Posts Tagged Culture

Searching for the Way out of Exile

imagesAt first glance, the soggy, green downs of Ulster bear little resemblance to the parched and craggy hills of Israel.  But a gentle tugging at the cultural fabric of either place unravels an unmistakable common thread:  two peoples, impossibly close geographically, impossibly distant ideologically, with more than enough fuel for hatred between them to burn until the coming of the Messiah.  Tromping over hills and through city streets, however, first in one place and then in the other, I discovered a more compelling similarity:  the bitter struggle of humanity in exile.

“Which are the bad parts of town, the ones I should avoid?” I asked the owner of the bed-and-breakfast where I passed my first night in Belfast.

She dutifully pointed out the Shankhill neighborhood on my map, cautioning me to steer clear of it.  I thanked her and, with sophomoric self-confidence, proceeded there directly.

It was the summer of 1984, and central Belfast exuded all the charm of a city under martial law. Policemen on patrol wore flack jackets.  An armored personnel carrier idled at a major intersection waiting for the signal to change.  Blown out shells of buildings sprouted weeds, and street signs warned, DO NOT LEAVE CAR UNATTENDED.  But as I worked my way up Shankhill, I discovered even more disconcerting landmarks:  elementary school yards swathed in barbed-wire and churches pocked with scars from automatic-rifle fire.

I stopped in at a corner pub and took a seat at the bar beside two locals.  Each was nursing a pint of Guinness.  Another glass, two-thirds full with boiled snails, rested between them.  The men took turns using a bent eight-penny nail to dig each snail out of its shell before popping the meat into their mouths.

Click here to read the whole essay.

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Purim and the Limits of Imagination

Enjoy this blast from the past.

lennonAccording to a survey — before the recent economic downturn — about 20 percent of Americans believe themselves to be among the wealthiest one percent of the nation. Another 20 percent anticipate that they will one day claim membership among the wealthiest one percent. In other words, two out of every five Americans believe that they are or will possess enough wealth to be in the top one out of a hundred.

One might describe this kind of rosy optimism as wishful thinking. One might better describe it as delusional.

The potency of imagination powers the engine of human achievement. Whether we aspire to fight for civil rights, to seek a cure for cancer, to write the great American novel, or to win the New York marathon, we never take the first step until we envision our own success, no matter how certain or improbable our chances of success may be. But as the line between reality and fantasy grows increasingly blurry in Western society, imagination does not spur us on toward success but prods us blindly toward the precipice of self-destruction.

Such was the myopia of the Jewish people under Persian rule 2,365 years ago when King Ahasuerus and his viceroy, the wicked Haman, conspired to annihilate the Jewish people. The Jews had thought to appease the king by attending his party, a banquet conceived to celebrate their failure to return to Israel after 70 years of exile. They thought to appease Haman by bowing down to him and the idolatrous image he wore upon a chain hanging from his neck. They thought appeasement and compromise and contrition would preserve the comfortable life they had grown used to in exile, far from their half-forgotten homeland.

Despite all their efforts, the axe fell. But the executioner’s blow never landed, checked in mid-swing by the divine hand, which concealed itself within a long series of improbable coincidences.

Click here to read the whole article.

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True Gratitude

Parshas Pekudei

The contributions were enough … and there was extra (Shemos 36:7).

This week’s parsha continues the narrative of the mishkan, beginning with an accounting of all the materials donated by the Jewish people.  When Moshe had appealed for donations, the Jews had responded with such eagerness and enthusiasm that  Moshe had to ask them not to bring any more.

Curiously, the Torah seems to contradict itself in its description of how much the people contributed:  first we are told that they brought enough; then, in the same verse, we are told that there was extra.  Did the bring enough or more than enough?  It cannot have been both.

imagesExplains the Ohr HaChaim:  Yes, the people had brought more than enough.  But those who had donated so selflessly deserved to have their contributions accepted, not turned away.  Therefore, Hashem miraculously adjusted the needs of the Sanctuary to meet the amount contributed so that everything the people had given would be incorporated into the construction of the mishkan, the place where G-d and the Jewish nation were to meet.

