Friday, February 27, 2009

Guest Posting By Rabbi Dovid Sears - Jewish Nationalism And Post-Nationalism

In Loving Memory of My Mother, Gittel bas Yitzchok / Grace Sears, a”h, On Her First Yahrtzeit, 5 Adar 5769/Sunday, March 1, 2009

Jewish Nationalism and Post-Nationalism

What is Jewish nationalism? Why isn’t it enough for Judaism to exist as a religion? Why must this religion be translated into a coherent and living society? What is meant to be unique about that society? What is its role in relation to the rest of the world?

Once upon a time, Jewish nationalism wasn’t a novelty, a subject of philosophical discussion and debate: “Are the Jews members of a nation or a religion? Should the State of Israel have been created or not? Will the existence of Israel solve the problem of anti-Semitism?” And so forth. The Jewish people lived in Eretz Yisrael and tilled the soil, harvested their trees and crops, built homes and citadels, decorated their places of worship with colorful mosaics, played musical instruments, wrote great religious texts and poetry, studied the Torah according to a rigorous system of hermeneutics, minted their own coins, spoke one common language, and defended their land when conquering enemies approached.

After Rome razed and burned Jerusalem and sent the populace into exile two thousand years ago, another kind of Jewish nationalism emerged: kehillah life, so familiar to traditional Jews, as originally conceived and implemented by the Talmudic sages. The kehillah became a religious and social “binding agent” for a homeless nation scattered to the four winds. This formula, gently helped along with the ghettoes of Europe and the dhimmi laws of the Islamic Middle East, enabled the Jewish people to survive the turbulent seas of our long exile until the present. But with the advent of the Enlightenment and the rise of modern democracies, the ghetto walls came tumbling down, and Jewish life changed forever. Participation in the kehillah soon ceased to be the common Jew’s only option (apart from conversion, a choice for which relatively few opted). Increasing numbers attempted to assimilate, to one degree or another, and leave behind the sorrows of exclusion, persecution, and poverty. For as long as anyone remembered, the Jews had lived a carefully restricted, spiritually rich but culturally and even psychologically truncated existence – both as individuals and a society. In most times and places, a Jew could not join the craftsmen’s guilds, enter the professions, or even own land. Torah was not only the “best merchandise,” it was just about the only merchandise, aside from actual commerce, a few simple trades, and tenant farming. While it is indisputable that the Torah is our life, not everyone is cut out to be a scholar. The ghetto life greatly limited the creative capacities of the individual and the people. Then suddenly a host of new possibilities appeared on the horizon. Attractive possibilities.

Most rabbinic leaders were dismayed by the threat modern life presented to traditional Jewish life and religion. Democracy was a Pandora ’s Box that an inherently conservative leadership would have preferred to leave unopened. However, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch of Frankfurt, Germany, whose contemporaries were at the vanguard of assimilation, was not such a reactionary. The Rav of Frankfurt took a surprisingly positive view of the new age and the many opportunities it offered for Jewish participation in society. By leaving the ghetto and entering the world arena, the Jewish people might bring about a far greater kiddush Hashem than ever before was imaginable. In his Commentary on the Torah, Rav Hirsch wrote:

God said unto [Jacob]: “I am God, the All-Sufficing. Be fruitful and multiply; a nation and a community of nations shall come into existence from you” (Genesis 35:11).

Commentary: The nation that descends from him is to represent one entity to the outside world, but internally it is a multiplicity of elements forged into one. Each tribe is to represent an ethnic individuality in its own right. The nation of Jacob, which as “Israel” demonstrates to the other nations the power of God triumphantly pervading and shaping all of mankind, must not present a one-sided image. As a model nation, it should reflect the greatest range of national characteristics in microcosm. In its tribes, it should variously represent the warrior nation, the merchant nation, the agricultural nation, the scholarly nation, etc. Thus, it will become clear to all the world that the consecration of human life to the Law of God does not demand occupational restrictions, or depend upon specific ethnic characteristics, but that mankind in all its diversity is capable of accepting the monotheism taught by Israel, and of fashioning the multiplicity of human and national individualities into one united kingdom of God.

These words have an unmistakably idealistic ring. They suggest that the time has come for a broader understanding of the Psalmist’s declaration, “Know Him in all your ways!” Not only must we do so through the study of Torah and performance of mitzvos, as central as these practices are to Judaism, but through the development of all our God-given abilities and by contributing to society at large in the fullest possible way.

Still more radical things were in store. A generation later, the utopian vision of Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook far surpassed that of Rav Hirsch. The Lithuanian-born halachist, philosopher, and mystic saw the hidden hand of God in the fledgling Zionist movement of the late 1800s-early 1900s – a movement that for the most part was running like an express train in the opposite direction from God and religious faith. To Rav Kook’s thinking, the return of the Jewish people to our ancestral homeland was much more than Theodor Herzl’s dream of a “safe refuge” for an unwanted and persecuted minority. It was a giant step toward the fulfillment of our collective destiny to become a nation like none other: a universal nation, whose raison d’etre would be to benefit all of humanity. The Jewish people would no longer remain fugitives of history, an entity unto themselves, as in the Middle Ages, nor would they content themselves merely to contribute to the broader societies in which they lived, according to the Hirschian model. They would become at last that “light unto the nations” of which the prophets foretold, the divinely-appointed channel for the enlightenment of the world.

Rav Kook voices this idea in his seminal essay, “Fragments of Light: A View as to the Reason for the Commandments,” where he speaks of nationalism as a prelude to a broader trans-nationalism, or “humanity consciousness”:

The very fact that national consciousness emerges before humanity consciousness, and the latter before cosmic consciousness, causes the vitalization of particular nations to precede the organic vitalization of humanity, of which the prophets spoke. The latter must necessarily precede the vitalization of the constituent entities, which embraces everything, reaching down to include the vitalization of every individual, in all his splendor and glory, with which are associated reason and imagination, instinct and nature. The community of Israel does not grow weary in traveling this eternal, long road. She “treads on the high places of the earth,” ever aspiring toward an “unbounded inheritance” (Shabbos 118a) in which she will stand in one fellowship with “all His works and all His creatures” (liturgy). All the awesome spreading out of this aspiration does not blur the practical aspect of her national essence . . . On the contrary, it endows it with greater force and clarity at the same time, for the full synthesis of all the life-forces in their collectivity is stored within her treasure trove. It is the “light of the universe in the treasure of life.”

Here we see that in Rav Kook’s view, there is no contradiction between the national aspect of Israel and the universal light that it bears within its very being. He goes on to state that this is a nationalism fundamentally unlike all other nationalisms, both ontologically and in its historical mission. The key to this is the spiritual element that lies at its core:

The moral life cannot evolve to its highest development except through the influence of its divine source. The divine source will have its practical effect of preparing the way for a social culture only through a societal perfection that is first established in a stable and highly-cultivated nation that is prepared to exist as a unique people. Its uniqueness is not enclosed in its particular nationality, which can stand competition with other nationalisms whose only purpose is confined in their own nationhood or in the social conditions they precipitate. The national content of this people [i.e., Israel]can absorb what is glorious in all nations, the best of the idealism of fragmented humanity, and spread it later, in a more perfect and developed state, and in an appropriate and permanent form under the stamp of its own bold and luminous authenticity . . . The renewal of the Jewish people in its thrust toward the future is directed with all its resources in a veritable opposite direction from that of the exodus from Egypt. It moves toward unification with all humanity…

One wonders what Rav Kook would say about the State of Israel today, with chilonim (secular) and dati’im (religious) perpetually at each other’s throats; whose political leaders, one after the next, seem to be caught with one hand in the till while the other waves the white flag of post-Zionism; surrounded by the “seventy wolves” baring their poisonous fangs from the United Nations (if ever the name of an organization was more oxymoronic); her ears ringing with political tinnitus over the intolerable fact of her existence.

Where is that elusive light of wisdom Israel is meant to bear, which will banish the darkness of greed, aggression, and blind passion? What happened to the spiritual vision that defined the very nature and purpose of our people throughout history? Would Rav Kook be able to find the still-smoldering embers of our hidden vitality in these thick ashes?

It seems that Rav Kook foresaw all of this, too. We may take hope from another of his essays, “The Soul of Nationhood and Its Body”:

In a gloomy spirit, full of anger and sadness, [the nation] will pride itself in the outwardness of a language whose mighty holiness it does not recognize, of a land from whose wondrous qualities it is alienated, of nostalgic yearnings from which it has discarded every element that can nourish and vitalize. The nobler and more spiritual a nationalism is at its source, the more the adherents of this debased nationalism will despise it...

