Inspired by Reb Kalonymos Kalman's ideal of a group of people coming together with the common goal of enhancing their service of God, increasing their sensitivity to all things spiritual, strengthening their love of acheinu kol beis Yisrael, and unlocking the enormous potential that we all have to cleave to the Almighty.

Interaction and discussion of practical ideas and concepts toward this end, culled from any Torah true source is welcome and appreciated.

Observations and personal experiences are also welcome; the point is to grow!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Ten Things to Remember

A great post by Yitz, of the Waxing Wellspring blog. I'm posting it here because I think it has very practical applications.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

A pre Tisha b'Av post I wrote over at Tikkun! brought to mind an important element of daily prayer that can be used to enhance the potency of one's prayers:

The Kav HaYashar writes at the end of Chapter 3 that one should take pains to ensure that he sits in a specific spot in shul on a consistent basis, and that he sit next to someone who does not engage in frivolous talk during the prayers. Rabbi Zecharia Wallerstein explained that one of the ideas behind a makom kavua is like the parable from the other post: when we pray at a specific place, our prayers rise up to the Gates of Prayer up above and try to enter in the same spot. The constant, repetitious barrage of daily prayers aimed at the same spot effectively "weaken" that area, which may be otherwise impenetrable.

Moreover, sitting next to someone who doesn't waste his time in shul is mutually beneficial; together you can form a unified front, and give encouragement via reinforcement by your conscious efforts to maximize your prayers.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

One-Minute Hitbodedut

Hisbodedus is a wonderful way of nurturing one's relationship with HaShem. While hisbodedus is probably most famously associated with Rebbe Nachman and is a major pillar of Breslov avodah (see Hishtapchut HaNefesh), hisbodedus has been around in one form or another going back at least to the Avos. Other famous non-chassidic practitioners were Reb Yisrael Salanter, the Chofetz Chaim, and more recently, Reb Shimshon Pincus.

Hisbodedus according to the Breslov method involves (ideally) secluding oneself for an hour every day, and speaking to God "as one would speak to a friend".

While doing hisbodedus for a whole hour seems daunting even to some seasoned practitioners, beginners are encouraged to begin with baby steps. Rabbi Ozer Bergman, a teacher and writer associated with the Breslov Research Institute gives a step-by-step suggestion on how to begin practicing hisbodedus in earnest, in his work Where Earth and Heaven Kiss: A Guide to Rebbe Nachman's Path of Meditation:

Set a time during the day when you know you will be alone and fully available for just one minute.
  • Stop what you're doing
  • Take a deep breath.
  • Thank God for any two things in life - one current, the other current or past.
  • Ask God for two material things - one related to today, one related to the future.
  • Ask God for two spiritual things - one related to today, one related to the future.
  • Ask God to help the Jewish people in two ways.
  • Either:
  • (a) Ask God to talk again tomorrow and say, "Thank You," or
  • (b) Keep talking. When you finish, go to (a) 

Friday, August 5, 2011


Eicha begins: Eichah yashva badad - How She [Yerushalayim] sat alone. ALONE!

Why did we enjoy and rejoice in Yerushalayim? Because Yerushalayim connected us to the Source as the pasuk in tehillim says שמחתי באומרים לי וכו' ירושלים הבנויה כעיר שחוברה לה יחדיו I rejoiced when they told me .... Yerushalayim when built is the city that connects us to the Source. When Yerushalayim was destroyed we lost that connection. That is what the pasuk means when is says איכה היתה לזונה קריה נאמנה - How did She turn into a harlot that faithful city. The word "emuna" [kirya neemana] means "drawn after". When Yerushalayim was built we were "neeman", drawn after Hashem, but when we sinned we were unfaithful, we were no longer drawn after, which is metaphorically like a harlot who by connecting to everybody is connected to nobody.

A gematria! The gematria of Eicha is 36 which is the number of prohibitions for which one gets kares, excision, being cut off from G-d. "Eicha" means that as a community we were cut off. Eicha means "HOW CAN THIS BE?"

We are cut off. HOW CAN THIS BE?????

