Rav Noah Weinberg – Whose Yahrzeit is on Shevat 11 – on Happiness

Rav Noah Weinberg on Happiness

1. There are many important things we all seek in life – happiness, love and success among 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.

Deep Into Darkness Peering, See the Light of the Intermediary Disappearing

This weeks installment is dedicated l’iluy nishmas Gitel Leah a”h  bas Menachem Mendel Hy”d, Mrs. Lidia Schwartz nee’ Zunschein whose yuhrzeit is this week.

Did the plague of darkness cross the boundaries of Goshen?
Why is the plague of darkness the only one in which the Torah reveals that the opposite was happening to the Israelites?

Moshe lifted his hand towards the sky and there was obscuring darkness throughout the land of Egypt for three days. People could not see one another nor could anyone rise from beneath [the palpable, immobilizing darkness] for [another] three days. However, there was light for all of the Bnei Yisrael in their dwellings.

—  Shemos 10:22,23

Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the HaShem shines upon you. For, behold, darkness covers the earth and dark thick clouds [covers] the peoples; but upon you HaShem will shine, and His glory will be seen upon you. Nations will walk by your light and kings [will march] by the radiance of your shine.

— Yeshaya 60:1-3

No longer will the sun provide you with daylight and radiance, nor will the moon illuminate [the night for you]; but HaShem will be an everlasting light for you, and your Elokim will be your brilliance.

— Yeshaya Ibid:19

Even the darkness is not too dark for You, but the night shines as the day; the darkness is as the light.

—  Tehillim 139:12

HaShem will plague Egypt, plaguing and healing …

— Yeshaya 19:22

“Plaguing” the Egyptians and “healing” the Bnei Yisrael-the Children of Israel.

— Zohar commenting on the above pasuk

As in the days of your exodus from land of Egypt I will display miraculous things.

—  Michah 7:15

Rabi Yehudah combined and split up the makkos-plagues of Egypt; into simanim– mnemonics: Dtzac”h, Adas”h, B’acha”v

—  Haggadah shel Pesach

The Midrash says that wherever a Jew would sit down things would become illuminated for him. Rav Leibeleh Eiger explains that the Midrash deduces this from the difference in the Torahs description of the Bnei Yisrael being unaffected by makkas choshech– the plague of darkness; compared to the makkas barad-plague and hail.  When describing the plague of hail the Torah writes: “It was only in the Goshen where Bnei Yisrael were, that there was no barad” (Shemos 9:26). If makkas choshech had been identical to makkas barad what we should have had was a pasuk reading something along the lines of “No darkness dimmed the land of Goshen” or “there was abundant light throughout the boundaries of the Bnei Yisrael.” Instead the pasuk emphasizes the dwellings of the Bnei Yisrael rather than a particular area on the map of Egypt.

In fact, darkness lay on the land uniformly and respected no boundaries.  Darkness fell into pharaoh’s palace and land of Goshen equally.  The dichotomy between the Egyptian and the Israelite experience during this plague was not geographically rooted.  Instead, it derived from the difference between the Israelite an Egyptian soul. As the Jewish soul cleaves to HaShem, the dynamic that allowed the Bnei Yisrael to be untouched by this plague was that the Ohr Ein Sof Baruch Hu-the Light of the Endless One – Blessed is He [alternatively the Endless Light– Blessed is He]; was with them and, perhaps, diffusing through them.

While we’re all very familiar with the simanim of the Haggadah: Dtzac”h, Adas”h, B’acha”v , dividing the 10 plagues of Egypt into two sets of three followed by a final set of four, Rav Leibeleh Eiger introduces another way of categorizing the plagues.  He asserts that only during the first nine of the plagues, of which darkness is the final one, did the Egyptians have the opportunity of exercising their free will to liberate the Bnei Yisrael and dismiss them from the land.  The final plague, makkas bechoros-the smiting of the firstborn; forced their hands.  At that point they had they no longer had any choice in the matter.  Viewed in this way the makkos are divided into 9+1.  Makkas chosech was the final plague while makkas bechoros was something qualitatively different altogether.  As such, makkas chosech was the beginning of geulah-redemption; of the Bnei Yisrael from the Egyptian exile.  As darkness engulfed the land the salvation began.

