On the roof of the Aish center looking down at the Western Wall with Chevra & Davai in 2011

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Sunday, July 6, 2014

Happy or Sad… a Kotel Story

Last week, I arrived at the kotel for the first time in three years.  A few days latter, I came back with a Rabbi/friend of mine and he taught me an interesting Halacha (Jewish law).  He said when one visits the kotel for the first time or after a period of bring away from it, he should tear his clothes as a sign of mourning.  Typically, tearing ones clothes is reserved for the intense mourning period that we go though when we experience the passing of a close relative.

In the same fashion, we should tear our clothes when we arrive at the kotel, because we should mourn the loss of the holy Temple to the same decree that we mourn the loss of a parent, spouse, child, etc.  Even though, I recognize the Halacha as valid and see the point, it just doesn't sit well with me.  At the kotel, G-d's presence can be felt in a more intense way than any other place on earth.  At the Kotel, my learning is better & by prayers are more intense.  Since I feel the heightened sense of G-dliness, it just doesn't feel right to be sad about arriving there.

On the other hand, things clearly aren't right.  The Temple Mount is inhabited by a people that hates us and our temple has yet to be rebuilt.  The fact that the news broke that the bodies if the 3 missing innocent Jewish boys, whose memories should be for a blessing, who had been kidnapped several weeks ago had been discovered is as much proof as one needs to know that things aren't even close to the way they should be.

If we can't be happy, and we can't mourn, what are we supposed to do?

We cry.

Crying is the only human reaction that can represent both extreme joy & sorrow, possibly even at the same time.  At the Kotel, We cry because we love G-d and are happy to return to such a holy place.  We also cry over all the blood that paved he way for our return and continues to pave the way for us to remain there.  We cry for the ones we have lost and we cry for the ones that we still have.

Friday, July 4, 2014

When's the time to stop praying?

There are many times throughout the day and the week that we have opportunities to pray for someone else's recovery from illness.  On Monday mornings, Thursday mornings, Shabbas mornings and afternoons, when the Torah is out, there a special prayer for someone’s recovery from illness.  Also, during the weekday Shemoneh Esrei, 18 times throughout the week, we can insert someone's name and ask G-d to grant them a complete recovery.

A complete recovery... Not just a rafuah, but a rafuah shleimah.

What about a partial recovery?  Someone who has 2 problems will most probably be very happy to recover from 1 of them.

In other situations, a partial recovery just doesn't do the job.  In other situations a partial recovery is worse than no recovery at all.  My father is in one of those situations.

At 78 years old, physically, he's still fairly strong and as tough as nails.  Over the past 25 years, he's beat both cancer & leukemia. Though he shrunk a few inches in size, his. 5'11", 220 pound frame still gives him a strong presence.  Thick & strong, you don't want to be on the wrong side of a heated argument with him.  It can be very intimidating.  I felt a little intimidated this morning.  I thought he was going to take a swing it me.  I’m not mad at him.  I'm not even sure he knew who I was.  Though he's winning his battles of physical health, he's losing his battles of mental health badly.  In just about a year, he went from being a little cloudy mentally to full blown dementia.

Since I started praying 12 years ago, I prayed for my father’s health.  G-d half delivered.  G-d has kept him alive.  G-d has kept him strong.  G-d has let my fathers mind almost disappear.  G-d has let my father's needs & aggressive moods push my mother’s patience to a breaking point.  G-d has answered part of my prayers and for many years I've been grateful for that, but not anymore.

Now, how do I tell G-d that it's all or nothing?  How do I tell G-d that I need either the rafuah shleimah or no rafuah at all?  How do I tell G-d to either cure him or take him?  My father is scared.  My mother is mentally & emotionally drained.  Should I ask G-d to take my father or do I say nothing at all?

The questions are many.  The answers are few.  This morning, one of my brothers & I tried to take him to the hospital as a step towards going to a nursing home.  They refused to admit him ... Too argumentative.  They couldn't handle him.  I debated staying in town, but I had a commitment.  Here I am, on a plane to Israel.  I committed to help a friend run a trip for young professionals to explore Israel and even help a handful of guys experience yeshiva for the first time.

My job is to inspire them to explore their Judaism and talk to G-d and for the first time I'm many years, I don't know what to say myself.

I'm not having a crisis of faith.  Even tough when questioned by my relatives about why the suffering continues, the answers I have learned seemed futile.

Even though I couldn't come up with an answer that made sense, I still believe.  I just don't know what to say.

I once read that by a shiva, we’re rewarded by our silence.... Just sitting is enough.  Maybe I just need to sit in since with G-d.

Maybe I should just pour out my heart to G-d & let him come up with the answers.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Where are our leaders?

Earlier this week, I visited some family in Boca Raton.  One night, while waiting in line in a local pizza place, I noticed something on the wall that really caught my eye.  It was a tee shirt with Moshe Dayan on it.  I walked over to look closer and I saw that this company was also advertising tee shirts with pictures of Theodore Herzl, Menachim Begin, David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir.

As I was waiting in line, and since it was December 25th and the place was packed with Jews it was a long line, I started to think about Jewish leadership.  It’s not just our political leaders of the last couple generations that we celebrate.  On the walls of the homes of countless religious Jews there are pictures of great Rabbis like the Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Chofetz Chaim or Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik

It seems like on both the secular and religious worlds, the previous couple generations were packed with great leaders, heroes really.  There were people of such personal integrity and iron wills to fight for both the spiritual and physical safety of the Jewish people, that we celebrate their lives, but what about today?