The tikkun of course is to reconnect. From churban to chibbur.

Bimheyra bi'yameinu!

[Sfas Emes Dvarim 1893]

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Limitless Shefa

A poor farmer asks a rich man for a donation of some food and hands him a plastic bag to fill up. The rich man says "I will give you a whole TRUCKFUL of food! You don't need this bag."

The poor man has never seen a truck, doesn't know what a truck is and asks that the rich man just fill up the bag.

We are the poor man. Hashem has limitless shefa [bounty] to shower upon us but our keilim are so deficient. He wants to bestow upon us such bracha but we are all too often satisfied with some crumbs.

[Sefer Yichud Hahisbodedus]

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The Danger Of Excessive Fear

לפעמים ע"י העמסת יראה יתירה על נפשו יותר מכחותיו בא לידי שנאת התורה. וצריך כל אדם למדוד את כחו וגם כששטף המחשבות המוסריות מתגבר עליו, וגם הטוב שבו מתעלם ממנו, ומוצא הוא בעצמו כל הדופי וכל החסרונות שבעולם לא ירף ידו ולא יבהל , וידע שבכל זאת הרבה טוב צפון בו. וידע גם כן שבכל התוכחות הרבות שבספרים, שעל פיהם מוצא האדם עצמו אומלל מאד, בתוכם מוסתר אור חיים וישועה, חסד גדול ואומץ לבב. ודוקא מתוך עומק נפילה באים לעומק קימה, ומתוך ריקניות התורה יבוא לאהבתה, ולהתאמץ בגדלה ותפארתה. ונתיקת הרצון בכל דהו לצד המעלה, מרים הכל לטוב. וישכיל ויבין שמצב העולם ההרוס גם הוא לטובה ולברכה, ולמחיה עשהו ה', וסוף הכל לתיקון גמור. -שמונה קבצים קובץ ו אות פח

ובתרגום חפשי -

Sometimes, when a person overloads himself with excessive fear of Heaven beyond his powers and abilities, he comes to hatred of the Torah. Even when a person is flooded with self-critical thoughts and sees no good in himself he shouldn't lose his bearings and should remain calm and at peace with himself, knowing that there is much good that reposes within him.He should also know that all of the stringent rebukes written in mussar sefarim that may make a person feel worthless, within them are hidden the light of life, salvation, great chesed and a courageous heart.

Specifically from the depths of failure one comes to the deepest success, from an empty feeling towards Torah one comes to love and to a feeling of it's glory and grandeur. Moving one's will in the right direction, elevates everything to the good. And he will understand that the world's present state of destruction is also for the best and everything is leading to the complete rectification.

So one should certainly have Yiras Shomayim - but only within his abilities to maintain. He must also know that all of what seems bad and scary is ultimately destined to bring one to a state of goodness and joy.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What is Frumkeit

(Reposted here by Shmuel's request. I wasn't all that impressed with the piece myself.)

The word “frum” has become a near-synonym for Orthodox. How this came to be is noteworthy.

“Frum” descends from the German “fromm“, meaning pious or devout. In pre-war Yiddish, usage appears to have varied widely. On the one hand, those who named their daughters “Fruma” clearly thought being frum as complementary. On the other, there was an idiom, or as Rav Aharon Kotler often put it, “Frum iz a galech; ehrlich iz a Yid – the town priest is ‘pious’, a Jew is refined.” I also heard the first part from Bergers of that same generation, “frum iz a galech“. Admittedly, both data points from Lithuanian Iddish.

How did the word “frum”, then, ever catch on in the Yeshiva world, a community that aspires for continuity with the yeshivos of Lithuania? How did a word go from being a scornful description of the wrong kind of religiosity to a self-label?

I think that’s it’s for the same reason why kids who are eating at McDonald’s are branded “at risk”, but those who are chronic liars are not. The first group are “at risk” in the sense of their risk of leaving the community and no longer staying exposed to our values — and thus losing the likelihood of returning. Which means we’re defining ourselves by how we differ from non-Orthodox Jews and non-Jews — not by what’s most important.

