Jonah-itis

Do you suffer from Jonah-itis?

If you have one or more of the following symptoms you may be suffering from Jonah-itis:

– You are an expert in distracting yourself from doing what you are supposed to be doing.

– You have clarity in your core purpose, your mission, but rationalize why you should not actually be fulfilling it.

– You would rather die than move out of your comfort zone to accomplish something awesome.

– You would be prepared to spend exorbitant amounts of money to escape your reality and calling.

This disease is debilitating and may have disastrous consequences if not treated at the first sign of symptoms. Be warned that ignoring the symptoms is not an option – you will need to accomplish your core purpose whether you like it or not and whether you want to or not.

At the root of these symptoms is an individual’s unwillingness to admit that they are in this world to fulfill a higher spiritual purpose.

This disease was first is diagnosed in Jonah (Yona HaNavi) and is therefore named after him. None other, then Gd Himself, gave Jonah his personal mission. Yet he rejected it. He tried to escape. He rationalized it as not a good thing. Instead, he was willing to spend all his money to board a ship to nowhere and give up his life rather then surrender to a higher will. But ultimately Gd’s will must be fulfilled and Jonah had to surrender his personal desire and rational understanding to that of Gd.

Teshuva is a 3 step process:

1. Acknowledging and letting go – acknowledge the mistake and articulate exactly what went wrong. Feel the pain of the moment and meditate on it briefly. Let go of the resistance/rationalization/negativity. Recognize that it is our own inhibitions that are holding us back from accomplishing what we have been sent here to accomplish.

2. Taking ownership – verbalize the resistance or negativity either in writing or orally. This does not need to be communicated to anyone but keep it and return to it if and when faced with similar challenges in the future.

3. Commitment – committing to move forward is the most important step of all. Acknowledging, as human beings, our fragility and vulnerability to making mistakes whilst committing not to look at our mistake as a failure but rather as an opportunity to learn and grow.

You know my friends, from the beginning of time all the way back to Adam, Avraham and Moshe a certain pattern was evident. These people were heroes…men who had the courage to rise to a challenge and change the world in the process. Before doing so however they each went through a deep and usually painful internal struggle. It was only their persistence in the face of adversity, their desire and unbinding resolve to achieve the seemingly impossible that enabled them to become the heroes of history.

This same pattern can be observed among all heroic men and women who have made a real difference in our world. We all have a hero inside of us that is waiting to be discovered. Unfortunately it is usually only by overcoming massive internal inertia, a tragic event or some other a major challenge that helps you discover who you really are. You are the hero in this story of yours.

And perhaps my friends this is the reason that we read Maftir Yona towards the end of Yom Kippur – as a remedy to Jonah-itis. Yom Kippur is a call to action to each one of us to do teshuvah – to acknowledge and let go of our sins, our mistakes; to take ownership of our resistance and negativity and to commit to bring the tikkun/the repair to the world that only you can bring through the fulfillment of your core purpose, your unique mission.

This Yom Kippur the choice is yours.…or may be its not.

Falling In or Standing Out?

Why is Viduy Maasros called a viduy when we aren’t confessing to any wrongdoing?
Chazal teach us that on Rosh Hashanah we are judged collectively and individually. How is that possible?
… I have removed all sacred shares from my home; I have given [the suitable shares] to the Levi, the orphan and widow, in accordance with all the precepts that You commanded us. I have not transgressed your commands nor have I forgotten anything. I have not consumed of it [the second maaser-tithe;] while in mourning, I have not apportioned / consumed any of it while tamei-halachically impure; nor have I used any for the dead, I have paid attention to the Voice of HaShem my Elokim and have acted in harmony with all that You commanded me.

—Devarim 26:13,14

Hashkifah-Look down; from your holy meon– habitation; in heaven and bless Your people Israel, and the soil that You have given us, the land streaming milk and honey, as You swore to our forefathers.

—Ibid 15

And the men arose from there, and they looked down upon Sodom …

—Bereishis 18:16

and they looked down:  Wherever the word הַשְׁקָפָה =hashkafah is found in TeNaK”h, it indicates misfortune, except (Devarim 26:15) “Look down (הַשְׁקִיפָה) from your holy meon,” for the power of gifts to the poor is so great that it transforms the Divine attribute of Wrath to Mercy.

—Rashi ibid from Midrash Tanchuma Ki Sisa 14

Divine Judgment is passed on the world at four intervals [annually] … On Rosh Hashanah all those who’ve come into the world pass before Him like children of Maron i.e. single-file, individually

Mishnah Rosh Hashanah 16A

And [please] do not put Your slave on trial; for before You [under Your exacting judgment] no living being will be vindicated.

—Tehillim 143:2

Who can say: “I have made my heart meritorious; I have purified myself from my sin”?

—Mishlei 20:9

Rabbah bar Bar Chanah said in the name of Rav Yochanan: [All the same on Rosh Hashanah] they are all viewed [together] with a single [all-encompassing] look. Rav Nachman bar Yitzchok said: We also have learned the same idea: “[From the place of His habitation He looks השגיח upon all the inhabitants of the earth.] He that inventively designed the hearts of them all, Who comprehends all their doings” (Tehillim 33:14,15). … what it means is this: The Creator sees their hearts all-together and considers all their doings[collectively].

Gemara Rosh Hashanah 18A

The revealed facet of this teaching of the sages is self-evident but the esoteric meaning is undoubtedly difficult to grasp

—Rambams commentary to Mishnah ibid

Rabi Yochonan taught “tithe so that you grow wealthy.”

—Taanis 8B

The pauper speaks pleadingly; but the affluent respond impudently.

—Mishlei 18:23

 The juxtaposition of the Yamim Nora’im-days of Awe; and Parashas Ki Savo, almost always read a mere two weeks before Rosh Hashanah, is among the oddest vagaries of the Torah calendar. Whereas the month of Elul, the yemei Selichos and Yamim Noraim are characterized by detailed A-Z confessionals the “viduy” maasros-“confession” of proper tithing; that we find in Parashas Ki Savo seems to be anything but a confessional. While the Sforno and other commentaries search for a subtextual sin being alluded to; on the surface it reads like a kind of turned-on-its-head anti-confessional informed by an apparently unseemly braggadocio.

In it the “confessor” does not own up to any wrongdoing at all. On the contrary — he spells out all of the righteous and law-abiding things that he has done vis-à-vis the tithing of his agricultural produce.  If this braggarts confessional were not enough the cocky confessor concludes his Divine conversation with a crude, insistent, strong-armed demand; boldly inviting Divine scrutiny and reeking of tit for tat: “Hashkifah … and bless Your people Israel, and the soil that You have given us … as You swore to our forefathers.” It’s almost as if the confessor was kivyachol-so to speak; challenging HaShem by insisting “I’ve done mine, now You do Yours!”

