Monthly Archives: September 2006

Frumkeit, Changes, and Rav Dessler

A recent article titled “Frum or Ehrlich” was written by Dr. Yitzchok Levine. I printed it before Rosh Hashana and over Yom Tov I probably read it four different times. I urge you to take a look at it and give it some thought. I hope to blog about it more in the future. It’s pdf-alicious (yes, this is a term that I use outside of the blogosphere). Here’s a sample:

The Difference Between Frum and Ehrlich
Years ago the highest compliment that one could give to a Jew was not that he or she is frum, but that he or she is ehrlich. The term frum is perhaps best translated as “religious.” More often than not it focuses on the external aspects of observance. It describes a person whose outward appearance and public actions apparently demonstrate a commitment to religious observance. The categorization of someone as being ehrlich, literally “honest,” implies that this person is not only committed to the externalities of
religious observance, but also is concerned about how his or her religious observance impacts upon others. Frumkeit is often primarily concerned only with the mitzvos bein odom laShem (between man and G-d), whereas ehrlichkeit, while certainly concerned with bein odom laShem, also focuses on bein odom l’odom (those mitzvos that govern inter-personal relationships.)

As I’ve read and re-read this article I’ve been thinking about my own behavior at times. During Aseres Yemei Teshuvah I’m pretty hardcore about changing a lot of things. In the end, I usually end up changing very little. What small things that I attempt to change usually end up happening after Yom Kippur. During the days before Yom Kippur and certainly afterwards we all try to be a little better. Some of us stay on target, others, like myself, fall short.

I attempt to: watch less TV, start attending a new shiur, stop staying up late for blogging-related-activites, be more productive at home, show my kids that what they have to say is of the upmost importance to me, listen to my wife more, let my kids be ‘kids’ and not prototypes for some sort of midos-management-utopian-ideal-Invasion of the Body Snatchers-chinuch manifesto that I have cooking in my head like a chulent gone bad. As I look back over the past week, I really didn’t get too far.
But with any change in myself I run the risk of appearing to some as ‘to frum’ at the possible expense of not being ‘ehrlich’. There will always be those that will point out behavioral inconstanties in our actions and say, “You think you’re frummer than everyone else” or “You didn’t act this way during Elul, why change now”. More often than not, it’s not people who say this to us, but what we tell ourselves or what our Yetzer Hara tells us.

Sefer Hachinuch says something amazing, that man is molded by his actions (found in Mitzvah #16). This means that if we chose to behave in a certain manner, even externally before internally, then we are molded into that manner or direction. This touches on the topic of metoch shelo lishmah bo lishmah (from doing something not for its own sake one comes to do the thing for its own sake)- Pesachim 50b.

Rabbi Aryeh Carmell zt’l was nifter a few days before Rosh Hashana. This hit me very hard. I never had an opportunity to meet him, but he opened my eyes, heart, mind, and neshama to the world and thought of Rav Dessler. The way he conveyed Rav Dessler’s writing was a major influence in my development and made me realize that following halacha is only one aspect of being a Torah Observant Jew. The English version of Michtav Me’Eliyahu actually discusses the topic I’m blogging about. I’ll quote directly from what Rabbi Carmell writes in Volume I page 97:
How does shelo lishmah lead to lishmah? This is by no mean obvious, nor is it always the case. Not every shelo lishmah leads to lishmah. One knows people who start learning for ulterior motives and remain with them for the rest of their lives.
Our illustrious forebear, the great and saintly Rabbi Simcha Zissel Sieff of blessed memory, used to say that the transformation can take place only if one intends right from the beginning that it shall lead to lishmah. If our main aim and ambition is to achieve a pure and unselfish mode of service to Hashem and we make use of the shelo lishmah to ease our struggle against the yetzer hara, then we stand a good chance of eventually arriving at the stage of lishmah. [But if we start off without a glimmer of lishmah, only desiring the shelo lishmah for its own sake, how can our shelo lishmah actions ever lead us to lishmah? In the spiritual life one arrive only at the destination one intended in the first place.]
It seems that what we and others might view as hypocracy or outwardly inconsistant behavior might not be so bad if we have actual goals towards avodah Hashem. Maybe changing isn’t so hard, with Hashem’s help.
POSTSCRIPT: I’ve realized after blogging for over six months that it’s unnervingly easy to share certain things about myself via my blog. Things that I would, pre-Blogger, only share with close friends. As I enter Yom Kippur I can only daven that I will be able to actualize the words of Tehillim (19:15) May the expressions of my mouth and the thoughts of my heart find favor before You, Hashem, my Rock and my Redeemer, as easily as I open up my web browser to the Blogger Dashboard.

