emunah, tefillah, a little mussar, and a shmeck of geula

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Thinking Past Oneself

EmunahSpeak: Who Do You Put in the Center of Your Picture? spoke of the three possibilities of how one can focus his davening.  It can be about Me, Hashem and Me, or (for the rare few) exclusively about Hashem.  

And people not?

With a slight switch in the cast of characters we can readily see that the same formula also applies to one’s view of the rest of humanity.  Everything that touches our lives is either about us, us and others, or (for the rare few) the focus is on others.

The first two categories we know about.

If you have ever cut a line or eaten in a restaurant that both you and your wife like, you have tasted of both of them.  In EmunahSpeak: Others the bottom line was about seeing the value of others.  But for those who focus is on others it’s not necessary to see anything because it’s enough that there exists something outside themselves.

Rabbi Yigal Haimoff opens a window for us to experience the essence of thinking past oneself:

There was a small shul in Yerushalayim, one of the many where men would come to learn early in the morning before davening.  It seems that the shammes of that small shul served cups of tea to the attendees, but with a twist.  Much to the consternation of those who came to learn, the cups were always only half full, their constant and vociferous protestations notwithstanding.

And this went on for years.

One day the shammes didn’t feel well so he asked his son to get up early in the morning so as to prepare the tea for the participants in the learning.  He also adjured him to make sure that the cups were only half filled.

When the regulars heard from the son that the shammes wasn’t coming that day they pressured him to give them full cups of tea.  The son, who could never make any sense out of his father’s penchant for only filling up the cups half way, finally gave way after much coaxing and prepared a tray of cups of tea filled to the brim.  As he was about to leave this small shul’s excuse of a kitchen his father walked in, grabbed the tray, and proceeded to pour the contents of the cups into the sink.

The shammes told his son that he feared that he might contravene his instructions so he schlepped himself out of bed to make sure that the cups were only half full.  He then asked his son to promise that he would never do such a thing again. 

The son promised on the condition his father tell him why he only filled the cups half way.

After getting his son’s agreement never to divulge the reason to anyone, the shammes told him that there were two elderly members of the early morning group whose hands shook considerably.  Half the cup would spill if he gave them full cups of tea and if he gave half cups only to those two they would be even more embarrassed. 

And what of the woman who was an inmate in one of the hospitality camps in which the Germans interred Jews during WWII.  She had committed some petty infraction of the camp rules and the Germans, at their diabolical best, put her on trial in which all the participants were Jews:  Judge, court officers, guards, and the court stenographer.

And the trial was held on Shabbos.

Amazingly, this woman actually had a defense that could possibly have been recognized by the camp administration, but when asked if she had anything to say in her defense she kept silent because anything she said would have been recorded by the Jewish court stenographer on Shabbos.

And then there is Mrs. Rochel Frenkel.

When the body of her son Naftoli was found (along with the bodies of his two comrades) after an eighteen day search, she was asked her reaction to the fact that Naftoli was killed on the first day of his captivity.

She said that for eighteen days she cried her eyes out, but when she heard that that her son had been killed on the first day she remembered that Naftoli’s favorite mitzvah was putting on tefillin.  Rochel Frenkel knew that had her son been killed on any day subsequent to day one he would have missed putting on tefillin for as many days as he was being held captive and that the fact that he was not performing the mitzvah would have distressed him greatly.

She was somehow able to transcend the nightmare of the eighteen days of uncertainty that culminated in the discovery that Naftoli had been brutally murdered to think past her grief laden self so as to take comfort in the fact that her martyred son was spared the emotional pain of not being able to perform the mitzvah of tefillin. 

Such is the essence of thinking past oneself.

Saturday, September 27, 2014


In EmunahSpeak: The Real Test, we said that the real test of humility is how one handles the good fortune of others, which is an aspect of gaiva that borders on kina (jealousy).  And we concluded that if the joy of one’s fellow fails to resonate within him to such an extent that he cannot relate to it in any form, then we’re talking five star gaiva here.

And then there’s the more classic form of gaiva that challenges the very core of our menchlekeit.

Rabbi Avraham Brussel tells us that the reason that it is hard not to look down on someone who hasn’t done what you have done is because we tend to invest value into what we have accomplished.  But once we fall into that trap, we circumscribe any possibility of spiritual growth on our part by taking the mistake to its logical conclusion:  value is something and the lack thereof is nothing.  So if accomplishing something makes one feel high enough to get a nose bleed, it’s no wonder that it’s difficult not to look down upon those who have made a lesser splash in this world.

The truth is that the whole concept of gaiva is built on a fallacy because there is no such thing as a person without value. 
We’re all worth something.

And we are even allowed to take simcha in what we are and what we have done.  But in order not to get snared in the aforementioned gaiva trap, you have to be careful when you take pride in your accomplishments that you don’t take too much pride in them.  

