Monthly Archives: October 2006

Why I recommend saying "Good Shabbos"

I lead, what I think of, as a pretty regular life. So when something singular happens, it’s pretty exciting for me. As common in most communities and with groups of friends, when someone has a baby people start offering to make meals for that family (in this case, my family).

Last motzei Shabbos we got a call from our friend who was coordinating meals for us. It seems that a couple wanted to do a chessed and give us a meal. The problem was that we had no clue who they were. We didn’t recognize their names nor did our kids have anyone with the same list name in their classses. Later that night we found out the wife’s maiden name, and she claimed that we were her former NCSY advisors. I still wasn’t sure who it could be. For four days I was trying to figure out who these people were. I did know someone by the wife’s maiden name, but different first name. Last night, the mystery was solved. My wife opened the door when our guest came (I was still at work) and it was all revealed…

I try to be a friendly person, so as I walk to/from shul Shabbos morning I always say “Good Shabbos” to people I see. It makes no difference if I know them or not. As it happens, in Chicago, people say “Good Shabbos” back, too.

Apparently last Shabbos I said “Good Shabbos” to this “former NCSYer” and as she told my wife, when she got down the block she realized who I was. She figured that I was in town for a chassuna. Then she was speaking to a friend and our name came up also. Then she saw a birth announcement in one of the community emails. All of this happened over Shabbos.

It turns out that she was the NCSYer I was thinking of (it’s been almost 10 years since I’ve heard her name), but she’s going by a slightly different name these days. She and her husband moved here two years ago. What a way to reconnect with someone and all from saying, “Good Shabbos”. Try saying it, you, too, might end up with a great story of hashgacha pratis.

Harav Kalonymous Kalman Shapiro, zt"l

Today, the fourth of Cheshvon is the yarzeit of the Rebbe of Piazeczna, Harav Kalonymous Kalman Shapiro, zt”l. Sixty-three years ago he died al Kidush Hashem in Treblinka. Some of you might be familiar with this Carlebach story. Others in the New York area might be familiar with Cong. Aish Kodesh, named in memory the holy rebbe, by Rav Moshe Weinberger.

Just after the Holocaust, a construction worker found in Warsaw found a container buried underneath some rubble. In it contained three manuscripts of his writing, with instructions for them to be sent to Eretz Yisrael with the intent of publication. It is a source of strength for me to know that even in the darkest hours of his life in the Warsaw Ghetto, Harav Harav Kalonymous Kalman Shapiro had the vision and faith that his writings would survive. Over the years, B”H, they have been printed and translated into English (which is how I am familiar with his writing).
One of his lesser know works is the English translation of the journal he kept between the spring of 1928 through the winter of 1939, titled TO HEAL THE SOUL and translated by Yehoshua Starret. I have owned a copy of it since it’s publication in 1995 and often reread it. I have found his journal to be a unique insight into the mind, heart, and life of a true tzaddik.
It’s somewhat, for lack of a better word, strange, to sit and write about someone who was nifter 27 years before I was born. Yet, I feel a loss for a generation of yidden that were taken from us, that I will never know. I can think of nothing more fitting than to post three selections from the Piazeczna’s journal on my own blog, my own digital journal.
He who knows his place.
Be creative and contribute to the world, give it the best you have. Make a niche for yourself that will always be felt in the world.
Are not the “places” of our forefathers, the prophets, and other tzaddikim to this day not known in the world? What a void there would be in the world if, for instance, there had been no Baal Shem Tov?
So “he who knows his place”- who leaves a mark in this world with his life- his “place” will forever be know, even beyond his life. (Page 31)
Many people console themselves by saying, “Well, if I am not serving God as I should and am not as refined as behooves me, at least I have good aspirations. Many times my heart cries out in the pain of my distance from him.”
But would the drowning person console himself with his desire to rescue his life and with his heart’s cry facing imminent death? What use is it if he doesn’t act to save himself and try to get out of the water? (Page 51)
It is much easier to devote many years to diligent learning and even to engage in maximum self-denial than it is to devote one day of your life to serve God honestly, sincerely, and properly even according to your own understanding. But who do we think we are and what great service would we do in this one day, “even according to our own understanding,” that such an undertaking seems so overwhelming?
Still, this is no cause for despair or even to be lax. On the contrary: this best service that we can do for today, this is our unique life work. And the effort we put in, together with our yearning for higher, is the aim of our life work. Let us devote these to our Creator. (Page 98)

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Trying to find an outlet

It was two days before Sukkos. It was one of those mornings. I had been up late the night before (not blogging) and had not gotten too much sleep during the night at all. My morning cup of coffee wasn’t doing the trick. Then I had a thought…music. Not just any music, but two CDs by the most powerful energetic band I had loved during my formative teenage days…Husker Du.