Frames: Building and Breaking

Last night, I helped a friend put up the frame for his sukkah and then he, in turn, help me put up my sukkah frame as well. Thing went well for the first 15 minutes of me helping my friend, but then chaos occurred. In a freak accident involving myself, a nut, a bolt, and a power tool my glasses were knocked of my face and one of my lenses flew in one direction, while my glasses frames went in another direction and part of my frame broke.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah (and I’m not talking about the Piamenta tune, which, BTW is awesome), but as was picking up the pieces of my glasses I started wondering where this was headed. Every day I daven that Hashem shows me the tov in everything. I figured that I’d help my friend and then he’d help me and that would be the end result of our involvement in terms of Mitzvah Goreret Mitzvah (Pirkei Avos 4:2). Having my glasses broken was not part of the deal.

Needless to say, without my glasses I can really only see 12 inches in front of me and it took a bit longer that estimated to put his sukkah frame together. I really had trouble seeing. I began to really appreciate the gift of sight. It was much harder that I thought it would be go without my glasses, even for an hour. I thought about birchas hashachar and the bracha of “Pokai’ach Ivrim”,
Who give sight to the blind. This bracha has new meaning for me.

After putting my friends’ sukkah frame together, we headed over to my place. My wife dug up an old pair of glasses (at least 10 years old and really not so hip) and we put together my sukkah frame. B”H, thanks to my friend, it went up pretty fast. After a few hours of searching I found a “newer” old pair of glasses I was ready for the next day.

During work, Mrs. Uberdox took my broken glasses to a local Shomer Shabbos optometrist. At lunch time my stoppedtoped by work to see me. She surprised me with my repaired and good as new glasses. When I asked her how much it cost, her reply was, “The optometrist was a real mensch. He repaired them on the spot and didn’t charge me anything.”

“One mitzvah leads to another mitzvah”, in this case it has nothing to do with my friend and I helping with each others’ sukkahs. It had everything to do with the chessed and menshlikeit that this optometrist did for me and what I, in turn, will do for someone else when the opportunity presents itself.
Blessed are You, Hashem, our God, King of the universe, Who give sight to the blind.

The Teshuva Song

From the Marvelous Midos Machine– Lyrics by Abie Rotenberg

It seem like for so very long, we always been doing things wrong
And because of your many mistakes, you think that there’s no hope, you think it’s too late

Hashem is so kind to forgive you, each day you can have a new start
Hashem is so kind to forgive you, with Teshuva that comes from the heart

The bad things you did yesterday, with Teshuva, can all go away
Just be sorry and say to Hashem, “I know I’ve done wrong. I won’t do it again.”

Hashem is so kind to forgive you, each day you can have a new start
Hashem is so kind to forgive you, with Teshuva that comes from the heart

