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Bless a tree and become Spring.

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What a long frigid winter we’ve had!

Spring is finally here.

Go outside, breathe in the sweet tantalizing air, take in the glorious bright vibrancy of life re-emerging from the cruelty of pounds and pounds of brooding snow.

One of the most incredible things about Judaism is that it has a structure in place for all manner of meaningful moments in life, including orienting ourselves to a new season – Spring.

Halacha says to go out in the month of Nissan, find a fruit bearing tree that has a blossom (i.e. no fruit necessary), take a moment to become aware of God’s presence, then bless:

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה ה’ אֱ-לֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם שֶׁלֹּא חִסַּר בְּעוֹלָמוֹ כְּלוּם וּבָרָא בוֹ בְּרִיּוֹת טוֹבוֹת וְאִילָנוֹת טוֹבוֹת לֵהָנוֹת בָּהֶם בְּנֵי אָדָם.

“Blessed are You, L‑rd our G‑d, King of the universe, who has made nothing lacking in His world, and created in it goodly creatures and goodly trees to give mankind pleasure.”

See the tree in front of you, touch its bark, enjoying the rough texture.

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Imagine the months and months of subdued life it experienced this winter, bowing heavily into a cold furious wind, weighed down by snow and rain and sleet. And yet, here it stands before you, proud and tall and bright and strong.

Recall the most recent trauma/anxiety you went through. Recall how it made you feel, the stress, the anger, the frustration.

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Now, become tree-like (Man is compared to a tree (Deut. 20:19). There is a resilience and strength within you that is waiting to emerge

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in a human drama of Spring come to man. Allow it, embrace it. Make the blessing and smile with God.

You’re done.

Posted in Blog

Get Healthy Before Getting Holy?

Something I’ve been wondering about a lot is whether it is good and right to use religious concepts to become humanly psychologically healthy.

For example, someone told me that whenever they are frustrated with their wife and feel an outburst building up, they think about how big God is and how small they are and then they don’t feel the need to push back against whatever their wife is up to/asking them to do.

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I feel a deep hesitancy with this. Mostly because it seems like the man is not really processing his issue with what his wife is doing. He is using a relationship he has with God to maintain a relationship he has with this woman and that seems to be chaotic and non-internalized.

He is not allowing a growth and process of new discovery and depth to mature in the relationship. If he wasn’t able to redirect his frustration into a funnel cloud of bittul where it “appears” to vanish (assuming there is no internal residue building up), he would have to butt heads with his wife and that would lead to a tension in the relationship which would lead to him having to process this issue  with his wife, ideally reaching a place where he learns what it is that is bothering his wife that makes her do these things. He would discover why this aggravates him and think about it, talk about it, leading to resolution and reconciliation as well as educating himself more about this woman and how to live gracefully with her.

[Bittul as a tool of art, the skill of ignoring one's own comfort zone is an incredible tool that can be used in every situation empowering a person to unbelievable ends, but here bittul is being used by this man as a term of "not me - him" with respect to God thus confusing the issues. More on this soon.]

EDUCATION

Or, another example might be education. If a child is having trouble with his sense of identity because kids are making fun of him, should a parent use a concept like etzem hanefesh, i.e. saying, “You have an inner divine core of being that cannot be touched by anyone” – or should the parent simply teach their kid not to allow what other people say to influence their sense of self.

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I saw a letter recently where the Rebbe writes to a parent whose kid was having trouble, telling them to teach their son that he is always in the presence of God and therefore he should always feel the impetus to overcome his obstacles. However, its not clear if these are spiritual obstacles or physical ones.

PESACH

This question is relevant to Pesach as well because we didn’t go from being slaves and sick (49 gates anyone?) to being free men, powerful Jews in a relationship with God.

Har Sinai had a long 7 week process of getting healthy before we could enter a relationship with God. Leaving Egypt was a necessary first step of getting healthy before getting holy.

PARNASSAH

Another area to see this in is the stress of putting bread on the table. A lot of people really struggle with making a livelihood, so the question is, what does that mean? Should they be stressed out? Chassidus says that this is the real avodah of a businessperson, to constantly reinforce his faith that God will provide. To the extent that one should not feel any tension or anxiety at the lack of funds currently present.