In Jewish eschatology one of the hallmarks of the ultimate Geulah at the end-of-days, is that the presence of G-d will be palpable and manifest and that all powerless idols and false ideologies will be exposed for the obscuring mirages they are. Their smoke —their pollution — will blow away, scattered by the fresh winds of truth.  The Geulah will be a kind of cosmic reboot where everything is reset and recalibrated to the Manufacturer’s factory settings.  In order to get a glimpse of the ultimate Geulah it is instructive to study the sources describing how these “factory settings” where first fiddled with and misaligned.

Read more Deep Into Darkness Peering, See the Light of the Intermediary Disappearing

Baruch Dayan Emes: Reb Meir Schuster ZT”L

Rabbi Dovid Schwartz in Hamodia:

Yesterday, on 17 Adar I, a neshamah that exerted its last ounce of strength while here in this transitory world bringing tens of thousands of neshamos to their soul-roots was, itself, returned to the t’zror hachaim with the petirah of Rabbi Meir Schuster, zt”l, after a long illness.

Reb Meir was the proverbial “legend in his own time,” as he carved a mythical niche for his name in the annals of the kiruv movement as an incredibly effective recruiter for a wide array of kiruv programs, baal teshuvah yeshivos and womens’ seminaries. And while he sought out new soldiers for the milchemes Hashem in a variety
of eclectic venues including Yerushlayim’s Central Bus Station; he was most identified with the Kosel Hamaaravi where he literally “picked them off the Wall.”

Rabbi Yair Hoffman at Cross Currents

It is a sad day for the Torah world because of the loss of this great, great man. Rav Meir Schuster zatzal passed away today after a debilitating illness. This man was singlehandedly responsible for bringing more people closer to Avinu sh’bashamayim than entire outreach organizations. Without exaggeration, many tens of thousands of people came to Torah observance because of the actions of this man.

The greatest insight into this man was perhaps a shailah that was presented to Rav Elyashiv zatzal, when Reb Meir had lost his father. According to the Torah, the period of mourning lasts for three days. Chazal extended this period to seven days. Rabbinic extensions of halachos are universally observed in Judaism. Chazal tell us (based on Koheles 10:8) regarding Rabbinic enactments – “Kol HaPoretz Geder yeshacheno nachash – anyone who breaks the fence (on a Rabbinic law) deserves that a snake should bite him.” Yet, here things were different. Every day that Rabbi Meir Schuster was not at the Kosel, the wailing wall, was a day that Jewish people would not get a chance to be brought to Torah-true Judaism. Should he sit three days or seven days?

It was, of course, not even a question. Rav Elyashiv paskened that he may only sit for three days. Rav Elyashiv had never ruled in this manner for anyone else. Rav Meir Schuster was irreplaceable.

Meir Schuster hugged my brother

I met Meir Schuster in 1970, at the Kotel in my first days after arrival from Madison. I felt an immediate affinity for Meir. I had been in Madison. And he was from Milwaukee. I was looking for myself as a Jew.

And Meir was there, at the Kotel, a selfless one man endeavor who only wanted to make sure that every Jew who sought a Jewish soul from within would have someone to talk to.

In those days before the internet, when few people had telephones, Meir developed a network of people who would welcome wandering Jews into their homes, especially on Shabbat.

For years, Meir Schuster would arrive at the Kotel each day, to be there for fellow Jews who had no real home in Israel.

Bracha Goetz at rebmeirschuster.org

Reading the stories about Rabbi Meir Schuster that are just now being collected, I am transported back over thirty years ago.

It is 1976. The man who was to become my husband was praying at the Kotel. Larry had finished his time in a kibbutz ulpan, and was still volunteering in a development town in the Negev, when he decided to spend the weekend in Jerusalem. He was scheduled to return to the States a few weeks later, with no clear plans. Larry put a note in a crevice in the Wall and then prayed sincerely to find his path in life. When he finished, there was a tap on his shoulder. It was Rabbi Schuster, asking him, “Do you have the time?” Thank G-d, Larry did have the time, and he followed Reb Meir to a yeshiva for baalei teshuva where he began the process of finding his life’s path. After nine years of learning and teaching at Yeshiva Aish HaTorah, young wandering Larry became Rabbi Aryeh Goetz.

