Saturday, December 21, 2013

Praying at Home is the Hardest

Please read this tremendous article on Tablet Mag by Zachary Solomon Finding Comfort in Synagogue - But Only When I'm on the Road.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Buying Your Time with Hashem

Great call out by Rabbi Yakov Horowitz (@yakovhorowitz) on Kupat Ha'ir's Once in Fifty Years campaign, who tweeted, "I challenge Kupat ha'ir to prove that a single gadol saw, let alone approved, this horrible ad."  Check it out!

Monday, November 4, 2013

Can We Change the System?

Fascinating article on eJewishPhilanthropy, "The Religion You Don't Believe in I Don't Believe in Either" by Dr. Phil Robinson in response to the Pew Study. He raises great points, especially about the nature of teaching religion vs. religious behavior (isn't it really about the pursuit of the sublime).

My question is with regard to the present institutional infrastructure - can they really change to the times?

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Famous People's Prayers

I came across to diversely different celebrity davening stories.

One is actually the creation of a new prayer for B'reishit by the actor of How I Met Your Mother, Josh Randor, who published it on

The other finding was about celebrities actually davening.  Apparently Natalie Portman was star struck in shul and had a hard time concentrating.  Good to know we aren't the only ones.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Will Pew Get More People in the Pews?

If you haven't heard the lastest Jewish community survey news (Major Shift in Identity of US Jews), published by the Pew Research Center and reported heavily by the NY Times and every other news outlet that Jews read, then you know that there is a LOT to talk about. 

As mentioned, this blog is "on hold" so there hasn't been postings of late. Although I am not a big Shmuley Boteach person, I enjoyed his response to the Pew study, published in the times of Israel, suggesting Three Ways to Save American Jewry From Extinction.

Fix the Broken and Boring Synagogue Service 
The overwhelming number of Jews who still step into a Synagogue do so for three days of every year and then swear they will never come back. Sometimes I think we should ban secular Jews from High Holy Day services and shift their attendance instead to Simchas Torah and Purim. But since that’s not going to happen, let’s take the focus off of cantorial recital yodeling, which makes congregants into spectators, shift the teachings away from dry sermons, and focus instead on having services engage the heart and mind. Carlebach-style services that make people sing real spiritual melodies rather than listening to opera is the way to go. Rabbis putting out moral questions between each of the seven readings of the Torah on Saturday mornings is a means by which to influence congregants to apply the lessons of the Torah to their everyday lives, making Judaism relevant rather than aloof. And don’t forget a fantastic Kiddush with fine single malt whisky. Can’t afford it? Build less elaborate buildings and have a more elaborate cholent and sushi.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Is Fasting Passe?

Fasting - is it too modern? Are we too weak? The following was a "prepent" posting from Amichai Lau-Lavie that I believe is a great argument for why we need to master our appetites to gain spiritual heights.
I’m starting a week-long raw food cleanse today, along with my friend and collaborator Shira Kline. it’s our second time doing this during the week leading from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. With lots of juices and fresh fruits and vegetables, we approach atonement with a focus on discipline and an energetic shift. 
It’s not a religious thing, but is it? 
It so happens that today is a minor Jewish fast day, the Fast of Gedalya, which is usually observed the day after Rosh Hashanah, but since this year the day after Rosh Hashanah was Shabbat, the fast was postponed a day. 
For me, the cleansing of the mind and the soul begins with the body. Many religions incorporate ritual fasting, but regardless of what God you pray to, the human body is the same. Fasting is an exercise in willpower, a way to balance brain and body. Fasting today is also great practice for Yom Kippur. 
Prepent Day 32: Focus on the spiritual, and on my relationship to faith and with God. These days remind me that God is in the body, that the temple is within, and that the ancient rites of sacrifice are a practice in learning limits and cultivating greater intimacy with the self. The spiritual work is in the simple daily acts. 
Emerson wrote, ”My days are made up of the irregular succession of a very few different tones of feeling. These are my feasts & fasts.” 
In that spirit, I dedicate today to increasing consciousness about eating and drinking. Even if you don’t fast today (many don’t), take a few minutes to think about your diet, when and how you eat, and one doable goal for this coming year that will nourish both the body and soul.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Were Your Services Dull?

How often did you look at your watch during shul or count the pages to the end?  Here is a nice article from Tablet Mag on "High Holiday Services Are Boring. Here’s How We Can Fix Them" by Abigail Pogrebin.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Best Pre-Rosh Hashana Read

Tis' the season to think about your prayers.  Some are writing about dangerous prayers. I reread “I, and Not an Angel” is an article originally published by Shlomo (Miles) Brody in 2012 on the subject of Intercessionary Prayers in Judaism which he opens with the following disclaimer:
"Warning: The Following Prayer May Be Dangerous to Your Spiritual Health.  Recite with Caution, and Only with the Proper Intention."
It gave me good thoughts and kavanna for my High Holy days.  As did Brody's other article titled Theological Truths vs. Spiritual Vibes: Nigunim, Heresy, and Machnisei Rachamim.

What are you reading this week?  Wishing each of you a heartfull Rosh Hashanah and may all your prayers be answered for the good.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Getting Selichot

My apologies for not sharing or publishing more often, but the blog as been unofficially been put "on hold" and I hope to have more clarity of the future of this resource in the new Jewish Year (if you like or feel strongly about this blog, please feel free to comment and/or share so that I can pass on the feedback).

However I did not want to miss the opportunity to share a wonderful perspective on selichot - which begin for Ashkanzim tonight, the motzai Shabbat before Rosh Hashana. Rabbi Benny Lau made a fascinating point this evening about the uniqueness of the selichot service.

There are specific rules governing tefilla, which often call upon a rabbi or gabbai to arbitrate what should be said under specific circumstances.  One such questions arises regarding the kaddish titkabel - the full kaddish. Rav Benny noted that this is only said after davening the Amidah - which the gemara really considers tefilla.  Interestingly, kaddish titkabel is said at the end of the selichot service, despite the very absence of the Amidah.  His argument was that we are to treat this service with the similar level of preparation and intensity, as the structural hope of the kaddish asks for Hashem to receive (titkabel) the requests and prayers, and follows with our desire for peace to come upon us and all of Israel.  Rav Benny cited a source (I think the Levush Malchut) arguing that selichot are structured like a normal mincha service, starting with ashrei, followed but a hatzi kaddish, and ending with tachanun and then kaddish titkabel. The motivational goal here is for each of us to reapproach our selcihot to the core text, the 13 attributes and to see them as an opportunity to a recharge our divine sparks.

I want to humbly add on to Rav Benny's words by noting that the essence of Neilla on Yom Kippur is the furious recitation of selichot and our plea's for mercy rooted in the heritage of the covenant of the 13 attributes as the gates of the day close.

I hope that you have a meaningful preparation for the High Holy Days.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Teaching Decorum or Davening?

The following was shared from a reader about their synagogue's latest attempt to change the atmosphere of the shul.  It will be interesting to see what will be the next quick fix - as discussed, Dr. Levitz does identify this as one of the less successful attempts to break the "cycle of rebuke, resistance, and resentment".  What are your thoughts?
As you know, we've been considering ways to improve decorum in the Main Minyan. One area of concern is the disruption caused by adults and children coming in and out of the sanctuary during Torah reading and the Rabbi's drasha.

To address this issue, starting this Shabbat, we are going to lock three of the four outer central doors of the sanctuary (on the main level)  during Torah reading and the drasha. The doors will be locked from the outside only. The doors to the balcony will remain unlocked at all times.

