Thursday, January 31, 2008

Question & Answer With Rafi G. - Shechita & Reincarnation

(Painting by Nat Dickinson)

A Simple Jew asks:

Commenting on Shemos 22:30, וְאַנְשֵׁי-קֹדֶשׁ, תִּהְיוּן לִי; וּבָשָׂר בַּשָּׂדֶה טְרֵפָה לֹא תֹאכֵלוּ, לַכֶּלֶב תַּשְׁלִכוּן אֹתוֹ. (Be holy people to Me. Do not eat flesh mangled in the field. Cast it to the dog), Me' am Lo'ez states,

"The wording of the verse is somewhat difficult to understand. The verse is speaking of a "mangled animal" (tereifa, טרפה), which is a feminine noun. We would expect the Torah to use the feminine word othah (אותה) for "it" in the phrase, 'throw it (othah) to the dog." Why does the Torah use the masculine otho (אותו)?

This alludes to the teaching that if a shochet does not slaughter animals properly, causing his fellow Jews to eat non-kosher meat, he is reincarnated as a dog and suffers accordingly. When the Torah literally says, 'throw him (otho) to the dog,' it is referring to such a slaughterer."

As a shochet who takes his responsibility and work extremely seriously, what is you thought about this severity of this teaching?

Rafi G. of Life In Israel responds:

That pshat from the Me'am Lo'ez is frightening. I just finished reading a book that described Judaism in the early part of the 20th century in the USA. The book described some of the conflicts and issues Jewish communities had to deal with at the time, when survival was very difficult.

A very large part of the discussion revolved around shechita and kashrus issues in general. The issues they had to deal with were awesome, considering what Judaism has achieved since then. They were struggling for basic survival as a community and had to deal with the great temptations of sweeping things under the rug in order to earn a meager living (true, some were doing it to make a lot of money as well). There were stories of shochtim and mashgichim who were covering up treifos and declaring them kosher, either because they were worried about losing their jobs, or because of other pressures.

I am not judging them, as there is nothing I can possibly experience that will simulate the hardships they had to contend with. There is no way I can understand the real pressures they were under to keep problems quiet, but I should point out that these great pressures that caused many to be nichshal also show how great and how much integrity the other shochtim who dealt honestly had and withstood those pressures.

The temptation to be machshir treifos is great. There is little oversight and it is easy to slip a treifa through the system declaring it kosher. No shochet, from my little experience, wants the animals coming under his knife to be treifos. Everyone wants to be successful, shochtim included, and want all his shechitas to be kosher.

Unfortunately, we are all human and not every shechita is going to come out perfect. Shochtim have bad days like anybody else. They are tired from working long hours, their senses could be dulled, they might be pressured to shecht too fast, or a myriad of other reasons why a shochet might have a bad day and a shechita might be no good, aside from the financial pressures of having to be matrif an animal that could cause hundreds to thousands of dollars of loss to the owner.

The shochet who gives in to those pressures and declares a treifa to be kosher and is thereby being "maachil treifos l'Yisroel" is doing a horrible misdeed. He is taking advantage of a trust placed in him by the jewish people. Such a shochet should be thrown to the dogs, because of his abusing our trust. That statement in the Torah as explained by the Me'am Lo'ez shows how serious a breech it is, and I think it is because of the trust we place in the shochet and the ease with which he can subvert it.

We should, however, focus on something else. The shochet who withstands those pressures. He is a tzaddik y'sod olam. He is, at great sacrifice to himself and under great pressure, staying faithful to that trust. He is helping Klal Yisrael fulfill the mitzvos of keeping kosher. The temptations and the ease with which he could do otherwise, make his reward all that much greater.

"Harnessing Academia As An Aspect Of My Avodat HaShem"

Our Gifts

Each person should judge his life according to his own gifts and abilities, without considering the potential of another. Each of us must discover our own unique goal and mission in life.

(Rabbi Yaakov Meir Shechter)

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Eizer L'Shabbos - Winter Emergency Campaign

(Painting by Anna Kheifetz)

Rabbi Rosenberg's phone continues to ring off the hook. Each story he hears is more heartbreaking than the next, especially during these difficult winter months.

A man confined to a wheelchair without legs doesn't have any money for food.

A family with nine children doesn't even have a slice of bread to share amongst them. Their twelve year-old son's growth has been stunted due to malnourishment and he has been asking others, "Daven for me that I should grow."

A family lacking the money necessary to pay the electricity bills is sitting shiva for the loss of their child in an freezing cold apartment.

Please consider sending a minimum of $50 to Eizer L'Shabbos to help a family in Tsfat who is suffering this winter.

Tax-deductible donations can be sent to:

Eizer L'Shabbos
5014 16th Avenue, Suite 319
Brooklyn, NY 11204

Question & Answer With Treppenwitz - Writing Tips

(Picture courtesy of

A Simple Jew asks:

You have an absolutely uncanny skill to write brilliant posting after brilliant blog posting. What critical elements do you think are necessary to write compelling postings that resonate with your readers? How are you able to maintain the consistency and passion to keep writing?

David of Treppenwitz answers:

First of all, thank you for the compliment. But to be clear, we're talking about things that are both complex and subjective... so for clarity's sake I'll try to break your question down into manageable bits:

"Brilliant": Very nice of you, but that is perhaps the most subjective element of all. There are plenty of people who find my writing repetitive, obtuse and even offensive. Though why anyone would come back more than once to read stuff they find boring or offensive is beyond me.

"Compelling": Early on I decided to write only about things I cared deeply about and/or about which I had more knowledge than the typical reader. After all, nobody wants to read about something that the writer doesn't care about, or about which the blogger is unqualified to write. So I pick topics that I care about; my family, my home, my country... the 'situation'.

"Resonate": It is terribly important to pay attention to what gets readers nodding along... and what turns them off. This isn't to say that I only pander to people's interests, but on any given day there are hundreds of things I could write about. Most days I make a conscious decision to write about things that that interest me... but which also resonate with the majority of the people who read the site.

"Your Readers": There's no such thing. Even the most loyal, dedicated fan of a particular blog rarely stays around forever. People's interests change. Their available time and access to the Internet change. Your writing style and/or content will change. New blogs appear that may be more their cup of tea. In short, while a site may have a lot of repeat traffic, the writer has to be aware of constant influx of new readers (who need background info on ongoing discussions and/or previous posts), and an equally constant attrition of old readers who, for whatever reason have drifted away. A lot of internal citation (i.e. referring/linking to old posts that are relevant to the current topic) is helpful to make newcomers feel like insiders. And an awareness of changing tastes/trends among long-time readers (based on comments and email) may help slow the process of losing them.

"Consistency": Ralph Waldo Emerson once said "Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds." I couldn't agree more. In fact even a writer who is consistently good/interesting can wear a reader out. It is for this reason I like to take chances... and occasionally crash & burn. I have no problem writing a wrong-headed rant, because I am equally prepared to eat my words when I've had a chance to calm down. I get the sense that readers are pretty willing to forgive (or at least overlook) short-comings and flaws in a blogger so long as the writer provides a mixed bag of content... and owns up to occasionally being an idiot.

"Passion": If a writer isn't passionate about a topic, the reader won't be either. I delete a lot of posts because I couldn't even convince myself of their worth/relevance. A writer needs to know when they are 'phoning it in' and when to use the delete key. But by the same token, being overly passionate can sometimes burn people out. I'm guilty of this with my political posts... which is why I try not to have too many in a short space of time. I'm not always successful at this... which is probably the biggest reason I've lost readers.

"Keep writing": This two word sentence is the secret to blogging/journaling. Writing is like any other activity in that you probably won't be able to do it well unless you do it a lot. Those who write a post every few weeks and sit back waiting for inspiration to strike are usually the ones who abandon their sites within a relatively short time. I'm actually shocked that Treppenwitz has been around for over four years now. I don't have any particular plans for how long I'll keep it going. But so long as people continue to show up, I'll probably keep writing.

Thanks for lending me the soapbox.

No Longer Receiving Vitality From The Gimel Klippos Temeyos

(Picture by Pat Anderson)

Rabbi Dovid Sears commenting on "A Waiting Controversy":

This is a very mysterious distinction. We observe many Jews who seem to be quite "unspiritual" and unenlightened, many non-Jews who seem to be highly spiritual and wise, with every possible combination in the middle.

I think the key to this mystery is the Zohar's teaching, which is explained by Rav Chaim Vital, that one internalizes the various higher levels of the soul through Torah and avodah and acts of chesed, etc. Then these divine potentials become part of who "we" are in the here and now.

Same thing for gentiles. If they are pursuing materialistic goals, the nefesh is what animates them and their approach to life. If they are morally and spiritually advanced, they receive higher capacities.

Thus, one who observes the Noachide laws (i.e., who is a moral person in the most basic sense) no longer receives his or her vitality from the Gimel Klippos Temeyos but from the next higher level; and on and on.

As Tanna Devei Eliyahu states in the name of Hashem: "I will put My spirit on anyone, Jew or gentile, man or woman, slave or handmaid -- it all depends upon one's deeds!"

