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

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Sunday, September 23, 2012

How does one do Teshuva?

Teshuva, while typically translates repentance literally means return.  Teshuva is one of those words that most of us throw around easily.  We tell people and ourselves that they should so Teshuva. We refer to ourselves at Ba’al Teshuvas.  Around Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur especially, we need to work on Teshuva.  That all sounds nice, but…

How does one do Teshuva?

The book Hayom Yom describes how the saintly Reb Meshulam Zusya of Aniponli dealt with Teshuva.  “He can not attain the heights of Teshuva; he therefore breaks down Teshuva to its components for each letter of the word Teshuva is the initial of a verse:

T: Tamim – “Be sincere with the Eternal your G-d” Devarim 18:13
Sh: Shviti – “I have set G-d before me always”  Tehillim 16:8
U: V’havta – “Love your fellow as yourself” Vayikra 19:18
V: B’chol – “In all your ways, know him.“ Mishlei 3:6
H: Hatznei’a – “Walk discreetly with your G-d.” Micha 6:8

The Rebbe Rashab of Lubavitch said that each letter is a path and a method in the avoda (labor) of Teshuva.

What did Reb Zusya mean that we should be sincere with G-d?

Before we can answer that question, we need to recall a famous story about Reb Zusya.  It’s told that when Reb Zusya was an old man, his students came into his room and found him frightened and crying.  He explained to them that he felt that his life was drawing to an end and his judgment was drawing closer.  He said, I’m not afraid that G-d will ask me Zusya, why weren’t you Abraham or why weren’t you Moses.  I’m don’t have their great potential.  I never had the abilities to accomplish what they accomplished.  I’m afraid that G-d will ask me, Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?  Why didn’t you live up to your own potential?

This story gives a tremendous insight into how we’re judged.  According to Reb Zusya, we’re not judged according to what the Code of Jewish Law says we should do or what our Rabbi or friends say we should do, but only what we really could have done.  And we’re judged in a world of ultimate truth… no excuses.

Close to 10 years ago, I was sitting with a fairly new Ba’al Teshuva on Rosh Hashanah and I told him this story.  I then asked that if G-d would ask him if he prayed the entire morning service and the entire afternoon and evening services, what would he say to G-d.  He thought about it a minute and calmly said that he wasn’t at a place in his spiritual development to be able to do that.  I told him that according to Reb Zusya, he doesn’t have to worry.  I then asked him what would he say if G-d asked him if he could say the Shema every morning and every evening.  His face instantly became pale.  He literally started to stutter… and he said, I could do that.  I told him then that’s where he needs to work on.

Sincerity with G-d is eliminating all the excuses that we sometimes tell the world and often tell ourselves.  I like to use the analogy of an alarm clock.  My alarm is typically set for 5am.  There are times when it goes off and I’m so tired, I just can’t get out of bed.  I need that snooze.  There are other times where I wake up at 5:09am and don’t even remember hitting the snooze.  But, there are other times when I hit snooze and maybe I could have gotten out of bed if I would have pushed myself.  This is where sincerity comes in.

You can apply the same sincerity to every aspect of our lives.  There are times we need to relax… that we just can’t go to the class or minyan or whatever.  Maybe we turn on a baseball game to unwind.  In the world of complete sincerity, that’s fine.  The question is at what point are we relaxed enough to spend our time doing a mitzvah and at what point to we just want to keep watching the game?  Does it really go that far?  Where does it end?  If a Jew needs to take a break, and I mean really needs it… let’s say he just emotionally needs to take an hour break.  What’s the big deal if he takes and hour and 5 minute break?  After all, it’s only 5 minutes… such as small amount of time.  What difference can it possibly make?  Well… it’s enough time to give someone a smile… give a friend a hug… tell someone that you love them.  It’s enough time to learn just a little bit of Torah, but that little bit of Torah his G-ds infinite wisdom and therefore, even 5 minutes can be limitless if we use it correctly.

The answer and circumstances are different for every person and changed with every situation, but the first step in doing Teshuva is recognizing what we are and what we could be.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

… would you be happy?

As my usually custom, this past Saturday night, I traveled to my old shul to for a midnight fabrengin (Chassidic gathering) and to say the first selichot service.  The fabrengin was typical… some food, friends and a little vodka.  I was enjoying myself when my Rebbe said something that literally stopped me in my tracks...

If G-d answered your prayers… would you be happy?

Like most of us, I add personal requests into my daily prayers.  I ask for health for friends and family that need it, Parnassa (the ability to earn a living), among many other desires.  I never stopped to think about how I would feel if G-d gave me what I was asking for.  For years I’ve experiences off and on back pain.  As I was sitting there, I felt a dull pain in my right leg.  I certainly want it to go away and would be happy if it wasn’t there, but the truth is that there are plenty of days that it’s not there and I don’t know if I’m any really happier on those days.  The same thing can be said when things are going well at work.  Would we be momentarily happy if our prayers were answered, yes.  Would it be a permenant happiness with that particular area, no.  Chances are the momenatry happiness would fade onto the back drop of our every day lives.  If one is unemployed, he may be very happy when he gets a job, but after a while, that intitial happiness will most likely fade.

