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

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Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Torah Thought: Parsha Vayigash

We just entered the Hebrew month of Tevet. On the 29th of Tevet in the year 1995, my grandmother of blessed memory passed away. Every year, around this time, I typically end up having a conversation with my father, who’s not religious, about saying mourners kaddish for her. He’ll typically do it, but most years he’ll say it at home by himself. Once every couple years, I can get him go to shul.

Several years ago, he asked me a question that I wasn’t prepared for: Why do we say kaddish for a deceased love one? I explained to him that we say kaddish as merit for the deceased. While we’re doing a mitzvah in their honor, they’re soul somehow gets elevated in the spiritual world. I was fairly impressed with my answer, when his follow up question left me without an answer: If the deceased gets elevated by doing a mitzvah, why can’t we do any mitzvah instead? Also, the text of kaddish has nothing to do with a deceased love one… or a deceased hated one for that matter. One might imagine that when say a prayer for the departed, it would contain things like “Please judge them mercifully or please let us learn from all of their positive attributes.” It’s really the opposite. The kaddish prayer is actually fairly upbeat and positive, focusing on praising G-d. If someone read the kaddish prayer for the first time, they’d probably have no idea that it has anything to do with mourning.

I think the answer can be found hidden in this week’s parsha. After the 22 year separation, Jacob and Joseph are finally reunited. The verse tells us that “Joseph… went up to meet his father… fell on his neck and wept on his neck excessively.” The Torah commentator Rashi explains to us why Jacob didn’t fall on Joseph’s neck or kiss him. He tells us that Jacob was saying the prayer, Shema (Hear O Israel, the L-rd, our G-d, the L-rd is one), at the time. Why was Jacob saying Shema then of all times? The Rabbis tell us that he was so overjoyed from seeing Joseph and he wanted to direct this love towards G-d.

To understand more about what’s happening, we should take a brief overview of the first verse of Shema. The first part is pretty straight forward: “Hear O Israel” is presumably talking about us since we’re all the nation of Israel. The next verse is a little tougher: “the L-rd, our G-d, the L-rd is one.” If we were only saying that there’s one G-d, it would seem like we wouldn’t need such a repetitive sentence. The key can be found in the names for G-d found in the verse. In Hebrew it’s Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Ehad.

The Rabbis tell us that G-d reveals himself through many different names as a way to for us to perceive how he’s acting towards us at any given moment since we can’t understand his infinity. They also tell us that the name “Hashem” conveys his attribute of kindness and the name “Elokeinu” conveys his attribute of judgment.

When we say the Shema, we’re acknowledging that G-d’s kindness and judgment are truly the same. When we see G-d doing something that we perceive to be bad, like taking a loved one away from us, we owe G-d the same praise as when he does something good like bring a new baby into our lives. This is why Jacob chose this moment to say Shema. He wanted to acknowledge that both the absence of Joseph for 22 years and his emotional reunion with him both emanated from the same G-d who is truly one. It’s this same reason why we specifically say kaddish for the departed. It’s also us acknowledging, even in our time of sorrow, that that G-d’s name be blessed forever and ever.

Monday, December 26, 2011

Dear Beth, How did Jewish law develop from the Torah to what it is today?

Dear Beth,

There are so many laws in Judaism… some of which I can’t find anywhere in the Torah. Besides that, whenever I open a Jewish book, the Rabbis always seem to be arguing about the most trivial things. Where did all this come from? Did the Rabbis just make all this stuff up?

Confused and bewildered

* If you haven’t figured it out by know, this is a fictional letter, but it’s a question that most of us B.T.s go through. Since the last Dear BETH segment was so popular, I decided to do another one. If you have real questions, feel free to email me at AriMiller613@gmail.com (I tried to come up with a more masculine name with the letters B.T.H. – Ba’al Teshuvas Handbook, but I couldn’t think of one.

Dear Confused and bewildered,

Recently I was reminded of a story that a local outreach Rabbi told me. He was giving a class at someone’s home. The participants all started reconnecting to Judaism several years before. I don’t remember the topic that he was discussing, but he made reference to a certain Mishnah. When one of the participants asked “What’s the Mishnah?” it stopped him in his tracks. He never thought to consider that the people in the class didn’t know what the Mishnah was and how Jewish law developed from it’s origins in the Torah to what it is today.

Since we have so many laws to deal with and they span every minute detail of life, some may be under the misconception that Jewish law is a cold and rigid area of Judaism. The fact is that nothing could be further from the truth. Jewish law, more importantly the process for studying and developing Jewish law, is a living, breathing entity all to itself. That doesn’t mean that we can change the fundamental principles to adapt to our current lifestyle whenever the need suits us. It does mean, however, that the formula for dealing with today’s and tomorrows unique questions has already been created.

Unfortunately, the development of Jewish law and an explanation of how we got to where we are is often overlooked in the early years of one’s return to Judaism. With that in mind, I’d like to explore an overview of the development of Jewish law so we can see the major changes that got us to where we are today.

Torah aka the Old Testament aka the five books of Moses, aka Chumash – The Torah was dictated by G-d and written by Moses 2448 years after creation or 1313 BCE. The 10 commandments were first stated on the 7th day of the Hebrew month of Sivan. There is a debate among the Rabbis as to who wrote the last several lines of the Torah which describes Moses’s death. Some say that Moses’s student, Joshua, wrote it after Moses’s death. Others say that Moses wrote it himself, in advance. It would seem that when Moses was on Mount Sinai, he was told everything that happened from creating until that point and wrote the rest down over the 40 year period in the desert until is demise. Before Moses’s death, he passed on the responsibility for teaching the Torah to the people to Joshua. Joshua passed the responsibility to the Elders. The Elders passed the responsibility to the Profits which eventually passed the responsibility to Men of the Great Assembly. What I just summed up in a few sentences took about 1,000 years. During that time, the Torah was mainly transmitted verbally. However, we do have 19 books from some of the Prophets. These 19 combined with the 5 books of Moses make up what we call Tanach.

Mishnah – The Mishnah, which can be a combination of the Hebrew letter Mem (numerical value for 40) and the word Shana (which means years) The Mishneh is the beginning of the oral law. In the second century of the common era, Rabbi Judah the Prince aka Rabbeinu HaKodesh, aka Rebbe convened a gathering of all of the Rabbis of the time. For the previous several hundred years, the Jewish people were under severe oppression by both the Greek and Roman empires. The Rabbis were persecuted mercilessly. Since they were always in hiding and could rarely get together to discuss problems, different opinions arose on how to deal with contemporary issues. Around this time the political environment in Rome changed and restrictions were relaxed against the Jews. Rabbi Judah the Prince saw this as a once in a life time opportunity for all of the Rabbis to get together and discuss what differences what they had learned from their teachers and sort our any differences. Breaking the tradition of not writing down the oral law for mass publications, Rabbi Judah the Prince took notes and organized them on a variety of topics that spanned every facet of Jewish life. This organized series of discussions is known as the Mishneh. He believed that this work ensured that the oral law would never be forgotten. He also believed that his work provide enough information for later Rabbis to figure out what any law was according to Judaism.

Talmud aka Gemara aka Babylonian Talmud aka Bavli – Compiled by the Rabbis at approximately 500 of the common era. Unfortunately, Rabbi Judah the Prince did not anticipate how quickly the knowledge level of the generations would decline. After a few hundred years, it became evident to the Rabbis at the time that they need more then just the Mishnah to be able to preserve Jewish law. At roughly the same time, in the landscape of history, two Talmuds were started independent of each other… one in Jerusalem and one in Babylonia (modern day Iraq). Since the primary Torah scholars were in Babylonia and it was finished later, the Babylonian Talmud took on the primary position for Jewish scholarship. Considering the oppressions of the Jewish people, some confusion arose as to what the law was in different areas of life. The Talmud records the conversations/arguments of the Rabbis as the debate out the law in search of ultimate truth.