If I wanted to print t shirts up today or hang pictures up of the great leaders of our nation, who would be on them?  Where are our heroes?

Where are the great men and women of our generation who stand up to fight for us and we have so much that needs fighting for?

Where is the great leader of Israel who stands up to unite us and bravely says what we know (or at least I think) to be true?  Jews of every corner of the religious spectrum, including the charedim, must serve in the Israeli military, but we need to change our military to be a Jewish military based on the values and principles that G-d set forth in his Torah.

Where is the business leaders who stands up and says that all Jews must be 100% honest in business?  Jews who commit illegal acts, stealing money from both Jews and non-Jews and going to jail not only brings disgrace to them, it brings disgrace to the entire Jewish people, Israel and G-d.

Where are the religious leaders who stand up and unites us ad Jews?  It doesn’t matter what synagogue someone prays at or even what particular customs they have.  It doesn’t matter if their Chassidish or Litvish or Modern Orthodox or whatever.  They are Jews.  In my heart of hearts, I can’t believe that when I reach my day of ultimate judgment, I’m going to be judged on what shul I daven at or whether I wear a gartel or not… so how can I judge others?

Several years ago, I heard Rabbi Joseph Telushkin quote the Lubavitcher Rebbe who quoted the Medrash in the Torah portion of Shemos.  In Shemos, we’re told that Moses went out one day and saw an Egyptian beating a Jewish person.  Moses looked around and then killed the Egyptian.  There are many explanations to what it means when we read that Moses “looked around.”  The simple answer is that Moses looked around and saw that nobody was there to witness Moses killing the Egyptian.  A different answer is that Moses looked into the Egyptian’s future and saw that nothing good would come from him, even in future generations.  The answer given my Rebbi Yehuda in the Medrash is that when Moses looked around, there were plenty of people there, but… nobody was doing anything.  Everyone was standing silently.  Nobody was helping.  Nobody was leading and since nobody was leading, he stepped up to lead.

The answer is clear… where are our leaders?  Our leaders are us.  We need to do it.  We need to stand up for G-d and the Jewish people.  We may not be ready.  We may not think that we can do it or we should do it, but we must do it. 

Friday, November 29, 2013

Was there really a miracle on Chanukah?

This morning, I found an obscure story that dates back to the time of Chanukah.  The basic premise was that there were actually no miracles on Chanukah at all. 

It points out that even though there was technically one jar of oil that was found, it was a certain type of old oil that lasts twice as long so it would burn for two days.  It also says that the Kohanim (priests) used a certain type of wick which lasts twice as long, bringing it to 4 days.  It also says that since Kislev was during the colder season, oil burned twice as slow bringing it to 8 days.

It also points out that the Maccabees were Kohanim from the family of the high priest which were genetically stronger and more powerful then the average person.  Therefore, even the victories in battle weren’t a miracle.  Yes, they were outnumbered, but they were big, strong and knew out to mix it up.

Apparently, the writer was not alone in these beliefs.  According to this, a lot of Jews felt the same way… the Chanukah miracles were just a bunch of coincidences which in no way deviated from the natural world order.  They simply didn’t believe they saw miracles.

If we were there, which side would we have been on?  Would we have seen these things as miracles or tried to explain them away as natural occurrences?

Now… if you’re thinking that you don’t believe this one bit and there’s no way this opinion even exists, you’re correct.  I just made the story, but the idea pervades our life.

Do we see things as miracles or as natural occurrences?

In our time, there are more Jews coming back to observant Judaism than any other point in history.  Even a generation or so ago, practically everyone predicted that Orthodox Judaism was going to die.  When my father was born, in the 30s, not only was Orthodox Judaism predicted to get wiped out, it looked like all of Judaism might not make it.  So, what happened? 

Somewhere, in this short time period, for the first time in history, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of Jews, decided it was time to return to their spiritual roots.  There’s no logical explanation for this.  Yes, we had some great Rabbis, but the Jewish people have always been blessed with a few great leaders in every generation.  How do we explain this?

We can either try to rationalize it and says that the horror of the holocaust somehow reawakened our spirit of religion or you can call it for what it is… The Ba’al Teshuva movement is nothing short of a miracle on par with anything we read about in the Bible.

What about the land of Israel?

From the time I was born, the Jewish people had a state including all of Jerusalem.  From my perspective, there doesn’t seem to me anything miraculous here at all.  When I take history into account, even recent history, it paints a different picture.  When my older brother was born, Jews had no access to the Old City.  When my parents were born, the state of Israel didn’t even exist.  When my great-grandparents were born, Jews returning to Israel was nothing more than a dream.  So, what happened?

A group of poor, downtrodden people of Europe, after two thousand years, decided it was time to come home.  With little political support, little money, no experience in building a nation or fighting, they built a nation.  They were joined by their brethren from the concentration camps, from the Arab countries, from Ethiopia and eventually more from Russia, but none of these people brought any great skills to help build this nation other than an unshakable belief that it was time to come home.

Do we try to rationalize how this happened?  Outnumbered, outgunned, unwanted, unskilled & unsupported, the Jewish people rebuilt their home.  Is this nothing short of a miracle?  Even David Ben Gurian, who never considered himself religious, said “In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles”

It’s really up to us to decide.  Are we going to be like the skeptics who are so entrenched in our beliefs that we try to rationalize the irrational… or do we accept that at some point it’s more rational to recognize that the had of G-d is in every aspects of our lives and we have the privileged of witnessing the open miracle that preludes the ultimate and final redemption of the Jewish people.  

