Thursday, December 12, 2013

Teach Your Children Well - Reflections on Parashat VaYechi 5774

"It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men." 
                                                                                - Fredrick Douglass

How do we go about raising Jewish children in a decadent, permissive, non-Jewish culture? 

This by no means an academic question. Based on the recent Pew Study on American Jewish life, we are making a hash of it: two-thirds of Jews born after 1980 see their Jewishness purely as an ethnic identity, with no moral/religious component at all.

As usual, the Torah, the Owner's Manual of Life, the official publication of the Manufacturer of Life, can help us out here. Specifically, let's look at the way that Joseph raised his kids in Egypt.

Joseph's sons, Menashe & Ephraim, were remarkable young men. R' S.R. Hirsch suggests that, due to both good home-training and temperament, they steered clear of the corrupting allures and indulgences available to them as Egyptian courtesans. This personal moral accomplishment is all the more remarkable in light of a noteworthy Onkelos which says that as Viceroy, Joseph had to teach Torah to his sons in secret. (Genesis 49:24)  So in spite of having no contact with the Israelite clan in Canaan, and in spite of the hardships of living as crypto-Jews, they somehow figured out how to preserve the highest levels of Jewish ethical conduct in a very depraved Egyptian culture. For Rabbi Hirsch, Menashe & Ephraim are the exemplars of Torah Im Derech Eretz (the Ideal Synthesis of Torah and Worldliness).

Most parents would agree that setting healthy boundaries is a critical part of child rearing. This is doubly true for Jewish parents who have to establish special food boundaries (no McDonalds) and special time boundaries (no Saturday morning cartoons) in a meaningful context to their kids. How did Joseph (and Mrs. Joseph) do it? 

Before we answer that question, I'd like to briefly outline two of the dominant teaching modalities that I have observed in Jewish education; as we shall see, each suggests themselves from Joseph's formative experiences in Egypt.

The Issur of Chov

One way to teach Jewish boundaries is to simply impose them on the child; I call this the "Issur of Chov". The Issur of Chov is an issur of absolutism. It is imposed by a force extrinsic to self, and brooks no challenge to its authority. The Issur of Chov focuses primarily on compliance and conformity. Precisely because obligation is imposed from without, it emphasizes the externalities of keeping the mitzvot: very narrow definitions of appropriate dress, proper neighborhoods in which to live, proper friendships and associations, things that are very public and very measurable. It focuses on phenotype, (defined in this context as) the outward manifestation of religiosity, the religious act. Because Chov cannot reach the life of the mind, it de-emphasizes it. This is the mindset that advocates "Mitzvah Ainah Tzrichah Kavanah,that intentionality is not necessary to do a mitzvah.(Tractate Brachot 13a)

Indeed, the Issur of Chov vigorously discourages independent thought or the development of critical thinking skills as dangerous to Pure Faith. Children raised in the context of Chov are reprimanded for rebelliousness and heretical thinking if they ask questions on the fundamentals of faith. The Issur of Chov has little use for the native, wondrous spirit of intellectual inquiry which resides in the heart of every child. That spirit is systematically stifled and suffocated, and a blind obedience to the Halacha and authority is grafted into its place. Obedience, not insight, is the overarching educational objective. Kabalat Ol Malchut Shamayim is in the model of Har K'Gigit, meaning that the Jewish People were in a certain sense coerced to accept the Sinaitic Covenant (Tractate Shabbat 88a).

Broadly speaking, Chov demands the abnegation of self and the subordination of free will, and imposes a level of conformity in personal behavior that is necessarily intrusive and dehumanizing. Chov develops for itself a society which is definitionally insular, condescending, xenophobic and exclusionary. This evolves because a religiosity that is fundamentally extrinsic to self demands validation from without. Peer approval is more important than the personal introspection and self-improvement, the cheshbon hanefesh. Thus Chov requires ever expanding levels of restrictions to both insulate it's adherents and protect the "purity" of it's Torah from dangerous foreign ideas. In defiance of the halachah, new restrictions are piled on old restrictions, and machmirut (legal strictness) is the argot of Chov. It's worldview is self-referential, having no need to reality-test it's axioms. It is primarily the Torah of Yirah, Fear of Gcd.

The Issur of Reshut

The better, harder way I term the Issur of Reshut, i.e., of opting in to the Jewish belief system. The Issur of Reshut is expansive and liberating, not constraining. It begins from the place of unencumbered free will, recognizing that there is no authentic religious impulse in its absence.  It seeks to cultivate a love of Torah and Mitzvot that is intrinsic to self. Accordingly, intellectual inquiry is protected and cultivated; indeed, children are encouraged to ask their most deeply-held questions, most especially questions on the fundamentals of faith, the Yesodei HaDat. The Issur of Reshut focuses on genotype, on the development of inner character [middot tovot] and critical thinking skills. Outward manifestations of religiosity are less emphasized; when "organic" middot are in place, we find the chizoniut/externality takes care of itself. This is the mindset that advocates "Mitzvah Tzrichah Kavanah,that intentionality is necessary to do a mitzvah.

The Issur of Reshut provides a framework to develop in children the intellectual faculties to make wise and responsible choices, and provides contextual tools to help make sense of the confusing world in which we live. Reshut allows for a broader understanding of issur baTorah/Torah-based boundaries: namely, that Hashem, the Author of Life, has given us the Torah, the "handbook" for the conduct of our lives. Our daily prayers teach that every choice, no matter how seemingly insignificant, has profound moral consequences.  The result of good decision-making is the life they experience in their home: a life of blessing/bracha, of inner peace/shalvat nefesh, of love of Torah/ahavat Torah, and of domestic tranquility/shalom bayit. The consequences of non-compliance are exactly the opposite. Kabalat Ol Malchut Shamayim is on the model of "Kimu v'Kiblu,meaning that the Jewish People opted-in to the Sinaitic Covenant. (Esther 9:27)

The Issur of Reshut remembers that the Talmudic Sages were lenient whenever possible, and strict only when necessary. So rather than insulate children from the greater world which we all inhabit, the Issur of Reshut encourages young Jewish men and women to venture into the world and reality-test their beliefs; to observe for themselves the poverty of spirit in to be found in a life without the blessings of mitzvah observance/Shmirat HaMitzvot.

The Issur of Reshut emphasizes that ultimately, free will is the domain reserved exclusively for the individual, who must also bear the full consequences of his choices. It is primarily the Torah of Ahavah, of love of Gcd.

