Category Archives: Dessler

Living vicariously through our kids

I think most of us, at one time or another, think about living vicariously through our kids. I’ve been tempted to buy band t-shirts of my ‘old favorites’ for my kids. I also love bathing our almost one year old Uberbaby daughter and giving her a mohawk! I can’t help myself. Others might live vicariously through their children when it comes to birthday parties, bar/bas mitzvahs, wedding, popularity in school, excellence in acedemics or sports, etc.

I think that most of us parents out there want what’s best for our kids. For some that means letting our kids live a lifestyle that reflects the way that we grew up. For others this might mean giving kids what we didn’t have when we, ourselves, were growing up. This, of course, can manifest itself in either materialism, experiences, or aspects of Torah observant life.
As the school year starts I often see parents living vicariously through their own kids. My own son just got his first “rebbi” as a teacher. I’m thrilled, I freely admit it. I didn’t grow up with an opportunity like that. The urge to hear every single detail about my son’s day at school is tempting. I hold back though. I’m just happy that my son is happy at his school. I realize that my dreams are not my son’s dreams. His strengths are very different than may own (especially in sports). I know that I have a much better relationship with my own kids when I accept them for who they are, not who I want them to be (this is different than having expectations for one’s kids).

I think that the middos we demonstrate (by what we do and how we do it) also end up ‘living’ vicariously through our children. In a way, our kids absorb both the good and the not good within us. They watch, listen, and learn. I have seen time and again in my own kids how they pick up both the postive and negative characteristic that I display. Our kids should be the ones who want to live vicariously through us!
Rav Dessler in Michtav M’Eliyahu also deals with this idea in terms of the Avos (Avraham-Chessed, Yitzchak- Gevurah/Yirah, and Yaakov-Emes). Rav Dessler goes on to explain how each of the Avos actually utilized aspects of all three of these (Chessed, Gevurah, and Emes) built on the Avodah of the previous generation.
When I first worked on the rough draft for this post last week. I had, at the time, reached just over the “25,000” mark on my site meter (despite very irregular postings over the past several months). The quick glance, light read, or even thoughful comment left on Modern Uberdox is greatly appreciated. As I’ve posted before, the fact that anyone even reads this blog is humbling. Like parenting, teaching, and most things in life the bottom line is: We have no clue what effect we can have on others. Thanks for reading.

Stretching my own Bechira Point


I have a tendancy (read urge) to check my email constantly. This is a major problem for me because it takes away time from other things I should be doing. I’ve tried only checking it at designated time, but I often slip up. It’s been driving me crazy, because I have no problem not eating any dairy for several hours after I’ve eaten meat. I have no urge to turn on light during Shabbos. Yet, I’ve struggled to not go online and check email for periods of a few hours. My Yetzer gets the bets of me.

Over the past few weeks, though, I’ve been slowly working on this. It has resulted in less time spent online (which is not a bad thing) and has been a good exercise in adjusting my own bechira point. At age 36, I have found myself, again, changing aspects of my behavior, I’m proud to write (it should be chizuk to anyone who needs it to change even the most mudane aspect of their personality).

For me things like going online (and other actions that are potenial unproductive and suck away my time from right under my nose) are really ‘pareve’ issues that I often fool myself into thinking don’t matter much and don’t require that much bechira to begin with. This is not the right way to think. I admit that I need to work on this.

The method I’ve been using was based on something I read a few years ago in Alan Morinis’ book Climbing Jacob’s Ladder. The book tells the true story of a man who grew up non-observant and his journey towards self-discovery that takes him to Rabbi Yechiel Yitzchok Perr, Rosh Yehsiva of Yeshiva of Far Rockaway, the tradition of mussar, and towards a Torah observant life.

Mr. Morinis writes (page 47) that after his initial meeting with Rav Perr he asked the Rosh Yeshiva for a mussar practice to work on. Rabbi Perr said “Well, what you can do is get a rubber band that’s big enough to fit around the palm of your hand. Keep it in your pocket, and when you feel impatient or angry, slip it on. No need to do anything more, just put it on.”
I decided to use this technique to me more aware of when I felt the urge to go check my email. It hasn’t been easy. It has help me become much more conscious of the choices I make. Not just checking email, but how I speak to others and being patient.
I’ve been keeping a chart of my progress and tracking the times that I’ve wanted to check email. Here’s last weeks:
Monday: No work
Tuesday: 9.:25, 10:04, 3:28
Wednesday: 11:36, 2:31
Thursday: 10:18 (no rubberband, 3:47 (no rubberband)
Friday: 11:45 (no rubber band)

On Tuesday and Wednesday last week I put on the rubber band. As you can see, by Thursday, I felt that I didn’t need it. It just sat in my pocket. It’s a great feeling knowing that I can change.

