Monday, August 31, 2009

A Conversation About Zionism & Anti-Zionism

A Simple Jew:

I have been told that the question of whether or not one can vote in Israeli elections should actually be a real halachic question, because by voting you are essentially saying that you know decisively that Hashem wants a secular Jewish government to run the holy land.

Chabakuk Elisha:

We know decisively that Hashem wants a secular Jewish government to run the holy land because there is one in place.

A Simple Jew:

Just like we know that Hamas should be in power in Gaza and Ahmadinejad in Iran. It must be Hashem's will that they are in power?

Chabakuk Elisha:


A Simple Jew:

So, given that fact, how can a Jew be against Obama's policies if Hashem put him in office?

Chabakuk Elisha:

These are two different issues - a person can oppose policies and fight for policies that he believes are good. At the same time, he doesn't think for a second that the legitimacy of Obama's presidency is in question or is sanctioned from Above.

A Simple Jew:

How would a Satmar chassid respond to the claim that we know decisively that Hashem wants a secular Jewish government to run the holy land because there is one in place?

Chabakuk Elisha:

The Satmar Rov held that the medina (State of Israel) was a nisayon (test).

A Simple Jew:

How is a person to know if any "reality" in Olam Hazeh is Hashem's will or a nisayon?

If a person finds someone to marry, it may not, in fact, be beshert, but rather a nisayon...

If a person finds a new house, it may not be what is best for him, but rather a nisayon...

Chabakuk Elisha:

Indeed and it would seem to be our job to deal with them the same way in either case.

A Simple Jew:

Why would we deal with them in the same way in either case?

Chabakuk Elisha:

This is the common example that is used for reality vs. nisayon:

It seemed that Moshe didn't come back from Mt Sinai on time. The Midrash says that the Satan showed them an image of Moshe's death - which we would assume means that it looked to them to be a true witnessing of Moshe's passing.

That was a nisayon - but there was no way to know. How should the Jews have dealt with it? By following what Moshe taught them regardless of if he had or had not passed away. Basically, it's irrelevant - were supposed to continue doing what were taught. We aren't supposed to "know" that its a nisayon or not.

A Simple Jew:

So if the medina, wife, or new house is really a nisayon we just need to keep our nose to the grindstone and keep plugging ahead with Torah and mitzvos regardless, correct?

Chabakuk Elisha:

Right, but that does not mean that we need to dispute the "facts." We continue as best we can under the circumstances. For example, the Yidden were not necessarily supposed to believe that what they saw had to be false. As in the old story that every Chabad yeshiva tells:

Scientists find out and the media reports that the entire earth will be flooded under water in one week. Some people laugh, others commit suicide, others pray, others curse their god, others climb the tallest mountains regardless of the fact that it wont help. A Chossid continues to follow Torah and mitzvos and knows that he has a week to learn how to live under water.

A Simple Jew:

But can't one say he is not disputing the facts, he just hasn't reached a conclusion whether it is Hashem's ratzon or a nisayon?

Religious Zionists are saying unequivocally that the medina is Hashem's ratzon. I am saying that I simply don't know and it could be either...

Chabakuk Elisha:

The real question is: what is the practical difference in daily life and why?

A Simple Jew:

True, but you are dodging my question...

Chabakuk Elisha:

Not dodging at all!

There is a well known story about the chassidim of the Maggid of Mezritch: Many of the lesser talmidim would take care if the furnace in the shul and were generally around the Maggid's Beis Hamedresh. At night they would talk among themselves and on one occasion the discussion turned to what would they do if they were running the world. Among them there were different ideas that were proposed to make the world a better place. After a while, they asked the future Baal HaTanya, who happened to be in the room at the time, how he would have do it if he was running the universe, and his reply: Exactly the way it is.

We accept that G-d wants it this way and our job is to do our best under the circumstances. As Rabbi Meir Schiller likes to use the mashul of a football game - specifically the famous "Ice Bowl" game - where the game goes on no matter what, and come rain, snow or ice, we march on.

So, is it a nisayon or ratzon Hashem? Is there even a difference between the two? I have no way to know, but I can know that my job is to play the hand we're dealt in the most effective way.

A Simple Jew:

So bottom line, what you are saying is keep doing what you are doing and keep your nose out of someone else's issue. If he chooses to spin his wheels for this or against that it should remain his business and not mine, correct?

Chabakuk Elisha:

What I mean is this: Do your part. Be the best Jew you can be. Try to make the world a better place within your abilities. And one more thing: Try not to outsmart yourself.

A Simple Jew:

Is what I am doing ubertrachten?

I thought I was trying to determine what my position on this issue was. I have, however, come to the conclusion that this is not something I need to have an opinion on.

That said, my final opinion is that the Zionists and the anti-Zionists are spinning their wheels with something they don't know 100%.

Chabakuk Elisha:

Well said - except instead of "don't know" I would say "can't know."

And a case of overthinking, would be saying that it's halachically problematic to vote since that sort of affirms the existence of the state.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Rabbi Itche Meyer Morgenstern: Acquiring The Torah

A person who takes one tractate of Shas and learns it many times connects deeply with the Shechinah, since every tractate is an aspect of Malchus, the “queen” who is the crown of Her Husband. [This means that through learning Talmud vigorously one assumes the Kingship of Hashem and enables the Shechinah to connect with Hashem.]

But this does not mean merely knowing what the tractate says without connecting to the essence of Torah, which is Hashem Himself. As the Zohar states: “The Torah, the Jewish people, and the Holy One are one.” Through learning a tractate in this manner we connect to Hashem, since our supernal Source is accessible through the Gemara.

The same is true with all other areas of Torah. Each person must master them all so to renew and strengthen his connection with Hashem. This is our purpose in the world: to learn Torah as if we have nothing else to do so that we can connect to Hashem. At this level, “The breath of the Almighty gives them understanding.” Hashem teaches us feasible and effective strategies to truly change and repent.

Even if one only attains mastery in one tractate, he must recall that the Baal Shem Tov taught that one who grasps a part of holiness has really attained everything [since, in holiness, each aspect is inter-inclusive with the others]. Similarly, one who masters even one tractate can also connected to the Shechinah in a very powerful manner. Through studying Torah in this way, one accesses the light of ככ"ה—of כתר כל הכתרים, the “crown of crowns.”

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Guest Posting By Chabakuk Elisha - Yichus

I was once sitting with a very special man who happens to be a descendant of many early Chassidic Rebbes – such as the Baal Shem Tov, the Berditchever, R’ Shmelke of Nikolsburg, the Hafloh, and the Chozeh of Lublin. The topic of yichus (lineage) came up, and he said to me:

“Yichus is a big zero. A zero is nothing, but if you place a one in front of it you have ten.”