Husker what? Please don’t bother doing a wiki search. Husker Du is Danish board game and means “Do you remember?”. It was a popular ‘memory’ game in the sixties, so I’ve been told.

Husker Du was also the name of one of the most influential Hardcore Punk bands from the early eighties, known for powerfully emotional lyrics filtered through their musical trademark, a ‘wall of sound’.

Now, over the years I have greatly cut down the amount secular music that I listen to. I have a strong taiyvah for music, specifically the genre I came of age with between 1985-1989, Punk/Alternative. I can proudly say that 99.5% of what I listen to in a given month is Jewish Music. On long car trips when the kids are asleep, we’ll listen to some classic rock tunes (along with some more current tunes), but that’s where I try to limit it.
That morning I felt that I needed an extra musical ‘kick start’ today. I stared at the two CDs most of the day. They sat on my desk between the Rabbis’ Sons, a C. Lanzbom, and several Piamenta CDs. I looked at them, heard the music in my head, visualized the lyrics in front of me, and struggled.

OK, what’s the problem? Just play the CD!. It bothered me that I felt a ‘need’ to listen to it. This has nothing to do with halacha /hashkafa / or frumkeit. I was debating if I needed to listen to it, or if I can find stimulation elsewhere. I was (am) troubled that I felt I needed to resort to non-Jewish music to get my day going. I can see a theme here concerning outside stimulation and our retreat into a Sukkah, where we control our own stimulation. I actually blogged about it when this struggle crept its’ way into my head. You can read, if you haven’t already, about that here.

When I became frum, I found it rather easy over time to change certain aspects of my lifestyle. To stop going out on Friday nights or eating treif was never really too difficult. These were never big issues for me. These, of course, are halachic issues. While certain aspects of character development were challenging (and still are), concepts like emunah, chessed, davening make sense. The urge to make a witty remark at some else’s expense is, at times, still a struggle.

What was, and still is, not so easy for me, was to get into Jewish music. (Please note, I didn’t write “stop listening to non-Jewish music”.) The first few power cords on an electric guitar, the overpowering base, the fasth drums…these elements were missing in Jewish music when I was becoming frum. For the most part they are still missing. I have a theory about that, but we’ll save it for the comments section, if there are comments.

This issue is a constant hashkafic struggle for me and I’ll explain why.

What we eat or the parameters of what we can do on Shabbos are clearly defined within Halacha. It’s the ‘grey areas’ like music that are at times an issue. I real issue for me had nothing to do with the style of music, or the lyrics (I was always careful about lyrics).

For me this issue is that once I get a taste for the music, it’s a challenge for me to stop listening. I simply want more. When I do stop, then I’m constantly left wondering why can’t I find a Jewish version of punk? Where’s the musical energy? Where was the intesity of a punk rock show? There are some options to listen to (see my blogger profile), but not too many.

At the end of day I made a choice. I chose to indulge in 2 minutes and 38 seconds of auditory memories. I picked a song that was about not wasting time and making the most out of life. A very positive message, I think. And I was impressed that I didn’t ‘cave in’ and actually play both disks. The idea crossed my mind all day.

I was (am) plagued by fact that I felt I needed to resort to non-Jewish music to get me going, as I entered Sukkos. The first night, while sitting in my sukkah I was truly happy. It was freezing, but also great singing and listening to other families sing in the neighborhood. The block behind us has 4 or 5 frum families and each family was singing. It was like an unplugged battle of the bands!!

During the week I went to two Simchas Beis HaSho’evos, “How could I go wrong, I thought?” Live music…a singer…a drummer…an electric guitar!! It was fun, loud, but it really didn’t give me the fix I needed. Something was missing.

