Jews place an importance on keeping the status quo and not doing anything unusual. This attitude to life may be very beneficial in safeguarding Clal Yisrael from negative influences like Rap music. But we also need to be on the lookout for something new and different that might be good for us.

In the introduction to the sefer Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Kagan z”l mentions a yetzer hara that tells you that following the laws of lashon hara carefully will make you abnormal. This is one of the strategies of the yetzer hara. We are afraid not to be Normal. If, however, we were clear about how much the Almighty loves us, and how the mitzvos are only for our benefit, we would never be cautious or afraid of trying to fulfill them properly.

Rabbi Shlomo Rothenberg of Mountaindale related to me that when his Rebbe, Rabbi Yehuda Davis z”l, was about to leave Europe he went to see meet with the Gedolim of that time like the Chofetz Chaim and others. He noticed that they all ate, slept, and lived life like normal human beings. You can be a Tzaddik and a Chacham without being abnormal.

What is normal?

The question is asked sometimes – What if everyone acts weird? Is that the new normal? What if everyone speaks lashon hara? Is that normal? What happens when Clal Yisrael gets used to not having a Holy Temple, or a Sanhedrin, or a fully observant Clal Yisrael?

In Gemara Yevamos 60b it discusses the passage from the Torah, Numbers Chapter 31, where Moshe allows the army to bring back some of the Midianite women to become part of Israel. In order to determine which women are fitting to join us they use a special test. The women are brought in front of the Tzitz, the golden head-plate of the High Priest. If her face changes color she is not fitting to be accepted. Later in history (Judges Chapter 21), the gemara relates, Yehoshua , is faced with a similar situation and Jewish women are chosen with a test for a similar reason, but they use a different test. Why, the gemara asks, don’t they use the same test the Jews used on the Midianites? Why don’t they use the Tzitz? Because the head-plate is not meant to be used for punishment, only favor. So then why was it used for the Midianites? Because they weren’t Jewish. Although you might suggest that this only relates to the Tzitz, but it seems in general that God’s judgment is designated mainly for non-Jews, while His mercy and compassion is designated for Israel.

Of course all human beings are worthy of God’s love, but once you have chosen to be a part of His special army, and abide by His holy commandments, you are more inline with His essence, so to speak, and more ripe for His love.

Another indication of this is concept is brought out from the Bnei Yissaschar on the months on Tammuz and Av. He mentions from the Zohar that the months of the year are spiritually designated and divided between Yaakov and Eisav. Nisan, Iyar, and Sivan went to Yaakov, and Eisav got Tammuz, Av, and Elul. This made Eisav happy as it left little help for Clal Yisrael to do teshuva before Rosh HaShannah. Yaakov fought for the rights to Elul, and thereby mitigated the aspect of Din inherent in Tammuz and Av. Yaakov therefore represents Din – judgment, and Eisav represents Chesed – love.

It needs to be mentioned that even though the other nations are more inclined to receive judgment, the gemara also says that the major problems of the other nations all over the world stem from Clal Yisrael not acting properly. So the war and famine all over the world is a specific message to us.

We live in a time period fraught with anti-semitism, conflict in the Middle East, Israel in constant danger, much of the world lives in poverty, meanwhile most of the Jewish people are not observant. This is not normal. None of this is normal. It’s easy to fall into a daily routine, praying for moshiach and Eretz Yisrael, but at the same time relating to the worlds problems with indifference, as we’ve gotten too used to living with judgment. We think meeting a Jew who is intermarried is normal. Well it may be common, but it is certainly not normal. What “normal” should mean is the way of life the Torah and the Shulchan Aruch proscribe.

Chesed – Love

We are told by our Torah and the sages of the incredible amount of love the Almighty has for us. He’s our “loving Father in Heaven”. He wants us to live with the fullest expression of His love. Even when a father is punishing his child, all he really wants to do us hug and kiss. Does our Creator want the profanity on the airwaves and the cruelty in the streets? Does He want the drugs and rising immorality? Does He want ignorance, atheism and paganism? No.

HaShem wants goodness and wisdom to permeate the world. That’s what life is really supposed to be like. He wants to shower us with health, wealth, chachma and kedusha. As we say each time we say Birchat Hamazon, “liyadcha, hamleah, hapesucha, hakadosha, veharchav” – from Your hand which is full, open, holy, and generous. HaShem can’t wait to give us blessings. All the blessings. Big blessings.