Skateboarding, reflecting, and Rosh Hashanah

A few weeks ago, on Labor Day, my family met up with a few other families for a barbeque at a park in the northern suburbs of Chicago. This park has plenty of room to run, a baseball diamond, and great climbing equipment. If that wasn’t enough, this park also had, as an added bonus,a skateboard park. I couldn’t resist bring my old skateboard with me (along with my helmet, which is a must for chinuch purposes).
After eating, I decided to bring out my old skateboard. Now, I’m not a big-time skateboarder. In high school I skated a few pools, but mostly I sticked to parking lots and the street. I mastered the ollie and a few other basic moves, but now I’m happy just pushing myself around a bit. With all this said, I proceed to skate over to the park. It wasn’t too crowded. Only half a dozen real skaters. I was, for sure, the oldest one around. I was also the only guy who brought his kids. I pushed around a little and thought about going down a steep ramp. I was all hyped up to skate. I remembered the thrill, the rush, the adrenaline of going down a ramp. I use to find it exhilarating. As I stood atop a ramp, skateboard under my feet, I stopped. I also remembered seeing (and feeling) the battle wounds of skateboarding.
I got off the ramp. I couldn’t do it. I looked at the other skaters and jumped off. I choose a tiny ramp (more of a metal foothill) and went down, ending with a perfect 360 (balancing on the back wheels and spining in circle). The potenial injury from a big ramp seemed more important that recapturing my youth or looking cool to my children. What if something happened? My family couldn’t afford for me to get hurt. I have responsibilities. It just wasn’t shiach (germane or pertainent) for me. I realized that I had outgrown the thrill. I remembered the thrill of learning the first Rashi on Chumash when I was 18. Now, that was a real rush!
What was part of my youth held no real interest for me anymore. I had outgrown it. I had exercised my free will. The urge to skateboard really wasn’t a component in who I really am, or where I need to headed. I have more important responsibilites to my family, to myself, and to my creator. I was never such a great skater to begin with. I thought about what things excite me now, and how my children will model my behavior. I began to think about other behaviors and habits that have stuck with me over the years. Maybe, with Hashem’s help, I’ll be able to realize that it’s time to outgrow a few more things.
Shabbos night, later that week I attended a tish by Rabbi Michel Twerski (from Milwaukee). It was amazing! Rav Michel had beautiful things to say which helped clarify my thoughts about responsibilites and choices. I’ll share two ideas of the Rabbi’s:
1) He spoke about how important it is that we show true simcha shel mitzvah. Even if you can’t If not for for our own neshamas, then for the sake of our children. Memories of parents who loved performing mitzvos are images that will last a lifetime.
2) Rav Michel also spoke about Elul and Rosh Hashanah. Rav Michel said that usually we are concentrating on what we’ve been doing wrong all year and how to improve ourselves. The ikar (main point) might be that we need to look at all of the brachos that our creator has given us. He said that we each have talents (music, art, writing, etc.) and we need to remember that those talents are brachos from Hashem and should be regarded as such. In truth, we have a responsibiltiy to access those talents for Avodas Hashem. This is what we need to think about when we approach judgement on Rosh Hashanah.
Then I heard what Rabbi David Orlofsky said last week in Chicago, as part of an Ohr Somayach Yom Iyun (along with Rabbi Akiva Tatz and Rabbi Berel Wein). My wife was fortunate enought to attend. She came home with tapes of the event for me to listen to (thanks, Mrs. Uberdox). The following was something that Rabbi Orlofsky said that also tied into what Rav Michel had mentioned:
We often think of Rosh Hashanah as the Day of Judgement, when Hashem opens up the books of life and death. When Hashem, who knows everything will examine our deeds. There is only one reason that we have a day of judgement, because Hashem knows that we are capable of greatness. If we set the bar really low then we don’t expect that much from ourselves. Hashem says to us each Rosh Hashanah, “You are someone great. You are capable of greatness.”Tonight, thanks to the Chicago Community Kollel, I heard Rabbi Frand speak. Thanks to my wife for letting me go. The title of his drasha was “Painting your masterpiece.” His message was very similar to that of Rav Michel and Rabbi Orlofsky (do you see a theme here)…find your potential and mission in life. I took some notes and will post what he said very soon. One thing I’ll share now is that:
At Neilah the last thing we ask mehilah for is stealing? The Ger Rebbe says Hashem gave us assets and talents and if we don’t use them we’re stealing.
I hope that over the Yomin Noraim I am able to break free of my own limitations and attempt to walk a little closer to my potential using the talents that Hashem has given me.
Kesiva V’Chasima Tova and my we all have a year of bracha, shalom, and simcha!

Question and Answer with A Simple Jew

Neil Harris asks:
As parents who’ve just started the road of Jewish education what things do you intend to teach at home that might not be taught during the school day to your children?

A Simple Jew answers:
Most importantly, I want to teach my children about their family’s history. In May 2003, I wrote a letter to my oldest daughter that I have included below. I am going to give this letter to her when she is old enough to understand. I also plan to write similar personalized letters to my son and youngest daughter.

My little one:

As I write this letter, you are only nine months-old and too young to comprehend these words. I want to share my thoughts and prayers for you, and to tell you about your important role in our family.

By the time you read this letter you will know about our family’s roots in the shtetl of Sudilkov. You will also know what happened to Sudilkov’s Jews after our family was safe in America.

Your mother and I decided to start our family while standing on a bridge over the Gouska stream in Sudilkov. Two days later, we visited the gravesite of the holy Baal Shem Tov and prayed that G-d bless us with a child. Our prayers were answered. On the third night of Hanukkah we found out that your mother was pregnant with you.

My visit to Sudilkov was one of the defining events in my life. I was haunted for days after visiting the site of the mass grave. It was so overwhelming that initially my mind could not fully process it.

Upon returning home, I found this story in a book in shul which provided an answer:

When the Maggid of Mezeritch was but five years old a fire consumed his parent’s home and its contents. Noting his mother’s grief the child asked her:

“Mother, is it right to grieve that much for the loss of our home?”

