Yom Kippur - Gettling Married

This post is dedicated in memory of Shlomo ben Aryeh Zalman. May it be an aliyah for his                                                               neshama. By Shoshana Rosa

Growing up, people always told me that the use of anthropomorphic terms for Hashem (G-d) in the Torah, "I will stretch forth My hand and smite the Egyptians..," (Exodus 3:20), "The L-rd descended upon Mt. Sinai, to the peak of the mountain, and the L-rd summoned Moshe to the peak of the mountain, and Moshe ascended" (Exodus 19:20), "And it will be, if you listen to the voice of Hashem i.e. if you obey Him..," (Deuteronomy 28:1), are there as means to help humanity relate to Him. Since we are finite, and G-d is infinite, referring to Him in human terms are the only way we could have an inkling as to Who G-d is.

And anyway, the only reason we know what we know is because He told us.

Recently, a friend of mine gave me an entirely new perspective on this idea.

Did you ever have someone innocently drop an information bomb in the midst of casual conversation? It was like that.

My friend mentioned, oh so casually, while we were discussing something truly banal -- the best way to roast marshmallows (over a bonfire or by the gas range at home; the argument was ease versus taste) -- that at the end of the day, things like that didn't matter since we weren't real. "Don't get me wrong," she added. "I love roasted marshmallows but there's no point in getting caught up with petty details if we don't actually exist."

Come again? Where on earth did that come from?

Taken aback at the sudden turn of conversation, I didn't immediately respond.

"The Torah describes G-d in human terms, right?" she tried to explain. "Various places in the Torah describes G-d as having a hand, a voice etc. We think that they're there as something for humans to hook into since the question of who and what G-d is is impossible to grasp on its own. Really, the opposite is true. G-d has all those things that humans have AND, to give us something to hook into, He created us with those things so that we could relate to Him through them. G-d has hands so we have hands. G-d has a voice so we have voices.  G-d uses His hands to do kindness to His creations; so too, we emulate Him by using our hands to do kind acts for one another. G-d uses His voice to teach His ways and His Torah -- we are meant to do the same.

"In the same vein, the relationships that all of us share, whether it be with our parents, spouses or friends, were all created so that we could relate to G-d on those terms because He encompasses all of them.

"But," my friend finished, "even with all that, G-d is impossible to grasp. He is infinite and we, with our limited understanding, cannot fathom what that means.

We, our lives, are a parable. G-d is the real thing. And that's why, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter where we eat the marshmallows or how they taste off a stick or fork. It just doesn't matter." And with that, my friend got up and left the room.

What did this topic have to do with marshmallows? Nothing, nothing at all. It was a non sequitur, I decided.

Either that or she changed the subject because I was winning the marshmallow debate.

In any case, I decided to let it and the existential angst of "What is this life all about?" and "What's my significance in the cosmic plan of the universe?" go as I I hunkered down for the next few weeks to mull over the idea.

And if you don't get it, don't worry. I still don't get it. I'm not sure we're supposed to.

However, the reason I brought it up is because the above idea helped me find the following concept extremely compelling.

In a lecture on the months of Elul and Tishrei i.e. preparation for the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana (The Jewish New Year) and Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) as well as the High Holy Days themselves, Rabbi YY Jacobson draws a parallel between the Jewish nation's relationship with G-d  and the blossoming of a relationship between a man and his soon to be betrothed.

The month of Elul is the month of courtship. It's when G-d is referred to as the king in the field. Somehow, he is extra close in the hopes of getting to know us better.

Erev Rosh Hashana, the night of Rosh Hashana, G-d proposes. How? The Gemara it tells us that G-d asks the Jews to, "Make me a king and I will rule over you."

After listening to my friend's piece and after coming to terms with the puniness of humanity, the weakness of our ability to grasp concepts that are beyond the scope of our understanding, I hear that the King of the Universe is condescending to ask us?! Asking us like we have some sort of a say in the matter? Asking us as if our answer will make any difference?

I was gobsmacked.

