Monthly Archives: October 2009

The other side of Lech Lecha

Bereshis 14:13 And the fugitive came and he told Abram the Hebrew, and he was living in the plain of Mamre the Amorite, the brother of Eshkol and the brother of Aner, who were Abram’s confederates.

Rashi: הָעִבְרִי [So called] because he came from the other side (מֵעֵבֶר) of the [Euphrates] river (Gen. Rabbah 42:8). [Text from and the JPS Transation]

Rav Shlomo Friefeld explains,  as printed in the book In Search of Greatness, (on page 14) quotes the actual Midrash, that “explains why Avraham was called Avraham the Ivri.  What is an Ivri?  The Midrash says that the term Ivri come from the word ever, which means a side.  It is often used for a riverbank.  Every river has two sides, this riverbank and the opposite one.  Avraham was called Avraham the Ivri, the “sider,” or one who stood on the side.  What does that mean?  The Gemara says that Avraham stood on one side and the entire world stood on the other.  He had his beliefs, and the entire world was opposed to them.

Now, I saw a very similar idea brought down by Rav Dovid Hanania Pinto, shilta in Pahad David.  Rav Pinto says:

It is written in the Torah that the children of Israel were called “Ivrim”. The first person to be given this name was our patriarch Abraham. The term “Ivrim” has two meanings:

When man comes close to the Eternal by studying the Torah and observing the Mitzvot, he “comes from the other side” (“Ivri” means one from the other side of the river) just like our patriarch Abraham did. A man bound to the Torah is able to live with another who is not, even if their opinions are different. Why? Because the first man, as Abraham did, adjusted his convictions to the “other side”.

There is another reason why the children of Israel are called “Ivrim”. The root  of this word is “Avar” (past). This means that instead of being satisfied with everyday life that  keeps changing from one day to another, they lived attached to their past. They were bound to the magnificent past of our Saintly Forefathers, and this past is immutable in the image of the Holy Torah revered by our ancestors.

The ability to stay strong in your convictions and live with others who think differently than you is the mark of greatness.  It’s that ability, when rooted, as Rav Pinto writes, in the past, in Emunas HaChamim (faith in our Sages) and Zechus Avos (merit of our Forefathers) that gives each Jew the strength to be an Eved Hashem, like Avraham Avinu.

This was written Zecher Nishmas my father-in-law, Dan HaLevi ben Aharon a”h.  My father-in-law a”h not only survived the Shoah, but remained a proud Jew every day of his life.

Previous posts on Lech Lecha can be found here and here.

Switching Tracks

(Image from Flickr)
I was recently asked a very interesting question during an interview for a volunteer position.  The question was, “What is my style of parenting”?
I answered that I tend to be somewhat strick but within large parameters, so that there’s flexibility and a feeling of making a choice.  In truth, I’ve been working on being more laid back since the kids started up in school again.  Prior to being asked the question, I had been giving my parenting skills a lot of thought over the past two months.  My wife has pointed out that I’m, at times, somewhat demanding about little things, especially after my kids have spent almost eight hours in their day school.  As a product of the public school system, I really don’t know what it’s like to deal with both a duel-curriculum and a long day at such a young age.  My wife was right (as usual), I was putting emphasis on the wrong things and at the wrong time.
I had been wanting to write about this for quite some time, especially after reading something that R Nosson Kamenetsky wrote in Making of a Godol regarding Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel, the Alter of Slabodka and his derech of Mussar within the Slabodka Yeshiva (Knesses Yisroel), the yeshiva he started.  The following is from page 57:

By 5664 (1904), with Russia’s humiliating defeat in its war with Japan, the winds of Socialist revolution blowing through the Russian cities and villages for decades increase in velocity.  By 5665 (1905) they had reached hurricane force and sucked in a sizable number of yeshiva students- including a son of R’ Noson-Zvi.  The anti-Musar forces merged with the revolutionary element to endanger the very existance of the yeshiva.  To the good for fortune of both yeshivoth [Knesses Beis Yitzchak and the Alter’s yeshiva], when the revolution was quashed, the goverment clampdown on all Socialist sympathizers cleared the yeshivoth of their troublesome elements.  R’ Frankel’s stance through the first years of the crisis was perceived by many as passive and weak, and evoked sharp criticism within his yeshiva.  But beneath this outwardly inert pose, cataclysmic changes were evolving.  The Alter was metamorphosing his educational technique, and ultimately, when he personally was struck with the tragedy of his son’s apostasy, a new approach to Musar crystallized inside him.  No longer did he dwell on the weakness of humanity.  He turned instead to reflect on man’s potential for greatness.  His shmuessen (“conversations”, musar talks) began concentrating on the sublimity of Adam before the Sin, on the superiority of the Patriarchs, on the grandeur of Biblical figures, on the loftiness of the Generation of Wisdom hearing the Word of G-d in the desert- and on how every individual can reach those dizzying heights.