During Torah reading and the drasha, the outer door on the far right (leading to the Main Sanctuary vestibule) will remain unlocked. The inner side door will be monitored by a volunteer who will permit adults and children to enter at breaks in the Torah reading and will let adults in at appropriate points in the drasha. Children will not be allowed to enter at any time during the drasha, so if your child is able to sit quietly during the drasha, please have him or her in the sanctuary before it begins. It is important that children understand this new practice and we ask that you explain the guidelines to your children.

Members who need to step out can of course do so at any time and are asked to use the door on the right as well.

We would appreciate male volunteers to help us monitor the side door. The volunteer will sit inside the sanctuary and will therefore not miss either laining or the drasha

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Mazal Tov on Your New Mitzvah

The following is a thank you note to a friend who invited me to be there when he put on his tefillin for the first time.  I know H's awesome parents gave it a lot of thought and hope that he will embrace the spirit and actions of our tradition - I think today was a great first step. 

Dear H - 
Thanks so much for inviting me to join in your minyan this morning, witnessing the first time you wrapped tefillin.  I think it is a nice idea to have some practice time before your formal bar-mitzvah to get used to the leather as it is a sometimes difficult .  
After we concluded davening and had some yummy muffins and smoothies, I was biking home and remembered the first time I put on tefillin; the awkward way it wrapped so largely around my hand yet the comforting feeling of having my Dad teaching me how "we do it".  But my story took a twist and I rarely used my tefillin except at camp and on a few random events or mornings.  That is until my first year of college, and I am proud to say that I haven't missed a day since.   
Don't get me wrong H - I am not trying to obligate or motivate you to wrap every morning. The reason my tefillin streak is 19 years strong is that there was a day I chose one mitzvah to do perfectly.  I remember learning, hearing or reading somewhere, that each person should choose one mitzvah and do it in an exemplary way (not a radom one like sending away the mother bird).  By choosing one everyday act that no matter what, rain or shine, good mood or bad, you will keep that custom alive and imbue it with meaning it will guide you in the years to come. I chose tefillin for many reasons (happy to share in person) - but hope that as you become 'of age' to do mitzvot, you will ponder and acquire one specific mitzvah that will be your hallmark. (funny that I know see that this is Chabad's advice for a bar-mitzvah project!) 
I look forward to sharing many good times (and muffins) together in the future.  Good luck tomorrow with the wrapping!

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Don't Repent - Prepent!

Lab/Shul and TabletMag are launching a new Elul blog - calling it Prepent 5774. I encourage you to check it out and share your feedback.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Don't Forget to Add...

A warm wish to all the readers of the blog, Hodesh Tov - may this the last month of the Jewish year bring you a culmination of your efforts and tefillot! I hope that you didn't miss the 'world day of tefilla" that I read about in The Yeshiva World News.

More important, don't forget to add 'L'David' - psalm 27 to your tefillot. To the Sephardic readers, may your selichot be received!

Monday, August 5, 2013

Davening with Annoying People

A loyal reader of the blog approached me with interesting davening dilemma. He has stopped going to his regular minyan, to the point that the rabbi of the shul called to see if everything was OK.  The reason he switched his prayer local was solely because of a particular worshiper who mutters loudly throughout the tefilla. Citing the ongoing disruption, his seemingly need to draw attention to himself - the personal atmosphere became too much for this fellow to tolerate so he switched minyanim.

Haven't we all experienced this at one time or another.

I had the pleasure of living in a one minyan town, to which there are many beautiful advantages.  However, there was an unfortunate streak of deaths spread out 10 months apart that led to the morning tefilla consistently being led by the most tone-deaf, Hebrew illiterate mumblers for a good few years.  It was painful - dentist office painful.  I was able to find an antidote from quitting the minyan from the Ramban's famous letter to his son:
Therefore, I will now explain to you how to always behave humbly. Speak gently at all times, with your head bowed, your eyes looking down to the ground and your heart focusing on Hashem. Don't look at the face of the person to whom you are speaking. Consider everyone as greater than yourself. If he is wise or rich, you should give him respect. If he is poor and you are richer -- or wiser -- than he, consider yourself to be more guilty than he, and that he is more worthy than you, since when he sins it is through error, while yours is deliberate and you should know better!
I found a way to see these daveners as making a significant contribution to the tefilla, and humbled myself before their off key nusach.  Right before Kol Nidre on Yom Kippur we recite a permission, a public calling out of a policy to daven with sinners.  "Al Daat HaMakom" may have entered the traditional mahzor after the Spanish inquisition and the prevalence of crypto-Jews.  However I think it is refreshingly honest of us to recognize that although we are striving for purity and perfection on the holiest of days, we are also among wanton sinners, annoying people, and stiff-necked ideologies. How to pray with annoying people?  It's easier said then done. I guess the first step is to ask yourself if you are that person and be the change you want to daven next to in this world.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Learn to Daven - Online!

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, on the Ramaz website, offers significant resources on "How to Daven as a Ba'al Tefilla".

Another great internet resource for teaching practical tefilla skills is the Machon Hadar Minyan Project which has handouts, resources and niggunim (melodies and much more!).

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Four Aspects of Tefilla that Must be Taught

For those YET to join the lookjed forum, the following is a response to last week's query by Rabbi Tavi Koslowe who asked for 'Tiered Tefilla Options'.  This was written by David Devoran:
          Here is a recipe for meeting the challenge that you presented. It is not something you can do overnight. Nevertheless, it is something that will have a long term affect of Davening in your school and in your community. (If I've made similar points before on the list, I apologize in advance.) 
          It probably does not come as a surprise to hear that there are four aspects to Tefilah that must be taught. They are: 
  •  The meaning of the Tefilah texts. This includes translating the words for those who are not native Hebrew speakers, but much much more. This does include making sense out of the structure of the Tefilot and understanding each section as a whole unit.
  • šThe laws – Halachot – of Tefilah. It is crucial to teach these Halachot the way all Halacha should be taught: A. The establishment of the principles on which the laws are based. B. The individual laws – with an emphasis on the practical application.
  • šThe proper environment for Tefilah. If you want to grow a plant, you must have the right pot, filled with the proper amount of soil. The appropriate nutrients must be added regularly. The plant must be watered at regular intervals. The same rules apply to Tefilah.
  •  The fourth aspect of Tefilah is the experiential one. How are we to experience praying? What are we supposed to feel?
          You do not need me to explain or offer advice regarding the teaching of the meaning of the Tefilot or about teaching the Halachot of Tefilah. If I’m wrong, please correct me and I’ll throw my two cents in about those subjects as well. On the other hand, the third and fourth aspects are worth a word or two.
          The right pot for growing Tefilah is a good strong Jewish community. The pot has to include a community that is Shomer Mitzvot, a community that actively encourages Mitzvah observance. The pot also includes a home where Mitzvah observance is important and Jewish values are actively taught. 
          The proper soil is the Minyan. To prayer properly – with Kavanah, etc. – requires the proper milieu: A Minyan – big or small – of people who are serious about their Tefilah, who come to Shul to Daven not to socialize, who Daven with enthusiasm and concentration. 
          From time to time, the soil must be watered. The student should see on Shabbat and especially on the Chagim that an extra effort is put into the Tefilah, namely the communal singing and the greater effort invested in Davening with Kavanah. This is what Chazal meant when they said, “We do not stand up to pray (Shemonah Esray) out of sadness, or laziness, or laughter, or idle speech, or light headedness, or wasteful talk. Rather, [we stand up to pray] only through the joy of doing a Mitzvah” (Berachot 31a).