I was further astonished when Rabbi YY added that the Jewish nation's response was, "G-d, I need to think about Your proposal. I'm not sure I'm ready to marry you. I'm not even sure I want to. I need time."

This is where the idea of free will steps in. We have to choose to be G-d's nation. He can't force us to listen to Him; it would totally negate the idea of picking right. And so, the first night of Rosh Hashana (it's a two day holiday) has a certain frailty to it. The universe is hanging in the balance; it has a question mark on it -- will they or won't they? Everything depends on this relationship.

And so, the universe waits with bated breath for the Jews to come back with an answer.

They do.

The next day, the Jewish people acquiesce by blowing the shofar.

What's shofar got to do with it?

The three types of sounds that the shofar emits represent the different stages of a relationship. The tekiyah, as the first sound. is one long blast that connotes clarity, understanding and joy. The second, the shevarim, represents moments of brokenness, moaning and pain. The third, teruah, has the sound of hiccups and sobbing. It expresses a deep and powerful sadness. The second and third shofar blasts are followed by another tekiyah, a longer one, which is a declaration that a relationship is made stronger with experiencing the second and third stages of challenges together.

Next, Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement, is called the wedding ceremony since it parallels the day the Jewish nation accepted the second set of Luchot Habrit (the stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments). We have a custom to come to services in white as a nod to brides everywhere. And the reason Yom Kippur is considered the Shabbos of Shabboses as well as the holiest day of the year is because it is when G-d forgives our previous infidelity with the giving of the first set of luchot and gives us a chance to turn a new leaf.
With all this in mind, I hope you have a wonderful Yom Kippur. May you be blessed with a year of joy and fulfillment.

Shalom Bayit - Planting and Building in Chinuch (child rearing)

When I walked out of my first day of teaching, my head was whirling. This wasn't because I had been teaching classes back to back or because I hadn't managed to down one cup of water the entire day. It was because one of my students wouldn't keep her mouth shut in class. "I can't compete with them," I grumbled to a friend later that day. "This girl talks so much, she interrupts herself."

My friend told me to lighten up and write a book. 

Tell that to every teacher, I wanted to shoot back. But I knew I'd be wasting my breath; only other teachers understand the battlefield of classroom management. 

Everyone else nods, laughs if the story's humorous and changes the subject. 

For some reason, around this time, I started feeling a budding respect for my mother's struggles as a parent. 

In retrospect, I couldn't wholeheartedly blame her for not being a perfect smiley person all the time. If it's hard being a teacher/ actor/ policeman and makeshift mother in varying degrees during a forty-five minute class period, I shudder at what it must have been like on the job trajectory of a seven day week cycle, and no paid vacation in sight (not any that I knew of anyway).  

But I needed more than common ground with my mother's experiences to help me get along with my student. I didn't want to be reduced to a howling mess within a matter of days; I needed a game plan.

Desperation, or rather, necessity, that mother of invention, helped me come up with something. While brainstorming on my way to work, coffee in fist, the next day, I decided to give my student the ratio test. "I give you a demerit point for every moment you speak without raising your hand," I told this girl. "and I'll give you one point for every sentence you write instead of speaking. If, by the end of class, you end up with more points than me, then I'll give you a point for the day. When you reach ten, we'll go out for ice coffee." My student immediately nodded her head vigorously at the idea. Boom, yeah. No one would ever turn down the prospect of a free class period, especially if it was as a result of something s/he earned. 

I loved this idea because it also solved the issue of my having to rebuke students for interrupting me during class. I could just make a face while I was dotting the paper and they'd immediately pipe down.

The idea worked for about a day. Then, the novelty of my plan wore off. That's what my inner cynic said, anyway. 

This student interrupted me so many times, that her demerit  points, like Walt Whitman's poetry, ran right off the page. I was so frazzled by the end of a double class period that when she asked to read her notes out loud, I informed her that if she got more than fifteen demerit points, then she was automatically disqualified and would not be receiving any point for the day. "But you didn't say that when you started this," she cried, scrunching up the notes and tossing them in the trash. 

"Are you on Ritalin?" I asked. Not the most sympathetic response, I grant, but frustrated teachers aren't angels. 

