You Don’t Desire? Then Yearn to Desire!

By Rabbi Dovid Schwartz zt”L-

For the Mitzvah that I am prescribing to you today is not beyond your grasp or remote from you…Rather it is something that is very close to you. It is in your mouth and in your heart so that you can accomplish it.’   -Devarim 30: 11, 14

While the closeness of “the Mitzvah” is described as being in our hearts and mouths it is not said to be in our hands. Rav Tzadok, the Kohen of Lublin, draws an essential lesson about the limitations of human free will from this omission. The precedent for this lesson can be found in the Torahs dissimilar narratives of Avraham Avinus leitmotif.

The hospitality Chesed that Avraham Avinu offered to human travelers is well documented in Chazal and yet in the Written Torah there is only the scantest allusion to it (VaYeetah Eishel-Bereshis 21:33).  In marked contrast the hospitality that he extended to the three angels is described in great detail in the Written Torah.  This is especially odd inasmuch as the Angels were only pretending to eat, drink and rest and needed neither the physical rest and recreation provided to them nor the monotheistic lessons that diners at Avraham Avinus table learned. Avraham genuinely wanted to do kindness to the angels just as he did to all of his visitors. But in reality he did not provide for any of the needs of these special guests.  His desire to do Chesed went unrealized. But the Torah places the greatest emphasis precisely on the episode of desired Chesed, in which no actual Chesed took place.

In truth all that HaShem demands of us, all that is really within the parameters of our autonomy and freedom, is our will, our wants, our desire to do good as expressed in our hearts and our mouths. As the Gemara in Sanhedrin 106B says:  HaKadosh Baruch Hu Leeba Boyee –HaShem wants the heart. Whereas the actual realization of our good will, wants and desires, the actual execution of the Mitzvah comes about only through Seyata DiShmaya,-Divine assistance.  As our posuk says; the Mitzvah… is very close to you…in your mouth and in your heart. However you will need HaShems help so that you can accomplish it.’

L’Dovid HaShem Ohree V’Yishee  is the “anthem” of the month of Elul and the Days of Awe. In it we find the problematic verse (Tehilim 27:4) “One thing have I asked of HaShem,  I will ask it; that I may dwell in the house of HaShem all the days of my life, to behold the pleasantness of HaShem , and to inspect  His palace.” Once the Meshorer-Psalmist declared that “One thing have I asked of HaShem” why not continue immediately with what is being asked for?  “that I may dwell in the house of al HaShem all the days of my life etc. “ Why repeat “I will ask it”? The blatant, superfluous redundancy of the posuk demands a clarification.

The Rebbe Reb Binim of Przysucha (P’shischa) explains that what the Meshorer has asked of HaShem is NOT to dwell in the house of HaShem all the days of his life but that dwelling in the house of  HaShem become his fondest desire, truly the one thing that he seeks, asks and prays for. He is asking to ask, desiring to desire, wanting to want.  The one thing that I have asked of HaShem is that Ohsah Ahvakesh…that this/it is what I will ask and pray for.

Our hearts are not always in the right place. Perhaps when we were young, or young in our Judaism, as long as we were shtaiging-progressing in our spiritual lives we could get by with very little materially. Even in our youths it is rare that dwelling in the house of HaShem all the days of our lives is our one and only request and desire. Instead it is just one, albeit a major one, of our many desires, wants and needs. Then setbacks, disillusionments, disappointments, societal and family pressures all conspired to distort our value systems and rearrange our fondest dreams and desires. We may have become more interested in maintaining and amplifying our creature comforts and financial security than in finishing Sha”s, davening ecstatically or creating a new Chesed organization that would alleviate the suffering of hundreds. In a word, we are no longer sincerely asking to dwell in the house of HaShem at all. So, whether young or old, during these days of Divine Mercy in particular we echo the prayer of the Meshorer twice daily. We ask to ask nothing else, desire to desire exclusively, want to want monomaniacally all that is good, kind, holy and exalted.

The Kohen of Lublin amplifies the Rebbe Reb Binims reading of Pslam 27. It is not that the Meshorer was trying to avoid overplaying his hand in prayer by asking to actually dwell in the house of HaShem etc. or just “having an off day”. It is that, truth be told, we can never ask for more than correct, ethical and holy yearnings.  The exercise of our free will is limited to what we want and desire and does not extend to what we do and accomplish. The mitzvah is in our hearts and mouths.  The actualization of Mitzvahs is HaShems domain, not that of human beings.

Adapted from Pri Tzadik Parshas VaYera Paragraph 10 (Page 29A)

An installment in the series From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK

There Are no Lightweights or Heavyweights … Only Half-Weights

Pikudei-Shekalim-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-

Everyone who is to be counted in the census must give a half-shekel according to the holy standard where a shekel is 20 gerah … the rich may not increase [their donations over and above] and the poor may not diminish [their donations below the amount of] (than) this half-shekel …

-Shemos 30:13,15

I believe with absolute assurance that the Creator, Blessed is His Name, rewards those who observe His commandments with good and punishes those who violate His commandments.