Yosef B'Veit HaSohar

We see hints to these two divergent approaches in Joseph's experiences in Egypt.

The physical imprisonment that Joseph experienced in the in prison is analogous to the spiritual imprisonment created by the Issur of Chov. (Genesis 39:20 ff)  As a prisoner, Joseph is deprived of personal autonomy and stripped of his essential humanity, i.e., the ability to exercise his free will. He must conform to norms of behavior extrinsic to himself. Reward and punishment are meted out on the basis of compliance, conformity and obedience. This is the Joseph that bitterly screams the plaintive cry of a victim, "I've been done wrong! I'm innocent I tell ya!" (Genesis 40:15) He is the quintessential "Man of Fate" as described by R' Y. B. Soloveitchik:  a pawn of grand cosmic forces that he cannot possibly hope to fathom; a mere object in a cruel and uncaring world over which he has no control.

Yosef B'Veit Potiphar

Joseph's earlier experiences in Potiphar's household correspond to the Issur of Reshut.  As major domo of Potiphar's household, he possesses exceptionally far-reaching powers in the conduct of his world. He comes and goes as he pleases; he is rewarded for the application of his intrinsic strengths to the management of Potiphar's affairs: integrity, efficiency and innovative thinking. He has a framework, his Torah worldview, to understand the flawed and debased world in which he lives, and how his value system distinguishes him from others. This is the Joseph that has the moral stamina to resist the irresistible seductions of Potiphar's wife. In Potiphar's house he evinces R' Soloveitchik's "Man of Destiny," a person able to (at least in some measure) be the subject of his world, to mold it and leave his mark upon it.

Joseph suddenly finds himself out of jail and thrust into the position of Viceroy, the second most powerful man in the world. Every choice he can imagine is now laid before him. He also intuits that no matter how successful he is in his new role, he will forever be the Ivri, the Other, in the eyes of the cognoscenti of Pharaoh's court. He cannot assimilate and escape his Jewishness; he knows that neither he nor his children nor his children's children will ever be "real" Egyptians. Joseph makes peace with that reality. He must therefore find a modus vivendi to effectively synchronize the two worlds he cohabits. Moreover, as his sons mature, he must teach them this critical survival skill. Will he be the rigid didact, insulating them against their environment, or will he teach them his more nuanced shita/approach, contextualizing Egyptian society and defining their role in it, as he did in Potiphar's house?  

Joseph chooses the path of Reshut.  Rashi says that Yosef's counselor in international affairs and multilingual interpreter was none other than Menashe his elder son; thus demonstrating that they were fully engaged in the greater world they inhabited. (Genesis 42:24)

Contrasting Educational Approaches

In our day, each approach has adherents across the spectrum of the Torah world. Further, each is possessed of certain well-defined risks and benefits, advantages and disadvantages.

Issur of Chov has, as it's primary advantage, easily defined metrics for success. Based as it is on external behaviors, parents and educators in the Chov-based environment can easily measure compliance or non-compliance.

But the disadvantages are profound: the sub-text Chov conveys to the child is threefold: (1) Torah Chalasha Hee - Torah is very fragile and can only survive in the rarified atmosphere of the enclave; accordingly, it has no place in the Greater World. (2) You yourself are fragile; your teachers and parents don't invest enough trust in you to make life choices responsibly. (3) Your faith is fragile; basic questions of faith are forbidden because ultimately there are no answers.

The Jewish world is reeling over the epidemic of Yeshivah-educated teenagers openly rebelling in Shmirat HaMitzvot. When Judaism is a spiritual prison/hesger nefesh for our children; when issur is chal al issur; when Halachah is viewed as an obstacle to self-expression and self-fulfillment; can we expect otherwise? The surest way to get a teenager to do something is to forbid it.

As mentioned earlier, the Chov-based educational model tends, over time, to self-organize into exclusionary enclaves. Homogeneous communities present the chimera of unity; a feeling of inoculation and imperviousness against the shifting morays and other vagaries and excesses of Modernity; and a sense of continuity across the span of generations.  Many people willingly opt-in to Chov-based societies, deriving much succor and security in the certitudes of Chov. For such people, the surrender of some of their personal autonomy to the commune is a reasonable price to pay for inclusion. Conformity thus replaces scholarship as the sine qua non of Jewish life.

We now read of Rashei Yeshivot (heads of school) who for years, decades, ignored pedophilia and other abominations in their yeshivot by individuals who lived in the right neighborhoods and wore the right clothes; of rabbanim who provided "counseling" to teenage girls and destroyed the kedushat habayit of untold future Jewish homes; of their active and purposeful obstruction of justice; of an epidemic of domestic violence, marital rape, alcoholism and financial wrongdoings previously unheard-of among Jews; and many other corruptions. We watch in revulsion as Va'adei Tzniut/Modesty Committees enforce the Issurim of Chov, punishing even the slightest deviation from the social "norm" with verbal abuse and broken bones. The Issur of Chov creates a societal exoskeleton of pseudo-Halachah which produces these ineluctable results.

What of the other approach? Guiding our children on the path of the Issur of Reshut also has inherent risks and disadvantages. One disadvantage (such as it is) of the Issur of Reshut is that it requires a lot more work to raise children. We must be prepared to answer hard questions from our kids. We must address the "whys?" not only the "hows?"  We must do a lot of listening. The biblical obligation to educate our children in Torah cannot - must not - be completely delegated to others; we must be continuously engaged in the ethical development of our children. That which we demand of them, they must see practiced in our lives: intellectual and moral integrity, consistency, balance, joie de vivre, passion for Tefillah/prayer, ahavat Torah, compassion to all of Gcd's creatures, a burning desire to do the Ratzon/Will of Hashem, and shalvat nefesh/inner peace. Like Joseph, we must make peace with being "Ivrim," living as strangers in a strange land; after all, we are History's consummate non-conformists.

The sub-text Reshut conveys is also threefold: (1) Torah Chazaka Hee - Torah was intended to be lived in the world - "Lo Bashamayim Hee" (Deuteronomy 30:11 ff.);  it is strong, indestructible - Torah ainah mikabelet tumah; and as such it is our guidebook for successful living in the Greater World. (2) You are strong; your teachers and parents trust in you to make life choices responsibly. (3) Your faith is strong; answers to every question of faith can be found in the Torah. No subject is ever off-limits.

