Category Archives: Avodas Hashem

Shut up and read this (or "How to use nice words")

An Adam Gadol is given this title because he is great.  Great in Torah, great in Middos, great in making everything he or she does into Avodas Hashem.  I recently read the following at  regarding the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s style of writing:

It is clear from the Rebbe’s editing patterns that talking and writing positively are always an imperative. Apparently because positive writing has a beneficial influence on the reader’s thought process.

This particular response – actually an edit – that I unearthed was penned by the Rebbe on the margins of a letter drafted by one of the Rebbe’s secretaries (based on the Rebbe’s dictation) for a dinner that was to take place on the day after Passover. The Rebbe writes on the draft: “!!!סגנון דהיפך הטוב הוא” “the wording is the opposite of good!!!”*
Here is the text the Rebbe was referring to:
Had the Jewish children in Egypt not received a Jewish education … there would be no one to liberate…

The Rebbe wrote in Hebrew how the text should be corrected—and this is the way it was translated and appeared in the final version:
…it is only because the Jewish children in Egypt received the proper Jewish education… our whole Jewish people… was liberated from Egyptian slavery…

*Note that the Rebbe wrote “the opposite of good”—another hallmark of the Rebbe’s, never to say or write the word commonly used to connote “the opposite of good.”

I found this very interesting, because the importance of how we speak is also illustrated in the following excerpt from the biography of Rav Dessler:

Rabbi Nachum Vevel [Rav Dessler’s son] Dessler’s childhood memories of this maternal grandmother Rebbetzin Peshe Ziv [the Alter of Kelm’s daughter-in-law] provide some glimpse of the rareifed atmosphere in which his mother was raised.  He once refused to eat the food his grandmother offered him, complaining that the plate was shmutzik (dirty).  His grandmother told him that she would be happy to offer him another plate, but that he must not talk like that.  “We do not say the plate is dirty,” she said.  “We say that the plate is not clean.”

The young boy could barely comprehend what his grandmother was talking about, and replied, “But everyone speaks like that.”  His grandmother was unfazed.  “That may be,” she said, “but you come from a long line of people who do not talk like that.”

Negativity breeds negativity.  Saying something in a positive way probably requires thought, at times.  It’s easier to say that “the soup went bad” than to say “the soup isn’t good”.    A refined way of phrasing something can make all the difference.

Niggunei Hisorerus Novhardok

The following letter is reprinted here with permission, first appeared in Yated Neeman (USA Yated, issue dated this May 21).

Lost Novhardoker musical heritage brought back to life 

Dear editor –

I recently saw signs in local botei medrash about a recording of Novhardoker niggunim recently put together in Eretz Yisroel. I called the number given and acquired it and was very impressed. I suspect that it would be of interest to others as well. I therefore wrote the following review of it, which I would like to share with Yated readers with your permission. Thanks for your assistance and all your good work.

Lizeicher nishmas kedoshei Novhardok, Hy”d.

The Novhardok Yeshiva movement was one of the largest, if not the largest such movement, in Eastern Europe pre-WWII. After the terrible churban, some remnants survived, notably in Eretz Yisroel, France, and the USA. Prominent gedolim of today with Novhardok connections include Rav Yitzchok Dov Koppelman of Lucerne, as well as Rav Yaakov Galinsky, and Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlita. The movement did not regain its pre-war strength and size afterward, however.

Consequently, although many people, especially from the younger doros, have heard of Novhardok, they often lack comprehensive knowledge of the deep Torah and mussar spirituality that Novhardok stood for.

One of the aspects of Novhardok that is little known today, is the niggunei hisorerus of the movement.

Novhardok had special Yiddish niggunim, composed by Novhardoker leaders, such as Rav Nissan Bobruisker and Rav Dov Budnik zt”l, Hy”d, which were sung on various occasions for chizuk in avodas Hashem.

Recently, in Eretz Yisroel, a breakthrough has come about, in which an excellent, high-quality musical release, entitled ‘Niggunei Hisorerus Novhardok’, with thirteen tracks of Novhardoker niggunim, has been put out. The niggunim have been recorded in a modern, up-to-date fashion with modern technology and musical accomplishment, with a talented vocalist. Additionally, accompanying the musical release is a booklet of approximately sixty pages, comprising a foreword and lyrics of the songs in Yiddish, with Hebrew translation alongside, line by line, which can be used to follow the songs and better absorb their deeper meanings. There are also a few historical photographs of Novhardoker Yeshiva talmidim and hanholo on the packaging.