To some extent, when we use it as a self-identification, we are still thinking of frum in its original, ritual centric, meaning. A frum Jew is one who belongs to our community, and thus is following Orach Chaim, Even haEzer and Yoreh Dei’ah. And as implied by my comparison, this is an important threshold — it’s the line between someone who wishes to remain influenced by our teachings and culture, and those who do not. But it does not accurately reflect priorities. “Ehrlich is a yid.”

It is the original derogatory usage which is clearly the starting point for Rav Shelmo Wolbe’s essay on Frumkeit, in Alei Shur II pp 152-155. R’ Wolbe takes the informal usage of yore and gives it a robust, specific, technical meaning. In his hands, the word “frumkeit” refers to an etiology for a specific kind of cul-de-sac on the path of religious growth.

As you may have noticed following this blog, I am a strong advocate for a thoughtful and passionate approach to religious observance. As the name says, a fusion of passionate aish with the rigor of das’s law-based rite forming a new thing, a new word, “AishDas“. But in my discussion of thoughtful Judaism, I have always presumed the antonym of thoughtless Judaism, observance based on habit, on culture. Putting on tefillin merely because “that’s what is done.”

Rav Wolbe notes a different alternative to thoughtfulness — instinct. To Rav Wolbe, frumkeit is an instinctive drive to be close to the Creator. It is not even specific to humans; the frumkeit instinct is what King David refers to when he writes, “כְּפִירִים שֹׁאֲגִים לַטָּרֶף, וּלְבַקֵּשׁ מֵאֵ-ל אָכְלָם — lion cubs roar at their prey, and request from G-d their food.” (Tehillim 104:21) And, “נוֹתֵן לִבְהֵמָה לַחְמָהּ, לִבְנֵי עֹרֵב אֲשֶׁר יִקְרָאוּ — He gives the animal its food, before the ravens who cry.” (147:9)

What can go wrong with something that draws us to the Almighty, even if it is instinctive? Instincts are inherently about survival, self-preservation. As we see in the pesuqim cited in Alei Shur, the lion cub and the raven calls out to Hashem to get their food. Rather than being motivated by thoughtfulness, frumkeit is the use of religion to serve my ends.

A while back I posted on my blog, Aspaqlaria, about something I called the paradox of performing mitzvos bein adam lachaveiros lishmah — doing interpersonal mitzvos for the sake of the mitzvah:

What is the purpose of such mitzvos? To develop feelings of love and caring toward others; to expand our natural focus on ourselves to include others. Does the lishmah (lit: for itself) mean doing the mitzvah for the sake of doing a mitzvah? If it does, then we are not focusing on caring for other people, we are focusing on Hashem. On the other hand, if we define lishmah as being “for the purpose for which we were given the mitzvah (as best we can understand it)”, we would conclude that mitzvah bein adam lachaveiro “for itself” means doing it without thought to its being a mitzvah. As I said, a paradox.

Rav Wolbe quotes the Alter of Slabodka’s treatment of this question:

Ve’ahavta lereiakha komakhaand you shall love your peers like yourself.” That you should love your peer the way you love yourself. You do not love yourself because it is a mitzvah, rather, a plain love. And that is how you should love your peer.

To which Rav Wolbe notes, “This approach is entirely alien to frumkeit.” The frum person is the one who makes sure to have Shabbos guests each week, but whose guests end up feeling much like his tefillin — an object with which he did a mitzvah. A person acting out of frumkeit doesn’t love to love, he loves in order to be a holier person. And ironically, he thereby fails — because he never develops that Image of the Holy One he was created to become. The person who acts from self-interest, even from the interest of ascending closer to G-d, will not reach Him.

One must approach a mitzvah with a drive to see the deed done, rather than the self-interested drive to be the one doing it. This is “mimaaqim qarasikha Hashem — from the depths I call out to you, Hashem.” I reach for G-d not while instinctively grasping for loftiness, focusing on how can I make me more lofty, but when I subdue myself for the sake of the deed. To honor Shabbos out of a sense of honor, to give to the poor because one feels such love and empathy that nothing else would be thinkable.