It is 1978, and after completing my first year of medical school, I was volunteering on the oncology ward at Hadassah Hospital, visiting with patients who were dying, while my secret mission was to learn the purpose of living. During my first few days in Israel, I went to the Kotel, and Reb Meir Schuster found me there. His purity and his sincerity came right into my heart. I began to study at the women’s division of Ohr Someyach, and the process of understanding the purpose of living began for me as well.

Today is the 15th Yahrzeit of the Lubavitch Rebbe

Today is the 15th Yahrzeit of the Lubavitch Rebbe. Chabad.org has a whole subsite devoted to the Rebbe.

In this article, Ten Absurdly Simple Ways to Live Higher, ten “first step” mitzvahs which were suggested by the Rebbe are explored. Here are the mitzvahs the Rebbe suggested:

1) Put a pushka on your desk and start giving Tzedakah
2) Buy and read Jewish books
3) Put up mezzuzahs in your house
4) Light Shabbos candles
5) Keep Kosher
6) Put on Tefillin
7) Women should go to the Mikvah
8) Enroll your children in a Jewish Day School
9) Learn Torah
10) Do Chesed

Moreinu HoRav Henoch Leibowitz zt”l – Reflections From Outside the Inner Circle

By Yitzchok Adlerstein
Reprinted With Permission – from Cross-Currents

Funerary orators often begin their remarks by relating how they are at a loss for words to properly express their feelings. I don’t have that problem The thoughts and images cascade without end in reacting to the petirah of my rebbi, Hagaon Rav Alter Henoch Leibowitz, zt”l.

The reason, perhaps, is that I am not in the inner circle. When you are a member of the core group, you have to focus on the expected causes for adulation of a gadol – gadlus in Torah, devotion to the cause, leaving behind many talmidim and institutions, serving as a link to the glory days of pre-War Lita. These were all fully true of the Rosh Yeshiva, and a succession of Torah luminaries, yibadlu lechaim tovim – Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky, shlit”a, the Novominsker Rebbe, shlit”a, Rav Malkiel Kotler, shlit”a – extolled these virtues in their remarks at the levayah.

I left the yeshiva almost thirty years ago for the opposite coast. I’ve been back very few times, and my sons did not (with one brief exception) attend any of the many branches of Chofetz Chaim. I have had much time to look at the yeshiva and the Rosh Yeshiva (the two are really inseperable) without the constraints that come with proximity. It has left me with more to say, rather than less.

Despite my having gone “my own way,” much of what I am (at least the things I would take pride in) is attributable in no small degree to the Rosh Yeshiva – even the fact that I went my own way! The Rosh Yeshiva did not smother people in his personality. He was large enough to allow individuality and even non-conformity, even as he himself believed that rules and details helped the majority stay focused on the chief occupations of yeshiva life. He spoke openly about chinuch and pedagogy (come to think of it, he spoke openly and frequently about many topics that are ignored in other yeshivos), especially as part of the world of mussar in general, and Slabodka in particular. He would tell and retell stories about the uncanny educational abilities of the Alter, giving the credit not to the individual alone, but to the mesorah of mussar he represented from Kelm and before. It behooved an educator to take into account the needs and the talents of each talmid as an individual, and to address and nurture them. This could mean at times that he would refrain from imposing his view on a talmid who needed space, or something a bit out of the ordinary. (I was privileged to be part of a not-so-small chevrah who were all fiercely individualistic, and maintained their identities.)

He could and did embrace uniformity in the yeshiva in regard to the key principles of the yeshiva, such as commitment to the service of Klal Yisrael. In regard to externalities like dress (within certain limits), he was fiercely opposed to regimentation. His objection here was not that it denied freedom of choice to the individual. I don’t think he thought of it in those terms – he had strong feelings about conservative and semi-formal dress, not to create uniformity, but to enhance kavod haTorah in both the talmid and those he interacted with. His objection was again an outgrowth of Slabodka. The mussar personality must make self-development a real avodah. Wearing a uniform detracts from that avodah, because consciously or otherwise, the wearer of the official colors tells himself that he has already arrived and joined the elite group, and would be less likely to worry about internal matters.