The songs shed light on the times from which they came, with references such as not bowing to the hammer and sickle (communist symbol), redifos hadas (religious persecutions), and crossing the border between Russia and Poland. Some of the songs reflect mussar beliefs and practices, at times specifically Novhardok ones. There is mention in one song, for example, of having a notebook with a pen, part of a mussar practice in which people worked on their middos, while another envisions baalei mussar without a measure when Moshiach comes. One song with fifteen parts, focuses on different middos and themes, among them hatovo, amitzus, histapkus, hashgocho, bitachon, zehirus, zikkui horabim, and teshuvoh. The songs vary, with some being slower and others more ‘lebedig’ (lively). One particularly lebedig song is ‘Lebedig Yankel’, which (in two versions) talks about when Moshiach will come. There is also a short song at the end sung by Rav Yaakov Galinsky shlit”a.

The release gives a feeling of what it was to be a Novhardoker in the old days and helps us understand the spiritual power of Novhardok, which helped it grow to have thousands of talmidim pre WWII.

One needn’t be a Novhardoker talmid, or son, grandson, or great-grandson of one to appreciate and enjoy the recording. Anyone with a curiosity about, and gefil (feeling) for, the pre-WWII European Yeshiva world, should find it of interest. Even if your Yiddish is less than perfect, the line by line Hebrew translation make it possible for you to enjoy it as well.

It is available in both CD and cassette.

In our trying times, the spiritual strength such niggunim can offer is surely a welcome development. As we approach Kabbolas haTorah, niggunei hisorerus can help us and we can bring this forgotten aspect of pre WWII Yeshiva life back to life.

-A Yated Reader

If anyone is interest in contacting information about how to buy either the cassette or CD, please email me and I’ll pass the information on to you. -Neil

Rav Hirsch on "What the World Stands On…"

Like most people, I learn Pirkei Avos on Shabbos starting after Pesach and finishing six weeks later.  The following is part of Rav Hirsch’s commentary on this Pirkei Avos:   Shimon the Righteous was among the last surviving members of the Great assembly. He would say: The world stands on three things: Torah, the service of G-d, and deeds of kindness. (Chap 1, Mishna 2)

Torah implies the knowledge of the truth and the will of God with regard to every aspect of our lives, personal and public, individual and social.  Avodah denotes dutiful obedience, service God by fulfilling His will in every phase of our lives, personal and pubic, individual and social.  Gemiluth Chasidim signifies selfless, active loving-kindness to promote the welfare of our fellow-man.  These are the three things which shape and perfect the world of man and all that pertains to it in accordance with the measure and way of its destiny.  Whenever and wherever any of these three are inadequate or altogether lacking there is a gap which cannot be filled and there is no manifest destiny.  Without Torah the human spirit lacks the wellsprings of true knowledge; it will be blind to the basic, indispensable element which makes man a human being and it will be receptive to everything except truth and light.  Without Avodah man cannot have the proper attitude towards God, his Master and Creator, and toward the world into which God put him in order to develop and protect it in accordance with God’s will.  Instead of serving God he will think he is  a master when, as a matter of fact, he will be the slave of his passions and his lust.  He will pander to anything that he feels can serve or prejudice his interests, instead of being exalted and ennobled by him in accordance with God’s purpose, everything he touches will receive the impress of his depravity and error.  If he omits Gemiluth Chasadim he will be without that characteristic which is the  very first trait of godliness.  Instead of being God-like in acting as a creator of happiness and prosperity for his fellow-man, he will harden his heart in callous selfishness, and mankind will lack that bond of brotherhood and loving-kindness within which alone all happiness and joy of life can prosper.

Yeah, I know, it’s a long quote.  But, in these words, Rav Hirsch (as rendered into English by Gertrude Hirschler in 1967) really sums up Torah Judaism and our place in the world.  He not only shows us how Torah, Avodah, and Gemilus Chassadim must enhance our world, but Rav Hirsch skillfully draws a picture of what a person is like who doesn’t engage in these three things.  He willl:  “be receptive to everything except truth and light”, “be the slave of his passions and his lust”, and “harden his heart in callous selfishness, and mankind will lack that bond of brotherhood and loving-kindness within which alone all happiness and joy of life can prosper”.

The image of a three-legged table isn’t just a random picture.  If one doesn’t exercise a balance of Torah, Avodah, and Gemilus Chassadim then it’s as if the table is either missing a leg or the table is slanted.  Either way, it isn’t stable.  We see that all three elements must exist in order to achieve a “balanced” Torah observant Jew.

