A Piece of Destiny

Note: I wrote this for my friends from my childhood neighborhood, so it contains more background than usual.

I wasn’t on the original wedding invite list. In fact Shlomo and I have only been good friends for a few months, after I started to attend a sunrise minyan on Shabbos morning. Let me explain.

I’ve been acting as the Covid coordinator for my main Shul since the crisis began. That involved making sure our rules are followed and deciding whether to split our minyan, depending on attendance, to give us more social distancing. It’s hard to concentrate on the prayers and coordinate, so I would daven at an early minyan and then take up my coordinator duties at my Shul. About 6 months ago, the early minyan I was davening at changed their times and I could no longer finish with them and get to my Shul in time, so I needed to look for an alternative.

The Orthodox community is broadly divided between the Ashkenazic Jews who lived in northern countries like England, France, Germany and Eastern Russia and the Sefardic Jews from countries like Spain, Turkey, Uzbekistan, Syria and Iran. Within the Ashkenazim there is a breakdown into Chassidim, like Chabad (Crown Heights), Satmar (Williamsburg), and Bobov (Boro Park) and non Chassidim, which breaks down between the Yeshivish Orthodox (e.g. Lakewood, Parts of Brooklyn) and Modern Orthodox (e.g. Five Towns in Long Island, Teaneck). The prayer services are similar overall, but there are enough textual and cultural differences that people generally daven at a minyan which is most aligned with their background.

There are over 40 Shabbos minyanim in Kew Gardens Hills and the Shabbos morning davening takes about 2 hours. Kew Garden Hills is a mix of Yeshivish Orthodox, Modern Orthodox and Bukharian (Uzbekistan) Sefardim. When I needed to find a new minyan, I ended up at Sefardic minyan, because it was down the block from my main Shul and they start and finish very early. The minyan I joined sets the davening times so that we start the silent Shemoneh Esrai prayer, the most important part of the service, at sunrise. The start of davening ranges from 5:00 a.m. in the summer to 7:00 a.m. in the winter.

Although I originally selected this minyan for the ending time, the davening was at a slow pace, which I like, with lots of Sefardic Spirit, and a sit down kiddush after davening. The kiddush is filled with warmth, good food, l’chaims and words of Torah. After a few weeks I felt like an integral part of this group as they welcomed me with open arms. Besides myself, the group is all Sefardic and comfortable speaking Hebrew, but they switch to English to accomodate me. I’m thrilled to have a new group of friends to share a part of my Shabbos.

Shlomo, a Persian Jew, is part of the group, and last Shabbos he told me that he would really like me to attend his son’s wedding in Lakewood. Since the drive to Lakewood takes about 2 hours, people from Queens often charter a coach bus when they make a wedding in Lakewood. The benefit is that you don’t have to drive, but you’ll being staying to the end of a 5 hour affair. With the bus rides, this amounts to about a 9 hour slice of time. I’m somewhat busy at work, but I decided to make the trip for my new friend.

An Orthodox wedding is structured with an intial greeting period of about 1 hour where some food and drinks are served. There’s usually separate areas for the groom and the men and the bride and the women. The men will sometimes go to the women’s side where there is usually better food. During this period the Ketubah, or Jewish marriage agreement, is signed. After the signing is the Bedekin ceremony, where the men escort the groom to the bride’s area. At the Bedekin, the groom removes a veil from the bride according to Jewish tradition, and the fathers of the bride and groom give blessings to the bride. After the Bedekin, the guests make their way to the area where the Chuppah, or marriage ceremony, takes place. After the ceremony there is a 1 hour break for pictures of the bride and groom and their families. The guests are seated for the first course of the meal. After about an hour the first dance begins, with separate areas for the men and the women. The first dance lasts for about 45 minutes and is followed by the main course and a 30 minute break. This is followed by the second dance for about an hour. Following the second dance, seven blessings for the bride and groom are made and the wedding ends.

Our bus arrived while the Bedekin was taking place. As I entered the hall I spotted a familiar face, a childhood friend. I went over and asked the woman her name and she said Tina Taus Weissman, probably wondering who this black-hatted man was. I introduced myself and we shared a “This is Unbelievable” moment.

