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

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Every aspect of Hashem’s creation bespeaks of perfection.

That’s the blueprint. 

From the perspective of functionality, however, the gears of Creation only mesh if used for their intended purpose.  When the sundry elements of Hashem’s mosaic are working at cross purposes the ink on Divine blueprint runs a little, for as Rav Avigdor Miller z”l was wont to say, the function of teeth are to chew one’s food, not the inside of the cheek.

The same holds true for forgetfulness.

Contrary to popular belief, the act of forgetting is not something that denotes some slight slippage that just happens on occasion in contradistinction to remembering which we view as the norm.  It is also one of Hashem’s creations and it is not a physical process.

As Rav Miller z”l tells us, it is one of the wonderful mechanisms that the Creator put into the mind.

He wants you to forget.

There used to be a saying that there was no such thing as a free lunch in this world, the meaning of which was that every benefit in the here and now of this world came with a price tag of some kind, be it economic, emotional, spiritual or anything else upon which a demand could be made for a benefit received.

The act of forgetting is the only exception to this rule because this wonderful gift of forgetfulness is one of Hashem’s great kindnesses, and as pure chesed it demands nothing in return.  It acts as the ultimate filter in that it retrospectively flattens life’s speed bumps or better yet deletes them altogether from the hard disk in our head.

Any emotionally healthy individual who has ever lost a loved one has tasted of the miracle of forgetfulness.  At first, all of the beautiful memories are interlaced with the intense pain of the loss. But as time passes through the shiva, the shloshim, and the first year and beyond, it takes with it the edge off the emotional pain, and as such, what began as bittersweet memories morph into sweet memories at a given point in the timeline that stretches from the loss incurred into the future, with that time being different for each person.  At this point, one’s memories of the past invoke a smile rather than a tear.

But as Rav Miller z”l reminds us, this gift of forgetfulness was given for a purpose, and it’s meant to be used for that purpose, and that purpose only.

You’re not supposed to forget Who gave you the gift.  For that you are supposed to make use of that other great gift:

Remember Hashem your G-d.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Seeking Hashem

And where, exactly, does one learn how to formulate an honest Tefillah?

So asked Rav Yaakov Weinberg z”l, as quoted in EmunahSpeak: So Say Something Already!

And he answered that we should learn it from a child.  If you have a need, cry.  You have a Tatte up There Who is going to take care of you.

Tatte, I have a need!  That’s enough in itself.  Your need requires a response.  

Your desires are another story.

Chazal tell us to seek Hashem where He can be found, and they then point us in the direction of the Aseres Yemei Teshuva.  And on these days, in contradistinction to the rest of the year, your desires are very much the story for we are told that we can ask for anything we want because Hashem is close to those who call out to Him.

Rav Avigdor Miller z”l notes, however, that there are different degrees of closeness.  You merit some kind of a response (albeit a possible NO) just for asking, because Hashem’s default position vis á vis His People during these holy days is one of closeness. 

Seek Hashem for whatever you heart desires but ultimately, if your wish list is properly prioritized, you should be seeking Hashem to get close to Him over and above all else.  Getting close to Hashem is the real deal, and He is close, as in tight, with those who call out to Him for that very  purpose, rather then squander their entire opportunity on mundane wants and needs.

Rav Miller z”l reminds us that that the closer one gets to Hashem in this world the closer he will be to Him in the next world for ever and ever. True enough, but it’s not a free lunch because he also tells us that before one can even hope to come close to Hashem he has to implicitly believe in His existence to the extent that he has a clear cut sensory perception that He’s here right before him.

The one who seeks to come close to Hashem, vaults that hurdle only to discover that he is separated from Him by mechitzas (barriers) that are constructed from his aveiros (sins) and character flaws, and there’s no getting close to Hashem as long as they remain standing.  Teshuva gemura, and only a Teshuva gemura is the means by which these mechitzas can be toppled.  But that’s only the first step because we still have to propel ourselves forward toward Him, and to that end Rav Miller z”l walks us over the fallen mechitzas and reveals to us three things that will bring us close to Hashem.