We know that on the yemei hadin-judgment days; of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur the Divine Judgment proceeds along two, seemingly mutually exclusive tracks; the individual and the collective.  On the one hand the mishnah teaches that on Rosh Hashanah, like sheep passing beneath the shepherds crook for exclusive inspection, all pass before G-d single-file, kivyachol, to be judged individually.  But on the other hand the gemara, teaches that on Rosh Hashanah all are viewed and judged collectively with a single all-encompassing look. According to the Lubliner Kohen, the gemara was, so to speak, apprehensive of the awesome and awful implications of trying to survive such a withering examination and, so, it diluted “sweetened” absolute justice with the less demanding single, all-encompassing look. The Rambams comment that “the esoteric meaning of this mishnah is undoubtedly difficult to grasp” is interpreted by one of the great 20th century Jewish thinkers to mean that judging collectively and individually simultaneously are two antithetical elements in one process. It seems impossible that they could coexist.

That said, being judged as a member of a large collective is the safer of the two tracks and lends itself to greater optimism for a positive outcome for the defendants. As the Izhbitzer explains; HaShem judgmental scrutiny is infinite in its scope and breadth and plumbs the infinitesimal in its attention to detail.  Whenever He focuses on a single individual that individual is gripped by terror, for no individual can face G-d and declare that s/he is completely righteous and totally free of sin. One on trial by G-d can only exhale and begin to relax a bit when s/he is part of a communal body and when it is that collective entity, rather than its individual component parts, that is being judged. In a collective the component parts “clarify” one another for every soul is outstanding and pure in one specialized field. Or, as the Lubliner Kohen puts it, component parts of the whole are complimentary.  What one lacks another completes … and vice versa.

Read more Falling In or Standing Out?

A Good Time to Think About G-d

A friend of mine was in a Mussar Vaad and was instructed by the leader to think about G-d a number of times through out the day. He confessed that it was very difficult and a member of the Vaad was texting reminders throughout the day.

I faced a similar problem a number of years ago after having been inspired by the sefer Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh to think about G-d throughout the day. I set up a few recurring reminders in MS Outlook. After a week or two the reminders were quickly dismissed without much thinking about G-d.

So we’re faced with a problem. We need to think about G-d to have a relationship, but how and when? Perhaps when we mention His name during the 100 blessings we recite each day. However, as many of us will admit, we often find it difficult to focus when we’re davening and saying brachos. We’re a distracted nation.

But we need to start somewhere. I think it makes sense to start with the most important time to think about G-d, and that’s when we say the first verse of the Shema: “Listen, Israel: Hashem Is Our God, Hashem Is One”.

The fifth chapter of the Shulchan Aruch says that when we say the four letter name of Hashem, like in the Shema, we should have in mind that Hashem exists, always existed, always will exist, and He is the Master of Everything.

Based on experience, I will warn you that thinking about Hashem twice a day during the Shema is not a simple matter. It will require some effort to do it regularly.

Teshuva is a tremendous opportunity to strengthen our relationship with Hashem. Thinking about Hashem when reciting the Shema is a good step on the road to that stronger relationship.

Elul…make the most of it

Elul…sweetness, light, redemption.

This is the month that Hashem gives us the opportunity to determine our destiny. Not to succumb to a fate that is inconsistent with our innermost desire but the choice to proactively affect our lives. The Slonimer Rebbe z”l writes that on Rosh Hashana we choose the life we want to live and ask for the tools that will assist us in refining and lighting up our world. Elul is a 30 days of preparation so that you have absolute clarity when making that decision.

The fact that you woke up this morning and are able to read this message is Hashem telling you, “I want you here, you have a mission to accomplish, and this mission has been waiting since the beginning of time for YOU to achieve.” We are here, partnering with Hashem to make a difference. We are granted the years of our life to fix, resolve and leave our mark, as we live our legacy. We don’t have much time. Seize the opportunities that are granted to you and make a difference.

We each have incredible potential and it’s about time that we stop talking and reading about it and take action. Live every day of your life to your best. Not the best…but YOUR best!

The questions we should be asking ourselves as we account for our existence are:
“Why am I here?”
“Am I living a meaningful life?”
“Am I living consistently with my values?”
“Am I the best spouse, teacher, friend, mentor, parent that I can possibly be?”

These are not “one off” questions, they are questions that can and need to be asked daily. These are the questions that help orient our lives and make them meaningful. Truthful answers to these questions have the power to help us transcend adversity and embrace each opportunity to reveal our inner essence.

We can be assured (but never perturbed) when at the moment of enlightenment, as we feel that we have discovered our unique mission in this world the inevitable happens. There will be a distraction. There will be obstacles. There will be challenges. And that is part of our story. Overcoming difficulty brings you closer to your mission. We are not born at the peak of a mountain, because it is not so much about the destination as much as it is about the journey to arrive there.

Hashem charges us to live a fulfilled life whereby we realize and actualize our dormant potential. We must act with courage to leap beyond our comfort zone to live our legacy.

אלול spelt backwards is לולא which translates as “if only”. This precious month is about reflecting all those lost opportunities throughout the year when I could have or should have but didn’t. It’s about asking for forgiveness for not bringing to the world what I was meant to. It’s about resolving to remain steadfast and committed to my mission.

May it be your will Hashem that we are granted clarity. That we are strengthened in our resolve to foster a deeper relationship with You as we embrace our unique mission in this world and remain loyal throughout the journey.

Rabbi Aryeh Goldman has released an ebook “Days are Coming – Inspiration for Elul and Tishrei”. Subscribe at hitoreri.com to receive your copy.

The Gradual Process of Teshuva in Elul

In the Practical Guide to Teshuva, Rabbi S. Wagschal writes:

-The process of teshuvah which begins on Rosh Chodesh Elul and continues until Yom Kippur, may be successfully achieved if it is performed in a gradual manner.

-One should strengthen his tefillah by becoming more punctilious about the times of the tefillah.

-In addition one should endeavor to improve the quality of his tefillah by increasing his level of conecntration and intention.

-The simple meaning of Kriyas Shema and the first blessing of Shemoneh Esrai should be clearly understood.

-Some emphasis should be put on raising one’s level of concentration during the recital of the prayers Ahavas Rabbah, Atah Chonein Le’adam, Hashivenu, Sleach Lanu and the first blessing of Birkas Hamazon.

Purim: Netanyahu, Congress, And The Battle Against Persia – A War Fought In Heaven

TorahAnytime.Com uses the tag line of “G-d’s Reason for the Internet” by which they mean that the learning of Torah and spiritual growth is the reason that G-d created the Internet. Of course, that’s not to say that there’s no potential spiritual downside to such a powerful tool, but the presence of so many distinguished Rabbis on the site, shows that they agree with its potential on the upside.

Rabbi Yosef Viener of Monsey has a recent shiur titled Purim: Netanyahu, Congress, And The Battle Against Persia – A War Fought In Heaven in which he mentions some of the political considerations regarding Prime Minister Netanyahu’s upcoming visit to Congress. However, he strongly points out that it’s easy to get caught up in the politics, but G-ds reason for the Persian threat then and now is for us to daven and do teshuva. Please watch the video.