My first thought was: “Yeah – easy for him to say.”

Now, as far as yichus goes, it’s a great thing. A child is an extension of his parents and if this child is raised by great people (who were in turn raised by great people) this should set the child on a path towards greatness. There are statements in the Torah and by Chazal, as well as halachos and customs that all seem to take yichus very seriously. Yichus seems to be a real Jewish value.

That said, there can be a dark side as well. How many great people have had children who grow up with a sense of entitlement and undeserved haughtiness? How many people put on airs and think they’re the cat’s meow just because they may have had a grandfather or two that did something special? Is there not a more disgusting ego-trip? Isn’t yichus just representative of the archaic hyper-class-conscious, elitist, corrupt society? History has shown how many of our great institutions were derailed due to corruption that can be directly related to nepotism. We’ve all seen examples of it. I’ve seen some of these cases, and I can’t help but shake my head.

Furthermore, we often proclaim the greatness of overcoming hurdles. One who comes from humble beginnings but reaches greatness is a value that all people recognize – especially in Yiddishkeit. We are taught that the Baal Teshuva reaches heights beyond those of the Tzaddik. And let’s remember that when Chassidus initially came onto the scene, they were the anti-yichus movement. A great part of the appeal of the Chassidic revolution was its decided meritocracy as opposed to the status quo. Of course, all of that has changed, but we can still revisit the classic Chassidic tale of the Mezricher Maggid (later to be successor to the Baal Shem Tov, father of the famed R’ Avrohom the Malach and grandfather to the Rizhiner dynasty:

When he was five years old, a fire burned down his house. His mother, brokenhearted, looked upon the rubble in tears. When asked, she explained to her son that she was not crying because she had lost their house, rather, that the cause of her great grief was that their important shtar yuchsin (family tree) was destroyed in the fire. Tradition has it that the five year old, future leader of the Chassidic world, consoled his mother saying, "Don't worry mother, I am going to start a new 'yichus tree' beginning with me."

This is classic story with classic appeal – we have discarded the often disgusting claims of yichus and replaced it with self-made greatness. Yet, the story does maintain the value of yichus, as we are informed that Maggid really DOES have a great yichus – unknown as it is. Here we seem to have it both ways.

Contemporary society – especially American society – completely clashes with this attitude, and this is part of the problem. The very idea of yichus is somewhat of an anathema to us in the modern world. So what’s the real deal on yichus?

Let’s go all the way back to the Avos:

“Yitzchok entreated the Lord for his wife, because she was barren; and the Lord was entreated of him, and Rivka his wife conceived (Bereishis 25:21)” – Rashi tells us (based on Gemara Yevamos 64a) the power of yichus: “One cannot compare the prayer of a tzaddik who is the child of a tzaddik to the prayers of a tzaddik the child of a wicked person – therefore Hashem listened to Yitzchok’s prayer before Rivka’s.

And the obvious question is: That doesn’t seem fair; why is that so, and why should that be so? After all, doesn’t the very same Rashi earlier point out Rivka’s special merit that she was “a rose among thorns”? For Yitzchok to be great was a far lesser achievement!

And the answer may not be Earth shattering, but it remains true:

None of us stand on our own. At best, we are midgets on the shoulders of others. To understand yichus we must first understand that. An individual on their own has a very limited amount of merits; prayer – tefilla – is uniquely dependent on those merits, and for this reason we “cannot compare the merits of a tzaddik ben tzaddik to one who is not. For this reason we ask others to pray on our behalf. For this reason we ask tzaddikim to pray for us or those who we may be concerned about. For this reason, Jews visit gravesites of the righteous. Prayer takes merits.

This is also why Yaakov was afraid of Esav – because he suspected that he was lacking merits. This is why, Rashi told us in Parshas Shoftim, that there was an exemption from battle for those who were afraid they lacked the merits to succeed. And this is also part of what the concept of ibbur neshamos and gilgulim is about – a soul connection to individuals whose merits assist us today. This is what is meant when we are told how Rabbi Elazar ben Durdaya died a baal teshuva, but arrived in Heaven without any garments (merits) and he was given the garment of Yochanan Kohen Gadol.

Yichus is humbling – if it goes to our heads, it’s just a big zero…

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"The Air Was Not Good"

Earlier this year, I had the zechus of having a shiur over the phone with the Sudilkover Rebbe on a one paragraph mashul found in the Likkutim section of Degel Machaneh Ephraim.

"There is a parable of a prince whose father sent him to another country where the air was not good. He gave him a garment so that when he went outside he could wear that covering against the air that wasn't good. The characteristic of the air was that of deforming a person's body; and as the deformity entered the body, it also appeared in the garment. One had to keep watch against this. The moral is that the king's son is each person, and the garment is his neshoma. This is enough for one who understands."

The Sudilkover Rebbe explained this mashal word by word as follows:

There is a parable of a prince (בן מלך): This prince is every Jew. He must constantly remember that he is indeed the son of the King and not a commoner.

whose father sent him to another country where the air was not good: Our Father - the Ribbono shel Olam - sent our neshomas from under the Heavenly Throne down into this world; a world whose very atmosphere may be corrosive to us at times.

It is important to pay attention to the Degel's word choice when describing the air. He did not descibe it as "bad". Rather, he wrote that it was "not good" (לא טוב). He chose these words to remind us to always maintain a focus on that which is positive.

He gave him a garment so that when he went outside he could wear that covering against the air that wasn't good: Hashem did not create us like an animal, as a body that follows our natural inclinations and base desires. Hashem clothed our body with a soul comprised of five levels (nefesh, ruach, neshoma, chaya, and yechida). It is this soul that allows us to continue to live and exist in this world.

The characteristic of the air was that of deforming a person's body; and as the deformity entered the body, it also appeared in the garment: The neshoma may become blemished through the actions of the body in this world; though the gazing of an eye, the listening of an ear, or the speaking of a mouth.

One had to keep watch against this: The air of this world confuses a person and leads him to believe that it is governed by moral relativism and that there is simply nothing wrong with any action that contradicts the Torah; it tells him that deeds are deeds and nothing more.

A person, however, must know that there is no such thing as a meanlingless or futile day. Each one of us must remember every morning when saying Modeh Ani that we would not have woken up unless Hashem continued to need us and expect us to fulfill a unique and vital mission in this world.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Dog In Elul

Expecting Different Results?

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

Insanity is thinking that I can continue to fly on auto-pilot in my avodas Hashem; flying without remembering to maintain regular communication with the control tower.

Insanity is thinking that I can continue to think about, speak about, and speak to my fellow human being without full cognizance and focus on their nekudos tovos.