Tina works with the bride’s mother and she told me that when she heard that the groom was from Kew Gardens Hills, she thought that maybe I would be at the wedding, knowing that I lived in Kew Gardens Hills. As I mentioned above, it was a recent series of events, resulting in a new friendship, that brought me there. We talked for about 10 minutes and then had to make our way to the wedding ceremony area. I assured Tina that the groom was a wonderful young man with impeccable character from a fine family, which made her happy.

Although there was plenty of food, drink, singing, dancing and cameraderie at the wedding, the thing that I will remember is seeing Tina there. Like many people here, Tina and I go back to kindergarden, close to 60 years ago. We still remember sitting next to each other in 1st grade when John F Kennedy was shot. We spent a lot of quality childhood years together which created an unbreakable bond. Many of us here experience that ongoing eternal connection with others in this group.

The Torah teaches us that the destination of this world is an unparalled unity between our bodies and our souls, between humanity and G-d and among all of humanity. Every encounter, every act of kindness, every expression of love contributes to building that unity. In retrospect, it should be no surprise that Tina and I met in Lakewood last Thursday, as that is a part of the destiny that G-d is continually guiding us.

May we all merit to see that culmination of that process when the lion will lie down with the lamb and we will all be part of One World, Under G-d, with Liberty and Justice for all.

Simcha: A Sign of the Times

R’ Jared Viders
Ohr Somayach Monsey

Now that Shavous is in the rear view mirror, the days seem somewhat amorphous in the unfolding drama of the Jewish calendar. Whereas other seasons carry distinct flavors – be it the Teshuva of Elul in preparation of Rosh Hashanah or the 49 days of the Omer in preparation to Shavous – it’s difficult to identify a particular theme in the weeks and months to come.

Interestingly, Rav Ovadiah Bartinera – one of the foremost commentaries on the Mishna – (1450-1510) labels the days between Shavous and Sukkos as “times of joy” – an appellation which immediately strikes us as misplaced in light of the more somber fast days that appear “next up” on our Jewish calendars.

Nevertheless, with simcha (“joy”) being the theme of these days, it is eminently appropriate and inestimably worthwhile to give some thought to the mechanics of the Torah’s view on “simcha” – its centrality to our lives and a recipe (or two) as to how to keep it vibrant.

The Chasam Sofer (1762-1839) writes “the very first mitzvah one should be fulfilled by a bar mitzvah boy upon his reaching his 13th year is to rejoice and be happy to accept the mitzvahs of Hashem; for being b’simcha is a positive mitzvah in the Torah, i.e., to serve with joyousness and good-heartedness emanating from all the goodness which has been bestowed upon you.” Several noted Torah sages over the centuries have all identified simcha as the coin of the realm in terms of one’s personal growth and religious fulfillment.

The Orchas Tzaddikim (a well-known Sefer anonymously written in the 15th century) offers a line which should be kept close to the heart of every Ba’al Teshuvah. In the “Gate of Happiness,” he writes, “the attribute of joy hinges on the positive commandment to see all that befalls a person as being just … for if after one does Teshuvah, he finds that matters are not as pleasant as they were beforehand, it is a mitzvah to think in one’s heart” that all the seeming “turbulence” is truly a gift from Heaven that is ultimately for own best interests. Over the centuries, this gem has provided strength and inspiration to many a Ba’al Teshuvah grappling with the changes in their lives and some of the disturbing repercussions – family, professional, social, etc. – that invariably come with the territory.

Practically speaking, the contemporary sefer Alei Shor (written by a master of character perfection Rav Shlomo Wolbe) suggests a relatively simple exercise to stimulate one’s simcha mindset. In two of our morning blessings – specifically when we thank G-d for (1) “providing me my every need” and (2) for “firming my footsteps” one should utter them with “abundant contemplation” and a “great strengthening of one’s emunah (belief).” This tiny exercise, the Alei Shur writes, can, over a period of several months instill in a person the true rejoicing and satisfaction with one’s lot in life which is the hallmark of true Jewish “simcha.”

May we merit to strive for an internalize true joyfulness in the days and weeks to come.