This is the narrow state to which the community of Israel will descend prior to an awakening of the true revival. Then, upon awakening, she will cast aside with indignation all of her dross, and with divine resolve she will gather to herself all her good…

From the source of higher delight will flow many spices to remove the foul smell that had been absorbed by a crude nationalism trapped in its materialism. And as smoke fades away, so will fade away all the destructive winds that have ravaged the land, the language, the history, and the literature. “I will give you a new heart, and I will place in you a new spirit; and I will remove the heart of stone from your body and give you a heart of flesh. I will put My spirit within you, and I will cause you to walk in My statutes, and you will heed My laws and perform them. And you will dwell in the land I gave to your ancestors, and you will be my people, and I will be your God” (Ezekiel 36).

Medinat Yisrael

War of Independence - 1948

Rabbi Avraham Sternhartz, a leading figure in the Breslov community in Kremenchug and Uman and later in Eretz Yisrael, lived through the turbulent years of early Zionism, culminating in the War of Independence in 1948 and the stablishment of the State of Israel. He once told his disciple, Rabbi Gedaliah Kenig, "The medinah (secular state) is the klippah (husk) that precedes the fruit – but it is also a shemirah (protection) on the fruit.”

In a similar vein, Reb Gedaliah once explained to his disciples that despite the problems created by secular Zionism, we must appreciate that because of the existence of the medinah, tens of thousands of Jews put on Tefillin, keep Shabbos, etc.

The Offering Of The Jewish Heart

Nesivos Sholom, Parshas Teruma:

A further elucidation of the verse about contributions for the Mishkan: "from each man who's heart prompts him" – so what should a Jew do who doesn't have a thing to offer as a contribution, in the sense of "for the poverty stricken there's nothing!"?

The advice for him is to fulfill: "who's heart prompts him." At the very least he should deliver his heart to G-d, may His great name be blessed. His heart should be a Jewish heart which is driven by the soul that continually yearns and even bursts, in the sense of pining and thirsting for the Divine Light as per the verse: "my soul thirsts for You; my flesh is ravenous for You!"

Not for a moment should he find peace with the reality that causes him to wander around without feelings of meaning or delight, even for the most sacred matters. He must persevere and anticipate the time that he'll return to feeling the pleasantness and delight of His
G-dliness, may He be blessed.

Such craving is what he has to offer and thereby fulfill "from each man who's heart prompts him." For this also qualifies as "My offering" (i.e. something that truly moves G-d). Even if in actuality he hasn't a thing to give, he should hold on by virtue of this power of craving within his heart.

The Boards Of The Mishkan

I heard from my grandfather [the Baal Shem Tov] that the word keresh (board), alludes to a human being. Now the way to understand this is that the letters in the word keresh (קרש) are the letters of kesher (קשר) - a link - and this alludes to the human being, who connects all the worlds to each other, and unites them. Therefore, a person must connect himself and his thought continuously to his Creator. In this way Hashem and His Shechina become connected, as do all the worlds; they are linked and unified with each other. But if, G-d forbid, he connects himself to the folly of the world's vanities, which have no existence - the things which are finite - this is being connected to falsehood, sheker (שקר), which is also spelled from the letters of keresh.

(Degel Machaneh Ephraim)

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Question & Answer With Rabbi Yehoishophot Oliver - Non-Kosher Animal Toys (Part 2)

Continued from Part 1 here:

The purpose of ensuring that children avoid looking at non-kosher animals is to keep them pure so that they will be sensitive to holiness. Once they are sensitive to this, they will certainly stay far away from any forbidden gazing. However, this custom can’t exist in a vacuum. It makes no sense to forbid one’s children from having teddy bears while allowing them to watch television. Almost every show on television contains immodest imagery whose negative impact is infinitely worse than that of teddy bears, even for little children who are yet to learn about “the birds and the bees” and thus do not understand what they are viewing. Even the news regularly contains images of the faces of wicked people, which would also seem to be far more detrimental than seeing a teddy bear. The same goes for the harmful effect of images in newspapers.

In other words, in the above sicha, the Rebbe assumes that the frum home is thoroughly protected from any “foreign winds,” and the only thing left is to go “beyond the letter of the law” and remove images of non-kosher items from the house. Sadly, many supposedly frum homes are yet to reach this point; I will not elaborate further on this painful matter.

In any case, gazing at forbidden animals is spiritually harmful, and we have also seen that gazing at representations of negative images is detrimental. It follows, therefore, that gazing at representations of forbidden animals will also have a negative effect.

The Rebbe then carries this a step further by explaining that the need to ensure a totally pure environment is all the more strong in childhood, according to the verse, “Teach the boy according to his way, and even when he becomes old, he will not depart from it” (Mishlei 22:6). In this context, this verse is telling us that the key to growing into an adult with pure, holy desires and goals is for the parents to accustom him as a child to pure influences.

In other words, the Rebbe is saying that caution in this regard is especially necessary for little children. The message in the sicha is not meant only for little children, as some people imagine. Therefore, the Rebbe began by mentioning: “A Jew, and especially a Jewish child, should be accustomed to pure things only.” Indeed, there is an extra emphasis on children, for they are far more susceptible to influence. However, everyone is affected by what they see. Older children and adults should also avoid viewing images of non-kosher animals unnecessarily, because everything that one sees affects the person. It does not become “okay” to unnecessarily view a non-kosher image when one becomes older.

The Rebbe also expresses surprise that otherwise excellent Torah publications have chosen to use a mouse to illustrate children’s literature, apparently in imitation of Mickey Mouse, and laments the fact that this sort of illustration has become standard. In addition the Rebbe advises that although people have become used to using non-kosher images for such a purpose, this habit can in fact be changed easily.

Then the Rebbe cautions against aggressive zeal in promoting this practice, warning that if one seizes upon another person’s neglect in this area with the peremptory demand that he change his behavior, this approach is likely to be met with resistance, with the listener exclaiming, “Who do you think you are to tell me what to do?” Instead, one should explain to him that one is not telling him a new concept. Rather, this concept is written in holy books, and he can study the texts where this concept is discussed himself, enabling this concept to become something he can relate to personally.

Here, the Rebbe explains:

According to Jewish custom, when a Jewish child is born, we hang holy things on the wall in his room, or surround him with holy things, such as a Shir Lamaalos. Likewise, we should ensure that he not see any images of impure things.

When one has to give him an animal toy, for whatever reason, since he is a child, one should choose a toy shaped in the form of a kosher animal, bird, fish, or the like.

So, too, when the child becomes older and needs to be taught the form of the letters. He is at the age when he needs to be shown an aleph through being shown the image of a person carrying two buckets—one above, and one below, as used to be typically depicted in children’s literature. The illustration includes a river with fish swimming in it, or a cat, or the like. The image of the cat should be removed, and a kosher animal, bird, or fish should be inserted instead.

The same holds for other images, and especially those specifically used for educational purposes, for “even when he becomes old, he will not depart from it” depends upon “teach the boy according to his way.” What becomes engraved in the mind of a child at a very early age is of the utmost importance. When he sees holy things before his eyes, then “even when he becomes old, he will not depart from it.”

One of my teachers explained this to me as follows. The Rebbe is not saying that children’s literature should never contain images of non-kosher animals. If such an image fits naturally in the context of the story, there is nothing wrong with the animal being there. For example, if a story that depicts a journey made in past times would acceptably include an image of a horse and a wagon, for since this was the standard mode of transport in past times, the image is necessary. In other words, the non-kosher image serves a clearly definable educational purpose. But if a kosher image could have been used just the same, and the non-kosher image was used instead simply in order to fill up space on the page, such a book should not be used.

Likewise, the Rebbe says that this caution does not apply to images of non-kosher animals discussed in Tanach and in Medrash, which are illustrated for children in order to facilitate their studies, “for then this image is a study and commentary on the Torah, as is obvious.” An example would be an illustration of the story of Rivka giving Eliezer’s camels water, where it is necessary to include an image of a camel so that the child will understand the story.

Thus, the Rebbe points out, we find that Rashi, one of the most famous children’s teachers, wrote in his explanation of the verse, “This is the animal that you will eat ... that you will not eat” (Shemini 11:2), that Moshe Rabeinu would visibly show the Jewish people the animals that may not be eaten. This proves that it was necessary to teach about the non-kosher animal visually, for were it not, Moshe Rabeinu could have sufficed with showing all the kosher animals and simply explaining that all the others were not kosher.

As for the images of an lion or an eagle found on many an paroches, or on the covering of a Sefer Torah, the Rebbe explains that this display is necessary in order for these animals remind one of the need to pray to Hashem and serve him in a way “strong like a lion,” and so on, as discussed in the beginning of Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim. Another possible answer is that these animals remind one of Yechezkel’s vision of a heavenly chariot.

Likewise, the Rebbe explains that the reason that some of the tribes had images of non-kosher animals emblazoned on their flags (Bamidbar Rabba 2:7) was that each image was connected with the qualities of the tribe; thus, each tribe needed to be represented by the image of a particular animal (e.g., a snake).

Likewise, when there is a clear need for a non-kosher animal, it is acceptable. Obviously in the old country, when the most practical means of transport was by horse, it was completely acceptable to own a horse. Likewise, people would use cats to keep away mice.