The Tiferes Yisrael (Rabbi Yisrael Lifshutz, 19th century) also takes a more inclusive stance, counting those who benefit humanity among the "chasidei umos ha-olam," righteous gentiles, apparently even if they are not so perfect in heeding all of the Noachide laws. (For example, I don't think Sir Francis Drake, whom he lauds for introducing the potato to Europe, thus saving millions of people, was such a paragon of virtue in other areas of his life.)

As in almost all things in Judaism, there is a range of views about this issue. As Rav Moshe Cordovero states again and again, citing numerous referents, God cares for all of His creatures, all have worth in His sight, and we are supposed to emulate that divine love. Rav Chaim Vital says the same thing. Ditto Rav Pinchos Eliyahu of Vilna, author of Sefer HaBris. Ditto Rav Kook, and countless others. If all non-Jews were "monsters," how could be encouraged to love and respect them?

As for "true altruism" -- how many of us ever do anything that is purely unselfish? The saintly Chofetz Chaim berated himself that he was not free from the least taint of self-concern -- how much more does this reproach apply to the rest of us?


Nothing was as hard for me as working against falsehood. It took me thirteen years, and it broke every bone and organ in my body, but I finally managed to overcome it.

(Rebbe Pinchas of Koretz)

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Question & Answer With Dixie Yid - Balancing Roles

(Picture courtesy of

A Simple Jew asks:

On a few occasions, I have witnessed examples of working fathers still attempting to play the role of traditional nuturing mother because of their distate to sometimes have to play the stricter masculine role that a father is often required to play. Instead providing the counterbalance of gevura, this type of father will attempt to replicate chesed exhibited by the mother so he never has to be viewed as the "mean" parent. Rachel Arbus once wrote, "Parents need not act in the same manner - but they must have similar philosophies and a common goal."

Do you think it is possible that a chesed-chesed type of parenting style can ever be successful? Also, do you think it would be possible that a chesed-gevura parenting style with flipped roles with the father as the chesed and mother as the gevura be successful?

Dixie Yid answers:

Actually, I think that I would turn your whole question on its head. Rather than assuming that the mother is the chesed (kindness) role and that the father is the discipline (gevurah) role, I would put those in reverse.

We know that kabbalisticly speaking, the male side is the side of chesed and the female side is the side of gevruah. This is seen in the relationship between Avraham and Sara, where Avraham was the constant manifestation of chesed, even to his son Yishmael, who was negatively influencing Yitzchak, his true spiritual heir. However, Sara was the "stricter" force of gevurah that knew when to say "no"

Also, in Tehillim 103:13, the pasuk says, "כְּרַחֵם אָב עַל-בָּנִים רִחַם ה עַליְרֵאָיו," "As a father has mercy on his children, so too may Hashem have mercy upon those who fear him." This pasuk identifies the father as the more merciful parent.

I see this same breakdown of traits in my own home as well. My wife is the one with a better sense of limits, a stronger gevruah side. Whereas I am the pushover, the one who the kids know they need to ask first, if they want to do something they know their mother would not allow. I think that I fall more on the chesed side not only because I am out of the house more than my wife (who also must unfortunately work), but also because that is my natural nature. I think that in our house, it is not the perfect balance. Since I do not take on the trait of midas hadin (strictness) too often, my wife feels that she has to compensate in the other direction, lest the children lose a proper sense of boundaries due to my indulgent nature.

In my home, we definitely have a chesed-gevurah dichotomy, but the problem our parenting is still not balanced enough. I lean too far to the chesed side, which in turn requires my wife to compensate by leaning farther to the gevurah side. The better plan would be for me to show more gevurah to balance out my trait of chesed.

I will admit, though, that the feeling of guilt for not being home enough due to work and law school, that you mentioned, still does apply in my case. And I think that this guilt explains why I am having a hard time balancing my exaggerated sense of chesed with some gevurah, and turning my chesed shebachesd into a gevurah shebachesed, where chesed is still the dominant trait, but where it is tempered with the right balance of gevurah which I lack.

As to your first question, I think that it would be difficult to be difficult for a chesed-chesed parenting style to be successful. I can't imagine how bad off my kids would be if they had two parents like me! One has to have a sense of Mishlei 13:24 "חוֹשֵׂךְ שִׁבְטוֹ שׂוֹנֵא בְנוֹ," "one who withholds the rod hates his child." The damage done by an unadulterated chesed parenting style from both sides would be great. This is exemplified by Yishmael, who was considered the psoles, the chaff of the Chesed-dominent parenting of Avraham Avinu.

May we all merit to have balance in our own lives and in our parenting!

"A Waiting Controversy"

(Painting by Ben Yehuda)

Yitz commenting on A Story About The Baal Shem Tov [Part II]:

There is a waiting controversy whenever anyone learns the first perek of the Tanya and reads that non-Jews have only an animal soul and no Godly soul. I want to illustrate this a little bit. We say about ourselves, as God said about us, that we are the Chosen people. We are meant to be a light to illuminate the nations.

Now let's look at something else: Children are born without a Godly soul. All they have is an animal soul. From birth until the age of mitzwoth (13 for boys, 12 for girls) they have only an animal soul. Parents are said to be their 'good inclination' a term which is analogous with 'Godly soul.' What's the point? The Godly soul is there to inform and educate and ultimately raise up the animal soul to the level of Godliness. The Godly soul is already perfect and complete in its goodness, hence the term 'Godly soul.'

Our job in this world involves mainly the animal soul. We are given a Godly soul to understand and enlighten ourselves to transcend the partially evil animal soul and bring out its inner goodness or light. The potential and the test of existence all dwell in the animal soul.

So, what do we mean when we say the non-Jews have only an animal soul? In my small and insignificant opinion, we are explaining the idea of the Jewish people being the light unto the nations in a practical parent-child relationship. It isn't that the non-Jews have no Godly soul. We are the Godly soul of the non-Jews. That is our role in this world. If our actions aren't good, then we aren't playing our role as the Godly soul which sets the standard by which the animal soul learns to act. If we don't do our job, then the responsibility of the actions of the non-Jewish nations falls squarely upon us. Just as the responsibility for a child's actions fall upon that child's parents.

To strengthen that point, it is only through the parental actions of our forefathers that we 'earned' a Godly soul. Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov earned for themselves their Godly souls and performed such otherworldly actions that they earned an inheritance of Godly souls for their children who follow after them.

Constructive Criticism

Criticism is truly constructive when it offers a feasible solution.

(Rabbi Avraham Pam)

Monday, January 28, 2008

Question & Answer With Rabbi Fishel Jacobs - A Story About The Baal Shem Tov [Part II]

(Picture courtesy of

A Simple Jew asks:

Today, I came across Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 162:10, which states:

"...She should also take care when leaving the mikvah that her friend should meet her and touch her, so that she not be met first by an unclean thing such as a dog, a donkey, a pig, a horse, a metzora, or similar things, or by a person, ignorant in Torah, and not G-d-fearing or a non-Jew. If any of these meet her first, if she is G-d-fearing, she will return and immerse again."

This halacha instantly made me recall the answer from Rabbi Dovid Sears about the story contained in Degel Machaneh Ephraim about the Baal Shem Tov being afraid to touch an Arab after immersing in a mikveh.

Is this story an example of the Baal Shem Tov extracting the essence of a halacha and observing it in his own way, even though it only applies to a woman?

Rabbi Fishel Jacobs answers:

The halacha regarding a woman not seeing something impure when leaving the mikveh is a well-known halacha.

1) I think you're correct. The intention behind this halachah is quite straightforward. It is, as you note, a matter of retaining the bitul, the purity brought about by immersion in the mikveh, to remain with the wife. Meeting these things first would, accordingly, cause an interruption, of sorts, to this state of purity.

Let's note that the power of sight (and thought) on the future children is brought in many places. As a matter of fact, I dedicated an entire section to it in my book, Family Purity. That section is titled: Power of Thought on the Offspring (pg.132).

I don't have the text from which that Ba'al Shem Tov's story is extracted in front of me, at this time. But reading it on your site, would seem to indicate that the Ba'al Shem Tov had the same reason for his behavior. Specifically to not allow anything to cause a cessation of the purity brought about by his immersion.

Yes, it seems that his behavior was in the same spirit of the halacha of a wife leaving the mivkeh. However, I wouldn't be surprised if he had "other" sources for his behavior.

Though not having the text in front of me, I still enjoy Rabbi Sears's eloquent explanation of the "cause and effect" elicited by the Ba'al Shem's behavior. Yasher koach.

2) It's interesting to note that the Ramo (198:48) only lists: "something impure or a non-Jew." The other things brought in the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch are mentioned in the Shach (198:61) which are: dog, donkey, a Jew ignorant of Torah, a pig, a metzorah. The Bodei Hashulchan (198:696) mentions: a cat.

In my sefer, Family Purity (pg. 125), this is our language: "When leaving the water, the 'Mikveh-lady' approaches and touches her. If she saw something impure first, for example a dog, cat, donkey, pig, or non-Jew, before seeing the 'Mikveh-lady' (or one of the other women in the mikveh even if she was niddah) ideally she should immerse again, if possible."

3) As an aside, I found one thing (perhaps two) dissimilar in this list. That is, the Jew ignorant of Torah (and perhaps the metzorah).

