I'm a talmudic scholar and former hitchhiker, circumnavigator, and newspaper columnist, living with my wife in St. Louis, Missouri, where I teach, write, and lecture. My forthcoming book, Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for success and happiness from the wisdom of the ages, is due out in July.
Between Passover and the festival of Shavuos (Pentacost, celebrating the Almighty’s revelation at Sinai), tradition calls for every Jew to count the days and the weeks connecting the freedom of the exodus from Egypt with the responsible application of that freedom.
These seven weeks are a time filled with opportunity for personal growth, beginning with the awareness that little changes can add up to extraordinary transformation.
From Celestial Navigation, a publication of Block Yeshiva
[Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah] used to say: Anyone whose wisdom exceeds his good deeds – to what is he similar? To a tree whose branches are many and whose roots are few; then the wind will come and uproot it and turn it over. As it is said: “And he will be like a lonely tree in a wasteland that will not see when good comes. It will dwell on parched soil in the desert, on a salted land, uninhabited” (Yirmyahu 17:6). But one whose deeds exceed his wisdom — to what is he similar? To a tree whose branches are few and whose roots are many; even if all the winds in the world come and blow against it, they will not move it from its place. As it is said: “And he shall be like a tree planted by the water spreading its roots toward the stream, and it will not notice when heat comes. Its leaves will be fresh, in a year of drought it will not worry, and it shall not cease yielding fruit” (ibid., 17:8).
Pirkei Avos 3:22
On the surface, Rabbi Elazar’s allegory appears easy to understand. Scholarship alone is not enough; only when wisdom influences action and produces virtue will it endure.
On closer examination, however, the image of a tree raises many questions. If wisdom is the source of action, why does Rabbi Elazar not compare wisdom to the roots and good deeds to the branches? Just as roots draw sustenance from the earth to nourish the tree, similarly the roots in the allegory should represent the wisdom that fosters action.
Moreover, granted that wisdom is not enough, and that without good deeds a person is like a tree without adequate support, why describe a tree with few branches in the second part of the allegory? If a person has many good deeds, why do the “branches” of his wisdom still have to be “few”?
And what is the point of mentioning the wind at all? Would it not have been simpler to describe a tree so unstable that it is in danger of toppling under its own weight, regardless of external forces?
Finally, why does Rabbi Elazar prove his lesson with verses describing land that is either parched or abundantly watered? Since the tree has no control over its environment, how are these verses relevant to his illustration?
THE ROAD OF GOOD INTENTIONS
Rabbi Abraham Twersky writes that when he was a boy, a visiting rabbi asked him the following question: Since the Torah equates thought with action, then thinking of a question should be the same as actually speaking it. “If so,” concluded the rabbi, “you should be able to answer the question I am thinking at this moment.”
The young Abraham Twersky offered the only reply that seemed to make sense: “I am thinking of the answer,” he said.
The Torah’s equation of thought and deed informs us that thoughts are the first step toward actions and that actions are imperfect without sincere intent. Nevertheless, thoughts alone are not enough: although wisdom is indisputably the source of action, it is action that secures and preserves our wisdom. In the famous words of the Sefer HaChinuch, “man is drawn according to his deeds; his heart and all his thoughts follow inevitably after his actions, whether for good or for bad.”
Unless properly channeled, wisdom comes to nothing; even worse, it may become twisted and corrupted through rationalization.
Posted in Education and Parenting on December 1, 2015
I never had any great desire to be a classroom teacher until I found myself under the tutelage of Rabbi Ephraim Oratz, whose unparalleled pedagogic genius and vast reservoir of Torah knowledge inspired me to embark upon my career as a rebbe. Whatever I have accomplished in the field of Torah education is primarily because of him.
Rav Oratz was — if I may be permitted to use the term — the ultimate Torah-Renaissance man. He possessed the passion of the Amshinover chassidim, theyekkishe precision of the German Jews, the academic discipline of the Lithuanian scholars, and the worldly nobility of Rav Samson Rafael Hirsch, all rolled up — as Rav Shraga Feivel Mendelovitz would say — into one selfless, total servant of the Almighty.