The major risk of teaching the Issur of Reshut is a terrifying one: that in the end, there are no guarantees that our children will choose our path, the path of their forbears, the path of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Kids must be allowed to make mistakes. Our children may (and probably will) make the wrong choices at times; a few will make consistently bad choices and will have to deal with the painful consequences that attend to them. But ultimately, we cannot deny our children their free will; it is granted by Hashem, not by parents, Rabbanim, or society. Our job as parents is to guide them towards utilizing their free will, the power to literally create and destroy worlds, beneficently, as moral agents in the service of their Maker.

By teaching a Torah that preserves their intellectual integrity; by teaching a halachah that isn't an impediment to personal growth and development but rather facilitates it; by cultivating a mindset of R' Soloveitchik's "Man of Destiny," we walk the path of Yosef HaTzaddik. Like Menashe and Efraim, the Issur of Reshut cultivates the strong moral agency we desire in our kids and the future leaders of the Jewish People.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Reflections on Thanksgivikah

Is it appropriate for Jews to celebrate Thanksgiving? And if so, why not other “American” holidays like Halloween or Christmas? And while we're on the subject: is the tie-in between Chanukah and Thanksgiving just a once-in-78,000-year calendrical coincidence or is there something more to it?

Let's answer the question with a question. Did you ever stop to think about why Jews are called “Jews”? Why aren’t we called Israelites like in olden days? 

After the reign of Solomon, the Tribes of Israel began to quarrel among themselves, until in short order two Israelite kingdoms were established. The Northern Kingdom was comprised of ten of the original twelve Tribes. The Southern Kingdom was really the Tribes of Benjamin and Judah (not counting Levites and Kohanim), comprising the region surrounding Jerusalem and Judea. 

The Northern Kingdom, cut off from the Holy Temple, quickly descended into apostasy and idolatry, while the Southern Kingdom hung on to the spiritual ideals of King David, at least for a while longer than the North. 

The Assyrians conquered the corrupted Northern Kingdom, and scattered its inhabitants to the four winds. These are the fabled “Ten Lost Tribes” whom we are told will be reunited with the Jewish world at the time of the ultimate redemption (may it come speedily in our days.)  In fact, this process has already begun: witness the return to Israel of the scattered remnants of Jews from the Maghreb, from Arabia, and from Persia; the Falashmura from Ethiopia (who claim their lineage from the Tribe of Dan) and the Bnei Menashe from the Indian subcontinent.

But I digress. Ahem. When the sins of the Southern Kingdom finally filled the 'poisoned cup', Gcd unleashed the Babylonians to sack Jerusalem and destroy the Holy Temple. After the usual rape, pillage and plunder, they exiled the Judeans (majority) and Benjaminites (minority), and so the Babylonian exiles were lumped together as 'Judeans' or simply 'Jews' in English. 

The term "Jew" ties us, historically and geographically to Judea, i.e. the Land of Israel.

Here's the last piece of the puzzle. Who was the original Yehuda? You will recall that in Parashat Vayetze, Leah names her fourth son Yehuda in gratitude. The very name Yehuda means “thanks to Gcd.”

In other words, we are called ‘Jews’ because giving thanks to the A-lmighty is our function in the world.  The French are famous for their wine; the Italians for making love and singing opera. But Jews? Our primary purpose is to give praise to Hashem. 

We thank Gcd when we wake up; we thank Gcd when we lie down. We thank Gcd before we put a morsel of food in our mouths; we thank Gcd when we get up from the table. We thank Gcd for the wonders of nature. We thank Gcd for the holiest of things, such as studying Torah, and for the most mundane of things, such as using the toilet. As Jews, we are in a constant state of blessing and praise because that is our defining characteristic.

Along comes Thanksgiving, a holiday intended to, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledge the manifest blessings bestowed by the Almighty as with one heart and voice by the whole American people.  I do therefore invite my fellow set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

So I'm thinking that we shouldn't squander an opportunity to give thanks to 'our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens'; indeed, we'd be abandoning our post if we did.

There is a second, more philosophical reason for Jews to celebrate Thanksgiving: it's true that many cultures have some kind of harvest celebration, a day to give thanks for food enough to survive winter. But the American Thanksgiving speaks also to higher ideals: our noble experiment in self-governance; to the preservation of personal liberty; and to the inalienable rights of Man that can be usurped by no despot. Those principles which our Founding Fathers bequeathed to the world are rooted in Torah, and therefore in holiness, and are worthy of celebration. So in that sense I am an unapologetic American Exceptionalist.

And as for the connection between Chanukah and Thanksgiving? Well, open a siddur (prayerbook). Where is our primary Chanukah prayer, Al HaNissim? Tucked into the Thanksgiving Blessing we say three times a day, every day of our lives; and in the Blessing of Thanks after a Meal. 

Maybe the confluence of Chanukah and Thanksgiving, coming as it does in an age where we are witness to the Ultimate Redemption of Israel, as foretold by the Prophets of Israel, unfolding before our very eyes; maybe the special message for our times is to double up on gratitude. We live in very stressed-out times; perhaps we need to step back, take a deep breath, and focus on what we have, not on what we lack.

Thanksgivikah provides a singular opportunity to reflect on our spiritual path, to give thanks to the A-lmighty, and to resolve to improve - to rededicate - our lives. 

Happy Thanksgiving and Chanukah Same'ach. 

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Jacob's Bridge - Reflections on Parashat VaYetzei 5774

Jacob does something truly remarkable in this week's parashah. 

No, I'm not talking about kissing a girl that's not his wife. Or his being struck by true love's 'thunderbolt' and then crying like a baby. Nor am I referring to his later dabblings in genetic engineering. That's all kid's stuff, tinkertoys compared to the what I have in mind. 

Here's what Jacob does - he actually talks to his spouse(s). (GASP!)

To understand the incredible remarkability of this act, we have to set the stage a little.

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin has observed a fundamental difference between Abraham and Isaac: Abraham was an actor on the stage of world events, Isaac more of a spectator. Abraham was the subject, and Isaac the object of history. For example: Isaac is bound to the altar at the Akeidah; a wife is found for Isaac; the blessings are wrested from him. He is passive where his father was active. Where Abraham was the initiator, the founder of ethical monotheism, Isaac was the perpetuator of that legacy. Isaac's passivity was intensified by his blindness and his being home bound. 