Insanity is thinking that my level of avoda during the month of Av was sufficient for serving Hashem in this month of Elul.

5 Elul Links - ה אלול

The Blog @ Likutei Moharan

Just call me Chaviva: Inauthentic: Laughing Off My Judaism

Daf Yomi: Evil Eye

A Simple Jew: All Of These Thoughts From A Cool Morning Breeze Gid

Monday, August 24, 2009

Question & Answer With Yitz Of Heichal HaNegina - Learning Yiddish

A Simple Jew asks:

How did you go about learning Yiddish?

Yitz answers:

Firstly, I have to admit that I have a distinct advantage of having a "good ear." My hearing is very sensitive, and I often hear things that others in the same room, even right next to me, don't hear. I once met someone whom I only had spoken to over the phone, I had never seen him face-to-face, but when I heard his voice, I knew who he was! So, that certainly helped me to learn Yiddish.

Another thing that I found helpful for us English speakers is that Yiddish is Germanic-based, and English is also, to a large extent. Yes, there are many words in English that are not so - they are based on the Romance languages [Latin-French-Spanish-Italian, etc.] - but I think the Germanic influence is stronger. So it didn't take to long to figure out that "breng" is Yiddish for "bring," or that "a hindred / hoondred" is "a hundred," and so forth.

Another advantage I had is that my dear wife is actually a native Yiddish speaker. That is, it was her first language, being that her parents are Holocaust survivors from Poland. So hearing her speak to her parents [or others], or just being able to ask her what a particular word meant, was a boon to my learning of Yiddish.

Of course, to learn any language, motivation is most important. The story goes that some American GIs in World War II were notified that they were going to be sent to Japan within a very short period of time – a number of weeks [maybe 8 or 9 at the most]. They were given a "crash course" in Japanese, and the motivation, knowing that their lives might depend on their understanding of the language, enabled them to learn it in this short time period.

So with my entry into the religious-Jewish-yeshivish as a baal teshuva provided me with an impetus and motivation to learn Yiddish. Let me say that it opens vistas one never has known before: whether it’s a shiur from a gadol baTorah, a Chassidic discourse from a Rebbe, or just plain, everyday conversation between Jews, Yiddish is an invaluable asset. In addition, the straight-from-the-heart nature of Yiddish conveys Jewish feelings and humor the way no other language can.

So how did I go about learning it? Actually, it was a rather simple process. Rather than taking a course, or memorizing the dictionary, I decided that it would be best to learn Yiddish from something I wanted to learn anyway. And what better source could there be than Chumash with Rashi? So I bought a set of “Beis Yehuda,” with the Chumash and Rashi translated into Yiddish, and learned the weekly parsha from it. Of course, the fact that I had been through Chumash-Rashi in both Hebrew and English many times before was certainly a big help.

So, already knowing what the Chumash and Rashi were ‘saying,’ it was only a matter of enriching my Yiddish vocabulary, that I could do by studying the Beis Yehuda. As I learned the pasukim and Rashi’s commentary, I would peek over to the Beis Yehuda to see how he translated this word or that. And reading through whole pasukim or Rashis in Yiddish also gave me a background of Yiddish grammatical structure, which is similar [but not always the same] to German.

So there you have it. We Americans have a distinct disadvantage in learning languages compared to most of the rest of the world. That is, since the American culture is pretty much the dominant one in the world, English is spoken [or at least, usually, understood] throughout the globe. Also, America being such a large country, and bordered to the north by another mammoth-size English-speaking country, Canada, the need for another language is virtually not there. Compare this to Europe, where there are so many countries, each with its own language [or two or three]…or to Israel, where, besides Hebrew, there’s English, Russian, Yiddish, French, Arabic, Ladino, Amharic, etc. spoken, and you can see that Americans have a disadvantage.

But don’t be taken aback - with a little bit of effort, and as mentioned, motivation, you can do it! A groise hatzlucha - may you have a big success!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Rabbi Itche Meyer Morgenstern: Elul

With the advent of the holy days of Elul, a Jew tends to think, “Who will guarantee that this time I will return to Hashem? Days and months have passed and I have tried so hard to repent. Despite this, I am still very far from truly changing for the better…”

Although one is obligated to find workable strategies to return to his Creator by rectifying his actions every day, each person nevertheless feels that he cannot possibly overcome his evil inclination—which re-gathers force against him every day. How can anyone really stand up to such a challenge? By what stratagem can one finally rid himself of his yetzer hara?

Rebbe Nachman teaches that the first step through the gates of the repentance of Elul is to accept the embarrassment and shame that every Jew experiences in silence. For the main goal of of tesuvah is to reach the level of Kesser as symbolized by the letter alef. This is the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet and represents the towering level of Atikah Sesima’ah (literally, this is the “Ancient Hidden One” and refers to the level of Chochmah within Atik / Kesser—the higher level of Kesser). In terms of one’s personal spiritual work, this signifies a deep inner repentance that brings to true and lasting change.

There are two elements of teshuvah associated with the letter alef. The first is that one must feel ashamed and embarrassed that he does not yet serve Hashem as is proper and fitting. Failure to successfully navigate spiritual tests is the ultimate humiliation and should cause one intense pain. We petition Hashem during our morning prayers that He not bring us “to the hands of a test or a shaming”—which indicates that if one doesn’t stand strong in a spiritual trial, one suffers severe embarrassment. Feeling the pain of this embarrassment yet bearing it with dignity and patience, with the understanding that such feelings of pain and frustration are from heaven to expose one’s limitations and bring him to humility, is the primary step toward true teshuvah.

"The Service Of Hashem Of Such A Person Is Dependent Only Upon Intellectual Stimulation And Spiritual Excitement"

The Blog @

“There are those who suggest, that immediately when people begin to get involved in the study of the Rebbe’s works, a great passion for Hashem arouses within them. The Rebbe’s Torah, after all, has within it an enormous power to kindle the heart. However, as great is their passion is the fall afterwards. From such great desire and yearning for Hashem, they become totally confused.”

How Could You Make Fun Of Him?

Rabbi Tal Zwecker commenting on Trying To Understand The Younger Brother:

An excerpt from the Kedushas Levi that I am working on:

The Sincere Intentions of Reb Baruch Mezibuzher

The Tchortkover Rebbe would often relate the following story:

Reb Moshe’le from Zhvill, the son of Reb Yechiel Michel of Zlotchov, was once visiting the Rebbe Reb Baruch of Mezibuzh. At that time, the chassid Reb Yaakov Mohilliver, who was known by his nickname Reb Yakovka, was also visiting Reb Baruch. Reb Yakovka was the court jester and would entertain Reb Baruch by acting out the antics of the holy Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchever, how he would bow and prostrate himself during the shofar blowing or during the lighting of the Chanukah candles.