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Loshen Horah Game

More or less, my son has had a lot of the same kids in his class every year since he’s been in school.  Things went well in the first couple years, but in kindergarten, something happened… teasing.  While it may have existed before, we never heard about it.  We tried to explain to him that teasing is a form of loshen horah.  Loshen Horah is a broad term to describe any type of negative speech.  It doesn’t matter whether that speech is true, false, said behind someone’s back or to their face.  Even neutral gossip that may lead to negative feelings is a form of loshen horah.  The word “loshen” means “tongue” or “speech” and the word “horah” means evil.  We tried to explain why teasing was wrong and one should not do it.  We also explained how one should react when he’s the one who gets teased.  They all had a positive effect, but didn’t have the results that we wanted until… we discovered The Loshen Horah Game.

Just about every night, we have a ritual called “14 minutes, when after bath time is done, the teeth are brushed & the stories are read, my wife and I each lie down with each one of our kids and discuss about our days, tell stories or let them talk about whatever they want to.  It was during this time, where my son & I came up with the game.  We would take turns where one of us would speak Loshen Horah about some imaginary person and the other person had to figure out how to respond.  It went something like this:

Me (in a very silly kid voice): “Hey… did you see Frank (my son doesn’t know anyone named “Frank”) today?  He’s so stupid.  Let’s go make fun of him and tell him that we’re not going to play with him.”

My son: “He’s not so bad.  I bet if we played with him more, we’ll really get to like him.” Strategy: Direct rebuttal to try to diffuse the situation.

Me (still in a silly kid voice): “But Frank is so stupid, let’s go call him stupid-head”

My son: “Him… let’s go play legos.  The teacher brought in new ones for us to play during recess and I want to build a fire station”
Strategy: Distraction.

The silly voice makes it fun for him.  Since we started, we’ve expanded the concept, and the voice, to the Yeitzer Horah Game.  Both games work and help me teach valuable lessons to my children. 

The tougher question may be, how do I deal when adults speak loshen horah to me?

What if the speaker is a community leader or Rabbi?

Does it make a difference if they’re speaking badly about an individual person or another organization?

In the past week or so, I’ve had three cases where people spoke or I observed loshen horah.  Here’s what I did:

1. Rebuttal – The first case was when someone (who’s a very learned Jew) I know told me, individually, how another Jewish organization was doing something that was against Jewish law.  I went to the mishneh berurah, and the matter wasn’t discussed, but there was a hint that what the organization was doing was appropriate.  I went back to the individual to show them what I found and they were sticking to their guns.  I told them that I didn’t know how this organization was doing what they were doing, but the organization is made up of good, G-d fearing Jews, and Jewish law requires me (and him) to make an assumption that they are relying on a accepted ruling that neither of us have learned and not that they are doing something wrong.  The person reluctantly accepted the answer.

2. Distraction – The second case was where another Jew (let’s call him Levi) that I know started speaking badly about an individual Jew (let’s call him Shimon) and the organization that they were involved with.  This case was different, because Shimon insulted Levi pretty badly on a very sensitive topic.  I don’t know the whole story, but I know enough to know that Levi has every right to be upset.  Pirke Avos tells us that we shouldn’t try to appease someone when they’re angry so I know that if I try to recommend that we go hang out with Shimon or speak about Shimon’s good qualities, it’s going to upset Levi even more.  I quickly change the subject to something else and the loshen horah ends for now.

3. Removal – I didn’t discuss this matter with my son, because he’s in such a small class where the kids have to interact with each other, but sometimes we just have to remove ourselves from the situation and limit our interaction with certain individuals.  There’s a certain Jew that I know, who has many good qualities, but he’s easily offended and can be demeaning to people who his bad side.  I’ve known him for several years and have always tried strategies 1 & 2 on him, but the situation hasn’t improved and when I interact with him, I often come away feeling frustrated or upset.  When we encounter someone like this, sometimes the best choice is to exit the conversation and remove ourselves from the situation.

When we read through Tanach, it’s sometimes very hard for us to understand how so many people fell victim to the temptation of idolatry.  It seems so unappealing to us that it’s not even a temptation at all.  The Rabbis tell us that after the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash (Holy Temple), the inclination of idolatry was removed from this world, but it was replaced with the inclination to speak loshen horah. 

It can be a very strong temptation to say someone negatively about someone else, but we must all do our best to avoid it.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

"I am Chabad, I am Aish, I am Birthright, I am March of the Living, I am JWRP... I am a Jew who is striving to get closer to God and make this world a better place."

I want to share with you an article that was written by Rabbi Tzvi Nightingale, Executive Director of Aish in South Florida. He writes in response to a Pew Research Poll that came out this week regarding the state of the Jewish population in North America.

by Rabbi Tzvi Nightingale, Executive Director of Aish in South Florida

There is a lot of hand-wringing and distressed looks going on right now in the American Jewish world. According to a recent article making the rounds concerning the state of American Jewry by the Pew Research Center's Religion and Public Life Project, things are looking pretty grim.

The intermarriage rate, a bellwether statistic, has reached a high of 58 percent for all Jews, and 71 percent for non-Orthodox Jews - a huge change from before 1970 when only 17 percent of Jews married outside the faith. Two-thirds of Jews do not belong to a synagogue, one-fourth do not believe in God and one-third had a Christmas tree in their home last year.