However, there seems to be a fundamental misunderstanding that confuses this religious concept with a human issue.

Some people have more of an issue believing in themselves, that they can do it, than believing in God.

Speaking personally, I sometimes am stressed because I lack faith in myself, not in God! Sometimes its a lack of faith in God of course, but the point is, without conciously distinguishing, you lose maturity and awareness in dealing with the situation. Because if you feel anxiety about the rent, and therefore go straight to thinking about how God can provide, when what you really need to be doing is getting in touch with why you don’t believe in your own capacity so show up and do the work, then you’re not helping.

Ultimately, I have found many sources aligned on each side of this question and finding an answer has eluded me.

Your thoughts greatly appreciated!

 

Posted in Blog, Chinuch

Does trusting God mean not having anxiety?

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Courage is not the absence of fear. It is the bravery to soldier on despite the throbbing fear and uncertainty pounding in your heart.

What about “emunah” trusting God? Is faith the absence of worry and anxiety? Or is it the courage to trust God despite the anxious uncertainty about the future?

 

Posted in Blog

Is a birthday cause for joy or misery? The Rebbe’s optimistic outlook.

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The Lubavitcher Rebbe, innovative as ever, created a movement to celebrate our birthdays. He choose to focus on the teaching of our Sages that even though we are born unwillingly into a cold cruel world, ultimately, we have the power to grow, to vanquish, and to attain personal and global redemption. To the extent that we have to leave this world unwillingly having attained greatness and holiness on this Earth.

Celebrate his birthday today by empowering those around you. Do this by believing in their innate goodness and capacity for beauty just as he believed in yours!

#optimist #thoughtleader

Posted in Blog

Does a Chassidic live-style lead to wealth?

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How could the Rebbe make such a statement? Don’t we all know so many people that are rich in depth of thought and spiritual sensitivity and yet, struggle to make ends meet? How could the Rebbe say that richness of thought leads to physical richness?

In general, there seems to be an internal conflict because in many places, the Rebbe says that a Jewish, Chassidic lifestyle brings an expansiveness in physicality and yet, in quite a few places, for example the maamer of “beyom ashtei” the Rebbe says that Jews make the choice to be devoted to God even though that means getting less materialism.

Your thoughts greatly appreciated. #erevpesachlearning

Posted in Blog

A meditation on the avodah of Pesach

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Posted in Blog

Orthopraxy – The Emperor Takes Off His Clothes?

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Orthopraxy, the practice of Judaism without believing in God, is generating much conversation these days.

But there is a real problem with Orthopraxy and its not what most people think: namely, the lack of belief in God. It’s also not even the problem of getting children to invest in a Judaism without God (good luck with that).

Doubting the existence of God, or doubting whether He communicated his terms of a relationship with us (what we call the giving of the Torah), is actually perfectly acceptable.

It is only human and natural.

But here is where Orthopraxy, Social Judaism, or whatever term you wish, goes wrong.

Orthopraxy creates a movement, a way of life, out of that doubt.

In so doing, they validate, concretize and systemize a sub-par experience.

Doubting God is perfectly fine as long as one is committed to continue the journey and process of coming to know God.

You see, if we believe that doubt is so terrible, so egregiously unacceptable, the only thing left is to desert Judaism or … create a movement of Judaism predicated on a lack of belief.

But there is a third way. A way that embraces the agonizing doubts we sometimes have by saying, “It’s ok to doubt. It’s ok to not know. But keep coming, keep showing up, keep being involved. Don’t leave because you’re not sure today. There is a process here, a journey, a practice. Not just a practice of action, but a practice of belief and thought and heart and mind that, if you stay the path, will come to you. Or it won’t. But don’t create a distorted Judaism that says, there is no God.”

My teacher, the Lubavitcher Rebbe of blessed memory, told the story that a chassid of the Tzemach Tzedek (his great-great-grandfather) was told not to worry that he doubts God since the doubt is what bothers him to explore it more. Or as the Rebbe himself told someone who asked for a blessing to have his doubt removed: “I should take away your doubts so you can forget about God?!”