          This third aspect of teaching prayer is often ignored. And as a result, the teachers and the “school” complain that the kids don’t want to Daven and that they are not interested in Davening. Do they see their fathers and mothers Davening with Kavanah? Where do they Daven on Shabbat? What is the Davening like in their neighborhood Shul? Do the people socialize during the prayers or do they “really” Daven? If the pot and the soil are “bad” ( I apologize for the sharp word) and the proper nutrients are not provided, then how can we expect our students to pray with enthusiasm, with seriousness and with Kavanah? 
          How do you change the environment? It is not easy. But it can be done. Form a Sunday morning Minyan of fathers and sons. Talk to those who attend. Before Davening begins, take no more than five minutes and explain what you want to accomplish. Set out the ground rules clearly. Each week teach something new that relates to “how” to Daven, not the meaning of the words or the Halacha. Rather, teach then something to do that will enhance the experience of the Tefilah. Explain that Rome wasn’t built in a day and that it takes time to improve the experience of Tefilah. 
          Once you have something going, then you need to select those fathers and sons who are beginning to Daven more seriously and to go to them personally and ask them to help form a Shabbat morning Minyan. To prevent this as being viewed as a breakaway from the main Shul, you need to get the Shul Rabbi’s permission – again explaining to him the purpose, which is to make people more serious about their praying. Explain, that over time, these parents and children will be rejoining the regular Shabbat Minyan. 
          This Shabbat morning Minyan should be run just like the Sunday morning one. The first rule is that everyone must come “basically” on time (within 10-15 minutes of the announced starting time). Each week, the first five minutes are devoted to learning a new way to enhance the performance of the Tefilah. 
          Only after this Minyan meets for a month or two and builds a strong prayer environment – no talking, serious concentration, enthusiastic singing – do you begin to invite others, fathers and sons and mothers and daughters (who can be included in the Sunday program as well), to join. Once again, those “new” participants must be spoken to before coming. They must be primed and be ready to play by the rules. Over time, all of the students and their parents can be added. 
          Slowly but surely, you will create a proper prayer environment at school. Invite the parents who participate on Sundays to join the daily Minyan in school. All they have to do is come and Daven with the same intensity and concentration they use on Sundays. These adults will become the living models that are sorely needed. Ultimately the growing cadre of parents and children who discover what Tefilah is really about will change the nature of the Minyan in Shul and in the school. 
          If you succeed on this level, then you will discover that the students will be more open to learning about prayer. A person will only show true interest in learning something that they value. (Yes, kids learn to get good grades and to get into a good college – but that motivation is extrinsic.) This is particularly true about Torah, for Torah and Mitzvot require intrinsic motivation.

          Now we can move to the next level. Our Day Schools and Yeshivot – on all grade levels, including post high school levels – do not teach the “experience” of Mitzvot. We teach our students the laws of prayer. They know which prayer comes before which and when to stand and when to bow. We teach them the meaning of the words. But we do not teach them what they should feel when they say the words. We do not expose them to the necessity of having a true spiritual, God experience while prayer or while performing any other Mitzvah. 
          A big part of the problem is that we teachers – along with everyone else – have become spiritually inured or deadened. Like all other modern people, we rarely have a true outpouring of emotion. Only when tragedy strikes, heaven forbid, or on the rare occasion of extreme joy do we actually emote and display our emotions. As a result, we search for emotion in books and TV and movies and rock music. Thus, we learn to feel vicariously. 
          Torah demands that we seek God. God gave us 248 ways – paths – to use to get to Him, to be with Him, to encounter and experience Him. Prayer is one of the more potent paths. (Learning Torah is the most potent and quickest way to encounter God, but that is a different theme that desperately needs to be explored.) 
          So how do we teach “experience”? We don’t. You cannot tell someone how to feel. But the Torah commands us to love God! You ask. Yes, but as Reb Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl explains, we naturally learn how to love another person. We love our parents or a brother. Then we learn to love a spouse. From the Torah’s perspective, this is just laying the groundwork to loving God. If you know what it is to love your wife then you will understand what it takes to love God. 
          This is why the third aspect – the proper prayer environment – is so important. 
          What we can teach is what tools to use to achieve the moment of oneness and encounter with God. Interestingly enough, this is truly what Halacha is all about. Halacha is not law in a secular sense. Halacha is the means for going from point A to point B. “Halacha” from Lalechet, to go or to walk. Thus, Halacha is really a set of tools that a Jew is to use to function as a true Tzelem Elokim in this world and to reach out and encounter God while living in this world. Once this is realized and understood, then one’s perspective regarding Halacha changes. 
          A two-part guide to teaching “Strategies and Tactics in Improving the Experience of Prayer” can be found on my web site: site is devoted to Divray Torah and everything in freely accessible. Enjoy.) 
          With those sources in hand you can begin to teach the experience of Tefilah – or how to enhance the experience.

          In the end all four aspects must be present simultaneously. Our students must know what the words mean; they must know the mechanics of Jewish prayer (when do what); they must have a good solid environment for praying; and they must learn how to use the available tools to create the moment of God encounter.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Honesty & Davening - Don't Fade Away

Perhaps you have seen the recent post by Rabbi Efrem Goldberg on about the "The Most Important Discussions". In his reply a recent online controversy dealing with Biblical criticism in the Orthodox world, Goldberg asks tough meta-questions:
Who sets the agenda of the Jewish community? How should we dedicate our resources, energies, talents, time, and focus? How do we prioritize our collective to-do list? It seems to me that our agenda is being set for us by the media, zealots, and what topics attract the most attention on social media. If we are going to make a dent in fixing the problems in the orthodox Jewish community, we cannot simply have a reactive agenda, but we must articulate a proactive one that includes areas that may not seem urgent, but yet are critically important.
He rattles off a list of important alternate conversations that should be had in our faculty lounges, Shabbat tables, and community meetings.  But what I found interesting is the following comment:
But let’s be honest. How many Jews do you know who stopped keeping Shabbos, began eating non-kosher, or entered a relationship with a non-Jewish woman because they couldn't reconcile the authorship of Exodus and Deuteronomy? It seems to me many more are walking away because of the issues that we are not discussing broadly. 
I was listening to the Grateful Dead classic "Not Fade Away" and this point really struck me to the core.