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.

Two of my favorite stories

Story number one:

A regular preppie teenager walks up to a punk rock teenager with a Mohawk and asks him ‘What’s Punk?’.
So the hardcore-punk teen kicks over a garbage can and say ‘That’s punk!’. The preppie teen proceeds to kick over another garbage can and says ‘That’s Punk?’ The punk kids looks at him, smiles, and says ‘No that’s trendy!” (Overheard during a late night high school party way back in 1988)

I love this story because it shows that it’s not only our actions that define us, but our attitude when we perform those actions.
We, Baruch Hashem, can give meaning and emotion to what we do. Mitzvah performance or our level of external frumkeit isn’t meant to be something ‘trendy’. To follow the crowd without thinking about what or why you’re doing something isn’t always the best plan. Plenty of people, myself included, fall into the trap of doing mitvah-related actions by rote or as another trend once in a while.
To put on Tefillin, make a bracha, hug your kid, learn a pasuk, say a kind word, clean for Shabbos, or braid a challah can be an empty action…or a meaning experience. It’s all about what you do and how you doing. By “how you do it”, I mean what kavanah you ascribe to your actions. Do do something with a sense of simcha is a wonderful thing. It’s actually pretty punk these days.

Story number two:
When Rav Dessler came to America in 1948, he met up with his son, Nachum Velvel in New York. Rav Dessler asked his son who had help him during his years alone in America? His son mentioned several people in New York along with Rabbi Eliezer Silver, the head of Agudah Israel and the rav of Cincinnati. Rav Dessler said, “We must thank him.”
His son offered to place a telephone call to Rabbi Silver, but Rav Dessler wanted to show personal hakaros hatov to Rabbi Silver. Nachum Velvel and his father then took a nine hour train ride to Ohio, arriving at 5:00 am in Cincinnati. Then went to Rabbi Silver’s home and waited on the porch to meet Rabbi Silver as he left his house for davening.
Rabbi Silver met his two guests when he woke up and they all went to shul and then back to the Silver’s for breakfast. After a bite to eat, Rabbi Silver said, “So, Rav Dessler, what brings you to Cincinnati?” Rav Dessler said that he had only come to show appreciation to Rabbi Silver for all he had done for his son.
Rabbi Silver thought about this and again asked, “So, Rav Dessler, what really brings you to Cincinnati?”
Rav Dessler said that he had no other purpose that to show hakaros hatov. Rabbi Silver asked, “Rav Dessler, what can I do for you?”
Rav Dessler, for a third time, repeated that he only wished to show gratitude to Rabbi Silver in person.
Rabbi Silver finally gave up and muttered, “This must be mussar.”
(Paraphrased from the Artscroll biography of Rav Dessler, by Yonoson Rosenbloom)

This is one of my favorite Rav Dessler stories. It embodies, what I think is the best of the mussar movement. I’m not even on the same radar screen as Rav Dessler, but I can relate to this story. My actions need to be in sync with how I live my life. This is what Rav Dessler (or any Adam Gadol) is all about. A simple “thank you” isn’t enough sometimes. We need to go out of our way (in Rav Dessler’s case he went nine hours out of his way) to do the right thing and put your money where your mouth is.
To show gratitude or do a chesed to a spouse, parent, teacher, or even a child who needs to be acknowledged is the right thing. For Rav Dessler, he felt he had no choice but to travel to Cincinnati. For me, walking across the street or just to the livingroom can make a big difference to someone. We have know idea what effect our actions can have on others. Have a great day!

Rav Yisrael Salanter’s 13 Midos- #11

Righteousness: In the normal sense of justice; and also as the sages interpret the term- give up what is yours even when not required to do so

Earlier this morning in shul I (along with anyone else who went to shul) heard:
“Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the land the Lord, your God, is giving you.” Devarim 16:20

As I enter Elul, I wonder what is the true meaning of “Righteousness”, justice, or Tzedek?
There are mitzvos that seem to make since based on how things run in a society that is governed by basic human rights (Rav Hirsch dedicates a great deal to this concept in his commentary on Chumash and several chapters specifically in Horeb and in the Nineteen Letters, but a discussion about his views will be for another time). Maybe this is what Rav Yisrael means by “in the normal sense of justice”?
I think it means that we all have certain thing that we are entitled to. When I say that we are entitled to certain things, I really mean that Hashem gives me what I need at a certain time. Ultimately, Hashem deals with me in a way that my needs are fulfilled based on my merits. There are exceptions to every rule, and some people do seem to get more in life than we may think that they merit. Reb Nachman has a whole teaching about this (the Treasury of Unearned Gifts).