Here we find a profound insight into ha-kores ha-tov, gratitude and appreciation.  It is human nature to be grateful when we are in need.  However, it is also human nature to lose our sense of appreciation once our needs have been fulfilled.  Out of sight, out of mind is one of the more unfortunate attitudes common to the human condition.

Really, it should be just the opposite.  We should be even more grateful for the past once we are no longer in need, since it was past acts of kindness and charity that enabled us to reach our present circumstance of independence and security.  To forget those who helped us in the past simply because we no longer need them is a crass disregard for Torah values.

After a long and successful career, Mr. Rosenberg closed his New York law practice and retired to Florida, where he lived on an annuity purchased with his savings.  And every year, he happily gave a donation of $5000 when the Ponevizher Rav came fundraising for his yeshiva.

One year, the Ponevizher Rav’s driver advised him not to visit Mr. Rosenberg, explaining that the elderly gentleman’s annuity had run out and that the rav would only embarrass him by asking for a donation that he could no longer give.

imgresBut the Ponevizher Rav insisted on making his visit nonetheless.  When Mr. Rosenberg began to apologize that he could not help, the rav cut him off.  “You don’t understand why I’m here,” he explained.  “After you supported us for so many years, it is now our turn to support you.”  For the next eight years, the Ponevizh yeshiva sent Mr. Rosenberg a check every month in the amount of his expired annuity.

It is easy to show appreciation for what others are doing for us now.  It is a sign of genuine gratitude to remember what others have done for us after we no longer need them.

Adapted from last week’s drasha by Rav Menachem Tendler of U. City Shul

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Double Down for Spiritual Success

By Rabbi Yonason Goldson

 

From last week’s Mishpacha Magazine

imgresIt’s been more than a few decades since grade school, and most of my teachers have long ago faded from memory. But not my first-grade teacher. Not Mrs. Campbell.

The reason is simple: I hated her. We all hated her.

My second-most poignant memory of Mrs. Campbell is the time I came to her during recess with a stomachache bad enough to make me cry. Mrs. Campbell said it was my conscience bothering me for talking during class.

But it is a different incident that replays most often in my memory. Mrs. Campbell had left the class alone for a few minutes while she went off to do who-knows-what, instructing us to wait without talking until she returned. How an experienced teacher could leave a room full of six-year-olds unattended and expect them to remain silent remains an unsolved mystery. Predictably, we began chattering the moment the door closed behind her and then, too late, buttoned our collective lips the instant she reappeared.

“I said that no one should talk while I was gone,” she scolded. “Now, when I dismiss you for lunch, everyone who was talking will remain seated and only those who followed directions will stand up to be excused.” She paused to let the instructions sink in, then said, “Stand up to go to lunch.”

Every single child in the room stood up. Everyone, except me.

Mrs. Campbell then broke character and did what any competent educator would do. “Now I know that Jonathan wasn’t the only one talking,” she said. “Since he told the truth, he is excused for lunch and the rest of you will have to wait.”

imagesI tried not to look smug as I walked out alone and headed for my locker, already imagining the day when I would tell my children about the time I was the only one who told the truth. (Eventually I did, although my kids were not nearly as impressed as they ought to have been.)

Full disclosure: I am not George Washington, and if I were ever caught chopping down a cherry tree it’s an even bet I would have lied about it, to go along with the assortment of fibs I told during my formative years. And although I now look back on Mrs. Campbell with a measure of affection, the question that continues to resurface is why – why was I the only one out of two dozen first-graders who refused to lie that afternoon?

Only one explanation has ever come to mind: it just wasn’t worth it.

In Robert Bolt’s masterful drama A Man for all Seasons, Sir Thomas More asks why his protégé, Richard Rich, has testified falsely to condemn Sir Thomas for treason against the King of England. The prosecutor, Oliver Cromwell, reports that Rich has been appointed attorney-general for Wales.