This is why mussar is primarily a study of da’as, of wisdom and thoughtfulness.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

As an addendum to his essay on bitachon and hishtadlut, Rav Dessler gives us several practical suggestions for maintaining a healthy balance between the two. Again, this text is from Michtav M'Eliyahu, Vol. 1 (Bitachon v'Hishtadlut)*:

We explained above that one can minimize endeavor only to a certain extent. The proviso is that one is strong enough to withstand the tests that may result without feeling sorry that one started on the path of faith in the first place. We should therefore look for ways to lessen the risk by strengthening our ability to meet challenges of this sort. Here are some suggestions.
  1. Train yourself to be satisfied with less in the way of worldly goods. The less you need, the easier it will be for you to cut down on physical endeavor and the less dangerous will be the test. As our Sages said (Avot 6:4) "The way of Torah is to eat dry bread and salt and drink water by the measure..."   
  2. Pray with devotion until you recognize that everything comes from HaShem. Then even if you don't succeed in your endeavors you will know that your lack of success, too, is decreed by Heaven. The deeper you realization of this truth, the less likely you will be to regret the course you have adopted. 
  3. Reflect constantly on the importance of trust in HaShem. Read about trust in our holy sources. Even when you are engaged in necessary physical endeavor be aware that you are only fulfilling the decree "By the sweat of your brow, etc." (Gen. 3:19) Realize that what you will have is decreed and the extent of your endeavor will not alter this. All this will serve to strengthen your faith. Be prepared to close your ears to the taunts of those who call you "good for nothing" and similar epithets. Better to be called this and worse, than to abandon one's principles. Remember the words of our Sages (Eduyot 5:6): "Better I should be called a fool all my life than be a rasha before God for one hour."
  4. When a person has to do something which he feels is unworthy of him he is affected by a sense of shame and is impelled to do it in private. This is an instinct implanted by HaShem, and dates from after the sin of Adam. before that the Torah says "...and they were not ashamed." (Gen 2:25) At that time physical desire was not within their experience at all. But afterwards, since it became impossible for a human being to achieve complete unselfishness, he was endowed with a sense of modesty which taught him to be ashamed of selfish physical desire. Similarly with economic endeavor, even thought the person may have no choice (after all, it was Adam's sin that brought this upon us), he should still engage in it with as much modesty as possible. He should experience a sense of shame that he has to do actions which seem to contradict the all-pervading power of HaShem. Just as modesty is effective in limiting physical desire, so it is with physical endeavor; modesty and restraint can serve to keep it within proper bounds. There is an interesting comment by the Vilna Gaon on the word "cheresh" used in connection with the sending of the two spies by Yehoshua. He writes: "This means that he sent them in that they should not fail as the earlier spies did." This provides remarkable confirmation of what we said above [in the essay].
  5. "Make your Torah fixed and your work casual." (Avot 1:15). To achieve this one has to make Torah one's main ambition. One must strengthen one's determination to achieve success in Torah to such an extent that one is prepared to give up one's life for it, in accordance with the words of our Sages. When one's life-ambition is for spiritual things this will automatically lessen the urge for physical endeavor and one will also spend less time on material things generally. He will accordingly be less prone to regrets if he is not so successful in the material sphere. Regret is after all only a function of unfulfilled ambition.
 *English adapted from Strive for Truth! by Rabbi Aryeh Carmell

Friday, March 11, 2011

Reb Shmuel Strashun, author of the Hagahot RaSHaSH (a supercommentary on the Talmud Bavli) was known as a genius par excellence. Once, he was grappling with a difficult passage in the gemara when he met up with Reb Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (Rosh Yeshiva [dean] of the famed yeshiva in Volozhin, author of Ha'amek Davar and Ha'amek Sheila), to whom he posed his difficulty.

Immediately, the Netziv (as Rav Berlin was known; not only was it an acronym of his name, it also means "prince" in Hebrew) answered Reb Shmuel's question. His answer was so brilliant and true, Reb Shmuel was astonished by the Netziv's erudition; not only was the answer so obvious, the Netziv had even supplied the answer in Reb Shmuel's own stylistic approach! When he expressed his amazement, and queried as to how the Netziv had attained such a level of understanding, Rav Naftali Tzvi Yehuda looked him in the eyes and responded:

"Because while you studied in wealth, I studied in poverty!"