"No," she said and stormed out. 

I returned home later, head cluttered and soul weary. Where did I go wrong? I wondered. My idea was such a good one. Why didn't it go off without a hitch?  

Because, a voice in my head whispered, that's not how proper chinuch works. You can't coerce another human being, be it student or child, into doing your will if you want long term results. Chinuch is a process that requires planting as well as building. 

Planting i.e. implementing long term healthy behavior patterns in another person doesn't just require setting the groundwork for a child to grow a certain way. A teacher or parent has to do more than make suggestions on what living a meaningful, balanced, healthy life entails while also giving that child exposure to examples of the above. S/he must also give that child a wide berth within which s/he can grow. This requires trust. 

And patience. Lots and lots of patience. 

Building i.e. making rules and setting boundaries is also necessary in the chinuch process because it ensures that a child, like a vine on a trellis, will grow healthy, neat and strong without turning into a wild, tangled mess of greenery, invading every inch of space, outside of the direction in which it was intended to grow. 

When I came up with this "game" for my student, I was building boundaries into my classroom setting. Then, when I explained that game's purpose was to help my student acquire self restraint, and the value of such a quality, I figured I'd covered all my bases. I didn't take into account that it would take time for the concept to sink in, for the seeds to rot before they sprouted into something green and strong, so to speak.

It looked like I'd need to do some inner pruning as well.

Doesn't someone somewhere say that students are our best teachers? I really believe that.

Yom Kippur - Revealing G-d in Dark Moments

This post is dedicated in memory of Shlomo ben Aryeh Zalman. May it be an aliyah for his                                                               neshama.  
Elisheva Maline

Before taking to the streets with hidden video cameras and pranking the public (or testing, depending on your flavor) was in vogue, experiments were usually conducted by men in long, white lab coats. One especially infamous social experiment, done to explain how so many people could have condoned the Holocaust, let alone gotten on board with it, was conducted by Stanley Milgram. The Yale University professor formed his The Obedience to Authority (later dubbed the Milgram experiment), with two participants (over time, applicants ranged from Yale University students to anyone who responded to a 'looking for applicants' ad in the local paper).

The purpose of the Milgram experiment was to measure the willingness of study participants, men from a diverse range of occupations with varying levels of education, to obey an authority figure who would instruct them to perform acts conflicting with their personal conscience. Participants were led to believe that they were assisting an unrelated experiment, in which they had to administer electric shocks to a "learner." These fake electric shocks gradually increased to levels that would have been fatal had they been real (Wikipedia). 

Most people, Milgram afterward claimed, will willingly accept instruction from a higher authority without questioning it, especially if it means that the burden of responsibility will have been lifted from their own, fragile shoulders. Eventually, when people realized that the Milgram experiment was really about how far a person can be pushed to hurt others, it was banned from the east coast. Still, the results of Milgram's experiment was heavily debated in the fifties, and in varying degrees, is still a pretty hot topic today.

Social experimenting has come a long since then.

When it became popularized by the layman, the question burning a hole in people's minds, "How far will a person go with regard to bending the rules (be they governmental, societal, social or religious) if s/he thinks s/he can get away with it?" has been tested in a variety of ways over the years, some with pretty shocking results. Others, thank G-d, have been far more heartwarming.

Afterward, I saw a similar video filmed by a Jewish man in a city somewhere in Israel. It was really heartwarming to see EVERY single person help the man pretending to be a helpless blind man. When push comes to shove, I thought, people can look out for each other. I walked away from that video clip smiling. 

However, the results of that first experiment, conducted in Australia, made me see black. "What is with people?" I thought, "and how could one raise the yardstick of societal conscience in the world? Where does one even begin?"
The answer came to me in a book called The Color of Heaven by Rabbi Yaakov Asher Sinclair. He addresses the million dollar question of "What would I do if I knew I wouldn't get caught?" with a verse from Deuteronomy "And you will return to Hashem, your G-d, and listen to His voice..." (Deuteronomy 30:2). When we are aware that G-d is aware and we conduct ourselves accordingly, we won't need to look over our shoulders while breaking the rules because the all seeing eye will hopefully obliterate all vestiges of derelict behavior. And after I share Rabbi Asher's story, with the help of G-d, your urge to break the rules will become a little less compelling, as well.

