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

Monday, September 26, 2011

All That’s Left is the Emes

Abraham Lincoln said that you can fool some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.  His aphorism lets us know that while the emes can be successfully suppressed and subverted beyond recognition, it can’t be entirely eradicated.

This observation has stood the test of time for over one hundred and fifty years, despite the Left’s best efforts to prove it wrong, because it speaks to that spark of emes that is embedded in every human being, and as such it is very much connected to Rosh HaShana.

A person can spend his entire existence in a society like the old Soviet Union, in which emes and sheker have been inverted.  In such a place every word in the media, everything taught in the schools, every pronouncement of the government, and every societal value are all sheker.  And yet, if a shtick emes, in whatever form, creeps in from the outside world, be it even once in a lifetime, it will more likely than not be recognized for what it is.

Such is the power of emes. 

One can “successfully” run from the emes most of the year but not the whole year, because when the month of Elul comes a knocking at his door, a rational individual understands intuitively that he can no longer hide.  After all, with the Sifrei Chaim and Sifrei Mahves opened to his page, where exactly would he seek shelter?

Shiras Devorah, after reprising the death of the Canaanite general, Sisera, by the hand of Yael, then shifts to the image of Sisera’s mother waiting for Sisera to return home from the battle.  In the course of her vigil she gives out one hundred cries, and Tosfos in Mesechta Rosh Hashana quotes the Chazal that says that we blow one hundred kolos (sounds) with the shofar on Rosh HaShana for those one hundred cries:

Through the window she gazed; Sisera’s mother peered through the window.  “Why is his chariot delayed in coming?  Why are the hoofbeats of his carriages so late?” The wisest of her ladies answer her, and she, too, offers herself responses.  “Are they not finding [and] dividing the loot?  A comely [captive], two comely [captives], for every man; booty of colored garments for Sisera, booty of colored embroidery, colored, doubly embroidered garments for the necks of the looters.” 

These possukim reveal to us that Sisera’s mother is worried about her son’s fate, but that her friends and she herself make up excuses to explain away the delay of Sisera’s return.

Finally the truth sinks in that Sisera is not coming home.

Rabbi Shalom Rosner tells us that Rosh HaShana is about when all of the rationales in our life fall away and the emes hits us in the face.  We start out with all kinds of excuses:  I can’t do this or that, I’m too busy, this is not who I really am, this is not my derech etc.  We can pretty much fool ourselves most of the time, but not all of the time.  Especially not this time of the year.

We’re all looking out the “window” to a wishful thinking world of our own creation until, poof, we finally see ourselves, and at that point all our excuses dissipate like the morning mist and all that’s left is the emes.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

It’s Okay with Me

There are any number of ways to explain Bitochon, but at its core it simply means that Hashem has a Master Plan, and that every facet of that Master Plan is subjectively good, as applied to you and every other you walking the Earth at any given time.

Objectively, however, as seen in the here and now of where one’s two feet are currently planted, it may be a different story, at least for Litvaks.

Whereas the Baal Shem Tov and those that follow in his derech in our time (i.e. the Lubavitcher Rebbe, z”l, the Biala Rebbe et al.) hold that our bitochon, as viewed in real time, should be that everything will turn out for the best (vet zein gut), the Chazon Ish, z”l on the other hand,  doesn’t promise us a rose garden.  In his view, which has become mainstream hashkafa in the Litvishe yeshivas, we should certainly have bitochon that the situation at hand could turn our way (ken zein gut) but we shouldn’t be focused on a fairytale ending.

We recognize that things that we perceive of as bad happen sometimes, and in extreme circumstances (such as terminal illnesses and the like) they happen more often than not.  Stage four cancer patients on respirators who are severely jaundiced because their kidneys are shutting down are not expected to check themselves out of the hospital to attend a chasana fifteen hundred miles away.  The only checking out for them is to the next world because the truth is that they die close to one hundred per cent of the time.

The problem is that while most of us understand, as an intellectual proposition, that Hashem has a Master Plan and that everything that transpires in this world is subsumed within it, the route this understanding takes from the brain to the kishkes follows the proverbial slow boat to China.