Mishneh Torah – Written by Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon aka Maimonides aka Rambam in the 10th century. The Talmud, while still the premiere books for scholars, is somewhat chaotic in its order. If someone wanted to know what the law was about any given thing and didn’t know exactly where it was mentioned in the Talmud, it would be virtually impossible for him to find it. There are rare people who know the entire Talmud by heart, but they’re few and far between. The non-scholar was lost in the tremendous depth and volume of the Talmud when it came to Jewish law. With this in mind, Rambam compiled an orderly series of books codifying all the laws contained in the Talmud. For the first time, someone actually had a book that told them what the Jewish law was most areas of life.

Shulchen Aruch – Written in the early 1500s, the Shulchen Aruch was written by Rabbi Joseph Karo compiling the opinions of the Rambam and other Rabbis. The 4 volumes of the Shulchen Aruch set the stage for what modern Jewish law has become.

Mishneh Berura – Written by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan aka the Chofetz Chaim in the late 1800s. the Mishneh Berura took all of the commentaries on the Shulchen Aruch and compiled it to one updated series of books. The Mishneh Berura is the most widely accepted work in determining current Jewish law.

Aside from these major works, there have been a plethora of other adaptations and developments throughout are history. The one running theme throughout all of the major works is that they all came to simplify and explain the Jewish law.

Judaism has an unbroken tradition of Jewish law for over 3,000 years with each major work, not changing, but building off of the previous work to bring us to where we are now.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Torah Thought: Parsha Mikeitz

In last weeks, parsha, Vayeishev, the Torah says that Joseph was handsome of form and handsome of appearance. The great commentator, Rashi, says that this means Joseph started to see himself in a position of authority and started to eat, drink and curl his hair. Rashi says that the holy One Blessed is He said “Your father is mourning and you curl your hair?” and this led to the troubles with Portifer’s wife.

For some reason, my 5 year old son though there was something hysterical about Joseph curling his hair and for the past week has been running around, making a silly voice, and saying “Look at me. I’m curling my hair.” My laughter probably encourages him.

On a serious note, it seems like Joseph’s attention to his appearance was not looked favorably in heaven. In this week’s parsha, when Joseph was summoned by Pharaoh, Rashi says that he shaved his hair out of respect for royalty. After meeting Pharaoh, Joseph quickly becomes appointed Viceroy (second in command) of Egypt.

As soon as I read about the shaving, I thought to myself… could there be a correlation between Joseph’s troubles & good luck and what Joseph did with his hair?

It may sound a little strange at first, but let’s refresh ourselves on the Torah’s description of a Nazir. A Nazir is a legal status in Judaism where someone stops drinking wine, or any other grape product, avoids ritual impurity and does not cut their hair for a set amount of days. On one hand, this seems like a holy thing to do, but curiously, the Torah mandates that a Nazir brings a sin offering once his term is up. The Rabbis tell us that one of the question that we’re going to be asked in the world to come is “Did we abstain from permissible pleasures?” and that this is the sin require the offering of the Nazir.

There’s also an incident with King David’s son Absalom. He was known for his beautiful long hair. When King David was older, Absalom mounted a rebellion and tried to seize power. He was eventually killed when his hair got caught on a tree branch which pulled him off his horse.

Since we’re talking about hair; we can’t ignore the laws of hair coverings for both men and women.

Bringing it all together… there seems to be a running them that excessive attention to outward appearance, specifically hair, is not looked favorably upon. On the contrary, excessive vanity or focus on self-importance can lead someone down a bad path. Even the Nazir, who seems to be holy, at first glance needs to bring a sin offering. It seems like his hair growth and abstention of permissible pleasures may be rooted in a feeling that he’s holier then other people or spiritual vanity.

This isn’t to say that we should walking around looking like slobs, but we do need to make sure that we’re focused on our actions and the thoughts inside our head instead of the hair that grows out of it.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Dear Beth, My mother doesn’t keep kosher and I have to go to her house for dinner. What should I do?

Dear Beth,

My parents are hosting thanksgiving dinner this year. My mother called me and told me that I have to be there… No excuses. I grew up in a relatively traditional home. We didn’t eat bacon or anything, but over the past couple years I’ve started to keep kosher. I’ve tried explaining to my mother that I keep kosher, she doesn’t and I don’t want to eat her food anymore until she starts keeping kosher. It didn’t go over too well. I know that she won’t accept know for an answer. My mother doesn’t keep kosher and I have to go to her house for dinner. What should I do?

Uncomfortable Dinner Guest

* If you haven’t figured it out by know, this is a fictional letter, but an issue that most of us B.T.s go through. Welcome to my new segment… Dear BETH? (I tried to come up with a more masculine name with the letters B.T.H. – Ba’al Teshuvas Handbook, but I couldn’t think of one.

Dear Uncomfortable Dinner Guest,

This is definitely a tough situation.

I’m going to first deal with the relationship between your Jewish observance and your mom. When Jews start to learn and observe for the first time, they often experience something that my wife calls “the Baal Teshuva high.” This is when they’re so excited about the truth that they discovered they want to share it with the world. While this enthusiasm is excellent, it should ideally be tempered with the reality that some people aren’t ready to hear it. With most people, it mellows out after a while, but before that it happens it has the potential to do some relationship damage. From your mother’s perspective, she gave birth to you, raised you, and fed you. Presumably, you grew up to be a health adult and now you’re rejecting the very nourishment that aided in your physical and emotional growth. If not balanced correctly, this can leave her feeling rejected, insecure and afraid of disintegration of your relationship. Your parents may not see your new choices as a rejection of certain food, but a rejection of them. To counter balance this, it’s advisable to step up the communication and activity that’s permissible. If you don’t show up to her Saturday afternoon birthday party, she’s going to be upset. Make up for it, by calling more often and spending more time with her. You can invite her to your home, a kosher restaurant, a movie, a play or whatever that you both enjoy together that doesn’t involve non kosher food or going to Shabbas. Reassure her how much you love her. You can also ask questions about her grandparents and great grandparents. Chances are that they were much more observant than she is. This may be a subtle hint that you haven’t joined some strange cult. You’re simply rediscovering what your family may have lost for a couple generations.

That’s all well and good, but it still may not get you out of going over your parent’s house for dinner with causing world war three. There are several tips for what to do in these situations.
1. Eat before you get there. - If you show up to a place with non kosher food while you’re hungry, temptation may get the better of you. Even if it doesn’t you may be a little grumpy, because you’re so hungry, and that won’t exactly help defuse any potential volatile situations.
2. Help serve – While you’re helping serve or doing something else to help, you won’t be sitting at the table and noticeably not eating. Don’t worry about serving non kosher food up. As I understand the Jewish law, you can pass someone non kosher food assuming that they have the ability to get it themselves. Example: If you’re sitting at the table and the Jew next to you asks you to pass the plate of bacon. It’s OK to do it, because if you don’t, they’ll get it themselves. If they ask you to stop at a store 50 miles away while driving there and ask you to pick up some bacon, you should probably avoid their request since they’re not realistically go for an hour car ride for some bacon.
3. Bring something you can eat – This way people won’t see you empty handed and start the harassment.
4. Look around – In the most non-kosher kitchens around, there is typically something kosher. You can probably find some potato chips or pretzels around with a reliable kosher symbol. You can stand around and eat them if your family’s not so formal.
5. Kid escape – Kids can’t sit anywhere too long. If you have some kids at the table, chances are they’ll get up after a few minutes and get into something. Go after them and play with them. It gets you away from the table and that’s a good thing. Quick note: Before I became religious, I used the same strategy with my nephews to get me out of sitting through the Pesach Seder.
6. Drink a lot of water – You’ll keep moving around to refill your glass and go to the bathroom. Any excuse to get away from the table is a good one.
7. Help clear – Keep getting up in between courses to help.
8. North, South, East, West – If left with no other alternative, put a little food on your plate and move it around in 4 directions. Chances are, nobody will really notice.

These situations are definitely challenging. After a while though, with reassurance that you still love them, your parents will probably slowly accept your new found decision and deal with it. They may even open themselves up to the truth that you have to share.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

When does one know enough to be a heretic? a Yud Beis Tammuz story

On the 12th day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz, Lubavicthers around the world celebrate the release of the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe also known as the Frierdiker (previous) Rebbe of blessed memory from Russian prison. During his imprisonment his chief prison guard who was in charge of the Rebbe’s interrogation was a Jew. Not only was he a Jew, he was the grandson of a chassid. In his famous verbal attack on the Rebbe, he said something like “Now you’re dealing with a real apikoros (heretic).” The Rebbe responded “You’re not an apikoros. You’re just an am ha’aretz (literally a man of the earth, but in this case, a fool.) The statement is funny and usually brings smiles at the fabrengen, but when does someone know enough where they are no longer an am ha’aretz and become apikoros? Even more practical is, as Ba’al Teshuvas, when are we held accountable for our actions?

Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, also known as the Rambam tells us that there is a leniency in heavenly judgment for Jews who have been kidnapped by gentiles and raised in their homes. Since they were not raised with a proper Jewish education and environment, they should not be held fully accountable for their actions. The Rabbis tell us that everyone in our generation, Ba’al Teshuvas especially, have this status today. While the countries that live in today, especially America have been nicer to Jews than any other country in history, our living in an environment that supported religious observance has been lacking. The question that I have is as we grow in our Judaism, when does this status change, if ever?

When we read the Torah, we see how our forefathers were on such a high level that their sins sometimes brought about immediate punishment as witnessed in Parsha Vayshev with the two oldest sons of Judah, Er & Onan. In our lifetimes, we don’t see such immediate punishment, but presumably, some of our actions bring punishment and some don’t depending on what rung of the spiritual latter that we’re standing on at the time we commit the sin. If someone was brought up with no concept of keeping kosher, and they one day choose to take the bacon off of their bacon cheese burger, most of us would acknowledge that they’re taking a big step in the right direction. I would imagine that the heavenly reaction to this would also be positive. However if the same person learns and grows until they become a religiously observant Jew, but then goes back to have that same bacon-less cheeseburger, I would imagine that both ours and the heavenly reaction would be quite different. Somewhere in that time, this person knew enough and reached a new spiritual level where they accepted upon themselves the mitzvah of kashrus and with that came the potential for punishment for violating those laws.

I once heard a Rabbi ask the question: How can one define the word “Mitzvah”? The class threw out a whole host of answers… a good thing to do… something moral… commandment… rule.... a connection and development of the relationship with G-d… etc. While he acknowledged that all of these answers were correct, he proposed that a mitzvah is a self imposed limit on our physical choices and activity. If someone chooses to keep kosher then they are limiting what they can eat. The same holds true for Shabbas, prayer or any other mitzvah that we can think of.

It would seem that this new limit has an opposite reaction in heaven. Before a Ba’al Teshuva chooses to keep kosher, his choices are not limited, but the punishment for making those choices appears to be limited, or at least watered down. As well, the heavenly energy that mirrors this mitzvah is held back. As he limits his own choices by taking on different mitzvahs, his responsibility increases and the consequences for conscious failure along with the positive spiritual reaction appear to break through their previous limits and increase. Therefore it would seem that we become more responsible for our actions and we take on the responsibility of choosing to learn Torah and accept mitzvahs.

Some might think that the best solution is to remain ignorant of mitzvahs to avoid potential judgment, but it would seem that we’re not only judged on what we know, but what we should know. Both us and Hakodesh Barachu know both our limitations and our potential. As the story goes, the holy Reb Zusha was approaching the end of his life when his students found him crying. When they asked why he was crying, he explained that when he enters his final judgment, he’s not afraid of being asked why he wasn’t Avraham or Moshe, because he didn’t have the same capabilities and talents as them. He was only afraid of being asked, Zushe, why weren’t you Zushe? Why didn’t you accomplish the tests that you had the power to pass or live up to your own potential on any given day?

As Ba’al Teshuvas, we need to constantly strive to climb the spiritual latter and strive to release more heavenly light in this world to the limits of our potential. As we choose to limit our physical choices, we’re actually removing the limitations of Hashem’s infinite light.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Torah Thought: Parsha Vayeshev

As part of our usual routine, when I was putting my 5 year old son to bed the other night, after we turn the lights out, we lie together and talk about our days. Lately he’s been playing a game where he gets out of bed and pretends his radio is a microphone and we ask each other questions about the weekly Torah portion.

When I asked him what happened in this week parsha, he made a very silly face, started strutting around the room and in a silly voice said “Look at me… Look at my coat… My coat is so pretty…. Look at me… Look at me.” I didn’t know if Joseph really strutted in this week’s parsha, but my son obviously got the point that Joseph was showing off in front of his brothers.

After he stopped strutting, he told me that Joseph was “being jealoush” by showing off his coat in front of his brothers. I tried to correct both his pronunciation of the word “jealoush” and explained that Joseph wasn’t acting jealous. He was acting conceited or possibly arrogant, but it was really his brothers who were acting jealous of the attention that Joseph got from his father Jacob. The Rabbis tell us that Jacob gave more attention to Joseph for many reasons:
1. Joseph was born when Jacob was older. For those of us with more then one child, our temperament seems to change as we get more experience parenting.
2. Joseph was the first born to Rachel, who Jacob loved more than any other wife.
3. Joseph displayed an outstanding capacity for Torah study & mitzvah observance. Hence he’s the only person who carries the title “Righteous” as he’s typically known Yosef HaTzadik.
All of that being said, it’s understandable why the brothers might have been jealous of Joseph.

Despite the evidence to the contrary and my assurance, my 5 year old insisted that Joseph was the one being jealoush.

Later that night, I started thinking about why people show off or act conceited. What is it about human nature that influences some people to act like their better then other people?

To be clear, conceit and confidence are two different things. Michael Jordan knowing that he’s the best basketball player alive is confidence. Michael Jordan walking around saying “I’m the greatest basketball player alive” over and over again is conceited.

It occurred to be that the only reason that someone acts conceited is because there’s something that they’re not getting that they want. It could be respect, love or admiration, but they’re clearly seeking something. Jacob had 10 half brothers that were much older than him and had a stronger bond between them. He had one brother from both parents who was much younger at this time. His mother had recently passed away. It would seem that Joseph’s conceit was the manifestation of his desire for the brotherly love that the sons of Jacob and Leah had for each other and in fact the origin of his conceited actions was the jealousy of that love.

I once heard that children teach their parents as much if not more then parents teach their children. In this case, it’s certainly true.

The lessons are clear. We should stay away from jealousy and conceit. If someone’s acting conceited, it may because they need some sort of emotional recognition. Last, but not least, the lack of brotherly love among Jews is the cause of most of our problems and also shows us the key to our redemption.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Torah Thought: Parsha Vayishlach

Last weeks Torah portion ends with Jacob’s clandestine escape from his Uncle Laban followed by Laban catching up with him and finally a peace treaty after some back forth.

In this week’s parsha, things go from bad to worse for Jacob. Here’s what happens this week:

1. Jacob prepares for his encounter with his brother Eisav who’s coming to meet him. Normally when brothers see each other for the first time in many years, its hugs and kisses. Considering that the last encounter they had together that the Torah tells us about is Jacob ran for his life after he used some trickery to take Eisav’s blessing from his father and Eisav wanted some payback. Since Eisav was known to be a warrior, Jacob was afraid.
2. As he’s preparing for Eisav, Jacob is attacked by a man, who the Rabbi’s tell us was really an angel and even though he was victorious, was wounded in the encounter.
3. After Jacob hides his daughter, Dina, in a trunk and his son Joseph protects his mother Rachel, Jacob survives his encounter with Eisav. (Some say that in the encounter, Eisav tried to pull a Dracula move and take a bite our of Jacob’s neck, but was stopped by heavenly protection)
4. After all of this, you would expect Jacob to finally get a break… think again. When Jacob and his family settle in the city of Shechem, his daughter Dina gets kidnapped and violated by the Prince of the land.
5. When Jacob’s sons here about what happened, instead of rescuing Dina and escaping, two of his sons, Shimon & Levi, decide to kill every man in the city. This scares Jacob, because now he’s afraid that neighboring cities will ban together and start a war with him.
6. Next… his mother Rebecca dies along with her nurse Deborah.
7. From worse to even worse, his primary wife Rachel dies in the childbirth of his youngest son Benjamin.
8. On a strange note, his oldest son Reuben either has an affair with or does something improper with Jacob’s wife Bilah. (Reuben’s mother was Leah, not Bilah)
9. Next… his father Isaac dies.

