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

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Sunday, January 20, 2013

Parsha Beshalach – The Ba’al Teshuvas Struggle

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

This was the first Ba’al Teshuva movement.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Religious fanatics..​. When has one gone too far?

 I once heard that there's an easy way to tell when one has gone off the deep end and gone way too far in their religious observance... It's if they have one more stringency in Jewish law (called a chumra in Halacha) than I do.

The same is true to know when someone isn’t so religious... If they have one more leniency (called a kula in Halacha) than I do.

Isn't that how most of see things?  We know what we know and believe what we believe and judge everyone else accordingly.  If o hear that someone wakes up at 4:30am to start learning Torah, it sounds crazy to me.  It really does. When I tell someone that I typically get up at 5:00 am, to study Torah, it's normal to me, but it probably sounds crazy to them and it goes on and on.

This past Shabbas I listened to a d'var Torah from a Rabbi that I know, whom I also have a friendship and have what would be best described as a joking or playful relationship with often teasing each other about this or that.

When discussing one particular stringency (chumra) of a group of Chassidim, which he was not one of, stated that he believed their stringency had gone way too far.  He quoted R’Chaim of Volozhin, may the memory of the righteous be for a blessing, who said that the source of (these types of) stringencies were routed in the evil inclination (yeitzer harah.)

When he finished, I asked him “Do all chumras have their routes in the yeitzer harah or just the ones that he doesn’t have?” 

He had no answer.

This led me to think about when has one gone too far?  After all, should we adopt every possible stringency that we can or should we avoid them? 

It seems to me that this is a very subjective issue depending on the following factors:

  1. Does the stringency bring you closer to G-d or drive you farther away? 
Many years ago, I was with a very close friend of mine who had starting reconnecting with his Judaism around the same time I had.  It was around the high holidays and he confessed to me that he was O.J.’d.  (over Jew’d.) He had simply reached a point where he was burnt out, mainly because of a custom he picked up in the community where he lived of saying certain lengthy verses every day.  He told me that it had gotten so bad, that he missed davening the afternoon prayer (Mincha) the day before.  I advised him the immediately stop with his new chumra and his custom was leading him in the absolute wrong direction.  Taking on additional service of G-d, beyond the letter of the law, should inspire us… if it doesn’t, one should seriously question why they’re doing it.  Fitting in with one’s community, while important, should not be put above our relationship with our creator.
  1. What effect does this have on those around me?
Years ago, I used to daven at morning minyan that very often had exactly 10 men.  At the time, I was working on improving my concentration in prayer (davening).  The effect was that I would pray an exceptionally long Shemoneh Esrei.  The custom of this shul was that they would not start the repetition until every person was finished praying, so that there would be 10 men to answer Amen to each blessing in the repetition.  One particular day, while I was in the middle of my long davening, I overheard a situation where one of the men had to leave in the next 5 minutes.  I then witnessed one of the men tell the prayer leader (shilach tzibbur), who was his son, to start his repetition even though I was still davening so they could hear the repetition before the minyan broke up.  The son thought this was inappropriate and said no.  A slight argument broke out.  The son walked off the bimah and the father walked on to pray the repetition.  I felt horrible.  Praying with proper intention is a wonderful quality, but on this particular occasion, my desire to daven properly came at a very high price.  I never bothered to consider the effect this had on those around before that situation.  I continued to pray with that minyan for a long time, but I never extended my prayers past the rest of the group.  I focused more on quality rather then quantity with that group, or any other similar situation.  I’m not advocating that one not pray at length or with proper intention, G-d forbid.  I am saying that one should be conscious of those around them.  The effect that a chumra may have doesn’t just end with the congregation.  It can also have a significant affect our family.  Just like our chumra should bring us closer to G-d, it should also bring our family and those around us closer to G-d.  If our chumra is affecting them in a negative way, one should seriously consider whether the cost is worth it.

All of this being said, chumras are the spice of observance.  They’re the strength on our relationship with G-d.  There’s a beautiful idea in the Gemara Berachos, page 20 which states The Jewish People took upon themselves to recite Birkat HaMazon after eating even when they are not technically "full." They thus go beyond the letter of the law, and therefore they deserve to have Hashem treat them beyond the letter of the law.

We all must decide for ourselves what we should do in every particular situation.  When taking on any new chumra, I find it’s best to ask my Rebbe, my wife and pray to G-d for the proper answer. 

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Parsha Shemos – Why are we still in exile?

In the Torah portion of Shemos we get introduced and get to see the development of Moses our teacher (Moshe Rabeinu.) 

One of his first interactions as an adult was to witness the harshness of the exile and how the Egyptians abuse his brethren.  The Torah tells us that as he was walking about the Jewish people he came upon and Egyptian man beating a Jew, whose name was Dathan, with lashes and screaming at him. 

This the moment where Moses took his first step towards leadership of the Jewish people. Moses killed the Egyptian man and saved the life of his fellow Jew.  He buried the body in the sand and left the scene.

The next day, Moses went out again and saw the man that he had saved, Dathan, fighting with another man named Abiram.  Moses was in shock.  He tried to stop them by asking, why would you fight with each other?  We’re enslaved by wicked non-Jews.  The beat us.  They abuse us.  They rape our wives.  They murder our children.  Why would you possibly fight among ourselves when we’re surrounded by such a powerful, evil enemy?

Instead of recognizing the truth in his words, the two men mocked Moses… You’re still a young man, what do you know?  Who made you ruler over us?  Are you going to kill us like you killed the Egyptian?  They even went to Pharaoh and informed him that Moses had killed an Egyptian.

The Middrash tells us that prior to this event, Moses was very troubled by why G-d had allowed the Jewish people to suffer such an exile.  He searched for an answer.  Witnessing these two Jews fight amongst themselves and how they reacted to him, he said to himself…. Now, I know why we’re in exile.

According to our tradition, this even happened roughly 3,500 years ago… and it was as true then as it is today.

The Jewish people are still a small people surrounded by enemies that hate us.  Israel is surrounded by 22 Arab states containing 400 million Arabs.  The world’s Muslim population is 1.6 billion.  While a portion of Arabs and Muslims are good and decent, there is sizable portion that would like nothing more to see every Jew dead or enslaved.  The United Nations consistently votes against Israel and ignores the atrocities of the Arab world.  Circumcision and ritual slaughter is under attack from San Francisco to Germany.  On a slightly lighter, but very telling note, watch Sasha Baron Cohen’s parody in an Arizona bar “Throw the Jew down the well” and see how many people in Middle America think about us.

We’re literally surrounded.  We’re under attack religiously.  We’re under attack in the global political world.  We’re under literal attack with rockets and suicide bombers…. And we still fight amongst ourselves.

The Talmud tells is that the destruction of the 2nd Temple and Roman exile, which we’re still in today, was caused by the senseless hatred and fighting among Jews.

There is only one cure for the problems we face.  There is only cure for senseless hatred… unconditional love.  When the Jewish world as a whole, and us as individuals can recognize that we must not fight with a fellow Jew under any condition… when we must love our fellow Jew with all of our heart and soul… then and only then will we see an end to this long and bitter exile and peace in Israel and among all the Jewish people.