In the name of the Rambam he informs us that the very best way to come close to Hashem is to take a good hard look at His Creations in Nature. We are supposed to utilize the phenomenon of this world to see Hashem.  The purpose of spiders, porcupines, electric eels, snow, rain, lightening and every other manifestation of Nature is to teach mankind about Hashem.  If their purpose is to teach then ours is to learn, and as we begin to take notice of things around us our minds become enriched and we are drawn closer to Him.

But the myriad upon myriad of miracles that are documented by Nature all around us are not the only avenue by which we can aspire to come close to Hashem.  

Speaking to Hashem can also make you great, and you can seek Him within yourself, where the Spirit of Hashem is well ensconced, by consulting your own mind.  And in the course of time you can come closer Hashem because when people discover the greatness that’s within them they burst forth in praise of Hashem, be it by way of their own unique niggun from within or their recitation of Tehillim with kavana and feeling as recommended by the Mesillas Yesharim.

And there’s the third way, by which we jam pack our minds with thoughts of Hashem.  Love what Hashem loves and hate what Hashem hates.  Have in mind doing Avodas Hashem (korbanos) in addition to the rest of the mitzvahs because if your mind becomes full of Torah thoughts then you are already coming close to Hashem.

Seek Hashem where He can be found so as to come close to Him, and He will meet your gaze.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Leveraging Elul

Don’t sit with your back to the door of Elul because Tishrei’s on the other side, and the only way to get to and through Tishrei in good order is to walk through that door.

Trying to negotiate Tishrei by any other route is like going to court without a lawyer.

Elul is not something to be finessed or gotten around as if it were Tachnun in search of a bris or Rebbishe yahrzeit.  It’s about being honest with oneself.  It’s about exposing your fault line and going eyeball to eyeball with the spiritual rot of your existence, one peeled off layer at a time, because an introspective and wrenching Elul is the breeding ground for a confident and articulate Tishrei that will bring a good kvittel in its train.

Last year, as Elul rolled in we endeavored to place it in its proper perspective, with proper perspective meaning that while a kavanadike Elul will take one's spiritual horizons to the max for the ensuing year, those horizons will only be reached by means of those Elul kavanas permeating Shevat.

As we said in EmunahSpeak: A Real Deal Teshuva (2), 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.

We also mentioned the credit of Rabbeinu Yona. 

In EmunahSpeak: A Real Deal Teshuva we said in the name of Rabbeinu Yona 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.

There is, however, a catch.

Just as one has to pay off the credit charges that he piled up as they come due, so too here.  That boost you got up front vis á vis your Tishrei resume presumes that the “bill” will be paid in the course of the coming year.

The problem is that a year is a long time, and in terms of the Teshuva resolves that we take on in Elul, a year may be too long, because as was pointed out in EmunahSpeak: Whence the Real Deal Teshuva (2)?, here we are in Nissan already, and my Elul Do List is still in mint condition, finger print free, and I probably could sell it to a collector on eBay.  The way things are going I may well be spared writing a new one for this coming Elul.

And it wasn’t like I put it into a drawer or something.  I had it right on my desk next to my laptop along with sundry reminders scotch taped to my desk lamp and my laptop so that it has been in my face since Elul.

So what happened?  The same thing that happens every year:


And after giving it some serious thought I think I understand why.  For one to take on to improve in any number of given areas over the course of the coming year is like deciding to do something between now and the rest of one’s life.

A year is simply too long.

And as we said there, with the finish line so far off into the distance of next Elul/Tishrei we tend to space out as to the immediacy of it all, and with all the time in the world to get started we never do.

The solution, as such, consists of reducing the year to a month, which forces us to start now, not then.  And the month I chose was Cheshvan because Tishrei was to busy a time to make a serious start on our Elul kavanas.