A couple of months ago, my daughter lost a wallet containing a large sum of money. She realized the wallet was gone when she tried to pay the taxi that brought her home. My wife went back with her and retraced her steps, but to no avail. The wallet was gone. We called around to all the shops she had gone to. Nothing. After a couple of days, we thought we'd seen the last of the wallet.

About a month later, a man telephoned the house and spoke to my wife. He said he had seen the wallet in the street and picked it up. He was a poor person struggling to keep his head above an ever-rising tide of  bills and debts. The sight of such a large amount of money overwhelmed him. His son's cheder (elementary school) had told him that unless he paid the previous term's tuition, he [the son] would not be able to return at the end of the summer. He looked down at the full wallet, and the temptation was too much for him. He took half the money and paid his son's tuition. 

Two day before Tisha b'Av (a fast day for commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples as well as the various catastrophes that have befallen the Jewish nation over the centuries), he called our home, "How can I fast on Tisha b'Av with this on my mind?" he asked. 

He promised to pay us back as soon as possible... My wife told him, "Don't worry! Pay us back when you can." She suggested he leave the wallet in a nearby store to avoid embarrassment. 

Apart from my wife's response, this episode warmed my heart. Many people might have overcome the temptation to steal and returned the wallet intact together with a nice self-applied pat-on-the-back. But once the desire to steal overcomes a person, it's much more difficult to do the right thing. At that point, a person can lapse into despair and think, 'Well that's it. I took it. Finished. I stole it.' What impressed me was the man's ability to climb out of the pit after the fall (The Color of Heaven - Nitzavim).  

The purpose of Yom Kippur, The Day of Atonement, is growing in the recognition that coming out of the woods, exiting obscurity or pulling oneself, elbow over fist, out of a darkened pit is possible. 

While it cannot be contested that the process is difficult and different for everyone, one idea can find solidification in the collective mindset of humanity. Grow in awareness that He (G-d) is aware. Over time, exercising such a muscle will help us alter our thoughts, speech and actions for the better.

Have an easy and meaningful fast. 

Rosh HaShanah is War

This post is dedicated in memory of Shlomo ben Aryeh Zalman. May it be an aliyah for his                                                               neshama.  
Elisheva Maline

According to the Sefat Emet, a Torah commentator from the mid 1800's, the month of Elul is a time of preparation for war. 

What war? 

Rosh HaShanah.

Rosh HaShana is a tug of war between us and this world - a place full of distraction - where the million dollar question is "Will G-d awareness ultimately prevail or will we get sucked into a lifetime of pain and deception?"

Just something to think about.

A personal story that happened to me recently demonstrates what I think preparing for Rosh HaShana means.

 A while back, while walking past Ben Yehudah street in Jerusalem, I came nose to nose with a man who shoved a smelly hat in my face and muttered, "Charity saves from death. Charity saves from death." 

I took the hint and fished out some coins. Only in Israel, I mused to myself, could a panhandler offer mussar (rebuke). 

Most people find interactions like that one invasive and are most likely to ignore the guy. In fact, we often close our eyes to encounters with human frailty for the simple reason that they make us uncomfortable. 

Generally, I would raise that flag as well. 

This time, however, maybe because Rosh HaShana was right around the corner, I found it hard to feel irritated, especially when the situation I was confronted with came in the form of a man who seemingly had nothing, not even his dignity. 

Could I dismiss this man, assuming that his situation came about through his own series of bad choices? I had no idea who he was or where he came from so who was I to measure what he deserved and why? What was it me to part with a few shekels, anyway? These two arguments, occuring within the space of nanoseconds, took place while I gave the man charily. 