When we inevitability hit one of life’s more serious speed bumps, the amelioration of which cannot be expected to be found within Teva, we dutifully remember that Hashem has a Master Plan and that sometimes our tefillahs are answered with a resounding NO, and, Boruch Hashem, we accept it.  And in cases of death, we say Boruch Dayan HaEmes with kavanah, acknowledging that Hashem wasn’t away for the weekend.  He was on the job, and that nothing that happened passed undetected under His radar.  We grin (maybe) and bear it to be sure, but we are often at a loss as to how to emotionally relate and dialogue with it at street level.

For this we need Rabbi Mordechai Schwab, z”l.

Rabbi Paysach Krohn relates that he visited Rabbi Schwab when he was very ill.  He could no longer put on tefillin nor could he even daven.  Rabbi Schwab could see from Paysach Krohn’s face that he was empathizing with his inability to do the basic avodas Hashem that we all take for granted.

So he set him straight.

“If Hashem wanted me to put on tefillin now then He would provide me with the ability to do so.  And if he wished to hear my tefillahs he would endow me with that capability also.” And then Rabbi Schwab gave over something that represents the paradigm of how we should speak to our issurim.  He said, “The way we have to look at life is that whatever happens to us say to Hashem:

‘If that’s what you want, Hashem, it’s okay with me.’”

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tefillah Chronicles

Reflections on the DIVINE Dialogue

Three steps back, a perfunctory nod to the left followed by one to the right, a few mumbled words facing forward and you’re but two words away from shlepping through yet one more Shemoneh Esrei.  Those two words are V’eemru ahmain, and at this point Shlomo Zalman Auerbach z”l suggests that one reflect on the kind of Amidah he just davened.


Most of us, nebach, were mentally past the last two words before we even uttered the first two.  So now with but two words to go to the finish line we’re supposed to slam on the brakes to bring the express to a halt and reflect, as if we were philosophers, on the davening we just blew through at warp speed.

What’s so important about these two words anyway?

If people actually understood that they were addressing melachim (one good and one bad), and asking them to say AMEN to the nineteen pit stops that served as way stations during their five minute trek across the expanse of their spaced out universe, they might be too ashamed to finish the Shemoneh Esrei.

More specifically, we are asking the melachim to sign off on our ruminations over the stock market in Boreich Aleinu, our reflections on the Yankees in Shema Koleinu, the deal that slipped through our fingers in Re’ay, and the deal we hope to make today in Modim, to name but a few of our imaginative wanderings.

Okay, so most of us are somewhere else when we’re davening Shemoneh Esrei, and we’re not that picky about it either.  Apparently, anyplace will do, the only criteria being that we wind up “there” as opposed to “here.”

The irony, of course, is that those who are focused on their davening are also someplace else.  Proper d’veikus and kavanah means going to another planet.  Those who do it right aren’t here during that time either.

It’s quite unbelievable when you think about it.  We call it Tefillah B’Tzibur but everyone’s “there” in one form or the other, except for the two malachim.  They’re here, and they are waiting for those last two words.  The good news, however, is that they aren’t all that makpid.

If your mind took you to a place where you talked to Hashem, they will answer your Amen with one of their own.  But if you drifted off to a place (or rather places) where the whole world talked to you, fugetaboutit.

You’ll get another chance to change addresses at Mincha.

Monday, September 19, 2011

A Real Deal Teshuva (2)

According to the Rambam, the mitzvah of Teshuva is one of growth, and accordingly in EmunahSpeak: A Real Deal Teshuva we laid out Teshuva as a growth process in very broad strokes.  But the devil’s in the details.

Only a small portion of Teshuva is about crying and being sorry.  It is more of “I would like to be this” as opposed to “I’m sorry I was that,” not that you shouldn’t be.  You certainly should, but the emphasis should be positive rather than negative, looking forward instead of glancing backwards.  It’s about you and your future, not your past.

And when you consider that the reason we’re in this world to begin with is to grow, then Teshuva, accurately viewed, becomes a reset button for life’s purpose.

Real growth is a function of time and effort with its tempo set to slow and easy in the context of both Elul and Teshuva.  If you build a roof in Elul in lieu of a foundation, instead of growth you’ll end up with a levitation act which will predictably succumb to the laws of spiritual gravity.

And the Teshuva driven growth of Elul speaks of substance, as in a lot of substance as opposed to very little form.  Like the Chofetz Chaim said: “It’s the person whose heart hits him a little bit who will get a good kvittel, not the one who hits his heart.”