In other words, it’s a relationship. You need to develop your own inner bond with God. Struggle is good, struggle is real, and struggle keeps you present and intimately growing with God.

I’ll close with this witty chassdic story:

A self-proclaimed atheist came to the Tzemach Tzedek complaining that he’d been struggling with doubts in faith in his atheism, he felt his atheism weakening. The Rebbe told him to put negel vasser by his bed, wash in the morning, and drink the negel vasser. He did; and sure enough it restored his atheism fully.

Eventually the guy put two and two together and figured out that there was something to this impurity business… and grew to become a believer.

Let’s not honor our weaknesses by validating them into a system. If we feel weak in faith, that’s ok…or its not. But it’s definitely not ok to have Judaism, as a system, as a path, without God.

He’s kind of important.

 

Posted in Blog

Rogatchov Column Parshat Metzora 2014

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Hey there folks.

I am starting a new project that will be published twice a month: a publication showcasing the biblical commentary of the Rogatchov Gaon.

This is primarily for shuls and kolels so please let me know if you know any that might be interested.

Enjoy!

[Unfortunately, I cannot figure out how to integrate the footnotes into this blog, so if you want to see the footnotes with the original sourcing, click here.]

Is the Torah one indivisible unified entity? Or divisible disparate elements?

While an abstract question to be sure, the practical ramifications reverberate throughout many parts of Torah.

For example, if the Torah is one unified entity, then someone who has renounced one facet of Torah has renounced it all. If it is comprised of sections, then renouncing one facet does not equate to renouncing it all.

The Rogatchover pinpoints this question as the underlying tension in a dispute in Chagiga (6a) whether the Torah was given at Har Sinai in its general principles or in detailed specificity. According to the view that it was given in detail at Sinai, the entire book of Vayikra is a repetition of what God told Moshe at Sinai.

The Tosefta in Sanhedrin  as well as the Sifri on parshat Nasso also provide a source for his thesis on the unified nature of Torah:

והשואל כענין והשואל שלא כענין משיבין את השואל כענין והשואל שלא כענין צריך שיאמר שלא כענין שאלתי דברי ר”מ וחכ”א א”צ שכל התורה ענין אחד.

“A student who asks on topic and one who ask not on topic [who should the teacher answer first?] – we answer the student who asked on topic. Also, the student should say, “I am asking a tangential question.” This is Reb Meir’s opinion but the Sages say, “It is not so, because all of Torah is one idea [therefore there is no such thing as a off topic question]”

We see from here the unified nature of Torah, how everything is moving parts of one single whole.

The Rogatchover articulates this idea in the historical narrative of the Jewish people.

In truth, this categorical distinction [divisible or indivisible Torah] is also the difference between the first set of luchos and the second set.

וכן נ׳׳מ  בין לוחות הראשונות ללוחות שניות דלוחות הראשונות הוה התורה מציאות אחת ובטל אחד בטל ח״ו הכל, ולבך נשברו

As the Rogatchover explains, the first set of luchos contained the Torah as it exists on a sublime unified level, and thus a break in one facet of the Torah, i.e. the sin of the Golden Calf, caused a rupture in the whole, resulting in the shattering of the luchos.

From this vantage point, the breaking of the luchos, is not seen as a willful act by Moshe but rather a natural existential outcome of the breaking of a single mitzvah. Because the Torah, as embodied in the first luchos, was one single entity; a break in one equals a breakage of all.

The balance here is first luchos (unified indivisible Torah) vs. second (disparate elemental Torah).

Another balancing of two is the mishkan (its energy was of a single unified nature) vs. the mikdash (a place that contained separate elements).

וכן מלאכת המשכן הוי כל הפרטים גדר מציאות אחת וכמבואר בספרי פ׳ נשא

“Also the service in the mishkan was in a way that all elements were really one single entity, as is explained in the Sifri Naso.”

The Sifri explains that only after every part of the mishkan was kosher did the kedusha, the presence of God descend onto it.