All the other things in this list, their bodies and souls, are drawn from shalosh kelipos hatmayos legomrei (three completely impure kelipos, שלש קליפות הטמאות לגמרי) [See the sixth chapter of Tanya].

On the other hand, the body of a Jew ignorant in Torah is from kelipos nogah (a kelipoh which has in it good, קליפת נוגה, first chapter of Tanya) and of course his soul is part of G-d (second chapter of Tanya).


Happy is the person who leaps over all the barriers to accomplish a holy task!

(Rebbe Nachman of Breslov)

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Black & White Picture Of The Week - Ice

"To Appreciate The Bigness Of The Small Acts"

(Picture courtesy of

Excerpt from One Baby Step at a Time: Seven Secrets of Jewish Motherhood:

Teacher Leah Golomb taught me another idea about how to commend ourselves for our teeny daily accomplishments. She told me that when she was engaged to her husband, she and her friend Dina stood together as Dina set out the white cloth she was going to use to make Leah's wedding dress. Dina took the scissors in her hand, and as she cut into the fabric she declared, "Le-shem mitzvat haknasat kallah" ("In honor of the mitzvah of marrying off the bride"). Leah describes how this simple statement moved her so much that it brought tears to her eyes, seeing how Dina's declaration transformed the mundane tasks of cutting and sewing and embroidering into mitzvot, infusing Dina with awareness of the holiness and greater purpose of what she was doing.

And we as mothers can do the same thing in order to appreciate the bigness of the small acts of our mothering lives. As I walk to pick up Dafna from kindergarten, I can say, "Le-shem mitzvat gemilut hasadim" ("In honor of the mitzvah of performing acts of lovingkindness") As I fry up scrambled eggs for dinner for the third time this week, I can whisper into the frying pan, "Le-shem mitzvat ve'ahavta le're-akha kamocha" ("In honor of the mitzvah of loving your neighbor as yourself") As I sew a button onto Tiferet's favorite Shabbat dress, I can declare to everybody in my household, "Le-shem yichud Kudsha Brikh Hu u-Shekhinteh" ("In order to unite the Holy One with the Divine Presence") - the mystical result of every good deed we perform.

Sounds silly? Probably. Will it work? It does for me. This is one of the best ways I have found to remain present throughout my day, and constantly (or at least occasionally aware) of the importance of the smallest acts of mothering kindness.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Guest Posting By Chabakuk Elisha - Av HaRachamim

(Painting by Yefim Rudminsky)

Not long ago, we read the Shiras Devorah – which is one of those haftoros that always gives me pause.

Generally, we read haftoros that are related in some way to the weekly parshah, and since the Shiras Hayam (Oz Yashir) is read that week, it makes sense that another famous shira be associated with it. Additionally, sifrei Kabbala state that Devora was a reincarnation of Tzippora, Moshe's wife, who was distressed at missing Krias Yam Suf and the singing at the sea. As a result, she was granted the opportunity to sing her own shira: Shiras Devorah – infamously labeled by Rabbi Adin Steinzaltz as "one of the most bloodthirsty in all the Bible".

"Through the window, the mother of Sisera looked forth and peered through the lattice, "Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the wheels of his chariots?" Her wisest ladies answer her; in fact she answers herself: 'Are they not finding and dividing the spoils: A maiden, two maidens for every man; a spoil of dyed garments to Sisera, a spoil of dyed garments of embroidery for the neck of the spoiler.' So may all your enemies perish, O Lord; but they that love Him should be as the sun when he goes forth in his might. And the land rested forty years."

This image of Sisera's mother at the window used to bother me greatly. The image of a mother worried about her son is a sympathetic one – one that inspires compassion; it troubled me that we even mention her at all. Sure, war is full of tragedy – and no more than sometimes a necessary evil – but what is this line here for? It seems so cold. Yet, indeed, this line is a great lesson: the foolishness of misplaced compassion. Sisra's mother is specifically mentioned here, and the verse highlights the irony: A mother, the very image of compassion, conjures up instant sympathy, but the verse continues to tell us what she is about, and displays how misplaced the sympathy truly is: She, the 'sympathetic' figure, finds great pleasure in the spoilage of her son's vanquished foe – in this case the Jewish people, and more specifically the defilement of Jewish women. It points out, quite strikingly, the error of thoughtless compassion. And over time I began to view this in the broader context of Jewish suffering and persecution throughout the eras. We pray to G-d for justice. We pray that the Divine order, basic right and wrong be revealed. And considering our history full of martyrs and persecution, this is done on surprisingly few occasions. In the Haggada, for instance, we find one such place with the prayer that "G-d should pour out his wrath upon those…that have devoured Jacob" – and this thought is mentioned only once in the entire Hagada. We daven for this on Shabbos too, with the tefiloh Av HaRachamim. And what is it that we are praying for? We pray for Divine justice and a future world of order – something that all people, even as infants, truly seek.

Some of you may remember that I once discussed how my favorite tefiloh was Nishmas. Since that time though, I find that the tefiloh "Av HaRachamim" has been running a close second:

"May the all-merciful Father who dwells in the supernal heights, in his profound compassion, remember with mercy the pious, the upright and the perfect ones, the holy communities who gave their lives for the sanctification of G-d's name. They were beloved and pleasant in their lives, and even in their death were not parted from Him; they were swifter than eagles, stronger than lions to carry out the will of their Maker and desire of their Creator.

May our G-d remember them with favor together with the other righteous of the world, and avenge the spilled blood of his servants, as it is written in the Torah of Moshe, the man of G-d: O nations, sing the praises of His people, for He will avenge blood of his servants. Bring retribution upon His foes, and placate His land – His people.

And by your servants the Prophets it is written: I will cleanse the nations of their wrongdoings, but for the shedding of blood I will not cleanse them; the Lord dwells in Zion. And in the Holy Writings it is said: Why should the nations say "Where is their G-d?" Let there be known among the nations, before our eyes, the retribution of the spilled blood for your servants.

And it is said: For the Avenger of bloodshed is mindful of them; He does not forget the cry of the downtrodden. Further it is said: He will render judgment upon the nations, and they will be filled with corpses; He will crush heads over a vast area. He will drink from the stream on the way; therefore Israel will hold its head high."

When I was younger I found this to be as depressing and troubling as the haftara of Sisera's mother; overly focused on tragedy and the negative. On top of that, I was bothered by the idea that we could be wishing for the downfall of others. However, as I matured and got to know enough firsthand stories of real pain and suffering it began to resonate. I no longer feel like the victim when I read it; I feel the desire to see G-d's plan, and G-d's order of creation. It's easy for a people who haven't had our history to say, "Cut the self-pity – move on," but it's not self-pity. Far from it. It's a deep longing for an end to the questions; it's a prayer for Redemption.

Clothing & Sensitivity

(Illustration by Yechiel Offner)

It is customary to say to a person who puts on a new garment, "May you wear it out and acquire a new one." But to someone who puts on new shoes or a new garment made out of fur or leather, even if the fur or leather is from an unclean animal and even if the fur or the leather are only used as lining, do not say, "May you wear it out and acquire a new one," because a new garment like this one requires killing of a living creature, and it is written, "And His mercies are on all His works."

(Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 59:13)

Entire Heart

One's entire heart should be filled with the words of his prayer.

(Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin)

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Guest Posting By Rabbi Shlomo Slatkin - The Pair of Tefillin

The Koidenover Rebbe, shlit"a
(Picture by Sender Schwartz/UMI)

I was always very curious about my roots and was the family genealogist. It wasn’t until I became frum that information about the past had any real bearing on my present and future.

By the end of my freshman year of college, I was already shomer Shabbos and shomer kashrus. The one thing I was missing was a pair of tefillin. I never received a pair of tefillin at my Bar Mitzvah and probably had put them on only once by a Lubavitcher at some type of Jewish festival. I was ready to spend my summer learning at a camp in Pennsylvania and knew that I needed to buy tefillin. I asked the Rabbi who gave a weekly shiur at my university if he could order me a pair and he asked me a question that would lead me down a most unusual path.

“How do you wrap your tefillin, in or out?”

I had no clue but I told him I would ask my grandfather who was in his 90’s and used to put on tefillin every day until he was in his mid-30’s. My grandfather showed me how to put on tefillin. Although our family was from Minsk, not the most Chasidish place, our minhag was to wrap “out” and not to make a shin on the hand. He said that his father taught him how to put on tefillin and told him that everybody does it the other way, and we do it this way. I told the rabbi my findings and he ordered me a pair of tefillin with a Sefard kesher. Although I was a little bothered by the lack of the shin, he said it wasn’t necessary. I began to get very curious. If Chasidim wrap out, does that mean we were Chasidim? Should I be davening Nusach Sefard? My grandfather was not able to help me on this one. His father came to America in the 1890’s and a lot of people adopted generic minhagim of the shul they attended. Besides tefillin, the only unique mesorah he passed down were nigunim for the Pesach Seder, nigunim which were not standard fare.