A source in Halacha for the caution not to gaze at non-kosher animals (in addition to the above-quoted sources) is from Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Dei’ah, end sec. 198), which rules: “Women should be careful when they leave immersion ... that they not encounter something impure. If they do encounter such things (such as a dog or a donkey—commentary of the Shach), if she is a G–d-fearing woman, she should immerse herself again.”

Many people who lack a solid background in Torah will no doubt regard this practice as odd, and some may even react with ridicule. However, it must be stressed that this practice has solid traditional Torah sources. Thus, just as in all Torah matters one must act with confidence and fulfill the dictum “Do not be embarrassed by the scoffers” (beg. of Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 1:1) so, too, in this case. Some people may dismiss it as ridiculous and fanatic, but one who fears Hashem will not be deterred by their words.

Extra appreciation of the need to refrain from viewing impure images unnecessarily can be gleaned from the Rebbe Rashab’s Kuntres HoAvodah pp. 11-12-13). There the Rebbe Rashab explains at length that true fear of sin does consists not only of refraining from looking at forbidden sights, but of not allowing one’s senses to be indiscriminately open:

His faculty of sight is not open to see everything before him, never mind to see something that it is forbidden to gaze at. For in fact seeing, and certainly gazing, is the cause of every wicked thing. It brings one to total evil, may G–d save us ... and lowers one into the depth of hell. Everyone who is concerned for his soul, not to bring it to contamination, G–d forbid, should confine himself in his faculty of sight. If he finds this difficult, he should know that his soul depends upon it, and that if he does not confine himself, all his divine service is as nothing, for he will not accomplish anything through his toil and service. On the contrary, he will fall, may G–d save us, to the lowest depth. Thus one should toughen oneself like a lion to confine himself with all his vigor and might. ... With this one will save his soul from evil, and his divine service will be acceptable [before Hashem], and he will accomplish salvation for his soul, and rise ever higher.

Many practical questions arise in connection with this issue. For example, what should one do with children’s gifts one has received of non-kosher animals? This is especially an issue when one has not-yet-frum relatives. Obviously one should try to “warn” them first. The problem is that they often “forget” or don’t take you seriously. However, this is just one of many issues that can arise in such family situations, and friction in this area needs to be dealt with in the same way as all other matters—respectfully and diplomatically, but without compromising one’s principles. Although one should try to explain it, if they don’t “get it,” they need to be told assertively: “As parents, these are the rules and values that we have chosen for our home, and we ask others to respect that and not do things that undermine these rules.” Moreover, they can be told that they should not take the refusal of their gift personally, because you would refuse anyone who would offer such a gift to you.

It should be clarified that like most of the Rebbe’s campaigns, this idea is not the Rebbe’s chiddush (novelty) at all. The Rebbe methodically cites a list of classical sources for this practice.

Moreover, this campaign is different from the Rebbe’s other campaigns in that most of the campaigns were directed to not-yet-frum Jews, with the goal of slowly but surely bringing them to adopt Mitzvah observance. In contrast, this campaign appears to be relevant only to those in a frum home, for if one is not yet frum, a teddy bear is the least of his concerns.

However, one should remember that as important as it is, this custom is a chumra (stringency); and not a strict obligation. As with any chumra, one needs to keep in mind that one should fulfill it in a positive, joyful manner, and that there may be some legitimate exceptions to the rule (in addition to the exceptions listed above), or cases in which it is appropriate to be lenient. If joy or discernment are lacking, “the loss outweighs the benefit.”

The Rebbe concludes the sicha by explaining that in the current period, which is immediately before the arrival of Moshiach it is all the more necessary to be particular to only see kosher and holy images, for we are now preparing ourselves for the future redemption, of which it is written, “I [Hashem] will remove the spirit of impurity form the world” (Zechariah) 13:2).

The Rebbe realizes that this practice may entail inconvenience, but he is telling us that the benefit of making this change vastly outweighs the loss. Like a doctor telling us that for our own health, we need to refrain from certain foods, the Rebbe is telling us that for our spiritual health, we need to avoid impure sights. Moreover, he is merely echoing the timeless words of doctors of old. Let’s heed his call.

Guest Posting By Chabakuk Elisha - Non-Kosher Animals In Chabad Homes

It is well known that the Lubavitcher Rebbe said that children should not be given toy versions of non-kosher animals in order to imbue them with a certain sensitivity. I was asked why this directive seems to be observed in countless different ways within in Chabad today: Some adhere to it strictly, some argue that there was a grandfather clause and they came before this directive so they don't abide by it, and others will let their children play with a horse or bear, but not a pig, and I’m sure there are others as well.

And although I don’t really know the answer, and I could be completely wrong here, all I can do is tell you how I understand it. I think that the fundamental problem is that it’s a little too ambiguous, and it’s really hard to avoid over-applying or under-applying the directive.

Let’s start with the fact that the Rebbe endorsed education about animals and nature (The Chabad publication “Talks and Tales” had the “Natures Wonderland” segment with non-kosher animals in countless issues). The Rebbe was well also aware of the fact that Chazal speak of non-kosher animals, and Chabad even has a virtual-zoo website that includes non-kosher animals. Furthermore, when the Rebbe was asked about cutting out pictures from textbooks, he rejected the idea. Also, the Rebbe approved of customary useage of things of a religious nature, such lions on a paroches or the like. It is pretty clear that a Zoo, a book on animals, as well as a paroches or even a mural in a shul were all fine, and not what he was addressing.

So, then, what WAS he addressing?

A little history first. The matter arose back when Olomeinu ran a comic strip called “Mendel the Mouse” – something that the Rebbe found troubling – and the Rebbe felt that the very fact that they chose a mouse displayed a lack of sensitivity. It would seem that the Rebbe’s primary objection was to the influence of Disney characters and the like, their encroachment into frum homes, and the general humanization of animal characters for children using non-kosher animals.

The Rebbe wanted, as he did in many instances, to promote sensitivities towards pure and impure. Through the prevalence of monkeys, bears, mice and similarly non-kosher animals in the life of a child, and his/her close and personal association with them, this all desensitizes him/her, and humanizes animals that Chazal describes as having negative middos. This is what troubled the Rebbe, and that’s what he was addressing.

So, a Lubavitcher who has books or dolls like Curious George, The Bernstein Bears, Disney characters (mice, dogs, cats) or stuffed animals like teddy bears, is simply doing so out of weakness. And honestly, we all have our weakness, and as weaknesses go, believe me when I say that this one is better than many. But, on the other hand, and it might seem radical, but I think that some other people take this too literally - the reason being that taken to its (il)logical conclusion, one might conclude that since a bear is non-kosher, it is the impure, therefore evil, therefore forbidden, therefore not viewable, therefore should be eradicated from any book, zoo, or any other place that I may be exposed to. And this is a classic example of misunderstanding and ignoring common sense. That is certainly not what the Rebbe had in mind. Seriously, while I could be mistaken, I understand it to mean that any exposure to non-kosher animals that is useful and not gratuitous should be fine.

Lip Service

And Hashem said: "Because this people has come near; with their mouth and with their lips they honor Me, but their heart they draw far away from Me, and their fear of Me has become a command of people, which has been taught.

(Yeshayahu 29:13)

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

"Although These Concepts Are Foreign In Secular Society..."

Chabakuk Elisha commenting on Non-Kosher Animal Toys:

Babysitter: One should definitely use their brains and apply the very important rule of “chanoch lenaar al pi darko” – so, it goes without saying that individual cases should be judged based on the specific circumstances. However, I assure you that nobody has ever left the derech because they were deprived of a teddy bear as a child, and were tragically forced to live with a stuffed giraffe or sheep. I would go so far as to say that nobody ever “left the derech” for any other similar deprivations either.

Chazal are busy with statements along these lines that some people in today’s society may feel uncomfortable with, such as the statement that a certain Tanna became the great tzaddik that he was, primarily because his mother who would take him as an infant to the beis medresh (as the Gemara applies the term “ashrei yeladato”), but even if some feel this is “hocus pocus” it remains a theme that exists in Yiddishkeit – especially among Chassidim, who are not so uncomfortable relating to the idea of the effects of ruchnius.

So, just to clarify the point: The Lubavitcher Rebbe was merely reinforcing the concept of purity vs impurity. Although these concepts are foreign in secular society, Judaism takes them seriously, and Rebbe’s message was that we should be sensitive to these issues. Therefore, a mouse, dog, cat, bear, etc, is something that we should replace with a kosher – pure – species. The idea being that our children should relate to those animals, rather than “impure” ones. This can easily be over-applied (and sometimes it is), for example I seriously don’t think that the Rebbe meant that children should never go to the zoo.

I’m sorry, but it really drives me nuts when people point to anything and imply that it causes kids to leave the derech. Arrrrgh! People leave the derech for much more complex reasons than such things, and the #1 reason is bechira.

Like all such things, the problem is in how we go about it, not the matter itself. For example, if we go about these things in a positive way, we are more likely to see success; but if I yell at my kids and basically create a negative atmosphere around minhagim, mitzvos, halachos, etc – then I blew it.