If he had a uniform himself, it consisted of one item – a smile that almost never vanished. A well-developed sense of humor, including self-deprecation, accompanied it. He could energize you with that smile and a freely offered hug – something I appreciated in my dating days after a bad break-up that he somehow always found out about within hours.

His appreciation for individuality, at least when married to yiras shomayim, allowed him to advocate his own position to the hilt, explain exactly why he disagreed with others, and still not look down upon those with whom he disagreed. If their honest search came up with different answers, he would still disagree, but he was quick to point out that neither he nor the Ribbono Shel Olam could have any complaints to the party in error. In that sense, he was a pluralist before the word became PC.

He paid a price for being an iconoclast. He was aware that his yeshiva didn’t quite fit in with many of the others, but he would not compromise on his principles. Neither would he disparage the others. He taught how important it was for bnei Torah to feel that they are part of a greater Torah effort shared by all other yeshivos.

Nowhere was this felt as strongly as in the general resistance to his well-enunciated derech of learning. Ironically, those who mocked it were unaware that what he really championed was one of the most traditional views of the yeshiva world, at least of the name roshei yeshiva. Chofetz Chaim is notorious (sorry, that is the most effective word that comes to mind) for proceeding through a sugya at the pace of a paraplegic snail. (It is only partially true. At least in my day, the yeshiva was just as adamant that talmidim cover ground at a brisk pace – faster than what was going on in other yeshivos – in the long bekiyus seder. Like people who took education seriously, there was accountability for quotas of output, with hanhala members regularly monitoring progress.) The slow progress in iyun seder was not for everyone. (It wasn’t for me or my children.) But at its essence, it represented a commitment to the primacy of Gemara and Rishonim. Talmidim would learn lots of acharonim, but not for their own sake. They could never be more than tools to unravel the many layers of meaning in a Rishon or gemara itself. This attitude – one championed by many other roshei yeshiva of the last generation, is very different from what is often found in more yeshivish places, in which (as my youngest son aptly put it) the gemara acts as a heichi timtzeh to plow through interesting acharonim. He demanded rigor in reading Rishonim, because that was the real key to success in learning, and because emunas chachamim created the confidence that time spend digging for gold in the words of a Rishon was almost always worth it.

Emunas chachamim was enormously important to him. He communicated the notion to talmidim not by demanding it as a sine qua non of yeshiva life, but by painstakingly demonstrating its importance, deflecting the objections to it, and teaching about its successes. It was not a monopolistic emunas chachamim, but one that allowed for divergent opinions. (In my case, this sense of emunas chachamim essentially launched my intellectual career, and put me at odds with the stated principles of the yeshiva. The Rosh Yeshiva was enormously practical. He believed that you taught what you knew best, and shouldn’t be consumed with guilt for not being able to be all things to all people. He knew lomdus, and he knew mussar. The cocktail of both of them refreshed the souls of most talmidim. Somehow, I had a slightly different shorech neshamah. I needed something more. Hashgachah had it that in a short period of time, I stumbled upon two other great influences on my development, Rav Nachman Bulman zt”l, and Rav Aryeh Kaplan, zt”l. Both of them introduced me to a wide range of seforim outside the main reading list of Chofetz Chaim. Both slaked my own inner thirst. Yet I would never have committed myself to the effort involved in learning the seforim they insisted upon had I not had the absolute confidence in chachmei hamesorah I got from the Rosh Yeshiva. His success in teaching me ironically assured that I would drift off in a slightly different direction! He did not seem to resent it, or the fact that I chose to work outside his own large network. The last time I really saw him was when I was sitting shiva for my father A”H in Kew Gardens Hills just a few years ago, and he showed up unannounced to be menachem aveil – despite my decades away from the yeshiva. On the other hand, he pretty much never forgave me for not becoming a shul rav, whose value he believed in, which was very different from the attitude of some of his peers who saw the rabbinate as an also-ran.)

All of this may boil down to a single perception, one not likely to be made by the inner circle. To those who never knew him at all, the loss of the Rosh Yeshiva should still be reckoned as a great tragedy, and not just because of the passing of an enormous adam gadol. The Rosh Yeshiva proved the historians of mussar incorrect.

Customary wisdom has it that chassidus succeeded, and mussar failed. To be sure, mussar had a huge impact upon the yeshiva world. Mussar classics became standard fare. The office of mashgiach was added to many a yeshiva. A heightened awareness of midos issues very much continues to this day.

