Two-Way Traffic on the Haredi Highway


Have you ever wondered why, in light of the slew of “I survived Orthodoxy but saw the secular light!” essays and books, there no counter-flood of similar writing by some of the many who came from other Jewish places to Orthodoxy?

Why are there are no vivid descriptions of what impelled some Orthodox Jew toward traditional Jewish observance?  Why no accounts of the emptiness of secular lives they experienced, or the inadequacy they perceived in less observant ones?

Are there no tales to tell of parents who deprived their children of even a rudimentary Jewish education?  Who responded negatively to their progeny’s explorations of their Jewish roots?  Or who lived lives that contradicted what they preached to their young?

My thoughts on the matter can be read here.




Each year, sitting in the sukkah on the first night of Sukkos, with my wife and whoever among our children and grandchildren we are fortunate to have with us for Yom Tov, I feel a particularly intense elation.  Part of it, no doubt, is the result of having managed to erect the sukkah on time.  But most of it is born, simply but powerfully, of having so many family members around the table.  For many years, though, ironically, my joy also bothered me.

After all, I reasoned, simchas Yom Tov, the happiness we are commanded to feel on a holiday – particularly on Sukkos, “the time of our happiness,” is meant to be, well, simchas Yom Tov, not delight in one’s family.

But then, one year, I reached a more refined understanding of simchas Yom Tov.  And I’ve never thought about it quite the same since.

The first hint that there was something here to discover lay in Chazal’s description of how we are to fulfill simchas Yom Tov.  The Rambam (Hilchos Shvisas Yom Tov, 6:18), basing his words on the Gemara (Pesachim 109a), instructs a man to buy his wife new clothing and jewelry, to give his young children nosherai and to himself enjoy meat and wine.  (Before splurging on that special Cabernet, though, bear in mind the Kaf Hachaim’s admonition that precedence here should be given to one’s wife’s pleasure.)  So it’s clear that simchas Yom Tov is defined as taking joy in plainly physical pleasures.  What gives?

The Sefer Hachinuch on the mitzvah of celebrating Sukkos echoes the oddity. “The days of the holiday,” he writes in Mitzvah 324, “are days of great happiness to Jews, since it is a time of gathering into the house the grain and fruit, and people are naturally happy.”

But then he subtly addresses the issue of how physical pleasures can constitute simchas Yom Tov: “And so Hashem has commanded His people to celebrate at that time, to allow them the merit of turning the essence of the happiness to Him.”

A striking Midrash (cited by Rashi) on a chapter of Tehillim we recite twice daily this time of year, elucidates the passuk “For my father and mother have abandoned me, and Hashem has gathered me in” (27:10).   Dovid Hamelech, says the Midrash, was stating that his parents’ focus was on their personal relationship; it was about themselves, not him.  In that sense, explains the Midrash, they “abandoned” him.

But stop and think a moment.  Dovid’s father was Yishai – one of the three personages who Chazal tell us (Shabbos 55b) “died by the counsel of the nachash,” the serpent in Gan Eden.  In other words, he was personally without sin.  And yet he is being described as, in some way, selfish?

What occurs is that there is an inescapable aspect of self-awareness (the result, likely, of the nachash’s “success” in Gan Eden) and self-concern that is part and parcel of being human.  To lack it is to be an angel.  Or, perhaps better, a mere angel.  Angels, after all, Chazal tell us, are static; humans, dynamic.

Even the most sublime of human beings have selves.  Even the ideal talmid chacham, represented by the Aron in the Mishkan, who is “gold” within and “gold” without, still has a core of wood – a symbol, it may well be, of the Eitz Hadaas, which bequeathed self-awareness in the first place.

And if a sense of self is an inherent part of being a human being, experiencing physical or emotional pleasure at times is normal and inevitable.  What the Chinuch may be telling us is that simchas Yom Tov means acknowledging that reality, embracing the pleasure of the harvest – and the joy born of the new clothing and the wine and the meat – but “grafting” it onto the spiritual, conscripting it toward the service of Hashem.  By doing that, we elevate the self.  We turn the things that make our “selves” happy toward the holy.