Maybe we need to adjust our attitude a bit as to what exactly really is… normal.

A Role Model to Emulate

I work at a Jewish newspaper, the Texas Jewish Post, and although it has articles and ads from every stream of Jewish life, it runs a weekly column by the dean of DATA (Dallas Area Torah Association), the “black-hat” Kollel that brought me back to Yiddishkeit again. Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is a model for me to emulate, because he repeatedly emphasizes that observant Jews should not look down on those who are less observant. I know that I myself forget that a lot of times and start to get on my high horse.

DATA, and also Congregation Ohev Shalom in Dallas, to which I belong, are indeed bright signs of change in the Jewish community. Of course I am comparing them with the community in Brooklyn, New York, where I used to live, and New York is usually not noted for its warmth and closeness. Too, I was in a far different personal situation in Brooklyn than I am here. But ever since moving to the Dallas Metroplex over 10 years ago and coming into DATA’s orbit, I’ve felt accepted and embraced as a Jew. That has encouraged me to grow Jewishly and do Teshuva a second time.

I’m sure Rabbi Fried’s attitude of acceptance and humility is a large part of what enables him to spearhead the Jewish outreach that DATA is so successful at. If only I could have such Ahavat Yisrael. At least I have a goal to work toward. My Yetzer Hara tells me snidely that just because I am now observant, I’m “better” than those Jews who aren’t. But the minute I start to think that way, I’m worse, not better.

Since the 1970s, when I became a Baalat Teshuva the first time around, the Kiruv people I’ve come in contact with almost all had the same accepting attitude. I just didn’t see it for what it was back then; maybe I took it for granted, or maybe the few “bad apples” soured me on the whole concept. But now I’m looking at it with new eyes.

You can’t be a true Baal/at Teshuva without Ahavat Yisrael. Derech Eretz comes before Torah. If you’re going to look down on other Jews, you’re defeating the whole purpose of Torah and Judaism. Why am I saying this? Because as I put the words on paper, I’m talking to myself. The more I say this over and over to myself, the more I hope to internalize it until it is my second nature. And, hopefully, it will do some good for my fellow Jews as well.

The BT “Problem” That Won’t Go Away

I sometimes hear back through the cracks the complaints, sometimes justified, sometimes not, of the disillusioned baalei teshuva and, sometimes, former baalei teshuva. Sometimes, it seems, they were promised rose gardens. Some were not, but believe they were. Others just changed their minds, or followed their passions, or had a mental hiccup of some kind. It’s a complicated world. I can’t say I’m on a point of spiritual development that’s on a smooth curve from where I was 21 years ago, or that I’d be all that proud of what that graph would look like if I had to draw it … though sooner or later, it will indeed be drawn.

But there is one complaint about assimilation into the frum world that is so common that while I have yet to meet someone who used it as a rationale to stop doing God’s will as revealed in the Torah, well, it can’t be helping anyone.

It’s the Derech Eretz Problem.

On the one hand, derech eretz — the basic mode of behavior among people within a society — is laudable in the frum world. Let’s shave off the issue of corruption and crime; regrettably, we have our criminals, and they are all the more noticeable for their outer trappings of orthodoxy; but still we are not a particularly threatening group to each other or the rest of the world. Get past that and there are behaviors that are fairly common “out there” but relatively unheard of in the normative orthodox world and certainly in the yeshiva environment. Examples of bad social behavior rare in the frum world that spring to mind based on my own observation are disrespect of the elderly, physical confrontations, street crime and petty dishonesty, foul language, and, with limited exceptions, following the Boston Red Sox.

But when we gather around in little groups in our weaker moments, what we talk about is the Derech Eretz Problem.
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Princes and Princesses We Were

I was not given many limits as a child and was raised to think that the world was coming to me. (I do not think that many FFBs are taught to think like that.) There are obviously many negatives to being raised in that regard, and many of them become crystal clear to me when people like the guy I work with, an FFB, pronounces his disbelief with the way I went about handling any one of many situations. “Aryeh, you can’t DO that” he will tell me. Or “Aryeh, what’s WRONG with you?” he’ll ask?

Now I don’t want to comment on his delivery…whether it could or should or couldn’t or shouldn’t be better…that’s a conversation for another time. What I would like to discuss is that often, after he points these things out I find myself saying “he’s right.”
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