At this point, I was determined to begin a quest to find out if there were any Chasidim in Minsk. I asked anyone who I thought would have some clue. I got a slew of responses: “Why do you care? Just do what everyone else does.” “All because you wrap out doesn’t mean your family davened Sefard.” “There were no Chasidim in Minsk.” The truth is that while many people may have changed their nusach hatefillah, 99.9% of Ashkenazim who wrap out would also have davened Sefard. And there were Chasidim in Minsk. After I looked in a Lubavitch minhagim sefer and saw the way they put on tefillin, I thought for a week that I might actually be Lubavitch. Anyway, while this search was going on and I was davening Ashkenaz, I happened to have connected with someone in my home town (another great hashgacha pratis story but not for now) who davened at a local Chasidisher shtiebel. Whenever I was home from school I would stay with this friend for Shabbos. We started learning Nesivos Shalom, and I knew I had found the path for my neshama. Chassidus spoke to me, especially this sefer. I would carry it with me wherever I went. (This was about twelve years ago, before it became so popular).

One year and a half later, Hashem had some interesting plans in store for me. I was selected among a group of students to spend my junior year in Oxford University in England. I didn’t actually want to go but I applied anyway to humor my parents. I was accepted and knew there was some reason why I had to go there. I continued asking people in England about Minsk until I met a Chasidisher Rov in London who put me in touch with a shliach from the Stoliner Rebbe who used to live in Minsk. He had returned to America and was living in Monsey. I was excited. Perhaps he knew the history of Minsk. Maybe he even met someone with my last name. I called him on the phone and it turns out that his aunt’s mother’s maiden name was Slatkin and they were from Minsk. He said they were Koidenover Chasidim. What was Koidenov? I had never heard of it. I found a book in Oxford’s Oriental Institute Library called HaChassidus HaLitais (Lithuanian Chasidism) which had a map of the region and showed which Chasidim were in each town. Minsk hosted Koidenov and Slonim. I also made friends with a Slonimer Chasid in London who had also heard of Koidenov. Anyway, the Rabbi from Monsey told me to call him in a few weeks and he would try to find out more information from his aunt. I attempted to reach him and was unable. For some reason, I never bothered calling him again, yet I was still quite curious. I finished my year at Oxford and returned to the U.S. for my senior year in college. About a year later, we hosted a Shabbaton at the university with a Rosh Yeshiva and two bochurim from Monsey. One of the bochurim used to attend our university. I asked him if he knew this Rabbi in Monsey and said that his father was their Rebbi in yeshiva. A month later, I went to Monsey for spring break to learn and to meet their Rebbi. The Rebbi gave me his sister-in-law’s phone number and I called her. I explained that my great grandfather was named Chaim Noach and he lived in Baltimore….. “Uncle Chaim from Baltimore!,” she exclaimed. At that moment I knew. Her grandfather, “Zeide Yosef”, was Uncle Joe. My grandfather had told me about Uncle Joe and we knew he had five children but we had completely lost contact with his family. I started singing the Pesach nigunim, and, of course, they were the same. My long-lost cousin was the wife of a prominent Rosh Yeshiva of a Chasidishe yeshiva in New York. She told me that the Slatkins were Koidenover Chasidim and that her grandmother, my great great grandmother used to bake the yud beis challos for the Koidenover Rebbe. I couldn’t believe it. I thought maybe I would track down information linking us to a particular Chassidus but to find frum cousins was beyond my imagination. Although I had wanted to daven nusach Sefard for awhile, I told myself that if I ever found out my minhagim, then I would switch. I didn’t want to do something generic if I had the option of following in the path of my family. I spoke to my cousins right before Purim and I did not wind up meeting them until after Pesach. In the interim, I started davening nusach Sefard on Shabbos haGadol. I was excited to learn more about Koidenov and I was able to have seforim transferred to the university library from Yeshiva University. As I graduated, I was looking forward to going to Eretz Yisroel to yeshiva in Elul. I would finally have the opportunity to meet the Koidenover Rebbe.

On my first off Shabbos from yeshiva, I went to join my cousins in Bnei Brak. Erev Shabbos, my cousin took me to meet the Rebbe. He opened the door and welcomed me in. I told him about my family and how my great-grandfather was a Koidenover chasid and he exclaimed “v’dor har’vii yashuvu ad hena,” and the fourth generation will return here (Bereishis 15:16). I had come home and received a royal welcome. The Rebbe invited me to daven at his bais medrash Shabbos morning and share the seudah with his family. I told him about my journey and started learning about the minhagim. I even got to see the Koidenover siddur, which is what all of the Lithuanian Chassidim used to use (Stolin and Slonim) before they made their own siddurim. One of the most astonishing realizations for me was that Koidenov came from Karlin/Stolin and Lechovitch and that Slonim actually came from Lechovitch and Koidenov. The derech I was so drawn to in the Nesivos Shalom, the one that brought me towards chassidus, was actually the path of my zeides. I was finally home.

I became a ben bais by the Rebbe, spending many Shabbosim and Yomim tovim. He was m’sader kiddushin at my wedding and recently performed the upsherin for my son. It has been an amazing experience and I know that it is only beginning. As the Rebbe is rebuilding what was once a giant Chassidus in White Russia and Lithuania, many of us old Koidenovers have come out of the woodwork in America. It is a zchus for us to help revive what was so much a part of our family’s lives.

While I have heard plenty of Rabbis “specializing” in baalei teshuva, encouraging people to follow the generic yeshiva minhag, I feel very strongly about reconnecting with the past. Many baalei teshuva were able to become frum precisely because they didn’t follow the masses. They were able to see what they thought was truth and to choose that despite the popular trend. Therefore, imposing one brand of yiddishkeit on such a person is often a recipe for disaster. Continuing in the ways of my ancestors, helps ground me. It gives me a path, not just some random nusach or minhagim from Artscroll. I guess conformity doesn’t run in my blood if my family became Chasidim in the hotbed of hisnagdus. Minhagim allows for some individuality within the framework of halacha, in a society which is very much about conforming. Finally, it helps give me a sense that I am not just coming out of nowhere, but that I am merely returning to something we took a break from for a few generations. There is a sense of continuity. It helps that I was drawn to Chassidus. I am not suggesting that people must research and follow their family’s minhagim. What I am saying is that it should be an option or even a suggestion for those who are starting out, instead of the common discouraging attitude. Imagine if the Rabbi from college did not asked me how we wrapped tefillin. He could have ordered me a regular pair with an Ashkenaz kesher, yet his one question sparked a search which eventually ignited my neshama. Everyone must find their own path that works for them. While people can get carried away with minhagim and forget about the essentials, I believe that minhagim establish the rhythm of our lives and are a precious heritage to bequeath to our children. I have many more thoughts about this in light of posts by A Simple Jew and Dixie Yid, but that could be for another time.


Sometimes Hashem answers before they call, and sometimes when they are still speaking.


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Question & Answer With Shoshannah Brombacher - Painting, Chassidic Stories, & Classical Music

A Simple Jew asks:

You have written that the main ingredients for your art include Chassidic stories and classical music. After painting such works as "Bach and the Sefirot", you obviously envision that these two worlds intersect at times. How do you think your artwork would be affected if you concentrated on only one of these elements to the exclusion of the other?

Shoshannah Brombacher answers:

Do I combine the two, like in my painting Bach and the Sefirot? Sure I do! Could I separate the two by make paintings that are ‘just’ Chassidic or ‘just ‘about music? I guess I could do that too. But until now, I did not really try it, and I am not planning to do that. It is not worth it for me. And it would take away the essence of my work. Let me explain.

While I am painting, I usually listen to classical music. I have been doing this since I can remember, when I was still living in my parents’ house in Holland. I grew up with Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms and Tchaikovsky, Baroque music and opera. We went to concerts. Of all the musical genres, I still like classical music the most. At University I spent a hefty part of my monthly stipend on a subscription to a series of classical piano performances by Alfred Brendel. That’s how important music is to me. Kosher food for Pesach (expensive here, but a fortune in Europe during the ‘80s), took another hefty piece out of those stipends. What was left over, was spent on books.

Most of my drawings have Jewish subjects. My heart is in that, and those subjects are on my mind, because I live them and study them. So, the classical music which I hear all the time in my mind and my aesthetic emotions are connected to the Jewish stories I read. When I made this drawing: Bach and the Sefirot, I had just attended a lecture about Sefirot, and had also recently met with a friend from Europe and talked about Bach. I listened to Bach’s music in my studio. The resulting artwork, which was inspired by both the lecture and Bach’s music, was presented to my European friend as a gift.

Another example is a Mozart drawing I made long ago during the ‘80s in Holland: The composer sits at the piano, and plays one of his beautiful piano concertos. In the background is a Dutch shul, in the top right corner a Seder, and the collage in the middle contains fragments of poems by the 17th century Sephardic poet, Rabbi Selomoh d’Oliveyra of Amsterdam. My father came into the room when I was making this, and asked me what I was doing. The Seder he understood, it was right before Pesach; the poetry he understood, because I was writing an article about that. But what, he asked, did Mozart, a gentile composer from Austria of all places, have to do with it?