What happier moment could be imagined than when Yaakov Avinu was reunited with Yosef after 22 years of not knowing what had become of his beloved son.  The Midrash, brought by Rashi, has Yaakov reciting Shema at that moment.  Was he not overjoyed at the reunion?  Of course he was.  But he saw fit to graft his joy onto kabbalas ol malchus Shamayim.

So we should enjoy our meat and our wine, our wives and daughters their new clothes and jewelry, our young’uns their nosh.  And we should all consciously try to channel our enjoyment toward its Source.

© 2015 Hamodia


Eliyahu’s Double Plea


The Rambam’s logic, as always, is unassailable.  Miracles, he informs us (Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah, 8:1), simply cannot be bases of belief.  What appears to us as miraculous, he explains, could always be trickery or magic.  Or, we might add, as per the late science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, a “sufficiently advanced technology,” that will always be “indistinguishable from magic.”

To be sure, a miracle can be temporarily impressive, as the Rambam goes on to clarify; and, more important, if sourced in the Divine, can be (like Krias Yam Suf, the be’er and the mann) vivid demonstrations of Hashem’s love and concern for His people.  But what lies at the root of Jewish belief, he states, is no miracle, but rather the revelation at Har Sinai, when Klal Yisrael experienced direct communication with the Creator.

The assertion that what appears miraculous cannot in itself prove anything about its source, though, seems frontally challenged by the narrative of the confrontation between the nevi’ei habaal and Eliyahu Hanavi at Har Hacarmel, recounted in Melachim I 18:1-39 (the haftarah of parashas Ki Sisa).

There, we read of how Eliyahu, in order to convince the Jews of the time to stop vacillating between Hashem and a false god, challenged the idolatrous priests to offer, as he would himself, a sacrifice.  A heavenly fire that would descend on one of the sacrifices would serve as Divine testimony.  Despite efforts of the idolaters to artificially create a “heavenly fire,” as a Midrash describes, and despite Eliyahu’s soaking of his own sacrifice with water, a fire descends from heaven and consumes the Navi’s offering.  The people are overwhelmed, and cry out “Hashem, He is G-d!  Hashem, He is G-d!”

How, though, to square that account with the Rambam’s words about the limitation of miracles? The answer may lie in a Gemara in Berachos (6a).  Eliyahu’s tefillah before the miracle includes the plea Aneini Aneini!– “Answer me!  Answer me!”  The double entreaty, explains the Gemara, refers to two separate requests, to “cause a fire to come down from heaven” and to “let not the people say that it was the result of magic!”

Far from a challenge to the Rambam’s contention, then, the Gemara’s elucidation greatly supports it.  It required a special request of Hashem that the people not dismiss the miracle as meaningless – which they, logically, had every right to do.  In other words, that the people regarded the miracle as meaningful was, in a sense, itself something of a miracle.

And, in fact, the conviction to which the people gave voice when the fire descended did not prove lasting.  Soon thereafter, Eliyahu despairs at the nation’s slipping back into its wrong ways.  Their inspiration at Har HaCarmel was powerful but, in the end, ephemeral.  It was based, after all, on a mere miracle.

The declaration “Hashem, He is G-d!”, of course, is what we call out seven times at Ne’ilah, at the very close of Yom Kippur.  How odd that a declaration that turned out to be short-lived should conclude our holiest day.

Could it be a subtle warning? A reminder that “spiritual highs” cannot in themselves ensure their own perseverance, that even a state of deep emotion requires “follow-up” determination if it is to be maintained?

The first opportunity to follow up, so to speak, after Ne’ilah is the Maariv that ensues after the thunderous “Hashem Hu HaElokim!”s. A kehillah that davens that first post-Yom Kippur tefillah meticulously and with kavanah is one that has had a successful day.