So, it seems that even though the Alter started out with one particular derech, he realized that there was another route that would allow him to arrive at his destination.  I read this passage two months ago.  I’ve been reading it every day since then, prior to my hisbodedus.  While it is far easier for me to pick apart things that my children don’t do, it takes effort and strength to be able to help build them up.  To be hypercritical about clothes being thrown on the floor, is really not the most important thing in the world.  Letting your children know that you believe in them and their innate greatness is probably more important.

I think that’s what the Alter realized.  To change one’s battle plan midway though the war means that you have both humility and confidence in what you feel is right.  It takes much strength to accept what the real emes (truth) is.  I’m sure there were murmurs throughout Slabodka and Kovno (just across the river Vilna) when the Alter’s Mussar started focusing on Galdus HaAdam (the greatness of man).  While I could not find any biographical information about what ultimately happened to Rav Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel’s son, I do know that Slabodka and it’s talmidim became one of the most influential forces with the yeshiva world.  Probably because the Alter of Slabodka chose a track that builds, not one that breaks.

Sunday’s Salanter Selection

From Emunah v”Bitachon by the Chazon Ish (Rav Avraham Karelitz z”tl):

The words of R. Yisrael Salanter on this matter in his letter* are very pertinent:  In prohibitions of unkosher meat, in mixtures of meat and milk, man is rules by habit:  he naturally recoils from the forbidden, and is not overwhelmed by his evil inclination.  On the other hand, in matters between man and man, he sins blithely and has no fear.  Even when his fellow-Jew sues him, he finds ways to avoid both him and the trial.  But the prohibition of robbery is more severe than the prohibition of eating non-Kosher meat, for when it comes to robbery, even Yom Kippur does not provide atonement, and as long as the object is not his according to the law, he is guilty of robbery.  But since there is no regular habit of observing this law, his soul has not acquired love and fear of it.

*A pdf of Rav Yisrael Lipkin of Salant’s Iggeres HaMussar is available here.

Sunday’s Spark of Mussar

Rav Yisrael Lipkin of Salant

The door of the synagogue opened suddenly, and a man rushed in to hear Kedushah.  In his haste, he stepped on the shoes of one of the mispalelim and soiled it.
After Kedushah, R’ Yisrael called the man over to a corner and told him to apologize to the person on whose shoe he as stepped.  “True, hearing Kedushah is a great and precious mitzvah,” said R’ Yisrael.  “But the mitzvah gets ruined if it by doing it one harms another person.”

From Sparks of Mussar by R Chaim Ephraim Zaitchik

Middos and Manners

There was a great article titled Developing Middos: Learned or Experienced? by Dr. Benzion Sorotzkin that appeared years ago in Jewish Observer and was later published in the Artscroll book, Timeless Parenting. The article, in my humble opinion, is worth printing out to read at your convenience.

Dr. Sorotzkin, ends the article with a section titled, “Middos or Politeness?” that I thought of last week, after coming to our childrens’ day school to drop off a drink for my daughter. As I gave the drink to my 7 yr old (I had forgotten to pack in her lunch), she said, “Thanks, Abba.” Her teacher looked at her and said, “What beautiful middos you have.”

Is saying, “Thank you”, looked at as good middos?  It could be.  I think that when a child or adult has to make a choice in behavior, we are exercising middos.  If we are teaching our children that the reason we say “thank you” is because it’s nice to acknowledge someone doing something nice for you, then the “thank you” is regulated to good manners.  Here are some examples, off the top of my yarmulka covered head, that can be looked at either as middos or manners:

  • Getting up and standing for a Rabbi
  • Not running in shul
  • Saving the last piece of cake for someone else
  • Giving a siddur to a visitor in shul

Like most things in life, Hashem has gives us the opportunity to infuse a simple action with kedusha.  Keeping our eyes open for those opportunities is the tricky part.

The Koach of Torah

Today marks the 8th Yartzeit of Rav Ahron Soloveichik z”tl.
In the fall of 1989, I was a freshmen at YU.  As I recall classes had been barely going on for even a week and I saw a flyer in my dorm about a shiur on Lecture about “Hilchos Teshuva”.

I was fresh out of public school and had been observant for just over two years, at the time. Through my high school involvement with NCSY I had heard the name “Soloveichik” (although usually in reference to the Rav, who spelled it “Soloveitchik) quite a bit and had even read an article written by Rav Ahron regarding a Jew’s place in non-Jewish socieity. I was curious what this “Rabbi Ahron Soloveichk” was like and figured it would be cool thing to hear him lecture (the term “shiur” wasn’t in my vocabulary back then).