Jacob grew up in the house of Isaac, the guru; the holy, passive one. He didn't really know his grandfather Abraham. Jacob himself is described as an "ish tam, yoshev ohalim", a wholesome man, a tent dweller, meaning in the tents of learning, a bookworm. The Hebrew word tam is usually rendered as 'wholesome' or 'pure', but also has the clear connotation of naivete. He had no firsthand experience of the world around him; no street smarts.

So here we have the portrait of a poet/philosopher; content to experience life through the prism of his books, coddled by a doting mother and following the moral example of passivity set by his father. A quiet, idyllic life.

And in an instant, his life is turned upside down. Very much against his will, he is thrust into a cruel, heartless and unforgiving world. With no preparation and even less money, he finds himself fleeing for his life to a faraway land. Is this some kind of bad dream, a surrealistic nightmare? How will he even fend for himself?

He is welcomed as a prince in Uncle Laban's house, until Laban (very quickly) cottons on that he's broke. The red carpet is rolled up, the decorations come down and a shepherd's staff is thrust in Jacob's hand. No work, no eat, he's told. Jacob thinks, "This isn't such a bad deal. How hard can it be watching a bunch of sheep? It will allow me to read, and anyway I would gladly work seven years for the hand of my True Love in marriage." How romantic.

And absurdly naive. The work turns out to be a little harder than he imagined. And that's just the first scam. He is defrauded by Laban in his nuptials. And in this, the poet/philosopher, the smeller of flowers, barely registers a protest. 

When Rachel complains to Jacob that she is barren, his only reply is "am I Gcd, preventing you from having children?" He pleads helplessness, passivity. Can he really do nothing? At least Isaac prayed for Rebecca in his generation.

He winds up (by default) with four wives. Count 'em, four. When Leah and Rachel offer him their handmaidens as concubines, the Torah doesn't record any reaction from Jacob. 

Every time he starts to make a few bucks, Laban changes the compensation plan (anybody ever have a boss like that?). Again, Jacob doesn't react. He takes it on the chin and muddles on.

In short, for twenty years, he modeled himself after his father: compliant, passive, helpless - the classic victim. 

And then something must have clicked for him one wintry night, high on a mountaintop; wet and frozen to his bones, impossible to keep a fire going, clothes soaked through, tending to Laban's sheep while Laban sat at home around a cozy fire.

Sitting alone in the dark, he must have finally come to the realization that after twenty years, the magic telegram from Be'er Sheva telling him that it was safe to return home wasn't coming. And it wasn't ever going to come. No Prince Charming was going to rescue this Cinderella. 

No one was going to save him from his troubles - except him.

At that moment, Mortimer Milktoast died. The man who awoke the next morning was determined to act to protect his interests and the interests of his family. 

So he used his hard-earned knowledge of animal husbandry to take the garbage animals of Laban's flock and amass a small fortune for himself.

And he called his wives out to the fields, where he was tending sheep, for a little chin wag. Why did he convene this meeting out in the field? The tractate Brachot [8b] explains that he wanted to discuss matters in complete secrecy, out of earshot of others (i.e., Laban).

And he talks to his wives. Really looks them in the eye and talks to them. He articulates his grievances, makes his case, lays out the plan, and enlists their feedback and support. And you know what? Amazingly, they both opt in.

He didn't have to convince them; he could have acted unilaterally. But in so doing, he unifies the sororal rivals and mends his family. He demonstrates leadership and inspires them with a sense of mission and purpose. He provides context for understanding their suffering and joys, and a cogent plan to fix what's broken in their lives. All this from from the philosophy major. In fact, had Isaac been there, he would not have thought Jacob had it in him (based on the Maharal.)

But he did have it in him. From the thesis (Abraham) and the antithesis (Isaac) emerged the synthesis - the perfect blend of action and contemplation, of warrior and poet. 

Who among us hasn't been victimized, scammed, taken advantage of by people we trusted? Who doesn't feel, at one time or another, that life is cruel and has done us wrong? 

But we are the children of Jacob - better, of Israel; the children (as we shall soon see) of he who wrestled with angels and prevailed. We have the power inherent in each of us to stop being the victims in our own lives, to recognize that life is not a spectator sport. 

The parasha begins with Jacob's vision of a ladder descending from Heaven to Earth. It ends with Jacob building a bridge and getting over his self-pity.

I know that Rudyard Kipling is out of favor these days for his decidedly unfashionable views on colonialism and race. But I see Father Jacob in this poem:

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream - and not make dreams your master;
If you can think - and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: 'Hold on!'

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings - nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And - which is more - you'll be a Man, my son!

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Hallowed Spaces - Reflections on Parashat VaYera 5774

Nestled among all the drama of (literally) Biblical proportions in this week's parasha - the destruction of Sodom & Amorah; the birth of the miracle baby, Isaac; the expulsion of Hagar & Yishmael; and the Binding of Isaac - there is a remarkable verse that is quite easy to overlook. I refer to Genesis 19:27 - "And Abraham awoke early in the morning, and went to the place where he stood before Gcd."

Why does the Torah even bother to note this seemingly insignificant fact? Check out this gemara: "Rabbi Chelbo said in the name of Rav Huna: the Gcd of Abraham will help a person who establishes for himself a fixed place of prayer; furthermore, it will be said of them when they die, 'what a humble person! what a pious person! what a student of Abraham!' And how do we know that Abraham fixed for himself a special place of prayer? For the verse states: "And Abraham awoke early in the morning, and went to the place where he [had previously] stood before Gcd." [BT Berachot 6B]

The trigger word here is "amad", stood/stand, which is the name of our central prayer, the Amidah, which is recited while standing silently. By this we infer that Abraham established for himself a special place to render this special prayer.

But why should this be the case? We Jews understand and are very good at sanctifying time - we have this weekly gig called Shabbat, when we unplug our iPhones, tablets, and televisions to plug in with the A-lmighty; to commune with Gcd and focus on our families. So far, so good But the notion of sacred space is a little foreign to the Jewish mind, especially in an age when we don't have the Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple). Why should the living room floor be qualitatively different than a pew in the synagogue? or driving in the car? or sitting on the beach? After all, the verse says, "Holy is the Lcrd of Hosts, His Glory fills the entire world."