וכן במקדש קיי״ל כחכמים בירושלמי פ״ד דשקלים

דכלים שבמקדש אין מעכבין זה את זה

However, “the mikdash is in line with the opinion of the chachamim (Yerushalmi Shekalim 4) that the status of a vessel in the mikdash was not relevant to the status of other vessels.”

The Rogatchover weaves into this discussion the Talmud’s dispute concerning a Jew who has renounced a portion of Torah.

וכן נ״מ במה דפליגי ר״מ ורבנן ערובין דף ס״ט  ובכורות דך ל׳

גבי מומר לדבר אחד אם הוי מומר לכל התורה, תליא בזה אם זה הוי מציאות אחת או לא

The chachamim consider him to be only a heretic with respect to the single facet of Torah he has renounced while Rabbi Meir says he is considered as a heretic for the entire Torah.

The Rogatchover posits that this hinges on how one views the Torah. If its seen as a single unified entity, then a breaking of one facet equals a breaking of the whole for there is only one entity, much like the analysis above regarding the shattering of the first luchos. If the Torah is split into separate individual elements, then one can be a heretic for one area of Torah while retaining a purity and faithfulness in another area.

This also explains the Talmudic dispute (Bechoros 30a) whether someone who broke one area of halacha is suspected on breaking other areas of halacha.

What does any of this have to do with our parsha? Well, the Toras Kohanim explains that only a Kohen who is expert in identifying every type of tzaras, (house tzaras and clothes tzaras) can identify human skin tzaras.

Why is that? If he is expert in identifying skin tzaras, why disqualify him for not being expert in house tzaras? The answer is that this area of halacha exists within the unified indivisible framework of Torah and therefore a deficiency in one area of expertise creates deficiency in all areas.

וכן גבי נגעים מבואר בתו״כ פ׳ מצורע דדוקא שיהא בקי בכל הנגעים גם בנגעי בתים ובגדים

Posted in Rogatchov Column

An Orthodox Response to Unorthodox Memoirs

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It’s tough to be Orthodox these days. A recent spate of ex-religious autobiographies has caused quite a lot of tie-adjusting, throat-clearing consternation in the Jewish world. From  Leah Vincent’s Cut Me Loose, to Shalom Auslander’s Foreskin’s Lament (both fantastic), and everything in between, a lot of internal dysfunction has been exposed.

Should Orthodox Jews be on the defensive? I don’t think so.

For practical reasons as well as substantive ones.

The practical reasons are that everything, and I do mean everything, has positive and negative facets to it.

There is much harm that goes on in Orthodox society, but, to assume that the harm, in the aggregate exceeds that of secular society, is to be a bit too invested in a narrative denigrating Orthodoxy.

As well, many ex-orthodox, seeing Orthodoxy from a particular experience, tend to simplify things at the expense of realistic nuance. For example, Leah Vincent’s recent article (http://m.forward.com/articles/195467/a-visit-to-germany-reawakens-fears-of-an-ultra-ort/) meanders into unfair simplification when she calls out Orthodox leaders for deserting their flock and escaping to safety. I think that we really do not know what motivated these leaders to leave to safety. It could have been many things, including feeling a responsibility and obligation to escape so that they might be able to lead those Jews who would survive. If a ship is going down, and some passengers escape to another boat, I’m not sure the captain should go down with the ship when the passengers who made it to safety won’t survive the high seas without expert seamanship.

Another element here is that we are missing the memoirs from the tens of thousands of secular Jews who became Orthodox over the last four decades. Where are the Foreskin’s Rejoice memoirs and the Bind Me Tight, Set Me Free memoirs? They are, of course, nonexistent for the most part, due to several reasons, the most obvious being that Orthodox Jews are hesitant to record their past secular life.

But more substantively, these people have a message and we should listen. We should listen if we want to understand their pain, we should listen if we want to honor their experiences, but most of all, we should listen so that we might come to appreciate what has hurt them so horrifically and remove such harmful behaviors from the Orthodox cultural lexicon.

Leah Vincent’s recent article is telling.

