Wednesday, August 11, 2010


A belated Chodesh Tov to everyone!

I want to share with you an experience I was privileged to have today.

You know how we're taught in school that whenever there is great potential for good, there is an equal potential for evil/not-so-good? (I can't quite remember what context I learned this in, so if you never heard it before, just trust me on this one.) For example, at a time of great simcha, like a wedding or a Yom Tov, when there is opportunity for mitzvos to be fulfilled and relationships to be developed (both bein adam l'chaveiro and bein adam l'Makom) the Yetzer Hara/Satan/whatever-you-call-it is working extra hard to trip us up. (It is not uncommon to have things go wrong in the last few busy and stressful hours before Shabbos, Pesach, a wedding, etc.)

And throw in to the mix the fact that the Yetzer Hara is one tricky guy - he doesn't work in a direct manner. He'll make you think you're being a tzaddik when in reality, you're unwittingly playing his game exactly the way he wants.

In short: Being a ben/bat Torah in this world is really hard! You try your best, and have the potential for immense improvement, but then mess up. To the degree that you are determined to do good is the degree that the Yetzer Hara will go to make you do wrong. And when you do mess up, that nasty little blighter tells you to forget it, don't bother fixing yourself - after all, isn't it much easier to wallow in self-pity and then hide your now fragile self-esteem from the world under the guise of cynicism (which is lauded by pop media as an attractive trait, for some strange reason) than to risk another failure?

Everyone has certain mitzvos that come naturally to them - like avodas Hashem b'simcha, ahavas Yisrael, limud Torah (for guys), chessed, whatever. And on the flipside, everyone has certain mitzvos that (for whatever reason) aren't their forte - lashon hara, limud Torah, emuna, kibud av v'em, tznius, just to name a few.

The important thing to remember is that Hashem didn't give us mitzvos that we couldn't possibly keep - that isn't just ("zeh lo fair!") It is important to make a distinction I recently heard an adult telling a child: "Don't say 'I can't' - say 'It is difficult for me.'" It is difficult, not impossible, to keep some mitzvos.

My particular "tough mitzvah" has been, to say the least, extremely challenging for a while. And at some point in the past year, I made a neder to really work at it. But I'm not perfect - I messed up a number of times. Sometimes, I really messed up and went through a lot of emotional pain. Case in point - I messed up today, and I feel horrible about it. I sat on my bed and self-pitied (/gave in to the YH) for an hour, then got fed up and needed to be productive. I talked to myself and worked it through. Told myself that just because I messed up already doesn't mean I should give up. I try again. And I'm prepared to mess up again. But I should keep trying.

We are taught that in Elul there is a koach in the world to really make change for the better. Elul is the time that has the power for teshuva (that's my new definition of "Elul zman"). What better time to re-make a promise to work on your "tough mitzvah"?

So go for it. You know what your "tough one" is - promise yourself that you will work at it. Say the words out loud (and check out Rabbi Zelig Pliskin's book "Conversations With Yourself") - "I will work on X." Take action to confront your challenge - fight back! Your arsenal is filled with the best weapons and gadgets to fulfill this mission (to the best of your ability) - Torah. On the web, anything is accessible - just do a Google search, check out or for shiurim. (Notice how I provided links so you can't possibly avoid going to the websites!) Learn about your "tough mitzvah," and how to do it properly. Get chizuk from shiurim. Share your mission with a close friend, who can be a cheerleader. Be prepared to mess up, but also be prepared to brush yourself off and try again. Ask Hashem for help! He wants to help.

Remember - "Sheva yipol tzaddik v'kam" (Mishlei 24:16) - You WILL mess up, and you WILL make it! Like riding a bike...

May we all be zoche this Elul to achieving teshuva shelaima, and build our relationship with Hashem so that we can overcome a Yezter Hara, and be a step closer to truly reaching "Ani l'dodi v'dodi li."

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Is There Any Value to the "Zeros"?