As a movement that could capture the imagination of the many, and transmogrify the masses, mussar pales by comparison to chassidus. Historians offer a simple explanation. Mussar is very demanding. It takes intelligence and commitment to succeed. (So do many levels of chassidus, of course. But chassidus has some ground level elements that are accessible to the hamon am behaviorally and externally, that are exciting to the masses. Chassidus became a mass movement; mussar impacted Lita the most, and its stellar overachievers were individuals here and there. It seemed hopelessly limited to the relatively rare individual with superior intellect and heightened sensitivity. Even the flirtation with mussar in the non-Jewish world in the wake of Alan Morinis’ work would not change that equation.

The Rosh Yeshiva proved them all wrong. He did not make mussar the darling of the entire frum world, but he proved that it could become, even in contemporary times, an important mass phenomenon. Chofez Chaim produced, and continues to produce, a special kind of graduate. Minimally, they are almost always nice guys – polite, cooperative, refined people who can engage others in conversation. Maximally, it took a good number of talented people and turned them into superstars. Typically, they take teaching and pulpit positions disproportionally greater than their absolute numbers.. To be sure, they have had their disappointments, their disputes, their failures. They just seem to have fewer of them. People for the most part have fewer complaints about their interpersonal skills. Mussar on the group level may not guarantee Souls on Fire, but it does a demonstrably good job in making ordinary people a few notches better, and good people skilled mentors.

The Rosh Yeshiva did not have any children. People will be quick to point out that he had hundreds of children in his talmidim. This is certainly true. There seems to be some cruel irony, however, that he left no one to even say kaddish for him.

The Sochatchover explains somewhere that Ben Azai lost nothing by not marrying. HKBH created marriage as a vehicle to allow people to ratchet up their chesed, forcing them to reach beyond themselves and learn to give in ever increasing quantities. Ben Azai was so enthusiastic about his Torah, and so good at it, that he contributed the same gifts to the world through his Torah as others would have through raising families. This is also true of the Rosh Yeshiva.

Personally, I suspect that there is something more going on. When I first got married, I was part of a chevra kadisha that served all of Queens and Nassau. All of us were from the yeshiva; the Rosh Yeshiva was not thrilled with our participation, but did not stop us. (He feared that the daily, constant involvement with death was unhealthy for young people working at building our new marriages.) We quickly learned one of one of the traditionally-held bonuses of chevra kadisha work. After 120 years, we would be greeted in shomayim by all those we had helped in their final journey. I suspect that chevra kadisha members do not have a monopoly on receiving admirers. Somewhere in shomayim, a huge crowd is of neshamos is gathered to give honor to the Rosh Yeshiva. Saying kaddish in that minyan is none other than Rav Yisrael Salanter himself, in grateful recognition of what the Rosh Yeshiva did for him.

All of us – those who knew him and those who did not – should miss the Rosh Yeshiva. תהא זכרונו ברוך


Note to readers:

These questions are a compilation of some of the many that I have been asked over the years by children who have lost parents and/or the surviving parent/stepparent of the children. Please pass this along to anyone on your email list that may find this to be helpful. May the dissemination of this column be a zechus for my father’s neshama, Reb Shlome ben Reb Yakov Moshe HaLevi Horowitz, whose yahrtzeit is today, Rosh Chodesh Iyar.

Dear Rabbi Horowitz:

How do I properly observe a yahrtzeit? What does the word yahrtzeit mean anyway? Are there special things to say or do? Is it OK to be sad or moody on this day or should I just “deal with it” as some people seem to be telling me? How should I respond when the adults in my shul greet me on the day of the yahrtzeit? I keep hearing the words “The neshama should have an aliya” from adults. What does it mean, and what should I do when people tell that to me? How can I get my friends to understand how difficult this day is for me, and how should I respond when they inadvertently make inconsiderate comments to me on this painful day?

Rabbi Horowitz Responds

The term “Yahrtzeit” is a Yiddish term that is literally translated as “A year’s time.” (‘Yahr’ means year, and tzeit is time). The term represents the anniversary of someone’s death and is commemorated by the children, siblings, spouse and sometimes parents of the deceased. The date of the Yahrzeit is calculated according to the Hebrew calendar.