-Maomonides 11th principle of Faith

Our Rabbis taught: A man should always regard himself as though he were half guilty and half meritorious [so that] if he performs one mitzvah, fortunate is he, for he has tipped his personal scale towards merit; if he commits one aveirah-transgression, woe to him for tipping his personal scale towards guilt … Rabi Eleazar son of Rabi Shimon said: Because the world is judged by its majority, and an individual [too] is judged by his majority [of his personal good or bad], if he performs one mitzvah, fortunate is he for tipping the scale, both for himself and for the whole world, [down] on the side of merit; if he commits one transgression, woe to him for tipping the scale for himself and the whole world towards guilt …

-Kiddushin 40A-B

The silver census money collected from the community came out to 100 kikars–talents and 1775 shekels by the holy standard …  The 100 [silver] kikars were used to cast the foundation sockets for the Mishkan and that the cloth partition. There were a total of 100 foundation sockets made out of 100 [silver] kikars, one kikar for each foundation socket.

–Shemos 38:25,27

Everyone, both rich and poor was commanded to contribute exactly the same coin.  As the census numbers were calculated by counting these coins the need for a standardized contribution is easily understood.  If the wealthy were to drop multiple coins, or a larger, weightier denomination, into the contribution box it would have been impossible to arrive at an accurate tally. Still, it would seem that a full shekel coin, the standard unit of currency, would have been a more appropriate uniform contribution for one and all. On a pragmatic level, it could simply be that this level of contribution might prove onerous for the poorest people in K’lal Yisrael-the Jewish People, whereas everyone could afford a half-shekel without being pinched too severely.  But the Izhbitzer drew a great, defining lesson in avodas HaShem-serving HaShem, from the use of the half, rather than the whole, shekel.

In our newfangled economies cash money has become nearly obsolete.  With the advents of ACH, wires transfers and scanning codes for payment; even credit cards and checks, that supplanted cash, are becoming passé.  But once-upon-a-time cash was the “new” currency. The truth is that our “fiat money” — paper document banknotes, AKA cash, is intrinsically useless and valueless; they are used only as a medium of exchange. They replaced banknotes of the gold and/or silver standard economies under which governments would not print more banknotes than they had precious metal reserves to back. Under the bimetal standards, one could redeem their dollars for fixed amounts of gold and silver. Before that there was no paper money at all. Currency was exclusively coins made of precious metals; gold and silver.  These coins did have inherent value and the value of the various coin denominations was determined by the weight of precious metal that each contained.  E.g. a silver dollar weighed four times as much as a silver quarter.

We can now understand the etymology of machatzis hashekel-the half shekel.  The verb in lashon kodesh-the holy language, for weighing is sh’kol, the noun for weight — mishkal. Thus, a more precise translation for machatzis hashekel would be “the half weight”.  The full unit of currency, the shekel, was very aptly and descriptively named, as it was the standard unit of weight of precious metal for the currency system. Larcenous coin-debasement practices such as coin-clipping and coin-sweating aimed at reducing the weight of precious metal of the coin while continuing to circulate it at face value. In fact, striping or engraving the rims of coins was first introduced to prevent clipping the coins’ circumference.

Mefarshim-commentaries, have explained that Maimonides 11th principle of faith; belief in reward and punishment, also expresses the belief in human Free-Will.  For as of the Rambam himself writes; if human Free-Will was an illusion if our thoughts, words and deeds were predetermined by Divine Providence then “through what system of justice would HaShem exact punishment from the wicked or compensate the righteous with reward? Would the Judge of all the earth not render justice?” (Hilchos Teshuvah 5:4)

Based on the Gemara  in Kiddushin the Izhbitzer extrapolated from the maftir of Shekalim that we read this week, that the opposite is equally true; that there can be no human Free-Will or, at least, that human Free-Will cannot be fully exercised, unless the willful choices that we make result in the ultimate in reward and punishment. If, when facing every new situation we do not confront the ultimate in reward and punishment, then we are self-sabotaging our Free-Will.

On the Beyond Teshuva Blog the challenge of plateauing has been explored many times.  Most people begin their lives as ovdei HaShem with the period of sustained growth.  Of course we stumble and suffer setbacks but, in general, the arrows on the graphs of our spirituality head upwards.  Then, for a variety of reasons we begin to flatline.  We get into a groove (some would call it a rut) and, essentially, we stop growing.

The Izhbitzer avers that the two primary causes of plateauing are the smug self-perception of secure, set-for-life spiritual wealth on the one hand and the utter hopelessness and sense of futility arising from the self-perception of spiritual poverty on the other hand.

Like the young entrepreneurs who may have found themselves in the right place at the right time making boatloads of money in a go-go economy, some of us, who’ve already learned lots of Torah and performed many mitzvos feel as though we can coast for the rest of our lives.  The spiritually rich, and sometimes even the spiritually nouveau riche, feel as though they’re so far ahead of the game that their next move, i.e. their next free choice opportunity, could not possibly negatively impact them, nor could the next 10,000 such moves.  In their delusional organization of reality they imagine that they have a very thick safety cushion, that  they have accumulated such a huge pile of Torah and mitzvos that spiritual bankruptcy, and the draining of their heavenly reward points accounts awaiting them in the afterlife, is unthinkable.