Wow… when I first got the idea to write about Jacob’s bad week, I didn’t even realize how bad this parsha was for him.

Just so you don’t think that this week’s Torah portion ends the troubles for Jacob… not quite. Next week’s portion details fighting between Jacob’s favorite son Joseph and most of his other sons and it eventually ends with them selling Joseph into slavery and telling Jacob that Joseph died… something which he never recovers from. In a couple weeks from now, in our time, and 22 years in the life of Jacob, he discovers Joseph is really alive, reunites the family and finally lives in peace.

This week I couldn’t stop asking myself: Why did Jacob had such a hard life? He’s considered to be the culmination of our forefathers so it didn’t make sense to me.

In scientific fashion, I thought about the parts of Jacob’s life that weren’t so hard with the hope that it would shed some light on the situation. They were his younger years before he fought with Eisav and had to flee and the final years of his life when he lived in Egypt with his remaining wives and all of his children and grandchildren.

A story in Talmud brought the answer home for me. It tells us that the Holy Temple was destroyed, because of baseless hatred among Jews. It also tells us that every generation that does not see the Temple rebuilt is as if they destroyed it which implies, we will not merit the Messiah until we counteract the baseless hatred with unconditional love for each other (Ahavis Yisroael).

Jacob’s troubles started when the fighting started between him and his brother. It continued with fighting between him and his Uncle, his wife Rachel with his wife Leah, and finally the sons of Leah fighting with the oldest son of Rachel. It wasn’t until all the fighting ceased that he could finally live in Shalom (peace).

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Jewish Law Question: When is it OK to rebuke someone?

When I met my wife, I had been learning for about a year or two and had just started keeping the Shabbas.  I was about 29 at the time.  She was 24 at the time and just got back from a year of learning in Israel.  Unlike me, she was raised in an orthodox synagogue and with the exception of some of her teenage years after he parents divorce, she was a Shomer Shabbas her whole life.  Our perspectives were very different.  Given the synagogue she grew up in and her year if learning in seminary, her level of knowledge about Judaism was leaps and bounds ahead of me.

There was another difference in our approach to Judaism, which was even more striking.  Her feelings towards Judaism and observance were very grounded.  While she was always open to learning more and taking on more mitzvahs, as she grew, it was very methodical growth.  I, on the other hand, was like a young adult on his 21st birthday who finally can get into a bar for the first time.  I had uncontrollable enthusiasm, an unquenchable thirst and an unstoppable desire to share my new found knowledge with anyone who I encountered.  And if they didn’t share my enthusiasm… I was beside myself.  I felt like I had just discovered the secrets of the world and insisted on sharing them with those close to me.  I was suffering from something that I later found out was called “The Baal Teshuva High.”  It’s a miracle she stayed with me.

The Baal Teshuva High is a combination of the following:
  1. Enthusiasm about ones learning.
  2. Desire to share that learning with others whether they wish to hear it or not.
  3. Belief that ones knowledge as far greater that it actually is.

This combination, while beautiful and inspiring, can be annoying and a turn off to those around us.  Since my initial learning was partially inspired by Chassidic Rabbis, I was full of Chassidic stories.  I distinctly remember my wife (then girlfriend) telling me to please limit myself to only one Chassidic story per date.  When I look back, I have no idea what I was talking about.  I don’t even know that many Chassidic stories to be able to tell more than one in a sitting, but apparently I did then, or at least thought that I did.

I also remember being at Shabbaton.  It was late Friday night and I had participated in the custom of making L’Chaim and I remember lecturing a Rabbi on why I was on a higher level then he was because I had learned the verse “Baal Teshuvas stand in a place that even the righteous can not stand.”   Here I am.  I barely know anything and I’m telling a guy that’s spent his whole life learning that I’m on a higher level than he was.  It’s a wonder that he didn’t smack me.

I also remember trying to share this new found knowledge with my family.  Since I grew up eating bacon on Yom Kippur without even realizing what day it was, this didn’t go over so well.  I was acting with the honest assumption that if I just phrased what I had to say properly, my family would throw out all of their shrimp, and start observing a kosher life style.  In reality, I was probably condescending and self righteous and probably ended up doing more harm then good.

This brings me to the topic at hand… Rebuke.

When and how can it be done?

This is a very slippery slope.  The Talmud tells us that we are required to rebuke someone when they’re doing something against Jewish law if we believe that they will listen to us and change their actions.  However… and this is just as important… it also tells us that it is as equally important to NOT rebuke someone if we don’t believe that they will listen to us and change their actions.

If you meet up with your friend in the park for lunch and he whips out a ham & cheese sandwich, you need to ask yourself several questions before you say something…
  1. Will he listen to what I’m saying and immediately stop eating it?
  2. Will he listen to what I’m saying, continue to eat, but maybe later change his ways?
  3. Will he think I’m a condescending jerk and stop meeting up with me for lunch?

If you get yes’s to 1 & 2, you should gently point out to him that there is a kosher food at a near by store and you’ll gladly treat him to lunch if he wants to feed his current sandwich to the birds…. Or something like that.  If you only get a yes to question 3, keep your mouth shut.

What can you do then? 

You can still do several things.  You can ask him to go to a class with you.  You can invite him over or to go somewhere for Shabbas.  You can pray that G-d brings him clarity.  You can also pray that G-d gives you the wisdom to know what to do in these situations.

My main point is, if the person is not at a point in their life to hear what you have to say, then maybe they will be in the future.  If you rebuke them and turn them off, they may cut you out of their lives and then even if they ever reach a point where they’d be open to learning, you won’t be there to help them.

Choose your words carefully and remember that the best way to inspire someone isn’t with words… it’s to become an inspiration.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Torah Thought: Parsha Vayeitzei

Early this morning, I was in the basement exercising when I heard a ruckus upstairs and what sounded like my wife breaking up a fight between my two pre-school age children.  Like most siblings, my kids generally get along very well, but once in a while one of them pushes things a little too far and they start fighting.

After some alone time, both kids were able to resume the morning rituals and go to school without incident.  I was still home when my wife got back from dropping the kids off and she had a look on her face that told me that I might be in trouble.  After exchanging a few brief pleasantries, my wife asked me “Did you tell our son it was OK to hit someone?”

Since kids don’t know how to express themselves verbally, many go through stages where the hit or kick out of frustration. Like most parents, we teach our children that should not resort to violence and suggest alternative means for them to let out their frustrations like hitting a pillow or a popular phrase around my house “Use your words.”

That all sounds well and good, but what do you tell your kids to do if someone is hitting them?  The first step would be to tell the other person to stop.  A second step may be to run away or get a grown up.  What do you do if all of these things fail?  We don’t believe in becoming a punching bag.  Jewish law is clear that if you have to defend yourself, you may do so if you’re being physically threatened or abused. 

That being said, even the most non violent person is commanded to physically defend themselves and use whatever force is necessary to save them from harm.  It may seem like a contradiction that a non violent person can and should use violence to defend themselves against a violent person.  However, we learn how one can go against their nature, even to this extreme, at appropriate times from our forefather Jacob in this week’s parsha.

Jacob was the epitome of truth and yet when he encountered his wicked brother Eisav, in last week’s parsha, and his wicked uncle Laven, in this week’s parsha, he was allowed to lie and use deceitful measures in order to defend himself against them.  One might think of Jacob’s deceit as the opposite of truth, but it was that very ability to function in this world that exemplifies why Jacob represents uncompromising truth.  We can find the proof in next weeks parsha when G-d gives Jacob the name Yisroael (Israel) which means that he can function both the physical and spiritual worlds.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Something To Think About: "You the Man!"

Recently I was flipping through the channels on tv and the 80s Spike Lee classic movie, Do The Right Thing was on. 

If you remember the movie, there was one scene where the lead character Mookie was speaking with his friend, Buggin' Out on the street and as he was about to depart, he said "You the man!". Bugginout replied "No, You the man!" and this went back and forth a couple times until they changed topic without agreeing and they both went on their way.

A simple question came to mind.  No, it wasn't who really was the man between Mookie & Buggin' Out.  It was, why can't they both be the man?  Is there something in our society that dictates that there can only be one "the man"? 