It all comes down to this:

Make sure that by Cheshvan the latest, you can put something significant on the table for all the aspirations and kavanas you had for growth in the heady days of Elul.  It has to be serious enough for the remainder of your Elul vision to work its way into reality in cruise control mode over the remainder of the year as opposed to swimming against the tide.

But then again why even settle for this, a big improvement though it may be?

Why not simply take Rabbeinu Yona’s Elul credit and turn it into cash and carry by actually effectuating the Teshuva in Elul instead of promising to?

Come Tishrei you’ll be a cash customer, and who wouldn’t prefer to deal with a cash customer rather than to extend credit?

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The Radio

The Last Frontier of Innocence Lost

In light of the justified concern that is presently being voiced over the spiritual pitfalls inherent in the Internet, a kasha needs to be asked:

What about radio?

And we further ask:

How many of those attending the Asifa at Citi Field listen to radio in the house or car?

There was a time when this medium was thought to be rather harmless.  Even in places like NewSquare, which from the get-go wisely banned television, radio was permitted.  In those days, the worst one could hear on the radio was the early stages of rock and roll.  Most yeshiva boys and Bais Yaakov girls didn’t bother with it, and those that did bend an ear in that direction heard nothing more than much of what passes today for popular Jewish music, r”l.  As for adults, rock and roll and other such nonsense simply didn’t exist.

With the advent of the all-news stations in the1960s, Jews representing the entire spectrum of Torah Jewry were drawn to radio in greater numbers, and with good reason.  For a 22 minute investment while driving to one's office or working in the kitchen, 1010 WINS AM promised the world.

The station’s format, which was later followed in large part by 880 CBS AM, was headline oriented straight news without the de rigueur left wing spin of all too many news outlets both then and now.  It didn’t boast the broadness and depth of the Sunday New York Times, but it served a purpose for those who required no more than a lick and a shmeck as to what was taking place outside their daled amos.

A little further down the road a number of talk and opinion shows that proved to be popular in our communities were introduced into the programming mix.  Their popularity derived from the fact that the views aired on them seemed to be on the same page with the political opinions held by many in the Torah Camp.

So what happened?

At first glance, nothing.  To those old enough to remember, 1010 WINS AM sounds no different today than it did way back when.  The background sound effects are the same, as are some of the reporters.  And one can chap-arein the news while otherwise engaged.  For the most part, the all-news stations continue to “grace” our homes and cars with the bare bones recital of the facts without the spin, at least as compared to the left wing press, CNN, NPR, and the national TV networks.

What changed was the news.

What was once a window to the world morphed into a pipeline from the sewer.

Almost twenty years ago, Yated Ne’eman published an essay on the dangers inherent in listening to radio.  I quote:

Then one day society went crazy, and as the last wall crumbled we were left exposed with America in our face.  One can almost put a finger on the exact moment that the American dream became rated X.

If there is an (American)English speaking ben or bas Torah (of that gerneration) who has not heard of William Kennedy Smith, Clarence Thomas, Anita Hill, Gennifer Flowers, Amy Fisher, the Rainbow Curriculum, and a certain product that is being distributed free of charge in New York City’s public high schools for the purpose of slowing the spread of AIDS, then he or she NEVER listens to the radio.  And many of the handful that actually were radio free heard about these things from those who weren’t.

This writer was certainly on to something, but he wasn’t a Navi.  As dire as the situation may have appeared in 1992-93, he never fathomed the depth of the black hole into which he was looking.  The bottom simply wasn’t on his screen.

And then the Clintons came to town.

From the Satan’s point of view, one could reasonably argue that the situation on the ground took a marked turn for the better.

Query:  How many of our grandmothers, mothers, wives, sisters, daughters, and granddaughters (and the rest of us) old enough to have listened to the radio during the years 1998-2000 were spared the knowledge that Bill Clinton was not makpid on yichud in the Oval Office?

I quote again from the same essay:

For those of us who are old enough to be familiar with at least some of these news stories, the shmutz that we have internalized by way of our ears has left an indelible stain on our neshamos that will be there for life.