[I know it's been a while since I've posted, and I won't bother giving excuses. :-) ]

I once heard (from Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky, I believe) a great quote about the status of ancestors and yichus when dating:

"Yichus is like a bunch of zeros - it's meaningless unless you put the 'one' in front of it."

The point is simple: Whether or not you come from a wonderful, frum family that has been steeped in yiddishkeit for generations means nothing if you are not committed to continuing that sort of lifestyle.

"He comes from a great family! His father and grandfather learned in Yeshiva X, his great-grandfather was the Rabbi of such-and-such town in Russia, and his mother's whole family have been the cornerstone of American Jewry for decades! The boy? OK, well, he's a yeshiva dropout. Plans? Oh, he doesn't have any... No, he isn't all that interested in a family..." Obviously, that was an exaggeration. But the principle is the same - you don't marry someone based on their family.

Now, allow me to interrupt myself and say very clearly; Family is an extremely important factor to consider when dating for marriage! I am a huge believer in that. True, you marry the person him/herself, and not the family. But that doesn't mean that you won't interact with your spouse's family. That doesn't mean that the person you are suddenly spending the rest of you life with hasn't been influenced (for both the good and not-so-good) by their family for twenty-something years. It is impossible to ignore the impact of family on a spouse and future married life.

So yes, family is important, but not exclusively. But to get to the real question; What if the situation is flipped? If the family is not so stellar, but the boy/girl in their own right is a committed and really great ben or bat Torah?

This is a topic that has come up on numerous occasions at my family's Shabbos table, with regards to dating the children of ba'alei teshuva or gerim. The debate is usually split into two camps: my parents, (who both come from frum committed Torah families) while welcoming ba'alei teshuva and gerim into the Jewish community and marveling at their journey, at the same time would rather see their children married to the son/daughter of families similar to theirs. With families of ba'alei teshuva/gerim, they admit to having some reservations. My parents don't think any less of these Jews for having different backgrounds - they just aren't entirely comfortable with the idea of non-frum/non-Jewish in-laws, or even ancestors.

While we understand where our parents are coming from, my siblings and I think a little differently, and are not so cautious with the idea of dating someone from such a family. If the person suggested by a shadchan "makes sense" regarding what we are each looking for (in terms of Torah lifestyle, plans for future, desire to build a Jewish family, etc.), then we would be totally fine giving that person from a BT/ger family a fair chance, like anyone else.

My question for readers is, how far should it go? Let's say a solid, frum boy/girl who's grandfather was a ger is suggested to you - should that be a "deal-breaker"? What if you gave it a chance, and it began to get serious? Would you break it off because it might possibly cause machlokes with your family? (Don't laugh - I know someone who did this - don't worry, she's happily married now!) If the "one" is a really worthy "one," how much importance is granted to the "zeros"?

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Wake Up!!!

Finals are the bane of my existence. Well, currently, anyways. But I saw the very old post and was kind of sad that I hadn't blogged in a while. It's not like I don't have anything to say. It's just that there are only so many hours in the day. So here's a little video for all of you out there - it's both entertaining and interesting. I wanted to share it so you could see how much cramming for finals has melted your brain.

Go ahead, enjoy! And hatzlacha on exams/papers/projects/quizzes/bechinas/whatevers!

P.S. - Anybody have a good vort on what the parting message of the video could mean?

Sunday, April 25, 2010

20th Anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope

I opened up Google tonight, and the main page was space-themed. I clicked on the link provided, and it re-directed me to this page. (I strongly suggest clicking on the link.)

The images are from the Hubble Telescope, which has been orbiting around the galaxy for 20 years, snapping photos of far-flung worlds and phenomena. I flipped through the photos and thought two things:

1) "Niflaos Haboreh!"


2) "This looks straight out of Star Wars... Is it even possible?"