The answer seems to be that there can only be one. We see it in magazines and on tv.   There are tons of lists of the top richest people, most beautiful women or the best athletes and theres always only one person in the top spot.  That leads to another observation. Have you noticed that there's no sports in all of the Torah? In modern society, sports plays a huge role. In Biblical times, it didn't exist.  Theres no time that we hear about our forefather Jacob taking his his 12 sons outside for a game of full court basketball.  Why not? Sports can be fun and it's good exercise. 

The answer is that in sports or on determining who "the man" is, the only way that I can win is to beat you. And if you win, then I lose.  This may be true in modern society, but has no place in the spiritual world. In terms of spirituality, there's no competition between me and another person. The only measuring stick that I have to live up to is my own potential.  If neither one if us live up to our potential, we both lose. The flip side is that if we both work hard and live up to our G-d given potential, we can both win... And if that happens, we can all become "the man".

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Torah Thought: Parsha Toldos

Towards the end of the Torah portion of Toldos, Isaac grew old and became blind.  Since he believed that he was coming towards the end of his life, he wanted to bless his sons.  He told his oldest son Eisav to go out and catch an animal to prepare him a meal before the blessing.  Isaac didn’t realize that Eisav was really evil, but his wife, Rebecca, knew it so she pulled the old switch-a-roo on Isaac.  She dressed her younger son Jacob like Eisav, cooked him some food and sent him in to get the blessing reserved for the first born son.  Since Isaac was blind, he thought it was Eisav and blessed Jacob instead.  When Eisav returned and the plan was uncovered, Isaac gave him a different blessing.

I want to take some time to deal with the question of why Isaac went blind.  After all, Isaac was a righteous person so why did he deserve such a fate?

Here are the answers that I found among the Torah commentaries:

1. Middrash: Since Isaac accepted gifts from Eisav and he overlooked Eisav’s evilness, it was like a judge who accepts bribes and is then blinded in regard to justice.

2. Elazar ben Azaria: Since Eisav was wicked, when people saw Isaac walk around in the market place, they would say “hear comes the father of that scoundrel.” Since Isaac was blind, he stayed home and people couldn’t say disparaging things about him.

3. Rashi: Since Eisav married idol worshiping women, the smoke from their idols blinded Isaac.

4. Rashi: At the binding of Isaac, when Abraham attempted to sacrifice him, the angels in heaven were watching over and they stared crying.  Their tear drops went into Isaac’s eyes and caused his blindness many years later.

5. Middrash: Also at the binding of Isaac, when he was on the alter, he looked up and saw the divine presence which caused him to go blind many years later.

6. Rashi: He went blind so that Jacob could get the blessing of the first born.

You may be thinking… well which one is it?

That’s a very valid question, but not a simple one to answer.  We have an idea that the Torah can be understood in 70 different ways so on a certain level, they are all right.

That being said, I’d like to focus on the last answer where Isaac went blind so that Jacob would get the blessing of the first born instead of Eisav.  After all, Jacob was righteous and Eisav was evil, and G-d, obviously, wanted Jacob to get the blessing.

The Lubavitcher Rebbe asks a very simple question.  Even if Isaac didn’t realize that Eisav was evil, wouldn’t have it been better for G-d just to tell Isaac that Eisav is evil and the blessing should go to Jacob instead of having him go blind so this elaborate charade can go down?

He answered the question, telling us that speaking negatively about someone is so bad that it would be better for Isaac the righteous to go blind then for G-d to say “Eisav is evil.” 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Jewish Law Question: Kippahs & Sheitels... to cover or not to cover?

Covering your hair is one of the most difficult things for Ba'al Teshuvas to deal with.  As the only real exterior manifestation or sign of our new found choices, it makes a bold statement about our faith and observance.

For men, the kippah is like wearing a big sign saying “Jew Here!” For me it was hardest Jewish law to take on.

For women, both hats and wigs can be uncomfortable and equally as challenging considering the emphasis that must women place on their hair.

Before I go onto my helpful hints on how to incorporate hair coverings into your life, I want to take a few moments to discuss the laws of hair covering. For men over the age of 13, it is forbidden to walk a few steps without their heads covered.  A kippah, hat or even a toupee does the job. That being said, other than in the shower, a Jewish man’s hair should ideally covered at all times. For women, the requirement to cover ones hair starts at marriage, and just like men, there are no circumstances other than bathing or in her bedroom alone with her husband that a woman is permitted to uncover their hair.  For women, there are different opinions regarding how much of their hair can be exposed. I'm not an expert on the subject and you should contact a competent orthodox rabbi for explanations.  If you don't have someone to speak to, let me know and I'll find you someone well versed on the subject.  Maybe I’ll even have someone write an article to post.

That's the ideal... As anything else with BTs, it takes time to incorporate these things in our life and it’s often easier to do it in steps.  Here are some levels that may be helpful to start incorporating hair coverings into your life.

Level 1 - Around the house: Whether you live alone, with your spouse or with other family, displaying your new headgear around the house is an easy way to start.  Keep in mind that you don’t need to wear a purple satin kippah from the 1980s.  There are plenty of nice plain black kippahs out there.  If that’s too much, start with a baseball hat.  Sports hats displaying Philadelphia teams are the best, but I may have a personal bias.  The same goes for women.  You don’t have to wear a wig.  Hats or scarves are fine.

Level 2 – Among the tribe: When you’re at the home of or at an event for religious Jews, it’s also very conducive to cover up.  First of all… you’re not the only one doing it.  Second, nobody is judging you or even looking at you funny.  I never understood why some people keep their heads covered in synagogue, but when they go to someone’s home for Shabbas lunch, the hair gets bared.  Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not judging them.  I just think that they’re missing an easy opportunity to score some mitzvah points and save their shortcomings for a more difficult challenge.

Level 3 – Out and about: When you’re running errands or are in social settings, seems like the next logical step.  When you’re at the supermarket or Home Depot, nobody really pays that much attention to what someone is or isn’t wearing on their head.

Level 4 – A New Beginning: If you’re going on vacation or taking a new job, it’s another good opportunity to sport the new look.  The people you’re meeting don’t know that you just started wearing it and won’t question it.  Thank G-d, America is such a welcoming society, that diversity is expected and appreciated in most settings.  Of course, if you’re vacationing in Syria, it may not be the best time to start wearing a kippah.  That being said, vacationing in Syria may not be the best idea either.

Level 5 – In familiar territory: Maybe it’s because I’m a man, but I think that women have an advantage in the more uncomfortable situations.  Any half decent wig isn’t going to make people take a second glance, but a man walking around with a “Yid lid” is pretty unmistakable.  For me and, I think, for most people, this is the toughest area.  To go around old friends or old co-workers, especially non religious or non Jewish was the emotionally brutal.  This is where you’re going to draw the most attention and questions.  It’s so hard that I knew a guy who let is beard grow in to a good six inches or so to be stringent in the area of shaving, but still wasn’t wearing a kippah at his job.  One day I was visiting him and we were discussing it in front of a few of his non Jewish co-workers.  I jokingly said to him in a whisper loud enough for everyone to hear “They all know you’re Jewish.”  We all had a good laugh, including the non-Jewish co-workers and he told me later that he started to wear a kippah at work from that time onward.

For me, Level 5 was extremely hard.  Among old friends, I still wear a hat on the rare occasion that I meet someone for a drink.  I also find myself avoiding situations where I know I would feel comfortable walking in with a kippah and decorum won’t allow me to wear a hat.  It took a Jewish co-worker in my office, who wasn’t as observant as I was, to start wearing a kippah first at work to give the guts to join in afterwards.  My co-worker took his kippah off within a couple weeks, but from the time mine went on at work, it’s never came off in any setting.

On a lighter note, the good news is that a kippahs cover up any male pattern baldness that may be surfacing which is a huge advantage.  You may be saying… what do I do if my hair starts receding from the front?  My answer is simple… get a black hat.  J

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Torah Thought: Parsha Chayei Sarah

Towards the end of parsha Chayei Sarah, we witness the death of the probably the greatest person that ever lived, our father Abraham.

Chassidic sources teach that when a great person dies, they are felt more in this world then when they were alive.  This concept always reminds me of Obi Wan Kenobi’s final words in Star Wars before Darth Vader killed him “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine."