You may know the story told of the Baal Shem Tov’s horses.  The two animals were hitched up to the Besht’s wagon for a trip, but were unaware of the kefitzas haderech, or miraculous “shortening of the way,” that would take place on their journey.  When only a few minutes had elapsed as they passed a point that should have taken them a full day to reach, one horse said to the other, “Hmmm. I’m not even hungry.  We must not be horses but men!”

Then, when a second landmark unexpectedly went by, the other horse commented, “No, we’re even more than men.  We must be angels!”  And so the horses proudly trotted on, until they reached their destination ten hours – but many days’ journey – away.  By this point, they were famished and, led to a feeding trough, enthusiastically dug in to sate their hunger.

And so, the story ends, it was then that the horses knew, without any doubt, that they were horses.

On Yom Kippur, we withdraw from human activities and stand like angels.  When the day ends, though, tired and hungry, we know we are mere humans.

But, if we manage to carry our Ne’ilah recognition into Maariv and beyond, better ones.

© 2015 Hamodia


The King and Us


One of the findings of a recent Pew Research Center report about Orthodox Jews was that for the vast majority of them – are you sitting down? – “religion is very important in their lives.”

Well, yes.

The study contrasts that with the situation in the non-Orthodox community, where only 20% of its members make a similar claim about themselves.

It’s all too easy for many of us to look down our noses at fellow Jews who express their Jewishness only on occasion, to consider them to have missed the point of the Jewish mission. Judaism can’t, after all, be “compartmentalized.”  It is an all-encompassing way of life and needs to inform all the choices we make.

And yet, as always, there’s more to be gained by not looking at others but rather inward.  Our Orthodox world, after all, “knows from” compartmentalization too.

There are, unfortunately, Jews who, while they wouldn’t ever dream of eating food lacking a good hechsher or of davening without a proper head-covering, seem in some ways to be less conscious of Hashem at other times.

How else to explain an otherwise observant Jew who acts in his business dealings, or home life, or behind the wheel, or the way he speaks to others, in ways not in consonance with what he knows is proper?

When we experience such dissonance, it’s not, chalilah, that we don’t acknowledge Hashem.  It’s just that we tend to compartmentalize; we feel HaKodosh Baruch Hu’s presence in our religious lives, but less so in our mundane ones.

Some of us struggle to maintain a keen awareness of Hashem not only out of shul but even in it. We don’t always pause and think of what it is we’re saying when we make a brachah (or even take care to pronounce every word clearly and distinctly).  We allow our observances, even our davening, to sometimes fade into rote.  I’m writing here to myself, but some readers may be able to relate.

Many of us – certainly I – must sadly concede that when it comes to compartmentalizing in our lives, there really isn’t really any clear “us” and “them,” the Pew report notwithstanding.  There is a continuum here, with some of us some more keenly and constantly aware of the ever-presence of the Divine, and some less so.

Obviously, Jews who are entirely nonchalant about religious observance are at one extreme of the scale.  And those who are not only observant but think of Hashem and His will even when engaged in business or navigating a traffic jam are at the other end. But many even in that latter category can still fall short of the ideal of Hashem-consciousness, can compartmentalize their lives.

This is a thought that leads directly to Rosh Hashanah.  The first day of a new Jewish year, the start of the Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, is suffused with the concept of Malchus, “Kingship.”  The shofar, we are taught, is a coronation call, and the concept of malchiyus is prominent in the days’ Mussaf tefillah.  We might well wonder: What has kingship to do with repentance?  The answer is: much.

By definition, a king has a kingdom, over which he exerts his rules.  There is little escaping even a mortal monarch’s reach, and none of his subjects dares take any action without royal approval. All the more so, infinite times over, in the case not of a king but a King.