He walked away smiling and in a nutshell, I believe this is how I brought about a revelation of G-d just before the High Holy Days.
You should know that the bent of a person's thoughts on Rosh HaShana should not be on repentance, as some people erroneously suspect. They should be [hyper] focused around the excitement of G-d's coronation as the king of kings. The reason we also call Rosh HaShana a battlefield is because life on this earth demands that we struggle to reveal G-d in a place where it is very difficult to find Him. We think we're in charge of our destinies but we're not. We tend to assume that other people's mishaps are a result of their own failings but we can't. Nothing is clear.

This world is called an עולם (olam), a word which shares the same root as the word העלם (he'elaim) hidden. Why? Because part of our purpose here on earth is to grapple with that false sense of reality in which we assume our actions set numerous effects into motion and that 'it's by the strength of my hands which bring me this bounty.' Yet, really, anything that happens starts and ends with G-d's willing that it be so. Our constant struggle is to reveal and concretize that truth within ourselves.

Rosh HaShana is referred to as the day of judgment as well as a battlefield because Hashem (G-d) opens up the books of life and death. He writes our names down based on how we've conducted ourselves in the last year (we're also judged based on where we are personally during the davening (prayers) as well). Afterward, on Yom Kippur, the judgment is sealed. 

The only way to a good life is through nullifying ourselves and in effect, declaring G-d's total dominion over us. My life is not mine to control; the only thing I own is my will to do better. The rest is up to G-d.

You can't fake that, though. "Okay, Big Guy, I let You be in Charge. Okay, cool. We're good."

G-d can read your thoughts.     

How on earth do we prepare for something so challenging? 

Most classic commentaries suggest the three T's: teshuvah, tefilla and tzedakah (repentance, prayer and charity), saying that all three can save a person from an evil decree. Or, as my panhandling friend put it, from the cold fist of death itself.

What do teshuvah, tefilla and tzedakah have to do with rescinding a difficult decree?

Repentance i.e. returning to G-d, praying to G-d and giving charity to one's fellow i.e. doing acts of kindness, bridge the gap between us, G-d and other people. By building emotional, and spiritual bridges, we make it more and more possible to feel G-d's presence in our daily lives.

Elul is called a time of intense closeness to Hashem, a time when He is referred to as 'The king in the field.' It's special because we don't need to make appointments or go through hosts of middlemen, as would be the case with a regular king, in order to get to Him. We just need to step out of our homes i.e. our comfort zones, and run into the fields. 

This is why people often refer to אלול (Elul) as אני לדודי ודודי לי - I am to my Beloved as my Beloved is to me.

When the Chazon Ish originally moved to Bnei Brak, the city was a small yishuv, vastly different from the sprawling metropolis of concrete apartment buildings and schools and shuls (synagogues) it is today. The Chazon Ish moved into a small house off to the side, among a host of orange trees in a grove; at night, a choir of jackals serenaded his arrival. Since, followers of the Chazon Ish found this situation inappropriate, they installed a lamppost.

Passing the lamppost one evening, the Chazon Ish made a simple yet profound observation: The further I move from the light of the lamppost, the more elongated my shadow. When I approach the light, however, the smaller my shadow gets, smaller and smaller until it practically disappears. So it is with G-d. The closer I come to the Creator of the world, the more I recognize the truth of my own insignificance. 

We are nothing next to the Creator of the universe. 

If you really want to get into the spirit of things, go out into a field later tonight (free of light pollution and human activity); gaze up at the heavenly bodies, the ribbon of Milky Way threading its way through the sky, the kaleidoscope of stars and planets, and you will be struck by the absolute puniness of you. 

We're just specks of dust floating through space. 

We're nothing. 

And yet, we're everything. Why? How? Because G-d breathed part of Himself into us; He gave us life and therefore, we have a divine mission to impart here on earth. 

We just have to fight to see it.

Shalom Bayit - Honoring Our Parents

This post is dedicated in memory of Shlomo ben Aryeh Zalman. May it be an aliyah for his                                                               neshama. 
Elisheva Maline

When a baby bird wakes up to an awareness of its surroundings, anthropomorphically, something in it cries out for expansion. It feels suffocated and instinctively chips its way out to the fresh air, sunlight and freedom. 