Rav Kook explains the need to sanctify both time AND place. He wrote that prayer is not a sterile intellectual exercise. The spirit and the emotions must also be marshaled in the service of Gcd. Therefore, any environment that provides emotional and spiritual inspiration to match the intellectual fervor of the pray-er can be a sacred space. As the verse states, "And you shall love Hashem your Gcd with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your energy." Intellectual. Emotional. Spiritual. And what could be more inspirational than a place where prayers have been previously answered, like Abraham's choice of place?

From this perspective, shul (synagogue) - where the Holy Torah Scrolls abide, where countless prayers, both individual and communal, have been answered - is a much better place to pray than, say, sitting naked in the lotus position on the living room floor. Good luck with that. (I mean just getting in the lotus position.)

Ask a mathematician if something exists, and he will examine the values in the x-coordinate, the y-coordinate, the z-coordinate, and the t-coordinate. If all four of those values are positive, then yes, that 'something' exists (or at least did exist). In other words, the 'something' must take up space in time, with the x-, y-, and z- coordinates indicating length, width and depth, and t- indicating time. See the pattern? The inter-connectedness of space and time.

Every time we make a brachah (benediction) we say these words: "Blessed are You Hashem, our Gcd, King of the Universe..." The Hebrew word for Universe (OLAM) has a double connotation. 'Olam' means place, like the world or the entire created universe; but it also has a connotation of time, as in "l'olam va'ed" to mean eternity. Again - space and time combined. X-, Y-, Z-, & T. Existence itself. So perhaps a better way to understand the blessing is "Blessed are You Hashem, our Gcd, King of all Existence..."

This was Abraham's unique contribution to human thought - to first recognize, and then sanctify and unify both time AND space - very existence itself. And for us, as students of Abraham, we follow his example, binding together mind, heart & soul in prayer; and by doing that, we declare the Unity of the Creator. 

So come to shul! Anyway, that living room carpet is looking kind of grungy...

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Anything Goes - Reflections on Parashat Noach

Good authors too who once knew better words, 
Now only use four-letter words writing prose,
Anything Goes.

The world has gone mad today, the good's bad today,
The white's black today, the day's night today...
Anything Goes.

Cole Porter's lyric comes to mind in thinking about this week's parasha. In it, we read of the Great Flood, and of Gcd appointing Noah as the Great Trustee of creation, tasked with preserving the seeds of life and repopulating the post-diluvian world. But why was the flood necessary in the first place? OK, so maybe people weren't on their best behavior, but destroy the world? Woof, that seems kind of harsh...

But in the ten generations since Adam and Eve, the world had degenerated into a pretty brutal place. Not just your garden variety, cut-you-off-in-traffic, urban jungle brutal, I mean really brutal. Uber, mega, hyper-brutal. No rules at all brutal, a sort of might-makes-right Mad Max badlands; where the reigning ethos was "I want, and I don't care what I have to do to get it." A world where the weak and the compassionate deserve to die. It was inhuman, monstrous. A world where, as the warbling tenor croons, anything goes. 

Against this stands Noah, "a righteous person, blameless [compared to] his generation" (Genesis 6:9). So the A-lmighty, looking down upon a world that had somehow short-circuited, resolves to wipe the slate clean and call a do-over. With one critical difference.

The Covenant of the Rainbow.

After the flood, Gcd promises to never again destroy the world. We are taught (BT Sanhedrin 56a) that Gcd also holds humanity to a new standard, known as the Seven Laws of Noah. These laws are binding on all people, at all times, irrespective of religion, creed or location. 

The Seven Laws are:

1.) To believe in the One True Gcd, sole Creator of Heaven and Earth;
2.) Not to blaspheme (to give thanks to the Source of Life);
3.) Not to murder;
4.) Not to steal;
5.) Appropriate intimate relationships (as listed in Leviticus 18);
6.) Compassion to animals (and by extension to one's fellow man); and
7.) Ensure the rule of law.

Anyone who lives their life according to the Seven Laws is assured a place in the Afterlife. Good People. The good guys. The white hats of the world. 

Unlike other faiths that reserve Heaven exclusively for their own peeps, the Jewish understanding of eternal life is universal, open to all people, specifically including non-Jews. Jews are commanded by Gcd to hold to a yet higher standard, the Sinaitic Covenant of the 613. And as the Light Unto the Nations, it is our mission, our divine calling, to teach the recognition of Gcd and these Seven Laws to the World.

What broke down in the generations before Noah? These rules are so fundamental, surely they could have reasoned them out on their own? The answer to that question is as relevant today as it was 5,000 years ago. 

Man's capacity to rationalize his behavior in order to justify getting what he wants is virtually boundless. Faulkner wrote in Light in August, "ingenuity was apparently given man in order that he may supply himself in crises with shapes and sounds with which to guard himself from truth."

Ante-diluvian man was so clever, so ingenious, that he justified rape, murder, theft, cruelty, and torture. Day was night. Wrong was right. Gcd was not in the picture. What was the inevitable result? We are taught that the deeds of evildoers return the world to a state of "Tohu VaVohu," utter chaos and nothingness (Genesis 1:2).  And the acts of these generations caused the world to be shrouded once again in the primordial floodwaters of chaos.

We've all encountered rotten people - thieves, adulterers, cheaters, drunk drivers, addicts, people who commit all manner of evil, petty and grand. Do they ever escape the consequences of their deeds? They create horrific chaos in their own lives and in the lives they touch, and that chaos casts very long shadows. Primordial darkness.

We have been taught to abandon totem and religious taboo and place our faith in the enlightening and redemptive power of Reason. But lawyers used the sharpest legal rationales to justify the Nuremburg laws. World-class doctors used the noblest rationalizations to experiment on Jewish children without anaesthesia. Chemists and engineers applied their brilliant command of the sciences to design ever more efficient methods of human extermination. Open the newspaper; shocking crimes no longer shock, and the world looks on with a yawn at the systematic murder of innocents. The Age of Reason died in the gas chambers.

It takes a formalized legal code, predicated upon an absolute moral standard, to curb our "ingenuity." We simply cannot trust our own intellect to construct a functional standard of behavior for ourselves. We need not abandon reason, but we do need to recognize its limitations. 

The enduring lesson of the Great Flood is one of humility - of recognizing our inherent limits, and recognizing that we cannot manage on our own - we need Gcd.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Choice of Your Life - Reflections on Parashat Nitzavim

What to make of this odd phone call?