Written by Buddy Holly, here is a selection of the not so complex lyrics:
I wanna tell you how it's gonna be
You're gonna give your love to me
Love that lasts more than one day
Well love is love and not fade away
Well love is love and not fade away
Permit me this leap.  The concept of the song is that the love and energy should not fade away. What afterall is the option for love?  Either a person could continue to love strong or to choose to stop loving; for most people I think there is a third option and common reality - that feeling fades away (cue another great song, The Thrill is Gone). Our job as educators, parents, teachers and individuals is to inspire our students and children to keep the spark alive and on fire - to make the world a better place and sanctify the Creator's name.  My fear is that the love fades when students leave school and educational frameworks.  Rabbi Goldberg's push to abandon a reactive agenda and focus energies on what is critically important is a call to action.  I humbly argue that the 'Not Fade Away' notion is the agency of davening - to be screaming like Mikey Hart and Jerry Garcia - that we won't silently disappear, but with joy and song show our deivkut, clingingness to the cause of Judaism.  It is wonderful to see more rabbis and leaders standing up to confront the hard issues we face.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Novelty of Prayer

Recently I was reading AJ Jacob's book "A Year of Living Biblically" - the premise of his book is worthy of reflection for most educators who want to explore religious experiential learning.  I wanted to share the following excerpt for it's honesty and relevance:
Day 169. I've taken a step backward again, spiritually speaking. My faith is fragile. Little things jolt me back to pure agnosticism. All that talk of red heifers and pigeons - that did it.  As will a story about a suicide bomber, which reminds me of religion's dark side.  Or even a quote like the one from the philosopher interviews in the New York Times, in which he said that ethical monotheism is the single worst idea that humans have come up with. 
If my spiritually could be charted like the NASDAQ, the general trend so far is a gradual rise, but there are many valleys, and I'm in a deep one now.  It's making me lazy.  I forget to put on my fringes, and I tell myself, well, what's the big deal? I'll put them on tomorrow.   
I'm still praying several times a day, but when I do, I'm sying the words with as much feeling as I give to a Taco Bell drive-through order. I often think of this verse in Isaiah where he lashes out against the Israelite hypocrites: 
             Because this people draw near with their mouth
             and honor me with their lips,
             while their hearts are far from me,
             and their fear of me is a commandment of men learned by rote. 
That describes me right now.  
I even find myself being skeptical of those times when my heart was near to God in the last few months. Perhaps it was an illusion.  If I prayed to Apollo every day, would I start to feel a connection to Apollo?  And what if I'm drawn to spirituality simply because I'm bored of the dry, dusty, rational mind-sey that I've had these many years? I get bored easily.  I can't sit through a sequel to a movie because I'm already tired of the characters. Maybe spirituality attracts me for it novelty factor. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Is it OK to Talk during Davening?

The following is a long and in-depth looking into why people talk during davening.  Written by Irving N. Levitz PhD, it is titled: Talking During Tefilla: Understanding the Phenomenon?  I do NOT recommend that you discuss it during shul (sort of creates a paradox) but it is definitely a worthwhile read.

The author thoroughly covers the factors that lead to ongoing chatter in shul despite the obvious prohibition - I anecdotal have noticed a direct correlation between shuls that have "no talking" signs prominently displayed the higher amount of chit-chat during the tefilla.

While I mostly agree with the proposed steps to change the atmosphere of davening in shuls, I think there is a significant lack of rigor or desire exists to implement them.  I also fear that the author agrees with me; note the final sentence:
For those who believe that the Final Redemption is dependent on halachic standards of communal prayer, redemption itself may have to wait until the collective conscience of the Orthodox community can be awakened to feel a discomfort with the current norm, and a determination to change it.
 I will be thinking of this article every friday night when we chant:
הִתְעורְרִי הִתְעורְרִי 
כִּי בָא אורֵךְ קוּמִי אורִי 
עוּרִי עוּרִי שִׁיר דַּבֵּרִי 
כְּבוד ה' עָלַיִךְ נִגְלָּהּ 

Rouse yourselves, Rouse yourselves
Your light is coming, ruse up and shine
Awaken! Awaken! Utter a song
The glory of Hashem is revealed upon you

Monday, July 22, 2013

Why Don't we Pray for Happiness?

It's a good question and one that I never noticed much about before.  Except for on the High Holy Days, when we say "Simcha b'Artzeka" asking for 'Happiness in our land', there aren't too many places in the siddur where our tefilla requests happiness.

Someone on Mi Yodeya asked the same question and there are several good opinionated answers there, including one that points to the special nature of Yom Tov that has a joyous element to it.

To this point, I once heard a great idea by Nechemia Coopersmith who asked, what is the opposite of happiness?  Most people immediately suggested pain or negativity as paradoxical emotions.  I remember, now 15 years since I heard this, how he eloquently argued the natural opposite of happiness is the inability to feel anything, total numbness.  A marathon athlete or anyone who has a drive or passion for a sport or activity pushes through a difficult period of pain, frustration and negativity.  This is a (healthy) part of the process to growth and the exultation of happiness upon crossing the finish line or succeeding to launch a venture is the highest of emotions.  Having no feelings is to miss out on emotion, the highs and lows, and to be indifferent to the context and climate around you - a very scary reality.

Perhaps this is why our tefilla exclude a notion of happiness.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Tiered Tefilla Options

The following was posted on Lookjed on July 15th asking an important question of educators to reapproach how davening happens in schools.  Please share your experiences and ideas:
As an administrator in a middle school, I am sure I share a passion and concern with many others to consider new options that might help engender a more interested and involved connection for our students to have during Tefillah. While individual programs, speakers and Yemei Iyun have certainly brought about short term interest, I am eager to touch base with anyone who has seen or used an approach that has brought about a more sustained and inherent growth, relative to what they had previously observed.  
In our school, we are currently considering offering three tiers of Tefillah options. One would be designed for those students who feel most ready and capable of being self-motivated throughout Tefillah. Perhaps there would be 1 teacher on each side of the Mechitza to facilitate, but the students would really run the Minyan. A 2nd option would be for the group of ms students who benefit from reminders to open their siddur, not to have side conversations etc. This group would benefit from the largest presence of teachers. A 3rd option would be for those students that have real difficulty or disinterest in the concept of Tefillah and would possibly benefit from a shortened Tefillah enhanced with more discussions, readings, etc.
If anyone has tried a similar approach and could help guide our attempt by sharing your successes or challenges met, I would greatly appreciate it.  
Tavi Koslowe

Thursday, July 18, 2013


Sometimes a word or nickname becomes synonymous with an object and a part of our traditional practice. A great example of this in the Jewish world is a shviti - a meditative plaque usually placed in front of the shaliach tzibur in a synagogue.
Some siddurim have them on inside cover as an place for inspiration or direction and despite the variety of the verses or text on a page, they all have the verse from Psalms 16:8 - "I have set (shiviti) the Lord always before me".

Today I'd like to offer a similar conceptual leap to share a 'sefati' - from the verse that opens every davening:
אֲדֹנָי שְׂפָתַי תִּפְתָּח וּפִי יַגִּיד תְּהִלָּתֶךָ
 Hashem open my lips and let my mouth declare Your Praise

In reflecting about much of the Jewish political atmosphere around Tisha B'Av I was really reminded about the power of our words.  Two Haredi voices here and here really pointed out how there is a significant element lacking in the language used between religious Jews - urging great caution and care.  With this in mind, and looking forward to the introspective days of Elul and Rosh Hashana (spoiler alert: they are six weeks away), I recommend pausing and asking for some divine help to get the right words out of one's mouth before decrying, criticizing, or even commenting on the public domain.  Perhaps if we had that everpresent feeling that a judge or recorder of all of our thoughts and actions was in our very midst - always before me - we would be more careful to make this world a better place. 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Will there be Animal Sacrifices in the Third Temple?

This is a question my third grader often asks me - I am happy to share Shlomo Brody's response in the Jpost.