The Rebbe Reb Baruch would laugh out loud at these performances, and it appeared as if he was making fun of the holy Berditchever.

Reb Moshe’leh of Zhvill was present at Reb Baruch’s Shabbos table when Reb Yakovka performed his comedy act, mimicking Reb Levi Yitzchak’s bowing and gestures that he would make when he served the Creator. Reb Baruch laughed so hard it seemed that his stomach would burst! But Reb Moshe’leh was beside himself with anguish. How could anyone in the world could laugh and make fun of such a Tzaddik as the holy Rav of Berditchev?

The scene replayed itself at each of the Shabbos meals: Reb Yakovka acted out different antics of the Berditchever’s holy avodah, and Reb Baruch did not stop laughing during the entire meal.

Reb Moshe’leh’s hair stood on end and he felt chills run through his body as he observed the travesty going on before him. He could find no explanation for Reb Baruch’s shameful behavior. Although he had originally planned on spending another Shabbos in Mezibuzh, he immediately decided against it. On Sunday, he came to take his leave of Reb Baruch and return home.

“Why are you in such a hurry? Stay a little longer. Spend another Shabbos with us,” Reb Baruch entreated his guest.

Reb Moshe’leh could not contain himself. He burst out with a pained heart, “How can you make fun of the holy Berditchever Rav whom I know to be a saintly man of G-d!”

“Another good Jew who does not know what he is saying!” Reb Baruch exclaimed. “For several years now the holy Berditchever has in mind all the kavanos that the Kohen Gadol had in the Beis HaMikdash when he prays. In order to preempt the prosecutions of the satan, I have no choice but to mock and belittle the Berditchever’s avodah. This nullifies the prosecutions of the satan and hastens the redemption and the rebuilding of the Beis HaMikdash. I know the truth in my heart, that the holy Rav of Berditchever is great and awesome. My laughter is solely to cancel the satan’s evil intentions.”

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Another Person's Mind

Too often we speculate;

Imagining the thoughts that are going through another person's mind.

Other times we just scratch our heads;

Not understanding why the neurons in their brain travel along a different route.

A route seemingly without any rationale.

We attempt to relate, but we cannot understand.

The thoughts in their mind remain an enigma.

Our logic is futile in understanding the puzzle of another human being.

Helpless, we must request that the One who creates thought provide us a glimmer;

An insight on how we can formulate words that will leave our hearts and enter theirs.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Yetzer Hara & Aleinu

Whether at Shachris, Mincha, or Maariv, more often than not I absentmindedly rush through Aleinu. The fact that this tefilla is attributed to Yehoshua who composed it after toppling the walls of Yericho has remained for me just that - simply a fact.

While contemplating the subject of obstacles, my brain made the connection between the walls of Yericho and the walls in my mind. I finally understood why the yetzer hara fought me tooth and nail for so long in its attempt to ensure that I disregard Aleinu.

Aleinu contains within it the tremendous power to obliterate obstacles. The yetzer hara views it as if it were a nuclear weapon that is intended to be used against it. Thus, the yetzer hara works overtime and continually schemes to prevent a person from saying this tefilla at all, or at least without any bit of kavana.

With this new understanding and appreciation of Aleinu, I now try to view this tefilla as a beginning rather than an ending.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Guest Posting By Chabakuk Elisha - Ayin Hara

Ayin hara (the Evil Eye) maintains a firm place in Jewish culture and practice. Dating back to Biblical times, the Jewish people have been concerned about ayin hara, and attempted to take steps to protect themselves to one degree or another. There are even individuals in contemporary times who are paid to remove the evil eye from people who are concerned that they may be a victim of it. It has its place in the Torah, in the Talmud, in Rishonim, Acharonim, Kabbala, Chassidus, and in Shulchan Aruch. We find it among Ashkenazic culture, Sefardic culture and everything in-between. There are also special sayings, amulets, red strings, fish eyes and other means of combating this unseen danger, but the questions remain: what is it?, should I believe in it?, why should it work?, and isn’t it just some kind of superstition that we should really be smarter than?

Indeed, the concept of ayin hara exists in many ancient cultures and it can very difficult to know what beliefs may have crept into Judaism that originated elsewhere – however, any concept or belief that we find mentioned in so many sources throughout our history cannot be merely swept away as some remnant of paganism that somehow clung to our clothing.

In Judaism we believe in the power of the human. We have been given serious power to build and to destroy on many levels – from hammers and nails, to procreation, to love and hatred, and to change the world with a thought. Jewish law takes speech – a simple word – so seriously that entire sections of Talmud and Halacha are concerned with words. Even G-d relinquishes his final say on matters to the human word in realms of Halacha. This is because words have power. Thoughts also have power. Positive thinking changes things. So does negative thinking. In the Ten Commandments we are forbidden to think or desire certain things – this is because thoughts are real in Yiddishkeit.

And this is all because G-d listens. He listens to our words, He sees our actions and He knows our thoughts. They matter. Life matters, as does everything in it. And that brings us to ayin hara.

To help illustrate the concept of ayin haram I’ll use an example from daily life:

I drive to work most days on the highway. It’s about a 45 mile commute each way, and the traffic signs post speed limits ranging from 45 MPH to 60 MPH. On most days I break that law and cruise along at the speed of traffic somewhere around 75 MPH for much of the time. On many a day I have seen some fellow pulled over at the side of the road with one of those colorful cars that have those flashing bright lights, parked behind him. I always feel terrible for him when I see it – some guy trying to get home is gonna pay dearly – why him?

And the reason why he’s pulled over is simple – wrong place at the wrong time. He simply got caught, while everybody else had the good fortune not to be in the vicinity of the man in uniform.
Similarly, we live our lives cruising above the speed limit – meaning that we benefit from G-d’s benevolence and undeserved goodness. We don’t deserve anything, yet we enjoy the pleasures of undeserved things. Suddenly Reuvain spots his friend Shimon buying a very expensive article, or simply owning a something that Reuvain would have rather owned instead. Reuvain’s a good guy, pays taxes, works hard – why does Shimon deserve it instead of Reuvain?

And he’s right. Shimon didn’t DESERVE it. So what happens is that Reuvain just sent a police car that catches Shimon and busts him for speeding – wham. Ayin Hara. But it doesn’t stop there. Shimon is negatively impacted – but so is Reuvain; Revain now has his own police cars to worry about. (For an interesting piece on the matter see here)

There is a way out though. There is a route that we can take to avoid ayin hara, which is of course, to drive through space instead of the highway. There are two remedies that we find discussed in seforim, which will at least give us some guidance:

1. Do something to deserve a pass. Yes, we all benefit from things that we don’t deserve, but if we add something in Torah and mitzvos, if we try to be a better person and a better Jew, we can offset the ayin hara. I guess we can say we get time off for good behavior.

