Category Archives: lessons

The Baal HaTanya and the carriage

carriageI was in the process of transcribing the story below that Rav Moshe Weinberger gave on Shabbos Bereishis (and repeated here from a shiur at YU) and, Baruch Hashem, Dixie Yid posted the official drasha based on Rav Weinberger’s notes. I was zoche to be in Woodmere for Simchas Torah and heard the drasha on Shabbos. When I heard the story below, I immediately knew that it was something that was going to stay with me for a long, long time and be something that hovers over me. I am pleased to share the story, as posted by Dixie Yid, below. Please click on the story to read the entire drasha.

 There is a story of the Alter Rebbe, as told by Reb Mottel Slonimer, who is known as one of the most accurate transmitters of chassidic stories, as follows: The Alter Rebbe was at a crossroads early in his life. He was one of the most successful young scholars in Europe and had already mastered the Talmud and halachic authorities. At that point, he felt that he had two choices; to study with the Gaon of Vilna or the Magid of Mezrich. He first chose to study with the Magid of Mezrich.  Although this is not part of Reb Mottel Slonimer’s tradition, it is told that the Alter Rebbe explained his decision to study with the Magid rather than the Gaon of Vilna by saying, “I already know how to learn a little bit, but I haven’t yet learned how to daven.” 

The Alter Rebbe studied with the Magid for several weeks, but he felt that he had not found himself; that the Magid of Mezrich was not the right Rebbe for him. As was the custom at the time, the Alter Rebbe visited the Magid to bid him farewell and seek a blessing for his journey home. During the visit, the Magid accepted his decision, but told him that he should also say goodbye to “the Malach, the angel,” i.e., the Magid’s son Reb Avraham who was known as the Malach because of his great holiness. 

The Alter Rebbe agreed and bid farewell to the Malach, who would later become the Alter Rebbe’s chevrusa. He offered to walk the Alter Rebbe to his horse, wagon, and driver. Before the Alter Rebbe got onto the wagon, the Malach said, “When you get into the wagon, you will see that the driver will smack the horse and it will begin running in an attempt to distance itself from the smack. And then the driver will smack the horse again, and it will run even faster, trying to escape the one pain of the whip. And it will continue on this way throughout your journey. But an intelligent person [Baal Daas] is not a horse. When an intelligent person feels a smack, he does not simply run away from it. He looks back to see who is smacking him and why he is being smacked.”

Being a deep and contemplative person, the Alter Rebbe understood the Malach’s message and stayed in Mezrich, ultimately becoming one of the star students of the Magid. May we all merit to understand the message of the wagon (עגלה)  and look beyond the suffering of the world of strict justice to see G-d’s loving kindness, and thus merit the final redemption, quickly (בעגלא) in our days.

Yeah, this was it! This was what I needed to hear. When difficulties come up, when things don’t work out with parnassassah, when chinuch issues arise, I have do decide if I want to look back and see who’s “whipping” me and why or do I want to just be a horse and keep trying to run away?

I am my own worst enemy


drown quote-Cole

I don’t like having to accept or digest that truth that I am, at times, my own worst enemy. It’s uncomfortable for me to hear that truth. It’s even more difficult when I know it myself and don’t take steps to change. Were it not Elul (the month prior the Jewish High Holiday and my tradition sees the month as a time of introspection) I probably would have dismissed this truth. Had I not been actively working on specific middos (character traits) for the past 32 days and also been actively keeping a cheshbon hanefesh (a spiritual accounting) I would have blown off the notion that I am my own worst enemy when I hold myself back. I’m drowning and it’s my fault. I’ve been saying this for the past day, but seeing it typed sort of makes it official. The reality is that it is Elul and if there was ever a time for me to be receptive, then this is the time, baby.