Ask The Rabbi: Making a Sacrifice 
Shlomo Brody - Published 16/7/2013
Q:  Can we pray for the rebuilding of the Temple without wanting the restoration of animal sacrifices? Does God really expect us to slaughter animals in the Temple? - H.W., Houston 
A:  When I was an active member of Harvard Hillel, I always found it interesting to compare the various prayer books of the groups that prayed in the same building. Flipping through them, one could see that the answer to your question might depend on what siddur you use, as the denominations sharply disagree over the potential abrogation of animal sacrifices in the messianic era. In the 19th century, Reform siddurim excised all references to the Temple and sacrifices, deeming them primitive and uncouth for their progressive temples (modern synagogues). Recent Conservative siddurim have also omitted prayers to restore sacrifices, although many allude to them (in the past tense) within prayers for the rebuilding of the Temple. Orthodox Jews, on the other hand, continue to pray in numerous contexts for the complete restoration of the Temple service. This debate relates to a larger question regarding the abrogation of biblical mitzvot in the messianic era. In his 13 Principles of Faith, Maimonides (12th century, Spain/Egypt) interpreted the Torah's prohibition of adding or subtracting commandments (Deuteronomy 4:2) to mean that following Sinai, even a prophet cannot nullify or add to the 613 commandments. In the messianic era, he asserts, Jews will reinstate all dormant mitzvot, including Temple sacrifices (Hilchot Melachim 11:1-3). Maimonides seemingly bases this dogma on a rabbinic assertion that prophets cannot institute new commandments (Sifra Behukotai 8:7) Nonetheless, as Prof. Marc Shapiro has shown, a few scholars challenged this dogma. Maimonides' most important detractors was the esteemed medieval philosopher R. Yosef Albo (Spain, d. 1444). Albo asserted that the Bible merely prohibits adding or subtracting to the details of the commandments, fearing that the changes will stem from foreign influences (Sefer Ha'ikarim 3:14). More fundamentally, he contended that God always retains the power to change the mitzvot, and that a bona fide prophet in the messianic era might one day receive such a declaration (3:19). He further suggested that this is particularly logical with regard to prohibitions, such as the proscription of consuming certain animal fats, whose historical logic has expired (3:16). This notion, shared by R. Ya'acov Emden (18th century, Germany), echoes earlier rabbinic texts that speak of the nullification of commandments in the messianic era (Nidda 61b, Midrash Tehillim 146). Interestingly, in Guide for the Perplexed, Maimonides stated that God only permitted animal sacrifices because the Israelites could not easily abandon the idolatrous religious culture of Egypt (3:32). Rather than banning them, God regulated the sacrifices, ordaining that they be directed exclusively toward Him and performed under specific circumstances. Comparing them to breast milk that a baby needs before eating on her own, Maimonides implies that the Jewish people will ultimately be weaned from sacrifices toward a different form of worship. This position seems to contradict the above-cited Maimonidean vision of an unchanged Halacha in the messianic era, and scholars have spilled much ink trying to resolve this tension. Moreover, Maimonides was severely criticized by the prominent legalist and exegete Nahmanides (13th century, Spain), who contended that animal sacrifices contain integral value, as seen from the fact that Abel, Noah and Abraham offered sacrifices long before the Israelites descended to Egypt (Leviticus 1:9). Nahmanides further asserted that sacrifices have integral meaning and mystical significance, a position shared by many classic rabbinic figures. Zionism renewed interest in this topic, even as the issue remained entirely theoretical. Though the majority of Orthodox rabbis continue to believe in the restoration of sacrifices in a rebuilt Temple, two prominent religious Zionist rabbis, R. Abraham I. Kook (d. 1935) and R. Haim D. Halevi (d.1998), both asserted that at some point in the messianic era, Jews will only offer sacrifices from grains, but not from animals. This position resonates with a rabbinic dictum that with the exception of the thanksgiving offering, sacrifices will be nullified in the messianic era (Leviticus Rabba 9:7), although this passage has been differently interpreted by others. One less prominent yet fascinating American rabbi, R. Haim Hirschensohn (d. 1935), went further, contending that modern religious Jews will not be able to adapt to the sacrificial culture and that therefore a future Temple will not restore sacrifices. Interestingly, R. Kook himself ostracized R. Hirschensohn, claiming that he was overly influenced by Western thought, and that it was preferable to believe that the complete sacrificial order will be restored (Igrot Hare'iya 4:994). In a separate essay promoting vegetarianism, R. Kook further challenged modern critics of sacrifices for hypocritically failing to abstain from slaughtering animals for their mundane dietary needs. This intricate array of factors makes this a fascinating topic in Judaism's vision for the future of religious worship. 
The writer, editor of, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel and is pursuing a doctorate in Jewish philosophy in Hebrew University.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Don't Pray Today

Excellent post from on why prayer is de-emphasized on Tisha B'av.

A Non-Prayer Day
July 15, 2013

We spend so much time in synagogue on Tisha B’Av yet it is not a day of prayer. As we shall see, we say the minimal amounts of prayer, less than on a regular weekday. Our time is spent mourning, remembering. Prayer is about the future; Tisha B’Av is about the past.

R. Menachem Genack (Birkas Yitzchak Al Ha-Torah, Deut. 1:45) finds a hint to this unique status in the Torah reading that always precedes Tisha B’Av. R. Genack quotes his mentor, R. Joseph B. Soloveitchik, who connected a number of Tisha B’Av rules with an underlying theory. Lamentations (3:8) states:
ותשבו ותבכו לפני ה’ ולא שמע ה’ בקלכם ולא האזין אליכםEven when I cry and shout, He shuts out my prayer.
The final phrase implies that on Tisha B’Av, our ability to pray is limited. Due to the overwhelming sorrow, we are unable to look to the future. We cannot even fathom what we have lost, much less look for a path out of the darkness.

The Beis Yosef (Orach Chaim 559) quotes the Rokei’ach, who cites this verse as an explanation why we do not recite the Tachanun prayers on Tisha B’Av. Of course, we cannot avoid obligatory prayers such as the Amidah but Tachanun is technically optional, even though we say it (almost) every day. On Tisha B’Av, when prayer is out of the spirit of the day, we omit this optional prayer.1

Similarly, on all other fast days we recite Selichos. Why is Tisha B’Av the one fast day on which we skip Selichos? R. Soloveitchik attributed this omission to the same reason, the absence of prayer on this day of mourning.2

Talmudic law requires the addition of an extra prayer service to a fast day. We are accustomed to thinking of Ne’ilah as unique to Yom Kippur but it is supposed to be part of any full fast day. All our other fasts only begin at sunrise and are not complete fasts. But why don’t we recite Ne’ilah on Tisha B’Av? Again, R. Soloveitchik returns to the theme of the cessation of prayer.

And similarly, we do not recite the paragraph Tiskabel in the full Kaddish. That paragraph asks God to accept our prayers. On a day when prayer is shunted, we cannot recite Tiskabel.

While R. Soloveitchik bases his analysis in the scroll of Eikhah, R. Genack sees a hint to this in the Torah. After retelling the story of the Spies and its aftermath, the Torah (Deut. 1:45) describes the Jews’ attempt to forestall their punishment through prayer. “Then you returned and wept before the Lord, but the Lord would not listen to your voice nor pay any attention to you.” The aftermath of the Spies episode, which the Gemara (Ta’anis 29a) tells us continues throughout the generations, includes dismissal of prayers.

On Tisha B’Av, we sit on the floor all morning and try to fathom the magnitude of the disasters we have encountered over the centuries. We spend all year planning for the future, charting our personal and communal paths. But if we are not grounded in our past, if we fail to carry our history with us, we have no rudder to faithfully guide us. All year we pray; today we remember.

Others suggest an entirely different reason for omitting Tachanun: Tisha B’Av is considered a holiday and we do not recite Tachanun on a holiday. 

Elsewhere, R. Soloveitchik connects Selichos to prayers. See Nefesh Ha-Rav, p. 199.  

Monday, July 15, 2013

Minor Questions on a Major Fast Day

Did you use a different tune for the third perek of Eicha?