She writes: “We dwelled on a foundation of fear, as if our home rested on a sleeping monster that could waken with a single misstep. “In every generation they rise up to destroy us,” we sang each Passover, a prediction of impending tragedy that drove us to defensive piety throughout the year.”

Is fear a driving factor in our commitment to our religion? Is that the way we compel the younger generation? The answer exasperatingly defies simplification. To be sure, there are a lot of positive and empowering facets of Judaism. But all too often, like a druggie handing a cup of juice to his friend, they are laced with hard to see additives; subtle undertones of fear, consequence, and punishment, both human and divine.

This occurs on a micro as well as macro level.

On a macro level: Vincent attests to the fact that she was taught, “ ‘Hitler was not only sent by Heaven, but was sent as a kindness from Heaven…. Because assimilation and intermarriage are worse than death’. When we rebelled against God, we could expect calamity.”

Such statements are banshee-like in their screeching horrific-ness. To teach this to people, especially children, is truly a crime against God. It is high time we unabashedly staked out a worldview of authentic, healthy, but halachically committed Judaism.

While I understand the need felt by some to justify God, and provide some rationalization of the Holocaust, it is misplaced.

My own teacher, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe had this to say: “One desecrates the honor of the martyrs, who perished al kiddush hashem, by justifying the holocaust as if it were punishment for their sins. Heaven forbid that one should utter such words. Some events are the product of an unfathomable divine decree, a dictate that transcends any and all explanations.” [See “Vayechi\10th of Teves,” in Sichos in English, Vol. 47 (Teves–Nissan, 5751), p. 62-63]

How could the holocaust have happened? We simply don’t know why God did it. While this is a cranial concept, the real work takes place in submitting one’s heart to this idea and experientially moving forward from a place of unanswered uncertainty.

But let’s be clear, let’s be unabashed, and let’s be unequivocal: Any passing of the buck from God to Jews is unacceptable. When bad things happen, do not place the blame on human beings. That is the message we need to get behind. That is the vision of Judaism we need to teach our kids.

On a micro level, much of the way children are taught Judaism in some places, is with a heavy dosage of carrots and sticks. Do mitzvot and you’ll get pie in the sky; do a sin and you’ll get 12 months (the maximal time in hell according to the Talmud) of unspeakable pain when you die.

We need to move beyond this dull and unimaginative, indeed childish, paradigm. We scoff at Arabs blowing themselves up for seventy virgins, and yet, a lot of Orthodox Jews might not be that different in their orientation to God. Namely, future-oriented pleasure seeking. True, one is physical pleasure and one is spiritual, but the basic motivation is the same.

Perhaps it is time we owned the fact that God truly does desire a relationship with us. Perhaps it is time to accept that it is valuable and worthy to do a mitzvah, because He needs and wants it and we want to be there for him. Because it is the right thing and the true thing, not because we want to experience spiritual bliss.

Of course, to invest in such a paradigm, to the extent of teaching it to our kids, requires an optimistic belief in the capabilities of human beings to be idealistic, and graceful and receptive to a higher calling.

One of the reasons I love Chabad is that it has a vast and rich layered conceptual worldview that allows for such ideas to flourish. One of the central tenets of Chabad is that every Jew at their core is a divine piece of God and that, when push comes to shove, that divine-ness comes out and blossoms. That is the core belief underlying Chabad’s optimistic (some would say naive) belief that, if you ask a Jew to, say, put ontefillin, they deeply desire to be in a relationship with God; all you need to do is provide the platform and prompt.

And it is entirely invested in such an optimistic worldview to the extent that is disavows the notion of divine punishment, choosing instead a consequentialist view of schar ve’onesh, i.e. hell is simply the process of removing the investiture in physicality that one inevitably undergoes while on Earth.

It is very hard to listen receptively when one feels their way of life is being attacked. And certainly, some ex-Orthodox should be sensitive to this if they truly wish create change instead of venting. But the call of the hour is to stand still, and listen. Listen to what practices are so hurtful to so many, and embrace a narrative of authentic halachic Judaism that is sensitive to the humanity of its adherents.

Posted in Blog

A meditation on self-worth

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Posted in Blog
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