That being said, how is Abraham felt more in the world now then when he was alive?

As Jews, we’re known by many names… The word “Jew” itself stems from Judah (Yehuda) who was Abraham’s great grandson.  The name shares the same root word as “Thankful.”  We’re also called Israel or the sons of Israel.  I want to focus on a name that was first used when people described Abraham… Hebrew (Ivri) which means the “other” one.

Abraham lived in world dominated by idolatry and moral deprivation, yet he stood unwavering in his beliefs and brought the concept of one G-d to the masses.  I believe the gift that Abraham gave us as Jews is to be to be the other ones.  To be apart of and yet apart from this world.  It’s clear that Jews are different from other groups… not quite a nationality, not quite a religion, not quite a race.  After all, what are we?

We’re a family that has been given the ability from our father Abraham to bring light into a world of darkness.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Jewish Law Question – If I want to start learning Torah, where should I begin?

As you know, learning is a fundamental part of being Jewish.  Since the beginning of the Jewish people, we’ve always gravitated to the intellectual understanding of whatever topic was before us.  We do it in both the secular and the religious world.  In our religious studies there is so much information available and so many books, it’s important to know where to start.

There have been many major transitions within the confines of learning Torah over the last 3,500 years.  When Rabbi Yehuda the Prince first wrote down the Mishnah, which was the teachings of our Rabbis which, up until that point, were only transmitted orally, it was considered revolutionary.  The same holds true for when Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon  first took the vast oral law and broke it down into an encyclopedia-like how to book for Jewish law, titled the Mishneh Torah.  It’s my hope to deal with the evolution of Torah and Jewish law in a later article. 

I believe that history will also show that translation of all major Jewish books and most of the minor Jewish books into clear English with background and instructions will also go down in history as a revolutionary point in the Jewish world.  Now, the millions of Jews who are not fluent in Hebrew & Aramaic can finally learn Torah in depth.

Like my previous articles, I’m making the assumption that you’re committed to learning Torah on a regular basis.  I want to tailor this article on where you may want to start with whatever time you’re willing to commit.  When I first started learning, I had to struggle through this topic, like everything else, collecting many different opinions from many different Rabbis.  After 10 years, I think I have a pretty good learning schedule that will hopefully help you grow into a well rounded and learned Jew.  Keep in mind, there is no final word on something like this.  If you don’t like one of my recommendations, feel free to try something else or mix and match from the different levels.  There are no hard and fast rules.

At the bottom of the article, Ill list links where you can find any of the works that I mention in English.

Level 1: 10 minutes per day
The foundation of Torah is the Torah itself.  The Torah is broken up into weekly portions (parshas) and each portion is broken up into 7 sections.  In level one, I recommend reading the daily section with the commentary by the renowned Torah scholar, Rabbi Shlomo Yizchaki, better known simply as Rashi.  Rashi’s commentary on Torah is second to none in the Jewish world and is the first stop in understanding the divine wisdom of our creator that’s transmitted through the Torah.

Level 2: 20 minutes per day
On level 2, I would recommend learning the weekly Midrash to go along with the Torah portion.  The Midrash is the homiletic stories that give us the behind the scenes perspective on the Torah portion from the Rabbis point of view.  The Midrash combined with the Torah text and Rashi’s commentary will give you a very well rounded view of the Bible.

Level 3: 30 minutes per day
On Level 3, it’s time to add Jewish law into your study sessions.  The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch is probably the easiest “What to do when” books that we have for Jewish law.  It’s great to look up the specific questions that you have, but I would recommend starting on page one and reading it through.  It will give you a great flavor for what’s going on at synagogue over the holidays and Shabbas.  Keep in mind, that Jewish law isn’t confined to any one book.  It is a living, breathing thing that can never be fully contained.  Don’t take anything you read in the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch as the final word for any specific situation that you have.  If you have a specific problem, consult with a trusted Rabbi.  If you don’t have one, email me and I’ll find you one.

Level 4: 45 minutes per day
On level 4, I would recommend starting with a book titled Ein Yaakov.  There aren’t a lot of people that study this, but I have no clue why.  I think it gives a tremendous overview of the stories that make up the Babylonian Talmud or Gemara.  The valuable lessons contained in Ein Yaakov seem to have no limits. 

Level 5: 1 hour or more per day
On level 5, it’s time to take the big leap and dive into the Babylonian Talmud.  In all learning, it’s best to have a study partner or class, but with the books in level 1-4, you can make your way through them on your own.  In level 5, it’s a different story.  I don’t recommend starting to learn Talmud without a qualified teacher.  The sea of the Talmud is too deep to go treading through on your own.  There are Rabbis out there who can help you with this, either in person or over the phone. 

Level A.U.:
You may be asking “What is A.U.?”  These articles always end with 5 levels.  Well… for this one, I’m adding A.U. It stands for “Automobile University.”  I’m in the car a good 7 hours per week.  If you’re in the car, train or bus for any length of time, you can take advantage of it by listening to Torah based classes.  I highly recommend Rabbi Berel Wein’s “Travels through Jewish History.”  Rabbi Wein lives in Israel and is truly brilliant and entertaining in my opinion.  Automobile University can give double the amount of learning you do without taking any time out of your schedule.  I can’t recommend it enough.

With all of my articles, I must tell you that I’m not a Rabbi.  I spent a total of two days in Yeshiva.  However, I am a Baal Teshuva for roughly 10 years and I’m hoping that my experience will help you adjust to your new quest for Yiddishkeit with the most success.  I’m also making assumptions about what your knowledge and Jewish background may or may not be.  With any of these areas, it’s best to speak to an orthodox Rabbi who knows and understands you.  His classes and advice may be much better to suit your needs.  My article should be used when there is no Rabbi around who you feel that you can relate to.  If you have any specific questions, feel free to email me.

Where do I find these books?
1. Chumash with Rashi:
2. Midrash:
3. Kitzur Shulchan Aruch: http://www.eichlers.com/Page.asp?ID=051a912641d4572d062357b8c4d49d2aaaa332c7671cd5b9&searchCategoryList=&txtSearchString=kitzur+shulchan+aruch
5. Babylonian Talmud:
6. Berel Wein’s Travels through Jewish History: http://www.rabbiwein.com/ProductsListing/History-C10/All/

Feel free to friend me on facebook at: Baal Teshuvahs Bthandbook

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Torah Thought: Parsha Vayeira

Last week, my wife and I had an unexpected date night.  Out of the blue my brother, who was in town, offered to watch the kids while we go out.  In my secular and single days, I used to have quite a social life, but since we’ve been married with two kids, my wife and I end up going out for dinner about once per year.  My brother came over early and we had a gift card to a local kosher restaurant.  We were ready for the perfect evening.

After putting the kids to bed, my wife got dressed up for a night out while I waited downstairs.  When she came down stairs, she asked me how she looked.  Keeping in mind that she’s 5 months pregnant, I needed to come up with an answer.  The possibilities were:

  1. Fat.
  2. Thin.  You can hardly tell your pregnant
  3. Other.

In the millisecond that I stood there thinking, I had to consider what the Torah would say about truth and lying.  As Jews, we are known for intellectual pursuits, both in and outside the Torah world.  For a true intellectual pursuit to be successful, it demands intellectual honesty down to the minutest detail.  We don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings, but could it actually be permissible to deviate from the truth in order to do avoid it?

That brings another question… what, exactly, is truth?  Very often truth is different depending on the participant’s perspective.  In my opinion, General Tsao’s chicken is the best thing one could order at a Chinese restaurant.  Does that make it true?  (On a personal note, when we went out to eat, I had General Tsao’s chicken and it was excellent)   Is there an inherent truth beyond the point of someone’s personal opinion? 

On a more scientific note, can we say that 2 + 2 equals 4 is an inherent truth or is it only true because G-d set up a world where 2 + 2 does equal 4.  If he wanted to, he could have set up a world where 2 +2 equals 5.  If that’s the case, then truth can only be defined by Torah.