In stark contrast, the spiritually impoverished are paralyzed by hopelessness.  Their self image tends to be one of an inveterate sinner.  Like the compulsive gambler or the irresponsible social climber who purchased a home that he could not afford, who finds his mortgage underwater and his credit rating damaged beyond repair, the spiritually impoverished delude themselves into thinking that the hole of debt that they have dug themselves into is just too deep and profound to ever climb out of. The spiritually poor, and sometimes even those who just transgressed one “whopper” of a sin, feel as though they’re so far behind the game that their next move, i.e.  their next free choice opportunity, could not possibly positively impact them, nor could the next 10,000 such moves.

But what the rich and the poor share in common in these cases is an apathetic, detached approach to the future based on a profound sense of one-sidedness and imbalance.  In their minds eye the scales of Divine Justice, reflective of their own personal ledgers, are not in equilibrium.  There is no balance at all between their merits and their demerits, between their credits and their debits between their mitzvos and their aveiros.  As a result the next move is of no consequence.  Irrespective of what they do next time, the lopsided scales will not budge.  What both the smug and the hopeless lack is the machatzis hashekel sensibility.  If only they were to follow the advice of Chaza”l and view the personal, civic and global scales of spiritual merits and demerits to be in perfect equilibrium; their every move would be invested with cosmic consequence.  There would be no room for either taking it easy or for giving up.

This, says the Izhbitzer, is what the pasuk means.  The status of the rich and the poor described in the pasuk is not determined by the size of the persons bank account.  Rather, these terms describe their personal spiritual ledger; the scales of the persons mitzvos and aveiros or, at least, their perception of those scales.  The Torah issues as a stern warning “the rich may not give a more and the poor or may not give less than this half weight.” The Torah doesn’t ask us to build a house of G-d with the full shekel sensibility.  The Torah demands that they “give” i.e. that they perceive and come to realization, that half the standard unit of weight weighs down one side of the scales and that the other half standard unit of weight weighs down the other side of the scales in perfect equilibrium, and that the persons next move, his next exercise of Free-Will, shall tip the scales one way or the other.

Chaza”l have a very close, precise reading of the pasuk “they will make a sanctuary for Me and I will dwell in THEM.” (Shemos 25:8) Per Chaza”l this means that HaShem declares “I will dwell in them (the builders-klal Yisrael) not in it (the mere building.)”  In other words each and every one of us can become a tabernacle and sanctuary for the Divine Indwelling.  Rashi (Shemos 30:15) says that there were three separate terumos and that the first one that the Torah demanded of klal Yisrael, the machatzis hashekel, was used to supply the silver for the adanim-the foundation sockets of the Mishkan. I’d like to add that in light of the Izhbitzer’s Torah that we learn this take away this lesson: Our lives are meaningful. Our thoughts, our words and our deeds are of cosmic importance and that this gift of the machatzis hashekel sensibility and perception forms the very adanim-foundation sockets, of restructuring ourselves as abodes for the Shechinah.

 ~adapted from Mei HaShiloach II Ki Sisa D”H Inyan Machatzis

See also Bais Yaakov  Ki Sisa 17

Frozen Jews

Originally Posted on Oct 25, 2006

When Modiin was first built, it was designed as a ‘secular’ haven for the people who used to fancy living in Jerusalem, but didn’t want hareidim for neighbours. As the city has grown, it’s begun to attract quite a few modern orthodox, including a lot of expat anglos, who for the most part, have similar feelings about the hareidim.

When we moved here last year from London, we were just happy to be somewhere where we had jewish neighbours, regardless of what they did or didn’t keep. I wonder now if we were a little naïve.
It’s not that we have had any difficulties, G-d forbid, with our secular neighbours. They have been as friendly as they can be, given the fact that we can’t eat in their homes, and they aren’t overly keen to come for a Shabbat meal.

But that ‘anti-haredi’ stance comes out in a lot of subtle, and not so subtle ways that has implications for everyone who lives here. It means that building synagogues, mikvas and schools in the area is loaded with a whole bunch of fears about being ‘taken over’ by the religious.

The irony is that if anything, the ‘religious’ people here are just as scared of being taken over by the hareidim. We also don’t want people telling us how to dress, telling us when we can drive our car, telling us what we can and can’t watch.

Until quite recently, I was firmly in this camp. How can you have free will – and the merit of doing a particular mitzvah – if you are being compelled to do it by outside forces?

But then my husband started to go to kollel a few hours a day, in the hareidi neighbourhood of kiryat sefer. There is no kollel in modiin, so that was the nearest option.