The RaShaSh was a renowned genius who displayed an uncanny mind even at a young age. He effortlessly mastered whole tractates of Talmud and volumes of Torah literature, and continued to progress through his adolescence.

The Netziv had far humbler beginnings. By his own admission, he was a mediocre student as a child, and only after nearly squandering his yeshiva career did he settle down and dedicate himself to the task of learning Torah. He sequestered himself in a room for thirteen years, toiling with great effort, spending weeks on a single folio of gemara until he knew everything in it.

The "wealth" and "poverty" that he referred to wasn't in monetary terms; it was in innate talent versus diligence and hard work.

There is much value in genius, and those who possess great cognitive abilities (and utilize them properly) deserve our respect.

But nothing - nothing - can beat hard work.

Adam l'ameil yulad - Man was born to toil, and this holds true for every aspect in life, especially when it comes to spiritual matters. Contrary to what the hagiographic biographies would have you believe, many of our gedolim were not wunderkind - they strove, and persevered, and sacrificed a lot to get to the level they ultimately reached.

And if they could do it...

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Tzetel Katan

[T]here is another remarkable document, which Rabbi Elimelekh distributed to his followers as a devotional handbook. It is called the Tzetel Katan, literally the "Small Note," and it consists of a seventeen point program on how to be a good Jew. Highly popular even among contemporary Hasidim, it is still reviewed every day by many Hasidic yeshiva students. Although it seems to describe an almost impossible discipline, for many, it serves as a goal for which to strive... 
While the Ba'al Shem Tov preached the imminence and constant availability of God, Rabbi Elimelekh reminds us that even to achieve this, a constant state of vigilance must be maintained. God is everywhere, but sin separates man from God...In order to relate to God absolutely, one must be ready to renounce everything, whether it be his attachment to human relationships or to temporal matters...
Rabbi Elimelkh presents us with an exalted picture of human potential. Standing at its apex is the Tzaddik, who is as much a denizen of the spiritual worlds as he is of the physical universe. But through the program of the Tzetel Katan, every person can strive to attain an absolute relationship to God. - Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, The Chasidic Masters, (pg. 56-57; 1984)
Many contemporary siddurim do print the Tzetel Katan, either following Shacharis or in the back of the siddur as an appendix. Either way, it's certainly a laudable and useful tool for growth in avodah, even to just learn it daily. Of course, the ideal would be to incorporate the exercises into the daily routine...

For an English translation of the Tzetel, click here.

Friday, February 25, 2011

אם תעירו ואם תעוררו את האהבה עד שתחפץ (שיר השירים ב:ז
 The RaMBaN (in HaEmunah v'haBitachon 19, which can be found in the Kisvei RaMBaN [thank you Reb Ally!!!]) has a wonderful interpretation of this thrice-repeated verse in Song of Songs:

When you feel an awakening of sorts, a stirring of the soul, a thought or desire to do a good deed - don't let it get away! The verse says " shetechpatz" - that is, until you have taken that his'orrerus and placed it in something tangible (a chefetz in Hebrew), enclothed it in a physical deed, you run the risk of losing that feeling. The only way to capture that fleeting sense of "goodwill" is to turn it into something real.

For example, Rav Moshe Weinberger relates that when he feels an urge to do teshuva, he begins humming the liturgy from the High Holy Days in order to retain that feeling.

As a tool for shmirat einayim, I find myself quoting the verse "...and do not stray after your hearts and after your eyes" loudly with the cantillation notes (this also earns me a lot of stares, which ultimately adds to the dissuasive effect as well).

Memorizing a chapter of Tehillim can be useful for this idea, or carrying a little sefer to learn something quickly when the feeling arises...