I showed up a few minutes early, which was easy since the lecture took place in the “shul” in my dorm building, and took a front row seat. Slowly the chairs filled up. I recall seeing a lot of older YU guys, probably semicha students. Slowly, I heard mumbling and some commotion from the back of the room, as two gentlemen escorted an elderly man who was using a walker, the Rav Ahron Soloveichik.

To me he looked frail and I remember being inpressed that he was able to use a walker, despite having had a stroke in 1983. Slowly he made his way to the table in the front of ths shul. The two men who accompanied him helped Rav Ahron transition from the walker to the seat at the table. Again, the one word that came mind was “frail”.

It is commonly know that even if one doesn’t understand a language, it is very possible that you can get an idea of what a speaker is talking about by emotions that come through in the spoken word. Rav Ahron’s shiur on “Hilchos Teshuva” was given in English, my native language, but I really didn’t understand much of it, I sadly admit. Based on my background at the time, most of the quotes from the Rambam and, what must have been, the brilliant analysis on the part of Rav Ahron were really lost on me. I did, however, take away something just as meaningful and memorable.

When Rav Ahron Soloveichik sat down at that table to begin his shiur, he was hunched down with head just about at the height of the table. As he started speaking his voice was soft, but as he continued his voice got stronger. Almost in sync with the strength of his voice, with each word of Torah that came from his lips, he seemed to start sitting more and more upright. He started moving his arms as he spoke and became animated. By the middle of the shiur his voice was booming and he seem to be sitting fully erect. It was almost like a different person was speaking. As I’ve looked back over the years at this incident, I realized that what I had witnessed was the true Koach of Torah.

Learning Torah and being able to teach Torah changes a person. For Rav Ahron Soloveichik Torah was a lifeline, I saw that with my own eyes! It connected him and gave him incredible strength. I was zoche to see that evening that the Torah wasn’t simply something that we took out three times a week from the Aron Kodesh, nor was a collection of stories, teachings, or laws. The term, “Toras Chaim” comes to mind. The Torah is a living Torah and Rav Ahron both received strength from it and used that strength to give over the Torah to future generations.

May his neshma have an aliyah.

Help Rabbi Mike Win $25,000 for the Teens of St. Louis

A current friend and former collegue of mine, Rabbi Mike Rovinsky, was nominated as “Jewish Community Hero” and can get $25,000.00 to help Jewish teens in St. Louis, MO.  I received the following email from him:

Dear Friends,

OK, I am sure you are tired of getting emails and facebook notices to vote for me to win this contest.  I am sorry.  However, thanks to your support, we are #13.  That’s great, but the rest of the pack is catching up and the big push is now for the next 9 days.  It’s over on Oct. 8th at 11:59. 

To maintain our standing, WE REALLY need your vote!  Please click here   (if it does not work please paste the following URL into your browser

Please take one minute twice a day and vote.  You can vote multiple times using cell phone, lap top, different computers.  It is all kosher and legal.  We don’t need to be number one, just in the top 20, but top 10 would be even better.  You also do NOT need to register or leave an email address.

Thank you!

Rabbi Mike

Unbeknownst to me, I was recently nominated as a “Jewish Community Hero” for my work with teens in the broader St. Louis Jewish Community and in various organizations I am involved in i.e. JSU, NCSY, Tichon and Camp Nageela Midwest. There have been hundreds of nominees, so it really wasn’t a big deal until I saw that we really have a shot at winning this thing.  The top 20 vote getters appear before a panel of UJC (National Organization for Jewish Federations).  They will select 5 winners.  The top prize is $25,000 for  the non-profits I work with. 

Now for the embarrassing part.  I really need your votes.  I am actually number 13.  But the gap is tight between me and number 20.  Therefore, I must start to ask people to take 1 minute a day to please vote for me each day from now until Oct. 8th.  Your vote is NOT for me but for the kids.  So please help me win this thing.

 There is some stiff competition out there, but we can do it with your help.  I get nothing for winning other than the satisfaction of “raising” $25,000 for programming and scholarships.

All you need to do is click here and press the “VOTE” button. It is done anonymously. You can vote once every 12 hours, so please continue to vote every day! Voting ends October 8th. Please pass this on to your friends and family!

Thank you so much!  L’Shana Tova & Happy New Year

ABOUT THE CONTEST: The Jewish Community Heroes campaign celebrates the selflessness and courage of those who put others before themselves. This is our community’s opportunity to shine a national spotlight on the unsung, whether their work impacts five people or 5,000.

The Hero of the Year will be provided with $25,000 to be used as an investment in their community project or non-profit effort via his or her local Jewish Federation, or another recognized 501(c)3 charitable entity or Canadian equivalent, and he or she will be invited to and recognized at next year’s General Assembly. The remaining four finalists will receive a smaller amount to be used as an investment in their community project or non-profit effort via their local Jewish Federations, or recognized 501(c)3 charitable entities or Canadian equivalent.