And lo and behold, we discovered that hareidim are not the scary monsters that many people persist in making them. Many of them are the kindest, non-judgemental and most genuine people you could care to meet. They have their priorities right: lots of kids, and a focus on learning and mitzvahs as opposed to accumulating pointless ‘stuff’.

In Israel, there is a long list of popular complaints against the hareidim, starting with the number of kids they have (that secular wisdom dictates that they can’t afford) and culminating with the ‘facts’ that they don’t pay taxes and don’t serve in the army.

I’m not qualified to comment on all the ins and outs of these issues. But it seems to me that they all touch on the same basic issue: hareidim act as if the ‘natural’ laws of the world don’t apply to them.

But of course, as jews, that is exactly how we are meant to act.

Once you see it in action, in a neighbourhood like Kiryat Sefer, it calls into question how many of us modern orthodox act and think.

I was talking to a hareidi woman who used to be chiloni (non-religious) and lived in Tel Aviv. She and her husband made tshuva a few years back, and now she lives in Kiryat Sefer with her five kids.

She does a lot of outreach work with girls in Ramle, many of whom don’t think twice before chowing down on a pork chop. She was telling me about her work and said something that really made me stop and think.

“A lot of these girls eat pig, but when you show them that the Torah is true, they make tshuva and over time, they go the whole way,” she said. “They understand that if the Torah is true, then ALL of it is true. Just as they shouldn’t eat pig, they understand that they should also try to do all of the other things in the Torah.

“It’s easier to work with them than to work with ‘frozen jews’, who are keeping more, but think what they are doing is enough. Frozen jews never really reach the top of the mountain, because they haven’t accepted that the Torah is true, and comes from Hashem. If you accept that the Torah comes from G-d, you can’t pick and choose which bits of the Torah you keep. They are all equally important.”

The point is not that we have to keep everything immediately. But the point certainly is that we have to continually strive to reach that goal.

It’s an uncomfortable reminder and it leads to a lot of uncomfortable questions, not least because i™ makes a very clear distinction between those that really believe in Torah and Hashem – regardless of their outward observance – and those that really don’t – again, regardless of their outward observance.

I don’t know what the answer is. But I’m increasingly of the opinion that when it comes to belief in G-d, you can’t spend a lifetime trying to sit on the fence.

Connection is the Goal, Mitzvos are the Path

In the beginning of Mesillas Yesharim the Ramchal writes:

When you look further into the matter, you will see that only connection with God constitutes true perfection, as King David said (Psalms 73:28), “But as for me, the nearness of God is my good,” and (Psalms 27:4), “I asked one thing from God; that will I seek – to dwell in God’s house all the days of my life…” For this alone is the true good, and anything besides this which people deem good is nothing but emptiness and deceptive worthlessness. For a man to attain this good, it is certainly fitting that he first labor and persevere in his exertions to acquire it. That is, he should persevere so as to unite himself with the Blessed One by means of actions which result in this end. These actions are the mitzvos.

The goal is connecting deeply to G-d and the path to achieving it are the mitzvos. The sefer Mesillas Yesharim itself is focused on doing mitzvos progressively better to achieve their intended goal.

Let’s take the first 2 lines of Shema as an example. The halacha states that we have to pay close attention (have kavanna) to what we are saying for the first 2 lines. If we don’t do that, we won’t get the full benefit from saying the Shema and it will not help us get closer to Hashem to the degree that it could.

It takes a reasonable amount of effort, just to observe the mitzvos, so we often feel accomplished just from the fact that we are observant. If we take a little step, and do mitzvos with intention and with a focus on connecting to Hashem, we will get much more out of them and will can avoid the frustrating plateauing state.

Metamorphosis: From Cubic Zirconia to Hope Diamonds

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

When you wage war against your enemies, HaShem will grant you victory over them so that you will capture his captives. If you see a beautiful woman among the prisoners and yearn for her you may take her as a wife.                                                                                                     -Devarim 21:10-11

The Torah spoke only against the evil inclination…                                                                                      -Rashi Ibid

”Various commentaries explain that when a Jew/ Israelite warrior becomes enamored of a beautiful captive woman that his desire for her stems from something more profound than the womans skin-deep beauty. The apparent redundancy of the phrase “V’Shaveesah Shivyo” literally, “and you will capture his (the enemies) captive” indicates that there was something inherently holy that the enemy had imprisoned and that the Israelite warrior is merely recapturing. He is, in fact, liberating that which had already been held captive. Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder and the eyes of the sanctified Israelite warrior behold the beauty of the scattered sparks of holiness within the captive woman. It is this intrinsic holiness that makes her attractive to him. (Cp. Ohr HaChaim Ibid)

As the messages of the Torah transcend specific locations and historical eras the Biskivitzer contemplates how the law of the Yefas Toar– the beautiful captive and the lesson of “the Torah speaking only against the evil inclination” might be applied in present-day Judaism.