For more on this topic, see Ohr Gedalyahu on Lech L'Cha; Hachsharas Avreichim (page 109); and Imrei Elimelech.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Rav Yisroel Salanter

Pursuant to Neil's post on Reb Yisroel's yahrzhiet:

From the 1800's until today there have been many calls to reform Judasim. Reb Yisroel's vision was similar. But instead of reforming Judaism Reb Yisroel, strove to reform Jews!

He never wrote books but we have his famous iggeres hamussar which opens "ha'odom chofshi bi'dimyono vi'assur bi'musskalo" - Man's imagination is unrestrained while his intellect is bound. His imagination leads him to stray and graze in foreign pastures, assuring him of the great pleasures that wait for him. His intellect says "Hold on buddy, life is about hard work, restraint, delaying gratification, working towards spiritual goals etc. etc."

So when it's Miami Beach in the sun with a pina colada and many potential "Rebbetzins" in the area, against leaning four hours of gemara followed by a mussar seder where he takes responsibility for his failures in life and thinks of ways to improve his character - who wins?

What time is the flight down south?!

Reb Yisroel reminded the world that what our imagination offers may SEEM enticing but a wise man with a head on his shoulders will get a shtender, a gemara, a mesillas yesharim and begin to create one of the long lost species of our race.

A human being.

A mentsch.

A reflection of G-d Himself right here in the alma di'shikra.

זכות הצדיקים יעזור ויגן ויושיע!!

Love and blessings!:)


Children are given the message that they are only worthy if they succeed.

For this I mourn.

Then they grow up and are never able to shake the nagging feeling that they are not good enough.

A person is special by virtue of the fact that he/she was created in the image of G-d. Period.

After this feeling is internalized we may begin to expect the child to ATTEMPT to succeed.

I don't love my children for what they DO.

I love my children for who they ARE.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Yarhzeit of Reb Yisrael Salanter-25th of Shevat

The following words  have been on my mind for the past two months.  They were written by Rabbi Yaakov Feldman, in the introduction to his translation and commentary of Messilas Yesharim, The Path of the Just:
The greatest problem we Jews have to contend with today, though its not recognized as such yet, is the loss of our memories and dreams.  We have forgotten who we are, what we do, where we would like to be, what our unique national power and genius is, and what it is that makes us continue to go forward in history.

Once we had character and vision.  If we go lost or sidetracked, we had only to close our eyes and hear ourselves again, and we would go right on course to the goal we had recognized (and either followed or openly disavowed but recognized nontheless).  But we have lost this.  Like a singer in the midst of a great din and rumble, we cannot hear our keynote, and we are dumbfounded.

Indeed, dumbfounded, or numb.  Many are living a vibrant life of observant Judaism, while others are floating from day to day, from Shabbos to Shabbos.  It's been 128 since Reb Yisrael left this world.  It is easy enough to point fingers, write blogs, and bemoan the current state of the observant life.  The fact that, as least for me, there is a desire to strive for an absence of mediocrity is due to R Yisrael Salanter.

For a biography please see this.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Do Battle With Strategies.

In honor of Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler's yahrtzeit (earlier today, the 25th of Teves):

Rav Dessler was a non-stop smoker for quite some time while serving as the mashgiach in the yeshiva in Gateshead. Once, the bachurim noticed a sign on the door to Rav Dessler's office with an announcement that the mashgiach had officially quit smoking. Mystified, one of the faculty members approached Rav Dessler and questioned him about the sign. After all, the mashgiach wasn't known for being ostentatious, so why the proclamation.

Rav Dessler turned to his colleague and replied (paraphrasing):

I know that it isn't healthy to smoke, and I really want to quit. However, I know that the urge - the taivah - for a cigarette may be too strong to resist, and I will never really quit. By putting up that sign, I'm performing a little test, to see which is stronger - my taivah for a cigarette or my taivah of pride? If people read that sign and then see me smoking again, they might think less of me for not being able to commit to something so trivial; I am confident that my ego won't allow for that...
 Obviously it takes a special Gadol, one whose self-awareness is intact to such an extent to make such an evaluation, but the ingenuity of Rav Dessler's strategy is amazing. Utilizing one middah against another middah can be a powerfully effective way to fix negative traits and stop unhealthy behavior.