Thought #1, I believe, cannot be contested. (If real,) these images are incredible examples of the wonders that Hashem has created, many of which we are completely ignorant of. Plus, it demonstrates what the Rav (ZT"L) identifies as the "majesty" and "dignity" of modern man, who embodies "dignity" based on the technological advances of which he is capable.

Which leads me to Thought #2 - seriously, I feel like I'm looking out at the world from the Starship Enterprise. How do we know this isn't all a hoax? It could be pulled off - just make a really cool computer graphic, give it a funky name, make it a few billion years old, and who will know the difference? I guess it's just the pessimist in me coming out, but do such places really exist? Is there any source for them in Torah? I'm so incredibly curious...

Either way, the pictures are cool to look at. Happy Anniversary, Hubble Telescope!

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Yom Ha'atzmaut Reflections

I was debating whether or not to write this, and was inspired by Shades of Grey's Yom Ha'atzmaut post (thanks!).

I went to a fairly modern elementary Yeshiva day school, which was very Tzioni. We went all out with the blue-and-white shtick (clothing, cupcakes, decorations), dancing, Hallel as a whole school using Naomi Shemer tunes, etc. on Yom Ha'atzmaut. And me, being slightly nuts and more than happy to take every opportunity to dance and sing and demonstrate my (naive) love for the State of Israel, was typically one of the girls in the middle of the circle, steadily going hoarse, my bright red face clashing with the blue and white garb.

This mentality carried over to an all-girls' Yeshiva high school, which was also Tzioni, but in a more toned-down fashion, and definitely more in line with Religious Zionism (or as I like to say, "Tzioyni") than just stam Zionism. Yom Ha'atzmaut celebrations were mostly fueled by the students (rather than the administration), and Hallel (with or without a bracha) was optional, and said privately.

Then, during my year in seminary, things started to change. It was the first time I was in Eretz Yisrael for an extended period of time, and really learning to love the land for its kedusha. As I'm sure many of you can attest to, there is no clear, logical explanation for the love a Jew feels for the physical land of Eretz Yisrael, the landscapes, or the nature. I've seen some beautiful natural parks in America, and there I always thought "Mah rabu ma'asecha Hashem!" But nothing more. Only with Israel did I feel the same connection, comfort, and longing during this extended absence. For me, the only explanation is that due to its inherent kedusha, the "afra d'Eretz Yisrael" is so much more significant than that of any other country.

I was privileged to have some incredible teachers and rabbanim in my seminary who, although (most) were Charedim, did not ignore or mock Yom Ha'atzmaut. They emphasized and embodied the religious perspective towards the hoda'ah and celebration of the day. For them, it wasn't about "Hallel with a bracha/without a bracha" - it was about giving shevach (through Tehillim, or maybe Hallel) to Hakadosh Baruch Hu for the incredible nissim and gifts He gave us on the date we are commemorating. There was no much-debated question of "blue and white" clothing, because that wasn't related to the ikkar simchas hayom.

In a sense, I've shifted from my childish, Zionistic love of Medinat Yisrael to a place of deep-seated, Torah-driven longing for Eretz Hakadosh. Personally, I no longer need to wave a degel Yisrael or proudly wear blue and white to proclaim my love for Israel. It is a private, budding relationship that doesn't require any flashy, external indications.

So I went to (and very much enjoyed!) the shiurim for Yom Hazikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut, but I didn't go to the chagiga afterwards. (Granted, one of the main reasons was because I wasn't in the mood for a 'social scene'.) Which made me feel weird when I was sitting back in my dorm, because just 2 or 3 years ago, I would have without doubt been at the chagiga, wearing my flag as a cape and dancing up a storm with the rest of my friends. Yet, I no longer felt the need to do so. I'm not critical of that "shtick," honestly. It just doesn't do anything for me. But still, something felt off.