The Biskivitzers insight is based upon a innovative reading of the verse in Koheles 7:10 “Do not say: ‘How was it that the earlier days were better than these?’ for it is not out of wisdom (lo miChochma) that you ask this (shoaltah zos).” by the Rebbe Reb Binim of Przysucha (P’shischa)

Imagine, says the Rebbe Reb Binim, if a father wanted to present a diamond pendant to his young daughter but was concerned that she may still be too immature to care for the diamond in a responsible manner. So the father gives her an ersatz cubic zirconia instead.  Afterwards, he monitors her behavior and, if and when she proves her maturity and responsibility, he then gives her the genuine diamond.

HaShem treats us much the same way.  When we are young, or at least young in our Judaism, we characteristically pursue spirituality with zeal, ardor and passion. Torah and Mitzvahs seem dazzling to us and exert a come-hither attraction over us. We pine for Mitzvahs and yearn for Torah and want nothing more than to unite with the Torah and Mitzvahs. At the same time, the temporal pleasures of the here-and-now world lose all of their attraction and often even become repulsive to us. And while such yearnings seem to be priceless diamonds of spirituality they are, in fact, fakes. In metaphysical terms they are mere cubic zirconia. These yearnings were not the products of our own guile or efforts in Avodas HaShem– serving G-d, but freebie gifts bestowed on us by a “hopeful” Divine Grace to see if, when and how we would deal with the genuine article. The precocious and wise “daughter” will carefully guard and polish her cubic zirconia. In other words “she” will do everything within her power to preserve and increase the Cheshek-the passion and yearning for Torah and Mitzvahs, consistently breaking new ground in Torah and Mitzvahs, purifying her motivations for Torah and Mitzvahs and avoiding any over indulgence in earthly pleasures and diversions. Through these wise efforts she will then have earned a genuine diamond, i.e. a lifetime of authentic and immutable passion for Torah and Mitzvahs. On the other hand if she is careless and irresponsible with the cubic zirconia then, as all counterfeits eventually do, it will lose its appeal and cease to be attractive. The passion for Torah and Mitzvahs will wither and die.

So… do not say: “How was it that the earlier days were better than these?”  It is pointless to wax nostalgic over the good old days of our youth when our souls were on fire for Torah and Mitzvahs. For that yearning and passion was lo miChochma – NOT the result of our own guile, wisdom, awe of Heaven and exertions. Rather it was shoaltah zos- you borrowed it…it was a “loan” by the grace of G-d.

The Biskivitzer concludes that this is the contemporary application of the law of the Yefas Toar. When we first “go out” to wage war against the evil inclination in our youth HaShem grants us victories by gracing us with a passion for Torah and Mitzvahs. The Torah and Mitzvahs are, themselves the Yefas Toar. Comely, attractive and dazzling the Yefas Toar of Torah and Mitzvahs wield an overwhelming attraction that captures our hearts and that ignites our passions. Why does HaShem grace us with this gift? “Only against the evil inclination” to enable us to repel the evil inclination while we are young and, if we properly appreciate, guard and treasure this ersatz diamond while young, to obtain the actual diamond that stands the test of time. “Only against the evil inclination” helps us maintain and increase our passion for Torah and Mitzvahs throughout our lives to sustain a string of victories against the evil inclination until we breathe our last.

The Biskivitzer adds an intriguing wrinkle. He opines that in order to properly relate to our youthful passion, our zirconia, we need to internalize it. If you’ve got it don’t flaunt it. Don’t wear your holy yearnings on your sleeve. To carry the allegory a step further; think about tucking the diamond pendant under your blouse when riding the subways or walking through a high crime district. In his words “Divrei Torah do not require a hubbub or a flamboyant display. One who fails to hide his passion will dissipate it.”

Adapted from Kol Simcha  (D”H Od PP 6869)

and Neos Desheh (D”H Kee Saytazay LaMilchmah Ahl Oyvecha P. 101, 128 in the new edition

A Foolish Consistency is the Hobgoblin of Little Minds

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

Do not erect a sacred Monolith for this is something that HaShem your L-rd hates                                                                                                                                -Devarim 16:22

Although HaShem commanded us to make Altars of soil and multiple stones He hates the (single stone) monolith… even though the monolith was beloved by Him during the era of the patriarchs He hates it presently…                                                                                                                        -Rashi Ibid

Good habits become second nature. As we grow and mature we develop attitudes and approaches that are translated into specific behavioral patterns. Once well established these attitudes and behavioral patterns become very difficult to break. On the rare occasions of inconsistency we are often described as “acting out of character” and most people consider consistency an unquestionable virtue.  We associate immutable consistency with being principled, sincere, dependable and serious.

However the Izhbitzer cautions against being too obstinate to ever alter ones attitudes or behaviors. In contemporary post-sacrificial terms this is what the prohibition of “erecting a monolith” means.  A monolith is a single pillar or slab of hard inflexible stone. While soil is soft and malleable and the variegated stones of a multiple stone altar are of different shapes, sizes and colors, a monolith is a model of, well, monolithic, monochromatic, monotonous consistency.    Even sacred monoliths are hated by HaShem.  Even regarding ones manner of relating to and worshiping HaShem the Torah prohibits monolithic, heels-dug-in inflexibility.