Micha: You’re overcomplicating the matter – which, for some reason, I find that so many people do. The idea here is a simple one (and if I may be so bold as to say that it was directly referring to Disney), which was triggered by “Mendel the Mouse” -- the choice of which, the Rebbe didn’t like. Obviously the (rhetorical) question of names and simanei hashvatim is not the issue, and do to my personal limitations I find it annoying every time people throw it out there.

Simply stated:

Nobody is making you do anything; you can do whatever you like – but this concept is a simple one: It is preferable to use a kosher animal instead of a non-kosher one whenever possible, especially with younger children. This promotes the idea of purity which should be important. That’s all there is to it.

Now, I’ll attempt to provide a theory that might help people that like things black & white (bekitzur nimratz):

#1) We are told that King Chizkia was lauded for hiding the sifrei refuah so that people should trust in Hashem instead of the book of medicines, while at the same time we have a mitzvah of ushmartem es nafshoseichem (taking care of our health), which would seem to be violated if we throw out the doctors guide. So, which is it? Pray or go to the doctor?

#2) Yehoshua is told to run a full military campaign on the city of Ai, while Gideon is told that he should take only a small group in his battle plan to show that victory is from G-d. Isn’t Yehoshua’s victory also from G-d? Which is it – do we wage battle as a normal general, or do we wage war and pray to G-d to deliver us? Again, why the 2 contradictory approaches?

The answer is a little obvious, but Rav Kook explains it nicely: It depends on time and place. When klal Yisroel’s emuna was strong, and they recognized the hand of G-d, they were told to encounter the physical on its terms, but when the emuna was low, we were told to strengthen the emuna and be less dependent on the ways of the world. Balance.

Similarly, I think we can understand the reinforcement for this sensitivity towards purity in our time and place, more than perhaps it was in the past, because society was different.

Question & Answer With Rabbi Yehoishophot Oliver - Non-Kosher Animal Toys

A Simple Jew asks:

We've all heard that the Lubavitcher Rebbe said that children should not play with toy versions of non-kosher animals and yet we see different people doing different things. What did the Rebbe actually say?

Rabbi Yehoishophot Oliver answers:

Let’s look at this in context. First of all, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, consistently speaks about the tremendous importance of providing Jewish children with a full and uncompromised chinuch (education). This is because their entire future, and thus the future of the entire Jewish people, depends upon the education of children being consistent with the Torah.

We find that this is a consistent theme throughout the Rebbe’s letters. Here is an example:

If the responsibility of every man and woman is far greater in the current period than before this period, then this applies all the more with respect to the youth. Every boy and girl is a seed—a fresh tree that will bear fruit in the course of time, which will in turn bear its own fruit, and generations will produce generations. Therefore [the parents] should educate their children and guard them in order that they go in the path of Torah and Mitzvos, and be permeated with the spirit of “our grandfather Yisroel.” The value of this is immeasurable, and the reward of anyone who assists is likewise infinite. (Igros Kodesh, Vol. 6, p. 3.)

In relation to this, the Rebbe regularly emphasizes the need to protect a child from even the smallest detrimental influence, since it may adversely affect his entire future:

In general, in cases where school textbooks contain material of doubtful suitability, one should err on the side of caution, for this is a matter of educating the youth, and one should avoid even a minor deficiency in this area. The analogy for this is well-known: a small scratch in a seed can ruin the entire growth of the tree, G–d forbid. This is easy to understand. (Igros Kodesh, Vol. 18, p. 484.)

Along these lines, the Rebbe emphasized in particular the need for maintaining the purity of very small children.

In particular, the Rebbe initiated the suggestion that a Shir Lamaalos be hung in the room when a baby is first born, and asked that this be widely publicized.

I have translated one of the Rebbe’s public talks on this below, as I believe it will greatly add understanding to the understanding of the Rebbe’s words concerning non-kosher animals:

In general, education begins from childbirth, as the Shulchan Aruch rules:

Still, one should not allow a child to nurse from a gentile woman ... for her milk clogs up the heart, and creates an evil nature in him. Likewise the nursing woman, even if she is a Jew, should not eat forbidden things, nor should the child, for all this will affect him in his old age.

Yoreh De’ah, 81:7.

This demonstrates that part of the parent’s responsibility in educating his child is to protect him from eating non-kosher food. Similarly, we find the Jewish custom to hang a Shir Lamaalos next to a woman who has given birth. One reason for this is as an amulet against undesirable things. However, there is another, educational reason—so that the first thing that the child sees will be something holy.

Granted, the child has only just been born, and still cannot discern between light and darkness, sweet and bitter. Still, now that he has been born and has eyes with which to see the world, one must strive that opposite his eyes there be letters of the Alef Beis, from whose combinations the entire Seder Hishtalshelus [the order of the higher spiritual worlds] was created.

As for the well-known argument that this is only a one-year-old child, who understands nothing, the “Torah of truth” (from the liturgy of the blessing on the Torah) says that as soon as a child comes forth into the world, he is affected by everything that occurs around him. This applies even when one might think that since the child knows nothing, it makes no difference.

In other words, a child is not just influenced by the food he eats and the liquid that he drinks, which would obviously be the case, since they become part of his flesh and blood. Everything that occurs around the child affects his soul, and this effect will become manifest in later years. Certainly the way the parents act affects the child’s soul greatly, even when he is very little.

Moreover, even the behavior of the parents in the nine months before the child’s birth has a recognizable effect on the child.
(Shaarei Halacha U’minhag, Vol. 2, pp. 221-222.)

Likewise, on several occasions (e.g., Sefer HaSichos 5752, p. 357) the Rebbe mentioned that lullabies used to lull a child to fall asleep should also be of a holy nature, such as the old Yiddish tune, “Torah Is Der Besteh Sechoiroh (Torah is the best merchandise).”

The Rebbe also suggests (Hisva’aduyos 5747, Vol. 2, pp. 648-649) that since the very presence of holy books in a room has a powerful impact, a Jewish child’s personal room should be a “house filled with holy books” (Midrash Tanchuma, Korach 2). This means that just as the main thing in a Jewish home should be the holy books, and all other things should be secondary, this should be felt in the child’s personal room. Thus, the child’s room should contain at least a Chumash, a Siddur, and a Haggadah Shel Pesach. It would be even better for it to contain a Tehillim and a Tzedakah pushkeh (charity box). Elsewhere the Rebbe added that each child should also own a personal Tanya (Sefer HaSichos 5752, p. 360).

This brings us to the matter you raised—the caution to ensure that a child not view images of non-kosher animals. The Yiddish version of the Rebbe’s words on this topic, which the Rebbe edited, can be found in Likkutei Sichos, Vol. 25, pp. 309, 310, 311. The Hebrew version, which is a direct translation of the Yiddish, can be found in Hisva’aduyos 5744, Vol. 2, pp. 487, 488, 489, 490. An English adaptation can be read in English online here. I encourage everyone reading this with the required language skills to study the source in the original. Below I will partly paraphrase and partly translate the sicha.

The Rebbe starts the sicha by pointing out that much Jewish literature, both for adults and children, contains illustrations of animals. The Rebbe points out that it would be proper for all such literature to make a point of only using illustrations of kosher animals, birds, and fish, for “A Jew, and especially a Jewish child, should be accustomed to pure things only ... we should strive that a Jew, and especially a Jewish child, should only come across and look at pure things.”

In the footnotes there, the Rebbe cites sources concerning the importance of only seeing images of kosher things. I will quote from these sources briefly, and explain the novelty of each source as I understand it:

The first source I present discusses the positive effect of gazing at holy images:

When a person visualizes a holy image in his mind, the holy image that he imagines in his mind will make his mind complete. ... Rebbi Abba would visualize the image of Rebbi Shimon before him, and through this he would attain great understanding. ... So did our teacher, the Arizal, write—that when one finds difficulty in grasping a Torah subject, he should imagine the form of his teacher, and this will aid him in grasping the concept. (Rabbi Chaim Yosef Dovid Azulai, the Chido, Midbar Kideimos, sec. tziur.)

The idea that visualizing a Tzaddik mentally will have a powerful effect on the person introduces the idea that even a mere image of another thing can exert a powerful spiritual impact.

The Rebbe then cites Rabbi Reuven Margoliyos, who in Toldos Adam, pp. 4, 5, 6, discusses at length the tremendous spiritual benefit of gazing at the face of one’s teacher. He quotes the above statement of the Chido, and based on it and many other sources, Rabbi Margoliyos asserts that one can also fulfill this dictum through gazing at the picture of one’s teacher. He then adds:

From this the opposite develops with respect to the image of a wicked man, at which one should not gaze (Megillah 28a), since this produces wicked character traits [in the personality of the one who gazes]. See Sanhedrin 39b, and in Rashi on ibid. 96[b]: “His [Nevuchadnetzar’s] portrait was engraved on his [Nevuzaradan’s] chariot.”