Rav Oratz was truly of the old school, with countless stories about growing up in the post-depression years, about learning and teaching in the old American day school system, about playing stickball on the streets of New York. He told me once how his father had to go out every Monday morning to find new employment, because his Sabbath-observance cost him his job time and time again. More incredibly, Rav Oratz didn’t learn of this until years later; his parents kept the children in the dark so they wouldn’t feel insecure.
In our coddled generation, that kind of mesiras nefesh — self-sacrifice — is almost entirely forgotten.
Coddling was one term absent from Rav Oratz’s educational lexicon. He understood with every fiber of his being that self-esteem is not given, it is acquired by learning discipline and discovering the joy that comes from struggle and success. He never acknowledged good work with exuberant cries of excellent, fantastic, or well done. Instead he responded with a silent nod, a quick smile, a short nu, nu or, on one extraordinary occasion, with not bad, not bad at all. That was high praise indeed.
Rav Oratz would arrive exactly two minutes before each class, replace his hat with his yarmulke in one smooth, practiced motion, then look inscrutably around the room, which was usually less than half full when it was time to begin. On one occasion, when there were only two of us present on time, he looked at me and asked, “Is something else going on this evening?”
I shrugged my shoulders. Rav Oratz shook his head. “Just one of those things I guess I’ll never understand,” he said.
There weren’t many things Rav Oratz didn’t understand. In two years of classes I never heard him unable to answer a question, although he could hold his tongue indefinitely when he wanted us to come up with the answers on our own.
“Wouldn’t you have hated to have him as a rebbe?” a member of the Ohr LaGolah leadership-training program once commented — after Rav Oratz was safely out of earshot.
“Wouldn’t you love to have had him as a rebbe now?” I shot back.
There’s nothing more inspirational than witnessing a true master do something as well as it can be done. Watching Rav Oratz teach made me want to be a teacher. That was it. My course in life was set, without prompting, without a sales pitch, with just enough encouragement to convince me that I could succeed if I put my heart into it. And I wanted nothing more than to do what he could do, even if I did it only half as well he could.
If you live in the St. Louis area, please join me on Wednesday 4 November at 6:30 PM when Subterranean Books will be hosting a launch party for my new book, Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for Success and Happiness from the Wisdom of the Ages. There will be a reading, Q & A, and a book signing.
6275 Delmar Blvd, in the Loop
I hope to see you there, and bring a friend!
I can always count on my friend Daniel Jacobsen to pose simple questions with complicated answers. Whenever I see him coming at me with that look in his eye, I know my brain is in for some heavy lifting.
This time was no exception. “I’ve been wondering about the rainbow,” he began. Here we go, I thought. And I was right.
“Why did God choose something so beautiful as a symbol of destruction?”
Much has been made of the shape of the rainbow: even as the Almighty points the arrows of divine wrath away from us, it is only His promise to Noah that protects us from the natural consequences of our own moral corruption.
But what do the colors and the beauty of the rainbow signify? Here was another simple question that had never occurred to me. I told Daniel that I’d have to get back to him.
What is a rainbow but the refraction of white light into a multitude of colored bands? Like the air we breathe and the water we drink, we take white light for granted; by doing so, we fail to appreciate the very blessings that are most essential to our existence. Indeed, as Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato observes in the introduction to his ethical classic Mesillas Yesharim, those things that are most obvious to us are the things most easily forgotten.
Only when moisture in the air disperses photons into a spectrum of color do we stop and marvel at the beauty of light.
In the same way, the unity of the Almighty that we declare daily when we recite Hashem echad is far too abstract a concept to guide us as we seek to infuse Godliness into our lives. We therefore partition the Divine “white light” of the Creator through the prism of human comprehension into 13 individual descriptive qualities on which we can focus one at a time.
When we do so, the primordial beauty of God’s indivisibility manifests in a rainbow of separate middos, or characteristics. Individually, they represent our journey; collectively, they represent our goal.
Now let’s apply the same principle to the Jewish nation as a whole.