Now while I agree there are some very disturbing issues and trends in the Jewish world regarding unaffiliated Jews - Hey, this is what I do for a living! - I find this study somewhat skewed and almost worthless. Why? Because they left out Chabad. As the article goes on to say:

Reform Judaism remains the largest American Jewish movement, at 35 percent. Conservative Jews are 18 percent, Orthodox 10 percent, and groups such as Reconstructionist and Jewish Renewal make up 6 percent combined.

Whoa, hold on a second. I don't see any mention of Chabad in there. Chabad you ask? You betcha! According to the Union of Reform Judaism website, there are 875 Reform synagogues in the United States and Canada. But Rabbi Motti Seligson from Media Relations for Chabad.org told me that there are 959 Chabad centers (part of over 1500 Chabad institutions) just in theUnited States alone. That is more than the so-called strongest branch of Judaism in the USA.

And this is precisely why this study is practically meaningless. It is based on a completely outdated model and mentality and has totally ignored the most dynamic movement in Judaism in recent years.

Furthermore, the folks at Pew are using categories of Jews from the 50's and 60's that have almost wholly changed since then. To illustrate, let's talk about my niece who is in her first year at Wilfred Laurier University in WaterlooOntario. She has attended Chabad for Yom Kippur, Sukkot and Shabbat dinners in the little amount of time she has been in college.

Now, if they were to approach her for this survey, she wouldn't say she is Orthodox because she knows what that is and isn't there (yet). She certainly is not Reform because she has zero affiliation with that movement. She would probably call herself Conservative given these choices, but that would be bogus because she really does not go to a Conservative synagogue unless there is some sort of simcha/happy occasion like a Bar Mitzvah. However she does attend Chabad more than most Conservative or Reform members attend their respective synagogues and yet there is no Chabad option to check.

And then there is another point - the holy grail of membership. This is another completely meaningless factoid in defining Jewish affiliation in our day and age. Who cares if someone is a card-carrying member of a synagogue or not?! There are plenty of people who come to Aish regularly who are not official "members" to us or any synagogue.

Yet the simple reality is that these folks are more actively Jewish than many official "members" of synagogues who may show up once or twice a year for Kol Nidrei or a relative's Bar Mitzvah. Hence these people would be categorized as "just Jewish" which according to this survey implies failed Jew; hardly the truth.

Don't get me wrong, I am acutely aware that there are all kinds of challenges facing American and Western Jewry regarding intermarriage, assimilation and the like. But we need a balanced view to see the reality of the situation. And this report simply does not do that by the egregious omission of Chabad in particular and the Bal Teshuva movement in general whereby hundreds of thousands of Jews from all different backgrounds are exploring their Judaism and Jewish definition of themselves in countless ways. We are far from a blip and certainly should not have been outright ignored.

So for the vast number of Jews who are on different levels and paths in their own personal journey of what it means to be Jewish and who go to Chabad for Sukkot or log onto aish.com or defend Israel through AIPAC or have made the commitment not to eat shell-fish - for those Jews perhaps we need to smash some old paradigms and need a new category of Jew.

So I propose that inasmuch as they are the most visible and numerous and therefore ought to get the naming rights, we should now have another category of Jew in addition to the Reform etc. designations - the Chabad Jew. And just like Kleenex® and Jello® have morphed beyond their initial limited product names into generic words for tissues and gelatin desserts, so too Chabad® can now become the expansive term for exploring Jew. (Isn't that ironic coming from an Aish rabbi?)

And the more I think of it, the more it makes sense. Chabad is an acronym for Chachmah, Binah and Da'at - Wisdom, Understanding and Knowledge. And that's exactly what these Jews are doing - they are, each in his or her own way, trying to get a bit more wisdom, understanding and knowledge of who they are and from whence they came as they continue in their personal journey of how our Torah, Mitzvot and Judaism can bring a little bit more peace, enjoyment and meaning in their lives.

But in the meantime, the next time someone comes up to you and asks you what kind of Jew you are, look them in the eye and tell them, "I am Chabad, I am Aish, I am Birthright, I am March of the Living, I am JWRP... I am a Jew who is striving to get closer to God and make this world a better place."

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Death in Judaism – “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine” Obi-Wan Kenobi

A couple weeks ago, I went to the unveiling of my wife’s Uncle Jeff.  He was around 60 years old and lost after a 9 month bought with Pancreatic Cancer.  I had a good relationship with him during the 10 years I’ve been with my wife and liked him very much.  I never really thought about it when he was healthy or even when he was sick, but something occurred to me at his funeral.  Not only did he become my Uncle, he was my only Uncle.  My father was an only child, and my Mother has one brother, but we were never really close to him.  One of my mother’s sisters husbands passed away when I was very young and I never really had a relationship with my other Aunt’s husbands. 

On the day of the funeral, the synagogue was packed with people.  Jeff had such a strong effect on so many people.  The Rabbi speaking about Uncle Jeff was his life-long best friend and delivered what was the perfect combination of a memorial and a comedy routine.  Uncle Jeff, always the jokester, wouldn’t have wanted it any other way. 

As he spoke, I thought…

How did Uncle Jeff live his life?

How am I living my own?

What can I learn from him… even now?

Two years ago, I attended a lecture at Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem.  The theme of the lecture was that we should live our lives backwards.  We should start by thinking about what we want said about us at our funeral and work backwards to become that type of person.