In the bygone era of the patriarchs, when HaShems sovereignty was not yet acknowledged by the vast majority of the mankind this kind of obstinacy was beloved by Hashem. At that time the call of the hour was for the Avos and Imahos to dig in their heels, draw lines in the sand and to be moser nefesh-to lay down their lives, for every minute detail of worship of the One True G-d. Whereas for us there are only three cardinal sins for which the Halacha demands death before transgression in all circumstances. It goes without saying that if in given situations we must steer clear of obstinacy and be flexible enough to actually sin then, depending on a variety of variables, we must certainly be responsive and flexible enough to adjust our ways and means of fulfilling Mitzvos and worshiping HaShem.

Understanding that the capacity for inconsistency is required of us in our relationship with Hashem has a tremendously positive impact on our interpersonal relationships as well. If we had the luxury of monolithic inflexibility we’d find it much easier to be dismissive of other people, their Hashkofos and approaches to Avodas HaShem –serving G-d. But since we ourselves must eschew a monolithic style in Avodas Hashem, if we ourselves serve HaShem in a less-than-absolutely-consistent range of ways then we are much better able to tolerate the diverse approaches of our fellow Jews.

While uniform standards govern the actual implementation of the 613 Mitzvahs that are equally binding on each and every Jewish Soul, the Ta’amei HaMitzvos– the rationale and motivation underpinning the Mitzvahs are “tasted” (Ta’am) and experienced by each soul in a unique and inimitable way.  This is why the  Pasuk (Devarim 6:17) says: “You (plural) should be very careful (Shamor Tish’merun) to keep the commandments of Hashem your L-rd as well as the Edos.. that He commanded you (singular- Tzivcha) . The Edos refer to the Ta’amei HaMitzvos which differ from individual to individual.  Hence the second person singular conjugation of the verb “command”.   It is imperative for each of us to understand that, in fact, it is impossible for our fellow Jews to observe the Mitzvahs using our unique and inimitable approach and attitude and that to expect their approach to be consistent with ours is not merely being judgmental and dismissive, but completely irrational and foolish.


Adapted from Mei HaShiloach to Devarim 16:22 (D”H Lo Sakum )

and 6:17 (D”H Shamor)


Holy-Anger Havens for Anger Mismanagement Refugees

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

The Mitzvah of earmarking Refuge Cities is introduced in Parshas Ma’asei: (B’Midbar 35:6) Along with the cities that you shall give to the Levi’im, shall be the six refuge cities, places to which a murderer can flee.  Beside these you shall give (the Levi’im) forty two more cities.

Why must Refuge Cities be manned and operated by Levi’im and not by any of the other tribes of Yisrael?   Based on the Izhbitzers teachings Rav Tzadok,  the Kohen of Lublin,  offers this fascinating approach:

A.  The Mishna in Avos  4:21 teaches that there are three primary roots of sin: “ Kina-Fury-infused-jealousy, Ta’avah-lust and Kavod-respect-chasing”.  Each of these sin-roots find their Tikun-amelioration through various drastic and meaningful changes. Shiniu Makom-a change of location, Shinui Ma’aseh-a change in behavioral patterns or Shinui HaShem-a change in name/ identity.

B.  For everything that exists in the sphere of Kedusha there exists something corresponding to it in the adversarial sphere of impurity/ entropy. As the Pasuk in Koheles (7:14) states: “In the day of goodness be of good spirit and in the day of evil calamity reflect; for Elokim has reciprocally patterned these opposite those… “

Allowed free reign and taken to its logical conclusion fury-infused-jealousy (Kina) results in homicide, the irreversible removal of the target of the jealous fury. The Tikun for this particular sin-root is “change of location”. This is why the Torah imposed exile to be metaken the sin of manslaughter. And yet, the Torah does not demand a nomadic life of perpetual, rootless wandering to accomplish this tikun*. Instead, it provides for a refuge city.  This is because fury-infused-jealousy has an “upside” that can find expression in the sphere of Kedusha.  Holy Kina is rooted in Yitzchok Avinus trait of Gevura.  Among other things it manifests itself in, “[When] a Talmid Chacham gets incensed it is the heat of the Torah within him boiling over” (Ta’anis  4A).  This is why Torah dictates that these cities be inhabited by Levi’im, as they are one of the tribes whom Yaakov Avinu had branded as furious*.

It is well known that the commandments of “Do not kill” and “Do not commit adultery” are polar opposites. When emanating from the sphere of Kedusha, fury-infused-jealousy is antithetical to sins of lust *. No doubt Yosef HaTzadik, who embodies the definitive sacred suppression of lust, employed “holy” fury to withstand the greatest of lustful temptations in history. Holy fury is a spiritual legacy that Yosef bequeathed to all of Israel, but most of all to his own tribal descendants *. Ramot-Gilead and Shechem were both cities located within tribal homelands of Yosef and where, per Chaza”l, there was a lopsided number of murderers (Malkos 9B-10A).