And so, we might consider that kingship (or, at least, Kingship) and compartmentalization are diametric, incompatible ideas.  If Hashem is to be our Ruler, then there are no places and no times when He can be absent from our minds.

Rosh Hashanah is our yearly opportunity to ponder that thought and internalize it, to try to bring our lives more in line with it.  To better comprehend, in other words, that Hashem is as manifest when we are sitting behind a desk, cooking or sending kids off to school as he is when we are reciting Shemoneh Esrei, as present on a December morning as He is during the Yamim Nora’im.

On Rosh Hashanah, we will all be collectively focused on “de-compartmentalizing” our lives, on coronating Hashem over all Creation.  May the zechus of that effort bear fruit not only in our personal lives, but in history – may it lead, in other words, and soon, to the day when v’hayah Hashem l’melech al kol ha’aretz.

© 2015 Hamodia


Govrov Selichos, 1939


This time of year in 1939, in a Polish town called Ruzhan, a 14-year-old boy had his plans rudely interrupted.  The boy, who, fifteen years later, would become my father, had made preparations to travel to the Novhardoker yeshivah in Bialystok, but the German army invaded Poland before he had the chance, and the Second World War began.

My father, shlita, his family and all Ruzhan’s townsfolk fled ahead of the advancing Germans.  That erev Shabbos, they found themselves in a town called Govrov, just before the Germans arrived there.  Motzoei Shabbos was the first night of Selichos.

Several years ago, I helped my father publish his memoirs, about his flight from the Nazis, his yeshivah days, his sojourn in Siberia (as a guest of the Soviet Union), and his subsequent emigration to America and service as a congregational rav in Baltimore for more than 50 years.  He is currently the mazkir of the Baltimore Beis Din and the rav of a Shabbos minyan.

In his book (“Fire, Ice, Air,” available from Amazon), he movingly describes how he insisted on taking leave of his parents to go to yeshivah, his banishment, along with Rav Leib Nekritz, zt”l and a handful of other Novardhoker bachurim to Siberia; and his being shot while being smuggled, after the war, into Berlin’s American sector.

About that Motzoei Shabbos Selichos in Govrov, he writes:

My family and I were lying on the floor of a local Jew’s house when we heard angry banging on the door and the gruff, loud words “Raus Jude!  Raus Jude!” – “Jew, out!”…

The SS men chased us from the houses, prodding us with bayonets to raise our hands and join the town’s other Jews – several hundred people – in the middle of the town’s market area…

Some of the Germans approached the men among us who had beards and cut them off, either entirely or purposely leaving an odd angle of beard, just to humiliate the victims.  One man had a beautiful, long beard.  When he saw what the Germans were doing, he took a towel he had with him and tied it around his beard, in the hope that our tormentors might not see so enticing a target.  But of course, they went right over to him, removed the towel and shaved off what to him and us was a physical symbol of experience, wisdom and holiness.  He wept uncontrollably.

We stood there and the smell of smoke registered in our nostrils, becoming more intense with each minute.  It didn’t take long to realize that the town’s homes had been set aflame.  Later we heard that a German soldier had been discovered killed nearby and that the SS men had assumed that the culprits were Jews… We Jews were ordered into the synagogue… the doors were locked and SS men stood outside to ensure that no one managed to escape …  The town had been set afire, and the Nazis clearly intended to let the flames reach the synagogue.   Houses nearby were already wildly burning…

The scene was a blizzard of shouting and wailing and, above all, praying.   Psalms and lamentations and entreaties blended together, a cacophony of wrenched hearts.  Everyone realized what was in store and there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that any of us could possibly do. 

The smell of smoke grew even stronger…  And then, a miracle occurred.

How else to explain what happened?  Those in the synagogue who were standing near the doorway and windows saw a German motorcycle come to a halt in front of the building.  A German officer – apparently of high rank – dismounted from the machine and began to speak with the SS men guarding our intended crematorium.   The officer grew agitated and barked orders at the other Nazis.  After a few minutes, the doors to the synagogue were suddenly opened and, disbelieving our good fortune, we staggered out…

What made the officer order them to release us we did not know and never will.  Some of us suspected he was not a German at all, but Elijah the prophet, who, in Jewish tradition, often appears in disguise.