I am probably dating myself when I quoted the original Star Wars movie in 1977.  I was only 4 years old when Obi-Wan Kenobi said “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”  I was surprised when I learned that this idea did not start in Star Wars and that, in fact, it is very much a Jewish idea for the Tanya (published in the late 18th century) says that the righteous person protects this world after his passing even more effectively than he did during his lifetime.  Before that, the Gemara Tanis says that our father Jacob never died.  The Torah says specially that he was buried, so how do we understand this?  One of the expansions is that he lives on through his children and grandchildren since they learned from him and emulated his ways.

When we internalize the core values of someone... When we take them into our heart and incorporate them as our own, we keep that person, not only alive, but elevate them to a greater status than when they were in this world.

This is a lesson, not only for how we look at the people that we care about, but for how we live our own lives.  What values would I want people to emulate from me after my passing?  What would I want them to say?  How do I want to be remembered?  This is how I need to live my life.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Can you still love someone who made a horrible mistake?

For the second time in my life, I learned that a friend of mine, someone whom I loved and respected, had made a horrible mistake.

The first wave of feelings came over me… This can’t be true.  I know this person.  I’ve spent time with this person.  I’ve learned with this person.  I just don’t believe it.  After all, the sages told us not to listen to rumors and evil speech.  Didn’t they? 

Is there harm in simply not accepting a truth that others seem to cling on to so easily?

If I don’t accept this thing as true, am I somehow harming his victim?

Am I harming the family that he left behind?

Should I visit him in jail to let him know that he’s still my friend? 

Can I still consider him a friend?

Is it a greater desecration on the name of G-d, if people see me visit him?

I first found out on Friday morning, erev Shabbas.  I was in shock, questions filled my mind.  I didn’t believe it.  I didn’t want to believe it.  I knew that I had to believe it.  I came home.  My wife took one look at me and knew something was wrong.  How could I tell her?  How could I say it?  I had to say it for the family that he left behind.  I called her into the next room and told her that she needed to start calling this persons wife and whenever possible and offer her help and friendship for her and the children.  She said OK, but was silent.  I told her that my friend was gone.  The look in her eyes told me she wasn’t sure what I was saying.  Is he dead?  I told her that he had made a horrible mistake and would be gone for a long, long time.  Then I sat down and cried.  Other than sappy movies, I hardly ever cry.  Real life generally doesn’t make me cry.  I cried like a baby.  I cried for his wife & children.  I cried for his victim.  I don’t know if I cried for him, but maybe I cried, because I didn’t know if I could.

How could someone who I considered a friend, make such a horrible mistake?

How could someone who is 98% good, do something that makes his 2% evil so outshine is good deeds? 

I had no answers.

I can’t believe this is happening again.

Many years ago, I had a much similar experience, but he had no wife and children and the crime he committed, while bad, was not nearly in the realm as this.  I remember asking one of my mentors at the time how someone so good could do something so bad.  He told me the story of Judah and Tamar.  When Judah was traveling, he saw a prostitute on the road, and he lied with her.  How could someone, as great as Judah, give in to his evil inclination to lye with a prostitute?  The Rabbis tell us that G-d strengthened is evil inclination to such a degree that even someone as great as him found it hard to resist.

That helped me then, because the crime wasn’t that bad, but doesn’t do too much for me now. 

What was this person thinking?  How could he have done it?  Why does G-d give people evil inclinations that are so bad? 

I thank G-d that the extent of my evil inclination is that I’m tempted to sit on the couch and watch HBO when I should be learning as opposed to doing something much, much worse.

If my readers are expecting great answers, I have to apologize.  I don’t have any.

The only thing that I do know is that I’m very thankful to G-d.  Are there challenges in life? Of course, there are many. But when I look at this family, when I look at so many families with such hard challenges, I realize how lucky I am.  I’ve said many times that most of us think we have problems in life, until we go out and meet someone with real problems and then realizes that we have no problems.      

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Women of The Wall, Mother’s Day & Gender Roles in Our Society

In my house, honey nut cheerios is our favorite cereal.  I typically eat it with vanilla soy milk.  My wife likes it with skim milk and my son likes it with 1% regular milk.  No matter how one likes it the first thing a Jew must ask himself before eating is… What’s more important, the cereal or the milk?

This question determines what blessing we make before eating.  If I love cereal and prefer not to eat it dry, I say a blessing (bracha) for the cereal itself (borei minei mazonos).  If my wife really wants the milk and only eats a little cereal to get some carbohydrates, she may very well say the blessing (shehakol).  It’s a very subjective thing.  In Jewish law, we ask, what’s the most important thing or in Hebrew, what’s the ikar?

Even though this question, “what’s the ikar?” applies mainly to food and what blessing we say, it can also be used for many other areas of life.

In stereotypical American family life, the husband was traditionally the breadwinner and the wife was traditionally the homemaker, taking care of the needs of the household and raising the children.  This model has clearly changed a lot over the past generation.  Now you find all sorts of different family situations, but I believe that this model still shapes the way we think of gender roles in both American society and with in Judaism. 

This conjures up all kinds of questions… Should women be allowed to wear a tallis?  Or tefillan?  If not, why not?  Why should the husband get top have a career while the wives are stuck home?  Are the women of the wall right?  Is Judaism sexist?

In Judaism, we’re taught to question everything?  If so, we certainly can’t avoid this one.

Before, I attempt my version of the answer; I think that an important question needs to be asked first…. What’s the ikar in raising a family?