The most common practices observed on a Yahrzeit are reciting kaddish, lighting a special memorial candle that burns for 24 hours on the evening before the Yahrtzeit, learning Mishnayos, and visiting the graves of the deceased.

Jewish tradition and hashkafa (philosophy) teach us that humans are a unique hybrid of a physical body and a spiritual neshamah (soul). When death occurs, one’s neshama takes leave of its body and ascends to the Heavens. At that time, he or she is judged for his/her actions and accomplishments spanning his/her lifetime. From that time onward, that neshama cannot improve its standing in the Heavenly realm. However, according to our Chazal (sages), the neshama receives a ‘review’ of its original judgment on its yahrtzeit – with the opportunity to elevate its status in Gan Eden. How could things change after one passes on, you may think? Because in reality, the books are rarely ever ‘closed’ on one’s life since the neshama almost invariably left a legacy during the time it spent in this world. Therefore, the secondary mitzvos they helped generate with their actions on this world still accrue after their death to bring merit to their neshama. For example, if someone donated siddurim (prayer books) to a shul during their lifetime, they get a mitzvah each time someone uses that siddur. The same concept would apply to one who helps start a shul, Jewish day school, or other chesed organization.

This concept most certainly applies to one who had children who lead meaningful lives – since they can bring merit to the neshama of the deceased for many years to come. This is where you come in. For children are the quintessential extensions of one’s years on this world. Therefore, many of the yartzeit practices revolve around children generating mitzvos that accrue to the merit of their departed parent. We learn mishnayos or other limudim in memory of the departed neshama. (Here’s an idea: For many years, I would dedicate an ‘extra-hours’ block of time all year long to learn a particular gemorah with the goal of completing it and making a siyum on my father’s yahrtzeit.) We say kaddish, which gets people to praise Hashem upon their response to our words. We take food and drink to shul so that people will make blessings on the refreshments that were brought.

With all this in mind, the phrase that you hear many people greet you with on the day of the yahrtzeit, “The neshama should have an aliya,” may be more meaningful to you. What they are telling you, especially those who knew your parent well, is that they, too, (obviously in a lesser sense than you) feel the loss of your parent and miss him or her. They are also expressing their sincere wish and hope that your departed parent will become elevated (aliya means ‘to go up’, as in getting an aliya in shul or when we say that one ‘made aliya’ when they move to Eretz Yisroel) in Gan Eden on this day. It is an expression of affection for your parent and for you, and a proper response would be to nod and say “thank you.” Perhaps if you are up to it, consider expressing to them that you really appreciate their well wishes.

I think that it is perfectly ok to feel sad, moody, confused – or anything else – on the day of your parent’s yahrtzeit. Just like people celebrate victories and successes in different ways, so, too, do people mourn losses in diverse manners. The yahrtzeit day is a very difficult one, especially for those of us who lost parents at a young age. It is made more complicated by the fact that it is a ‘normal’ day for everyone around us. Our friends at school – and later in life at work – do not understand that this day jars all sorts of unpleasant memories for us and it often feels like a scab was torn off a wound that had partially healed. So, I would suggest to you that if you just feel like you need some space to sort things out in your mind on the yahrtzeit day, it may be a good idea to take part of the day off and do just that. Try not to be critical of people who say silly or inconsiderate things to you. Many of them feel rather awkward, as they don’t really know what to say to you. Therefore, they may blurt things out that wind up doing the opposite of what they had intended.

I would love to tell you that the yahrtzeit day gets easier with the passage of time, but at least in my case, and those of my close friends who lost parents at a young age, it really doesn’t. I am writing these lines on the forty-fourth Yahrtzeit of my father, who passed away before my fourth birthday. And while the passage of time is a great healer for the ‘other’ days of the year, I have found that in many ways the actual yahrtzeit day gets harder as time goes on. Every year, on the evening of my father’s yahrtzeit, I tell my wife that I feel emotionally bruised and battered – like a truck ran over me, chas v’shalom.