2. Stay above ayin hara altogether. It is well known that “One who does not place himself under Ayin Hara cannot be harmed by it.” This is usually understood to mean that it’s like voodoo – and that if you don’t believe in it doesn’t work – but I once heard in the name of Rav Elazar Mordechai Kenig that this is an incorrect understanding, and that what the statement actually means is: if one doesn’t look at others with an ayin hara, than he cannot be harmed by it.

On My Wish List - Out Of My Price Range

Degel Machaneh Ephraim - Koretz, 1810

Me'or Einayim - Sudilkov, 1830

More seforim for auction here.

28 Av Links - כח אב

Modern Uberdox: When no one is home…

Lazer Beams: The Holy Rebbe Mattia ben Charash

Be'er Mayim Chaim: Bris of Shalom Yoel Zwecker

Monday, August 17, 2009

Rabbi Shais Taub - The Angel Of Death

Chassidic Thought Videos

The New "Minhag"

Excerpt from "
The Rebbe - A Glimpse into the Daily life of the Satmar Rebbe Rabbeinu Yoel Teitelbaum":

Once at the first seder, the Rebbe came to the seder wearing his resplendent Yom Tov attire, his kittel and tallis, but no shtreimel. He made kiddush without his shtreimel, wearing only a yarmulke. Only after kiddush did he put on his shtreimel. The guests were baffled. What could be the meaning of this? It surely must have profound kabbalistic signficance. Who are we to delve into these mysteries, they thought.

At the second seder the Rebbe related the following incident, "In happened one day that the saintly Saraf of Streilisk came to shul with a patch on his tallis. The chassidim thought that this a was a new custom and wanted to emulate the Rebbe sewing patches in their talleisim. The true reason for the patch was that the tallis had a hole and the Rebbe was too poor to buy a new tallis."

Concluded the Rebbe, "Don't think that I had a special kavanah for not wearing the shtreimel when making kiddush at last night's seder. The reason is, I simply forgot."

Friday, August 14, 2009

Question & Answer With Rabbi Micha Golshevsky - Emuna: In Our Hands

A Simple Jew asks:

Can you explain why Rebbe Nachman says that it displays more bitachon not to seal a deal with a handshake?

Rabbi Micha Golshevsky answers:

First of all, this segment from Sefer HaMiddos is certainly not meant to be a halacha. It is another way to help one strengthen bitachon, nothing more. It is very difficult to suggest otherwise since there are clear halachos in Choshen Mishpat that regulate the precise ramifications of a handshake to a deal. In some places this is the custom for all merchants and a handshake is halachically binding. Rebbe Nachman may tell us that it is be preferable to refrain from shaking hands but he does not mean to change even the smallest bit of Shulchan Aruch.

Now as for your excellent question: Rebbe Nachman teaches in Likutei Moharan that emunah is "in the hands." He learns this from an explicit verse regarding Moshe during the conflict between the Jews and Amalek: "And his hands were faith."

Now although on a simple level, this mean that a person's faith is very often revealed in what he does, it is also true that in a certain very deep way, our hands are repositories for faith and bitachon. How, you may ask? The answer is that when one is filled with faith he naturally raises his hands up to heaven since doing so is a mute petition for divine help which is always answered. Of course we do not always see the results of this gesture but on a deep kabalistic level lifting our hands up creates a channel to drawn down great spiritual influx. This is why the Zohar and the Arizal tell us to lift up our hands while we recite the blessing al netilas yadayim both in the morning and before eating bread. This creates a channel to bring down great blessing much like Moshe did during the fight with Amalek. Just as when the Jewish people gazed at his hands and strengthened their emunah, he was able to raise his hands above his head until they were victorious, so too, one who lifts up his eyes and hands to Hashem builds his own bitachon.

It is surely remarkable that the Ramak famously writes that one should not put his hands above his head for any reason other than to turn to Hashem. Since this is a way of drawing down spiritual influx, why should one do this for nothing? Of course that makes life a little difficult but there are some ways around the problem. Some explain that this is specifically both hands. According to this one can at least lift one hand above his head. Others say that if one must raise his hands above his head he should also focus on requesting divine bounty.

But what does this have to do with shaking hands?

Interestingly, there is an additional position which one should not make at all from a kabalistic standpoint: intertwine the fingers of both hands together. Kaballistically this mixes the kindness represented by the stronger right hand with the judgments symbolized by the weaker left hand.

Certain people are so careful about this that someone actually asked Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach if he is required to refrain from this halachically. Rav Auerbach replied that he saw no halachic reason to prohibit this.

It is therefore not surprising that when a certain woman pointed out to someone who had hardly ever heard of this practice that it is "forbidden" he was very upset. "Was it her job to walk around giving mussar for something which is not even slightly prohibited?" the chastised man later recounted.

But it is important to note that there are sources to avoid this practice.

For example the Shulchan Aruch HaRav from the Baal HaTanya says that it is better to avoid this except in difficult times since it draws a great judgment upon one. Yesod V'Shoresh HaAvodah and others say that one should be very careful never to do this and the Taamei Haminhagim brings from the Arizal that this is a detrimental practice that causes judgments.

Now we can understand the problem with shaking hands to consummate a business deal with another. Clearly this shows that one puts his trust and confidence in the person, clinching the deal as it were. But wouldn't it be better for bitachon to use a different method of agreement and raise one's hands to Hashem?

As far as shaking good Shabbos or Shalom Aleichem, etc, that is not a meant as a show of trust, merely a gesture of friendship and likely is not be in the same category at all. After all, love and shalom are also spiritual in nature. Or at least a higher expression of oneself then an agreement to purchase something or the like.

In addition there were some greats like the Chazon Ish, who rarely shook hands or touched another unless they were relatives or exceedingly close. But of course that does not stem from Rebbe Nachman and may have no relevance to bitachon at all.

But you may wish to remind me that as we Breslovers are always say Rebbe Nachman's Torah's are general in nature and can be applied to everyone. So how does this segment of Sefer HaMiddos applies to us regular folk? Should one really just daven not to shake hands with another to consummate a business deal? Is this really a necessary part of bitachon?

To this I would reply that this does indeed relate to us all. How? Rebbe Nachman teaches in Likutei Moharan that at every moment one's blood pulses either towards serving Hashem or the opposite chas v'shalom. The greatest ovdim- students of the Baal Shem Tov or the Gra etc. - were always aware of Hashem and everything about them demonstrated this.