Enter Simchas Torah. For me, this year was great. Mostly because I enjoy dancing with my kids and seeing my wife smile and enjoy the scene I make. Going to a few different shuls on Simchas Torah is kind of like a full day music festival with different stage locations. Each shul has their own flavor of hakafos. Every one sings slightly different songs, different niggunim, and the intensity of dancing varies from place to place. Back in high school. we use to dance, ok slam dance, in a circle…just the guys. It was a feather in one’s cap if you knocked over someone. Now, when I dance with guys (like on Simchas Torah) and I bump into someone I say, “I’m sorry. I hope you’re alright”.

Memories of concerts, cassettes, and CDs (most of them sold) are replaced with other memories: Singing V’li Yerushalyim (the D’veykus version) with friends in the Old City one Motzei Shabbos, hearing Hafachta by the Diaspera Yeshiva Band for the first time, the first time I saw Yosi Piamenta play at the Knitting Factory (before they moved Downtown), watching my kids sing and dance the last time we saw everyone’s favorite uncle…Uncle Moishy.
Gone are the combat boots (still in the closet until the first snow) and on is the black Shabbos hat. I choose to prove my independence and free-thinking though Torah, Avodah, and Gelimus Chasadim, rather than with safety pins, a can of Aqua-Net, and an in-your-face aversion to authority.

A good niggun, for me, does the trick 99.5% of the time. I often sing during day and always on my way home from shul. But, it’s that other tiny .5% of the time that gets me. For me, there’s still something that I have not found in Jewish Music. I’m just waiting for the amplifier to be plugged in. I’m trying to find an outlet.

This posting was partially inspired by fellow blogger A Simple Jew and, his now, classic posting, Trapped in the Lower Levels.

Two Trees, Two Ideas

Both of these ideas I hear from Rav Moshe Weinberger. The first idea I heard on Shavuos at his shul in 2005 (thanks to the genius of Mrs. Uberdox). The second idea he briefly touches on in his tape series on Bnei Machshava Tova.

Part I
A frum doctor once spent his vacation in Radin (home of the Chofetz Chaim). After a week of learning in yeshiva with bachrim he went to speak with the Chofetz Chaim.
The doctor said, I can’t believe how I’ve wasted my life. There’s nothing better than learning Torah. These yeshiva students I’ve seen are much closer to Hashem, than I’ll ever be.

The Chofetz Chaim responded: Which tree was closer to the center of Gan Eden: The Eitz HaChaim or the Eitz HaDaas? They were of equal distance.
The Chofetz Chaim went on to tell that doctor that by being a doctor has allowed him to help people have a refuah and he has saved countless lives. Each of us has a purpose and mission. Don’t think, said the Chofetz Chaim, that you are any further to Hashem than some of these students in Radin. We are all the same distance from Hashem, like both of the trees in Gan Eden.
Part II
Rav Weinberger says that he often asks people if they are eating from the Eitz HaChaim or from the Eitz HaDaas Tov v’Ra? He explains each of the following:

Eitz HaChaim: Is the joy of living a Jewish life and the love of being an eved Hashem. It’s the excitement we feel when we have a great davening or do chessed. It’s dancing on Simchas Torah or our tears at Ne’ilah. It’s grabbing mitzvah opportunities.

Eitz HaDaas Tov v’Ra: Is the ‘cheshboning’ that we each do for what we think are the ‘big decisions’ in our day. Should I go to shul #1 to daven or shul #2? Should I make time for a chevrusa? Should I help my wife at home? Is it really so important to give to this particular tzedakah?

When we take time time to over think and rationalize our actions we are eating from the
Eitz HaDaas Tov v’Ra.

Remember: You are what you eat! Good Shabbos Kodesh!

Simchas Torah and Stimuli

I, along with the entire world, am about enter the appointed time in the year when all of my physical enjoyment and love of the Torah manifests itself into one day. I mention ‘physical enjoyment’ because I believe that Shavuos is more of celebration for our physical being, guf, while Shavuos (and learning Torah) is more of a neshamah-oriented Yom Tov (of course, you do have to physically learn Torah).

So here I am. I’ll dance and sing with fellow yidden on Simchas Torah night and the next day. I can’t wait! I find that Simchas Torah recharges me and, in a way, attaches me physically to Mitzvah observance in a way that lasts the entire year.

All of the passion I have for Torah Judaism can find expression through dancing and singing. This only can happen if there is a spark within me to begin with. What if there that spark is buried too deep for me to find?

That’s alright, because, I can feed off of others’ passion. That how things work, I think. We at times create our own energy and excitement about things. At other times, we rely on various forms of outside stimuli to jump start us.