We were ordered across a nearby brook…  And so there we sat, all through the Sabbath, watching as the synagogue in which we had been imprisoned mere hours earlier was claimed by the flames and, along with all the Torah-scrolls and holy books of both Ruzhan and Govrov, burned to the ground…

That night was the first night of Selichos…

I have often contrasted in my mind my father’s teenage years and my own, during which my biggest worries were lack of air conditioning in my classroom and tests for which I had neglected to study.

And each year at Selichos, I try to visualize that Selichos night in Govrov.

© 2015 Hamodia


Musing: Opinions Gone Wild


I’m greatly pained by much of the reaction in the Orthodox community to what has come to be called the Iran Deal.  To be sure, there are elements of the agreement that are less than ideal. And there is nothing remotely wrong with pointing out those things, even without acknowledging the deal’s positive elements.

But there is something wrong, terribly wrong, tragically wrong, in assuming that anyone who dares to see the positive as outweighing the negative is ipso facto “anti-Israel” or, if Jewish, a “traitor” or “sellout.”  That opinions other than one’s own are not just misguided but evil.

And there is something particularly ugly about ads – like those that an unnamed person or persons placed in several Orthodox newspapers – that stoop to the basest sort of character assassination (aided by Photoshopping a Congressman’s face to make him look like an ogre), and are reminiscent of how true enemies of Jews have portrayed us all in centuries past.

Similar ads demeaning elected officials who are opposed to the deal would be no less obnoxious.  The issue isn’t what “side” one is on.  It is how a Jew expresses himself, as a mensch, or as something else.

At this introspective time of the Jewish year, I hope that the person or people behind “American Parents and Grandparents Against the Iranian Deal” and the papers that hosted its offensive ads will give some thought about whether name-calling and insults are the Jewish way to express a political opinion, even about an important issue.


Musing: Atticus and the Yomim Nora’im


The American 1960 classic “To Kill a Mockingbird” was in the news this summer, the result of the publication of an earlier version of it, a sequel in reality, that its author, Harper Lee, had written, and which was apparently only recently discovered.

Millions have found the 1960 book inspiring, and it is indeed a rare work.  It wonderfully captures Southern American life in the 1940s, and deals thoughtfully with themes like racism and friendship.  What’s more, it is suffused with subtle humor.

And it has provided American culture with a hero, in the form of “Atticus,” as the father of the narrator, a little girl at the time the novel takes place, is called.  Atticus, a lawyer, is a paragon of honor, rectitude and compassion, and, although a mere fictional character, has been an inspiration to many a living lawyer and judge.  The Alabama State Bar even erected a monument to him.

Were I a literature teacher and had assigned the book to students, a question I would ask them would be to identify Atticus’ most heroic act.  Some might point to his acceptance of the legal case at the heart of the book, defending a black man against a white accuser.  Others to his standing up to a crowd intent on a lynching of the suspect.  Some might even respond with his facing down of a mad dog, which he kills with a single rifle shot.

My own answer to my question, though, would be something very different.  At one point in the book, it is recounted how a character, Bob Ewell, a wretch intent on seeing the defendant found guilty and executed, approaches Atticus on the street and spits in his face.

Atticus, who has every reason and ability to lay the scoundrel low, instead, in the words of the woman recounting the incident, “didn’t bat an eye, just took out his handkerchief and wiped his face and stood there and let Mr. Ewell call him names wild horses could not bring her to repeat.”

In Hebrew, the closest word to “hero” is gibor, often translated as “a strong man.”  And its definition is provided us in the fourth chapter of Pirkei Avos:  “Who is a gibor? He who conquers his evil inclination, as it is said: ‘Better is one slow to anger than a strong man, and one who rules over his spirit than a conqueror of a city’ (Mishlei 16:32).”