Just as we all understand that one's posture tells us a lot of about himself, one's body language and motions do the same. It is not appropriate for someone whose hands are always raised in prayer to Hashem to feel comfortable shaking on a business deal without at least wishing he could express his confidence in Hashem instead. He may be required to seal a deal with a handshake, but surely he will be slightly pained and yearn for an expression of true bitachon to Hashem instead. This s a person who truly pulses for Hashem and desires Him at all times. In this context it is eminently clear that one can and should daven to attain this lofty level of practical bitachon in Hashem.

As the Chazon Ish famously said of Rav Yechezkel Levenstein the Mashgiach of Ponovitch, "He has emunah in his hands..."

Hashem should grant that we pulse for Hashem and merit emunah in our hands!

Rabbi Itche Meyer Morgenstern: Parshas Re'eh

It is well known that the entire Torah of the tzaddikim is a reflection of the verse: "וְזֹאת תּוֹרַת הָאָדָם"—“And this is the teaching of the [great] man.” As the Shelah HaKadosh writes, the word for human being—Adam—is from the Hebrew אדמה לעליון—“I will be like that which is above”—since every person has within him all the supernal worlds and the greatest holiness and purity.

This is the deeper meaning of Moshe’s words רְאֵה אָנֹכִי which can also be read, “Look at me.” Look at the “I”—the tzaddik who is the paradigm of a complete human being, who fully represents the merkavah in all of its aspects through his physical form. This is why the Arizal revealed which exalted spiritual level corresponds to each and every limb of the body—to enable us to “see the I”—to look at the self and see the merkavah. Hashem made us this way so that we can connect every limb to Him through our Divine service—“From my flesh, I see G-d.” It is our task to take every opportunity to remember the spiritual realms that we can access through every limb until we never forget them.

For example, when a person’s hand hurts him he should take this as a hint that he needs to rectify the corresponding spiritual worlds [aspects] which this represents. Through the continuous work of the tzaddik to bind every element of his being to Hashem no matter what he experiences, he connects more and more strongly to the supernal worlds, until he truly lifts up the material to the spiritual. At this level, he connects his physical sight to the higher levels of spiritual hearing and vision, and begins to hear and see the spiritual reality within material existence.

This is the lesson of our parshah: that one can either experience his physical body as a blessing or a curse. But the tzaddikim focus on their bodies through the aspect of spiritual hearing, Binah, which implies deep contemplation of the true state of things. This allows them to attain the aspect of blessing and good through the vehicle of the body.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

הוא לבדו

Every Shachris shortly before saying the Shema, we say these words in the brocha of Yotzer Hameoros:

"...For He alone is exalted and holy, effects mighty deeds, makes new things, is Master of wars, sows kindness, makes salvations flourish, creates cures, is too awesome to praise, is Lord of wonders. In His goodness He renews daily, perpetually, the work of creation..."

One morning, my attention was drawn to just two words in this tefilla. The words הוא לבדו ("He alone") seemed to be alluding to a teaching found in Degel Machaneh Ephraim that I wrote about earlier this year.

The Degel Machaneh Ephraim taught that a person has not reached the essence of emuna until he believes that absolutely everything is from Hashem. If he receives his support through an intermediary agent, he must understand that this particular intermediary agent is just one of an infinite number of other possible intermediaries that could have been sent to him.

Simply put, a person must understand that absolutely everything that comes his way through the course of his day is from הוא לבדו - from He alone.

Keren Yitzchok Isaac

(Click on the image above)

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

More Than Merely A Simple Collection

Excerpt from Rabbi Itche Meyer Morgenstern's Explorations in Sefer Tanya:

The Tanya is based primarily on concepts culled from the Shelah HaKadosh and the Maharal, but this is by no means a mere compilation and should not be taken as such. Although the Baal HaTanya in his great humility seems to imply that his work was merely a simple collection of what was already easily accessible in earlier works, we must not make the grave of taking this at face value. It is interesting that the word Likutei or compilation was used by many tzaddikim to describe or even title their works. For example, Rebbe Nachman of Breslov called his magnum opus, “Likutei Moharan.” Clearly there must be deeper significance to the word Likutei than we might have thought.

In truth, there are five levels to everything holy: nefesh / basic vitality; ruach / spirit; neshamah / soul; chayah / life force; and yechidah / the unique aspect. The arrival of Moshiach depends on the revelation of the aspect of yechidah, which is associated with the sefirah of Kesser / Crown. Kesser is also sometimes referred to as a ליקוט since although Kesser is above all other levels, it also includes all the worlds and guides them to the ultimate goal. In a way, Kesser “compiles” the lower worlds and levels and puts them in a new order so that each attains its purpose. It is only through this new direction in the lower worlds that the level of yechidah is revealed.

Similarly, a Torah compilation reveals a system that gives a completely new life to the words of the earlier sages, imbuing their words with an entirely different light. This is readily apparent in these later generations, immediately prior to the ultimate redemption. Many learn works that are collections of earlier sources, and in this manner they understand with a level of completion that they would not have otherwise attained.

Similarly, the Baal HaTanya focused on the deeper aspects of the Torah that were first explained in the holy Zohar and which were subsequently discussed by Rishonim like the Ramban, the Avodas HaKodesh, and others. In their works, however, these deep concepts were still not crystal clear and could only be understood by very great scholars. Later, the Shelah HaKadosh and the Maharal explained these concepts at greater length and made them much more understandable, yet their very explanations were lengthy and not sufficiently clear to be grasped by just anyone. The Baal HaTanya therefore created a work that enables every Jew, no matter how simple, to have a connection to the avodah of the innermost aspects of Torah.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Guest Posting By Chabakuk Elisha - Avraham & Bilaam

Whosoever possesses these three qualities belongs to the disciples of Avraham Avinu: a generous eye, a humble spirit, and a meek soul. But he who possesses the three opposite qualities--an evil eye, a proud spirit, and a haughty soul--is of the disciples of Bilaam the wicked. (Pirkei Avos 5:22)

It is customary in certain circles to read Pirkei Avos every Shabbos afternoon during the summer months. One year, when I was probably 11 or 12 years old, we were visiting Crown Heights when we read this Mishna. As I read it, I wondered why Chazal contrast Avraham to Bilaam, when it would seem that there would be better candidates.

First, Bilaam was known for his prophetic abilities, and while Avraham Avinu was certainly also a prophet, Moshe was known as the greatest of all prophets. So, wouldn’t Moshe have been a more fitting polar opposite?

Moreover, Moshe and Bilaam lived at the same time, while Avraham lived a good number of generations earlier – again causing me to scratch my head as to why the Mishna seems to place the two as the opposing camps. I was left thinking that a more fitting contrast would have been either Avraham and Nimrod, or Bilaam and Moshe.