In this weeks Torah portion, 3 angels showed up to the tent of Abraham and Sarah.  While Sarah was inside the tent, the angels told Abraham that next year, Sarah would give birth to their first son.  Sarah overheard from inside and considering that she was 90 years old and Abraham was 99 years old, she laughed and said “After I have withered, shall I again have delicate skin?  And my husband is old.”  The G-d spoke to Abraham and said “Why is it that Sarah laughed. Saying: Shall I in truth bear a child, though I have aged?”

The great rabbi, Rashi, asks why did G-d deviate what Sarah said and leave out the part about how she said that her husband was so old.  He answers that G-d did so for the sake of Abraham’s feelings and for the sake of peace between husband and wife.  We would never dare to say that G-d lied, so it must be that protecting someone's feelings and peace in the home (Shalom Bayis) is an inherent Torah truth.  I learned years ago that being "right" is over rated.  Most people that I know who insist on being "right" have very few friends and loved ones.  I once heard that if you have a choice to be "right" or be "kind", choose to be "kind."

With all this in mind, I chose C. Other and told my wife that “To me, you're always beautiful.”  For me, there was no greater truth.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Jewish Law Question – How do I start praying?

We can look at the question of prayer from a couple different angles.  The first is “What should I be thinking about while praying or what should I be praying for?”  The second question is “What prayers should I be saying?”  For the purposes of this article, I’m going to deal with the second question.  Hopefully, I’ll write another article to address the first question later.

Why handle it this way?  I have a couple reasons…  There are a lot of books out there on how to give meaning and inspiration to prayer.  I haven’t seen any books or instructions for someone who’s just starting to pray for the first time.  I’ve also seen situations where Baal Teshuva’s got advice, that wasn’t right for them and it didn’t work out so well. 

About 8 years ago, I was with another BT who was a year or so behind me in learning.  We were with a Rabbi who I respect very much and the BT told the Rabbi that he wanted to start saying morning prayers and asked what should he say.  The Rabbi, who was very well intended, started pointing out enough prayers that would have taken this guy an easy 45 minutes to say every morning.  The problem was that this guy was only ready to devote about 5 minutes every day at this point.  The result was, he felt overwhelmed and didn’t say any morning prayers for quite a while.  As another inspiration for this article, when I started praying, I was basically left alone to figure it out by myself.  I made a lot of mistakes and learned from them.  I’ve seen people go too long without praying, because they didn’t know how to start.  I’ve also seen people try to do too much, burn out and walk away from everything.

With that in mind, I’d like to introduce different levels to the morning, afternoon & evening prayers depending on how much time one has to devote.  Before we get started, I want to point out a couple things. 
1. There are many different prayer books out there, but since it is probably going to be the most commonly used, I’m going to be referring to page numbers in the brown Artscroll Ashkenaz prayer book (Siddur Kol Yaakov.) 
2. I’m going to be referring to everything by their English name with the English page number. 
3. Pray in whatever language is most comfortable to you.  G-d understands English too.  If you really want to start praying in Hebrew, start out saying one paragraph in Hebrew and the rest in English.  As your Hebrew grows, increase the paragraphs.
4. In reference to prayer, please note the following… When I say day, I mean the time from sunrise to sunset.  When I say morning, I mean from the time the sun rises until the 1/3 of the day passes.  When I say afternoon, I mean a half hour after midday until sunset.  When I say night, I mean when it’s dark enough outside to see 3 stars if you live in a place where there is a so little pollution that one could see 3 stars.   
5. It goes without saying that the best thing is to complete the entire prayer service.  That being said, someone who’s taking up running for the first time, doesn’t start with a marathon.  Running down the block is enough and the distance can grow as your stamina grows.

With all that in mind, here are the levels that I’ve come up with:

Level 1 – The 5 minute version:  As far as mornings go, the most important things to do are to put on tefillin and say the Shema (Hear, O Israel: Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is one) A couple quick notes.  Only Jewish men above the age of 13 put on tefillin.  I’ll try to tackle why there is a difference between men and women in a different article.  Instructions for putting on tefillin are on page 7.  If you don’t have a pair, ask your local orthodox Rabbi.  If you have nobody to ask, email me and I’ll help you get a pair.  The Shema starts on page 91 and ends on page 95 with the words “Hashem, your G-d, is true.  If you cant even devote the 5 minutes, at a bare bones minimum, say the first line “Hear, O Israel… to the end of the first paragraph on page 93 “…and upon your gates.”  After nightfall, say the Shema again on page 259-261.  It’s the same words, but it’s good to get used to the prayer book.

Level 2 – The 15 minute version: If you want to do more, start on page 85 with the blessings of the Shema and continue until after the Shemoneh Esrei – Amida which stares on page 99 and ends on 119.  The Shemoneh Esrei is high point in the prayer service where we praise G-d, ask for help for us individually and for others.  It’s best to insert any personal requests in the Shemoneh Esrei prayer.  There are lots of instructions on those pages.  At night, start on page 257 and continue through 279.  The nighttime prayer is much shorter then the morning prayers and doing this will cover most of it.

Level 3 – The 20 minute version: In the morning, start on page 15 towards the bottom with the first “Blessed are you…washing the hands” and continue through the middle of page 21 stopping at “…strength for the weary”  Then say the paragraph that starts with “Blessed is he” on page 59.  Then “Praiseworthy are those” on page 67-69.  Then “May your name be praised” on page 83.  After that continue with what you’ve done on Levels 1 & 2.  You can also start adding the afternoon prayer which starts on page 233 with “Praiseworthy are those and you can stop at the end of Shemoneh Esrei on page 249. 

Level 4 – The 35 minute version: In the mornings, after page 21, skip to “Blessed is he” on page 59 and keep going from there until after Shemoneh Esrei on page 119.  After that, say “It is our duty” on page 159 through “will be One on page” 161.  This prayer “It is out duty” is also at the end of the afternoon and evening prayers on pages 253 & 281. At this point, you’re saying most of the morning prayer, most of the afternoon prayers and all of the evening prayers.

Level 5 – The whole Shebang: Start at page 1 and go until the end on each of the respective prayer times.  It’s important to note that the time estimations are exactly that.  The actual time will be determined by how fast you read and how much meaning you put behind each of the prayers.  I know people that can say  everything in under 30 minutes, while others take well over an hour to say morning prayers.  Go at a pace that feels right for you.  Unfortunatly, the more one says the prayers the greater the chance of them falling into the trap of just “getting through them” without any meaning at all.  The best advice that I can give is try to find at least one prayer that moves you and spend a little extra time with it each day.

Prayer can be one of the toughest things to start doing, but it’s also one of the most rewarding.  When we acknowledge G-d in prayer, all at the same time we’re saying that G-d is good, G-d has the ability to change things and G-d listens to us when we speak.  Now it’s our job to speak wisely. 

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Torah Thought: Parsha Lech Lecha

My 5 year old son came home from school with a challenging question this week.  On Monday he asked me wife what Halloween is and if we celebrate it.

Our son goes to a good Jewish day school with a very diverse group of students.  In his class are kids from all types of homes on the religious observance spectrum.  Apparently some of his classmates celebrate Halloween and brought it up in class.  From my wife’s report, the teacher handled the question well and moved on quickly to other activities. 

Halloween seems to have originated from Pagan customs and we decided early on in our marriage that we didn’t see the need to celebrate it with our kids.  On Purim, we dress up in funny costumes and eat candy, so we didn’t feel like we were depriving them.  As a quick note, before I became religious I used to have huge Halloween parties and would really go all out.  The flip side is that back then I didn’t have a clue what Purim was.

That being said, when a 5 year old asks a question, it requires a simple answer, but it also requires the parent to clarify their reasons for doing certain things in basic terms.

My wife told my son that on Halloween is a non Jewish holiday where people dress up in scary costumes and they go around and ask people for candy.  That’s the treat.  Once in a while, someone will give something or do something less then desirable and that’s the trick.  It’s always tough for a child to understand why a lot of Jews do things that are not in accordance with Jewish laws and tradition.  We try to explain that many Jews were brought up in homes where they didn’t learn Torah and it’s out job to be an example for what  Torah Jew should be.  For Jews, we celebrate Purim. 