An old joke tells of the Jew who proclaims his love for the Jewish people but denounces Steinberg as a cheapskate, Lebowitz as a crook, and Schneiderman as a nogoodnick. The sad reality, however, is that too often it isn’t a joke.
From this week’s Mishpacha Magazine.
Overheard in shul: “I can’t daven as fast as they do.”
“Let me tell you something — They can’t daven as fast as they do, either.”
Overheard in shul: “Do you think anyone would be offended if I ran up in front of the omud after aleinu and waved a checkered flag?”
One of my rabbeim once remarked: “I like to think of myself as a ba’al teshuva, but the truth is I’ve become an FFB.”
The labels BT (ba’al teshuva) and FFB (frum from birth) don’t seem to be as much in vogue as they once were. Perhaps that’s a good thing; maybe it’s because of the number of distinguished talmidei chachomim among ba’alei teshuva. Then again, maybe it’s because the increased secular influence within many Orthodox precincts has blurred the distinction. Or maybe it’s because — tragically — so many of our children are at risk of going off the derech that it just doesn’t matter anymore.
But whatever the reason, I frequently revisit a comment my rosh yeshiva often made: Whether we’re FFBs or BTs, eventually we all become FWEs — frum without effort.
Complacency is a universal problem. Being born into a Torah home and community provides the confidence and competence that make it easy to coast through perfunctory observance. It also creates an illusion of spiritual maturity that deludes many ba’alei teshuva into believing that once they have adopted the same demeanor of casual observance then they have “made it.”
All the mussar drashos in the world can’t seem to shake us out of our collective comfort zone. And nowhere is that more evident than in davening.
I doubt if I will ever forget the first shemoneh esrei I davened in Loshon Hakodesh. I arrived at Ohr Somayach three decades ago as one of many “off the Wall” Jews, intercepted at the kosell by Jeff Seidel as I was backpacking from from continent to another. I’d never had a bar mitzvah ceremony, and I didn’t even know aleph-beis. I learned to daven in English out of the old Birnbaum siddur, with its tiny print and King Jamesian translation. Acquiring a functional knowledge of Hebrew was a slow and painful process.
Eventually, I decided I had to take the plunge. One afternoon, I went up to my room to daven mincha in Loshon Hakodesh. That first shemoneh esrei took me 45 agonizing minutes. I struggled through every word, with no kavanah except to push through to the end.
I suspect that I’ve never received as much reward in the next world for any shemoneh esrei since.
My second attempt took only 30 minutes, and after a week or so I’d gotten my time down to 20 minutes, just quick enough to take three steps back as the yeshiva mincha minyan was finishing aleinu.
And there I got stuck. For weeks, I couldn’t shave another minute off my time. I lamented that, for the rest of my life, I would be davening 20 a minute shemoneh esrei.
Halavai. If only it were so.
Finally, I did have my breakthrough. My times got faster and faster. Ultimately, I was able to memorize shemoneh esrei and daven with my eyes closed, finishing as fast as almost anyone in shul. I had made it!
Until I realized that I hadn’t. Then began the long, uncomfortable process of learning how to slow down.
Slowing down, however, is easier said than done. Davening as part of a tzibbur is meant to enhance the experience of prayer. There’s an energy generated by a quorum, all the more so when the members of the congregation share a reverence for the place and the purpose that has brought them together.
But it’s also easy to get carried along with the current, even if it means slurring words together and ignoring what they mean. No one likes the feeling of being left behind, so we push ourselves to keep up even as we realize our tefillos are suffering by doing so.
Which is tragic. It takes only the most cursory study of the siddur for us to recognize what we’re missing when we zip through davening. The richness, the depth, the poetry, and the inspiration that Chazal put into their composition is at our fingertips, and we don’t even notice as it passes before our eyes at mach speed.
Worse still, because we get so little out of davening, our behavior in shul deteriorates. The latest headlines, baseball scores, community politics, and our text alerts seem a lot more relevant than the prayers we don’t give ourselves time to think about. Even if we’re learning rather than talking, the implicit message we’re sending to others — and ourselves — is that davening is merely a duty to discharge before returning to more important matters. Moreover, faster davening begets even faster davening, since no one speaks out against those who are eager to find any excuse to speed up.