Rabbi Margoliyos cites two sources in the Gemara as proof. Let’s analyze them:

Sanhedrin 39b describes how Queen Izevel made two pictures of harlots and put them on her husband King Achav’s chariot, in order to arouse him. The Toldos Adam is suggesting that just as Izevel fashioned lascivious images and so enticed her husband to forbidden thoughts despite the fact that these were not actual harlots, so does the image of a wicked person have an adverse effect, despite the fact that one is not gazing upon the person himself.

Sanhedrin 96b describes how the image of Nevuchadnetzar was engraved on Nevuzaradan’s chariot as he travelled to destroy Yerushalayim:

“A servant [honors] his master” (Malachi 1:6): [This is exemplified by Nuvazraden, as it is written:] “In the fifth month, in the tenth day of the month, which was the nineteenth year of King Nevuchadnetzar, king of Babylonia, Nevuzaradan, captain of the executioners, came. He stood before the king of Babylonia in Yerushalayim, and he burned the House of Hashem and the house of the king.” (Yirmiyahu 52:12-13).

But had Nevuchadnetzar gone up to Yerushalayim? Is it not written [of the time of the destruction of the Beis HaMikdash], “They carried him [Tzidkiyahu] up unto the King of Babylon to Rivlah,” (II Melochim 25:6) and R. Abahu said that this [Rivlah] was [the city of] Antioch [which is in what is today southern Turkey]? [Doesn’t this imply that Nevuchadnetzar was in the city of Antioch, not in Yerushalayim?]

R. Chisda and R. Yitzchak b. Avdimi [each offered a solution]. One answered: His [Nevuchadnetzar’s] portrait was engraved on his [Nevuzaradan's] chariot, and the other explained: He [Nevuzaradan] stood in such awe of him [Nevuchadnetzar] that it is as though he were in his presence.

Rashi there explains the opinion that holds that Nevuchadnetzar’s portrait was engraved on Nevuzaradan's chariot:

It seemed to him [Nuvazraden] as if he was standing before him [Nevuchadnetzar when he gazed at his portrait]. Therefore it is written, “Nevuchadnetzar came,” for this refers to his glory [that was manifest to everyone through the image of him on the chariot].

Moreover, the Maharsha explains that this also answers the first verse in that chapter: “Nevuchadnetzar the king of Babylonia came, he and all his army, against Jerusalem, and he encamped by it.” When did Nevuchadnetzar come to Yerushalayim? He did not; rather, his portrait was present, and it was as if he went to Yerushalayim.

What a tremendous impact! Nevuzaradan was “inspired” to destroy the Beis Hamikdash by regularly gazing at the image of his evil master, Nevuchadnetzar. The image of Nevuchadnetzar influenced him so much that it is considered as if Nevuchadnetzar was actually there. This establishes very powerfully the concept that impure images have a very detrimental spiritual impact.

It should be noted that gazing at the face of a wicked Jew also has an adverse spiritual effect. Thus, the Rebbe of Slonim (the Divrei Shmuel) wrote in a letter to parents that “It endangers one’s soul even to gaze at the face of a teacher in the ‘improved chadorim’ [of the Haskalah] for the fear of Heaven cannot be recognized on his face” (Kuntres Uma’ayan p. 16).

In any case, we have established that holy images have a tremendous power to sensitize a Jew to holiness, while unholy, impure images, have the opposite impact, may Hashem save us.

These sources also demonstrate that a detrimental spiritual effect extends to representations of the original thing.

Now let us see how this extends to the non-kosher animals in particular:

... You should know that every sin has a cause that brings one to it indirectly. There is also an indirect cause that brings one to gaze upon forbidden women. The first cause is gazing at impure things, until one’s eye is satiated with his gazing.

It is true that one has permission to see unusual creatures brought from distant countries, and for this our sages established the blessing, “Blessed is the One Who makes unusual creatures.” Nevertheless, one should not satisfy his eyes in gazing at them, and should only look at them in a cursory manner [derech aray]. For one’s eyesight perceives via four colors that correspond to the divine Name of Havayeh [which contains four letters], and if the person sees impure creatures, he elicits a spirit of impurity, which hovers over him in this aspect. This then causes him to gaze at something even worse that brings the person to stumble [in sin]. ...

Therefore our sages, of blessed memory, also said that it is forbidden to gaze upon the countenance of a wicked person (Megillah 28a). Rather, one should accustom one’s eyes to gaze at holy things, and in this way he draws holiness upon himself, and brings great illumination to the four colors within his eyes. ...
(Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Kaidanover, Kav HaYashar, ch. 2, 1-2.)

Kav HaYashar states this idea unequivocally: Simply staring at a forbidden object contaminates the soul.

Several other points deserve to be made in light of this quote.

1. We see that a dispensation is given for one who wishes to look at exotic non-kosher animals for the purpose of marveling at Hashem’s creation, along the lines of King David’s exclamations: “How numerous is Your handiwork, G–d!” (Tehillim 104:24) and “How great is Your handiwork, G–d!” (ibid., 92:6). In the sicha, the Rebbe quotes Kav HaYashar and says that therefore it is acceptable to go to a zoo. Later in the sicha the Rebbe refers to the section entitled “The Gate of Analysis” (Shaar Habechina) in the mussar classic “Duties of the Heart” (Chovos Halevavos). This section discusses at great length the importance of recognizing Hashem’s greatness through the wonders of nature.

Likewise, the Rebbe considers it acceptable to allow children to look at books that contain images of exotic animals and the like, if one’s stated purpose is to bring them to recognize Hashem’s greatness more profoundly. Thus, “Talks and Tales,” a publication that the Rebbe organized for children, included a section called “In Nature’s Wonderland,” which displayed images of exotic non-kosher animals.

2. It appears clear from the way the Kav HaYashar explains his statement that the exceptions to the rule, i.e., the situations in which it is legitimate for one to see impure images, or to allow one’s children to see them (more of which will be discussed below), come with two stipulations. These are: a. One should only look at such images from time to time, not regularly; b. even when one looks at the impure image, one should not gaze upon it, but just look at it quickly and move on.

3. It seems clear from the way that this practice is explained that it is derived from the more general concept of “Sanctify yourself in that which is permitted to you” (kadesh atzmecha b’mutar lach) (Yevamos 30a; Sifri, Re’ei, sec. 104). This is the idea that indulgence in permitted pleasures leads one to indulge in forbidden pleasures. In the Rebbe Rashab’s Kuntres Uma’ayan (p. 66), he explains how the evil inclination brings a Jew to sin, based on the rabbinic statement: “Such is the craft of the evil inclination. Today he tells a person ‘Do this.’ Tomorrow he tells him, ‘Do that.’ Until he tells him, ‘Go and worship idols,’ and the person goes and worships them (Shabbos 105b).” Kuntres Uma’ayan explains: First the evil inclination makes the person coarse and desensitized to holiness by enticing him to indulge in permitted pleasures repeatedly. This makes the person’s desires so coarse and brazen that he craves forbidden pleasures, and then the temptation is so great that he gives in to it.

That statement was written in a general way. However, Kav HaYashar applies this principle to the faculty of sight in general, and gazing at forbidden objects in particular. The more we do it, the coarser our faculty of sight becomes, until one’s desire for inappropriate sights can become so strong that one is tempted to gaze at forbidden things.

It is noteworthy that that this idea of sanctifying one’s sight extends to gazing at anything that is disgusting):

One’s eyes should not gaze at anything disgusting at all. (Rabbi Avraham Azulai, Chessed L’Avraham, Breichas Avraham, sec. 18.)

In this vein, I was once told that one should not look at one’s feces and urine.

4. It should be noted that when one studies the sources provided in the sicha, one sees that this practice applies to any image that is impure, and it seems clear to me that that is the Rebbe’s message. The Rebbe apparently chooses to focus on images of impure animals since they are more prevalent (“dibru chachomim be’hoveh”).

5. This brings us to another point that should be abundantly clear already, but since some people may need to hear it, it deserves to be stated unequivocally.

Part 2 continued here.


Answer me quickly, Hashem, my spirit pines. Do not conceal Your countenance from me, lest I be likened to those who descend into the pit.

(Tehillim 143:7)

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

ראש חדש אדר

Eating & Drinking While Standing

After he finished making our coffee, I observed how the Sudilkover Rebbe made it a point to sit down in order to make a brocha and drink from his cup. This may not seem like any great feat, however, I have tried to be careful about this halacha (see Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 42:2) in the past and cannot say that I have ever been too successful. Invariably, I will walk around at work drinking from my coffee mug or absentmindedly nosh on some cookies while standing in my kitchen when at home.

Witnessing the Rebbe's attention to this halacha, brought it back to the forefront of my consciousness. I asked him if he was careful about this matter, and he replied that indeed he was. However, as an aside, he said that he was also a father and there were certainly times when his children were younger when he may have eaten or drank something while standing up.