For me, they all belonged to what I was occupied with at that time: Pesach, the shul, the poetry of Rabbi d’Oliveyra and the music I listened to, in this case: Mozart. I do not like to paint composers without my own elements in the drawing, without adding what is important for me. The lives of composers are much less inspiring to me than those of le-havdil, Chassidic rabbis. So when I make a portrait of a composer, I add scenes of cities where I lived or where I attended concerts, read books and thought thoughts, Chassidic stories, or experiences I had. Beethoven and Shabbos candles on the same canvas are very normal to me. Compare it to the niggunim, which were often derived from secular songs, like the Kalever niggun which was sung by Hungarian shepherds when the Kalever Rebbe heard it for the first time:

Niggunim express the soul, and so does music express my soul when I paint. I often listen to Breslover niggunim, or to compositions by Lewandowsky, but also to the cello sonatas of Brahms, or to Moscheles.

Some music will be forever connected to certain books or subjects in my mind. For instance, my mother had a record with the violin concertos of Mendelssohn and Bruch. They are beautiful. They are deeply emotional. I listened to it over and over while I was reading the story of the “Golem of Prague”, and later I made this painting:

I put a violin in it, which represents the music of Mendelssohn, even though the stories of the Golem which I read did not deal with music, or with Mendelssohn, or with violins for that matter. Years later I visited Prague, and I kept hearing the violin music in my head. Many of my Jewish paintings show violins or pianos. They accompany me wherever I go.

These three works: Bach and the Sefirot, Mozart, and The Golem are examples of a Jewish theme with classical music in it. Sometimes, I compose ‘pure’ music paintings, usually based on a certain composer, like Beethoven. Do they contain ‘Yiddishkeit’? Some do, and some don’t, as this is a rather subjective subject. I give you an example.

I created the following oil painting in behalf a fundraising auction for the Children’s Hearing Institute in New York City. Our son was born deaf. He uses a cochlear implant and B”H, excels academically in an Orthodox Yeshiva. He delivered a very meaningful and beautiful Bar Mitzvah speech a year ago and layned his parsha. If you hear him, you cannot tell that he is deaf. He enjoys listening to the cello sonatas of Bach and klezmer music, and to Beethoven. Soon after receiving his cochlear implant, our son required several years of intensive auditory training and speech therapy, which required me me to pick him up from school, bring him to Manhattan and back to Brooklyn, several times a week. I did not paint much then. There just wasn’t any time. But I never stopped thinking about painting.

His cochlear implant surgeon is the founder of this charitable institute. The choice for a painting was easy: Beethoven was a great composer, and he became deaf nearly two centuries before the idea of cochlear implants even existed. It must have been a painful disaster for him. He composed in his head. His famous Ninth Symphony he wrote, but never was able to hear it himself. He did not have the possibilities our son Yoni and thousands of others have. I called the work “The Spiral of Sound”, based on the shape of the cochlea in the ear and the growing amount of sounds an implanted person is able to hear. I also thought about my own situation: I do not hear well, it is getting worse, I would dearly miss my music, and that would affect my art. But in the worst (or best!) case I get a cochlear implant, too, and won’t have to miss a note from the Brandenburger Concertos.

There are no clear and obvious Jewish elements in this painting. But people who are familiar my work, will recognize the ‘water and fire’ which I use often, since in Gemara they are said to be the two components of heaven. They will also recognize my use of the four elements and the bridge (“Gesher Tzar Me’od”) which I include in much of my work. The musicians have ‘Jewish’ features and postures. Of course, this is open to everyone’s personal interpretation, but I heard it often. The “dancing mal’akhim”, are some of the same elements of this painting that appear in my major ‘Jewish’ works as well, such as the “Breslover Tikkun” (posted earlier on this blog), for which this was a sketch:

This painting is very representative for my style, but not for my subject matter, which is very ‘Jewish’.

I said earlier that I hear music in my head while I paint Jewish (or any other) subjects. But the reverse is also true. While I hear Beethoven, I think of Jewish subjects. I even wondered about the Three Weeks: I refrain from listening to music (difficult, yes! But what can you do?) but the music in my head keeps coming to me. Is that bad?

Let me make a final remark. It is very important for an artist to be in the right state of mind while working. You can compare it to davening; just going through the motions leads you nowhere. Painting for me is davening. I need concentration and I need devekut. I also need ‘hitbodedut’ with my subject. I have to be careful what I read or study or see, with whom I talks (and about what!), it all influences me. I cannot paint well, when people are around, the phone is ringing and household chores distract me. The following pastel I made on a recent Friday morning.

All the Shabbes food was already cooked. The house was ready. I went to my studio, a garage about 4 minutes walking distance away from my apartment which wonderful friends let me use for my bigger works, thinking about food, and groceries, and guests. But as soon as I was alone there, and locked the door behind me and stood in front of a blank piece of sketching paper, my inspiration came. Shabbos was coming, so were the angels, the Mal’akhe Ha-Sharet, Mal’akhe Ha-Shalom in the song. When I see a white piece of paper I see colors, and I hear a melody. I sang the song. I started drawing. Then I stopped singing and put on the little radio I keep in my studio that played Baroque music. I got totally wrapped up in my work, with so much hitlahavut that you could hear the wings of the angels. I forgot the time. The flames came into the drawing, in bright red and deep blue and warm yellow. Only after the drawing was finished I woke up, and packed up my stuff, locked up for Shabbos, and went home to take care of the last preparations.

At home I think rationally, pay bills, wash dishes, help with homework and listen to music. For me painting and music are inseparable. So could I work on totally separate Jewish paintings and separate music paintings? I don’t thinks so. You don’t split yourself.

There is much more to say about this subject: about Jewish and non-Jewish composers, secular music and chazanut or klezmer, the reason why artists paint certain subjects, etc. Sometimes it’s as simple as getting a commission and needing the money to buy food and paying for a few children’s yeshiva tuitions. So if they ask for a Beethoven, you paint a Beethoven. I am curious to hear your opinion about this.

"The Lowliest, Most Menial Occupation"

(Picture by Floriana Barbu)

Gandalin commenting on Shepherd-Consciousness:

From my experience, though, I want to emphasize one thing: the humbleness, or humility of the shepherd.

I once lived in a community in another culture, in which sheepherding was one of the major forms of economic activity.

Sheepherders were hired, and it was truly the lowest, most menial, most poorly compensated job in the world.

The sheepherders lived out in the wilderness with their sheep, and were supplied with a shack, firewood, coffee, flour, shortening, and sugar. And a dollar a day.

There was no employment below the level of the sheepherder.

I think that was also largely true in olden days. Dovid haMelech, for example, herded sheep as the youngest brother; this was the job assigned to the least significant and most overlooked of Jesse's sons.

The transition made by Moshe Rabbenu was extraordinarily dramatic. Adopted by Pharaoh's daughter, he grew up in the royal-divine precincts of the most advanced and wealthy civilization of its era, and although it is not explicitly stated in the Chumash, we can presume that he was educated to the highest levels possible, and that he enjoyed the highest standard of living possible at that time. Indeed, when Tziporah described to her father, the stranger who helped her at the well, she described him as an Egyptian.

From such a height of wealth and culture, Moshe willingly became a sheepherder for Yisro. He accepted the lowliest, most menial occupation that existed. This is an indication of his humility.

Because of the spiritual heights that shepherds like Moshe Rabbenu and Melech Dovid attained, we are today inclined to idealize the position of shepherd, and of course we have come to consider ourselves Hashem's flock, that He tends with the concern and love of the shepherd. I think that obscures the humbleness of a shepherd's position.

Although humble, the shepherd's position is responsible, and a valuable resource is entrusted to his care. In the course of his work, he has opportunities to develop and exhibit courage and strength, compassion and wisdom.

Perhaps these opportunities arise from time to time even in our own humble work lives, even today.

16 Shevat Links

(Painting by Yechiel Offner)

Breslov World: Interview with the Melitzer Rebbe, shlit’a

HNN: כ"ק האדמו"ר מסערט ויזניץ' שליט"א

A Fire in Breslov: Don't Shout!

Dixie Yid: Learning Kaballah

Including Children

For in truth, what kind of a holiday would it be without our children? Any holy celebration that does not include the younger generation is no celebration at all.

(Shem MiShmuel)

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Nothing Loftier

On New Year's Day, the Sudilkover Rebbe called me on my cell phone in order to return my call inquiring about a particular minhag.

After a few moments, he asked me whether I was at work since it was still morning. I replied that I actually had the day off and was out in front of my house pushing my 19 month-old daughter in her little push car. Upon hearing this, the Rebbe said that he did not want to take any time away from my children since a day off from work was a real rarity, and that the time that I spent with my children was what was ultimately important. The Rebbe then told me that I could call him back another evening after my kids had gone to bed so we could discuss the minhag question at greater length.

After saying goodbye and ending the call, I was immediately struck by the fact that one could derive an important lesson from our brief interchange. A person may think that there could be nothing loftier than speaking with a tzaddik. Yet, this tzaddik was essentially telling me otherwise; that there is nothing loftier than the time parents devote to spending with their children.


(Picture by Carole Ordidge)

Tu b’Shevat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees, is a good time to reflect on our relationship and responsibility to our own selves and to the natural world. Reflection is not always easy, especially in this fast-paced world. But we can learn something about reflection, and even about our own souls, by studying our ancestors.