It not easy. The person who carried this message to me is someone that wants what is best for me. Being presented with the opportunity to absorb this truth is sort of a “make it or break it” thing. It’s not a “flight or fight” thing because fleeing from knowing that I’m my own worst enemy means simply lying to myself. Accepting this means only one thing…action. No excuses, rationalizations, or verbal attempts to circumvent reality. Accepting that I am the only one that can take action to change myself (with Hashem’s help) mean also accepting that all isn’t great in Neilville. Using the term connotative dissonance or simply attributing this lack of action to not seeing enough Nike ads (“Just Do It.” doesn’t stop pain of realizing what I need to really change. It’s got nothing to do specific mitzvos (commandments) or middos or my yetzer hora (evil inclination). It’s about connecting both with who I really am and with my creator. I know this not because it was told to me or it was something that I read. I know, but of tears. When we cry it’s either because of joy and not having the proper words to express that joy or it’s because of sadness. A sadness that a person has when their heart is broken. Not broken my someone they love, but broken because they realize they need help and they realize that the path they took wasn’t the right one. The decisions they made only pushed them farther from their potential. Maybe this resonates with someone, I don’t know. What I know is that it’s from the heart.

“There is nothing as whole, or as perfect, as a broken heart.” – Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, the Kotzker Rebbe

If a heart is broken then how can it be whole? Because once we have a broken heart then we can see what is needed to mend it.  Like the tagline at the end of the old G.I. Joe cartoons, “…and knowing is half the battle.” When I know my deficiencies, my weak points, and the root of them (in this case, holding myself back from what needs to be done), then I’m able to see the actions that can repair things. This makes a broken heart whole. This gets you to swim so that you don’t drown.

If you can’t beat them…then move on

Found online here

Found online here

My neighborhood in Chicago is home to many people, like myself, who are Kosher consumers. As a Jewish family we strictly follow the Jewish dietary laws about what we eat (and how we eat it). There are several exclusively Kosher grocery stores/bodegas establishments in our area and, of course, two major chain affiliated supermarkets. We have Jewel-Osco (which is owned by Albertsons) and Dominick’s (which is owned by Safeway). Almost ten years ago, the Jewel-Osco store made a major investment (following the model of other Albertsons and Acme stores) and made a “Kosher marketplace” that includes a Kosher Chinese take-out restaurant, Tein Li Chow, a bakery, deli counter, fish counter, extensive frozen food, dry goods aisles, and vast wine department all under Kosher supervision. Most will agree that it was an investment that has and will continue to pay off for the store.

Meanwhile, just about 1 1/2 miles away is the Dominick’s store. While Safeway wasn’t willing to invest in a deli, fish, or wine department exclusively Kosher, they did try to expand their frozen foods and dry goods volume into one massive and fairly well stocked aisle. I am sure some die-hard Dominick’s fans stayed loyal, but with the amenities for the Kosher consumer at Jewel combined with Albertsons’ buying power, Dominick’s did lose some business (along with most of the independent Kosher grocery stores).

About a month ago, the Dominick’s store got a new manager. He sized up the Kosher competition very quickly and made a very calculated and somewhat radical move. He reduced the amount of frozen and dry goods Kosher products in the store. He moved his now condensed Kosher dry goods into the front of the store in an easy to navigate double sided aisle and then put other ethnic and imported foods next to them, as an “international marketplace” area. If you enter the store from the South entrance it’s hard not miss the Kosher items. Again, not such a massive selection, but it’s uber-easy to find items and saves time. I complimented him on the smart move and said that most of the Kosher customers that have stuck with Dominick’s know exactly what items they need and this will save them time. He agreed and said that this new configuration was the first thing he wanted to do when he took over the store.

I grew up with the idea from pop culture that, “If you can’t beat them…join them.” This idea has fueled commercial competition in technology, TV shows on competing networks, the music and film industry, food and beverages, book publishers, etc. It seems everywhere we look we people are competing with others. Dominick’s took a different route, one that allowed them to focus their efforts on the strengths within their store. This is a great life lesson.