Meanwhile, in Queens, Rabbi Moshe Schwerd was making similar points while discussing The Special Power of Prayer on Purim. Rabbi Schwerd also points out the connection between the Nachash (the snake) and Haman and why there is a requirement to curse Haman on Purim and the continuing necessity of our spiritual response of prayer on Purim. Please watch the video or download the audio of this great shiur.

The Exquisite Paradox of Teshuva

By Rabbi Benzion Kokis

At the core of the process of t’shuva lies an exquisite paradox.

On the one hand, a mature commitment to a life of Torah and Halacha is the ultimate self-discovery, through which a Jew connects to his spiritual roots. In fact, very often what initiates the entire process of t’shuva is the realization that the modern world not only didn’t, but can’t, satisfy the inner needs of the Jewish soul. There is a sense of coming home to a deeper and more genuine appreciation of one’s own identity.

This is a familiar theme to the thousands of men and women who have made the commitment to transform their lives, and find their place within the Torah community.

Yet, that very same commitment often has the potential to alienate a ba’al t’shuva from the norms that, until that point, had shaped and defined his life. The relationships, friendships, values and habits that had formed his personality, and made up the fabric of life itself, are suddenly destabilized. So the same experience that helps a person discover and mold his inner self, can create issues that throw the self, on some level, into turmoil.

This then is the paradox of t’shuva: the coming home to a much deeper and richer sense of self, alongside a gradual, and sometimes awkward, transition from the “pre-existing” self. T’shuva is truly not an event, but a process, that involves much more than blending in externally to the framework of the religious community.

Often there is a certain duality and subtle tension that accompany ba’alei t’shuva for many years. True, the axioms and values of Torah have become the guiding principles and signposts of life. But the echos of one’s earlier experiences and influences still assert themselves, and tug in various directions.

In future posts, we will explore this paradox in more depth and discuss practical ways to deal with it.

Forbidden Kiruv

Why didn’t Yaakov simply pass Esav by instead of engaging him?
Why did Yaakov send Angels to his brothers rather than humans?

Yaakov sent representatives ahead of him to his brother, Esav, to Edom’s Field toward the land of Seir.

— Bereishis 32:4

The representatives returned to Yaakov and told him: “We came to your brother, Esav, and he’s also heading toward you. He has [a force of] 400 men with him.”

—Ibid:7

One who grows angry while passing by a quarrel that does not concern him is akin to one who seizes a [sleeping] dog by the ears.

Mishlei 26:17

Let sleeping dogs lie

Popular idiom version of passuk in Mishlei

Our Sages (Bereishis Rabbah 75:2) criticized Yaakov for this [sending representatives and gifts to Easv] comparing it to waking a sleeping dog by yanking its ears: The Holy Blessed One said to Yaakov “he [Esav] was going his own way [not considering any hostilities to Yaakov] and you had to send him representatives and remind him [of the old dormant enmity] ‘to my lord Esav. Your humble slave Yaakov says … ’”?

— Ramban Bereishis 32:4

Yaakov remained alone. A man wrestled with him kicking up dust until the darkness lifted

— Bereishis 32:25

… Our Rabbis explained (Bereishis Rabbah 77:3, 78:3) that the wrestling man was the prince (guardian angel) of Esav.

— Rashi Ibid

… Rivkah became pregnant. But the offspring clashed/ scurried inside of her …

— Bereishis 25:21,22

Our Rabbis (Bereishis Rabbah 63:6) interpreted it [the word וַיִתְרוֹצִצו] as an expression of running/ scurrying (רוֹצָה) . When she passed by the entrances of [the] Torah [academies] of Shem and Ever, Yaakov would scurry and struggle to come out; when she passed the entrance of [a temple of] idolatry, Esav would scurry and struggle to come out. 

— Rashi Ibid

Question: Isn’t it true that the yetzer hara-the inclination to evil; is not operative in-utero and that it is not within man until man is born … [if so why was Esav drawn to evil before he was even born]? The answer is that while it’s true that man has no yen and desire for evil, as part of his free-will equation, until after he is born; what Esav was doing here [when scurrying towards the temples of idolatry] was qualitatively different.  Esav was not yielding to the seductions of his yetzer hara, instead he was magnetically drawn towards his source, nature and species, as it were. For all things are aroused by, and inexorably drawn towards, the source of their intrinsic nature and self-definition.

— Gur Aryeh- supercommentary of the Maharal to Rashi Ibid

It is indeed odd that Yaakov would have awakened the sleeping dog/ giant. At first glance, what could possibly have motivated him to do so is incomprehensible.

According to one approach of the Midrashic sages the representatives that Yaakov dispatched to Esav were heavenly angels. Many commentaries have addressed Yaakov’s “need” for angels. Rav Shmuel Dov Asher-the Biskovitzer Rebbe, maintains that Yaakov was on what, in the contemporary parlance, might be called a mission of kiruv rechokim-bringing those distant from righteousness/ G-d closer.  Yaakov was unwilling to stand idly by as his twin brother degenerated deeper and deeper into the hellish depths of evil. He had hoped that the angels would prove equal to the task of discovering and nurturing Esav’s deeply buried goodness until it overwhelmed all his accretions of evil and washed them away in a cleansing wave of teshuvah-repentance.  After all, the passuk teaches us that angels are uniquely endowed with the capacity of advocating for deeply flawed individuals who possess as little as one tenth of one percent of decency and goodness: “If one has even a single angel out of a thousand advocating on his behalf by declaring his uprightness, then G-d will be gracious to him and say ‘redeem him from descending into destruction [i.e. the grave] for I havefound atonement/ ransom for him.’” (Iyov 33:23,24)

His interpretation is supported by a fuller, closer reading of the Midrash of “awakening the sleeping, vicious dog.” After citing the passuk in Mishlei the Midrash continues: Shmuel the son of Nachman  said “this is comparable to a traveler who awakened the leader of a gang of thieves sleeping at the crossroads and warned him of the imminent dangers [from wild animals]. Instead of thanking the traveler, the gang leader began beating his benefactor. The traveler cried foul ‘you cursed man [is this how you repay me for trying to save your life?]’ The gang leader then said ‘[you deserve it, it’s your own fault] I was slumbering comfortably and you woke me!’”

In this allegory Yaakov is represented by the traveler while Esav’s role is played by the gang leader. Nowhere in this allegory do we find a frightened Yaakov devising strategies and tactics to save himself and/or his family.  On the contrary, Yaakov is a selfless do-gooder trying to save the life and limbs of someone else, fast asleep and unaware of the looming, lurking dangers.  Yakkov’s good deed did not go unpunished and not only is he forced to struggle with the malicious ingrate Esav but, later, he was forced to contend with his evil guardian angel as well.

