Friday, April 29, 2005

Thoughts On Learning Likutey Moharan

Likutey Moharan is unlike any sefer I have ever learned before. Without the Breslov Research Institute's commentary and Rabbi Nasan Maimon's shiurim that I listen to on my MP3 player this sefer would be extremely difficult to understand. My understanding is still at a very superficial level yet I still find this sefer to be incredibly profound. Written almost 200 years ago, it provides advice and guidance which is incredibly relevant for life today. It is as if it were written for me.

In his book "The Tree That Stands Beyond Space", Rabbi David Sears states that "the study of Likutey Moharan is not merely an intellectual process, but a means of spiritual transformation." He also notes that through learning this sefer "the world we experience seems to become a commentary on the Torah discourses and not the other way around."

Learning Likutey Moharan also helps me understand the sefer that is closest to my heart, Degel Machaneh Ephraim. The sefer Degel Machaneh Ephraim contains teachings heard directly from the Baal Shem Tov. It was written by the Rebbe of the shtetl where my family comes from in Ukraine. I quickly discovered that the language and concepts found in Degel Machaneh Ephraim are mirrored and expounded upon in Likutey Moharan. The connection between these two seforim is not surprising considering that the Degel Machaneh Ephraim was the uncle of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov. Shivchei HaRan #3 also notes that the Degel Machaneh Ephraim gave Rebbe Nachman a special brocha at his bar mitzvah.

It is clear to me now that learning Likutey Moharan will help draw me closer to the path of my ancestors.

Splitting The Sea

The Gemara (Pesachim 118a) says that earning a parnossa - livelihood - is as difficult as splitting the sea. In what way is parnossa analogous to the splitting of the sea? earning one's livelihood, an individual may have many plans and calculations, but ultimately Hashem often provides him an unanticipated source of income.

(Rabbi Moshe Bogomilsky)

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Dispatches From the Home Front - Chol HaMoed Edition

My two-year old daughter saw me sitting down rocking my 10-month old son to sleep. She misinterpreted what she saw and reported to my wife that I was nursing her brother. Later she came over to me and lifted up my shirt and said, "Feed me too!"

I explained to her that a daddy could not nurse a baby and that only a mommy has milk to feed a baby. My daughter did not care for this answer and spent the next few minutes running around the house screaming, "I want to have milk too!! I want to HAVE milk too!!!

The next day my daughter brought over a plastic toy animal to her mother and asked her help in deciphering the cryptic writing on the animal's underbelly.

Daughter: "What this says?"

Mother: "Made in China."

Daughter: "No say China! Say AMERICA!! No say China!"

Our home in not a staunch Republican household. I did not even vote for Bush (or Kerry). For some reason my daughter thinks America is some mystical place other than where she lives. It is a place where her friends live and it a magical land full of lollipops and toy stores.

Looking Below Not Above

Do not fix your gaze on one who has become wealthier than you, but on the one who is below you.

(Orchos Chaim L'HaRosh #59)

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Slave To The Details - Pesach Stringencies

Around this time each year people discuss the issues surrounding stringencies on Pesach. All of a sudden they start dealing with things at an atomic level, dissecting each and every molecule of food to make sure that an invisible speck of chometz never came into contact with it. It is possible for a person with this narrow focus to get so caught up in the myriad of details that he forgets that Hashem took his ancestors out of Mitzrayim, and that this is what we are celebrating on Pesach.

We rarely find a person being so exacting when it comes to correcting the deficiencies of his own neshoma. All of a sudden the person stops being a nuclear scientist and contents himself on being an average "C" science student. He loses all his attention to detail. The reason this happens is because when it comes to halachic stringencies many times there is also an aspect of "show". Rabbi Eliyahu Chaim Rosen once asked, "Why is it that people always choose to be stringent in those areas where others can find out about it? Wouldn't it be far better to be strict with oneself in such matters as slander, additional Torah study, greater concentration in prayer…"

The words below from Sichos HaRan #235 speak for themselves. It is surprising that this guidance is not printed or referenced in the introduction of every sefer that deals with the halachos of Pesach. These words are a reminder to always keep the big picture in mind:

"The Rebbe was also very much against all the special stringencies that are observed on Pesach. Many people went so far in observing many fine points of custom that they were literally depressed by the holiday. He spoke about this at length. One of his followers once asked the Rebbe exactly how to act with regard to an ultra-stringent observance. The Rebbe made a joke of it.