From Canfei Nesharim

By Fivel Yedidya Glasser, with contributions from Rabbi Chanan Morrison

Our ancestors were shepherds. The Torah tells us that our forefathers, as well as Moshe Rebbeinu, Rachel Immeinu and King David all herded goats and sheep. And in the Torah portion of Vayeishev we see that Joseph (Yosef) also worked as a shepherd alongside his brothers. The greatest of our early Jewish leaders chose this profession, a livelihood scorned by surrounding cultures. Years after Yosef’s exile to Egypt and rise to viceroy of the king of Egypt, when his brothers came to him in exile, Yosef presented them to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt. The question that most interested the king was: "What is your occupation?" "We are shepherds," they replied to Pharaoh, "like our fathers before us." Shepherding was not a respected occupation in Egypt, and Pharaoh relegated Yosef’s family to the far-off land of Goshen.

Why did so many of the original leaders of the Jewish people choose to become shepherds? Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of pre-state Israel, explains that the advantage of shepherding may be found in the secluded lifestyle of the shepherd. While engaged with flocks, ambling through the hills and valleys, the shepherd is cut off from the noisy distractions of society, thus enabling ample time for inner reflection. Additionally, the labor is not intensive. Unlike farming, shepherding does not require one to exert a great deal of energy in mundane matters. While engaged with flocks, ambling through the hills and valleys, the shepherd is cut off from the noisy distractions of society, thus enabling ample time for inner reflection. Nevertheless, the shepherd is concerned with the actual physical needs of the flock. A shepherd does not live in an ivory tower, immersed in artificial philosophies detached from life; rather, the shepherd is constantly engaged with the real world, seeking water, shade and good fodder for the animals. The thoughts and musings of the shepherd may be sublime and lofty, but they cannot take the shepherd away from the task at hand.

This explanation, however, requires further examination, especially for Rabbi Kook, who emphasizes the importance of the individual's connection and contribution to society throughout his writings. What is the value of seclusion and solitude? Is the desire for solitude a positive trait? How do we balance reclusive behavior with the greater ideals of refining humanity and elevating the universe? In other words: Is the ideal to connect to the world, or to disconnect?

Let us first examine through the teachings of Rabbi Kook what occurs when one engages in the inner-reflection that exemplifies "shepherd consciousness":

“The greater the soul, the more it must struggle in order to find itself; the more the depths of the human soul are hidden from the conscious mind. One must have extended solitude and hitbodedut (self-reflective prayer), examining ideas, deepening thoughts, and expanding the mind, until finally the soul will truly reveal itself, unveiling some of the splendor of its brilliant inner light.”

In order to cultivate one's own greatness, it is necessary to develop a deep soul-awareness. This is best accomplished through silence and isolation. When one truly engages in such a practice, it will inevitably have a positive influence both in one's own life and also on one's surroundings. The intent of this withdrawal is ultimately to have a positive impact on the larger world, and not for mere personal spiritual fulfillment.

The goal is not to engage in a personal spiritual path that is disassociated from the rest of the world. Rather, the aspiration is the opposite – the solitude of the shepherd ultimately enables him to reconnect and even provide for the larger world on a spiritual level.

The silence of the shepherd is not just the absence of speech. It is a sublime language of silence, flowing from an outpouring of the soul, a vehicle of ruach hakodesh (Divine inspiration). The depths of the soul demand silence. Silence is full of life, revealing treasures from the beauty of wisdom.

Yet today's hi-tech, DSL-connected world does not leave enough space for an individual to hear silence. Even with wireless access, are we able to access the inner recesses of our own being?

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov teaches that a Jew should spend one hour a day in hitbodedut. This means that every Jewish person should set aside a significant period of time to simply be with G-d. Not to pray formally, study or engage in mitzvoth. Rather, to simply be. It can include mundane conversation with G-d, or soul-wrenching self-analysis. In this sacred time we can come to taste the Divine encounter that our forefathers taught us through their example as shepherds. This one hour of being with G-d “of simply being” will come to inform how we are and what we do in the world.

When we are too caught up in experiencing the world without “shepherd consciousness” we tend to make decisions from our own narrow, "get-ahead" reality. When we focus too much on "doing," without making time for "being," that is to say, communing with the Divine, we automatically make decisions that transform the earth in negative ways. This is the source of many of the environmental problems we face today. A society that is driven by consumption and industrial development can overlook deforesting the rainforests or irrevocably and negatively impacting the climate. It is precisely the accessing of our inner selves that enables us to encounter the larger picture of our own reality.

Much of today’s environmental crisis stems from laziness, detachment and simply cutting corners, not malicious destruction. If everyone, from the average consumer to the corporate CEO, dedicated time each day to rekindle their own inner-potential as vehicles for G-d in the world, their use of the natural world would be informed by their relationship with the Creator of the natural world. It does not really matter if one is controlling a multi-national corporation or running a household, the reality is that mindfulness of the bigger picture is an essential tool for any individual who cares about the world in which we live.

We do not each need to become shepherds to learn the lesson of "shepherd consciousness." A simple commitment to withdraw from the world for a brief period and engage the more spiritual realms will provide us with a broader perspective on our own lives and the decisions we make. To put it in other words, we need to focus on being human beings, not human doings. If we are to stand a chance of returning to ecological balance, we need to regain the inner spiritual balance and clarity of vision of our ancestors.


The most successful way to bring a person back to Hashem is through encouragement and praise.

(Rabbi Yaakov Meir Shechter)

Monday, January 21, 2008

Question & Answer With Akiva Of Mystical Paths - Aliyah

(Picture courtesy of

A Simple Jew asks:

Instead of merely writing postings about emuna, you have undertaken a monumental step and moved with your family to Eretz Yisroel; placing yourself and family entirely in Hashem's hands. In a posting last month you expressed the sentiments of being overwhelmed with this move and wrote, "Why in the world did I do this? What crazy urge to inflict chaos and instability upon my family came over me???"

Since the time you wrote these words how have you been able to strengthen yourself and combat the arguments that the yetzer hara raises in your mind to discourage your life-changing decision?

Akiva of Mystical Paths answers:

Arriving in Eretz HaKodesh, the holy land, is a tremendous thrill and a great excitement. We're here, we're home, it's a spiritual high point. The children are thrilled, the parents are prepared.

But, changing countries is not like moving to a new town. The language is different, the culture is different, even many of the foods are different. You need to find a place to live, you need to buy stuff to fill it (even if you bring your US furniture, which we did not with a few exceptions, Israeli apartments or homes don't come with any appliances or closets). Things have a different cost basis (the appliances, ridiculously expensive, a pair of tzitzit, ridiculously cheap). Some of the thrill fades as culture shock sets in.

We lived in Israel before, we were ready for much of it. We were able to smile and laugh as government offices gave us the run around for weeks, we understood how to bank and how not to get taken too much advantage of. We knew which hashgachos to use and what most of the products where. But after a while it started to wear on us...

The government took a month, and literally sent us back and forth from Jerusalem to Netanya, to acknowledge we are here and accept our children for health care (in our situation, having been here before, the parents are barred for a year). A school accepted my little girls, but not my little boys (why, because the principle just didn't like us) while we were in our temporary residence. And of course, everyone wants a commission for every little thing (it's the Israeli way, everyone has to make a living, but when you're not used to it, it seems like everyone is out to empty your pocket). Having found an apartment and moved in, we've visited 3 local schools who haven't accepted, or rejected, my children. I'm told some protexia is needed to get in (meaning you have to know someone and/or have leverage).

Several people have happily reminded me that a portion in Israel is acquired through yesirim, troubles and difficulties. This is, no doubt, the truth.

Yet, I spent erev Shabbat at the kever of one of the sons of Yaakov. My family and I walked the quiet streets of our neighborhood, together with all our neighbors, on Shabbos. My children run to the park constantly, or to the corner store, without my having any concern for their return. The mikvah is a block away, and there are a variety of shuls and minyanim everywhere. A few moments ago I returned from the dentist with my little girl, needed a filling. I had only a large denomination bill to pay him, he didn't have change. So he said, "just stop by and pay me when you have change."

I've driven the hills of Yehuda, stood at the Gate of Binyomin (from the nach, of the future!), seen the Dead Sea in the distance, walked the Old City, prayed at the Kotel, shopped Meah Shearim, learned in Rav Arush's yeshiva with my co-blogger R. Nati, shopped the Yerushalayim Shuk (bo bo borecha, bo bo borecha!), stood looking down at where the Mishkan was, and live in the hills where the Maccabi's fought.

As they say here, le'at le'at, slowly slowly we're making our way. Some days, it seems the country is out to get us. I guess that's us paying our yisurim. Some days, the kedusah of Eretz Yisroel takes our breath away.

In my rental contract, there was a line that said, "tenant promises to immediately vacate apartment in case of the arrival of Moshiach". I refused to accept this line, as why in the world would I leave if Moshiach comes??? (G-d willing, today!) [This line is apparently for overseas religious landlords that want to be assured a place to come when the time comes.] G-d willing, my family is here for now, and until (and after!) Moshiach comes.