Shortly before we made aliyah, I received an urgent call from an old family friend (we'll call him Otto.) Otto was one of the fortunate few on the kindertransport, the impromptu effort to rescue as many Jewish children as possible from Central Europe between Kristallnacht and the start of World War II.

After the war, he moved to Israel, and later made yerida to the US.

I was glad to receive Otto's call. He knew that I was a passionate religious Zionist, that we were living our values and beginning a new life in Israel, and what I expected was a warm phone call filled with sweet wishes for our future. 

What I got instead was an earful from a very troubled old man.

"Shuki," he pleaded, almost to the point of tears, "the religious must never be allowed to take control of the government. You must hear me on this. Israel must always remain a democracy. The religious will turn Israel into an Iran-style theocracy, a Jew-istan. 

"Shuki, I am not religious, and I know that you are religious, but promise me that your generation will always work to ensure that Israel is democratic and free."

Wow. Talk about a non-sequitur. Did Otto, did Tel-Avivians, did most people think that Orthodox Jews seek the reins of government in order to compel others to religious conformity?  

Much later in my life, I read an insightful biography by Alan Bullock called Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives. In it he describes Stalin's early attraction to the Russian Orthodox priesthood and "...the requirements of orthodoxy: the exclusion of doubt, the intolerance of dissent, and the persecution of heretics..."

Otto was terribly afraid that rabbis, if given half a chance, will behave like ayatollahs.  But Bullock's definition is most decidedly not the Jewish definition of orthodoxy. 

In this week's Torah Portion, Moses defines the elemental requirements of Jewish Orthodoxy. He pleads: "I bear witness before you today, with heaven and earth as my witnesses, that I place before you life and death, blessing and curse; and CHOOSE LIFE that you and your descendants may live." (Deuteronomy 30:19)

Emphasis on the word CHOOSE. 

Moses is saying that in order for any authentic spiritual impulse to arise in the human heart, there must exist a background, a societal infrastructure, of absolute free will. If coercion is present, the spiritual ember that smolders in all of us is snuffed out.

Yes! Of course I urgently long for my fellow Jews to observe the mitzvot - to observe the Sabbath Day and keep it holy; to keep kosher; for people to treat one another with dignity, integrity and respect. I plead guilty as charged on all counts, your honor! We pray for these things every day. But the way to achieve these lofty goals is not to legislate respect, or compel prayer, or to force someone to observe the mitzvot against their will.

Back in parashat Chukat, Moses hits the rock instead of speaking to it, as Gcd had commanded. Water still gushed out, but for this seemingly minor infraction, Moses is (disproportionately?) punished by being barred from entering Israel. Poof! - the crowning achievement of a lifetime of hard work and self-sacrifice - gone in a moment. 

What did he do that was so horrible so as to deserve being barred from Israel? Rav Kook teaches that Moses, in his impatience, introduced religious coercion into the world. Instead of speaking to the rock - using the gentle influence of logic and persuasion and example - he impatiently hit the rock, used force to get the desired result. It is for that reason that Moses is punished so severely.

It is a stark truth that most of the pain in our lives is self-inflicted. Almost all human suffering is a consequence of bad decision-making - most people choose the path of least resistance, the path of instant gratification, the path of the lie - the path of death. And like Moses and the rock, the impulse of the illuminati, born of the pain of seeing our fellow man suffer, is to force people to make better choices, in their own self-interest.

But that is not Gcd's plan. Gcd wants ritual observances to spring naturally from a desire to connect with the Lifesource. 

When our hard-won life's lessons bring us to a place of wanting "to love the Lord your Gcd and to cling to Him," at that moment a religious person is born. And the complex string of life choices (and their consequences) that can bring a person to that place of spiritual enlightenment can only happen in a framework of human freedom and dignity, where each and every one of us is free to sort these issues out for ourselves.

No thoughtful, authentic Jew wants to create a society where the irreligious are compelled to perform mitzvot under duress. To the contrary, we wish to create a just society, based on the norms of ethical, compassionate monotheism which protects the widow and orphan, upholds human freedoms, and gives everyone the unfettered opportunity to choose for themselves life or death, blessing or curse.

Otto need not have been concerned; religious Zionists are no threat to democracy and freedom. Yes, we will educate, persuade, advocate - and blog - for our fellow Jew and our fellow humans to choose life - but ultimately, the decision of your life is in your own hands.

U'vacharta B'Chaim - Choose the path of Mitzvot, the path of Torah, the Path of Life.

Shabbat Shalom.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Who Are You? - Reflections on Parashat Eikev

Throughout the poetic parasha of Eikev, Moshe urges us several times not to forget his teachings. In other verses in the Parasha, he asks us also to remember. In one particular verse, he even says "Remember - do not forget." (Deuteronomy 9:7)

Huh? We know that there are no superfluous words in the Torah. Every word, every letter, even every flourish above a letter, is put there by the A-lmighty to teach us something unique and special. So what's with Moshe telling us both to remember and not to forget? To quote Yogi Berra, isn't that redundant all over again? Is Moshe starting to repeat himself, like Bubbies and Zaydes sometimes do?

Quick aside: my Zayde a"h loved to sit and shmooze over a cup of coffee. Nothing would please him more than to have an unannounced visitor drop in. He would quickly put some water in the kettle, bring out some cake or cookies (his pantry was always magically full of cakes and cookies), and settle in for a nice long kibbitz session. I tell ya, that kitchen was made for coffee klatches. 

We lived four hours away, but once a month or so, we'd make a day of it, just to sit at the signature turquoise table with the matching swivel chairs, rest our chins in our hands, sip coffee, nibble on cake, catch up on family news, and listen to the stories flow.

Anyone who visited at Zayde's table regularly knew that you'd begin to hear his stories, well, more than once. Maybe even more than a few times. To the point where we knew most of them by heart, actually. But we never complained, since the joy was in the telling and in his company.

Every once in a while though, mixed in among the stories that we had heard over and over again, he would tell us some amazing story from his long life that we'd never heard before. We'd almost fall off our chairs in astonishment. "Zayde," we'd say, "you've told us the bootleg schnapps story a hundred times, how can it be we never heard this story before?" His eyes would twinkle; he'd just shrug his shoulders and smile.

Was Moshe getting repetitious in his dotage? Or is there a real distinction to be made between 'remembering' and 'not forgetting?'