Is the ikar that we should have strive to have a fancy house, a nice car, prestige and money or is it raising children who are ba’al middos (have good & sensitive personality traits)?  Who’s more successful…. The doctor or the big donor in shul who may have kids that he doesn’t have a great relationship with or only 1 child… or the family with many children, who don’t have fortune or prestige, but whose kids are good, sweet Jews?

Unfortunately, my Dad’s father died when my Dad was young child.  Ever since I can remember, we spent every fathers day going to the cemetery.  We also went several other times throughout the year.  Some of my most meaningful memories growing up was walking through the cemetery with my father and older brothers talking about the family. 

In all those times, I’ve never seen a tombstone that listed how much money someone had, or how big of a house they lived in, or what profession they were in.  When we leave this world, we leave all those titles behind and just take the most important ones with us… Father, Mother, Grand Parent, Bubby, Zaidy, etc.

So, what’s the ikar of our lives?  What’s the ikar of raising a family?

Do we have a house so that when I get home from work I have a place to go or so I go to work so that I can have a place to raise my family?

Do I have a child, because that’s what I’m supposed to do and after all, I need someone to take care of me when I get old or is having children and raising them with Jewish values the highest and most important job one can have?

The answer is clear… having and raising proper Jewish children is the ikar of life.  In fact, if one had to ask one of the greatest questions of Jewish history, what one thing has allowed to the Jewish people to not only survive, but thrive after so many hardships, I think that one consistent answer is love and devotion of Jewish parents, particularly mothers to their children.  In our screwed up society, we forget that.  We’re focused so much on money or prestige or even equal rights, when we need to focus more on our children.  The Lubavitcher Rebbe once said that every Jew is commanded to think about and take steps towards proper education for Jewish children every day for at least 30 minutes and this applies to both those of us who have children and those of us who don’t even have children.

Keeping all this in mind, if I were to pose the question, what’s the most important career that one can have, what would the answer be?

I would submit that the most important career that one can have is being a Mommy… or a Daddy or a teacher.

I’m not suggesting the woman of the wall or any other woman or women’s group is right or wrong.  I am suggesting is that we all need to take a step back and think about the most important thing in life… children.  

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Be Holy - Kedoshim T’Yu

In the Torah portion of Kedoshim, G-d instructs Moshe to tell the Jewish people that they “You shall be holy for I am holy.” 

The very first problem that I encountered when researching the commandment that we should be holy is that according to the great Rabbi, Rambam it’s not even one of the 613 mitzvahs. 

This really threw me for a loop.  It’s clearly a statement in the Torah where G-d is commanding us to do something, so why didn’t it make the official list?  What’s the story here?  Is it the 614th Mitzvah?  Was it overlooked?

The verse is simple enough.  We need to be Kadosh or holy.  Kadosh literally means separate just like Kiddush on Friday nights separates between the holy & mundane.

In order to figure out why it isn’t on the list, we first need to explore what it is.  How does one be holy?  When trying to figure out what the Torah is trying to tell us, the first stop is Rashi.  Rashi says all we need to do is to avoid the sexual immorality mentioned in Parsha Kedoshim.  That doesn’t sound too hard.  Ramban, Nachmonadies has a different take on it.  He says that it is nothing to do with the observance of any commandment at all.  It actually comes to tell us on how we should behave in the non-mitzvah part of our life.  He says that we shouldn’t make ourselves disgusting in what’s permissible.  If you think about it, this takes the commandment of kedoshim to a whole new level.

Imagine that you (or anyone that keeps strict kosher dietary laws) is walking with a friend to his house for a Shabbas meal.  He mentions to you that he was driving around the other day and had the sudden urge for some Cheesecake.  There weren’t any kosher restaurants around so he stopped at a non kosher restaurant and ate a piece of cheesecake.  Chances are you may suddenly remember that you left the iron on or had some other reason why you had to go home.  All of a sudden, you may question whether or not you can eat at the guy’s house. 

Here’s a second scenario.  You’re walking with the same friend and he tells you that he went to the best kosher bakery around and bought 2 huge kosher cheesecakes.  This bakery had the best hexture.  The cheese was Cholev Yisroal.  The crust was Pas Yisroal.  (the milk was always guarded by a G-d fearing Jew and the crust was baked by a G-d fearing Jew) It couldn’t have got any more kosher.  He brought the 2 large cheese cakes home and proceeded to eat both of them until he got sick.  You might find the story amusing or the guy may even gross you out, but you probably aren’t going to find a reason why you can’t eat at is home.


In the first situation, the guy ate unhextured food.  Maybe he violated a law.  Maybe he didn’t.  Since we don't know what goes on in the kitchen of that restaurant, we don’t really know.  Since eating non kosher cheese is a rabbinic commandment, he may have very well violated it.  Most of us don’t want to take the chance.

In the second scenario, the guy may not have broken any commandments about Kashrus, but according to the Ramban, he is in violation of the biblical commandment of Kedoshim.

We can apply the same scenario to many situations.  We all know that if someone’s later for morning davening, the halacha is that they can skip parts in order to catch up with the minyan.  What about someone who’s late every day?  I know guys who haven’t said the full Shacharis in years.

We also know that if someone has a late business meeting, flight or similar circumstances, it’s permissible for them to daven by themselves, without a minyan.  What about if they want to skip a minyan because they’re at the basketball game?

You can decide on your own what you think the answer is, but the point is clear.

Being holy doesn’t end when we’re not doing a mitzvah.  It pervades every area of a Jew’s life.  It’s not its own mitzvah, because it’s every mitzvah. 