Heroism and strength in Judaism are evident not in action but in restraint, not in outrage but in calm.  Something to think about as the Days of Judgment grow closer.


Exhibit A: Us


It’s not his name but I’ll call him Yochanan, after R. Yochanan ben Zakkai, who, the Gemara tells us (Berachos 17a), was first to greet anyone, Jew or not, he passed in the street.

Yochanan and his wife – we’ll call them the Sterlings – have long used the services of a car repair shop run by an Egyptian Coptic Christian.  We’ll call him Samir. Another of Samir’s customers is Pinchas.

Pinchas related to me last week that he was at Samir’s repair shop recently and that Samir asked him if he knew Yochanan and his wife.  He did, he said, quite well.  And then Samir spent the next ten minutes singing the Sterlings’ praises.  They always smile at him, he related proudly, and ask him about how things are going with his business.  They never argue over charges.  They show an interest in him and make him feel valued.  “Some Jews I don’t like,” he admitted to Pinchas, “but people like them are the real deal.”

Coptic Christians, although they are Arabs, have been attacked repeatedly and savagely by Islamic radicals in recent years; many have been viciously murdered.  So Jews and Copts today share a common enemy. But Eastern Orthodox Churches like the Coptic one have their own long histories of Jew-hatred, and it persists today among many in contemporary Eastern Orthodox communities.

Samir, though, despite his religious background, is enamored of Jews, at least Jews like the Sterlings (and, I suspect, Pinchas).  He has no choice but to accept the evidence of his senses.

And yet, according to Google, the most asked question about Jews is why they are “so rude.”

We don’t have Nevi’im today; and if we did, Google would not be among them.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t, or shouldn’t, take to heart the yield of its logarithm.  To be sure, some of the belief that Jews (and that likely means “identifiably Jewish” Jews) are less than friendly surely emerges from dark places, from hearts polluted with senseless Jew-hatred.  But some of it, too, likely comes from us.

Not that we’re, chalilah, intentionally impolite.  But, unlike in centuries past, we live in open societies these days, and the sort of laying low and ignoring those around us that were sensible staples of Jewish life in other lands and times strike some of our non-Jewish (or Jewish but less observant) fellow citizens as aloofness and off-putting.

We have no choice but to face the fact that each of us today is a walking Jewish billboard, an advertisement for Torah.  A case can even be made that the Gemara’s admonition that a talmid chacham must act in an exemplary fashion at all times applies today, when most Jews are estranged from Torah, to all of us, learned or not, who embrace the Jewish mesorah.

That means, of course, eschewing not only rudeness but even the appearance of the same.  When entering a building or room, holding a door open for someone behind you isn’t a big deal to do, but it can be quite a big deal for the person behind you.

When facing a cashier (no less a human being, no matter how grumpy, pierced or tattooed, than any other one), a sincere “thank you” is in order.

And when driving, signaling one’s turns and lane-switches, not shooting into traffic and not double parking when it impedes others are signs of simple civility. And unless all your car windows are heavily tinted, you can rest assured that anyone you cut off or tailgate will take note of your appearance and draw the indicated conclusions.

Then there is the thing that won’t take any toll on anyone’s time, doesn’t cost anything and is easily within the reach of us all: the sever panim yafos, or smiling countenance, of Avos 1:15. We are to greet, in the Mishnah’s words, “every human” with it.  It involves eye-contact and a smile – a sincere one, acknowledging the humanity of the other.  That is an imperative in its own right, the proper conduct, according to Chazal, of a Jew.  But it also serves an auxiliary purpose, and it’s not a small one.

Last week, I noted the Rambam’s guide to attaining ahavas Hashem, contemplating the wonder of the world around us.  Chazal also tell us, though, that the mitzvah has another dimension: that we act “so that the name of Hashem is beloved through your hand” (Yoma 86a).