Rav Yisrael goes on to give us a better definition of Tzedek, “give up what is yours even when not required to do so”. To me, it doesn’t get more practical that this. Just because something is “yours” you can still give it up.
A few examples come to mind: giving up your parking spot, giving up your seat in shul (putting aside the concept of “makom kevuah” for a minute), your kids giving up their room for a guest, not taking the last brownie, , giving up a smile or a kind work, or (and this just happened to me) giving up on taking the credit for a great one-liner during kiddush after shul (I’m only using this as an example. When my line was used by someone after they heard me say it I was, truthfully, kind of upset, but then decided that it really wasn’t worth it only because the goal of what I said was to bring a little humor and levity to the kiddush, and not to show how witty I could be).

I find it interesting that Rav Yisrael’s great- grandson, Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler took this concept of giving and taught the Torah observant world that it is giving that leads us to love, not love that leads us to giving. Rav Dessler, in fact, devided the world into two types of people: Givers and Takers. To quote from Rabbi Aryeh Carmell’s translation of Michtav Me-Eliyahu, “Man has been granted this sublime power of giving, enabling him too be merciful, to bestow happiness, to give of himself.” (Strive For Truth! Volume I, page 119)

As each day brings me closer to Rosh Hashanah, I hope I can be a giver, and not a taker.

If anyone is interested in viewing what Elul was like back in the day, please feel free to read Elul in Slabodka.

I’m sorry for not posting too much last week, but I decided to greatly reduce my online time and blog reading/commenting. Last week was a difficult exercise in self-control, but I managed. I’m still reading/commenting, but I’ve set aside certain time at night to do so (and not every night). Going online and checking email throughout the day is something of a habit for most of us. I found it, in some ways, conciously controling my urges to check email/blogs much more difficult that some of the things I stopped doing when I became frum.

On a more serious note, please, if you can, continue to daven for Reuven ben Tova Chaya. The health of any child is a true Bracha from Hashem.

A Matter of Perspective

Menuchas HaNefesh, Yishuv HaDaas, Reframing… it really doesn’t matter what title we use… the bottom line is that at times we need to put thing into perspective.
I learned this lesson when I was in 6th grade. Not in school or on the playground, but from “Return of the Jedi”. Straight from George Lucas’ script…
“BEN: Luke, you’re going to find that many of the truths we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”

Later I learned that Rashi said it first in Parsha Shelach about the Meraglim viewing themselves as grasshoppers. Most recently on Father’s Day I forgot all that I learned from the above.

My wife planned the perfect father’s day for me. I got a photo cube to put on my desk at work (retro, but cool), a great breakfast, a trip with my family and brother (who was visiting us from NYC) to both a nature museum and a zoo, met up with some close friends who were in town, and then home for some pizza. I was aware the entire day that my family loves and appreciates me. I felt blessed that I didn’t work on Sundays. I was happy to be living somewhere with an excellent quality of life for myself and my family.
As we walked into our home, I noticed something that bothered me. I let it bother me too much, and my fantasitc day was totally wiped from my personal hard-drive. All the fun and good times were out the door.

How often do we get caught up on things that really don’t matter? I know for myself, even once, is one time too many. Someone doesn’t say hello to you in shul, you can’t find your car keys, a toy is left on the floor, the bakery sold the last chocolate cream pie, or you get a stain on your shirt while drinking something that’s not on your diet to begin with. Of couse, none of this is from personal experience. 🙂

I remember hearing in yeshiva, and then reading years later in the Rav Dessler biography about Rav Eliyahu Lopian. The story goes that he was once in Yerushayim waiting for a bus. As he sat with a sefer, he stopped learning for a second and looked up to see if the bus was coming. He told the bachur sitting with him that had he still been in Kelm, he would have gotten an hour long mussar shmooze. Why? Because looking to see if a bus is coming doesn’t make it come any faster! To get distracted from learning to look for a bus? What’s the point? You are in control of yourself, not in control of the bus.

Of course, I only remembered this story two days after Father’s Day. I was biking tonight, trying to clear my head and gather my thoughts. I was hoping, somehow, to gain a better perspective on things. Not the big things like family, work, tuition, summer camp, bills, shopping for Shabbos, or even what to wear tomorrow. I’m working on trying to gain a better perspective on the little things that shouldn’t bother me, but do. Zeh Lo Chashuv, right? What’s one thing that bothers you (that’s really not so important)?

I looked at my wife tonight, and thought, “Father’s Day, hah. What a joke. The real star is her. She puts up with me, deals with the kids, and navigates each of life’s ordeals with a calmness not seen by many.” I wish I could be more like her.