While it’s often said that “the path to hell is paved with good intentions” it is still hard to grasp what occurred in this case.  Why did Yaakov’s well intentioned plan to save his twin from the wild animals of spiritual ruin go so badly awry? This is especially quizzical in light of the Zohar’s observation that “praiseworthy is he who takes the guilty/sinful by hand [and leads them along the path of repentance and tikkun]”

The Biskovitzer explains that while kiruv is a most praiseworthy endeavor it is wasted upon those whose evil is intrinsic and incorrigible rather than those whose evil is acquired through the incorrect exercise of their free-will. Echoing the Maharal’s clarification for Esav’s in-utero scurrying towards temples of idolatry and, no doubt, paraphrasing earlier sources, the Biskovitzer goes so far as to identify Esav with the primordial serpent who enticed Adam and Chavah into Original Sin.  In other words; Esav is not a good kid gone bad, he is just plain bad. He is not one who falls prey to the yetzer hara he IS the yetzer hara. Such evil is incorrigible, dealing with it in any way, even for the noble goal of its rehabilitation, is doomed to failure and to vicious, attacking ingratitude.

Read more Forbidden Kiruv

Defeating Self-Defeat

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

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

— Vayikra 16:8

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

— Ibid 16:21

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

— Mishnah Yoma 6:6

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

—Yoma 67B

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

—Yoma 20A

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

—Bava Basra 16A

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

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

Whence this uniquely human drive to destroy ourselves?

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

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

Read more Defeating Self-Defeat

Elul: The Rambam on the Message of the Shofar

The Rambam writes in Hilchot Teshuva 3:4:

“Although Shofar blowing on Rosh Hashana is a divine decree, there is a hidden message of the Shofar. The message is for those who are spiritually asleep to awaken, carefully examine their behavior, perform Teshuva, and remember our Creator. Those who forget the truth in the course of daily routines and devote all of their time to temporal matters that have no lasting impact, should ponder their souls, improve their actions and thoughts. Everyone should abandon his evil actions and thoughts.”

The Rambam is writing about Rosh Hashana, but I don’t think he would object to us using the Shofar blowings of Elul as a wake up call.

The Season of the Spiritual Growth Mindset

The secular world has recently “discovered” the growth mindset:

Mindset is a simple idea discovered by world-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck in decades of research on achievement and success—a simple idea that makes all the difference. In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.

The growth mindset is fundamental to a Torah Observant Jew. Every BT and FFB will tell you, that where you are headed in terms of growth, is much more important than where you came from.

One advantage we have in Jewish Spiritual Growth is that the calendar orients us towards times with increased opportunities. Shabbos provides more potential than week days. Yom Tovim provide additional growth opportunities. And the Yomin Noraim provide the greatest opportunities. In Judaism the 40 days from Rosh Chodesh Elul to Yom Kippur is the definitive spiritual growth season.

But as we know, growth takes effort, and Hashem made us a bit lazy, so we are advised to use the entire Elul runway as we approach Rosh Hoshana, the Ten Days of Teshuva, and Yom Kippur.

In the Practical Guide to Teshuva, Rabbi S. Wagschal writes that the process of teshuvah may be successfully achieved if it is performed in a gradual manner. He suggests that we should begin with improving things we are already doing, like tefillah and brachos.

Tomorrow we will provide some practical ways to leverage the enhanced spiritual growth mindset which we have in these days of Elul.

Beauty may be Skin-Deep but Some Hideousness is to the Bone

Today, 29 Adar Sheini is the yuhrzeit-anniversarry of the death of the great Polish Chassidic Master Reb Shloimeleh Rabinowicz; zy”a, the first Radomsker Rebbe, as well as other tzadikim and talmidei chachamim-Torah sages. The following Devar Torah is adapted from his work on the Torah and Holidays, Tiferes Shlomo, and is dedicated l’iluy nishmas –for the ascent of the sou,l of

Mrs. Lottie B. Valberg who shares the same yuhrzeit by her grandson lhbc”c Mr. Simcha Valberg, sponsor of the weely Izhbitzer Torah.

אָדָם, כִּי-יִהְיֶה בְעוֹר-בְּשָׂרוֹ שְׂאֵת אוֹ-סַפַּחַת אוֹ בַהֶרֶת, וְהָיָה בְעוֹר-בְּשָׂרוֹ, לְנֶגַע צָרָעַת–וְהוּבָא אֶל-אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן, אוֹ אֶל-אַחַד מִבָּנָיו הַכֹּהֲנִים.

If a person (Adam) has a white blotch, discoloration or spot on the skin of his body and it [is suspected] of being a sign of the leprous curse on his skin; he should be brought to Ahron the Kohen or to one of his descendants; the kohanim…

—Vayikra 13:2

זֹאת תּוֹרַת, אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ נֶגַע צָרָעַת, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-תַשִּׂיג יָדוֹ, בְּטָהֳרָתוֹ

This is the Torah governing he who has within him the leprous curse…

—Vayikra 14:32

Comparing and contrasting  these two pesukim we find that there are two distinct types of metzoroim; one whose tzaraas-leprous curse is superficial; no more than skin-deep and the other whose tzaraas is described as being “within him”; at the core of his being. Moreover the first type of metzora is described as being an adam, the word in lashon kodesh –Torah Hebrew, that connotes human-beings at their highest level.

Reb Shloimeleh Radomsker, echoing the Ramban, (Vayikra 13:46 D”H v’habeged) reiterates the concept that the entire spectrum of negaim –skin ailments that exude tumah-ritual impurity, and their purification has nothing to do with physical maladies nor are the kohanim mandated by the Torah to deal with negaim dermatologists.

Negaim are HaShems way of disciplining the afflicted person and affording him the opportunity to cast his sins aside and return to HaShem where he will find mercy and healing. Read more Beauty may be Skin-Deep but Some Hideousness is to the Bone

Thinking Inside THE Box(es)

Terumah 5774-An installment in the series of adaptations
From the Waters of the Shiloah: Plumbing the Depths of the Izhbitzer School
For series introduction CLICK

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

HaShem spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to the children of Israel and have them lift an offering up to Me. Take My offering from anyone whose heart stirs them to give.

-Shemos 25:1

Make an Ark of Shittim-Acacia wood 2 ½ cubits long, 1 ½ cubits wide and 1 ½ cubits high.  Envelop it with a layer of pure gold; it should be covered on the inside and the outside, and make a gold lip all around its top. 

-Shemos 25:10,11

Betzalel (the chief artisan constructing the Tabernacle) built three Arks; two of gold and one of Acacia wood.  All had four walls and a floor but no roof (i.e. the “Arks” were boxes, open on top).  He inserted the wooden one within the exterior golden one and the interior golden one within the wooden one.  He then coated the upper lip with gold. As such (the Acacia wood Ark) was covered on the inside and the outside. 

-Rashi ibid

None of the furnishings of the tabernacle were made exclusively of gold other than the Menorah. (but I’m puzzled) Once a golden Ark was made, why was a wooden one necessary? 