And worst of all: our children are watching us, learning to do what we’re doing. Is this really how we want to fulfill vishinantam l’vonecho?
The truth is, if we devoted even a few minutes a day to learning about tefillah we wouldn’t want to daven so fast. Listen to Rav Schwab’s words on asher nosan lasechvi binah:
“In the early morning, as the day breaks, we have a wonderful feeling of anticipating the beginning of a new day. We look forward to it with happy expectancy. It is for this emotion — this pleasant, hopeful optimism, which the crowing of the rooster evokes in our hearts — that we give thanks…
“[J]ust as the rooster has been given the ability by HaKadosh Baruch Hu to distinguish between day and night, while the difference is hardly noticeable, and announces it to the world with his loud crowing, so too has HaKadosh Baruch Hu given the Jewish people the mandate to enlighten the world with the great truths taught by the Torah, even if the world is still ‘dark.’”
And this is just one small idea from the first bracha of the morning. How profoundly can we transform our davening — and our entire day — if we let these lofty sentiments take root in our minds instead of rattling off like the names of racehorses on the backstretch at Churchill Downs.
Any aficionado would be aghast at someone knocking back 21-year-old scotch or wolfing down a gourmet meal, and it would never occur to us to ask the conductor to speed up his performance of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony so the audience can get to go home earlier. Shouldn’t we want to be connoisseurs of prayer? Shouldn’t we want to savor every word of tefillah the way a wine enthusiast lets fine Cabernet roll over his tongue?
So what can we do about it? Here are a few strategies for more inspired davening.
Invest 5 minutes. Anyone can find five free minutes in a day. Read a paragraph or two in Rav Schwab on Prayer. Once you start, I guarantee that you won’t want to stop.
Come early. If you run into davening late, you’re finished before you start. Playing catch-up is perfect recipe for tefillah without kavanah. What’s more, we say every morning that coming early to davening is counted among those things for which we’re rewarded in this world and the next. Why are we willing to give up such an easy windfall?
Turn off the phone and use a siddur. We get distracted easily enough without having the ultimate source of distraction right before our eyes.
Don’t sit with friends. Our relationship with others can wait while we focus on our relationship with G-d. There are enough hours in the day for socializing that we can devote an hour or two each day to our Creator. Especially on Shabbos and Yom Tov, remove the temptation to talk by minimizing the opportunity.
Add personal prayers. Stop yourself from being an automaton by inserting personal requests in Shema Koleinu. We all have something we want. Three times a day we have a personal audience with the King of kings. How can we squander such an opportunity?
Find allies. There must be a few other people in shul who would like the minyan to slow down. Form a coalition and approach the rav. Maybe he’d also like to reclaim his minyan from the speed-demons who have hijacked it.
There’s no reason to be embarrassed about wanting to slow down. It’s worth recalling the story about a bochur who worried that the Gerrer Rebbe had mistakenly inferred that he was new to Yiddishkeit. “Rebbe,” he said, “I’m not a ba’al teshuva.”
Replied the Rebbe: “Why not?”
For some Fourth of July reflections, click here.
Posted in Culture on July 1, 2015
From the United States Constitution to the French Revolution, from the Emancipation Proclamation to the 19th Amendment, from the Civil Rights Act to last week’s Supreme Court decision affirming the right to gay marriage, the world has taken (by a vote of 5 to 4) another great step forward on the road to universal equality and justice.
That’s what the pundits would like us to think. Except that it wasn’t a step forward.
And, more important, it was never about the right to marry…
As an institution, marriage created a moral structure upon which all other moral structures found purchase: Partnership, self-sacrifice and, perhaps most critically, respect for the natural boundaries and limits imposed by the design of the universe in which we live. Human beings took for granted the imperative to conform to nature’s laws and nature’s plan. Individual desire and ambition learned to submit to a higher reality and universal truths. Personal gratification was not the ultimate arbiter of right and wrong in a society that required cooperative spirit and collective commitment to ideals that extended beyond oneself.