The growth inherent in Teshuva applies across the board because there are no growth-free zones in life.  You have a sweet tooth induced poor diet?  That’s prime time grist for the Teshuva mill, as are your deleterious choices in music, reading matter, and anything else that you would be embarrassed to stand by when you eventually have to give a din v’cheshbon after a hundred and twenty years of playing hide and seek with your purpose here.

And as we also said in EmunahSpeak: A Real Deal Teshuva:  “it’s not enough to do Teshuva for the sins we have done. We also have to do Teshuva for who we are if we’re not who we should be, because a lot of life’s challenges reside within, in the form of bad character traits, which also require Teshuva,” and to this we’ll even add attitudes.

“You got angry,” asks Rabbi Yitzchak Berkovits, “but controlled yourself?  Mazel tov! You’re a tzaddik, but you still have to do Teshuva for the fact that your adrenalin was pumped.”

And how exactly does one with gaiva problem grow out of it?

Rabbi Avraham Brussel says that you work to see the value of other human beings, and there is no such thing as a human being without value.  He derives this from a kal v’chomer as follows:  If it’s not only assur for a Jewish king to even think that he’s more valuable than an ordinary Jew, but in addition he is actually obligated to say that they are equal, so how can one Jew even entertain a passing thought that he is better than yenem?

To become great in the spirit of a Teshuva saturated Elul, adds Rabbi Brussel, you have to grow tall and your ability to see below you has to match your height lest you look down on another Jew as having less value, which is a severe crime and destroys the soul of a human being.

So who are you, growth wise, anyway?

In Elul you are what you want to be.  You are the sum total of all the aspirations and kavanas you have for growth in the ensuing year.  During the rest of the year, however, you are what you do on a daily basis, with the reality check of what you aspired to in Elul being what you do on a daily basis in Shevat.  If your growth was real enough to take root then it will still be around to blossom in Shevat.

If it was stunted, it won’t.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Small Stuff and Big on the Road to a Meaningful Life

So in this run up to Rosh HaShana 5772, what’s meaningful life anyway?

It is pretty much the opposite of what one would think because it has nothing necessarily to do with accomplishing BIG things, being a poster boy for gravitas or spending one’s time in nosebleed country gazing from the summit upon those with less than “meaningful pursuits.”

The heimishe version of meaningful life deals with the 95% that isn’t, as if it were, by not sweating the small stuff. 

Rav Yitzchak Berkovits tells us that “there is no such thing that is simply a nuisance to be gotten out of the way because everything that comes our way is either a challenge or a lesson.”  It is very important that we learn to deal with the mundane, with the mundane running the gamut from the volitional “small stuff” of our everyday existence (paying the bills, car pool and such) to Hashem’s “marching orders,” in the guise of the de rigueur vicissitudes of life that put in, what we perceive to be, an untimely and terminally inconvenient appearance, be it a car that doesn’t start, 23 inches of snow or a myriad of other unanticipated horrors guaranteed to trash our plans.

As we said in EmunahSpeak: PLAN B:

“Our self-absorption notwithstanding, the truth is that this is a theocentric world, which requires us to understand that what we propose to do is actually Plan B.  All that other stuff: the flats, the medical emergencies etc. is in reality Plan A, because it obviously reflects the Yad Hashem which is manifesting itself in our lives.

“It’s all a matter of focus.

“It’s all about looking at life’s curve balls as the real Plan A rather the ruination of what we thought was Plan A,” or as Rav Berkovits puts it, “if you really believe that Hashem sends everything, then the small stuff (of Plan A, that flies under the radar of our anticipations) is no less important” than what we perceive to be meaningful activity at any given time.

And given that the small stuff is part and parcel of our daily existence, shadowing us at every turn, the way in which we deal with it will govern whether or not we get our ticket punched for a successful life, as defined by how much real meaning will be subsumed into our “meaningful” lives.

Rav Berkovits tells us that if we do it right, and build from the “small stuff” as opposed to simply enduring it with a pasted on erzatz smile (which is also a madreiga), “then everything is meaningful because there is no goal of greatness that is not built from the bottom,” on its way to the top.  “And if you live for something meaningful Hashem will reward you with a meaningful Eternity.”

While patience laced with a positive attitude is usually all one needs to deal with the small stuff that hangs out on the lower end of meaningful life’s continuum, the big stuff at the higher end calls for a gut rehab.  The reason why our annual Rosh HaShana plans and goals are basically dead on arrival is because our ability to effectuate them is missing in action from the cheshbon.