-Ibn Ezra ibid

Several peculiarities distinguished the Aron HaBris–the Ark of the Covenant from the other structures and furnishings of the Mishkan-tabernacle. The specs for its dimensions were in half, rather than in full, ahmos-cubits. Unlike the Menorah it was not made of solid gold but unlike the other wooden Mishkan structures and furnishings coated with metal, it was composed of three substantial inlaid boxes, akin to Russian nesting dolls, rather than plated with a paint-thin coating of gold or copper.

The Aron HaBris was the vessel for the Luchos HaBris–the tablets of the covenant and so it serves as a powerful allegory for human bearers of the Torah, talmidei chachamim-Torah sages and, in a larger sense, Klal Yisrael-the Jewish People. Chazal drew a metaphorical lesson from the design and structure of the Aron HaBris: Rava said (the fact that the inner and outer boxes of the Ark were composed of the identical substance [gold] teaches us that) “any talmid chacham-Torah sage, whose interior is inconsistent with his exterior (i.e. who is insincere or hypocritical, who lacks yiras Shamayim-the awe of Heaven) is no talmid chacham at all.”(Yoma 72B)

Based on this homiletic precedent the Izhbitzer School provides many insightful interpretations about the design and structure of the Aron:

The Izhbitzer taught that in order to acquire Torah a person must view himself as incomplete without the Torah that, as was the case with the measurements of the Aron, that they’re only “halfway” to completion and fulfillment. On the other hand, if one only has an intellectual curiosity about Torah similar to an academic interest in other disciplines HaShem will not allow him to become a receptacle for the Torah.  If a person feels as though he can live without Torah, he may study and contemplate it for years, but he will never truly absorb it.

The Izhbitzer’s younger son, the Biskovitzer Rebbe, explains that the reason for the three individual inlaid boxes was to demonstrate the Torahs intrinsically hidden nature.  It is not merely that the true meaning of the Torah’s narratives, mitzvos and teachings often eludes us; the proverbial “riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” but that there are three barriers that must be transcended and pierced in order to perform the mitzvos fully. The following impediments prevent people from committing themselves single-mindedly to the service of HaShem and, thereby, transforming themselves into abodes for His Divine Indwelling:

1.  So many millennia have come and gone and so many “end times” have been predicted without the long-awaited dawning of the messianic era-kalu kol hakitzin.  The dispiriting sense of hopelessness in Mashiach ever actually arriving cools our ardor for the mitzvos.

2.  The leadenness of our natures steers us towards undemanding, path-of-least-resistance, mitzvas anashim melumadah-rote performance of the mitzvos.  Bringing a sense of awe, wonder and freshness to the performance of mitzvos time after time is very challenging when we’ve been trained to do the mitzvos from our earliest youth.

3.  The burden of our past sins weighs us down.  We feel humiliated before HaShem and utterly convinced that our relationship with Him has been irrevocably broken.

The Biskovitzer explains that the midrash (Shemos Rabbah 33:3) interprets the pasuk “I am asleep but my heart is awake” as an allusion to these three barriers. “I” may be insensate to the end of days, but “my heart” — the Holy Blessed One, is awake, maintaining and stoking the very last embers of longing for the messianic era within me.  “I” am deadened to the vitality of the mitzvos by my robotic, by-rote performance but “my heart” — the merit and legacy of my forefathers, who were trailblazers and who were forever breaking new ground, is awake.  “I” am anesthetized and alienated by the ether of guilt wafting malodorously from the incident of the golden calf, but “my heart” — HaShem, my Merciful Father, refusing to give up on even the most wayward of sons, is awake.  The Holy Blessed One called for me to build the Mishkan.  If the alienation caused by sin was truly irrevocable would HaShem ever have invited me to participate in the building of an abode for His Divine Indwelling?

He cryptically concludes that, of the three boxes, it is davka the wooden one that symbolizes the impediment of sin-engendered guilt feelings and especially, on a national level, the guilt engendered by the incident of the golden calf. Puzzling, because the Midrash Tanchumah that he cites (Parshas Vayakhel 8) says the Aron was made of Shittim wood to atone for the sin committed at Shittim. This is an apparent reference to the sin of licentiousness with the Moabites that occurred at Shittim and not referring to the sin of idolatry of the golden calf (that occurred at the foot of Sinai).

[A more direct reference might have been the Midrash Tanchumah from our own parshah (Terumah:10) that states; HaShem told Moshe “they committed a folly (shtus) and angered Me with the calf; let the Acacia wood-atzei Shittim come and gain atonement for their folly.”  The problem with the latter citation is that the Acacia wood in question is that of the mizbayach-altar and not of the aron.]

Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen, asserts that the essential aron was the one that was made of wood.  Unlike inert-mineral gold, wood came from a living, thriving, flourishing tree.  The Torah itself is referred to as “the tree of life.”  The atzei Shittim box in the center represents the ardent, almost libidinous, yearnings for Torah-chamidu d’Oraysa that are the necessary prerequisite for the acquisition of the Torah’s wisdom (cp Rambam Isurei Biah 22:21).  While the sincere awe of heaven, represented by the interior and exterior golden boxes, contains, defines and sublimates the unbridled, wild infatuation represented by the wood.

Elsewhere the Lubliner Kohen notes that during the creation of Heaven and earth, the darkness preceded the light.  He postulates that every personal or national advancement towards greater spirituality and “the light” must be preceded by, and grow out of, a darkness.  It was not simply that the Shittim wood of the Aron atoned for the sin of the calf it was that the dark sin of the calf was an indispensable precondition that engendered the light of the Aron and, as the epicenter of its sanctity, the entire Mishkan!

The sin of the calf was motivated by Klal Yisrael’s desire for a palpable sensory-perceivable Elohim that would lead them.  While directed towards the calf this desire was something dark and sinister.  But the radiance and illumination of the Mishkan — a place where HaShem’s Indwelling was palpable, and the only site where all “seekers of HaShem” went to find what they sought (Shemos 33:7), followed and grew out of the darkness of the calf. Through the atzei Shittim, the shadowy “shtus” of the calf became part and parcel of the Aron’s and Mishkan’s radiance.

 ~adapted from: Mei HashiloachII Terumah D”H Kol Middos
Neos Deshe Terumah D”H  v’Ahsu (the first)
Pri Tzadik Terumah inyan 8 page 152
Resisei Laylah inyan 24 pp3031

REVISED 5:30 PM EST 1.30.14

Let’s Get Away (From it All) … With Murder!

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

If he (the killer) did not hunt and trap to murder, but Elokim brought about involuntary-manslaughter through him, then I will lay down a space where the killer can flee.

-Shemos 21:13

[HaShem said to Kayin] “You are more cursed than the ground … When you cultivate the soil it will no longer yield its strength to you. You will be restless and isolated in the world.” 

-Bereishis 4:11.12

Kayin responded “Is my sin then too great to forgive?”