Now, the nest isn't much bigger but it is the landing pad from which the baby can learn new things like eating and flying. Then, when it's ready, it can hop out, spread its wings and take off. 

Of course, the process doesn't happen one two three; it needs time and reinforcement on the parent's part to teach that baby how to fly.  

Interestingly enough, we can learn about the concept of nature vs. nurture with regard to people through the development of birds from the egg to the nest and onward. Both birds and people are born with an instinct for movement (to be more precise on the part of humanity: growth) whether it be by wing or foot. This is the nature side of the equation. Also, both are the same in that neither can move on to the next stage in life without the help of a parent. This is why a mother bird must reinforce the skill of flight to her chick. And so it goes for a human parent who also requires time to teach her toddler to develop his ability to crawl and walk. This is the nurture side of the equation. The only difference between the two is that animals' decisions are based in instinct and therefore, aren't actually decisions while humans must choose: will I be a good parent or will I not? 

"Many years of research has proved that while certain instincts (such as breathing, sleeping and walking) were given to us at birth, it takes exercising and motivation by parents to help babies reach their full potential of instinct. This idea, the nurture half of the argument, is where people argue that it is the responsibility of the parent to teach these children how to walk or eat properly. Similar to humans, birds are born with this same instinct, mainly for the action of flight. Now no bird is born with the ability to fly because it takes practice. Rather birds are trained by their parents through the power of reinforcement" (Nature vs Nurture: How do baby birds learn how to fly?).

The best kinds of parents, the human kind, that is, are the ones who enable their children spiritually, such as by exposing them to G-d's presence in this world, or by enrolling them in institutions that teach about their heritage and religion etc. Good parents also enable their children physically, whether it be by making them wholesome meals or shuttling them to routine checkups at the doctor/ dentist etc., mentally and emotionally by seeing to their individual needs, and financially by helping them figure out what they want to do long term so they can support families of their own. 

Bottom line: the only way a parent can build his or her child into a confident adult is by holding that child's hand until s/he's ready to let go -- and fly.      

Haven't we heard this before?

This truism carries itself across the globe in any and every society. And yet, the Torah comes in to teach us something groundbreaking.

At the Sinai event Hashem (G-d) gave the Jewish nation His ten commandments and all 613 Torah laws, correct? One of those laws is the mitzvah (commandment) to honor one's parents. 

What exactly does that entail?

Since most people follow the paradigm of a give and take relationship, it shouldn't come as any surprise that when the first doesn't meet the standards of the second, the second one jumps ship. The general expectation is that parents should give and their children should take. With some luck, good behavioral exposure will get absorbed into the children's systems and then they will move on to become their children's givers. 

To this beautiful idea, the Torah says, "Now, wait just a minute."   

According to the mitzvah of Honoring One's Parents, children are commanded to give back as well. "The mitzvah (commandment) of honoring parents is all encompassing and includes our actions, our speech, our thoughts, and our feelings. It applies equally to sons and daughters, singer or married -- with some qualifications for a married woman. There is no difference between the obligation to a father and the obligation to a mother. 

[Also,] "this mitzvah never ends. As long as we are alive, we have a responsibility to our parents" (My Father, My Mother and Me by Yehudis Samet).

We have another potential issue here: what if our parents were lousy givers? 

To this, the Torah tells us that even in those [rare -- and I'm using that word facetiously] cases where our parents were not our enablers, and, to put it mildly, in some ways, they were quite the opposite, we must remember that there is "an eye that sees, an ear that hears..." (Pirkei Avot 2:1). What this means is that G-d is running the world, Not only that but Judaism teaches that G-d is very much involved in the nitty gritty of our every day lives. Knowing this, we can declare that our parents [were and] are our greatest teachers, the ones who enabled us to grow to our fullest potential whether is was via painful means or otherwise. For that reason, aside from the fact that G-d commanded it, we owe them everything (and we can give them everything within the framework of halacha (Torah law), as well as from within the context one can give functionally to his parents).

And if you feel like your parent(s) didn't give you what you needed, be that person for someone else. 

Yashar LaChayal

The majesty of the Western Wall

Nefesh B'Nefesh