One thing that I always tell teens and young adults who have lost parents is to reach out for help if you feel yourself bogged down by emotional overload. I would suggest that you please read my “Letter to Girls Who Lost a Parent” (click here) for more on the issue of reaching out for help and for some referrals. How bad does it have to be for you to reach out for help? I would say that you should certainly go for help if you feel that the trauma of your parent’s death is impeding your progress in school or in life. But I would recommend that you consider going for grief counseling, contacting Chai Lifeline (www.chailifeline.org, 212-465-1300), a Rabbi/Rebbitzen in your community, or simply a grown adult who lost a parent at a young age to help you better cope. Mental health professionals have made such progress in the past few decades in understanding the grieving process and in helping family members sort out their emotions. Not taking advantage of this knowledge that is readily available is almost like getting a root canal without Novocain or like a nearsighted person not using eyeglasses.

In the broadest sense, the best thing that you can do to honor the memory of your parent on the day of his/her yahrtzeit – and throughout the year – is to live a meaningful life. Having experienced wrenching pain at a young age equips you better than most others to be extraordinarily sensitive to others. You have sadly learned the value of time, the gift of life, and the opportunity that each day presents.

I give you my heartfelt bracha that you use these life-lessons to live a life of Torah and chesed, a life where you give and rarely take, a life where you heal and rarely hurt, a life where you leave the world a better place as a result of your words and deeds.

Living this type of life will bring eternal merit and kavod to your parent – and eventually to your own children.

Please forward this important post to teens/children/even adults who lost parents.

Yahrtzeit of Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch

Remembering the first Jewish warrior for tradition in the modern era.

There is no such thing as an Orthodox Jew.

Or, more accurately, the term “Orthodox” has no basis in Jewish tradition. The appellation was coined by the earliest Jewish reformers in 17th Century Germany to differentiate between themselves and the Torah establishment. In the minds of these newly “enlightened” Jews, the practices of traditional Judaism were, like the Jewish ghettos of Europe, anachronisms with no purpose than to shackle the modern Jewish world in a self-imposed Dark Age.

In those intoxicating times when Jews found themselves with unprecedented freedoms and opportunities, in the midst of their zeal to find acceptance among their cosmopolitan gentile neighbors, German Jews recoiled from the antiquated style of Jewish dress and Jewish speech, from the rejection of secular studies common in formal Jewish education, and from the Torah observance of those who perpetuated the stereotype of the “wandering Jew.” Thousands upon thousands turned away from what they denounced as “Orthodoxy” to embrace the modern Jewish reformation which, they believed, would lead them into an era of enlightenment.

Seduced by the attraction of modernity, observant Jews throughout all of Germany cut off their side locks and cast off their religiosity. Devout but poorly educated parents mourned over children who found little reason not to forsake the archaic customs and rituals of their fathers for the wealth of opportunity offered by the modern world.

In neighboring Bohemia-Moravia, however, Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch took notice and could not sit idle. A member of Parliament as well as a rabbinic leader, Rabbi Hirsch left his secure position to accept the post as rabbi in the undistinguished community of Frankfort-am-Main. There he would build his bulwark against the tides of change.

In 1729, almost 80 years before Rabbi Hirsch was born, a brilliant thinker by the name of Moses Mendelssohn had introduced a new approach to Judaism to the Jews of Germany. Believing that he had identified the cause of anti-Semitism as the visible “otherness” of Jews living in gentile society, Mendelssohn’s solution adjured each of his brethren to live as “a cosmopolitan man in the street and a Jew in your home.”

With his extraordinary intellect and the convictions of his own philosophy, Mendelssohn managed this ideological tightrope walk in a way that his followers could not. Four of his six children abandoned Torah observance completely, and within two generations the reformers who looked to him as the father of their movement had forsaken the most cherished and time-honored precepts of Jewish practice.

By the time Rabbi Hirsch arrived on the scene, traditional Judaism was in full retreat. Recognizing the gravity of the crisis, Rabbi Hirsch crafted a response that at once strengthened the traditional community while drawing the teeth of those who sought to dismiss tradition as irrelevant and headed for extinction.

Observant Judaism’s detractors argued that traditional Jewish dress was a throwback to the dark ages, that the pidgin tongue of Yiddish was a gutter language unfit for the modern world, that the traditional community knew nothing beyond their Talmudic tomes and, even worse, wanted nothing to do with the secular world. To the Jews caught up in the excitement of a new age, their indictment effectively equated Torah observance with social leprosy.