 -Ibid 4:13

 Kayin left HaShems presence. He dwelled in the land of Nod (isolation) to the east of Eden.

-Ibid 4:116

We live in an era in which our lives are kinetic and restless.  In every phase of life and during all of our waking hours, we are always on the go. Yet few people really seem to mind. The pan-societal consensus seems to be that whenever a person is on the move, that he is doing so for his own good.

Some people transfer to new universities or yeshivas in middle of their education. Others relocate to advance their careers.  Even the increasingly rare “company man” who stays with one firm throughout his entire career will make frequent business junkets.  The travel industry does not refer to the area between first-class and coach as business-class for nothing.

Most ubiquitous of all is traveling for pleasure. Stay-cations are indicative of a general economic downturn or of one’s own lack of financial success.  The old saying goes that “if you’ve got money … you can travel” and most people who have money — do.  The rule of thumb for achieving greater social status through travel is that the further-flung the destination, the better the vacation.

People advance all kinds of rationalizations to validate their wanderlust.  “Travel is broadening” they will say or they might claim “a change of scenery will do me a world of good.”  Still others associate their homes and offices with stress and tension and, impatient for the afterlife, their vacations as the precursors of the ultimate reward in the world-to-come; “I’ve worked really hard and I deserve some R&R.” Some will even couch their constant flitting about in religious terms.  משנה מקום משנה מזל – “a change of location will result in a change of fortune.” (cp Rosh HaShanah 16B and Talmud Yerushalmi Shabbos 6:9).

But some latter-day nomads dispense with the rationalizations altogether.  They travel lishmah, so to speak. They may not be able to articulate it as eloquently, but they are in general agreement with Robert Louis Stevenson who said “I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” Perhaps it is modern man’s relentless movement that robs him of the luxury of pausing to ponder; why this is so?  Why is the great affair to move? What is the real subconscious compulsion, the psycho-spiritual dynamic at work, which induces us to travel for travel’s sake?

Rav Tzadok-the Kohen of Lublin provides an eye-opening and astonishing answer to these questions:

Like Kayin, we are wanderers because we are murderers.  This is not to say that we are guilty of the most flagrant and literal forms of homicide.  Stabbing, strangling, shooting or poisoning the victim is not required.  Our prophets and sages taught that there are other sins that, while not causing the permanent irreversible termination of life, are still iterations of murder.

We’re all familiar with the Chazal that equates inflicting public humiliation to the point of blanching, with murder. (Bava Metzia 58B) Chazal coined a term “the three forked tongue” to describe sins of lashon hara–gossipy speech, because these sins kill three people; the speaker, the listener and the subject of the conversation.  (Arachin 15B) The prophet Yeshaya condemned another form of non-homicidal murder when he thundered “You that inflame yourselves among the Terebinth trees, under every leafy tree; that slay the children in the riverbeds, under the clefts of the rocks!” (Yeshaya 57:3 see Niddah 13A)

While those who transgress sins that do not rise to the legal and halachic definition of homicide are not sentenced to utterly abandon their homes and exile themselves to a refuge city or to the camp of the Levi’im they become unsettled, itinerant wanderers all the same.  The Lubliner Kohen goes on to say that, the good news is, when we do begin to lay down roots in a particular place and achieve some tranquility and stability we can rest assured that we have been metaken-ameliorated these homicide-like offenses.

There’s even an intermediate condition during which, while we may be more or less fixed and established in a particular location, we are not really happy about it.  The normal state of affairs is that of חן מקום על יושביו-“every place is charming to its own populace.” (Sotah 47A) If, on the other hand, we do not find anything attractive or satisfying about our homes, neighborhoods, towns or workplaces this is symptomatic of having repaired and been forgiven for the deed that was in some way equivalent to murder but that the antisocial thoughts that motivated us to act as we did, still require tikun-repair and teshuvah-atonement.  While our feet may not be itchy enough to take the first step in a journey of 1000 miles, our minds and spirits remain agitated, distracted and 1,000 miles away.

In his classic work of Hashkafah, Michtav M’Eliyahu (Strive for Truth), Rabbi Eliyahu Lazer Dessler, z”l, views the entire contemporary human condition through the prism of the Lubliner Kohens teaching.  Writing presciently in the mid twentieth century he points out that never before has mankind been so murderous and, not coincidentally, so nomadic and adrift.

Weapons of mass destruction can lay waste to entire cities in a matter of moments.  Gossip is no longer something whispered in dark corners but a multibillion dollar publishing industry.  Slander, inaccuracies and half truths coupled with a breakdown in civil discourse had transformed character-assassination by means of public humiliation into an international sport.  Unparalleled pornography, lasciviousness and loose morals had disseminated the form of murder that the Prophet Yeshaya decried to previously stern and puritanical corners of the earth.

Concurrently, advances in aviation and other technologies made modern man substantially more mobile than his ancestors.  From one end of the earth to the other, millions of people traverse unprecedented distances at previously unimaginable speeds.  And while these travelers may dream that all this running about is advantageous to them or that they’re doing so for pleasure and entertainment (entertainment being synonymous with a deep-seated disquiet, distraction and scattering of the soul-pizur hanefesh) they are, in fact, just living through the curse of Kayin, humanities first murderer. Despite all of the giant leaps forward in technology man has never felt so rootless, anxious and insecure.

Imagine how much sharper Rav Dessler’s critique of modern man and how vindicated his linkage of high-speed, easily accessible travel with WMDs, the venality and universality of gossip and humiliation would be, were he writing today.

Virtue is always its own reward. So we already had ample incentives to avoid doing the many sins that our tradition teaches are equivalent to murder.  But if we needed an ulterior motive the Lubliner Kohen, has provided us with one.  As the Torah is eternal HaShem “lays down a space where the killer can flee” and be free of the curse of Kayin in every generation.  Refraining from lashon hara, publicly humiliating others, withholding wages et al seem a small price to pay to achieve a sense of a rootedness, connectedness and tranquility via entry to the sanctuary surrounded by invisible walls of Torah and teshuvah — the space that HaShem has laid down.

~adapted from Tzidkas HaTzadik 82

and Michtav M’Eliyahu IV:Kavanas haMitzvos; Page 171 

Living with Regrets

I happen to enjoy and appreciate that fluid flow of online information. A friend (as in, I had meet him years ago and then we were ‘friends” online, and I actually met him recently over Sukkos) recently posted a link on Facebook to an article published in July of 2013 in the New York Times. The article contained the full text from a commencement speech at Syracuse University given by George Saunders. I highly suggest you read it since there are a number of lessons related to chessed. You can read it here. I read it, thought about it, and forwarded it to a few people, and now trying to write about one of several things I gleaned from it.