Rabbi Noach Weinberg on Happiness

Aish HaTorah’s Project Inspire sent an email in March 2006 with some thoughts from Rabbi Weinberg on the subject of happiness and suggested we share it with friends and family. Since we’re in the period of happiness in the Jewish Calendar we decided to repost it:

Rabbi Noach Weinberg on Happiness

1. There are many important things we all seek in life – happiness, love and success amongst others. Judaism teaches that a crucial tool for living is to have clear definitions for these important concepts.

People can often spend many years of life striving for something that they think will give them happiness – the right job, the right girl, working my way up the corporate ladder, retirement, the new home etc, but when they actually get it, they’re still miserable!

Why? – Because they didn’t take the time to define what happiness really is. Instead, they simply went for what society says will give them happiness or what they might feel might bring them happiness. Defining happiness would have saved them a lot of time and unnecessary pain.

People often say – you can’t define happiness. Interestingly, Judaism actually gives a definition. Let me explain.

2. If I offer you a thousand dollars for your eyes – is it a deal?
How’s about 10K? 100K? 1M?… As much money as I offer you, you’ll turn me down – right? Your eyes are worth more to you than all the money in the world.

3. So, now, imagine that I’m very wealthy, and after speaking to you for half an hour, I take a liking to you – so much so, that I say to you: let me give you this brief case as a gift. You take the brief case and open it up and look inside. You see wads of $100 bills. There’s a million dollars in there for you from me – no strings attached.
How would you feel – if it were really true? Wouldn’t you feel like a million dollars?! Wouldn’t you be doing a jig down the street?

Now, if you ask someone: You have eyes – how do you feel? Most people say: “the same miserable person I was before you asked me!” But, if our eyes are worth more to us than any money, and we’d feel ecstatic for the million, shouldn’t we feel even more ecstatic that we have eyes? Shouldn’t we be doing that jig down the street, all the more?

4. So what’s the problem?
The problem is that we get used to things – we take things for granted. Someone gets a beautiful Porsche for his birthday. He feels grand. Come back in a couple of months – he’s miserable again!

Happiness is therefore defined as the emotion of pleasure that we feel when we appreciate what we have.

Misery is the reverse. To be thoroughly miserable – just take all your blessings for granted, and focus on what you don’t have. The fact is that it’s much easier to focus on what you don’t have than what you do – we just slide right into it. It’s easier to get up in the morning and think: oh no – another work day at that miserable job… and I can’t believe it’s raining again…and I hate that train ride – especially all those weird & miserable people on the subway… and I wish my work-mates wouldn’t be so irritating…and my boss is so controlling…. etc

The trick of happiness is to learn how not to take things for granted.

If you can get used to your eyes you can get used to anything. You’ll get used to the new car, the new home, the new wife, the kids… If we don’t appreciate what we have – there’s no point getting any more – we’ll just get used to that too!
If you learn how to appreciate your eyes, you can learn how to appreciate all the gifts of life. That’s why every morning in Judaism we get up and say, thank you G-d for giving me life. We appreciate that we can think, see, have clothes, can walk, and that we have all our needs both physical and spiritual. We say blessings on food – to appreciate the food that we eat and not to take it for granted.

Each one of us has eyes, ears, a heart that pumps, hands and legs, friends and family – gifts worth more to us than any money. Each one of us is a walking multi-millionaire, even if we wouldn’t have a penny to our names. Only by learning how to appreciate the gifts we already have, how rich we truly are, can be truly happy.

Some Random Thoughts on My Daughter and Son-in-law’s Upcoming Chasanah

Tonight’s the big night and we are grateful to Hashem for this joyous occasion. Here are some random thoughts:

– It is possible to go from engagement to Wedding date in under 10 weeks

– Getting your response cards in early is really appreciated

– Sending a check with the response card, if you’re planning on giving a gift is a great idea

– Just like there is a wonderful change in family configuration on the birth of a newborn, so to there is a wonderful change with the addition of a son-in-law

– Focusing on the tremendous simcha makes the occasion even more enjoyable and many people have advised us that is even more important on the night of the Chasanah

– Every marriage is part of the continuing chain of the Jewish People, so it is a simcha everybody can share

– The time, energy and effort going into the Chasanah is a wonderful celebration of the beginning of a new couple’s dedicated service to Hashem

– Extending the family with great Machatunim is a wonderful feeling