I then did what any 11 or 12 year old would do: I asked the guy next to me. I didn’t know who he was – just a guy with a grey beard sitting in 770.

The elder chossid smiled and responded,

"Tell me: What made Avrohom so special? What was so unique about him?

Don’t forget that Hashem wasn’t a secret – The great flood was common knowledge. Noach was everyone’s ancestor. Yeshiva Shem V’Ever was standing. It would seem that all Avraham did was reinvent the wheel by recognizing Hashem."

I didn't answer. I just stared at him like a deer in headlights.

“Nu?” He said.

I shrugged

So he continued:

“Well, the difference is what we call Da’as. It mattered. Of course, it mattered to others before, however, to Avraham, it was different.

Avraham desired to have a relationship with a real G-d. He couldn’t view the sun as G-d because he could not comprehend life at night without G-d once the sun had set. And he couldn’t view the moon as G-d because he could not comprehend during the day without the moon's presence.

People told Avraham, 'Pray to many gods!' But that just wouldn’t cut it for him. For Avraham, G-d was real; He mattered; he couldn’t just take a laid back, “it’s all good” approach to such an important matter.

And that’s what it means to truly know something – there are many things that we know in theory – but to truly “know” - to have da'as - is to change one’s life accordingly.

On the other hand, what do we know about Bilaam? We know that Bilaam recognized Hashem as well. In fact, Bilaam even stated that he had to act in accordance with G-d’s will – indeed, this is how he was a prophet.

So, what was special about him? His specialty, Chazal tell us, is that he was able to know when G-d’s attributes of severity were engaged, and take that opportunity to curse effectively. His knowledge of G-d was such that he knew what was taking place Above to a degree that enabled him to use it for his own benefit.

Now we can see how they differed. Avraham knew Hashem and it mattered to the degree that he changed everything in his life to be a vessel for G-dliness. Bilaam also knew Hashem, but instead of changing himself, he took the opposite approach he used G-d to promote his twisted immoral self."

The key here is that they represent polar opposites in this way: They both came to recognize the truth and while one changed himself accordingly to promote that goodness and truth, the other used that truth in a self-serving way and promoted evil.

And this message is what Chazal want to communicate to us: To truly be a religious Jew, we can’t live in compartments. Da’as means that our beliefs permeate our being. If so, then our religiosity is recognizable and it will be reflected in “a generous eye, a humble spirit and meek soul.” That is so because our concerns are directed towards G-d, not our own self. On the other hand, in as much as we may display jealousy, pride and haughtiness, we remove ourselves from Avraham Avinu’s camp and reveal that we’ve taken some lessons from Bilaam.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Seven Times

Of any pasuk in Sefer Tehillim, which pasuk is quoted the most times in Degel Machaneh Ephraim?

סוּר מֵרָע, וַעֲשֵׂה-טוֹב

Turn from evil and do good. (Tehillim 34:15)

This pasuk is quoted seven times.

A person is bombarded with negativity on a daily basis. He must first turn his attention away from things that are negative and concentrate only on the postive.

Sharp Words About Faking Yichus

There was a certain man who claimed that he a a very distinguished yichus and that he was the einikel of a famous Chassidic rebbe.

Not believing the boasting man's claim, a colleague of his investigated the matter thoroughly and then remarked, "It is obvious he doesn't believe in techias hameisim (resurrection of the dead)!"

"What are you talking about?", his friend remarked. "Techias hameisim is a principle of our emuna and that guy is a frum guy."

"That very might well be the case, but it is obvious that he doesn't believe in techias hameisim, because if he did he would be scared stiff that everything would be revealed when that supposed rebbe ancestor of his came back and told everybody the truth."

Thursday, August 06, 2009

Imagination & Shmiras Einayim

A person usually thinks of imagination as something that runs wild on the occasions that he isn't careful with shmiras einayim. Imagination, however, can actually be an extremely powerful weapon in the battle against the yetzer hara and its desire to run around unchecked in our minds.

Instinctively, a person may glance a second time after seeing a sight that he finds enticing, despite the fact that it may be improper to look at. The mind hasn't fully processed what the eyes have seen in the first split second, yet it knows that there is now something worthy of its attention and desires to get a better look.

This brief moment in time between the first and second glances is where employing the power of imagination is crucial. At this moment, a person must tell himself that he did not see anything at all. Once the brain receives this command signal, it looses its desire to look a second time. A person can than proceed along his way as if nothing happened and maintain his thoughts focusing on matters of kedusha.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

He Can't See Me Here!

An acquaintance of mine visited Bahrain and related how he had questioned some Kuwaiti men who were there drinking alcohol. When he asked them how they could so flagrantly disregard Sharia, they responded with utter seriousness, "Allah cannot see us when we are in Bahrain".

We may chuckle to ourselves and think that such belief is completely ridiculous. Yet, on countless occasions our yetzer hara is successful in tricking us into believing that Hashem cannot see us when we are doing an aveira. So, while we may not verbalize it, our actions are essentially saying, "Hashem, You can't see me here!"

15 Av Links - טו אב

On The Derech: Who’s The MVP at Your Shabbos Table?

The Blog @ Oneg Shabbat

Hitlers’s Children: Documentary


The term "service" (עבודה) applies only to what a man does with immense exertion, contrary to his soul's inclination.

(Baal HaTanya)

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Two Of The Four Rivers - Pishon & Gichon

During my lunch time mini seder today, I came across some interesting facts about the significance about two of the four rivers seen pictured above on the Gan Eden Kiddush Cup.

Me'am Lo'ez, Bereishis 6:16, citing Targum Yonasan, mentions that Hashem told Noach to go down to the river Pishon (פישון) to find the luminous stone (צֹהַר) for the ark.

Regarding the river Gichon (גיחון), Me'am Loez, Bereishis 3:22, citing the Zohar 1:65, relates that on the day he sinned, Adam later immersed himself in the Gichon River, standing with the water up to his neck. He remained there and fasted for seven full weeks, until his skin became like silk. All this time, he would weep and daven to Hashem, asking Him to forgive his sin.

Question & Answer With Rabbi Tanchum Burton - How To Approach Learning Mishnayos & Gemara

A Simple Jew asks:

Tehillim 119:11 says, בְּלִבִּי, צָפַנְתִּי אִמְרָתֶךָ - לְמַעַן, לֹא אֶחֱטָא-לָךְ ("In my heart I have stored Your word, in order that I should not sin against You.") This means that it should be evident through our actions that the Torah we learn each day is always in the forefront of our mind.