That might seem like a difficult thing, but it’s really not.

Just spend some time with Samir.

© 2015 Hamodia


Clear Lens, Clear Image


 I hadn’t planned to awaken at 3 a.m. on Wednesday night, even though it was the peak time for catching sight of meteors – commonly called “shooting stars” – born of the earth’s yearly passage through the trail of Comet Swift-Tuttle.

But awaken I did, and so I decided to go out on the deck to scan the sky for evidence of what is called the Perseid meteor shower.  My wife had never seen a meteor, and so I woke her up, thinking she’d want to join me.  (Thankfully, I was right.)  And baruch Hashem, we spied a couple of the ephemeral streaks of light in the relatively dark Staten Island sky, and recited the brachah of oseh maaseh bereishis.

Not everyone finds such things exciting; many people find amusement parks, performances or miniature golf more to their liking.

That’s unfortunate, I think.  Firstly, because nature is really so much more of a thrill.  Watching a caterpillar weave a cocoon or the butterfly it turns into leave the structure; witnessing a spider spinning its web; planting a seed and observing it as it grows into a plant; staring at even a comet-less night sky and contemplating the unimaginable distances of the suns one is viewing – all such astounding realities are more viscerally compelling than anything man-made.

Secondly, though, and more ultimately important, the thrills that nature offers us pave a path from mindlessness toward a most important mitzvah: ahavas Hashem.

At least, that’s what the Rambam states in Hilchos Yesodei HaTorah (2:2):

“And what is the way toward love of Hashem and fear of Him?  When a person contemplates [Hashem’s] great and wondrous acts and creations, and perceives in them His indescribable and infinite wisdom, he immediately loves and praises and extols and experiences a great desire to know Hashem…”

Yet, in the Sefer Hamitzvos (Mitzvas Aseh 3), the Rambam seems to take a different tack:

“…we should think about and contemplate His mitzvos and statements and actions, until we attain [an understanding of] Him, and experience an ultimate pleasure in that attainment…”

So, is “the way toward love of Hashem” to contemplate His universe, or His mitzvos?

The two seemingly different approaches to the mitzvah of  ahavas Hashem may not be what they seem.  As Rav Mordechai Gifter, zt”l, explained it, one might be describing the lens; the other, the view.  Rav Mordechai Pogramansky, zt”l, invoked a mashal:

A visitor to a city is shown a series of beautiful works of art in a museum but reacts to each with disdain, claiming to see only messy canvases.  Finally, a member of his entourage hits upon the idea of cleaning the fellow’s eyeglasses.  The visitor is subsequently deeply impressed by the art.

Before one can perceive Hakadosh Baruch Hu’s grandeur in the astounding magnificence of His creation – which path leads to love of its Source – one must first approach Creation as something other than an accident, as something containing meaning.  And the way to attain that foundational, vital recognition is to understand the concept of… mitzvos.

Because doing so impresses on us the idea of right and wrong, forces us to confront a choice: to view our lives as meaningless or as a mandate.  And if they are a mandate, there must be a Mandator.

Then, through that clear lens, one can truly see, and appreciate, to the extent a mortal can, the unfathomable wisdom inherent in the wondrous world around us.

It’s unfortunate that “science,” as the word has come to be used, has become the perceived enemy of emunah.  In truth, though, it is Scientism – the conviction that nature is all that there is, and that the wonder it engenders has no further point – that stands in opposition to the truism that Creation has a Creator.

Genuine science, though, the Divine implication-sensitive observation of the world around us, and of the worlds light-years (both literally and figuratively) beyond our ken, is a key to the deepest, most genuine feeling a human being can attain.

When, thrice daily, we declare that Hashem satisfies “all living things” with their needs, there is no comparison between just comprehending the simple meaning of the words and pronouncing them with keen awareness of the number of distinct species on earth (10 million on land, and another estimated 20 million marine microbial organisms) and the astounding intricacy of the way they all are provided their species-specific nourishment.