May it be today. And may all klal Yisroel join us!


Raise yourself up above the crowd; bring out what makes you unique. Become a person who can choose for himself - the prerequisite for reaching Hashem.

(Piaceszna Rebbe)

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Black & White Picture Of The Week - Dried Roses

Friday, January 18, 2008

Question & Answer With Rabbi Tal Zwecker & Space Cadet - "Dark Candle"

(Painting by Zvi Malnowitzer)

A Simple Jew asks:

The highlight of my three year-old's week is "dark candle"; the conclusion of Havdala where the candle is extinguished into the grape juice. While this is done to show that the candle was only lit of the purpose of the mitzvah, my five year-old daughter insists that there is another reason. It seems to me that she is right and there must be some teaching in Chassidus that explains the symbolism of a flame being extinguished by wine (or in my case grape juice). To you knowledge, is there any deeper mystical explanation for this practice?

Rabbi Tal Zwecker answers:

I saw in Tamei HaMinhagim Shabbos 417 that the Shela HaKodesh says that women do not drink from Havdala because, according to one opinion of the Sages, the fruit that Adam ate from was grapes which were squeezed into wine by Chava and given to him. Since she sought to separate from Adam through this act, women atone by not drinking the wine of Havdalah.

Chava is said to have put out the candle of the world. This refers to Adam who shined brightly before the sin. Perhaps we extinguish the Havdala flame in the wine symbolically saying, Chava extinguished the candle of the world (Adam) by using wine, however we will make a tikkun and extinguish this candle only in act of kedusha."

A Simple Jew asks:

Space Cadet, in your sojourns in the Grekkov Forest have you discovered any other mystical explanations for this practice?

Space Cadet answers:

Here in the Grekkov Wilds, we use mead (Yiddish: mehd), not wine. Grapes are scarce, and mead qualifies as chamer medinah. (It is also a "minhag Baal Shem Tov.") But if we had any wine, we would use it, because it is min hamuvchar.

Grapes represent the Pri Etz HaDaas (as in the kavannos of Kiddush), and fire was invented on motza'ei Shabbos and also represents the spiritual decline of Adam. Just as his garments of light turned to garments of skin, the luminaries of light (me'orei ohr) turned to luminaries of fire (me'orei aish). So I would guess that extinguishing the Havdalah candle in the spilled wine represents some sort of hamtakah or tikkun for the banishment from Eden and accompanying fall in human consciousness.

Come to think of it, this may be why we don't need wine out here in Grekkov -- because, ASJ, this is "back to Eden!"

(Well, at least as long as there is enough wood for the wood stove...)

Through A Single Mitzvah

Through the single mitzvah of Kiddush, you become a partner with Hashem in the making of Creation. What's more, you insure that the world continues to exist for the next six days.

(Ohr HaChaim)

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Guest Posting By Chabakuk Elisha - Rationalizing Cynicism

(Picture courtesy of ywcPapania)

Recently on the blog we discussed the concept of leitzim (scoffers) and moshav leitzim (gatherings of the scornful). I suddenly realized something, not something new, but something that finally sunk in.

Before I get to that though, let's discuss what these terms are about. Generally, the word leitz translates to "jester," and although in English that term has a positive connotation, in our context it means someone who doesn't take important things seriously. Actually, a more accurate translation would probably be "distorter" since it shares its root with words like melitz (interpreter) and melitza (poetry). But, in this less virtuous form it is basically one who ridicules or mocks the proper way of life. In chassidic literature there is much discussion about this. In Torah Ohr, Parshas Toldos the Baal HaTanya addressed the question how the Pelishtim were able to block up the wells that were dug by Avrohom while those dug by Yitzchok endured. The Baal HaTanya explained that the Pelishtim represented leitzonus (mockery) and Avrohom represented chesed (kindness). Yet, chesed is often warm and joyous and at times can share certain comon elements with leitzonus. While it was easy for the Pelishtim to find a foothold in their attempt to duplicate and corrupt chesed, they were unable to corrupt gevura (severity / strictness), the trait connected with Yitzchok.

What is the levity that the leitzim / Pelishtim represent?

Leitzonos is easy to find. Quite simply, it's cynicism; it's an attitude that nothing counts, that it's all a big joke. The Mitteler Rebbe of Lubavitch, discussed three levels of people who sin:

1) Those of us that believe in G-d, but out of weakness give in to our desires.

2) People that believe in G-d, but aren't serious, or don't think their actions really count.

3) People who don't believe at all.

From a certain perspective, the second of the three is the worst. It is the abode of the leitz, the scoffer. Of course it would seem that the atheist would be worse, but in fact, he can be easier to reach. He may not currently believe in G-d, but his denial of G-d is very likely because of what that belief would obligate him to do. Therefore, should he finally recognize that there IS a G-d, he would change his ways.

The second individual, however, already agrees that there is a G-d but it simply has no impact on his life. He says, "No problem, I believe in G-d, and G-d even created all of this", but nevertheless he takes life as a joke. He doesn't feel obligated to take the G-d he "believes" in seriously. For such an individual to change his ways is truly very hard, and for this reason, the leitz, and the gathering of such people, is highly destructive. This coldness or flippantness towards important matters, this lack of seriousness undermines the entire purpose of existence – and for this reason Chazal warn us against this and even caution us that a prerequisite to a Torah life is kabolas ol malchus Shomayim (seriousness in accepting upon oneself the yoke of Heaven) – the very opposite of leitzonus.

Reflecting on all of this, I was struck by a realization. Although I am a Chabad chossid and I enjoy learning Chassidus, I also take interest in books and discussing ideas with people who maintain a rationalist perspective. And while I maintain that all Torah perspectives are valid and necessary, it seems as if they all have their specific "risks."

I never felt that a rationalist approach was a road necessarily likely to lead one to kefira (heresy), as some have said, but suddenly it hit me that it may be worse. It can easily lead to a cynicism, jadedness, or lack of seriousness about holiness which may be much harder to undo. The rationalist perspective removes a layer of meaning and the almost palpable closeness to G-d from the "Pardes" of Yiddishkeit. It replaces it with a G-d that is more distant and less involved. It turns very real and relevant practices into rituals of limited and mostly of historical, communal, or two-dimensional legal importance. The concept of spiritual life becomes almost laughable while rationalizations of the rationalist become a higher form of worship.

Does this have to be so? Can't one still have a strong, real and serious relationship with G-d without focusing on the spiritual? I think anything's possible, but, to quote a certain ehrlicher Yid whom I know:

" The big problem with rationalism is that it is inadequate to address a supra-rational Creator and those aspects of reality that transcend human logic. Throughout the ages the tzaddikim felt that true hasagas Elokus depends more on kedushah and avodah than intellect…"

I'm no great thinker, nor am I a serious oived Hashem. In fact, that sad but true statement itself reflects on my need to address this lack of seriousness. But I do know my emotional response to different books, conversations, thought processes, and points of view. So, as much as I have my rationalist interests, I would be lying if I said that the rationalist side of me contains the less cynical and more committed elements of my make up.

Belief In Nothing

It is better to be a fool who believes in everything than to be so clever that you do not believe in anything.

If you believe in everything, some of your beliefs may be foolish but you will also believe in the truth. However, when a person is too clever and does not want to believe in anything, he may begin by ridiculing falsehood and folly but can easily end up so skeptical of everything that he even denies the truth.

(Rebbe Nachman of Breslov)

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

"Hide What You Want Him To Seek!"

Gandalin commenting on Teaching Sensitive Topics In Chumash:

Please let me examine a few minor sidelights.

1) The language of Tanakh is so wonderful, in that the words are multifaceted and, I think, very clear on each of many levels, so that each of us, at whatever age, can put ourselves in a position where we can "relate" to the stories, and, hence, we can orient our receivers to the frequencies that Tanakh is using to broadcast the Divine revelation to our neshomohs. Depending on our level, and on the quality of our receivers, we will receive more or less of the revelation, and different aspects of it, but it is all good, and all important. Each time we connect with the transmission, we have the opportunity to derive more, and to have our receivers open up to "higher" levels. With respect to Yehuda & Tamar, as tinokim we don't understand the full depth of the story, but we can perceive the change in Yehuda's attitudes, and we can learn that it is worthwhile to acknowledge responsibility for our own actions.

2) In the secular world in which I grew up, many times as a child I was told not to read a certain work of literature, because I was too young to understand it. Having a reasonably good command of the language, I didn't appreciate what that really meant, and thought that I could certainly understand any book if I understood what the individual words were. But of course there were many things that I did not understand. And upon re-reading certain books later in life, I perceived many things, and appreciated many things, to which I had been completely oblivious as a child. The stories in the Tanakh also yield an incredible depth when they are confronted by a prepared mind. To some extent, literature and Tanakh are like a mirror, and if a monkey looks in, a philosopher doesn't look out. By virtue of repeated and concerted study, however, and with the learning that comes from being buffeted by the storms of life, we can derive more and more.