For when the I, in look what I have done, Boruch Hashem, becomes bigger than the Boruch Hashem, then you’re heading for trouble.

Gaiva is much more than just a bad midda.  It’s tantamount to suicide because to look down on another Jew, as if he is of less value, is a severe crime that destroys the soul of a human being. 

And Rabbi Brussel points out that this applies to everyone because it’s even assur for a Jewish king to even think that he is more valuable than an ordinary Jew.  He is obligated to say that they are equal.  And if a king is forbidden to entertain such a mindset where do we come to such an attitude?

So how does one get a handle on gaiva anyway?

It’s not by taking ourselves down a couple of notches in an egalitarian attempt to level the playing field so to speak.

The only way to counter the inflated value that we have ascribed to ourselves is to work to see the value of others.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Are We Generals?

Everyone has been assigned to a post, and if each of us executes his charge (and we all intuitively know what we should be doing in regards to Torah, Mitzvohs, and stam menchlicheit), our side will carry the day.

But rather than focus on our avodas Hashem, many of us waste our time worrying about the big picture.

And for this we also have to do Teshuva. 

It’s Teshuva for our lack of bitochon and emunah in Hashem’s Hashgacha.  And it’s not that we are a bit light in terms of the requisite faith because there is no such thing as requisite faith.

Emunah is about what your eyes can’t see and yet you know it with a certainty.  The Teshuva is not for what you should have believed.  It’s for what you should have known.  And what you should have known is that Hashem doesn’t do weekends. 

As the Chazon Ish tells us, although Hashem doesn’t promise us a rose garden, everything is under His control.  There are absolutely no accidents, mistakes, or coincidences. 

He’s on the job, and being above time He doesn’t suffer from any 24/7 limitations. 

So what exactly do we have to do with Hashem’s battle plan? 

Are we generals?

All that’s being asked of us is that we give a good account of ourselves as privates.  And that requires nothing more than to treat Hashem as we would our iPhone or any other norishkeit, to which we give our complete, focused, and respectful attention.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

It’s Time to Grow Up

Bye Bye Rote

How many times have we been exhorted to stop performing our mitzvahs or any other manifestation of our Yiddishkeit by rote?  Whatever the answer, we’re talking calculators here because fingers and toes simply won’t do.

This isn’t about quantitatively charting new territory in avodas Hashem by learning the Daf or being careful to daven within the z’man tefillah and the like.  By rote is qualitatively oriented and it’s a major speed bump for those who have already taken on these things and much more.

And the word performing wasn’t an idle insertion either, because if we’re in by rote mode that’s exactly what we are doing.  We are acting out (performing) a certain facet of our lives in accordance with a script that we have memorized many years ago.

Rav Shimshon Pincus z”l reminds us that this is what we must work on in Elul:  To do away with the rote, to stop doing things by habit.

The operative word here is newness and he admonishes us to internalize such a feeling by approaching every aspect of our avodas Hashem as if it were the first time.  

You picked up a siddur to daven?  You should marvel at it in wonder as if you had never seen one before.

You ate bread and then benched?  You should be so overwhelmed by the text of the Birchas Hamazon that you become cognizant of the real blessing, the one that Hashem has just put before you.  And so it goes for everything you touch; every brocha, every word of Torah, and every shmeck of ruchniyas that pulsates within you. 

This is the avodah of Elul and it means being a completely new person, for as we quoted Rav Yitzchok Berkowits, in EmunahSpeak: A Real Deal Teshuva, The growth process of (Elul culminating in) Yom Kippur is about changing you.

Change your desires.  Change your ideals.

Very sound advice to be sure, but how did we all come to be living our spiritual lives as if we were on auto pilot to begin with?

Rav Pincus lets us hear that our perception of Hashem, of the siddur, and the Chumash, is that of a five year old child.  And in the name of the Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, Alter of Kelm, he tells us why we generally are not moved and excited by things that we learned in childhood, i.e. that G-d created the world and runs it, the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim (the Exodus) and Keri'as Yam Suf (the splitting of the Red Sea) etc., even though these are exceedingly wondrous matters.

The Alter says that it is because we first heard these things in our childhood when our intellect was weak and undeveloped.   Therefore the knowledge and understanding that we attained of them was that of a feeble mind.  This feeble understanding then became part of us.  As a result, we go through our whole life with this infantile perception.

We first learned Chumash when we were five years old.  That is the paradigm upon which all of our subsequent experience rests.  Whether we are ten, twenty or forty, we tend to relate the more advanced knowledge that we are now gaining to what we knew when we were five years old.

And it's the same story with the rest of our avodas Hashem.   We have been doing the same old same old by rote for a very long time and we do it with all the enthusiasm of five year old.  

Enough already.

It’s time to grow up.