Here is the difference: remembering is an act. It is a mitzvah. The famous example is the annual commandment to remember what Amalek did to us when we left Egypt. We build museums to memorialize the six million killed by the Nazis. We remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy. We also remember life cycle events like birthdays and anniversaries with parties, cards and gifts.

Remembering is a conscious act. It means pausing from the bustle of daily life, and even if only for a moment, focusing the mind on that which is remembered. 

Throughout Israel on Memorial Day (and a week before on Holocaust Remembrance Day), air raid sirens wail for two full minutes. Cars stop in the middle of the road, in intersections, even on the superhighways. People step out of their cars, and standing with heads bowed, they remember their dead. Sometimes people weep openly in the street. It is a deeply moving experience. 

Remembering means doing something; it is a call to action.

Not-forgetting, on the other hand, is passive. Not-forgetting lurks just below our conscious thought, always present, yet just out of reach, barely noticeable in the shadows of our mind. It is content to gently make its presence known without commanding center stage. 

There is no act to not-forgetting. It is not a moment, rather it is a constant companion, a part of the backdrop of our life. It is the foundation stone upon which our every decision is built, the prism through which we experience the world around us. Not-forgetting influences the way we see, hear, smell, touch and taste. As we mature and build on our life's experiences, those experiences are incorporated into the foundational database of not-forgetting, of our truest essence.

In other words, not-forgetting is about identity; it's speaks directly to who we are.

Specifically, Moshe is telling us not to forget our Jewish identity. No matter how affluent or influential we may become in the future, we mustn't ever forget our roots - we were slaves in Egypt, with no pretensions to greatness or lives of ease. Simplicity, honesty, hard work, devotion to Gcd - these are the gifts of our grandparents. 

Yet people try (in vain) to erase their past. Rabinowitz becomes Roberts, joins the best clubs, drives the finest cars, drinks the most expensive sherry, and marries the supermodel - and still they call him "Jew" behind his back.

By embracing our past, we have a shot at crafting our future. Deny your past, Moshe warns, and you're on the path to oblivion.

So we must show kindness to strangers because we were once strangers in Egypt. We must be humble, for our past is littered with our mistakes. We must show gratitude, because we are Jews, and the word "Jew" means to give thanks to Gcd. We must be devotional, because we strive to emulate the spiritual greatness of the Bubbies and Zaydes of our past.

My Zayde knew to the core of his being who he was - a Jew, a Galitzianer, a perpetual student, a devoted husband, father and grandfather. He never played at being anyone other than who he was. 

And endless times over coffee, my Zayde would take your hand in his, look you in the eye and say: no matter where you go or what you do in life, never forget you are a Jew.

So with apologies to Roger Daltrey and Pete Townsend: Who Are You?  The voice of Moshe whispers across the generations: be very clear on that question, and "al tishkach," don't ever forget.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Sinat Chinam - The Hatred in Our Midst

This Tuesday is Tisha B'Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av. It is a day of fasting, of mourning, and of deep personal introspection. We remember this day as the anniversary of the destruction of the first Holy Temple by the Babylonians, the second Temple by the Romans, and the myriad tragedies, pogroms and disasters that have befallen the Jewish people on this ill-fated day throughout history.

We are taught that the cause of the destruction of the second Temple was sinat chinam, gratuitous hatred between Jew and Jew. We are directed to the infamous incident in Gittin 56a of Kamtza & Bar Kamtza. 

Briefly: a wealthy man held a sumptuous banquet and invited all the "A-List" dignitaries of Judea. He also sent an invite to his friend Kamtza. By accident, the invitation was delivered to a guy named Bar-Kamtza (no relation.) Bar-Kamtza also happened to be a bitter enemy of the host. (You can see where this is going.)

Bar-Kamtza goes to the banquet, thinking that the invite might be an opening to a rapproachment between the adversaries. But when he gets there, the host goes ballistic at the temerity of his enemy showing up at the exclusive shindig and orders Bar-Kamtza unceremoniously ushered to the curb. 

Bar-Kamtza sizes up the situation. He quietly and urgently pleads with the host not to make an awkward situation worse and humiliate him in front of all the rabbis, politicians, business moguls and celebrities in attendance. He offers to pay for his meal. No. He offers to pay for half of the banquet. No. He finally offers to pay for the entire blasted affair if the host will merely allow the evening to pass without incident. Again the answer is an unyielding NO.

The anger that consumes Bar-Kamtza over his humiliation and mistreatment leads to a chain of events which resulted in the Temple being razed by the Romans. In other words,  sinat chinam was the precipitate cause of the destruction of the Temple and ultimately, the Roman expulsion which we experience down to today.

In thinking about this gemara, most people focus on the egregious behavior of the host. People think, "if I ever hosted an A-List-black-tie soiree, I'd never behave that ungraciously to a guest, even an enemy."  Excellent, but few (if any) of us will be having Gwyneth Paltrow to dinner anytime soon. Since, when we look in the mirror, we don't see someone who would act with that much venom, we conclude that sinat chinam is somebody else's problem. We cluck our tongues, point to the other guy, and conveniently exempt ourselves.

Let me clue you in to a little secret: the REAL sinat chinam in the story was that the learned rabbis in attendance did not intervene on Bar-Kamtza's behalf; and once he was bodily ejected, they shrugged their shoulders and went back to the party.

True sinat chinam is ignoring the plight of your fellow. It is plugging your ears with your fingers, squeezing your eyes shut, and saying, "leave me out of it, I have enough troubles of my own." 

Sinat chinam is moral cowardice. Sinat chinam is not standing up to speak truth and righteousness on behalf of a friend in distress; it's taking the easy and convenient path; it's averting your eyes, turning your back and going about your own business. This kind of sinat chinam is very relateable and tragically is very, very prevalent in Jewish life today.

This week, I witnessed this pernicious form of sinat chinam firsthand. A person in our community was accused of a monstrous crime based only on hearsay and innuendo, with no evidence to support the charge. In fact, strong evidence exculpated him, but the campaign of whispers persisted. 

Thank Gcd, some people stood up for their friend; but several more, rabbis among them, sided with the fear, with the lies, with innuendo and rumor and shadows. It was self-evidently a case of first degree character assassination. But instead of standing up for truth, the moral cowards averted their eyes, chose not to get involved, cowered behind their voice mails, shunning this hapless victim. In the end, he lost his job over nothing more than a vile, malicious whisper.

What do we mourn for on Tisha B'Av? A building? A return of the ritual sacrifices? I suggest we mourn for something much deeper.