Even though Purim may look similar to Halloween at a glance, it’s actually it’s polar opposite.  On Purim, we don’t dress up in scary costumes and try to make people frightened.  We dress up in silly costumes and try to make people laugh.  We don’t go to other people’s houses and take candy.  We go there and give them Shalach Manot (baskets of food which traditionally have candy in them.)  We also give extra money to the poor so they can celebrate with us, along with inviting friends to a festive meal.  The essence of Halloween seems to be to take… either candy or if you really do scare someone, their peace of mind.  The essence of Purim is to give.

At a class given by Rabbi Kelemen many years ago, I remember that he taught the route word for the Hebrew word for love was “to give” and the essence of loving is giving. 

In the weekly Torah portion Lech Lecha, Abraham fights a war against 4 mighty kings who attacked 5 kings and captured Abraham’s nephew Lot in the process.  After Abraham beat the 4 kings, the other 5 kings, who had been vanquished, offered Abraham to keep the spoils of war that he captured.  Abraham did not keep anything for himself.  The only items that he did take, he gave to the priest of G-d, Malchi Tzedek, as an offering to G-d and to thank him for helping him achieve victory and save his nephew.

Traditionally, the Rabbis consider Abraham the epitome of loving kindness and we learn a great deal from him.  As the father of the Jewish people, he taught us that the focal point of being a Jew is to give… not just with money, but also our time and dedication.  Through this giving, we’ll reach the core of loving kindness and will actually receive more than we could ever have hoped for.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Jewish Law Question - How do I start keeping kosher?

Nine years ago I went on out of town for Shavous with a friend of mine.  I was having a meal with some new friends.  They were probably on the same level as me... new B.Ts.  Somehow we started talking about the laws of kashrut.  Keeping kosher is complicated and there are a lot of laws to learn... And some misconceptions too.  We were talking about how long one must wait to eat dairy after they've eaten meat.  I commented how confusing it was.  I knew several different people whom I respected who did several different things and I didn't know which one was right.  The Rabbi that I had been learning with for a while waited 6 hours.  Another Rabbi whom I had just met waited until the 6th hour, which is actually 5 hours and 1 minute after eating meat.  My new girlfriend, whom I later married, waited 3 hours which was handed down as her family’s tradition from her parents and grandparents.  My new friend told me that "the Torahs says that you have to wait 6 hours after eating meat and that's it." in a Know-it-all B.T.fashion  I didn't know that much, but I was pretty sure the Torah never clearly stated any time limits.  I told him to go get a Chumash and point out the verse that backed up his claim.  He got up to go find his proof.  After a few minutes I saw him speaking to one of the Rebbetzens (Rabbi's wives) in the corner.  She was explaining to him that the Torah never clearly stated a time limit and there are many different opinions.  He looked a little disappointed, but hopefully he learned a valuable lesson.   The most widely held opinion is to wait 6 hours and please don't use this as permission to do otherwise.  If you have any questions about what's right for you, consult your local Rabbi. 

Keeping kosher is a very rewarding decision, but it can also be very overwhelming.  There are books and books that deal with all of the intricate laws of what Jews can eat and when.  Considering the availability of information out there, I'm not going to deal with the question "How do I keep kosher?”, but I am going to deal with "How do I start keeping kosher?"

Just like most things that you're learning, Kosher is not an all or nothing proposition. 

When starting to keep kosher, there's nothing wrong with starting slow.  If like me, cheesesteaks were a staple of your diet (I did grow up in Philadelphia), its ok to take it slow.  There can be levels, especially at the beginning to help you get started.  You can move as quickly or as slowly through the levels and set backs sometimes happen.  Taking this process step by step will help you incorporate your new beliefs from our old traditions into your new life.

The first thing that we have to cover is the degrees within Jewish law.  It will become clear later why this is important.  From the most serious on down is as follows:

1. Torah Law: G-d said the "though shalt" or the "though shalt not" right in the Torah
2. Traditional Law: We have a tradition that Moses taught the law orally at Mount Sinai or in the desert.
3. Rabbinic Law: Decrees from our sages
4. Customs: Something that the Jewish people took on without being told.
5. Stringency: Going beyond the letter of the law in service of G-d.

Level 1 -  "Blatant Traif": "Traif" means not kosher food & for better or for worse, there are certain things that are not kosher under any circumstance.  Example: pork, shell fish & meat with dairy.  These items are prohibited directly from the Torah.  A first step on your quest to eating kosher, should probably be to eliminate these things from your diet.  What about cheeseburgers?  Sorry.  They have to go.  You can try a real beef burger with fake cheese or a vegi burger with real cheese.  It won’t be the same, but after a while you won’t miss the real thing anyway.

Level 2 - "Non Kosher Meat":  I believe this falls under a "Traditional Law", but all animals and birds that we eat must be slaughtered according to our tradition.  A good Level 2 step is to only buy kosher meat when you go to the supermarket, and when you go out to restaurants, order dairy or vegetarian.  Another Level 2 activity would be to start waiting 6 hours between the time you eat dairy after meat.  The good news is that you can eat meat after dairy without too much restriction.  Just wash your hands, rinse your mouth out with water and go ahead.  Practical Example:  You want to eat a hamburger (yes you’re eating kosher meat and yes you left off the cheese) and then an ice-cream sunday right afterwards.  I love ice-cream as much as the next person and don’t like waiting 6 hours either.  Practical Solution: Eat the ice cream first.  J

Level 3 – “Cold & Separate”:  A good Level 3 activity for outside the house would be to either limit your restaurant activity to only kosher restaurants.  You’ll soon learn that there are a lot of different agencies that say restaurants and other things are kosher.  Unfortunately, there isn’t a general standard among all of Judaism.  For Level 3, eat at anyone that you feel like.  If you do eat at a non kosher restaurant, stick to salads, fruit cup, sushi or cold uncooked foods.  Most domestic beers along with most alcohols are kosher, so you can still have that social drink with your old friends or coworkers.  At home, a good level 3 activity is to start buying foods with kosher symbols only and to buy new sets of dishes for meat and dairy.  When buying anything for the kitchen, it’s best to stick with glass or metal if possible.  With a glass dish, it’s much easier to correct a kosher mistake then with ceramic.  In Level 3, we’ve entered the realm of Rabbinic Laws and you’re making great progress

Level 4 – “Blow torches & hextures”: At Level 4, it’s time to break out the blow torch and “kasher” your kitchen.  Do NOT do this on your own.  Call your local orthodox Rabbi and they’ll be able to help you.  Lubavitch Rabbis, especially, have a ton of experience in this area.  When it comes to eating out, start sticking with the orthodox certified restaurants only.  You may also want to start making sure that the food that you’re buying in the supermarket have reliable orthodox certifications.  You should also start washing your vegetables thoroughly and checking for bugs.  Disgusting as it may sound, there are non-kosher bugs all over our produce.  2 days ago, my wife threw out a bunch of asparagus, because she couldn’t get all the bugs out.  There are plenty of books on the subject.  The good news is that, if you do it right, you’ll stop unknowingly eating little bugs all the time.

Level 5 – “Super Jew”: At this point, you’ve covered all the Torah, Traditional & Rabbinic Laws of keeping kosher.  We’re into Customs & Stringencies if you want to go there.  Level 5 is the only level that’s totally optional according to Jewish law.  However if you want to keep pushing the envelope…. The last steps are: 1. Eat dairy only milked under orthodox Jewish supervision (Cholev Yisroael).  2. Eat baked goods only baked under orthodox Jewish supervision (Pas Yisroael).  3. Eat foods only cooked under orthodox Jewish supervision (Bishul Yisroael).

Its not easy to start keep kosher.  You're going to have invitations from friends to go out to dinner, non-kosher weddings, business lunches, not to mention eating at your parent’s house.  Take it slow and be sensitive to your old friends, business associates and family.  Just because you're starting to keep kosher, doesn't mean they have to.  Explain your needs polity and try to make and acceptable compromise.  Most wedding caterers will provide kosher meals.  You can meet clients for coffee instead of lunch.  You can meat friends for a beer instead of dinner and you can bring your own food to your parents.  Don't forget to be sensitive to their feelings.  Its natural for your family to feel rejected when they first find out you won't eat there.  Be easy on them and reassure them that you're doing what's right for you.

I hope that this clarifies some things and makes your Quest for Kosher a little easier.