It is no coincidence that both became refuge cities.  By dint of spiritual genetics there was a disproportionate degree of “the boiling-over heat of the Torah” in the tribal homelands of Yosef that concentrated most of all in and around the cities of Ramot-Gilead and Shechem. But when fury expands beyond the boundaries of holiness into the sphere of impurity/ entropy it can result in manslaughter, the ultimate expression of fury-infused-jealousy. As “HaShem does not make unreasonable demands on His creatures” (Avodah Zarah 3A) Ramot-Gilead and Shechem became refuge cities to better accommodate the “hereditary” spike in manslaughter cases to be expected in those regions.

Rav Tzadok continues: “I heard an insight on the Pasuk (Shir HaShirim 6:5) ‘Your hair is as a flock of goats, cascading down from Gilead’ from my Master, the holy Izhbitzer. It is well-known, hair symbolizes Gevura-strength and Dinim–strict, pitiless justice*. These derive their holiness from Mt. Gilead.”

Space constraints do not allow for an explanation of how a change in behavioral patterns ameliorates lust or how a change in name/ identity ameliorates respect-chasing. For a full and fascinating treatment of these refer to the source.

Adapted from Tzidkas HaTzadik 80



to accomplish this tikun . As was demanded of Kayin, histories first murderer. Strikingly, Kayins fratricide was motivated by fury-infused-jealousy. See Bereshis 4:8-12

branded as furious.  See Bereshis 49:5-7

 antithetical to sins of lust.  In explaining why the Nazir must grow his hair long The Mei HaShiloach (Beha’aloscha D.H. V’He’eviru) states: The Talmud (Kidushin 40A) teaches that if a person feels that he may succumb to the evil inclination for lust that he “should cloak himself in black”. This means he that he should force  Marah Shechora– melancholy upon himself, depression being nothing more than an inward-directed anger. The Zohar teaches that hair is indicative of anger. The Nazir, attempting to address a tendency for ta’avah-lust must arouse himself to anger to defeat and suppress this tendency. Thus, he must grow out his hair.

 his own tribal descendants. Compare Takanat HaShavin page 47 D.H. U’V’hiyos

 strength and Dinim – strict, pitiless justice. See the above note on “antithetical to sins of lust”



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Myth of the Plateau

Originally published Dec 26, 2005

What do you do when you start running out of mitzvot to take on? Do you just become more machmir on everything you’re already doing? Is it wrong to stop in a comfort zone and just stay there? What happens when you lose that good feeling you get every time you daven, and you stop feeling like Hashem cares about every mitzvah you do?

I don’t know if it would be accurate to call it a “plateau.” As Newton’s first law states, a body in motion stays in motion, and I think this applies to religious growth as well. But where does all this newfound spiritual energy go when you hit a dead end?

I’d call this the point where one backslides, where one can easily go off the derech. It’s when we realize that Orthodox Jews are human, too, and not some group of super-perfect beings whose every action is in line with Hashem’s Will. It’s probably the most dangerous time in one’s teshuva process.

If when you reach that plateau, which is really just a much slower incline, you’re happy religiously and stay that way the rest of your life, Baruch Hashem. I often imagine that’s how FFBs live life, never having to question their practices, and always feeling secure in their beliefs. Then there’s the rest of the BT world, who have to figure out what they need to do in order to continue on their spiritual journey.

And then a bigger question- is there just one point of decline, one hard struggle that you go through and then you learn how do deal with those times of religious dissatisfaction? Or do you keep on encountering them, again and again, when you least expect it? And then what?

As I’m writing this, I realize that I am not sounding very encouraging. Maybe it’s because I’m at one of those points right now, and I’ve been there for the past year. So I can’t say how long they last, or that people get over them (but they must, because pretty much every BT I’ve ever met has seemed inexplicably happy all the time) or that there’s a strategy for getting through them.

But I can say that you’re not alone, and you’re not a bad Jew, and you’re allowed to have periods of doubt. I can say that growth isn’t linear (and for those who think it is, watch out) and that everyone has their ups and downs. It’s kind of like a graph of the stock exchange. Your amount of faith or devotion may vary from year to year (or day to day) but overall it’s a trend upwards. Just don’t forget that Hashem cares about you, wants you to come closer to Him, and will help you when you need it the most.

The Whole World In His Hands

A blast from the past. Originally posted January 24, 2006

The most empowering moment of my life was when I learned that the torah was written by G-d. Immediately, I understood that my actions affected the entire universe. If I did a mitzvah I brought the world that much closer to the coming of Moshiach, and conversely, if I did an aveira, chas v’shalom, I delayed his arrival even longer. There was so much to learn so I left my life behind to go to yeshiva and tried to make up for all of the lost time.

Today B”H I am married to a wonderful woman and I am blessed with two beautiful children. I wear a yarmulke, tzitzis, a black hat, and payos. I say modeh ani when I wake up in the morning, wash nitilas yedaim, make brochas, daven three times a day, keep kosher and the laws of taharas mishpacha. I keep Shabbos and I am kovaya itim. I’ve even been zocheh to make a number of siyumim. However, for all of my changes and accomplishments, I am not so sure I am a better person.