Sir Thomas looks into Rich’s face with pain and amusement and replies, “For Wales? Why, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world . . . But for Wales!”

(In terms of prestige, the office of attorney-general for pre-Elizabethan Wales might be comparable to lieutenant-governor of North Dakota today.)

In other words, the betrayal of a friend and mentor might be understandable – if not defensible – for a princely sum or extraordinary power, but never for a pittance. At least let the reward be commensurate with the crime when forsaking one’s portion in the World to Come.

I imagine the workings of my own mind so many years ago in much the same way. Certainly I was capable of lying. But why waste a perfectly good lie on such a trivial advantage as a few extra minutes on the playground? It simply wasn’t worth it.

And even though I have already confessed to the occasional untruth, I cannot deny that from that moment forward lying never came easy to me. Every impulse to prevaricate met a quiet but insistent voice – Mrs. Campbell’s? – warning me to distance myself from the nearest false word.

imagesIn hindsight, it seems obvious that Mrs. Campbell had reinforced some innate sensitivity to Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi’s lesson of s’char mitzvah k’neged hefseida: “Calculate the reward of a transgression against its cost” (Avos 2:1). If that lesson appears to have grown increasingly incomprehensible to our generation, quite possibly it is because we can no longer appreciate the preceding lesson, “Calculate the cost of a mitzvah against its reward.”

 

In his classic essay on the nekudas habechirah – the point of free will – Rav Dessler explains that the clash between yetzer hara and yetzer tov rages on the battlefront where there is an even balance between the ratzon ha’emes and the ratzon hadimyon, between our perception of truth as it is and our perception of truth as we want it to be. For those of us willing to take a cold, hard look at ourselves, Rav Dessler’s formulation offers a solid defense against the relentless erosion of priorities.

The unpleasant truth is that we give far too little thought to either the value of our mitzvos or the consequences of our transgressions. If we did, would we consistently scurry into davening even five minutes late, let alone stroll in halfway through Pesukei D’zimra? Would we find trivial small talk so compelling that we casually interrupt Chazaras Hashatz and Torah reading, indifferent to the warnings of Shulchan Aruch?

Too often, we are utterly disconnected from the lessons that are right before our eyes. Pictures of the Chofetz Chaim hang in every house without making a perceptible dent in the steady flow of lashon hara. Shammai tells us to greet every person pleasantly, yet we can’t manage a smile or even a passing glance for either our gentile neighbors or our fellow Jews.

Even when we prevail over the temptation, our victories can be hollow. We make time for learning, but we neglect the review necessary to retain what we learn. We pay for our children’s Torah education, but we begrudge the expense, even though we would willingly lay out the same money for luxuries of no intrinsic value. We sacrifice to give charity, but we bristle or sigh when a knock on the door interrupts our dinner or our recreation.

Clearly, our vision of the emes is anything but clear. What can we do to regain clarity?

 

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah offers this allegory:

A man went to the pond to cut a bundle of reeds. It was too heavy for him to lift, so he cut more and laid the new bundles atop the first until someone came along and helped him carry them all (Bechoros 8b).

imagesExplains the Vilna Gaon: Because the Jewish people neglected the Torah, they found themselves exiled from their land. Nevertheless, we – their descendants – persevere in keeping the mitzvos. Despite the added hardships of exile, we shoulder the additional burdens of rabbinic mitzvos – like the reed-cutter adding to his load even though he cannot carry what he already has – all the time waiting for Moshiach to redeem us so that we can resume our proper service before the Master of All.

We have to refocus so that we see things as they really are. And, simplistic as it may seem, the way to take things more seriously is to treat things more seriously. Can’t get to davening on time? Schedule your arrival 15 minutes early to say korbanos or the day’s Tehillim. Feel too strapped to give charity? Double your usual donation.

When approached by a simple Jew who claimed he had only half an hour a week to learn Torah, Rav Yisroel Salanter famously advised him to learn mussar (works of Torah ethics). The baal habayis questioned why Talmud or practical law was not a higher priority, to which Rav Yisroel replied: “Learn mussar, and you’ll find that you have more than half an hour available to learn.”