We have stored in our collective subconscious images that until recently were beyond the comprehension of a majority of Middle America.  The situation is such that a simple recitation of the societal facts life in 2012 America is a greater danger to the neshama than the ravings of sensationalist writers of but a generation ago.

How are we supposed to live in a city or a country where the discussion of a presidential primary or a Supreme Court confirmation hearing is not fit for the ears of construction workers, much less our own.

And that was pre-Clinton.  What would that writer say now?  What should we say? 

But even Bill Clinton didn’t hit bottom.  After all, radio’s faithful recitations of the Clinton stroll in the gutter were pre-Michael Jackson and those that came after him.

And so it goes without an end in sight.

In the Mesivta d’Rakiya it may well be that our dor will be known as the generation that guarded its tongue, and in some quarters at least, even attempted to guard its eyes.

But what will they say about our ears?

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Most Serious Character Flaw

Iggeres HaRamban

Having already told us in EmunahSpeak: The Proteksia of Gentle Speech that gentle speech will protect one from anger, the Ramban then explains the importance of that piece of advice by explaining that anger is a most serious character flaw which causes one to sin.

While there are myriad reasons why this is so, Rabbi Yisroel Brog tells us that probably the most important of them is that when a person gets angry he loses his connection with reality, and having done so, even after he calms down he will still be disconnected from Hashem.  Not only is he, as Chazal tell us, like one who is considered to have worshipped idols, and therefore as one who has no G-d, but he is also like one who has no self.

There are other character flaws, such as gaiva, that the Ramban could have warned us against.

Why dafka anger (ka'as)?

A Jew has to be able to contemplate, and ka'as disrupts the inner quietude upon which contemplation thrives.  And it does it to such an extent that a Jew’s very essence atrophies. 

In addition, ka'as is more than just an aveira.  It’s a middah ra’ah that is the source of many of the worst aveiros such as gezel, loshon hora, sinas chinom, and machlokes to name but a few.  The truth is that when Chazal said, if you never come to anger, you’ll never come to sin they were letting us hear loud and clear that ka'as is inherently a potential launching pad for every single aveira in the Torah.

The Rambam, for one, was listening because while it’s well known that he holds that people should avoid personality extremes by always seeking the middle way, the always was subject to one very big exception, the exception being ka'as, because when it comes to ka'as there simply is no middle way.

An individual who is trying to shake himself of ka'as should pull himself to the opposite extreme in which he will not get angry even in situations in which it would be justifiable for him to do so.  And the result of this is as the Ramban tells us a little further along in the Iggeres, where he says once you have distanced yourself from ka'as, the quality of humility will enter your heart.

As can be seen, the further away we get from ka'as, which is the most serious character flaw, the closer we get to anavah (humility) which is the very best character trait one can posses.  And the closer we get to humility the closer we get to Moshe Rabbeinu who was the most humble person that ever lived, which logically should have put him the furthest away from ka'as of any person that ever lived, and yet, Rabbi Dovid Miller reminds us that ka'as was the only point of weakness that gave Hashem cause to complain against him which resulted in Moshe being prevented from entering Eretz Yisroel.

Such is the power of ka'as, the most serious character flaw, that it could even affect Moshe Rabbeinu, the most humble person who ever lived.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Proteksia of Gentle Speech

Iggeres HaRamban

As we said in EmunahSpeak: Gently Speaking, The actual mussar of the Iggeres HaRamban opens with the Ramban’s admonishment to his son that he should accustom himself (yourself) to speak gently to all people at all times.

The Ramban then reveals that this admonition is something more than a nice middah to incorporate into one’s character toolbox.

With the words, gentle speech will protect you from anger, the Ramban moves us from the realm of stam menchlikeit to one of self preservation.

And how exactly will gentle speech save you from anger?

There is no mysterious process at work here.  In fact, it is quite the opposite because it’s about as close to common sense as one can get in that there is a direct causal connection between how one speaks and how one reacts to outside stimuli, a.k.a. aggravation.