As much as I try to improve, I still have many of the same bad middos I possessed before becoming frum and I still allow my yetzer hara shlita over me during moments of weakness. I am neither as kind nor as patient nor as charitable or magnanimous as I’d like to be, and I could certainly improve in many other areas.

As much as I have integrated the Torah into my life, I am still far from the level I would like to be. I still view my life as lacking in many ways both spiritual and physical. I know this is not torah thinking and I know intellectually that Hashem gives me everything I need.

When I first started learning and becoming frum it seemed so clear to me that my every action made ripples and was affecting the universe. Now that I am so much more entrenched in the everyday of life (family, work, learning, health, growth, etc) and don’t have the leisure to sit and learn in yeshiva all day, my actions don’t seem as potent as they once did. I wonder if I wasn’t better off back when I felt so clearly that I held the keys to the coming of moshiach in my hands.

The Jewish Peter-Pan Syndrome

Translated and adapted for Beyond Teshuva by Rabbi Dovid Schwartz

Bar/bat Mitzvahs, graduations and weddings are fêted and enjoyed by all in attendance. But no one awaits these celebrations with as much edge-of-the-seat anticipation as the bnai Mitzvah, graduates and brides and grooms themselves. For these primary revelers the parties are much more than opportunities to let the good times roll, they are rites of passage. These landmark occasions formally confer upon them new levels of adulthood, autonomy and, that which we all yearn for most, societal and self respect. The maturity that we so crave is always about achieving independence and individuation. What some of us tend to forget is that this is just as true for emotional and spiritual maturation as it is for education and finances.

All immature beings (AKA children) depend on the adults of their species (usually parents) for their physical sustenance. What is unique about the human condition is that in our youth, we depend on our elders not just for food, hygiene and medical care, but for information and ethics as well. The child does not know how to “do things” or how to distinguish right from wrong. More than by instruction and evocation, the child absorbs practical and moral instruction through observation of behaviors demonstrated by its elders (hence the vital importance of role models). Aware of its own limitations, ignorance and dependence the child possesses an innate learning instinct that compels it to imitate its elders. Children become masters of the art of monkee-see-monkee-do by constantly seeking outside cues, validation and approval. This is the only mechanism available to them to determine whether or not what they are doing or failing to do is “good” and “right” (or cool and hip!)

During adolescence peer group pressure to conform is enormous. In this transitional stage from childhood to adulthood the peer group supplants parents and other elders as the external validation mechanism for behaviors and attitudes. It is as if the “tweener” adolescent was declaring to his parents and elders “I’m old enough to think independently of you but not quite old enough to go it totally alone. I’ll get by with a little help from my friends. (Get HIGH with a little help from my friends).”

Although nature endows us with physical maturity at the end of adolescence other forms of maturity are not a given. BTs, especially those who began their return a bit later in life, are acutely aware of this. So many discover Torah only after becoming adults. Classically, very early in the Teshuva process, realization dawns that Vis a Vis Torah-Wisdom (and the skills to acquire it) and Mitzvah performance (and a sense of proportion) they are, once again, babes-in-the-woods. Then, the nearly forgotten and long-dormant powerful craving for maturity reignites with the force of an active volcano.

As we are all growth-oriented and spiritual-maturity-craving here at Beyond Teshuva it is crucial that we recognize signs of arrested development and confront possible causes of plateuing. Many among us may still be spiritual children in adult bodies taking cues from societal norms and constantly seeking external validation from peer groups/social structures. Paradoxically, others may be stuck in a kind of spiritual/emotional twilight where, IDF vs. Hezbullah-like, maturity and immaturity do battle with inconclusive and even counterproductive results. For such people the compelling rush to individuation often causes them to ignore the sage advise of those who are more spiritually ripe (and, at times, of HaShem Himself) and yet, adolescent-like, their inner emotionally-needy-child craves social approval and dares not deviate one iota from the notions and norms of their friends, family and neighbors.

The sainted Piaszetsner Rebbe ZY”A H”YD teaches us that for healthy and steady spiritual growth we need to cultivate the maturity to think and feel independent of our peer group but to retain the humility and childlike wonder to continue taking cues from our spiritual elders. Our bodies plateau at around 20-23, but if we just afford it the right conditions for growth, our neshomahs (souls) can continue growing until our last nesheemah (breath)!

Plateauing & Leaving the Cave

There’s a story in the Gemara which I think describes the phenomenon of plateauing in two of our greatest spiritual giants.

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and his son Elazar were forced to live in a cave for 12 years, hiding from the Roman authorities, who had an execution order out for them. After the decree was rescinded they came out of the cave, but whenever they encountered people they “burned them with their eyes” (euphemism for “ayin ra,” according to the commentaries). Their fire for emes prevented them from accepting people as limited human beings, not always filled with the same fire of Torah and avodas Hashem they possessed.
Read more Plateauing & Leaving the Cave