"Headlong into harm"

A Simple Jew commented here and asked me how I interpret the following said in the name of R Yisrael Lipkin of Salant: When running to complete a Mitzvah, one can destroy an entire world on the way.
I think the following two vignettes about R Yisrael should be told in order before I continue:
A) When asked to tell something over about Pesach, R Yisrael would tell his talmidim prior to Pesach that they should be careful to be nice to the widows that bake the shum’ra matza they purchase before Pesach.

B) R Yisrael was once asked to tell over a thought prior to starting davening on Yom Kippur. He told those around him that they should be careful before davening that night when they put on their tallisism and not hit the person behind them with the tzitzis of their own tallis.

Clearly being, what was viewed at the time, as highly sensitive to others was a major part of R Yisrael’s Avodas Hashem. He put a re-emphasis on mitzvos Bein Adam L’Chavero that seemed to be lacking in the mid-to-late 1800’s. For him, in fact, Bein Adam L’Chavero was an aspect of Bein Adam L’Makom.

Shabbos night two weeks ago (just after R Yisrael’s Yartzeit) I actually read the above quote to my 8yr old. I gave him the above examples and also asked him if it would be fair if he was running a race and decided to trip someone he was running against so that he could win. Of course, he thought that it would be unfair and not a “real win”. Then I used a senario that was more close to home. When we are late to shul Shabbos morning (this is a real life example) and we rush into the beis medresh so that we can get two seats together, how would Hashem look at us if we bumped into several people on the way and distrubed their kavana as they were davening to Hashem?

This is probably what R Yisrael was speaking about…frumkeit. Let me use my zerizus to do whatever I need to do to, and another’s expense, to fullfill my mitzvah. That’s what the founder of the Mussar movement was up against. I see the same thing when people go shopping and grab the last package of sushi pushing aside someone’s shopping cart or a parent cuttting off cars so that they can get a prime spot in the ‘car line’ at school. To some, it might not seem like a chiddush to be thoughtful. Others, just might not think. If each mitzvah that we do creates a malach and each person is considered a ‘world’, then how careful must we be that the path we make towards fullfilling even the ‘smallest’ mitzvah doesn’t totally destroy the proverbial flower garden that belongs to our neighbor?

Old Navy, Home Depot, and Novardok?

Commenting on the Novardok mussar exercises (see Moment 2 here) designed to work on humility, Rafi G wrote:

I can see how it would humble a person, but isn’t it some sort of chillul Hashem (maybe that category is extreme for this case) or something that Jews are looking so foolish and stupid walking into a hardware store and asking to buy clothes? Doesn’t it make Jews look foolish? I have a hard time believing there is really such an important benefit of humility gained that can justify the overall bad light in which it portrays Jews, and specifically yeshiva students.

This chillul Hashem factor seems to be a big one, I admit. This quote might clear things up about the Alter of Novardok’s methods:
Rav Yosef Yoizel also formulated a special program aimed at helping students break their negative character traits and acquire new ones. This program consisted of various exercises designed to provide students with “spiritual courage”, a courage that would imbue them with the confidence to do whatever was needed to promote Yiddishkeit despite any deterrents that would arise. One such exercise called for them to act strangely in public, so that people would ridicule them. For this exercise, bochurim from the Novardok yeshiva would enter a shop and ask for a product not sold there, such as watermelons in a drugstore or screws in a bakery. (Originally found in the Yated, posted online here)

In essence, we see that the plan was to instill a feeling that no matter what an individual or society might think, if I can act in a way that doesn’t make me feel embarrassed, the better off I am.

I don’t think we had a situation where a yeshiva student would go into Old Navy asking where the power drills are, and then insisting that the store really does carry them in stock. I have always thought it was more like a student or two going into store or shack “A” that sold hardware and asking if they carried any fresh bread. After being told, “No”, the yeshiva student would say, “Oh, my mistake. I must be confused. Have a nice day.”

There is a great book titled BEYOND THE SUN (long out of print) by R David Zaritzky (who studied in Novardok and also with the Chofetz Chaim in Radin). I had heard about the book in 1991 and found a copy 15 years later. Sadly, I loaned it out and somehow didn’t get it back. The book itself is viewed as a fictional account of the the Novardok system and has several profiles of the Alter and other key figures in the Novardok movement. As I recall, it discusses this same issue, focusing on this idea that a student in Novardok was trained not to be embarrassed by serving Hashem and doing what was right against the various anti-Torah movements of the time.

This whole exercise could have been viewed as a chillul Hashem, as Rafi suggests. At the time, though, most yeshiva students were getting a bad rap from the Maskillim. That’s part of the reason that in Slabdoka there was an emphasis on one’s clothes looking fit and proper (it might also have been a reaction to Novardok’s emphasis on most things non-materialistic).