From time to time I find myself comparing what my own community/job/friendships/cell phone has to offer and what it seems to be missing when compared with an alternative. Sometimes my narrow vision is so fixated on what I believe I am missing to the point of it being debilitating. The lesson for me is to accept that you can’t always beat them or join them. The only viable option is to move on, accentuate the strengths, and focus on being the best that you can be.

Since you are still reading, please check out the great article on Copyblogger titled, “5 Reasons You Should Embrace Rejection“.

The battle we know nothing about



The above sentence is both profound, practical, instructive, and chock full o’ brilliance. It was written by Wendy Mass, from her book, THE CANDYMAKERS. I haven’t read the book, but it was easy enough to Google the quote.
There is a fairly popularized proverb that I first saw in one of Rabbi Paysach Krohn’s “Magid” books that states the idea that if everyone’s “peckelach”–bags of troubles/challenges/heartaches-were hung out on a line for all to view and choose from, we would look at everyone else’s and then stick with our own “peckelach”.
So, the person you are sitting next to during your morning commute might look like they have their act together and are “living the dream, baby,” but they also might be dealing with a personal problem that we could never image dealing with. The person in front of you in shul might look like they are, mamesh, davening like they are in the Beis Hamikdash, but maybe they have trouble with something as “basic” as reading Hebrew and English fluently. The kid in you child’s class who always seems to get their teacher’s extra attention year after year after might
be subjugated to the most horrific family situation that you could ever imagine. The moreh who teaches your child in the mornings, has two other “part time” jobs in the afternoon (plus one on Sunday) and still manages to clean the house, help the kinder with their homework, make dinner every night, and lead a weekly Tehillim group might be hiding a secret that would ruin many lives. We just don’t know what others have to deal with.
This is especially important to think about as we end our year and enter into a new one surrounded by a series of days that, literally, can change our future.

Dishing out opinions


Image found here

Image found here

The Alter of Novardok, Rabbi Yosef Yozel Hurwitz zt’l, taught that kosher utensils could be either meat, dairy, or parve, but a man cannot be pareve, he is only one way or the other. I have been thinking about this teaching for a good part of the summer (which is almost over since my kids started school this week).

Most of us have opinions. It’s part our personality. I, in my more colorful past, always had something to say about everything. Eventually as I got older, I curtailed my opinions on many social, political, religious, and community issues. In my more formative years of being frum I looked towards the middah of humility, anivus, as a crutch not to have such a strong opinion on things. This is completely the wrong way to behave. It was a mistake of my youth and one I regret. We all have opinions about things we are truly passionate about. It’s part of being created B’zelem Elokeim and emulating Hashem. Humility doesn’t mean you have to keep your mouth shut all of time.

“Man cannot be pareve,” say the Alter. We just can’t, because deep down inside us is a little voice giving an opinion. Those that claim to not have an opinion about things, really just don’t want to share their opinion with you or make it public. Not expressing your view is sometimes worse than voicing your opinion. Over the years I’ve seen relationships and friendships dissolve like sugar in a pot of boiling water because people try not to side with one party or the other. I have seen business deals destroyed, reputations soiled, and families torn asunder because people try not to take a side on an issue.

I am not advocating that we all need to make picket signs for every little cause we can think of, but it’s important to make known how you stand on an issue. This is especially true, I think, with your children. Children, as they grow up, need to understand the nuances of halacha, minhag, and hashkafa. They will only understand if they see us and the decisions we make. For example, if you don’t explain to your kids which hechsharim your family eats, then they might think that any hechshar is acceptable. I want my children to have opinions and know that it’s ok to speak up and defend someone. I want them to not be afraid to be in the minority about something they believe to be emes, the truth. I want them to follow the example of their parents, especially their mother. So, I guess that means that 5774 will be a year of finding a voice to express my opinion.