Did you know about the Nahem controversy?

Other good Tisha B'Av questions and answers - feel free to join that discussion.

Friday, July 12, 2013

A Fancy Copy of Kinot

As it is the season, I have dusted off my copy of Kinot to get ready for Tisha B'Av.  My copy of kinot is old school - all Hebrew, no commentators or pictures; there is barely any punctuation and directions. I personally like it simple.  

Nowadays there are more sophisticated copies of kinot - with Koren publishing one in the teachings of Rabbi Soloveitchik and Rav Neventzal of the Old City publishing his own 'mahzor'.  I am more partial to the cover picture on this edition.   

But the concept of a special mahzor is worth appreciating (as there is a greater trend to specialized siddurim; for shabbat, holidays, or even Yom Ha'atzmaut).  Perhaps kinot are the exception to the rule.  Consider that Rabbi Soloveitchik was reported to teach the following
“There is an old Jewish custom not to collect and put away the Kinot book for next year. I remember this as a child. They did not save the Kinot books for next year but read through them and put them in the shaimos collection to be buried later in the cemetery.  Every Tisha B’Av they would buy new ones. (Of course, the Kinot books were not as expensive as they are now, particularly those with commentaries and translations.)  But the old custom was to buy new Kinot booklets every year. After all, after this year we will no longer need them.”

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Capture that Moment

Laura Ben David snapped this amazing photo as a subject for Holy/Sacred:

What would you add as the caption?

Monday, July 8, 2013

3 Weeks of What?

There are lot of Jews whose sense of Jewish identity was created or strengthened in Jewish summer camp.  While I am one to call them Jew-topic, I myself am a product of the Jewish camping experience.  One of the more ironic aspects of camp is that aside from the 8 shabbatot in summer, the 'three weeks' and tisha b'av are the only holidays to teach and celebrate - so they really do them well.

However I think is important to re-approach how we look at the period 'Between the Straits' - the mourning and customs that surround this propitious time in Jewish History.  For example, one of the common customs is not to eat meet during the 9 days of Av.  This minhag is grounded in two principles:

  • The loss of the Temple sacrifices - most of the sacrifices where of animals and to remind ourselves of the loss of this service (the tamid) we refrain from eating meat and even from wine (libation offerings).
  • Meat = Joy - sorry vegans and vegetarians, but many rabbis associate meat eating with Joy; thus with the loss of the Beit HaMikdash, we show our mourning by not eating meat, drinking wine, and wearing new clothes. 
An interesting point to ponder here is that on Shabbat one is permitted to eat, drink and be merry.  The imposed restrictions on wine and meat are lifted for the weekly day of rest.  It is commonly thought that these permissions stem from the ban on public mourning on shabbat (which even applies to an official mourner, someone in the first seven days after the death of an immediate relative or spouse).  I discovered a fantastic comment by the Netivot Sholom - Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky - who offers us a proper re-approach to this special time period.

The point of the Beit HaMikdash was a direct divine earthly connection - a place for people to draw physically closer to God.  Thus the destruction of this house is a great tragedy and loss - worthy of two thousand years of tears.  The Netivot Sholom notes that the point of Shabbat is a day of the week that one can draw spiritually closer to God, and the core of creation.  Hereby Shabbat and the Beit HaMikdash offer the same divine connectivity, one in time the other in space.  With this metaphysical thinking, one does not feel the loss of the Temple on Shabbat - because you have that closeness manifested, and thereby can eat meat and drink wine.  On shabbat we have nothing to mourn -> for what we are mourning on Tisha B'Av is a loss of Godly intimacy and spiritual power that is inherently a part of the day of rest.  So be careful and thoughtful for what you are mourning this summer - whether you are at camp or working through the long summer days.  

Friday, June 28, 2013

How Do You Keep Your Torch Lit?

You might have heard this fable/story before - it is a classic - here retold by YU's President Richard Joel at the General Assembly ELI Talks.  President Joel brings home the point to how this can/should effect your davening.  Well worth the 13 minutes.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Choose One Mitzvah & Make it Your Special One

The following was shared by Benji Levin - a great educator at Gesher.  He shared this story about a lesson he learned from the renowned Reb Aryeh Levin. Aside from the wonderful inspirational story - I share this on today's fast day to serve as a reminder that the very little things we do can make a strong impact to heal society.  Further, it is a very powerful lesson, for each of us to choose one specific mitzvah to do perfectly and with style - to leave a legacy and to help others.

In the summer of 1970, I was studying in a yeshiva in Jerusalem. My parents had come back to Israel after living in the States for thirty years. My father was serving as the rabbi of a town called Pardes Hanna, near the Coastal Road, not far from Caesaria.

One Friday morning as I got on the bus in Jerusalem to spend the Shabbat with my family, someone called to me, “Hey, Benji! Did you see the Yediot newspaper today? There are wonderful stories about your grandfather.”

My grandfather, Reb Aryeh Levin, was known as the “Tzaddik of Jerusalem.” He was one of modern Israel's most saintly and beloved icons, known for his great acts of kindness as he tended to prisoners, lepers, the meek and the downtrodden. He passed away in Jerusalem in 1969—a legend in his time.

When I changed buses in Tel Aviv, I bought a copy of the weekend newspaper and read the article about my grandfather. There were stories of how he would always escort people on the streets of Jerusalem. Many famous people spoke about their visits with him in his simple, little room in downtown Jerusalem, on the street that today bears his name. They all mentioned how he would escort them to the main road when they took leave of him, quoting to them from Maimonides on the importance of this mitzvah.

Later at the Shabbat meal at my parents’ house, I asked my father, “Where did your father, Reb Aryeh, learn to fulfill this mitzvah?”

“Well,” my father said, “Reb Aryeh was a great scholar in his own right, and he knew of this mitzvah, but there is a story attached to it.”

Reb Aryeh was known throughout Israel as “The Father of the Prisoners,” because he tended to young men and women who were incarcerated or were fighting to free Palestine from British rule and declare an independent Jewish state. Many of these young boys who were sentenced to the gallows asked for him to be with them at their last moments.

“One Friday morning,” my father said, “Reb Aryeh visited a prison outside of Jerusalem. There in a cell sat a man imprisoned for a daring raid against the British. This man had heard that Reb Aryeh was visiting the prison and asked to speak to the rabbi. Even the British had great respect for Reb Aryeh and granted the prisoner’s request.

“The man said to Reb Aryeh, ‘My wife and I both lost our families in the Holocaust. We met in Cyprus on our way to Israel. We married and had a child, and now we live in Jerusalem. My friends in the under-ground are afraid to visit my wife because they fear they may be caught by the British. Rabbi, please visit my wife and tell her you saw me. Tell her I’m OK.’

“Reb Aryeh took the address and promised to relay the message, if at all possible.

“He went back to Jerusalem and set out to find the prisoner’s wife. It was getting close to Shabbat, and he couldn't find the address. People were in their homes preparing for Shabbat. As he walked by a small street, Reb Aryeh saw a woman in a window preparing the Shabbat meal. He asked her if she knew the place he was seeking.

“She said, ‘Please wait a moment.’

“She took off her apron, walked outside, and said, ‘Please follow me.’

“She led him through the street to a small house and said, ‘This is the place!’

“‘Why did you have to come all this way?’ asked Reb Aryeh. ‘You must be in a hurry before Shabbat. You could have simply given me directions.’

“Oh, I thought about doing that,’ she said, ‘but then I remembered that this is my special mitzvah.’