Either way, today, I think most of us fall somewhere in the middle. We want to be Avdai Hashem and have the strength to be a Torah Jew in all situations, yet also want to give Klal Yisrael a “good name”. I try to stay away from chillul Hashem as much as I can, to the point recently, when we went on a family outing I was against bringing saltine cracker because of the crumbs that are left when the kids eat them. Maybe, I’m taking it a little too far?


I don’t really care for either, yet as I think about myself on Rosh Chodesh Elul, I can see times in the past year when I have acted both like an Observabot and a Deceptijew.

The Observabots tend to do things by rote. While mitzvah observance is a major aspect of their life, it usually is laking in Simcha shel Mitzvah.

The Deceptijews are really not much better. While on the surface they seem fairly observant, it’s really just chitzionius or an external show of Yiddishkeit.

It’s hard to pick the lesser of the two evils. Take your average Observabot. He/She might make brachos, daven, and be involved in learning (even by plugging into the mainframe). It can be done without feeling and introspection, yet the actions are taking place.

Now, with your average Deceptijew, it’s a little tricky. The actions are there, for show. What happens in public might not be the same in their own home. There is hope, that eventually the chitzionius will bring a level of internal grown.

As I wrote at the outset, I can recall times over the past year when I showed aspects of both of the Tranformations. I’m not please with this realization, but coming to terms with it is, I hope, a start.

The funny thing is that even beneath the Observabots and the Deceptijews is a neshama that wants to be an Eved Hashem. Regardless of the areas that I know I am lacking in my own Avodas Hashem, I have a desire to truly be an Eved. Parhaps there is “more that meets the eye”.
Gut Chodesh!

Parshas Va’etchanan

Rav Schwab on Prayer discusses the idea that the large ד in echod is meant to remind us not to read the words as acher, as in the pasuk “For you shall not prostrate yourselves to an alien god (Shemos 34:14).

Rav Schwab then quotes Rav Hirsch from Devarim 6:4: “The ר of the polytheistic thought is accommodatingly rounded, while the ד of the Jewish truth is sharply angular. With the loss of a little sharpness, the אחד becomes אחר . The meaning is quite clear: Hashem Echod is a sharply defined concept, it is this way, and there are no other possibilites.
It’s when I try to cut corners that I see myself go off target in my Avodas Hashem. Halacha is th “sharply angular” clearly defined parameters that we need to work in between.

Q & A with A Simple Jew: Bringing out the best in your kids

Neil asks: What character or personality traits do you see in your kids that you feel are worth developing and makes them unique?

A Simple Jew answers:
Thank you for asking me and giving me the chance to attempt to put my answer down on paper since every day I daven, “Ribbono shel Olam, may we be matzliach to raise our children with middos tovos and yiras Shamayim.”

Back in June 2005, I wrote, “While some people may put their primary efforts into ensuring that their children excel academically, I am more concerned about raising my children to have middos tovos.”

As for the unique personality traits in each of my children, this is how I believe they are unique and how I seek to develop their unique characters:

Oldest Daughter (four and a half years-old):
Out of all my children, my oldest daughter is unlike my wife and I in her temperament. We have decided that she most closely resembles my father who is extremely strong-willed and amazingly energetic. These traits are not necessarily negative, despite the opinions of those who might read “extremely strong-willed” to mean “stubborn”, and “amazingly energetic” to mean “hyper-active”.

I view these traits almost as being primordial energy that is waiting to be directed. “Extremely strong-willed” if properly directed can become what Rebbe Nachman of Breslov referred to in
Likutey Moharan #22 as “azus d’kedusha” – a holy brazenness to overcome the arguments of the yetzer hara. “Amazing energetic” if properly directed can become what the sefer Mesillas Yesharim
refers to as “zerizus” – alacrity to do mitzvos. Both of these traits are extremely important in a person’s avodas Hashem. Directed properly and coupled with my daughter’s keen intelligence and caring nature, these traits may just prove to be an amazing combination; a combination that I daven to see one day.

Son (almost three years-old):
Unlike his older sister, my son is extremely laid back. When confronted with a sister who wants to fight, he often backs down rather than to pummel her back. An excellent example of his nature can be seen in this story:

One day his older sister was in an angry and agitated mood and started hitting him unprovoked. She then tackled him and started dragging him across the floor like she was a bouncer removing n disorderly drunk from a bar. My son was screaming during this whole episode and my wife ran down the steps to see what had happened. Once it became apparent what was going on, she instructed my daughter to stop, apologize, and go over and give him a hug. My daughter was unrepentant and adamantly refused. Hearing the word “hug”, my son immediately went over and gave his sister a hug despite her aggression just moments before.