Loshon Hora in the age of social media

Exploding Pillow from istockphoto

Exploding Pillow from istockphoto

A common textbook example of Loshon Hora, the Torah prohibition about speaking despairingly about someone, is the visualization of someone cutting open a pillow and then trying to collect all of the feathers as they blow away. With the ease of distributing information thanks to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram this illustration of a pillow is almost outdated.

While it’s probably faster to use social media to “speak” Loshon Hora, the medium of choice is still talking to someone to old fashion way. It’s much more juicy  and enticing to simply pick up a phone or tell a friend some “news” while you are waiting to pick up your kids from camp or waiting in line for some kugel at a kiddush. Why? Because we still like to have actual conversations with other people.

You can PM (private message) your friend to tell them what you just heard about so-and-so, but typing the actual words isn’t a worthy substitute for speaking the words. It’s like the difference between reading about a great meal and actually smelling and tasting the meal. The object, be it a 5-course meal or insider news about someone in your community, can’t fully be replicated if it is transmitted by the written word. Go ahead try it. Go to Twitter or Facebook and write some Loshon Hora about someone. Don’t press SEND, please. Just look at the words and imagine saying them. It’s a different feeling.

Of course, I am not suggesting or advocating Loshon Hora is an acceptable thing to do. It isn’t. That being said, I am guessing that most people (not that they will ever read this) wouldn’t use social media to spread gossip about someone’s daughter, spouse, mother-in-law, school administrator, or doctor. The reason they would’t use Twitter or Facebook is because once it’s out there (unless you SEND and then DELETE right away) it can be traced back to the originator. With Loshon Hora of the spoken variety, as the originator you can always say, “I don’t remember who told me,” or, “I really can’t reveal my source, because it would be Loshon Hora.”

The bottom line is that talking about other people is hurtful, regardless of if it is the truth, half-truth, or completely untrue. Negative words about someone have the power to follow someone for years and also can reach someone’s ears before you even meet them.

Hislamdus from trains

West end of the Bloomingdale Trail July 2013

West end of the Bloomingdale Trail July 2013

I took the two photographs above while walking on the “Bloomingdale Trail” in Chicago. This unused 2.7 miles of elevated railroad tracks and footpaths is slated to become a park and trail system connecting four neighborhoods by fall of 2014 (similar to the High Line in NYC).

I recently took my son and two close friends of his to walk the “Bloomingdale”. It was so cool to be walking 16 feet above street level and getting a very unique perspective of Chicago. We walked over and next to parks, streets, schools, old factory buildings, and residential areas for about 30 minutes. On a second trip there, last week, I walked the entire stretch of 2.8 miles from beginning to end and back again. It was on this excursion that found the two abandoned trains. They had been left there and over the years had become part of the urban landscape. I had wanted to walk the entire Bloomingdale Trail prior to it’s face-lift and reconstructive surgery.

These abandoned tracks and the footpaths made by joggers and bicyclists will loose some of their character when the city of Chicago transforms them into park area and trails. As I looked at and examined the these two sets of train cars I reflected on how they, at one time, served a purpose holding cargo of one type or another, but without an engine pulling them they were rendered non-functional. I thought about myself and how I can have big grand ideas and projects in my mind, but if they are not “attached” to an action plan or any measurable movement, then they are just plans, sitting abandoned on a railroad track.

Hislamdus, teaching oneself/learning from things, is key for those who try to invest time in working on themselves. This is what I was doing with the train cars. As I walked back to my entry point (which involved climbing through a cut out passageway in a fence) I was reminded of a something  taught by Rav Yisrael Salanter. When he first observed the railroad system he was able to extract three important lessons: If you come late, you will miss the train; if the train jumps the rail, then all of the cars might overturn; a person without a ticket cannot board the train.