“‘What do you mean?’ asked Reb Aryeh.

“‘My father was a very pious man,’ she said. ‘Before he passed away, he called me and my siblings to his bedside and said, “What do people take with them when they leave this world? Their honor, money, position, status? No! The only thing they take with them are the good deeds they performed during their lifetime.’”

“‘My father said to each of us, “Of all the mitzvahs you perform, choose one mitzvah and make it your special one. Whenever the opportunity comes along to perform this mitzvah, however difficult it may be, do it in its entirety.” My father then helped me choose my mitzvah of escorting a person on their way.

“‘When you approached me today I said, “This is my special mitzvah I’m going to perform it in its entirety.”’

“Reb Aryeh thanked the young woman. He visited the prisoner’s wife and brought her regards from her husband in jail. When Reb Aryeh came home just before candle lighting he wrote in his little notebook: ‘Today I learned from a young woman the importance of fulfilling this commandment, and from today on, I’m going to be careful to always perform this mitzvah.’”

When I heard this story, I said, “Wow! What a beautiful mitzvah.” There and then I decided to make this mitzvah mine as well.Saturday night I went back to Jerusalem. Two days later, on Monday night, I was walking in the street in the early evening when I noticed an elderly man across the road, walking back and forth as if he had lost something.

I crossed the street and said, “Excuse me. I couldn't help noticing you walking back and forth. Did you lose something?”

“Well, actually,” he said, “I got a little confused here in the dark. I’m looking for Portzim Street.”
I said to myself, “God, I promised two days ago to make this mitzvah of escorting another person mine. God, are you testing me already?”

“Come,” I said to the old man. “Let me perform the mitzvah of escorting you.”

I brought him to the street—to the house he sought—and said: “Here it is! Shalom!”

“Just a minute,” he said. “Why did you stop and ask me if I’m looking for something? Why did you escort me? Young people don’t do these things today.”

“Well, I probably wouldn't have done this,” I said, “but my grandfather used to do this.”

“Who was your grandfather?”

“Oh, you wouldn't know,” I said.

“What was his name?”

“Levin,” I said.

“Which Levin?”

“Aryeh Levin.”

“The famous tzaddik, Reb Aryeh Levin?” he asked.

“Yes,” I replied.

The old man took hold of the lapels on my jacket and started to cry. I saw the tears roll down his cheeks, and I was at a total loss of what to do.

I waited.

Finally, he looked up at me and said: “Do you know who I am?”

“No,” I replied, “I never had the pleasure.”

“My name is Menachem Ro-iy,” he said.“I am a reporter for Yediot. Last week I wrote a number of stories about how your grandfather would escort people on the streets of Jerusalem. And here a few days later, I lose my way and who escorts me? None other than Reb Aryeh’s own grandson.”

I looked at the old man and said, “And do you know why? Because Reb Aryeh’s grandson read your stories and learned how important and beautiful it is to escort another person on his or her way.”

Provenance Note: This is a true story that happened to me regarding this mitzvah in the summer of 1970, in Jerusalem.

A Teacher's Worst Fear?

I recently read this well written article by Ari Margolies in TabletMag titled Taking Off My Tefillin.

It is honest and telling of the inner workings of a struggling young man with faith (who will probably go on to be a fine journalist/author).  There is currently a honest and somewhat snarky conversation on Lookjed on Yeshiva Education and Long Term Observance which raises the perspective of parents, teachers, and administrators.

One comment worth sharing from Avi Billet:
I've noted for many years that yeshiva high schools like to boast where their graduates are either accepted or go to university. I'd be interested to see a five-year follow-up boast of how many of those kids still consider themselves observant. I am sure the numbers will not be even close to even. 
As educators, how do we share a long term spiritual mission in digestible and mundane pedagogical encounters.  The school year has ended or is wrapping up this week, but let's face the hard questions - how do we measure our successes and failures?  

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Paratrooper's Traveling Prayer

Apparently, the IDF's paratroopers have their on form of Tefilat HaDerech - the traveler's prayer.  As reported by the facebook group 1000 Cool Things about Living in Israel  it includes "may we parachute b'shalom", "may we get to our destination b'shalom" and "spread your sukka of peace", an allusion to the spreading out of the parachute itself.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Jews Arrested for Prayer?!?

There has been a lot of talk the past few weeks about Jews and illegal prayers - this time the headline sated Jews Arrested for Temple Mount Prayer. It just isn't going well for davening in the Old City.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Fitting In vs Standing Out

I think that one of the common experiences for most people going to a synagogue is that they really want to find a comfortable spot to settle in. It is interesting to observed that atmosphere of a shul is one that there are not so many opportunities to draw attention; having an aliyah is a way of being honored, giving a dvar Torah or announcements clearly sticks out, otherwise the main characters standing out and performing are the ones leading the service.

The Rambam, in his Mishne Torah Book of Service, explores the many features or defects that disqualify a kohen from serving in the Temple.  The list is long - from deformed limbs to drippy eyes to chronic depression.  Learning through this extensive list of (dis)qualifications I came to better understand the meta-goal of such restrictions. The performance of the Temple was to be perpetual and perfect and not defined by personality. Regardless of who was the kohen, they were to be dressed the same and gesture the same to transcend the individual to represent the community.

It is interesting to compare this approach to the shaliach tzibur, the prayer leader of today.  Occasionally the chazan might be too showy or choose a tune that is out of sync with the congregations mood - but the ideal shaliach tzibur carries the nusach to become swallowed into the moment.  One Rosh Hashanah I was invited to daven with a family minyan - an amazingly intimate tefilla that was family friendly (read: child tolerant).  The shaliach tzibur commented to me during kiddush that it would be otherwise weird for him to invite 20 friends over to his living room for him to sing a selection of songs.  However it was not awkward - his selection of nigunim brought this temporary community together in prayer and blurred the lines between congregant and chazan.  A chazan who is standing out may just be preforming to the wrong audience.

I believe the Rambam's categorization of the "Laws for entering the Temple" offer a stern reminder that we cannot succumb to radical individualism.  Even more so, the inclination of people to be wallflowers at synagogue is normal - rather it is the challenge of the prayer leaders (and educators and rabbis) to arouse the attention and energy of the crowd to the moment.  Fitting in at shul is a skill - one that I think is the key goal for most Jewish educational institutions.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Davening on the Go

I ripped the following story from the 'headlines' - Route 6 Offers Spiritual Pit Stop - but it was not quite what I'd thought it would be about.  The Yeshiva World News flushed out the story more with this article: Israel: A Shul with Derech Eretz. (The managing company of Route 6 is named Derech Eretz).

Best quote and an "only in Israel" moment:
officials also promise to place signs on the highway informing travelers how many kilometers to the next shul in the hope of motorists abandoning the dangerous habit of davening on the shoulders of the highway.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Is This Man the Next Shlomo Carlebach or Debbie Friedman?

The following article appeared in Tablet Mag raising the above question about Joey Weisenberg.  Please read about this 32 year old's mission to change for the better how we pray.  Best quote:
“People desperately want to come out of hibernation,” said Weisenberg, referring to what he sees and hears in so many American shuls. “You feel this deep sleepiness,” he said of those communities.
Please share your thoughts.

Also looking for a person to do a book review.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Who Knows Prayer?

I wanted to share with the readers a solid website called Mi Yodeya - a question and answer site for those that base their "lives on Jewish values and tradition".  Seems to me to be an honest space to ask and share interesting information.