The Rebbe spoke about this quite often. He said that these ultra-strict practices are nothing more than confused foolishness. He told us that he had also been caught up in this and would waste much time thinking up all sorts of unnecessary restrictions. Once he worried about the drinking water used during Pesach. He was afraid that a small amount of leaven might have fallen into the well from which they drew water. The only alternative would be to prepare water in advance for the entire Pesach week, as some people do. But this was also not good enough, for the water had to be carefully safeguarded from leaven from the day before Pesach, and this was very difficult.

The Rebbe finally came to the conclusion that the only satisfactory water would be that drawn from a flowing spring just as it emerges from the ground. He could then obtain perfectly fresh water without any possibility of its being contaminated. The problem was that the only such spring in the area was very far from his home. He thought about traveling to a place near a spring and spending Pesach there.

This is an example of how deeply the Rebbe had become involved in such unnecessary strictness. But now he ridiculed this and taught that such ultra-strictness is unnecessary, even on Pesach.

When the Rebbe spoke about this, he continued, 'True devotion consists mainly of simplicity and sincerity. Pray much, study much Torah, do many good deeds, do not worry yourself with unnecessary restrictions. Just follow the way of our forefathers. 'The Torah was not given to the ministering angels.'"

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Cognitive Dissonance

Those who smoke cigarettes know that smoking will eventually kill them.

Those who suffer from heart problems yet continue to eat unhealthy foods and refrain from exercising know that this too will eventually kill them.

Those who transgress mitzvos yet understand that Hashem created the world and commanded us to fulfill His Torah know that their actions only distance themselves from Him.

Rather than changing their route all of these people continue to trod down the path of cognitive dissonance.

They know, but at times they choose not to know.

Note: I am making an observation that is certainly applicable to myself. I do not claim to be anywhere near perfect.

Reasoning Against Truth

I have but one request; may I never use my reason against truth.

(Rebbe of Yechiel Michel of Zlotchov)

Friday, April 22, 2005

From The Pesach Archives - The Lesson of the Simple Son

* Below is a piece that I wrote for Pesach 5761 (2001) before the days of the "A Simple Jew" blog.

The Lesson of the Simple Son

The Simple Son is one of the most overlooked sons in the Haggadah. He does not have a dominant part as do the Wise Son and the Wicked Sons.

Who is wise? He who learns from every person. (Pirkei Avos 4:1). Thus, there are lessons one can learn from the Simple Son.

Today the term "simple" has a negative connotation. When we say that a person is "simple", it usually means that we regard the person as naive, unsophisticated, or unintelligent.

There are many chassidic stories that honor the simple person and his pure of intentions. Rebbe Nachman of Breslov placed great emphasis on the quality of simplicity. He instructed his chassidim, "Do not complicate matters.This only leads one to deviate from the truth. Above all else, keep it SIMPLE!"

The Torah does not give the term "simple" a negative connotation. Yaakov himself was referred to as an ish tam, a simple person. Rashi explains that ish tam, or being "simple" means that one's mouth is like one's heart; that he is straightforward and does not project an image which is not his true self.

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, commented that the Hebrew text of the Haggadah, mah hu omer (what does he say?) can also be rendered as "what he is, he says." He further explained that "What a person says expresses who he is."

More important than the question itself, is the reason or motivation behind the question. There is always a reason or hidden agenda why a person asks a question. A perfect example of this is the Wicked Son's question, "Of what purpose is this work to you?" The Wicked Son is asking a rhetorical question in order to mock rather than to inquire.

The Simple Son, however asks his question out of a sincere desire to learn. He does not search out the answer as does the Wise Son, he simply asks, "What is this?"