In other words, by putting in more effort we discover what we should have known all along:  it’s worth it.

And it really works. Taking my cue from Rabbi Benzion Twerski of Milwaukee, I began giving a weekly class in prayer, hoping that my own uninspired davening might benefit from the course of study. Five years and 35 printed outlines later (and still less than halfway through Shemoneh Esrei), my davening has been transformed into a wholly different experience.

And the rewards extend vastly beyond my own tefillos.

On one occasion, when my son was a high school senior, I chided him for the supersonic pace at which he davened. “You don’t understand,” he replied. Then, derisively: “You like to daven!

But the message got through. Imagine my delight when he informed me, a few short years later, that he had just switched to the local Agudah for morning minyan. “That other place davens way too fast,” he complained.

Now there’s a story I can tell his children.

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A Matter of Respect

In memory of my father, Yochanon ben Yaakov, whose neshoma left this world on Rosh Chodesh Adar.  Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 17 June 2001.

imagesI was ten or twelve years old. My father and I had arrived at the stadium early, and I felt a thrill of excitement as we stood up for the Star Spangled Banner. Down on the field, our home team, the Los Angeles Rams, stood in a line holding their helmets under their arms. And in the row in front of us, a middle-aged man stood with his hat perched casually upon his head.

“Take off your hat,” my father said.

The man didn’t respond. “Hey you,” my father said, louder, “take off your hat.”

The man grunted an unintelligible, though clearly dismissive remark.

“You unpatriotic SOB,” growled my father; he didn’t abbreviate, either.

“Dad!” I whispered, mortified and afraid, but also faintly confused. My father had never before demonstrated any dramatic displays of patriotism.

The national anthem ended, the game began, and I guess I forgot about the incident because I never discussed it with my father, never asked him to explain an indignation that seemed entirely out of character.

But now I’m a father myself, and I don’t find my father’s action thirty years ago perplexing at all.

Read the whole article here.

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Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages

YOU CAN HELP!

I’ve published the first chapter of my new book online: Here’s the “cover” blurb and the link:

imgresTake a guided tour beneath the surface of the world we live in with this marriage of King Solomon’s Book of Proverbs and Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, reexamining Solomon’s eternal wisdom through the lens of news stories, scientific discoveries, the natural world, folktales, historical vignettes and, most notably, through the mystery and brilliance of the Mona Lisa – all woven together in a lyrical and engaging medley of the human experience.

Please take a few minutes to read the short introduction. If you like it, read the first chapter. If you have any critiques, I’d love to hear them. And if you really you like it, click on the “vote” button, then repost it and spread the word. You may have to create a Wattpad account to view it, but that only takes a moment.

Thank you!

http://www.wattpad.com/story/11547048-proverbial-beauty-secrets-for-success-and

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Why we are unhappy

I have long told my students that people don’t complain because they are unhappy; rather, they are unhappy because they complain.
Rabbi Moshe Grylak, publisher of Mishpacha Magazine, found the same message in last week’s Torah reading (Book of Numbers, Chapter 11).  Here are is an excerpted version (with emphasis added):

The Israelites have been showered with benefits — and now the complaints begin.

The Jewish people are in possession of a perfect and comprehensive system of laws which is destined to have a tremendous positive influence on their spiritual, intellectual, and cultural development. Livelihood is no problem; all their physical needs are provided, and their food descends miraculously from the heavens daily. And then  “it came to pass that the people were like complainers, evil in the ears of G-d.”

The verse doesn’t specify what their complaint was; in fact it implies that they didn’t say anything specific. They were “like complainers,” murmuring discontentedly under their breath, showing vague feelings of dissatisfaction. They felt what they had was no good anymore; they wanted more, although they themselves had no clear idea of what “more” exactly they wanted. Whatever the case, this state of mind indicated a lack of gratitude, giving rise to a sense of deprivation. To put it bluntly, they were whining.