The Jewish people are supposed to be the exemplars of ethical monotheism. Our elevated and holy society, driven by love of Gcd, love of Torah and love of our fellow man is intended to be what Isaiah calls 'a light unto the nations.' Our highest ideals and aspirations are embodied in the order, beauty and splendor of the Temple, resplendent on Gcd's holy mountain. 

But the Temple is in ruins, and the Jewish people have lost the voice of moral authority in the world. If the world thinks about us at all, they look at us as an anachronism, or as a curiosity, or as a nuisance. 

It is over our personal failings and the inability to fulfill our holy mission that we cry on Tisha B'Av.

How do we presume to preach truth to world if we turn our backs to our own brother in distress? That is the sinat chinam that destroyed - and continues to destroy - everything that the Temple represents.

To those who stood up for truth this week - and you know who you are - it is in your merit that the Holy Temple will be speedily rebuilt in our lifetimes.

And to the moral cowards - and you know who you are - shame on you.

May we merit to see Tisha B'Av go from a fast day to a feast day, and from a day of mourning to a day of joy.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Ordination of Joshua - Reflections on Parashat Pinchas

In this week’s parasha, Parashat Pinchas, Moses is told that the ride is almost over. He is commanded by Hashem to appoint his successor: “…take for yourself Yehoshua bin Noon, the spiritual man, and place your hands on him.” (Numbers 27:18) The Hebrew word for “placing the hands” of the teacher upon the student is called ‘semichah.’

And so it was that on the Sunday of Parashat Pinchas, I attended a mind-blowing rabbinical conference which culminated in the granting of semichah, rabbinical investiture, to about 40 individuals, including me, after years of study, testing and preparation.

Why is this significant? Aren’t there enough unemployed rabbis in the world?

Well yes…but no. You see, this Yeshivah and these rabbis are a very unique lot, for three reasons.

First: My yeshivah is a virtual yeshivah. Yeshivat Pirchei Shoshanim (YPS) harnesses the incredible potential of the internet to spread the light of Torah in the world. My teachers, the Rabbanim, live in Israel, and their students live all over the world. A student in Miami can have a chavruta (study partner) in Johannesburg. A global network of friendships is forged poring over the great books of Jewish law, all plugged into the Rabbanim in Israel. Laptops, tablets and smart phones are the new tools of the Torah trade.

This speaks to a larger point: there are certain voices in Torah that want to declare the internet off-limits because of all the shmutz and frank evil that can be found out there. And there’s no denying it – it’s out there. But YPS disagrees with this impulse to ban. Just like radio and TV in earlier generations, the medium itself is neutral; it can be used for good or for evil. The internet is like a fertile field; it can grow food or it can grow weeds. The field doesn’t particularly care one way or the other. 

Online Torah study dispels enormous darkness in the world, just like a single kernel of corn is worth an acre of weeds. Rav Kook taught that the proper way to fight evil in the world is not to confront it on its own terms, but rather to flood the world with goodness: with Torah study, with mitzvoth, and with acts of kindness towards our fellow man.

Second: Students of YPS span the spectrum of Jewish life: Gerrer Hasidim, Litvish (people schooled in the intellectualism of the Lithuanian yeshivah tradition), Modern Orthodox, Chabad, Religious Zionists, Ba’alei Teshuvah (people who have returned to a life of religious observance), and more. Despite our disparate backgrounds, we all stand together in brotherhood and amity, united by a common commitment to an informed, centrist understanding of Halachah (Jewish Law).

Meaning: We are witness to a disturbing polarization in Jewish life. On the left is the complete rejection of the authority and authenticity of Jewish Law. Like a rose clipped from the bush, it may be fragrant for a short time, but its end is inevitable.

On the right is a growing trend to pile stringency upon stringency in the interpretation of the law. To extend the metaphor: this is like wrapping that beautiful rose in protective netting so tightly that it gets neither light nor water. This trend towards stringency is born of insecurity, or a flawed or inadequate understanding of the Halachic decision-making process.

Both approaches are self-destructive. Holding the religious center is always the most difficult path. YPS and its talmidim, Jews from all walks of life, are committed to deciding questions of Jewish Law leniently whenever possible, and strictly only when necessary. This requires in-depth study, close consultation with the Rabbanim, a clear understanding of legal precedent and the rationale behind those precedents, and the courage to speak the Halachah unequivocally in the face of opposing views.

Third: there is an old aphorism that if you want something done, give it to a busy person. The talmidim of YPS all work for a living. We are doctors, lawyers, educators, business owners. We have mortgages, car payments, and tuition bills. We are busy. We are classic overachievers - overbooked and straight up exhausted.

But like rabbis through the generations, we are making a strong statement about the critical importance of combining Torah study with an honorable living. The new normal in the Torah world that eschews productive work in favor of learning Torah full-time on public support violates Jewish Law and is ultimately counter-productive.

As business owners and communal leaders, our sphere of influence is considerable. We leverage that influence to carry the message of Torah and authentic, passionate Judaism to an audience all out of proportion to our numbers, and far greater than could any young man fresh out of school.

And think about this: after working 10 hours or more at the office; after seeing to our familial obligations, social and communal obligations, we commit 2 or 3 hours every day to Torah study. Why? What could be so important?

The answer goes to the heart of the mission of YPS and its talmidim.

We live in a world that has lost its way. 

In the chase for the almighty dollar...we have forgotten that true wealth is being content with what you have. 

In the quest for power...we have forgotten that true power is self-control. 

In the pursuit of self-gratification and the endless buzz...we have forgotten that true happiness is found in the service of others. 

The things that really count are the things you really can’t count.

YPS and its talmidim go out into the world to proclaim these truths. Many people intuit that something is amiss in their lives, but don’t quite know what it is or how to fix it. Maybe a YPS rabbi is there to speak to their heart - of Torah study, of Shabbat, of spending real time with the fam, of the power of keeping kosher. Maybe, just maybe, there is deep truth in the discarded values of our Bubbies and Zaydes.

So when a person is ready to improve their lives, a YPS rabbi or military chaplain will be there to provide instruction, guidance, support and help. And so we bring Gcd’s light to the world, one page of Torah at a time, one soul at a time.

For these and many other reasons, I am both proud and humbled to be a musmach (graduate) of YPS.

Shabbat Shalom.

For more information about Yeshivat Pirchei Shoshanim, please contact me or go to