And that’s why we keep spinning our wheels year after year with resolutions and plans meant to infuse our lives with meaning on the high end, all of which go nowhere.  Last year we took on to learn three hours a night, the year before we sincerely intended to get up every day for the Vasikan minyan, and this year mum’s the word because we’re not budging an inch from Sefer Chofetz Chaim.

“If your goals/plans", says Rav Berkovits, "do not include a systematic approach to changing you, and making you the kind of person that’s going to be able to bring them to fruition then it’s all worthless.”

This isn’t small stuff, and with Rosh HaShana approaching we should be sweating buckets.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

A Real Deal Teshuva

Teshuva is not a once a year spiritual form of Pesach cleaning or something to be pulled out of the bull pen on the ruchniyas equivalent of rainy days, to level out the speed bumps that we invariably hit as we navigate our way through the minefield of life’s challenges.

And, according to the Rambam, it’s not enough to do Teshuva for the sins we have done. We also have to do Teshuva for who we are if we’re not who we should be, because a lot of life’s challenges reside within, in the form of bad character traits, which also require Teshuva. 

Teshuva is a growth process.  It’s the growth process for which we were created.  And according to the Vilna Gaon it’s even more than that.  The Gra says that Teshuva is the process of living in and of itself.  It’s not about taking on some more things and refraining from others as if culled from a checklist of dos and don’ts.
The bottom line here is that we don’t just change our actions and call it a day. 

It’s not simply that yesterday I did, while now I no longer do, but rather that yesterday I was, while today I no longer am.  The growth process of Yom Kippur, says Rav Yitzchok Berkowits, is about changing you.

Change your desires.  Change your ideals.

He also says that Hashem invented Teshuva to allow today’s bechira to re-arrange the effect of past free will decisions, which is another way of saying that when you take on not to do something anymore it’s only the real deal, Teshuva wise, if the you of your aspirations has changed to the extent that when faced with yesterday’s tests, as woven into the situations, environment, and understandings that obtained then, you would have been different enough to have survived.

And then there’s the credit of Rabbeinu Yona.


Rabbeinu Yona says that once you have seriously accepted upon yourself to make a real Teshuva, it is accounted to you as if you already did it.  You have activated something that will carry you forward.  As Rav Berkowits puts it, “it’s a post dated Teshuva that can be cashed out now.”

And that means that anyone who takes on in Elul to do a real deal certifiable Teshuva, will have a brand new life license for the coming year, with all points removed, to put on the table when the roll is called on Rosh HaShana.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

A Divinely Pulled Punch

Hurricane Irene or Tropical Storm Irene or just a rainy day named Irene depending on where one lives and the condition of one’s basement, has (almost) come and gone leaving most of us a little wetter, no wiser, and maybe even less so.

While there was plenty of water to go around in upstate New York, Northern New Jersey, and Vermont to mention but a few of the waterlogged venues visited by Irene, these and most of the others severely affected by the storm were victims of fresh water flooding courtesy of voluminous amounts of rain that overwhelmed storm sewers and sent local rivers over their banks.

The flooding in parts of Westchester County was such that if not for the occasional sighting of a guardrail ever so slightly poking out above the water line, it would have been impossible to distinguish the Saw Mill River Parkway from the Saw Mill River.

On the other hand, the threatened Storm Surge that put to flight thousands of residents of the South Shore of Long Island and forced the evacuation of the entire Rockaway Peninsula failed to significantly materialize, and as a result my neighbors and I still have where to live, Boruch Hashem.
In the aftermath of Irene,Weatherdom, by means of satellite tracking, high speed computers, and specialized software modeling, all of which comprise the heart and soul of weather forecasting, has every answer to any conceivable question as to what did or did not happen, storm wise, to the New York Metropolitan area between Friday and Sunday the week before last.

It’s all a matter of timing.

After the fact, we are treated to cutting edge sophisticated analysis.  And before the fact, like when it might count for something, one could do just as well by flipping a coin.  It’s the high tech version of drawing the bull’s eye around the arrow wherever it lands. 