What caused them to whine? The Sages’s answer is incisive:

“They weren’t complaining; rather they were resentful. They were looking for an excuse to break away from G-d” (Yalkut ShimoniBamidbar 732).

Several verses later, we see another outbreak of grumbling:

“And the riffraff among them started having strong cravings.”

Again, we aren’t told what they craved. They were experiencing discomfort; they felt something was lacking, but didn’t know what. One thing was clear: they were not satisfied.

Only after this mood of discontent spread, encompassing a larger portion of the people, did their demands take on a definite form:

“And the Israelites, too, sat down and wept, and they said, ‘Who will give us meat to eat?’”

At that moment, the craving for meat became the central goal, the be-all and end-all for the people of Israel, those same people whom G-d lifted out of Egypt in order to bestow a unique, eternal legacy. But they talked themselves into a craving, and to fulfill that craving, they needed to agitate with all their might. This became their raison d’être, revealing their weak nature.

The craving for meat distorted their mental function; it clouded their memories, causing them to make claims that a person would be ashamed to voice under normal conditions. What were they saying?

“We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for free, the cucumbers, the watermelons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic.”

What sort of mechanism was at work here? Is there a logical explanation for their behavior?

The secret of all this is found in the world chinam – “free.” It was a Freudian slip, pointing to what was really bothering them on a deeper level, the real complaint they were ashamed to talk about. The truth was that they were complaining about the yoke of Torah and mitzvos that had been placed on their shoulders, a yoke meant to restrain their wild human impulses, which had run riot in Egypt, even as they were being enslaved and oppressed. The transition from external subjugation to a state of freedom that required character training and self-restraint was too much for them. It made them feel rebellious and conjured up fanciful memories of the delights of Egypt and the fish they ate there for free.

Yes, it was absurd of them to be demanding meat when they had manna from the heavens, offering them the taste of every food in the world. But when the source of their rebellion, the subconscious rationale underlying it, is revealed, then their behavior becomes comprehensible — and considering where they came from, even understandable.

Perhaps we can see something of ourselves here, something of the permissive society that never stops demanding meat, and destroys all that is good in our world.

Read Rabbi Grylak’s full article here.

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How the righteous have fallen

Rabbi Yechezkel Fox was the heir-apparent to his father’s expanding kosher empire. But that path remained forever the road not taken. Instead, his quiet fishing expeditions and leisurely walks through the British countryside left his mind free to ponder the meaning of life and the nature of the universe. One day he told his traditional parents he was going to Israel to study in yeshiva. Like so many others, they thought he had gone mad.

He would spend the rest of his life pursuing his passion for learning Torah, teaching others and inspiring them to return to the traditions of their people.

Read my tribute here.

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When violence seems the only answer

Zebadiah Carter describes himself living in “an era when homicide kills more people than cancer and the favorite form of suicide is to take a rifle up some tower and keep shooting until the riot squad settles it.” In 1980, this remark by the main character in a Robert Heinlein novel sounded like the science fiction that it was. Now it echoes like a prophecy.

Random acts of mass violence in the United States still horrify us but no longer shock us. We’ve heard too many stories, seen too many pictures. And too many of them are depressingly the same.

Read the whole article here.

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St. Patrick’s Day Re-Reflections

At first glance, the soggy, green downs of Ulster bear little resemblance to the parched and craggy hills of Israel.  But a gentle tugging at the cultural fabric of either place unravels an unmistakable common thread:  two peoples, impossibly close geographically, impossibly distant ideologically, with more than enough fuel for hatred between them to burn until the coming of the Messiah.  Tromping over hills and through city streets, however, first in one place and then in the other, I discovered a more compelling similarity:  the bitter struggle of humanity in exile.

“Which are the bad parts of town, the ones I should avoid?” I asked the owner of the bed-and-breakfast where I passed my first night in Belfast.

She dutifully pointed out the Shankhill neighborhood on my map, cautioning me to steer clear of it.  I thanked her and, with sophomoric self-confidence, proceeded there directly.

Read the whole article here.

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