How are you able to ensure that the Mishnayos and Gemara that you learn do not become accumulated knowledge but actually turn into practical knowledge that you draw from in the course of your day?

Rabbi Tanchum Burton answers:

Torah is the expressed Will of Hashem; it is our primary interface with Him, how we come to understand what He wants from us and for His world, and how we can fulfill His Will and thereby our purpose in this world. What could be a greater cause for true joy than knowing that Hashem has empowered you to do exactly what you are meant to do, that, through His Torah, you are being given the precise information you need to uphold your responsibility here?

We believe that the Written Torah was given alongside a precise tradition of how to understand it that was passed down in an oral form from Moshe Rabbenu to Yehoshua, and from teacher to student for 1500 years, before it was officially canonized in written form by Rabbenu HaKadosh, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi as what we know today as the Mishna (with differing versions compiled in the Baraisa and Tosefta by Rabbi Chiya and Bar Kapara). It has been in written form, albeit in a very cryptic, code-like format, since the 3rd century CE. Because of its mnemonic form, it is like a zip file that is unzipped in the transcript of all the discussions that took place in the various batei midrash in Israel and Babylonia until the 9th century CE--otherwise known as the Gemara.

To learn Mishna and Gemara is to address the basis of Judaism itself, an understanding of G-d's Will, in order that we may fulfill it, come closer to Him and thereby rectify the world. In a practical sense, study of these makes possible a real and substantive understanding of the halacha. Without this component, halacha looks like a set of do's and don'ts in bullet point form, and distances the learner from his sense of a connection to G-d's Will. This, I believe, is a primary reason why Reb Noson Sternhartz z"l composed Likutei Halachos, an encyclopedic compendium of, essentially, the entire Shulchan Aruch shown through the prism of the inner dimension of Torah, namely, Midrash, Kabbalah, the writings of the Ari z"l.

All 613 mitzvos have their "halachic" and "kabbalistic" components, analogous to a body and soul. Each needs the other. However, in a person's pursuit of Jewish growth, the "body" of Torah, its revealed aspect--especially Mishna and Gemara--is sometimes looked upon as dry information, where as the mystical elements of Torah resemble spirituality much more. This is a mistake; you can't have a body without a soul nor a soul without a body. Note that Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Beis Yosef and the Shulchan Aruch (as well as many more important works) was both a halachist and a kabbalist, a student of the Ari z"l, who besides being the greatest kabbalist of all time was also a gigantic talmid chacham, a student of Rabbi Betzalel Ashkenazi, the Shita Mekubetzes.

Studying and completing the Mishna gives the learner the ability to see the entirety of Torah she'b'al peh, the Oral Torah that was handed down from Moshe Rabbenu onwards. The Ba'al HaTanya, in his treatment of Hilchos Talmud Torah, notes how the study of Mishna can create a instant connection between one's intellect and the revealed Will of Hashem via the statements of the Tannaim. Rebbe Nachman illuminates yet another aspect of this connection, namely, that by studying the words of the Tannaim, one also connects to the Tanna himself, which, in an overarching sense, is a connection to the paradigm of tzaddik. "And they believed in Hashem and in Moshe, His servant" Not only is the Written Word of Hashem critical to our life as Jews, but also the tradition we have received from our Sages regarding the true meaning of that Written Word. We can do this by learning the Written and Oral Torahs.

At the end of Likutei Moharan Tinyana 25, the Rebbe speaks of the importance of turning Torah into tefillah, meaning, taking something that one has learned and davening to Hashem to be able to understand the information, internalize it, and fulfill it in whatever manner possible. This simple practice can breathe life into one's learning of revealed Torah. Try it!

Our Avodas Hashem

As for serving Hashem, I don’t know anyone who can claim that he serves Hashem commensurate with His greatness.

(Rebbe Nachman of Breslov)

Monday, August 03, 2009

One Boring Summer Day - A Story From My Past

After having told my Chevy Blazer story two years ago, I thought sharing my gunpowder story from when I was twelve years-old would make for a good summer posting.

"Mom, I'm bored!", I told my mother one summer morning with the hopes that she would tell me something exciting to do.

After giving me a list of numerous other options that I also categorized as "boring", I decided to go across the street to see if my neighbor Stuart wanted to play. Stuart was free. However, we could not figure out what to do to occupy ourselves that day.

Our pre-pubescent brainstorming session quickly led to us looking up the entry for gunpowder in the World Book Encylopedia that was sitting on my shelf at home (these were the days before we could have done a simple Wikipedia search here). The encyclopedia entry revealed that there were only three ingredients in gunpowder: charcoal, sulfur, and potassium nitrate (also known as "salt peter).

Charcoal: "We can take those charred logs in your outdoor fireplace and use big rocks to smash down the charcoal on them into a powder!"

Sulfur: "Hey, I have a thing of sulfur in the chemistry set I got as a present!"

Potassium nitrate: "Hmmmm....were are we going to get that? I know! Sniders!"

Stuart and I got on our Schwinn dirt bikes and road down the hill to the Sniders Drug Store. We proceeded past the candy aisle directly to the pharmacy at the back of the store.

"Excuse me sir, would you happen to have potassium nitrate?", I asked.

"You boys are trying to make gunpowder, aren't you?", the elderly pharmacist responded.

"", I replied before Stuart and I quickly left the store.

Not easily dissuaded, we decided to ride out bikes clear across town to the Osco Drug Store where we successfully were able to buy potassium nitrate after asking the pharmacist for it innocuously as "salt peter".

Returning to Stuart's back yard with all three ingredients, we prepared our crude gunpowder for its first field test. Although we were only novices, we already considered ourselves to be somewhat of experts in the field of gun powder production since we had both viewed countless cartoons where dynamite was used. When we lit it with a match for the first time, we were quite surprised when it did not blow up in a gigantic explosion (we certainly did not take any precautions for this occurrence to begin with).

Experimenting a bit further, we started making wicks by rolling small sheets of toilet piper in our crude gunpowder. Once this too got boring, we decided to attempt to blow up a Star Wars figure. I looked through my collection and selected the one I cared about least; the Emperor (I would have never dreamt of blowing up the mail-order Boba Fet after having sent in proofs of purchase for him).

Stuart and I snapped off the Emperor's head, filled his insides tightly with gunpowder, and then stuck a gunpowder-rolled toilet paper wick in his neck. I lit the match with great anticipation and...... the flame quickly fizzled out in the Emperor's neck. After one more attempt of filling an empty metal band-aid container with gunpowder and setting it off in an empty field, Stuart and my experiments came to an end.

Perhaps the reason I routinely got D's in science class growing up was because class was never as exciting as my summertime neighborhood experiments with Stuart.