The Simple Son's question is the first step to educating himself. He realizes that if he does not ask, he will always remain ignorant like his other brother who is known as the Son Who Is Unable to Ask.

"With a strong hand did Hashem take us out of Egypt, from the house of bondage." This is the answer given to the Simple Son. Why is he answered in this manner? What practical guidance is he supposed to take from this?

This verse not only refers to the coercion of Pharaoh, but even more to the Jews themselves who had begun to get used to the conditions which they lived under. A person's ability to acclimate himself to any condition can become a very negative thing. A prisoner let out of prison after many years will often find himself missing his prison cell. He accustomed himself to his structured routine and misses it when granted his freedom.

Complacency prevents progress. Nothing can be gained from sitting still. The Talmud relates, "Idleness leads to sinfulness and insanity." (Kesubos 39b).

The Simple Son is told that whereas his purity of intention is admirable and should always be retained, he should not get used to Egypt by becoming complacent with his current level. The Simple Son is encouraged to continue asking questions, continue learning, so he himself becomes the Wise Son.

The lesson of the Simple Son can be followed by each one of us. Keep asking questions, keep learning, and don't become complacent.

If not now, when?

Defining Humility

One who denies one's strengths is not humble, but rather a fool.

(Rabbi Leib Chasman)

Thursday, April 21, 2005

Focusing On The Physical

Pesach is a holiday that some people anticipate with dread, concentrating only on its physical aspects, whether it is the cleaning or the prohibitions against eating certain foods. Some people cannot put aside their desires for these foods for a mere eight days. They consider it a tremendous act of self sacrifice. How can one live without a bagel? How can one live without a slice of pizza? ...for eight days?!

Our children can immediately perceive our attitudes and moods. We do not even have to utter a single word for them to decipher whether we value truly this holiday. If our children perceive that we regard Pesach as a burden are they going to view it any differently? Are we passing on to our children a heritage of anxiety, misery, and depression?

We may be out of Mitzrayim but our continual focus on the physical turns us into slaves of gashmius.

In the golus of Mitzrayim only 1/5 of the Jewish people were redeemed. If you were alive then, would you have been one of these people?

Rebbe Baruch of Medzhebuz's Kol Chamira

Any chometz in my possession which I did or did not see, which I did or did not destroy, shall be nullified and become ownerless as the dust of the earth. - declaration made after burning the chometz

"Any chometz" - all selfish tendencies

"in my possession" - surely, they exist within my soul

"which I did or did not see" - I think I have seen them, but, in truth, I have not seen them

"which I did or did not destroy" - I think I have destroyed them, but in truth I have not destroyed them.

"shall be nullified and become ownerless as the dust of the earth." - May You, Hashem, nullify them and destroy them.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Sensing What Cannot Be Seen

The leather retzuos of my old tefillin became soft and comfortable after more than a decade of use. Comfort alone, however, was not a reason to continue to use them each morning, never seeking to acquire a better pair.

Despite the stiffness of the new leather retzuos, I could immediately sense that my new tefillin were super-charged with kedusha when putting them on for the first time Tuesday morning. My neshoma instantly responded to them, sensing what could not be seen. I felt an immediate connection to Hashem with them on my arm and on my head. I also felt as if I could sense the tremendous emuna of the sofer.

In an e-mail Rabbi Brody wrote, "I can't even begin to describe what's inside each letter of those tefillin parshias."

I consider it an incredible zechus to have such a pair of tefillin. I will cherish them for my entire life.

Gush Katif Links

The Gush Katif Hagaddah includes the traditional Seder and many new additions * Commetary by the Rabbis of Gush Katif * Pictures of the Gush Katif area * A collection of the miracles experienced by the residents of Gush Katif in the last 4 years.

The Hagaddah is in Hebrew and is published in Kfar Darom.


Give tzedakah to help our Jewish brothers and sisters in Gush Katif this Pesach via Friends of Gush Katif

More On Genealogy

Today, the study of one's roots has become quite fashionable. One may discover that his ancestors came from Edelfingen, Pshemishel, Izmir, or wherever else one's investigations may lead. I once had a visitor who, after telling me of his own very important yichus, asked me about mine. My response was, "My yichus is that I come from very honest people, whose 'yes' meant 'yes', and whose 'no' meant 'no; and who always gave to the Torah, and never took from it."