Then I wondered; am I being a frum snob? Do I look down on people who choose to celebrate Yom Ha'atzmaut like that? I certainly hope not, considering the nauseating hypocrite I would be if I did. It's not like I went around making snide remarks about those who do celebrate in such a fashion; I just didn't join in, because it's not how I felt I needed to express my feelings related to the chag. If that is how they celebrate, kol hakavod! I believe everyone should act as they deem fitting.

And yet, I got the impression from a close friend that I was being a bit "self-righteous." Which really bothered me, because what if it was true? Then, all the growth I thought I had in regards to ahavat ha'aretz was a farce. Which is a really scary thought... And if I am being a religious snob, how do I change that? Such a characteristic is fake frumkeit, and in my opinion, not worth anything.

I said Hallel this morning (without the bracha), took a break from homework to listen to C. Lanzbom a little (yes, I do hold that it's not assur to listen to music on Yom Ha'atzmaut), and ate schwarma for dinner (OK, I know, it was after shki'a...). And as I'm writing this, I feel like I'm justifying my extremely confused position. Do I really need to do that?

Is it being self-righteously "frum" to hold back from the typical celebrations, choosing only to participate in the ones that are more "Torah-centered"? (eg., Yom Iyun, tefillot).

To be quite honest, I have no conclusion. I'd love to hear readers' opinions. Thanks!

Sunday, April 4, 2010

B'zchus Nashim Tzidkaniyos

Just a quick one here - I must fully acknowledge my utmost respect for the Jewish mothers who make Pesach (/Yom Tov), let alone Shabbos (every week!) happen. My mother was a little under the weather this Erev Pesach, so I became the junior sous chef, right hand man, and assistant manager in the kitchen this year.

Let me tell you - it is exhausting! Three days of of 10 AM to 2:30 AM, practically nonstop cooking, peeling endless pounds of potatoes, cleaning chickens, and washing dishes is very draining. (It's rewarding as well, when you get to stuff your face on yuntif with awesome food that tastes better than chametz...) At the end of it all, I turned to my mom and said:

"Ma, I don't know how you do it every week, all by yourself. And you've been doing this for over twenty years, sometimes with babies running around!"

My mother just looked at me silently, and then said (tearfully):

"Thank you for acknowledging that! It makes it all so much more worthwhile when you say that to me, especially now that you've experienced it, too."

It's hard on our mothers - whether physically, emotionally, or financially, making a beautiful Shabbos every week, and Yom Tov every few weeks, is no easy task. Our mothers do it happily, and don't begrudge us any of it. (I assume) It is a mother's joy and nachas to see her children sitting around the Shabbos table, spending family time together, knowing that she is a part of that. But oftentimes, it goes unnoticed. I know that I have taken for granted my mother's hard work that goes into Shabbos many times.

But retroactively, a sincere "thank you" can make all the hard work seem effortless - even cleaning slimy raw chickens could be pleasurable, in hindsight.

So even if you haven't had the Pre-Pesach Kitchen Experience, tell your mom how much you appreciate all the effort she puts into making a beautiful chag.

While you're at it, show her this; in comparison, your mom is normal.

Monday, March 22, 2010

"The Women" - Conversation with Lady Elaine Sacks and Dr. Esther Joel

I had the absolute privilege to attend the Shabbaton at Stern this past week with special guests of honor, Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks (Chief Rabbi of England) and his wife, Lady Elaine. President Joel and his wife, Dr. "Queen" Esther Joel, were there as well. For a fantastic summary of the Shabbaton and the inspiring divrei Torah of Rabbi Sacks, check out Shades of Grey's post, Why Can't America Have a Chief Rabbi This Cool?!

One part of the Shabbaton that Shades didn't mention (see comments on his post for why) was the post-luncheon panel with the Chief Rebbetzin and First Lady. Dean Karen Bacon moderated, asking a list of (pre-approved) questions to each of the two women, and of course, moved along with funny comments from President Joel sitting on the sidelines. I'll try my best to remember all the questions and answers.

