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.