It’s bad enough when the Weatherman attempts to explain away weather in general and Hurricane Irene in particular in the language of teva.  But as insufferable as the Weatherman’s teva babble may be to the ears of those whose heads are screwed on according to the Manufacturer’s specifications, it’s beyond inexcusable when those of us who profess to see through the teva smokescreen begin to think and speak in the tevadik language by which Weatherdom and the rest of the secular world defines its existence.

As I look out across the street to the peaceful ocean beyond I am less troubled about reports of another hurricane forming south east of the Bahamas that will put the entire coast from North Carolina to New England definitely at risk than I am by the general response to Irene, or rather lack thereof. 

In advance of the storm, some of us went to the Catskills, some to Queens, others to Brooklyn, and a number of us sought refuge in Monsey.

But where did Hashem go?

To hear people talk, one would think that at the same time many of us were packing out of the area in a hurry, Hashem was also heading for the high ground to points north and west of the city.

While most of us correctly see the Yad Hashem in devastating manifestations of “Nature” we seem to have a blind spot with the flip side of the equation which, in the absence of the predicted devastation, leads all too many of us to see no more than another "mistake" by the Weatherman, and "mistakes" by the Weatherman tend to preclude the perception of a hatzala which in turn is not particularly conducive to a teary eyed Modim.

The weather people tell us that in the last twenty years or so they have made great advances in tracking violent storms, and indeed, the predicted path of Irene was almost spot on to the tract the storm actually took.  Hashem allows them to follow His Shadow around as He flashes them the picture He wants them to see, which is accurate at its inception.  And then, not being bound by the teva that is driving the computer models that are trying to make sense of the storm, He does as He pleases.

Had Hashem stuck with the original picture of Irene that He revealed to the weather satellites, the storm would have whacked us pretty good.  But at the end of the day rather than devastating most, if not all of the kehillas stretching from Baltimore to Boston, He withdrew His Hand and threw water in our face instead.

And all we saw was rain.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Who Do You Put in the Center of Your Picture?

Reflections on the DIVINE Dialogue

No small question, this.

When we’re talking tefillah, Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb says that there are three ways in which we can frame the canvas of our life.

While the what of tefillah (let’s say good health and parnossa) denotes the substantive basis of our requests, our concern here is with the how of tefillah, which bespeaks of the way we approach Hashem in our thrice daily Q and (hopefully positive) A.

We can choose to put ourselves front and center, and title the picture, ME, as in only ME.  And if we so choose, that’s the picture that will be before our eyes when we daven as opposed to that other one.  In such a scenario our tefillah will track the picture we have created, and the thrust of our bakoshas will be, “give me (good health and parnossa) because I want.”  Not a blockbuster of an argument to be sure, as we previously noted in EmunahSpeak: The King and I, but as we said above, the weakness as such is in its presentation, not its essence.

But instead of pushing our way into the center of the picture, we can choose to move a bit to one side or the other and leave the bulk of the center for Hashem, thereby morphing ME into Hashem and ME.  And even though we are making a request identical to the one we made in the guise of MR. ME (good health and parnossa), in the context of this “picture” we are beseeching Hashem for a means to serve Him.

It’s all in the asking.

All of the things that one asks for should be for the purpose of serving Hashem.  “Give me a means (good health and parnossa) to serve you better.”  We are servants who are simply asking for a better tool to do a better job, and that is why we can express ourselves as servants of Hashem although we are asking for something.

And then there is the third way to frame our picture.

Rabbi Gottlieb says in the name of the Nefesh HaChaim that we have to understand that transgression hurts Hashem.  Every time we perform a transgression we are causing the Shechina to scream.  As such, the essential fear of transgression is not the fear of punishment, but rather the fear of causing Hashem pain which is something that we can’t stand.  Moreover, Hashem also shares our “pain” in all of its manifestations, and herein lies an opportunity for greatness for the very few who will choose to remove themselves entirely from the picture in deference to Hashem and say with a lev shalom, “take away my pain because I know it gives You pain.” 

Those on this rarified level entreat Hashem by saying, “give me (good health and parnossa) because it hurts You not to give me.”

In the first of Rabbi Gottlieb’s three approaches to framing our picture we put ourselves in the center and say “gimmie,” which is for our benefit.  In the second, which is a very high madreiga, we practically remove ourselves from the picture in favor of Hashem, and say “give me” so that we may benefit Him. 

In the third, Hashem is center stage in the picture, and we say “give me” solely for His benefit. 

Who do you put in the center of your picture?