It’s the global commandment for a Jew to be kadosh.  To separate himself from any part of the physical world that it’s not in service of G-d.  We don’t do mitzvahs just do discharge our religious obligation and get on with our lives.  Our lives are the mitzvahs themselves.  In the time that we’re not doing mitzvahs directly, we’re preparing ourselves do to do them.  That’s what being kadosh is.  This is what separates us from the gentiles.  They have 7 mitzvahs and we have 613, but the difference isn’t just the quantity it’s the overall mission of the Jew. 

In conclusion, it’s no coincidence that just like kadosh means separate or different, our very name and essence, the Ivrei (Hebrew), the other ones, essentially means the same thing… to be holy.   

Friday, March 29, 2013

My Sins Are Better Than Your Sins

Over Passover, I had a friend come for a meal who I like very much, but don’t get to see so often.

As we were catching up about our learning, families and lives, he told me that he hadn’t had an alyiah to the Torah in a couple years.  I was a little surprised, because he normally davens at a mid sized shul and surely he would have been in the rotation several times over.  I know that he’s a regular minyan goer, so I asked why.  He told me that the shul he davens at his a policy about not giving an alyiah to someone who is married to a non-Jew.

Like me, this friend is a Ba’al Teshuva.  Unlike me who starting my spiritual journey when I was single and in my 20s.  He started his spiritual journey when he was in his 50s and already had a wife, several children & grandchildren.  Thought I have never met his family, from the stories he tells me, they sound like very nice people.  He told me that he’d discussed the situation with three different prominent Rabbis that his local Rabbis referred him to.  One told him to leave his wife, marry a young girl and start a new family.  The other two didn’t give him any advice but sympathized that he was in a very tough situation.  I’ve spoke to him many times about the situation and similarly to the ladder Rabbis, offered no practical advice or action plans.  I just offered my support and friendship and was there if he ever wanted to talk.  Part of being a kiruv Rabbi or any type of mentor is to know when to push someone into performing a mitzvah or stopping from a sin and knowing when to keep your mouth shut about or even council to someone to slow down their spiritual growth if they’re growing in a wrong direction or headed for burn out.  Leaving his wife, and essentially his children, would simply be too much to handle for this person.

The inspiration for writing this article is not to give practical advice to someone who is married to a nom-Jew.  For that there is no advice to give.  Everyone needs to make their own individual decision about what’s right for them.  When pressed for an answer regarding this question, I usually tell the person that there are 613 separate mitzvahs.  This is one of them.  Come back to me after they’ve fulfilled the other 612.

My inspiration is the synagogues decision of what sins one can perform and still get an alyiah and what sins they consider too great to be called to the Torah.  In my studies, I have not come across any type of defined ranking of sins from “not so bad” to “the worst.”  We go have some clues, because different sins have different penalties associated with them.  For example, eating non kosher food is punishable by lashes while improper marital relations and violating the Shabbas is punishable by death.  We may be able to derive from this somewhat of an order, but even this isn’t so clear.

Is eating non ritually slaughtered chicken the same as eating pork?  The punishments are.

Where do we draw the line about whose in the club and whose somehow outside?

Is it Shabbas observance?

Is it family purity?  (Appropriate use of the mikvah within marital relations) 

Is it improper speech which may embarrass someone?

I’m not trying to down play the negative effects of inter marriage. 

I am trying to point out that we don’t have the right or the knowledge to judge whose in and whose out… of whose sins are worse and whose sins are more forgivable. 

Its very easy for most of us to speak about how sinful intermarriage is or homosexuality, because most of us aren’t in that situation or have those temptations.  I have yet to see a Rabbi stand up and say that anyone who speaks improperly will no longer be called to the Torah.  Why not?  This is a sin, but somehow we look the other way.  Why?  Is it because it’s somehow less serious of a sin?  I would venture to say that’s not the reason.  We look the other way because we tend to judge sins that we commit as less severe and sins that other people commit as terrible.

Essentially, we’re saying that our sins are better than your sins.

In the Shabbas morning minyan that I typically daven in, there is one person who makes a strong attempt to keep down the talking during the davening by either shushing or making announcements.  A couple weeks ago, I noticed that he was talking during davening.  I went over and nicely, but sarcastically said, do you notice that whenever you talk during davening, it’s for the sake of heaven and whenever other people talk it’s for mundane purposes.  He laughed and acknowledged it was true.

Just to clarify, I am not advocating talking during davening, inter marriage or any other sin for that matter. 

I am advocating that we need to judge each other leniently and lovingly.  If we decide that we want to take a stand against sins, that’s great, but we should direct it inward towards the sins that we commit, because we all sin in one area or another.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Are You My Rebbe?

There was once an orphan who was left at the entrance of a kibbutz when he was a baby.  The kibbutznicks took him in and raised him as their own. They took turns taking care of him so they could all share in such a precious mitzvah.   He spent time with all the men of the kibbutz, talking to them, learning from them, gleaning the positive qualities that appealed to him from each and every one.  Even though each man had many similarities to his fellow kibbutznick, there were also many differences in both substance and flavor. This went on from day to day and from year to year until he grew from a boy to a man of his own.

When he reached an adult, he asked the question that everyone knew he’d ask one day, but they still never came up with a good answer... “Who’s my father?” 