Nevertheless, I decided right there and then to be more careful in this area that I routinely ignore. I know that with three small children running around my house that this will be no small challenge.


Postscript: A few months later, I was zoche to speak to the Rebbe about the issue of achila d'kedusha and plan to post his advice on this topic in the future.

יש לומר בזה על דרך משל בענין החתונה

30 Shevat Links - ל שבט

(Picture by J. Chambers)

Dixie Yid:
Knowing One's Self? Or Knowing One's Creator?

Halachically Speaking: Chodosh - Those who are lenient

A Simple Jew: "Did I Miss Something?"

One Last Bite

When a person doesn't leave a piece of bread on the table after his meal, he will never see the signs of blessings.

(Rebbe Nachman of Breslov)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Question & Answer With Moshe David Tokayer - Challenging Routine Mitzvos

(Picture by leila)

A Simple Jew asks:

With the exception of davening, which routine mitzva have you found to be the most challenging?

Moshe David Tokayer answers:

The most challenging mitzvah to me is the mitzvah of, "ואהבת לרעך כמוך/You will love your fellow as you love yourself." The reason is that this is not simply an emotional requirement as it would seem from the simple meaning of the pasuk. The Rambam brings this pasuk as the source for gmilus chassadim as well as other mitzvos such as visiting the sick and consoling mourners. I am in situations daily in which the mitzvah of gemilus chassadim applies.

The are two reasons this mitzvah is particularly difficult for me. The first is that we are not trained to view this mitzvah as requirement. A simple example will illustrate the point. On the way out of Yerushalayim there is always a group of hitchhikers looking for rides. How many times do people pass without considering that the mitzvah of gemilus chassadim applies. Picking up a hitchhiker is not merely a nice thing to do. It is a requirement. The Chafetz Chaim in his classic Ahavas Chessed discusses this in detail and laments that people in his time viewed gemilus chassadim as a nice thing but did not approach it as a requirement the way they approached mitzvos such as tefillin, lulav and matzah.

Even when we do this mitzvah, many times we pat ourselves on the back thinking that we are now big tzadikim because we did something nice for someone when in reality we simply fulfilled a mitzvah that the Torah requires us to do.

The second reason that this mitzvah is difficult is because the physical acts of gemilus chassadim are supposed to reflect the emotional love for the beneficiary of the chessed. In other words, we are supposed to love our fellow Jew enough to want to express that love by doing good for the other person when the situation arises. This level requires work which, for myself, is difficult. It means making it a priority, something about which I am lax and I believe that I am unfortunately not alone.

I think that the way this mitzvah will become more ingrained in our psyche is for the educational institutions to stress it. If it is taught to children from a young age, it will become second nature. Children who are brought up in this way, will be sensitive to situations which require the fulfillment of the mitzvah of gemilus chassadim much the same way that we are sensitive to other mitzvos that we are brought up with.

Parshas Shekalim In Mezhebuz

Pictures by Rabbi Tal Zwecker

Chassidic Stories

In truth, over the course of many years, many stories of tzadikim have gotten switched, and they have changed, one from the other, and even the essence has changed sometimes from what originally happened.

(Reb Arele Roth)

Friday, February 20, 2009

Question & Answer With Yitz - Learning Halacha Every Day

A Simple Jew asks:

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov stressed the importance of learning halacha on a daily basis and that a person should not let even a single a day pass without learning at least one halacha. When learning halacha do you try to focus your learning on those halachos that are immediately relevant and practical?

Yitz of A Waxing Wellspring answers:

My mother once taught me how to succeed in school: If an assignment doesn't interest you, change the assignment so it does. You would think that involves a lot of chutzpah, but in reality most teachers are more interested in your genuine involvement. If your paper/report/essay is different it means it's less boring for the teacher as well. (who would normally have to read 20-30 boring papers)

This is such a simple lesson but it is full of wisdom for school and life. In a way it is analogous to Rebbe Nachman's teaching of finding the good points in oneself and in others.

It's also founded in the teaching of Chazal that whatever comes from the heart enters the heart. If you enjoyed writing the paper, chances are others will enjoy reading the paper.

[When working on presentations to give in front of a group of people the same wisdom prevails: If you enjoy talking about the subject chances are the audience will be more interested as well.]

You'd be surprised but my job has recently taken a radical turn simply because I developed a whole new aspect of our application by virtue of the fact I wanted to learn and do something that was more interesting to me. I didn't get my boss to sign off on the idea first, rather I steered every decision and project subtly in the direction of my interests. It wasn't even something I did intentionally, it was the result of (HaShem's Hesed manifested in) this reflex instilled in me from years of practice -- don't fight something because it goes against your interests, turn it into something worth working on.

When we look at the Torah in this same way it alters our perception of it, and our approach to it. This isn't license to abandon Chazal, rather to find your own place within the world which Chazal has laid out before us.

When you encounter the halachot of a seemingly irrelevant (of course its only seemingly irrelevant!!!) mitzwah, you can ask yourself: How can I relate to this mitzwah, what connections can I draw from this mitzwah to others that I feel are vitally relevant? How can this halachah complete everything else I know about HaShem? How can it contribute to the rest of my Avodah?

A halachah that is boring is a challenge from HaShem, just as any other challenge, HaShem is saying: Find me. Can you connect to me through this halachah, or will you walk away?

The Komarna Rebbe describes the bitterness of Torah. He says that at every level of learning one encounters the bitterness of Torah from time to time, this bitterness is really very very sweet, because it is only through learning through the bitterness that we really get to taste learning Torah l'shmah, for its own sake. It's the bitterness that guards the Torah from those who would use it for ulterior motives, they give up and walk away. But when we learn truly for its own sake, then we add strength and wisdom and thank HaShem for the opportunity to prove our love for Him and His Torah.

When I was a young child I merited to learn this very powerful antidote to the bitterness of Torah from my mother, and now I've shared it with you.

My Rav taught me (according to the Komarna Rebbe) that it is best to learn a sefer from start to finish. So jumping around to the 'relevant' and 'practical' isn't an option.

I chose to answer the implicit question within your question: "What do I do with a halachah that has no relevance to me?"-- rather than the question you asked -- which is a perfect example of the lesson I'm trying to explain.

I am so grateful that HaShem gave me such an opportunity to illustrate the idea so simply.

Seforim Collecting

Bechinos Olam - Sudilkov, 1834

With my recent purchase of this sefer, my collection of seforim from Sudilkov now numbers 30 volumes.

Translation Help Needed

I have two articles that were in Hebrew that I would like translated into English for postings on this blog. One is on the topic of Moshiach and the second is about Shavuous. Would anyone volunteer to translate either of these for me?

Before A Meal

When I was a boy of eight I used to eat because I wanted to eat, and my father would rebuke me saying, "Why are you stuffing yourself?" I didn't know what he wanted from me. But later, when I had grown up a bit, I understood him. And I made myself a "fence": to decide before a meal how much to eat, and no more. Because once you started eating and your stomach expands, you can be dragged into overeating.

(Rebbe Avraham of Slonim)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

In A Past Gilgul

וְאֵלֶּה, הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים, אֲשֶׁר תָּשִׂים, לִפְנֵיהֶם

These are the judgments you shall place before them.” (Shemos 21:1)

Degel Machaneh Ephraim, Parshas Mishpatim:

The Zohar on Parshas Mishpatim 94a comments “These are the orders of reincarnations.” This is quite wondrous since the verse simply goes on to explain the laws of monetary damages.

I have heard that there are times when one takes another to court, and he knows that he is truthfully in the right. However, the case in Torah law judges him guilty rather than innocent.

He should not question this by saying how can this be if the Torah is truth, and its ways are pleasantness? He must assume that he was liable to the other litigant in a previous reincarnation. Now the Torah obligates him to pay in order to discharge his previous obligation.

His litigant who is taking the money dishonestly will also pay for it in the future. These cases are numerous in the laws of money and damages. This is what the Zohar was alluding to. That “These are the judgments” these monetary cases even though they may seem to contradict the truth are actually the order of reincarnations. They are Hashem’s way of settling between litigants since He created the souls and knows their behavior in past reincarnations.

25 Shevat Links - כה שבט

A Fire Burns in Breslov: Month of Adar

Mystical Paths: Of Stories and Inspiration

Chayei Sarah: The Art of the Argument

"Down" Time

Although the thought does creep in at times that one is wasting time with matters of healing and resting and the like; nevertheless, even a small degree of reflection leads to the understanding that the healing process is not a waste of time. On the contrary, the small amount of time that the person thinks is being wasted results in a profit of much time in the future, time that can be utilized by the person in avodas Hashem "in all his ways" - in keeping with the directive of our Sages, as explained at length in Toras HaChassidus - with joy and gladness of heart.

(Lubavitcher Rebbe)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Guest Posting By Rabbi Yaacov Yisroel Bar-Chaiim - The Distinction of Slonim (Part 3)

III. AKShN, Karlin & Modern Orthodoxy

"Abba-Abba, you wouldn't believe it," my boys breathlessly told me, a couple of years back, after a long day at cheider. "The kids say they have an answer to Hollywood!"