Rabbi Hirsch met their objections head on. Within his community in Frankfort, he instructed his congregation to dress in the modern style, to learn and speak High German, to attend university, and to acquire professional positions in the heart of German society. He instructed his community to take on the outer trappings of the secular world, while creating a K-12 dual-curriculum educational system that built a rock-solid foundation in Torah study while providing the tools to succeed in the secular world.

Applying and adapting the philosophy of the Talmudic sage Rabbi Yishmoel, Rabbi Hirsch described his approach as Torah im derech eretz, “Torah study and observance together with secular culture.” In Rabbi Hirsch’s vision, professionalism, secular education, and a familiarity with ways of the world pose no threat to the devout and committed Jew, so long as Torah law and Torah philosophy remain both the compass that points his way in the world and the anchor that prevents him from being carried away by the tides of intellectual fad and fashion.

In 1836, when he was 28 years old, Rabbi Hirsch published The Nineteen Letters of Ben Uziel, a dialogue between an “enlightened” Jew and his traditional childhood friend. Writing anonymously, so that the personality of the author would not interfere with the book’s message, Rabbi Hirsch articulated the fundamentals of Jewish belief powerfully and concisely. His discourse forced many attracted to reform to look with new respect upon the wisdom of tradition.

Indeed, how could one not respond to words both reasoned and impassioned, to observations founded upon both human logic and the empirical evidence of history, to the inspiration of the divine spirit calling out from the depth of the human heart: “Not to see G-d, but to see the earth and earthly conditions, man and human conditions, from G-d’s pinnacle is the loftiest height that can be reached by human minds here on earth, and that is the one goal toward which all men should strive.”

Over the course of his life, Rabbi Hirsch produced many volumes in which he developed his ideas into some of the most profoundly thoughtful writings in contemporary Jewish literature. His commentary on the Torah is a modern classic, and his insights into the meaning and understanding of the commandments in Horeb are illuminating for laymen and scholars alike. “Dear friend,” writes Rabbi Hirsch, “forget what you know about Judaism, listen as if you had never heard about it — and not only will you be reconciled to the Law, but you will embrace it lovingly and will allow your whole life to become a manifestation of it.”

In our world today, where politics and religion are driving a polarizing wedge ever deeper into society, it’s hard to imagine a body of literature more relevant than the writings of Rabbi Hirsch. Unwilling either to negate the relevance of the secular world or to compromise the values that have enabled the Jews to survive two thousand years of exile, Rabbi Hirsch elucidates a vibrant synthesis of the body and the soul, of engaging the physical world in pursuit of spiritual goals.

Rabbi Hirsch passed away on the 27th day of the month of Teves in the year 1888. Through the impact of his leadership and his writings, however, he remains very much alive today.

Originally published at the Jewish World Review.

A Tribute to My First Rabbi

Today is the yahrtzeit of my first rabbi, Rabbi Eliyahu Chaim Carlebach zt”l. Many people know of Reb Elya’s famous twin brother, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, zt”l. In fact, I also found Reb Elya through Reb Shlomo’s reputation, but it is Reb Elya who I will always consider my first rabbi.

Reb Elya and Reb Shlomo were born in Vienna in the late 1920’s to a prominent and wealthy rabbinic family. Their father, Rabbi Naftali Carlebach, moved the family to Germany for the sake of his sons’ education, but by the 1930s, they emigrated to America, early enough to have escaped the war. Rabbi Naftali Carlebach established a shul on West 79th Street in Manhattan which is now run by his great-grandson, Reb Elya’s grandson, Rabbi Naftali Citron.
Read more A Tribute to My First Rabbi

HaGaon Rav Yitzchok Hutner Z”TL

Today, 20 Kislev marks the 25th Yahrzeit of one of the towering architects of post-war Jewry, The Chaim Berlin Rosh HaYeshiva and author of Pachad Yitzchok, Rav Yitzchok Hutner Z”TL.

Rav Hutner practiced kiruv and inclusivety before they were catchwords and slogans. He created an ambience in Chaim Berlin whereby one gets ahead by yearning and striving in Torah and Avodah (service) irrespective of yichus (pedigree) or background. Read more HaGaon Rav Yitzchok Hutner Z”TL