“Heaven forbid,” his mother answered, “I do not grieve over the loss of our home but over the document of our family-tree that was burned with it. For this document traced our descent to Rabbi Yochanan HaSandler who was direct descendent of King David!”

“If so,” said the young boy, “I shall start for you a new dynasty…”

For me, you are the answer. You are the “new dynasty”. You are the answer to all the darkness in this world and all the horrible things that happened in Sudilkov. You will ensure that the memory of Sudilkov continues to live on by bringing more Jewish children into this world and telling them of our family’s history.

Always remember that your holy and pure neshoma comes from a very high place. Let your neshoma shine brightly and illuminate the world around you.

May the Ribbono shel Olam always have nachas from you little one.

I love you with all of my heart and soul,


A Simple Jew, your search for a connection to your past has influenced your present and your future. I find it inspiring. -Neil

The picture above is of the Sudilkov Countryside

How Not to Say Selichos

The following was emailed to me as part of the Rabbi Yisrael Salatner Daily e-list compiled by Prof. Yitzchok Levine, and is being posted with permission from Prof. Levine:

Given that Ashkenazim begin saying Selichos this Sunday, I think that the piece below is particularly apropo at this time of year.
From pages 215 to 216 of the Mussar Movement, Volume 1, Part 2.
He [Rabbi Salanter] would point to many such object lessons [where people harm others while doing a mitzvah] in every day life:

It is customary at the end of the month of Elul and during the Ten Days of Penitence to rise in the middle of the night or very early inthe morning for the Selichot services. In their eagerness to perform the mitzvah, people commitmany misdeeds.
It is not infrequent for an energetic individual to make so much noise in rising from bed that he wakes his entire household and even the neighbors.
Sometimes there are sick people or infants in the vicinity, and his behavior causes them pain and suffering.
One individual might even have the housemaid rise and make tea for him. In most cases, she is a widow or orphan, and so he transgresses the prohibition, “You shall notafflict any widow or fatherless child.”
In his haste he pours dirty water in a place where people pass by, and so he sets an obstacle in a public domain.
When he enters the synagogue; he might discover that his lectern has been moved from its place.
He reprimands the shamash, and in this instance he is guilty of slander and publicly shaming his neighbor.
Sometimes the one who has moved his lectern is a full-time student who has been awake all night engrossed in Torah study, and the owner now inflicts grief and humiliation upon a Talmid Chacham.

And so R. Israel enumerated seven grave transgressions one is liable to commit in this instance, yet remain sublimely unaware of having done anything wrong and derive smug self-satisfaction from his fervent prayerand sincere repentance, blissfully unconscious tha this loss outweighs his gain.
Earlier issues of The Daily Salanter are at

Rav Yisrael Salanter’s 13 Midos- #13

Silence: Deliberate on the ramifications of your words before uttering them

Let’s get down to business. If you read my last posting then you know that there are times when we don’t need to speak. There are times when we’re tired, or upset, or we’ve had one to many l’chaims and we just say whatever pops into our head. This is the worst. It’s only the worst because the person we’re speaking to thinks that we’ve put hours of thought into, what we know, is an off-the-cuff remark.

“If you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all.” How many times did my parents say that to me? I know, sometimes, I feel an urge to put my two cents in, just to be heard. At times, you truly show how intelligent you are by knowing when to keep your mouth closed.

Rav Yisrael says that we need to deliberate on the ramifications of your words before uttering them. How often do I say something without really thinking about it? How often do I daven without really thinking about what I’m saying? How often to I talk to family members without really thinking before I speak?

As I wrote when I first started this series, the gadlus of Rav Yisrael’s 13 Midos is that they have applications on both the Bein Adam L’makom and Bein Adam L’chavero levels (which are really equal levels).

Words reveal our thoughts. It doesn’t make a difference if we’re talking to a friend, writing an email, posting a blog, or even commenting on one. I need to think before I speak. I remember once posting a comment on a blog and the admistrator deleted what I wrote. I had criticized another comment posted by someone else. I was polite when I made my criticism, but there was that underlying tone, that came through loud and clear in what I had written.

Rav Yisrael’s last midah challenges me to think about how powerful the gift of speech really is. When I communicate with someone, I need to realize that I’m revealing part of my neshama. The part in me that is connected to Hashem, the source of all truth.

This brings us back to the first midah
Truth: Never speak a word unless your heart can testify to its truth