I guess that it’s human nature to take the positive things we have for granted and only really focus on the negative things.  Thank G-d, I have 3 healthy, active kids under the age of 6.  When I get home from work, my wife and I usually discuss how the kids were that day.  If they were particularly challenging, she’ll tell me how hard it was and we’ll express our concern and frustration.  If there weren’t any problems, she’ll tell me that they were OK and we’ll move on to the next topic.  Can you imagine how different our lives would be if we focused on the positives instead of the negatives?  If on the days where there were no major incidents, we would cry how to G-d, thanking him for making things go so well…

There’s a famous story about the Ba’al Shemtov walked into a study hall of a town that he was visiting.  He noticed a Jew immersed in studying Talmud.  The Ba’al Shemtov approached and asked him how he was, but the Jew waived him off.  He asked him again, but again the Jews waived him off.  Finally the Ba’al Shemtov got right in the Jew’s face and asked “Why are you not giving G-d his parnassa?”  Typically when one Jew will ask another how he’s doing, the Jew will respond “Thank G-d” or “Baruch Hashem.”  The Ba’al Shemtov taught us that this simple blessing of any Jew is G-d’s parnassa.  This is how we connect to us and when we miss opportunity to say “Thank G-d” we are both denying ourselves and denying G-d this connection.  Chassidus explains that G-d’s purpose of creation was to create a dwelling place in the lower worlds, but we have to do our part to make that happen.

If we don’t call out to G-d with proper kavana (intention) when things are going well, then if G-d wants our kavana, he may send us little problems so that we do call out to him and, in a sense, give him his parnassa.  There’s an old saying that there are “no atheists in foxholes.”   When a soldier is pinned down with his enemies shooting at him, he tends to change from atheist to believer real quick.  Maybe if he would have been a believer before he got there, he could have avoided the whole experience in the first place.

If we can train ourselves, to thank G-d for all the good that he does for us with the same power that we would if we were going through troubles, then we would be allowing G-d in our lives and possibly eliminate the need for him to give us troubles in the first place.  We’ll get our parnassa by giving him his parnassa.  If we truly appreciate all that he does for us on a regular basis, then not only would we be happy, we would, in a sense, make G-d happy.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Going from Geula to Gallus… what do I do now?

This past Shabbas I had the pleasure of hosting a friend of mine for Shabbas who just got back from a few months of learning in Israel.  I had met this person when I helped lead a kiruv trip to Israel a little over a year ago.  This friend, let’s call him Bill, was inspired when we were on the trip together and started going to classes in the U.S.  When his semester ended he returned to the holy land to spend sometime learning and having fun.

We talked a lot over Shabbas about his experiences over the past couple months.  As we got to the topic of his future plans, he was returning to his last year in college, but religiously, it was a little more uncertain.

Bill was keeping the Shabbas for the most part and taking steps toward the observance of Kosher and other laws, but has a new Ba’al Teshuva, he’s still on shaky ground in terms of maintaining his new found inspiration.

When someone first gets inspired and feels the excitement of developing their relationship with their creator, it’s an unbelievable opportunity for positive growth and change.  Unfortunately though, that intense inspiration and enthusiasm doesn’t last forever and if they don’t come up with concrete ways to keep their spiritual momentum going, they may backslide.

There are a ton of different variations and choices that one can make when their in this position, but for simplicity sake, I’m going to boil them down to three separate categories.

The BT High – After the initial inspiration, a person going through this may tend to take on every mitzvah, custom and stringency that they can learn about.  They’re waking up early to daven, their going to bed late.  There’s hardly a class around that they’re not going to.  While this can lead someone to unbelievable spiritual heights, it can also lead to burnout and disaster.  I’ve seen several cases of someone growing a long beard and wearing a gartel within months of their initial inspiration only to see everything, and I mean everything disappeared for a year.  Just like in physical health, attempting to run a marathon on the first day one starts exercising could be suicide.  The same goes spiritually.  A strong house can only be built on a steady foundation.

My Old Life – The opposite extreme of the BT High is when someone resumes their old life as it was before their inspiration… same friends, same places, same hobbies, etc.  Sure, maybe they stay home Friday nights or order different things at the restaurant, but everything else is basically the same.  Someone may light an intense fire, but unless they keep putting new fuel on the flames, the fire will eventually disappear. 

Steady Steps – Our great Rabbi, Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon) tells us that in almost all cases, the middle path is the best.  The first thing someone needs to do when they get back from Israel or pass the point of initial inspiration is pick something that they can do every day to keep their fire going.  It could be going to minyan.  It could be putting on tefillan at home.  It could be going to a class or learning by yourself.  Pick something that appeals and inspires you.  It doesn’t matter what, but the important thing is that it should be consistent and something that can be done every day no matter what. 

Eventually, the initial excitement of doing this mitzvah may wear off, but as one keeps doing it day in and day out, the connection it creates with G-d becomes stronger and stronger.  As your relationship grows, it takes on a new level of love and closeness.  It’s not that different from marriage.  When newlyweds are young and vibrant, they should have a tremendous physical attraction to each other.  As a marriage grows, that initial attraction may not be exactly the same, but the emotional attraction from going through so much together becomes so much more powerful then the physical attraction ever was.

We have so many resources and possibilities for people when the decide to go learn in Israel, but when it comes to having support systems for when they get back, the Jewish world seems a little bit lacking. 

Stay strong, stay inspired and stay involved.  As you keep moving closer to Hashem, by performing is mitzvahs, he’ll draw closer and closer to you.