This story, along with the story at the deli when he was 15 months-old, captures my son’s innate compassionate nature that I daven continues throughout his life. Compassion, however, is not an entirely good trait. Without direction Koheles Rabbah 7:17 teaches us, “Whoever shows compassion when cruelty is warranted will ultimately become cruel when compassion is warranted.” For this reason, I also seek to instill in him a firmness or toughness that I never had and have always regretted.

Youngest daughter (almost 10 months-old):
If I had only one word to describe my youngest daughter, that word would be “happiness”. My youngest daughter has the brightest smile. Coupled with her twinkling eyes, her smile can instantly shake anyone who sees her out of a sad or angry mood. While others may have to struggle for a lifetime to attain the Chassidic ideal of being b’simcha, this is something that comes entirely natural and easily for my daughter. She is rarely in a bad mood and often wakes up from her nap with a smile on her face. I used to think my son was generally a happy kid until she was born.

What do I want her to develop? I want her to further develop this happiness into what Pirkei Avos terms “sameach b’chelko” – happiness with one’s lot in life. I want her Yiddishkeit to be encompassed with this happiness, and perhaps even using her infectious smile as tool to uplift those who are depressed or in troubled situations.

Ribbono shel Olam, may I live to see my children grow into such people, and may they be able to raise their children to follow in these footsteps!

Humble thoughts on parenting

As I look at almost all gedolim of the past generation and today, they share an intersting trait that I admire. They are individuals. Granted, they lived (and live) lives based on the same Shulchan Aruch, yet each is unique, as is the Torah they taught. Their teachings and collected stories serve as an example to me and help remind me that that I must let my children be themsleves.

When it comes to chinuch, the line from Mishlei / Proverbs 22:6 is often quoted:
Chanoch L’naar al pi Darko, which means that we should educate the child according to his way . Rav Hirsch states that one must teach a child according to the way he learns best, because no two children are alike.

We are all unique (one only need to look as far as any given blogroll to see that almost no two blogs are alike). Sadly most children are taught to be copies of each other, even in the best of day school/yeshiva systems. For the child, as well as the adult (I’m really speaking about myself) the challenge is always to allow one’s personality (or unique talents) to be directed towards Avodas Hashem, in the true derech of Torah observant Judaism.

I can think of three different couples whom I admire as parents. IMHO, their gadlus as parents stems from the fact that they have let their children be themselves. Their children have learned by the example yet by their parents. Be yourself. Your Avodas Hashem should be based on your unique talents.

I recently heard a bubbie tell her grandson on the occasion of his Bar Mitzvah some awesome advice, that I took to heart. She said, “Don’t go through life ‘looking to find yourself’, go through life creating yourself.”

Carpool Conversation

The following conversation occurred a few days ago as I drove my 4 yrs old daughters’ carpool home from school. We had just dropped off our first passenger and were in route to drop off the second one when my daughter said…

Uberdaughter: Abba, (name withheld) left something in the car. We have to give it to her, it’s a mitzvah.
Me: That’s right, Uberdaughter. It’s the mitzvah of Hashovas Avedah, giving something back to someone who lost something. We’ll have to write you a ‘mitzvah note’ for school.
2nd Child/Passenger (soon to be dropped off): I get a ‘mitzvah note’, too.
Me: O.K., you can tell your mom when I take you home.
Uberdaughter: Oh no!! I get the mitzvah note, because I saw that (name withheld) left something. The person who sees a mitzvah and yells about it is the one who did the mitzvah for real-life and gets the mitzvah. Hashem says so.

All right, while my daughter did use some ‘hashkafic literary license’, what she said holds some truth. It actually reminded me of a great story published in the book Gut Voch, by Avrohom Barash.
The story, from page 68, titled “Everything Counts” follows:

The sister of the Vilna Gaon would often collect tzedakah for various charitable causes together with a friend. At one point the two agreed that whichever one of them would pass away first would come to the other one in a dream and relate her experiences.

When one of them left this world, she kept her word and appeared to her friend. “Tell me,” she asked, “what is it like in Gan Eden?”

“I am not prepared to tell you everything,” she replied. “But one thing I can say: everything is calculated minutely. Do you remember that one day when we were collecting for an important cause and you saw a woman across the road whom we could approach? You raised your hand and pointed her out, and I crossed the road and spoke to her. You will receeive reward for lifting your finger to point her out, while I was rewarded for having taken the trouble to cross the road and go over to her.”
My daughter was on target.