6 Things we can learn from the Kabbalah Centre

From the Kabbalah Centre website

Last month I found myself in a northern suburb of Chicago for a meeting. I arrived early and tried to locate a used book store I had read about on Yelp. It seems that the bookstore had closed, but I did see a branch of the Kaballah Centre. I knew they had a location in Chicago, but I had no clue they had a branch in Highland Park, IL. If you know me, then you know that I will often say that I’m not hardwired for Kabballah. I have tried reading  Inner Space by Rav Aryeh Kaplan zt’l, like, a dozen times and couldn’t get past page 30. I even tried reading it when I turned 40 and I still felt like my head was spinning. I could barely understand the essay at the beginning of  Horev titled “Samson Rafael Hirsch and the Kabbalah”.

However, the former kiruv professional in me was curious about a few things:
How long have they been in Highland Park?
How many Jewish people come and how many non-Jewish people come in?
What kind of programming they offer?
How many people that come in end up coming back again?
I walked in and was approached by a really nice lady who took time to get to know me. I got some answers to my questions and a quick tour. After speaking with her, I signed up for their email list. In the 15 minutes that I was there I saw 6 other people park their cars and come inside and were treated in the same friendly manner.
I looked around their massive location with multiple rooms and realized their approach was a mix of the following models: Barnes & Noble, the Apple store, and a little Starbucks.
I also realized that there are a few things that mekarvim could learn from this Kabbalah Centre (it’s the only one I have ever gone into).
  1. Brick and Mortar signifies that you are here to stay- In my opinion, the kiruv organizations and kollelim that have a real phyical address tend give an impression that “we are here to stay”. If you organization has always been run out of someone’s basement or using a desk and a phone in someone else’s office, the organization appear to be temporary.
  2. Let people get something free just for coming in- The Centre had a table right inside their entrance with bottles of water just sitting their waiting to be taken. Next to the bottles were multiple copies of a new book that they had just published. People like free things and getting some water to drink when you look around a shul, school, kollel, or outreach center automatically says, “Hey, we are really happy you came by today.”
  3. Brand, brand, and brand- Everything in the store that was for sale from DVDs, to books, to mezuzzah housings, to red strings and magnets was produced by the Kaballah Center. Chabad, I believe, is the only group out there that could even pull this off, since they have their only publishing house. The take-home-idea is that if people walk into your kiruv center they should get the impression that you are not only supplying books and one-on-one learning program. Today’s adults, even the empty nesters that have email and Facebook want to feel like they is more than just one items being offered in their search for authentic Judaism, people want to feel like they have choices. That why programs that offer a Hebrew School and congruent programming for the parents are so important.
  4. Be friendly and get a commitment from someone before they walk out the door- I was approached after I had been in the store of 40 seconds. The person was friendly, asking me if I lived in the area, have I ever studied Kabbalah, and passively insisted that she get my email address. She even said that I could unsubscribe at any time. Anyone who is anyone in Kiruv will tell you that you have to engage with each person and connect with them and you do your best to get contact info, unless it’s Shabbos and you know you aren’t going to remember anything. However, I have never heard anyone say that you can chose to unsubscribe to an email list, that’s the chiddush.
  5. Leather chairs and a quiet room are golden- This Kabbalah center had awesome leather chairs and a small sofa in a room on the side, with a DVD playing one of their video classes. There was a small bookshelf with a few books and a copy of the Zohar. I sat there for a few minutes and no one from their staff came into speak with me. They did walk by, but the idea was that this room is a “safe place” where people could just lounge around and chill.
  6. Inform don’t sell- During my conversation with one of the people who runs the Centre, I was informed about their study session on Lag B’Omer, the classes and workshops available and their other Centre in Chicago that was closer to where I live. I was also told about a number of free apps they have for both Android and iPhones and if I went to their website I could even order books that are free (shipping not included). There was no pressure to by anything, I just got information and signed up for emails.

All in all, I left there, still not hardwired for Kabballah. I was, however, thinking that if non-Orthodox Jews are coming here seeking a way to connect to Judaism, then why can’t we, as Torah observant Jews offer them something besides Kaballah.

If you could come up with one idea or concept to help bring others towards Yiddishkeit, what would it be?