"Now why would they be thinking about THAT?" I asked, incredulously.

"Oh, you'd be surprised. They know what's out there. And they know we must combat it. But now they've got a great slogan for doing so…"

"Ok, let's hear it".

"Just like they have 'action', so do we:

A- Emuna (faith)

K- Kedusha (holiness)

Sh- Shabbos

N- Nishmas (a major Shabbos morning prayer)!!"

There's no question that action is what makes the world go round. It's just a matter of the dimension in which it's taking place. While some outsiders see the Chassidic lifestyle as repellant to "the good life", the truth is that we're very intensely seeking it – just within a very different dimension.

At the core is Shabbos.

Slonimers begin Shabbos at candle lighting, wrapped in talleisim and then passionately recite the entire Song of Songs and Psalm 107, known as Hodu. The Nesivos writes about the latter as a powerful novelty introduced by the Besh"t as a means for catapulting into the soul liberation that a true chossid seeks every single Shabbos (volume two, Shabbos u'Moadim, p.43):

Behold, the gateway for transisting between exile and redemption is by way of the profound sigh that a Jew emits as he sighs in the recesses of his heart about his distance from his Father in Heaven and about the dividing screens which were (spiritually) created as a result of his blemishes. For a sigh is the beginning of redemption, as we find in the Egyptian exile that the Redemption began by way of four languages of sigh, as it's written (Ex. 2): 'And the children of Israel sighed and screamed and their groans ascended to G-d from the labor. And G-d heard their moans.'

(…The fact is that) they weren't even able to sigh that sigh as it should be as long as the time of Redemption had not come (…) Only when the time came for the blessed Holy One to help them were they capable of sighing in a way that would facilitate the Redemption. As per the dictum of the righteous: 'People say about the issue of effort that G-d helps those who help themselves. Yet the truth is not like this! Rather, only when the blessed Holy One helps is there an opening for doing anything.'

(…) Thus is explained the matter of saying Hodu with the oncoming of Shabbos. For within it are expressed the deepest Jewish susurrations concerning the four types and forms of crisis, materially and spiritually, within which he is absorbed during (the week), which peaks at the time of Shabbos eve wherein he feels utterly incapable of opening his mouth in prayer except for screaming out the simplest of screams!

(…) And so the verses of our psalm develop and allude (… The highest of these sighs) being rooted in the craving, longing and pining for G-dliness (…) This is the sigh of Shabbos itself, emerging from the overwhelming feeling of the sweetly delectable, supreme delight of holy Shabbos.

(…) About this sigh we say in the Nishmas (prayer): 'To the languish of the paupers You hear; to the scream of the downtrodden You listen and deliver'.

So we gain a little insight into the "Akshn" of Slonim. It's all about tapping into the deepest soul pang which, when expressed with an entire community of kindred souls, is unbelievably cleansing and uplifting. The fact that people come from nearly all walks of life, every week, to partake in the leil Shabbos Tisch (festive table), tanz (dance) and zitz (quiet "sitting" and singing, in this case within a totally dark dining room) that follows speaks volumes for the holy action that is taking place.

Yet the general idea is not unique to Slonim. There are more than a few other Jewish communities in the world who tap into this same font of holy Shabbos action. Still, Slonim maintains a fine difference which I dare say goes all the way back to the beginning of the chossidic movement.

Rav Aharon Ha'Gadol from Karlin and the Maggid from Mezritch were two of the most outstanding disciples of the Besh"t. Both were known for their extremely intense preparations for holy Shabbos. Legend has it that once the Maggid sent a messenger to Rav Aharon, living in a completely different town, to ask him to stop saying the Song of Songs with such intensity on erev Shabbos since the way the heavens shake when he does so wakes him up from his sleep! Now you've got to pay close attention to this: Even though Rav Aharon's praying was so real that it affected the Maggid's sleep in a completely different town, the Maggid nevertheless deemed his sleep was more worthwhile!!

For the rest of us, of course, there's no presumption of judging another's Shabbos actions. There are those who do it quietly and those who do it with a bang. The main thing is to pour your whole heart and soul into it. Indeed, as we've learned, Slonim's orientation is to finely balance. So too you'll find in the central Slonimer Shul in Mea Shearim that with candle lighting, as the Rebbe enters, the atmosphere is charged with something akin to a giant, restrained scream. By the time the after-meal Tisch occurs and the niggunim finally burst forth, in full glory, the air is so thick with a mixture of teshuva and oneg that you feel as if you're in a spaceship hurdling into nowhere and everywhere at the same time!

In contrast, if you'd enter the Toldos Aharon or Karliner Shuls down the block, you'd find much more vociferous excitement. Both bodies and voices are moving light years faster than Slonim could ever dream of, clearly at the head of some sort of cosmic race!

There was a wedding a few years back between a couple related to the Rebbes of Karlin and Slonim. The Kallah's side was Karlin and so the chuppa took place in their courtyard. The pre-chuppa Tisch and main dancing took place by Slonim, a ten minute walk away. The difference in energy between those two worlds in such close proximity was utterly mind boggling. To this day I still hear Slonimers recall the daze they felt by the speed with which the Karliners set up the bleachers and how sport like it seemed that they cheered their Rebbe during the Mitzvah-tanz. The Karliners I met say they can never forget the piercing intensity of the niggun we sang for our Rebbe's tanz.

A young Karliner once told me that it's striking how the three chossidic groups from Lithuania all daven so differently: Lubavitch whispers, Karlin screams and Slonim does a little of both!

Which brings me to a final comparison.

I call this last community Modern Orthodox though I'm sure there are plenty who would prefer to subdivide this scattered, Rebbe-less folk based on various ideologies and dress. As far as I'm concerned, however, this is one large community of all those who are concomitantly devoted to Torah Law and modernity; whose source of action is found in both worlds.

The fact that they also need to balance is something that naturally engenders affinity with Slonim. My main reason for comparing them, however, goes much deeper. There is a very real phenomenon of learning the Nesivos within the Modern Orthodox world today. While it's remarkable enough to have one, contemporary seifer learned so extensively amongst different chossidim (the Pitsburger Rebbe calls it THE weapon against our generation's Yeitzer; the Belzer calls its author "the professor of Chossidus" and has ALL his cheidarim learn it, daily!), it's truly revolutionary to see such an attraction amongst the Modern to one of those "fanatical" chassidic texts. In fact, throughout the entire world you can find chaburas of Baalei Teshuva, Litvische-lite, religious Zionist and even Sefaradim with set sedarim (schedules) for learning the Nesivos – or what some may call the Netivot!

I know this from many reports and also from my own, brief globe trotting. Undoubtedly it has something to do with its exceptional written style. There's nothing quite like its fluid, poetic and yet totally unpretentious Hebrew that allows for those who struggle with classic Jewish texts feel like THIS is one Torah ocean in which I can swim. Still, that's not what keeps them coming back.

Rather, I think a key can be found in what I learned at the end of my first meeting with the Nesivos, back in 1995, which was one of his last meetings with "outsiders". I had mentioned that I was about to start teaching an extra curricular Jewish philosophy class for secular Israeli high school students. You know – the virulently anti-religious types. Although I had originally planned on including some excerpts from his sforim within the handouts, after having just been ignited by his world of pristine holiness I was beginning to think that it would be an utter travesty.

"Would the Rebbe agree to me using his teachings in such a secular environment?", I asked, totally prepared to abandon the plan.

"For WHAT ELSE did I write it!", he exclaimed.

Now, in retrospect, I imagine there are quite a few answers to that question. Back then, however, all I could think about is that this seifer was so pure that NO one could pull it down. Indeed, the most striking fact I've learned in the last decade of observing the explosion of the Nesivos's popularity is that EVERY one comes out a little finer and deeper. There's always a "pshhhh" and "auh!" shining straight out of the heart, energizing every limb with a brand new commitment to joining the holy action of serving our Father in Heaven, may His great name be blessed.

Still, there's something else. It's hard to put your finger on it. It revolves around the fact that you'll never find a single Slonimer trying to persuade a single one of these fine yidden to join the community. Nor do they try.

Perhaps it's like the story commonly retold about the Beis Avraham, the third Slonimer Rebbe zy"a, when he visited Eretz Yisroel and stayed in the home of a beardless chossid in Tiveria. A jealous chossid privately approached the Rebbe and asked if it wasn't below his honor to stay at such a place. The Rebbe responded: "It's true, one of the first questions that many Jews are going to be asked when they pass from this world is 'Reb Yid – where's your beard?' But much more condemning is the question, 'Reb Beard – where's your Yid??'

Yes, THAT's the kind of question that pulsates throughout the Nesivos and bonds Slonimers with M.O.'s. For it drives home the Talmudic truth that we all hold so dear (Sanhedrin 106B): Rachmana liba boee, the Compassionate One wants first and foremost the heart.