(Rabbi Shimon Schwab)

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

A Beatiful New Pair of Tefillin

I started putting money aside in 2000 in order to save enough for a new pair of tefillin. At that time I didn't know exactly what I was looking for. I only knew that I wanted a nicer pair of tefillin than the pair I brought back with me from Israel eleven years before.

I never imagined that one day I would actually meet the person who would write the parshios for my new tefillin but I am extremely grateful that I did.

When I met Rabbi Lazer Brody in January he showed me the beautiful pair of tefillin that he uses. Many people might not know it, but Rabbi Brody is also a sofer. He writes mezuzos, tefillin, and sifrei Torah in order to earn his parnossa. Besides writing the parshios for his own tefillin he even wrote a Sefer Torah for the Melitzer Rebbe in Israel.

The image of Rabbi Brody's beautiful tefillin remained in my memory for some time afterwards.

The Chofetz Chaim once remarked that "the most important element of tefillin is neither the professionalism nor the style of the writing, but rather the level of yiras shamayim, awe of G-d, of the individuals writing the text and making the tefillin; which no one, not the consumer, the examiner, nor even the most learned rabbi can see."

Having met Rabbi Brody, I knew that he would be the perfect sofer for my new tefillin. At the end of February I commissioned him to write the parshios and personally hand-select a beautiful set of battim. I davened every day for him to be matzliach and waited patiently until they were complete. Rabbi Brody meticulously attended to all the details relating to the parshios and battim and conducted business with complete integrity.

Last Thursday he sent the completed tefillin to me via UPS from Jerusalem and I davened for them to arrive safely. With the aid of UPS's package tracking technology I tracked my tefillin as they made their way across the Atlantic Ocean. The UPS truck finally pulled up in front of my home yesterday and I was delighted to finally have the new tefillin in my hands. They were certainly worth the wait!

In Likutey Moharan 54:3, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught, "Every day, G-d grants us signs, showing us the way of truth. Through tefillin you can attain the wisdom to recognize these signs." May it be Hashem's will that I be able to recogize these signs with the beautiful new tefillin from Rabbi Lazer Brody.

Baal Shem Tov Teaching On Tefillin

It is told in the name of the Baal Shem Tov that the mitzvah of tefillin is so holy it can bring man to a yearning that will make him depart this world. He must therefore bind them with straps, holding body and soul together.

(Sefer Baal Shem Tov)

Monday, April 18, 2005

Today's Pesach Preparation E-mail Correspondence With My Wife

Wife: "[10 month-old son] got a hold of a bag of pretzels in [Two-year old daughter's] room and shook it out all over her bed. I need help vacuuming it up..."

Me: "Sounds like a chometz nightmare to me ;)"

Wife: "Yes...that is what I thought."

Me: "Maybe he should play with shmurah matzah next time..."

Vacation Glow

How long does it take one to lose the glow, the feeling of refreshment after being on vacation?

I don't know exactly at what moment the vacation glow completely vanishes. It appears that it is a cumulative affect that occurs after getting one task after another at work. The glow fades so slowly that makes it almost imperceptible to pin-point the rate at which it is fading. I returned to work last Tuesday and by Friday it seemed like I had never been away.

It is unrealistic to believe that you can sustain the vacation glow indefinitely. I understand that the true value of a vacation is the opportunity to take a step outside the day-to-day routine and look at life with greater perspective.

Through Simplicity

Even in the depths of our spiritual decline, in the bitterness of exile, there are paths of simplicity which we may derive new life. Through simplicity we can find a straight path and spiritual direction - for it is possible to find G-d in every place and all situations, no matter how far we may have fallen.