Reciting Ashrei can lead one to“…immediately love and praise and extol and experience a great desire to know Hashem…”

© 2015 Hamodia


Be Alarmed


Back in 2007, at just about this exact time of year, a priest in the Netherlands city of Tilburg was fined the equivalent of several thousand dollars for ringing his church’s bells early each morning. Local residents, it seemed, were not amused.

That very week, though, shuls around the world were sounding an early morning alarm of their own, as they will be doing soon enough this year.  No complaints were reported in Jewish communities then, or are expected to be registered this year, about Elul’s daily tekias shofar.

The Rambam famously described the blowing of the shofar on Rosh Hashanah as a wake-up call – bearing the unspoken but urgent message “Uru yisheinim mishinaschem”— “Awaken, sleepers, from your slumber.”   The slumber, he went on to explain, is our floundering in the “meaningless distractions of the temporal world” we occupy.

No doubt, the shofar sounds we hear throughout Elul carry that message no less, calling on us to refocus on what alone is meaningful in life: serving the Boreh Olam.

Elul.  As old Eastern European Yiddish sayings go, the observation that, in Elul, “even the fish in the river tremble” is particularly evocative.

The image of piscine panic is meant to evoke the atmosphere of our hurtling toward the Yemei Hadin.  And, in fact, the weeks before Rosh Hashanah are infused with a certain seriousness, even nervousness, born of a sharpened cognizance of the fact that the world will soon be judged; and of the guilt that those of us who are not perfectly righteous – that would be all of us – rightly feel.

Sleeping through a physical alarm clock is always a temptation, and a danger. And even if the sound registers, we are all too easily drawn to hit the snooze button on the spiritual timepiece, busy as we are with all the “important” issues and diversions that take over our lives.

Sometimes, though, some of us wake up even before our alarm clocks go off.  It’s nice to get a sort of head start on full consciousness, so that we’re not terribly shocked when the beeping intrudes upon our sleep, insisting against all reason that the night is already over.

It may still be Av when you read these words, but there’s nothing wrong – and perhaps, in these particularly unsettled and challenging days, everything right – with getting a head start on Elul, with beginning to wake ourselves up even before Rosh Chodesh.  Just as Elul’s tekios are there to remind us of Tishrei, it’s ideal to discern the ethereal clock’s ticking during the month prior.

Hamodia’s Rabbi Hershel Steinberg recently related to me something the Pnei Menachem, zt”l, told him in the name of his father, the Imrei Emes, zt”l.  The Gemara in Brachos (61a) quotes Rabbi Yochanan as stating that it is better for a man to walk “behind a lion than behind a woman.”  The Imrei Emes perceived a deeper meaning beyond the straightforward one. “It is better to begin doing teshuvah during the month of Av, whose mazal is a lion (Leo),” he said, “than to wait until Elul, whose mazal is a woman (Virgo).”

At a family simchah last week in a shul hall, some of the celebrants held a minyan for Maariv.  While I was in the middle of Shemoneh Esrei, I felt a tug on my pants leg. I lifted one of my closed eyelids slightly to see that it wasn’t a snake or scorpion but rather one of my (utterly adorable, needless to say) grandchildren, a little blue-eyed girl of three.  She wasn’t in any danger or distress; she just wanted my attention.  I tried to keep it, though, on my tefillah.   There would be ample time to reassure her of my love for her after davening.

Before she gave up her quest, though, and decided her cousins were more fun than I was being, she gave it one last try and I heard her little voice implore: “Zaidy!  Wake up, Zaidy!”

I had to pause a moment at so delightful an “einekel moment.”

Now, however, thinking about Elul, even with Rosh Chodesh still a few days off, I wonder if there might not have been a more serious, if unintended, message for me in her words.

© 2015 Hamodia