The purely Jewish heart that is always beseeching, Reb Mitzvah – where's the Ohr!

Reb Yaacov dancing in his Succa with Slonimers and Modern Orthodox

The Path of Simplicity

“The fool goes in darkness…” (Koheles 2:14). The tzaddik Rabbi Moshe Leib of Sasov said, “The wise man—what does he do in darkness? He stands, and doesn’t go.”

This is what he meant: when the fool is in darkness, that is, in a state of spiritual apathy, sadness, or depression, he “goes” seeking greatness and awesomeness. He goes, chasing great rungs of G-d’s light. But when he does not attain to these rungs, then he begins to loathe Torah and prayer. He does not want to endure the yoke of Torah and service. He begins to pray late and hurriedly, rushing like a fast horseback rider. His learning and the rest of his service are like this too. All he wants is greatness.

But when the wise man is in darkness, in a state of wretchedness, he stands still—at least that is how it appears to him. Then he takes the path of the simple man. He learns and prays with simplicity. He connects with the love of Israel. And he returns to all the rungs. For the mercies of G-d are manifold: He has mercy on all, whatever level one is on, however much awareness or will one has.

(Rebbe Yitzchak Isaac of Komarna)

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Guest Posting By Rabbi Yaacov Yisroel Bar-Chaiim - The Distinction of Slonim (Part 2)

The previous Slonimer Rebbe, ztsvk"l,
as a young Avreich, new in Eretz Yisroel, 1940's

II. Daas, Chabad & Mussar

Slonim has become a major force in the unofficial world of Torah Psychology. This is certainly true over the last twenty odd years since the spectacular teachings of the previous Rebbe ztsvk"l were published. Both the style and contents of his Nesivos Sholom have filled a gaping chasm left between the behavioral and cognitive schools of Torah Judaism, respectively led by the Baalei Mussar and Lubavitcher Rebbes. While reading his sefarim, both the moderately educated Baal Teshuva and the highly scholastic Talmid Chacham become swiftly absorbed within the exquisite balance he strikes between pure heart, incisive mind, soaring soul and common sense.

The roots to this fine spiritual equilibrium go back to the first Slonimer Rebbe, or Saba Kadisha m'Slonim (1804-1883), who wrote his flagship Yesod HaAvoda as a counter to the attacks of the Misnagdim on the first major work of Chassidic philosophy, the Tanya, by the Alter Rebbe of Lubavitch. Taking the arguments onto the turf of the attackers, in the realm of Talmud and Midrash, as opposed to the Tanya's heavy reliance on Kabbalah (even though the Slonimer was a giant in Kabbalah), the Yesod HaAvoda redefined the issue of dveikus, cleaving to G-d. More than a rarified intellectual experience which the Tanya constantly refers to via the concept of Chabad (acronym for wisdom-understanding-knowing), the Slonimer emphasized the primacy of heart.

"Evil cannot be uprooted by the intellect alone!" was a major principle.

Perhaps it could be said that Slonim's psychology parallels what's called today Emotional Intelligence. I've heard the Rebbe shlit"a referred to as a gaon b'regesh, a genius of feeling. And the Nesivos was, by all accounts, a walking volcano of feeling for everything holy. The way he'd turn to the Chassidim on Chanukah and simply cry out: "the essence of this time is to I-G-N-I-T-E the soul" – and actually bring light into each and every chassid's heart! – is legendary. The Mashgiach in his Yeshiva days in Branovich Poland, HaRav Moshe Midner zts"l, was said to hardly make a noise when he davened. He'd close his eyes and crunch himself into an intense, fiery focus and quietly remain that way until he'd finish. Once he suddenly grabbed the shtender and slammed it back down, utterly shattering it, as he continued his Shmona-Esrai "Silent" prayer, eyes still closed – as if nothing happened!

Yet emotion is not really it. Slonim's issue is Daas, which is the supernal realm between the heart and mind. It's a soul knowing that totally unifies with the Knowee, as per the first Torah usage of the verb in respect to Adam "knowing" his wife, V'Adom yoda es Chava eeshto.

Daas chasarta mah kinisa, the Nesivos brings in the name of the Midrash as an opening to his Magnum Opus. "If you haven't acquired Daas, then what have you?" Among his many supports is the explanation of the Yesod HaAvoda on the talmudic discussion about the minimal gift a man needs to offer a woman in order to validate their marriage. "If he says to her 'marry me on condition that I'm completely righteous' – even if he's (known for being) completely wicked, (if she agrees then) it’s valid, since (we assume that) perhaps (in the interim) hirher teshuva b'daaso, he repented in his Daas."

The key to understanding this extraordinary legal ruling is the Daas, the Slonimers explain. It could have said sikhlo, his intellect, or libo, his heart. But the Sages knew better. For Daas, as we've said, is the subtle link between the two that makes all the difference. Even if one's soul has been completely corrupted, the second he chooses to repent within this delicately balanced mind-heart consciousness, his whole being can positively transform (and thereby he can offer himself as the gift of gifts to his bride!).

Another midrashic teaching which the Nesivos novelly interprets is "chochma b'goyim taamin; Torah b'goyim al taamin!" He explains this to mean that bare, theoretical wisdom (chochma) is something that even the gentiles can access. Torah, on the other hand, refers to a very different kind of wisdom; one that emerges from the experience of total self abnegation, driven by the heart and mind working in unison.

In other words, Daas is the highroad to the unique Jewish experience. One who realizes this no longer needs to get bogged down by the chochma-bina process (cf. Tanya ch.'s 18-19; Nesivos I, Intro. 5).

I've accordingly often thought of Slonim as Daas Chassidus. Yet NO one in Slonim would call it that!

The reason is that while it's undeniable that achieving Daas is our major avoda, it's by definition nothing to set on a pedestal. The third Slonimer Rebbe, the author of Beis Avraham (1884 -1933) often would repeat the dictum: "the world says that if you can't go from above, go from below; yet the truly righteous say if you can't go from below, go from above and above!" I asked the Rebbe shlit"a once about this and he mentioned, with a smile, how Chabad has a similar saying with a different emphasis: "Always go from above!"

What's above?

Love of G-d.


Fear of G-d.


Ah, this is the purest love that emerges from misras nefesh, total self sacrifice. It comes only occasionally, but must be constantly aspired to, the Rebbe continued as he straightened up, radiating an unbelievable sense of vision.

So where do we b-e-g-i-n, I tremulously asked?

From below, he glowed.

Which brings us to Mussar.

Slonim has always been known as a "Litvishe Chassidus." Though there were a few other schools of chossidus that took hold in Lithuania, only Slonim embraced the Mussar principles underlying that outstanding slice of Torah Jewry. That is, even though the typical Litvak took great issue with the chassidic quest to know G-d outside of formal Torah observance, preferring to spend their "free time" on the much more tangible work of refining their characters, Slonim managed to do both. Avodas HaMiddos was for them the highway to the highroad to Daas H'.

Undoubtedly, this unique blend is what intrigued the Yeshiva world with Slonim and has allowed them to increasingly stock Slonimer texts in their very selective libraries. For in Slonim they saw that Chassidus need not be an alternative to their ideal of Daas Torah, but a compliment. In fact, Slonim's approach to Torah learning is every bit as probing and analytical as the typical Litvische Yeshiva, in contrast to the breadth emphasis amongst most Chassiduses. They do this, however, not because they consider Torah knowledge as the end all but as the supreme means to Daas Hashem. When the previous Rosh Yeshiva of Ponevitch, HaRav Menachem Shach, zts"l, once enthused that "the Nesivos Sholom is the Mesilas Yesharim (the classic Mussar seifer) of our generation!", he meant it as a rare sign of approval and even affection for a Chassidic text.

In real terms, one would be hard pressed to find another chassidic cheider system as organized and clean as Slonim's. From the other extreme, no where in the chassidic world is there a steady stream of niggunim as excruciatingly insistent on repentance and self improvement as there are in Slonim. Fascinatingly, Lubavitcher niggunim frequently enter the repertoire of Slonimer zitzim, song-gatherings, but always with a significant kvetch.

As if to squeeze the theory out of it!

Very indicative of the influence of Mussar on present day Slonim is what I recently heard from the present Slonimer Rosh Yeshiva about what the Rebbe once told a chossid concerning davening: "If your neighbor in Shul indicates that your davening style is bothering him, even if you're convinced that you're totally sincere, the onus of moving or modifying is upon YOU!"

No other conceivable Rebbe could say such a thing.

A Lubavitcher once came to Slonim on Succos, during a Simchas Beis HaShoeva, and commented to me, totally perplexed: "Never have I seen so many chossidim celebrating together with good Middos!" After a long chuckle, it got me thinking. While I certainly can bear witness that Slonim is NOT a paragon of perfected characters, it is most definitely a central interest of ours which for some odd reason does not concern most other Chassidim. Either they're way up with the angels or way down with the broken hearted.

Apparently they left the middle ground for us.

The Nesivos Sholom ztsvk"l