When I was single, one erev Shavous (I think it was in 1993 or 1994) I got a call and was asked to go last minute out to a small town in Westchester (New York). There was an outreach program in place there and they needed another ‘body’ to bring ruach to their Simchas Torah. I usually had spent Simchas Torah with friends, primarily in a yeshiva. I thought about it and decided, that, as a BT, being with a group of not-yet and newly-observant Jews would be a nice change and an inspiring time. It was pretty cool, I admit it.

I spent yom tov meeting people who came (almost out of the woodwork) to celebrate our continuing cycle of reading our precious Torah. This was a time when I was able be a klei (vessel) for the energy of Torah to reach others. By doing so, I also gained.

Last year, I was in Far Rockaway for Simchas Torah, at Shor Yoshuv. Words really can’t describe it. It was great. 800 people dancing for hours!! It was an experience that I (and my family) will never forget. It was a situation where I was definitely receiving outside stimulus. I felt so charged and plugged in.
As incredible as the ruach was, the real highlight for me was Hallel on Simchas Torah morning. Rabbi Shmuel Brazil davens a 45 minute Hallel (this is the emes). Then words and niggunim still echo in my head and neshamah. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. For me, it’s outside stimuli like this that I can absorb and hopefully use to stimulate myself (and others, with Hashem’s help).

It makes no difference if we are the ones motivating others or we, ourselves, need the motivation. The end result is that we all are dancing and singing with the Torah.

One quick thought. The last pasuk in the Torah states (thanks to
“and all the strong hand, and all the great awe, which Moses performed before the eyes of all Israel.”
The last comment Rashi makes on Chumash is this:
before the eyes of all Israel [This expression alludes to the incident, where] His heart stirred him up to smash the tablets before their eyes, as it is said, “and I shattered them before your eyes” (Deut. 9:17). – [Sifrei 33:41] And [regarding Moses shattering the Tablets,] the Holy One Blessed is He gave His approval, as Scripture states, “[the first Tablets] which you shattered” (Exod. 34:1); [God said to Moses:] “Well done for shattering them!” – [Shab.. 87a]
Of all the things that Moshe, our teacher and leader, accomplished in his lifetime, breaking the first set of luchos was, in Hashem’s eyes, his greatest action. When all is said and done, I think, Hashem ultimately wants us to do the right thing. Even if it means going again popular opinion or starting over again from scratch and beginning anew. I always find this to be a beautiful message to think about as I listen to the end of the annual cycle of leining and start another one. Gut Yom Tov!

The artwork shown above is by Judith Yellin. The Modern Uberdox family actually owns this piece of artwork.

Pre-Sukkos Posting

There’s a story about Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (the Kotzker) that I always think about around Sukkos. Here’s the version I know:

Once, one of his Chassidim came to see the Kotzker because this chassid was having problems with kavanah during davening (I can relate). The chassid told the Kotzker that when he davens he can’t help but think about his business, or his kids, or other thing he needs to do during the day.
The Kotzker said, just push those things out of your mind. You are in control of your thoughts, not the other way around. Things will work out. Frustrated, the man went home.

The next day a group of the Kotzker’s Chassidim came over to the man’s home and started removing all of his furniture and his belongings. “What’s going on here!” the man exclaimed. The Chassidim only told he to go see the Kotzker. Of course, this chassid ran to his Rebbe.

He said, “I don’t understand. Why did you take everything out of my house?”

The Kotzker asked him, “Who owns all of these things?”

“Why, I do”, replied the, now angry, chassid. “These are mine.”

The Kotzker told him that he was wrong. These are now mine. See how easy it is to take things from a person. If you can’t stop yourself from taking away your own kavanah during davening, then, of course, you can’t stop things like furniture from leaving your own home.

As I build my Sukkah every year I think about the fact that during the year it’s not so easy to control what comes in and leaves our homes. Media, pop culture, conversations on the school bus… you get the idea. On Sukkos we have an opportunity to control what comes in our own Sukkah, our daled amos. This is one of the reasons I love Sukkos. It’s a ‘back to basics’ Yom Tov.
It’s us, our family and friends, our Sukkah, and Hashem dwelling with us. We strip away all pretense and materialism. I could not think of a better way to really start my year off. Have a Sukkos full of simcha!