Saunders’ theme was based on the age old question of, “Looking back, what to you regret?” In the article he gets very specific about something he regrets from his past (really, you should read it). That question about things I regret started creeping its way into my thoughts. I know, must of us probably don’t think about regret until Elul or Tishrei. I’m right there with you. The question pushed me to think about two specific and related things, my relationship with my father a”h and with my own kids. It is not easy to write some of this, as it is uber-autobiographical, but I hope it may be useful to other growth oriented people.

My father was niftar in November of 2009. He was always, Baruch Hashem, supportive of my gradual move from “traditional” Jew to Orthodox Jew. Since 2006 we would speak at least 4-6 times a week, about things in general, no seriously deep discussions or vulnerable moments. Our relationship was warm, but it lacked emotion at times (mostly from my end). On his last trip to see us my wife who knew that I and my father both wanted more out of relationship decided to sit us all down at the table and we talked. We laughed. We listened. We explained. We cried. In 45 minutes we pretty much answered questions, healed wounds, and gained insight into a 38 year old relationship I had with my father. Our relationship blossomed and I have my wife to thank for this. That relationship screeched to a halt 3 months when he was diagnosed with pneumonia on top of battling leukemia. So, the regret related to my father is one of lost time, time when he was alive. We both spent years not being as emotionally connected as we could have. I often find myself telling friends to let their parents know that they are loved, not only by saying it, but showing it.

Regret number two. I know that I am not alone in this, even though most people won’t admit it. As an observant Jew I often find myself losing patience with my family. Sometimes to the point that I feel like any self-control, any middos management, or learning about kas (anger) and salvonus (patience) is totally thrown out the window. In the heat of the moment, when I look at my kids and only see the negative in them I am not thinking about the mitzvos of chessed (kindness), V’ahavta L’rei-acha k’mocha (loving your friend as you love yourself), or the concept of B’tzelem Elokeim (being created in God’s image). It is something I regret. It pushes my family away from me, which down the line might result in my own kids having a less than stellar relationship with me. Truth be told, for the past 2 weeks (prior to even reading the above referenced article) I have been going out of my way to point out to them positive things they do and the traits excel in.

So, when all is said and written, I am left with two regrets (I have several more, seriously). One I can do nothing about and one that, with Hashem’s help, I can put an end to. As cliché as this is, when you finish reading this, find a piece of paper and ask yourself, “Am I Living with Regrets?” It might be the start of something extremely powerful.

Dreaming but Not Sleeping

Vayeshev 5774-An installment in the series

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

For series introduction CLICK

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

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

-Bereshis 40:1

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

-Rashi ibid

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

Zohar Miketz 197A

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

-Mishlei 11:5

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

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

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

 And Mei HaShiloach II Vayeshev D”H B’Inyan

 

To Feast or to Fast… THAT is the Question!

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

 It (Yom HaKipurim) is a Sabbath of Sabbaths to you and a day when you must afflict your souls. You must keep this Sabbath from the ninth of the month until the next night.  

-VaYikra 23:32

Chiya bar Rav of Difti taught: “and …you must afflict your souls…[on the] ninth of the month” Do we begin fasting on the ninth?  [In truth] we don’t fast until the tenth! Here, the Torah is teaching us that all who eat and drink on the ninth are considered to have fasted on both the ninth and the tenth.

-Yoma 81B

On the tenth day of the seventh month you must afflict your souls and not do any melacha…This is because on this day you shall have all your sins atoned to purify you. Before Hashem you will be purified of all your sins.

-VaYikra 16:29, 30

There is a lot of conflicting data on the subject of the Torahs attitude towards asceticism.  On the one hand, Shabbos the basis of sanctified time, is identified with pleasure “And call Sabbath pleasure” (Yeshaya 58:13 ) and the entire chapter of Yeshaya 58 takes a rather dim view of fasting unless it is coupled with social justice. On the other hand, the very holiest time, the Sabbath of Sabbaths is a fast day.  The Nazir, who abstains from the fruit of the vine, is called both holy (BeMidbar 6:8) and sinful (Nedarim 10A) as is one who engages in voluntary fasts (Ta’anis 11A). The place of eternal rewards is called “the Garden of Delights”, but the delights there are of a decidedly non-physical variety; “the righteous sit with their heads crowned and bask in the radiance of the Shechina-the Divine indwelling”

In practical terms this quandary is most pronounced on the 9th and 10th days of Tishrei when the day of feasting that precedes the Day of Atonement and self-denial is reckoned as a day of fasting as well.

The often irresistible lure of this-worldly pleasures is, arguably, the major contributing factor to sin and its concomitant impurities. As such, there is a compelling logic to how abstaining from of this-worldly pleasures would help us attain the contrary outcome of decontamination.  As the Pesukim (VaYikra 16:29, 30) state: “afflict your souls …to purify you! “  However, as Rav Leibeleh Eiger explains, HaShem desires to sublimate everything (in his parlance to “sweeten” everything). Eating and drinking are the general categories under which all the temporal desires and delights fall.  HaShem wants all of these to be sanctified as well.  Holy self-gratification may sound like an oxymoron. But since our only will is to fulfill His will and “we cast that which weighs us down upon Him” He then “sustains us” with spiritual nourishment. (Tehilim 55:23). When we eat on Erev Yom Kippur in order to fulfill HaShems Mitzvah, eating becomes a catalyst for purity identical to the mortifications of Yom Kippur itself.

The Mohn-Manna Bread provides an intriguing precedent for this counterintuitive concept. The Torah states that the Mohn was like a “honey doughnut” (Shemos 16:31). Per Chaza”l diners tasted every flavor that they could imagine emanating from the Mohn (Yoma 75A). Moreover, the clouds that showered down the Mohn sprinkled pearls and jewels as well (ibid). The impression one gets is that the Mohn delighted all the senses. Yet the Torah describes the Mohn experience as one of mortification and affliction (Devarim 8:2, 3). Cognizant of the one-day-only supply of Mohn we can well imagine the anxious longing with which the Jews in the wilderness anticipated its daily arrival. The take away lesson for all generations of Jews from this Hedonistic-Ascetic hodgepodge is that we should yearn for HaShems salvation and be totally reliant on Him for both the eating and the abstention from eating. The feasting and the fasting are both only done to fulfill His will.

The verse: “Before Hashem you will purified of all your sins” implicitly alludes to Erev Yom Kippur. “Before HaShem” meaning feasting on the day before HaShem’s great and awesome day, Yom Kippur, will purify and decontaminate of your souls just as the fasting on Yom Kippur itself does.

Rav Tzadok, the Lubliner Kohen,  taught that whenever a Jew consumes food as a Mitzvah the food contains the flavor of Mohn which is the bread of the ministering angels and, as such, it is the flavor of other-worldly pleasure, the taste  of the radiance of the Shechina.  The topic of Mohn appears in the chapter entitled Yom HaKipurim in tractate Yoma because Mohn consumption is exactly like fasting on Yom Kippur the point of both activities being to experience spiritual gratification by absconding from the temporal pleasures of the physical world. When the Gemara says “all who eat and drink on the ninth are considered to have fasted on both the ninth and the tenth“  it is not because eating on the 9th  is like fasting but rather because fasting on the 10th is a different kind of eating, a spiritual angelic ingestion.  On Yom Kippur we dress, stand, go barefoot and wear white like angels.  We fast and are at peace with one another like angels. On Erev Yom Kippur we eat like the nullivore angels dining on “the grain of heaven and the bread of the mighty” (Tehilim78: 24, 25).