Before she began, Dean Bacon made a really great remark; The old saying "Behind every great man lies a great woman" isn't really true, at least according to the way Judaism views the powerful partnership that is marriage. A more correct statement would be, "Behind every great person is a great life partner." Both Dr. Joel and Lady Elaine are wonderful examples of this truth.

The first question was a basic rundown of each woman's professional background, and how that has changed since entering public roles with their husbands.

Dr. Joel, a practicing psychologist (who got her PhD. over ten years, while raising children!), is on the board at a health facility, and has always been very involved in community work, whether it be on the school board, an active member of shul committees, or part of the Chevra Kadisha. She made a really interesting and important point regarding communal work: If you want something to be done (in your child's school for instance), don't wait for someone else to do it. You should do it! Ever since her husband (formerly a lawyer) became president of YU, she had a new role; hostess to many public figures.

Lady Elaine is, by education, a radiographer (I guess the American equivalent would be a radiologist), who also writes book reviews for a Jewish journal. She is also extremely involved in the community, and that seems to now be her primary role as wife of the Chief Rabbi. She mentioned chessed, being involved with the high school girls on a personal basis, and the annual poetry contest and tea reception for children in the Jewish day schools. Like Dr. Joel, she also does a lot of entertaining and hosting of dignitaries (from many walks of life), and even royalty (such as the private dinner she and Rabbi Sacks had with Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles, before they were married - smooth political move, anyone?).

"What would be one piece of advice you wished someone would have told you when you were in college/university?"

Both Lady Elaine and Dr. Joel answered "Enjoy it!" Don't take up time now worrying about the future - these are such great years of your life, so take advantage of it! (A cute story that Dean Bacon stuck in was how Stern's psych professor, Dr. Aharon Fried - a Munkacher Chassid - was asked the same question on a video for Stern. He answered by singing a line from Simon and Garfunkel's great song, "Feelin' Groovy": "Slow down, you move too fast/ You've got to make the morning last...")

Another question was something along the lines of, "What advice could you give to young women today who want to balance working and raising a Jewish family?"

Dr. Joel (a response that drew cheers from the female half of the crowd): "Guys, help out!" She also stressed the importance of prioritizing your time between family and work. Lady Elaine (I think it was in response to this question) spoke about how children learn most from examples in the home, more that anywhere else. The example she gave was that if tzedakah and chessed are priorities in your home, your children will copy that. So when prioritizing between work and family, keep that in mind as well.

What is the biggest problem facing the Jewish community today?

Lady Elaine said that she believed "outmarriage" (translation: intermarriage) and anti-Semitism are what she sees as the biggest problems. While the first is universally a concern, the second is probably more relevant to European Jewry than it is to American Jewry. Dr. Joel gravely said she believes diffidence is our biggest concern. She wasn't even talking about lack of discussion between Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative; she meant that lack of tolerance between the difference shades of Orthodoxy is what is ripping apart our community today.

What was the most interesting question you were ever asked?

Dr. Joel was once in Carvel, and she was paying with a check, and the high school kid behind the counter asked her if she was Billy Joel's mom. Mind you, Billy Joel is a bit older than Dr. Joel...

Rabbi and Lady Sack's daughter came to them after she got the ultrasound of her first child, asking if there was a bracha for such an occasion (the first time you see your child - up until then, Hashem was the only one who saw him/her). They said "She'hechiyanu."

The great part of this Shabbaton was seeing both the Sackses and Joels in a relaxed setting, getting to know them (a little bit), rather than merely seeing them as great, but distant, figures. Not only were the words of Torah and wisdom they gave us valuable, but the experience of being in their presence was just as enlightening. Both are strong couples living genuine, dedicated, passionate lives of Torah in the world-straddling communities we belong to, real example for how we should and can conduct our lives. I am personally very grateful to both the Joels and Sackses for sharing a Shabbos with the students at YU and Stern, and I'm sure anyone who was lucky enough to be there would agree.

I wish I could remember more, but my brain is shutting down. If any readers remember more, please add it in the comments!