For example a question was asked, "How can we have better kavannah in tefilla? Specifically Tachnuneem?"

The replies were as follows:
How does one have better Kavanah in his Tachnuneem in tefilla? Does he punch his chest harder? Maybe start bawling?
  • I would suggest focusing on the meaning of the words, as opposed to inflicting physical pain. 
  • Chest punching and/or bawling may or may not be effects of better Kavanah, but they aren't causes of it. 
 What advice do the sages give for improving one's concentration in prayer?
Following up on Isaac's question seeking experience-based advice to improve his prayer:, I am seeking something a bit different. I remember reading some advice on the subject given (I think) by Rav Schach, zt'l, that one should from time to time use a different siddur in order to force himself to go through the siddur word for word and concentrate on what he is reading. Can someone point me to published suggestions by other gedolim?
Rabbi Weinberger of Aish Kodesh, speaks at length quite often on the topic of prayer. Most recently, I have been re-listening to his shiurim on Bilvavi Mishkan Evenah. It has reminded me that kavanah does not simply start with the actual act of prayer, it is a life-long quest to continually remind ourselves that Yesh Bo're Olam, there is a Creator of the world, yitbarakh shemo. 
Over the past few days, since I started reviewing Rav Weinberger's shiurim, I have found it quite helpful to remind myself during prayer that every single moment is an act of creation and Hashem Yitbarakh is continually involved with every single moment of existence. Literally, that very moment at which I said the Shema, Hashem Yitbarakh was creating my lungs, lips and brain such that I could utter the words in this physical world. As the Ba'al HaTanya reminds us, "Hashem is very near to you." 
In addition, I once heard by the Gerrer Hasidim a common meditation in prayer was to picture oneself standing before the throne of Hashem Yitbarakh while praying. You literally try to picture yourself standing at the the feet of a massive, universe encompassing throne. You continually remind yourself that you are in fact always standing before Hashem Yitbarakh.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov has an enormous amount to say about this topic. Many of the paragraphs in the chapter on prayer in Likutei Eitzos relate to concentration in prayer:
Some further selections, from Sichos HaRan and other sources, are collected here (The Essential Rabbi Nachman, edited by R' AvrahamGreenbaum):
To summarize briefly, here are some of his pieces of advice:
1) focus on the simple meaning of the words
2) make sure to say the words with sincerity and truth
3) simply push irrelevant thoughts aside, or ignore them
4) try concentrating on a particular part of the service, and eventually exapand the portions of the service which you're able to daven with kavanah (Sichos Haran #75)
5) exercise great determination and firmness in pushing away irrelevant thoughts
6) make sure to pray audibly and to listen carefully to the sound of your voice
7) give charity for causes in the land of Israel
8) study the legal codes daily (see paragraph 55 in Lukutei Eitzos)
9) be prepared to sacrifice yourself for the sanctification of G-d's name
10) search for good points within yourself so you will be happy
11) force yourself to concentrate (paragraph 88, 90)
12) offer hospitality to a Torah scholar (paragraph 67)
13) say the words simply as if you were a little child (paragraph 92)
14) get yourself in a happy mood before you pray (Sichos HaRan #75)
15) pray with a happy tune (Id.)
Rambam, in Mishneh Torah, says the following:
"One should clear his mind from all thoughts and envision himself as standing before the Divine Presence. Therefore, one must sit a short while before praying in order to focus his attention and then pray in a pleasant and supplicatory fashion. 
One should not pray as one carrying a burden who throws it off and walks away. Therefore, one must sit a short while after praying, and then withdraw. 
The pious ones of the previous generations would wait an hour before praying and an hour after praying. They would [also] extend their prayers for an hour."

By "sitting," Rambam presumably means meditating, because the purpose of the sitting is to "clear his mind from all thoughts and envision himself as standing before the Divine Presence." So Rambam seems to be saying that one should meditate on G-d for a while, by visualizing the Shechinah and clearing one's mind of other thoughts, before beginning davening to ensure one davens with kavanah. 
As for other gedolim, I believe the approach of Chabad, as described by the Alter Rebbe in the Tanya, towards achieving kavanah is to meditate on the greatness of G-d before davening. This leads to a great love and awe for G-d, and motivates the meditator to serve Him with enthusiasm and holy intentions.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Will Davening Make You More Productive?

I came across a recent Linkedin article by Ilya Pozin titled 8 Things Productive People Do During the Workday - which I found to be independently fascinating and motivating.  Reading this tip number:
4. Start your day by focusing on yourself. If you begin your morning by checking your email, it allows others to dictate what you accomplish. Set yourself in the right direction by ignoring your emails and taking the morning to focus on yourself, eat a good breakfast, meditate, or read the news.  
I realized this the point of tefilla! Davening is not just to mediate and connect spiritually to your Maker - but to calibrate your self and determine your focus and purpose in life.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

A Diatribe Against the Sad State of Tefilla

Thank you Jewish Press for sharing with us what could be perhaps the greatest modern diatribe against the current state of communal tefilla that I have seen. I really should thank my goggle alerts for picking up Communicated: Tefilla by Moshe Yosef Werzberger (in the Jewish Press's defense, it is paid promotional content).

The caption to this picture stated: "The Tosfos Yomtov was convinced that the death of 300,000 –600,000 Jews during the Chmielnicki massacres of 1648-49 were because of improper Tefila."

If you want to get riled up either about the present neglect of davening or an abusive generalization of God's guidance of our world, read the whole entire article. To tease you, here are some excerpts:

  • The Mishnah Berura in multiple places describes shuls being destroyed or converted into avoda zara because of the public desecration of prayer in shul. (Shuls are not destroyed in a vacuum. Jews suffer greatly when this happens. The yahrtziet of Kristallnacht, which was within 48hrs of Sandy’s New Jersey landfall, was on November 9-10, 1938.
  • The gas chambers were created by Hashem to create a perfect public prayer service, in order to facilitate teshuva for the avaira of Chilul Tefila Bifarhesia. The gas chamber was in reality a shul with all the components of Tefila kihalacha.
  • In order to facilitate a Jewish victory Hashem put in the minds of the Arabs to attack The Jews on Yom Kippur. On that day nearly all Jews in the world are fasting even if they are otherwise not yet observant.
  • We have introduced electronic devices into Hashem’s temples. Their mere presence, as well as their unrestricted use in all modalities, whether silent or audible, whether talking, listening, sending, receiving or surfing, violates our “intimacy “with Hashem.
  • Hashem sent the Monsey butcher as a mida kineged mida. We distanced Hashem from us by ruining tefiloh with our public disregard for the halachikly proper tefiloh. He distanced Himself from us by having us ingest prayer (heart) altering fowl which interferes with our ability to get close to Hashem.
  • We are in a state of denial. We keep pointing to the stats. 90,000 at “The” siyum, 2 million art scroll shasim sold, more people learning than ever before. Incredibly we are saying that the reason for the spiritual paper and brick carnage is to elicit great acts of chesed on behalf of Klal Yisroel Jew to Jew and this will make Hashem happy and bring Moshiach! We are stuck looking at the damage of the current devastation as a final act not as part of a continuum of reflective action on the part of Hashem.
  • By calling it a “smart phone” the yetzer hara tapped into our ego. Who doesn't want to be smart? And look at all the mitzvos I can do with my smart phone. We seduced ourselves to all the benefits of instant contact with anyone in the world at any time. We delude ourselves into thinking that we are in control of our situation and those around us. The smart phone is all the Yetzer Hara wanted it to be.