The silence was deafening as the men stood speechless finally confronting the very question that they had no answer for... Until one of the many men who had helped shape this young man replied… “We all are.”
This may or may not have answered what the young man was looking for. He knew he was an orphan.  He knew that he had no biological father to speak of.  What he was really asking was, which one if you is going to be the one that I call “my father”?  Which one of you should I call my name “Paloni son of ____”?  Which one of you shall grant me an inheritance? Which one if you will escort me to my chuppah?  Which one of you will help me shape my identity?

In his search for an individual answer, be found a collective one. In his search for an individual identity, he found his identity within the group.  This may not have been the answer he was looking for.  It may not have been the ideal answer, but it was his answer.

This story represents so many Baal Teshuvas searching for our spiritual father.  Our Rebbes are Chabad.  They are Aish HaTorah.  They are Or Samaech.  They went to Chofetz Chaim, Shappels & Berel Wein’s yeshiva.  How do we choose one of our spiritual fathers above the others?  How do we pick our Rebbe? 

They’re all so different.  They are all part of us, but their views are too different for us to be them.
They say that America is a melting pot, a place where different people can blend together to become one.  If that’s so, then we are the melting pot for Baal Teshuvas.  We take different ideas from our different Rebbes and the shape us into who we are.

The benefits are extraordinary.  Today’s Baal Teshuva isn’t interested in the any old fights.  We aren’t interested at attacking the minor differences.  We celebrate the beauty of the many facets to Torah and the approach of very different people.  Unfortunately, the challenges are enormous, for we have no one spiritual father.  We may struggle with our identity as Baal Teshuvas, not knowing who our spiritual father is.  Which minhag do I take on?  Which nusach do I daven?  Who is my Rebbe? 

While it would be ideal for us to find one Rebbe who understands us, its a tough role to fill.  For we have been spiritually raised by the collective.  A new BT can dance between the teachings of the Chassidim and the teachings of Vilna, from all spectrums of the Jewish life. This isn’t the ideal answer, but for some of us, it’s the only answer, they all are our Rebbes.  

May it come speedily in our days, may it come immediately today, the coming of the one and only Rebbe for the Baal Teshuva, the righteous Moshiach, please come to us and guide us.

I once read, in the name of the Lubavitcher Rebbe that the Holy Temple had a separate entrance for each tribe, but it also had one extra entrance... For those don’t know which tribe they’re from.

Inspired by my dear friend Yosef Chaim ben Yeshuah HaLevi who never seems to give up his desire to find his long lost Rebbe.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Parsha Beshalach – The Ba’al Teshuvas Struggle

 In the Torah portion Beshalach, we read about the Jewish people finally leave Egypt after 210 years of slavery on the 49 day journey towards Mount Sinai.  The sages tell us the significance of the number 49 is that the people were on the 49th level of impurity (50 is the lowest) and they needed to leave at that precise moment before they fell even further.  They also tell us that every day on their journey, they were able to raise themselves 1 level so that when they experienced the revelation of G-d on Mount Sinai, they were pure.

This was the first Ba’al Teshuva movement.

This helps to explain the trials and set backs that they had on their way.  Like most of us, it’s not a direct climb up the ladder.  It’s often two rungs up and one rung down.

One of the more telling moments was at the incident of the Red Sea.  The Jewish people had just left Egypt and were now trapped in between the Sea and the approaching Egyptian army.  They were scared and didn’t know what to do. 

The sages say that the people took 4 different approaches to the situation.

  1. Return to Egyptian slavery
  2. Fight the Egyptian army
  3. Throw themselves into the sea to drown
  4. Pray to G-d for an answer
These 4 methods can be applied to almost any situation that a Ba’al Teshuva faces. 

Let’s say that a client asks to meet us for lunch (our boss is pressuring us to go) and there are no kosher restaurants in the area.  What do we do?

  1. Return to slavery – This could be compared to going to the non kosher restaurant.  Do we abandon our journey towards truth?
  2. Fight – We could argue with our boss and the client for being so spiritually insensitive to put us in such a situation.
  3. Drown – This could be compared to calling in sick that day, losing the client or quitting the job all together.
  4. Pray – While we should always pray for clarity, there comes a time that prolonged prayer doesn’t help and we need to make a decision.
It seems to be that the true answer can be found in the 5th approach that was taken on the shores of the sea.  One brave man, whose name was Nachshon ben Aminadav the prince of the tribe of Judah, started walking alone into the sea.  The Rabbis tell us that when the water reached his nostrils, the sea split.  He didn’t give up.  He didn’t complain.  He kept moving forward and trusted that G-d will present an answer. 

In our example, a comparison action might be to suggest meeting for coffee before hours or a beer after hours (Thank G-d that Starbucks coffee and almost all domestic beer is kosher) and trust that the meeting will end up even better then it would have if you would have went to lunch.  This strategy has helped me through my challenges from both external and internal.  The times that I've been asked to lunch, a Saturday or meeting over the high holidays are many.  The times that I've had my own spirtiual doubts are even more.  The key is to just keep moving forward and trust in G-d.

There’s one other major lesson we can learn from this situation.  Since the first mass Teshuva that we read about during the exodus from Egypt that ended with the open revelation of G-d and Mount Sinai, there has been no mass Teshuva movement until our time. 

Their Teshuva, while flawed and with it’s set backs, ended with bringing G-dliness into this world and the receiving of the Torah.

Our Teshuva, while flawed and with it’s set backs, will G-d willing, end with the brining the ultimate and final redemption with the coming of the righteous Moshiach may he come immediately.