3) Children in many cultures are exposed to stories that appear to be horrific on some level, and they do (we do) take it in stride. The European folklore collected by the brothers Grimm is replete with murders, cannibalism, incest, warfare, pestilence, and suffering. The stories of the Tanakh include sibling murder, adultery, incest, drunkenness, warfare, treachery, and plagues. Perhaps the best way to be exposed to these realities of the world as it is, is through exposure to Tanakh in childhood, and this exposure will be a sort of inoculation, so that as we mature and understand more and more of what is at stake, we will in fact be less shocked and our neshomohs less injured than we might be if we confronted the full adult meaning of these phenomena "cold." Rabbi Sears recently wrote about Buddhism in these pages; well, the biography of the man who "discovered" the principles of Buddhism, the Buddha, is that he was an extremely rich and privileged prince living somewhere around Nepal, and that he had been sheltered from even the slightest knowledge that old age, sickness, and death even existed in the world, until one day, as a young adult, he discovered all three -- that set him on his quest. By exposing the child to small doses of reality from a young age, we may protect his neshomoh from such a shock.

3) It is certainly true that hiding something may make the child search for it with ever greater intensity. So make sure you hide what you want him to seek!

Question & Answer With Dixie Yid - Teaching Sensitive Topics In Chumash

A Simple Jew asks:

How would you advise that sensitive topics in the Chumash be taught to small children?

Dixie Yid answers:

One thing some have difficulty with is talking about death or killing in Chumash to young children. Our approach has been that children can hear about these issues. So that when Achashveirosh has Vashti killed, or when Shimon and Levi kill Bnei Shechem. Death is a part of life, and I think that when kids know about it, they can begin to process what it means, over time. Our five year old really tries to grasp this issue and always asks us if people she is learning about (like people mentioned in Tanach) are still alive or not. She asked me recently several times if Rabbi Juravel, whose tapes she listens to almost every night, is still alive. When I said that he is, she wanted to go visit him and make a drawing to give him as a present!

Another kind of topic which is difficult to explain to children is any minhag or halacha where the only explanation that I know is too esoteric for a child's ears. For instance, my 8 year old daughter once asked me why I place the right-hand challah under the left-hand challah on Friday nights, but I place it on top of the left-hand challah Shabbos day during hamotzi. I just didn't know any child-friendly explanations for this. In cases like that, I have to be satisfied with a simple, "Because that's our minhag."

The most common difficulty that comes up is when intimate relations are mentioned. The general rule is that my wife and I always replace the the appropriate word used with the word "marriage." i.e. "Yehuda married Tamar." "Zimri married a non-Jewish lady." "The Bnos Midyan, the Midianite girls wanted to marry the Jewish men and get them to do avoda zara." "The wife of Potifar wanted to marry Yosef, even though she was already married." "Marrying someone you're not allowed to marry is called Gilui Arayos."

This serves us in pretty good stead and it makes things pretty clear, on a child's level. I cannot claim credit for thinking of this method though. We learned it from the Rabbi Juravel tapes that my children listen to every night while going to bed for the last 5 years. For those of us who are trying to raise our children as Bnei Torah, I would be interested in hearing at what age frum children should be taught "the truth" behind these type of pshatim (and for that matter, life in general). At Bar/Bat Mitzva age? Do they find out about the "birds & the bees" on their own from their friends in yeshiva?

Protecting Children

Help us protect our children from the mockers who think they are so clever and those who scorn the path of simplicity - to work for Hashem and to follow His Torah in the way we have received from our fathers and teachers.

(Reb Noson of Breslov)

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Question & Answer With Jameel: Religious Zionism After The Disengagement

(Picture courtesy of

A Simple Jew asks:

Following the Israeli government's expulsion of Jews from Gaza, one person concluded, "The idea that a secular government could possess sanctity and be embraced by the religious as the "a tchalta de-ge'ulah" [beginning of the redemption] went down like the Titanic." As a Jewish settler who lives in the "West Bank", how have you seen Religious Zionism evolve since the Disengagement?

Jameel answers:

Since the Disengagement, much of the Religious Zionist community has realigned its positions and understanding of "atchalta de-ge'ulah" with respect to the State of Israel and it's institutions, though each sphere has it's own unique ramifications.

To preface, there are still those who have not changed their thinking in the slightest; those include R' Shlomo Aviner and his followers, who make no differentiation between before and after the Disengagement and adhere to the position that there is inherent holiness to the State and it's institutions, regardless of the decisions of this or that secular government. Their worldview ascribes inherent holiness to the IDF, regardless of the directives given to it by the government -- and refusing orders is considered taboo at (almost) all costs. I know people who would call the police if they heard anyone even discussing the idea of refusing orders to evict Jews from their homes.

That said, there are many "Religious Zionists" (myself included) who feel much more jaded when it comes to respect for the government. Some people no longer stand up for the "prayer for the welfare of the State of Israel", or stand up only after the part that "blesses" the political leadership of the State (they stand for the part where the armed forces are given a bracha). Ad-hoc changes are sometimes inserted; i.e., "bless the IDF WHEN they are protecting the land" -- the word "when" is added to differentiate between protecting the land and fulfilling the political edicts of the government which could include evicting Jews from their homes, destroying Jewish communities, releasing terrorists, and using administrative detention (withholding due legal process) against right-wing activists as a means of stifling political criticism. Instead of "protect the State with Your kindness", a cynical replacement is sometimes stated "protect the State from it's leaders, ministers and advisers."

Regarding the IDF, over 40% of graduating combat officers are currently from the "religious" camp and the number of religious soldiers in elite units continues to rise. However, this trend may be peaking as some religious teenagers have begun to have second thoughts about military service. Why strive for military advancement and excellence when a government may use the IDF to further political policy that runs contrary to the values of Religious Zionism (Jewish education, Social Jewish policy and Settling the land)? When Roi Klein, HY'D, a Religious Zionist IDF officer from the West Bank settlement of Eli, made the ultimate sacrifice in the past Lebanon war, and died by Kiddush Hashem -- jumping on a grenade to save the lives of his soldiers, Prime Minister Olmert invoked Roi Klein's name, his actions, and the "success" of the Second Lebanon war -- to directly further Olmert's stated plan of removing Jews from the "West Bank", a plan which would include Roi Klein's young widow and orphaned children. This is a prime example of the disgust people feel for Olmert today, and the wary distrust that has grown between settlers and the army. Will a selfless sacrifice today on behalf of security for the State be used tomorrow to evict one's own family from their home?

While I still recited Hallel this past Yom Haatzmaut my level of joy has diminished. The concept of "atchalta de-ge'ulah" has not gone down like the Titanic but the redemption process feels like it's velocity has slowed, the energy has gotten bogged down...and worst of all, it may have entered a phase of "hester panim". The right wing political leadership is currently stagnant, both in and out of the Knesset. Grass root organizations like Moetztet Yesha should have organized a huge rally while President Bush is in Israel now; hundreds of thousands could have attended sending a clear message of the country's loyalty to the land and Jerusalem. Instead, the lack a vocal opposition is viewed as a tried, resigned concession to the acceptance of territorial compromise.

That said, the potential for redemption through the State still clearly exists. "If you believe something can be broken, believe it can be fixed."

The birth rate of the religious and chareidi community far outpaces that of the secular one; Ariel Sharon, who led the Disengagement has 2 grandchildren, while Rav Druckman, one of the leaders of the Religious Zionist movement has over 70 grandchildren. While it may take time, the religious community will eventually be the majority in Israel.

And yet, there is a new generation of religious/"settler" youth, who have grown up in the furnace of confrontation with the authorities over the expulsions -- both physically and ideologically. Unlike many of their "tiring" parents, these youth are inspired, committed, and determined -- they will be ready to take the reigns of power as soon as the demographics enable them to. It is not unlikely that a 14-year-old girl who sat for months in the Masiyahu prison for protesting the expulsion, will be eventually be our Prime Minister; teenagers who had their arms and legs broken by police brutality in Amona will be the government ministers of the Police, and the IDF soldiers who refused orders to evict Jews from Hevron will be chiefs of staff.

(Picture by Oded Balilty)

התנערי מעפר קומי לבשי תפרארתך עמי - Shake off the dust and arise, don your clothes of nobility my nation!

We need to accept with patience that it may take time to return to the direction we firmly believe is the correct one. "Now" organizations are the current fad, such as "Peace Now" -- we have been pummeled with the message of instant gratification requiring everything "now." Patience!

We will continue settling Eretz Yisrael despite the hardships, and while the setbacks may be depressing -- my children are well aware that if I personally don't merit seeing Gush Katif rebuilt and thriving with Jewish communities, then they are responsible to return and rebuild. If not them, then their children.

If I forget thee Yerushalayim, may my right hand lose it's skill.

We waited close to 2000 years for Yerushalayim's rebuilding to begin.

We waited for 19 years to rebuild the destroyed communities of Gush Etzion after 1948, and we rebuilt them.

In time, Gush Katif and the Northern Shomron communities will also be rebuilt.

(עוד תטעי כרמים בהרי שומרון (ירמיהו לא, ד - Again will you plant vineyards in the Shomron Mountains

(ולא ינטשו עוד מעל אדמתם אשר נתתי להם, אמר ד' א-להיך (עמוס ט', ט - And never again will you be uprooted from your land than I have given you, said Hashem, your G-d.