Rabbi Moshe Hauer takes it a step further and tells us that a calm response can even turn away anger that already exists.  By speaking softly the anger gets no outlet with which to express itself.

And even on those occasions when it does have an outlet to express itself, Rabbi Yisroel Brog informs us that if you take the Ramban’s advice to accustom yourself to speaking gently, the anger will be toned down.  And the reason that it will be toned down (which is also the reason that gentle speech will protect you from anger in the first place) is because speaking b’nachas (softly) is a mechanism that will help you control your anger. And it also carries with it some not so incidental benefits vis à vis self control because one’s self control over himself is directly related to how he controls his anger.

And that bit of sports wisdom that declares a good offense to be the best defense is no less applicable to protecting oneself from anger because as Rabbi Brog tells us, any time you see that you’re going to get upset you should defuse the incipient anger by speaking b’nachas with everyone.

For someone who is seeking to protect himself against the plague of anger, neither a rich uncle nor a contact in City Hall will avail.  For such a person, the proteksia of gentle speech is the only game in town for as Rabbi Brog lets us hear, gentle speech is not a way to protect oneself from anger.

It’s the only way.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Baal Nefesh

We are told by Rabbi Mordechai Swiatycki that according to the Chazon Ish, Emunah is an expression of a soul that is delicate/refined, and one has to be a Baal Nefesh to be zoche to it.

Rabbi Swiatycki explains that the Baal Nefesh oozes anavah from every pore in addition to being makker tov for any good he has received.  On this point he may even be secular but nevertheless he has a sensitive soul.

It is also necessary for a Baal Nefesh’s soul to be holding by a certain tranquility.  And finally, a Baal Nefesh is not driven by an intense hunger for taiva.

He then says that if any of these three elements are missing, a person’s road to proper emunah, by way of being a Baal Nefesh, will be washed away because he will forever be without the requisite capacity to hit the high note emunah wise.

As should be obvious, we’re not hard wired for these elements, and as a consequence they’re not our default position. 

It’s all in the software.

And as such, it’s incumbent upon us to program ourselves accordingly so as to be as one with these three elements in order to enable us to reach the madreiga of the Baal Nefesh.

And a Baal Nefesh on such a trajectory is a man of science.

Given the complexity of this world, it’s nothing less than amazing how the supposedly scientific oriented secular world has obliterated what one would expect to be natural curiosity as to what life and the world around us are all about. 

That’s at first glance.  If we take a second peek it becomes a little less amazing, if not down right understandable.

In one of life’s ironies, ironical enough to have made it into the Irony Hall of Fame, if there would be such a place, the players in the game of Faith vs. Science are in actuality wearing the uniform of the opposing team.

Truth be told, there’s absolutely nothing that one can see with the naked eye, the most powerful telescope, or the most advanced electron microscope that will contravene in the slightest detail Toras Hashem.

That’s science.

And as we bring the second peek that was referenced above into proper focus we see that the truncated curiosity of secular society is driven, not by apprehension as to the unknown, but rather by a fear of the known.  In spite of their protestations to the contrary, the denizens of that world know, be it consciously in some quarters or sub-consciously in others, and because they know they avert their eyes from what should consume even a moderately inquisitive mind.

They eschew scientific inquiry for Ani Maamin.

They are the ones who live by a corrupted faith which, in essence, holds that despite the fact that every aspect of the physical world, without exception, scientifically testifies that it was created with plan and purpose, they believe with a perfect faith that all of it simply just happened.

The all encompassing force of their denial is such that even a sensitive soul who is astounded by the perplexity of this world is incapable of asking questions about this perplexity unless he is a Baal Nefesh.  It’s as if he were frozen into inaction by the modern day equivalent of the tumult of Rome.

In contradistinction to a secular world that sees no truth, hears no truth, and most certainly speaks no truth, the Baal Nefesh will go through fire and water to get the answers to what this world is all about because the Baal Nefesh, who is not imprisoned by his taiva and gaiva, can see far enough past himself so as to able to discern that there is a Hand guiding the world.