 Adapted from Toras Emes Erev Yom Kippur 5625-1865 A.C.E. (page 57)

and Machshevos Chorutz 12 (page 95)

Teshuva, Kiruv and BTs

By Rabbi Shaya Karlinsky

This wonderful group is devoted to discussing issues that are important to ba’alei tshuva. And we are now in the season when everyone should be attempting, each in his or her own way, to grow to higher levels through teshuva. There are two Halachoth that the Rambam includes in the laws of teshuva that are addressed to everyone involved teshuva, and which I think should be highlighted for ba’alei tshuva who are struggling in their growth and commitment to Judaism.

The Rambam (Hilchoth Teshuva, Ch. 3, Halacha 3) writes: Anyone who reconsiders the Mitzvoth that he has done, and in place of the meritorious deeds he has done he says to himself “What have I accomplished by doing them? Better that I had not done them.” This person has lost (the merit of) all of them. No merit is remembered for these [deeds], as it is written (Yechezkel 18:24) “And the righteousness of the righteous person will not save him on the day of his evil.” This refers to none other than one who questions his original actions.

This Rambam is based on a Gemara (T. B. Kiddushin 40b) which teaches as follows: Rebbe Shimon ben Yochai said: Even a person who was fully righteous his entire life, and rebelled at the end, loses the original [righteous deeds], as it is written “And the righteousness of the righteous person will not save him on the day of his sin”(Yehezkel 33:12). And even a person who was evil his entire life, and repented at the end, we never remind him again of his evil, as it is written “And the evil of the wicked person – he will not stumble over it on the day of his repentance” (ibid). (The Gemara asks) Let this person (the righteous person who rebelled at the end) be considered as one who has part sins and part meritorious deeds (since he did both good and bad deeds during his life)? Reish Lakish answers [that we are speaking about] one who questions (regrets) his original (good) actions.

I believe the implications of this Gemara, and its incorporation in the Rambam as a Halacha, have significant lessons for individual teshuva, as well as kiruv methods and goals.
Read more Teshuva, Kiruv and BTs

Don’t be Bailed Out. Be Vindicated!

An installment in the series

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

-For series introduction CLICK

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

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

-Bereshis 22:11,12

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

-Conclusion of the Zichronos blessing- Rosh Hashanah Musaf Service

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Two Types of Prayer and the Two Types of Teshuva

According to Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik, Chazal saw prayer as a an audience between the King and a prominent individual thus requiring us to stand straight, dress in good clothes and address Hashem directly. Hashem has given us this special privilege to approach him three times a day, only because we have a precedent from the Avos who approached Him this way.

In Selichos, we approach Hashem, not from the greatness of a man before a King, but from the opposite assumption, based on man’s weakness, loneliness and helplessness. Selichos are filled with one idea, how can lowly man possibly approach G-d? Our right to approach Hashem in Selichos is based on the Gemora in Rosh Hashanah (17b) where it is recorded that Hashem told Moshe that “Every time that Israel sins, let them perform this service (13 Attributes of Mercy) and I will pardon them.” .

These two approaches to prayer perhaps provide another answer to the question of why we don’t say viduy (confession), which is an essential component of Teshuva (along with regret and commitment to avoid transgression in the future) on Rosh Hoshana. Three of the approaches to this question are 1) on the Day of Judgement, we don’t want to mention our transgressions; 2) on this day we practice Hirhur Teshuva, which is a preparation for actual Teshuva; 3) we are actually performing the commitment to the future aspect of Teshuva. But at the end of the day, this is one of the ten days of Teshuva, when Hashem is especially accessible to grant atonement for our sins, so why don’t we take advantage with full Teshuva?

Another possible answer is that based on the two types of prayer, there are actually two types of Teshuva. The first is a general return to the ways of Hashem, the Teshuva mentioned in Parsha Nitzavim. The theme of Rosh Hoshana is that Hashem is King and He has a plan from the beginning of creation through the giving of the Torah at Sinai and culminating with the coming of Moshiach. The mitzvah of the day, the Shofar, is to tell us to pay attention to the plan, just as we were notified of the plan with the Shofar at Sinai and will be notified with the coming of Moshiach. This is our day to choose to be an integral part of the plan, to approach G-d from our potential greatness, just as we approach the King in the Shemoneh Esrai.

The second type of Teshuva is the atonement for the mistakes of the past. To achieve this atonement we need the full battery of viduy, regret and future committment. We must come to Hashem and admit that we have serious deficiencies as a result of our thoughts and actions and we are asking Hashem to help eliminate the stains we have created. This Teshuva requires the prayer of Selichos with our admission of weakness and helplessness, and the turning towards Hashem for help, as He directed us when he gave us the 13 Middos.

On Rosh Hoshana we are focused on the coming before the King, the positive commitment to Teshuva, drawing on the potential greatness of man. We sing and pray about the King, His plan and our commitment to our role. On the rest of the days of Teshuva we have to clean up our deficiencies, it’s the Teshuva of atonement, with its Viduy, regret, commitment, and Selichos.

As Baalei Teshuva we are well aware of these two types of Teshuva. We know we have many deficiencies in areas such as Torah knowledge, Torah non-compliant acts, and the many character traits we must work on. But at the same time we have all had the opportunity to explicitly sign on to the plan. When we decided to accept the yoke of Mitzvos and change significant parts of our lives, we demonstrated our striving for greatness in our service of the King.

When we held the Beyond BT Passaic Shabbaton many years ago, I mentioned these two aspects of Baalei Teshuva, our many deficiencies and our growth orientation and commitment to Torah. One speaker, a Baal Teshuva, jokingly remarked that until today he didn’t realize he had so many problems, while another speaker, who is frum from birth, remarked that the reason he came to the Shabbaton and “religiously” reads Beyond BT is because he wants to be part of a group that is so committed to their own and each other’s growth.

As we approach the Yomin Noraim we need to focus on both types of Teshuva. We have to accept and understand that we have our deficiencies, our stains, our areas to improve – and here we need the Teshuva of viduy and of atonement. We also have to realize that although we may have signed up for the plan many years ago, we have to re-enlist on a yearly basis.

Rosh Hoshana is the day when we get a clear picture and the need to strive for the greatness that the picture offers. We must try to work up to the same enthusiasm we had in our original commitment. These dual messages of Teshuva have the potential to unite all Jews as we are all Baalei Teshuva when we commit to our potential greatness, while at the same time recognizing, admitting and continuing to work on our deficiencies.

May we all have a Kesiva V’Chasima Tova.