(Reb Noson of Breslov)

Sunday, April 17, 2005

His Favorite And Mine - Yosef Karduner

My 10-month old son is very excited that his favorite artist, Yosef Karduner, has released a new CD. Whenever I have a difficulty getting my son to sleep I put on a Yosef Karduner CD. He will start to calm down immediately upon hearing Karduner's voice. My lil' tzaddik is usually sound asleep after about four or five songs. Needless to say, I just ordered the new CD. It wouldn't surprised me if grows up to be a Breslover chassid.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Stumbling Over My Own Brain

During the course of a normal day my mind is active and comes up with ideas to blog about. While I was on vacation spending time my children for the entire day I found it was extremely difficult to conjure up enough mental energy to sit down and write. Most of the time I was just too tired and wanted to take a nap at the earliest opportunity.

Other than waking up early to learn, I felt a certain mental stagnation during the day since caring for my children was an all-consuming activity. I truly enjoy spending time with them but I cannot say that my brain is fully engaged. Can a person honestly say that he is intellectually stimulated after spending hours caring for both a toddler and an infant? Those who answer that they can are apparently on a much higher parenting level than I am.

Some people commented that intelligence is not necessarily a stumbling block.

Maybe it is only a stumbling block for me.

Inverse Proportions

Cynicism and happiness occur in inverse proportions. The greater the cynicism, the smaller the happiness.

(Rabbi Yissocher Frand)

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Simple Davening

When you daven every day it becomes a challenge to put your entire heart into it. The Gemara in Berachos 32b teaches that davening is indeed something that one must continually strengthen oneself in.

Over my vacation I finally discovered a very simple method to keep myself focused. Before I begin davening I say to myself, "Hashem hears every word". I keep repeating this in my mind when my thoughts start to wander and I begin to mindlessly speed-read the words of the siddur. The words "Hashem hears every word" help me slow down and refocus on what I am doing.

It is amazing how powerful one's davening becomes when using this method, knowing that He is listening.

Whoever prays today because he prayed yesterday - A totally wicked man is better than he.

(Kotzker Rebbe)

To A Good Friend

It's very good to speak out your heart to G-d as you would speak to a true good friend.

(Rebbe Nachman of Breslov)

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Happiness Is Not A Location

While on vacation I continued thinking about this.

We vacationed in a place with the ocean, palm trees, beautiful weather, and even more beautiful scenery. It was refreshing to be outside in this wonderful environment and away from the drudgery of the work world.

While this was a beautiful place to visit, it is not a place where I could live or even stay for an extended period of time. Physically it was beautiful, but in reality it was a very dark golus. It was a place that could be suffocating for a person who sensitive to the needs of his neshoma. It was also not a place where one could easily or successfully bring up Jewish children.

It is unfortunate that there are not more places where one could live that are both physically and spiritually beautiful.

I realize that perhaps I am meant to live here until Moshiach comes.

What Does Your Home Say About You?

The walls of a person's house testify regarding his character.

(Talmud - Taanis 11a)

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Merit on the "Man Bench"

When my wife and I were still dating I didn't mind going to stores or shopping malls. At one time I even used to go into the stores with her rather than sit outside on the "man bench". Now, there are few things I enjoy less than wasting my time by going shopping. I am thankful for the internet since I can buy almost anything I need without leaving my home.

Before leaving for our vacation I took Akiva's recommendation and bought a small MP3 player that could easily fit in my pocket. I also purchased some MP3 CDs from Shuvu Bonim and downloaded a few hours worth of Rabbi Nassan Maimon's Likutey Moharan shiurim. With my new MP3 player tucked away in my pocket during our vacation, I suggested to my wife that we go to the small boutiques to shop while my parents watched the kids.

My wife enjoyed looking in all the shops for a few hours while I sat and waited patiently outside in the beautiful weather. In the end everyone was happy.

I sure wish I knew about this technology earlier that allowed me to find the merit on the "man bench".

Patience in Learning Torah

That is the biggest test a Jew has in learning Torah - patience. You don’t swallow it all in one day. Today you take a sip. Tomorrow you take a sip. ...and if you have that attitude a person will never imagine how far he will be zoche to get.

(Rabbi Nasan Maimon)