Monthly Archives: July 2011

The middah of chillaxing and coffee

I have always looked for places to recharge, to think, to read, to relax.  Not so much because my life is so chaotic, but because I value the middah of chillaxing (which falls somewhere between yeshuv hadaas and menucha).    This is probably a leftover habit from my high school days.  I loved hanging out in used book stores and pretty much anywhere that offered bottomless cups of coffee.  After high school when I lived NYC,  I also sought outdoors/nature type locations where I could just sit for a while and think/meditate/hisbodedus (of course that can be done anywhere).  When trying to chillax, the constant was always coffee.  I inherited from my father a’h a love of good coffee and the joy of searching for off-the-beaten-derech places.  It’s the slacker in me that loves sitting with a cup of something caffeinated and a sefer.   
Speaking of coffee, I know I’m in the minority among bloggers, but the cRc’s “Starbucks beverage guidelines” have only helped me in my search for a great place to chill-out with an iced beverage.  For me, it only really means giving up iced coffee at some places and I’m fairly open to their recommendations. 

When I lived in NYC I had a close friend and we would trek all over Manhattan checking out coffee joints.  For me, places that we liked fell into one of two categories:  spots I would recommend to others and those few places that I’d keep to myself and not even take a date to until I knew that I’d marry her (for fear that if we stopped dating she would tell her friends about the coffee bar and then it would become frequented by other frum people).

My most recent search in Chicago has brought me to a cross-roads that I often think about.  Allegiance to the spirit of the independent coffee bar versus  the consistency of a corporation.  The inner post-punk in me loves the feel and look of an independent  store.  However, it only takes one bad drink to realize and appreciate the uniformity and reliability that is offered by a “chain” of big green Starbucks locations.  I am all for non-chain places, but there’s a comfort and reassuring feeling of going to a big green.  Sort of like when you enter a new shul and find a familiar siddur or chumash, you feel more at ease.    Chicago happens to fit both bills.  With some web-base hunting, I’ve found some interesting locations to grab an iced latte.  That’s the good news.  The bad news, is that a majority of the places with high reviews are not open past 8 pm.  Granted, being married with kids, if I am out past 9PM it usually means I’m grocery shopping or at minyan, but late hours is key for a coffee bar.  Chicago, being the first city outside of Seattle to have Starbucks locations, also has plenty of locations all over open until, at least, 9 PM. 

The need to spend time alone and without seeing people that I know is something that I tend to value.  Don’t get me wrong, I love people and can pretty much talk to anyone, but being by myself (with something to read) every once in a while is something that I appreciate it.   I know many people who “veg out” in front of the TV or unwind by going online (I’m guilty of this, too), but I find more of a lasting value in sitting in the shade at a park, biking, or inside somewhere drinking an iced beverage and turning pages every few minutes. 

Years ago, I dreamt of opening up a slick coffee bar (under an acceptable hechshar, of course).  It would have various sefrei machshava available for the customers, offer a retreat from the hectic daily routine, be semi-family friendly, double as a performance space, be an acceptable location for high school aged kids to hang out, be “Jewish” enough for non-orthodox Jews, but not too “Jewish”, and offer informal learning in a laid back environment.   The floor would be unfinished, there would be a minimum of one wall with exposed brick, the ceiling would have pipes and free hanging lighting, Reb Shomo playing softly over the sound system , and if you opened the front door for someone, you be paid with a “Thank you”.

Alas, I’m happy these days to find someplace with free parking and no annoying music.

The need to spend time alone and without seeing people that I know is something that I tend to value.  Don’t get me wrong, I love people and can pretty much talk to anyone, but being by myself (with something to read) every once in a while is something that I appreciate it.   I know many people who “veg out” in front of the TV or unwind by going online (I’m guilty of this, too), but I find more of a lasting value in sitting in the shade at a park, biking, or in this case,  inside somewhere drinking an iced beverage and turning pages every few minutes.  A throwback to my more carefree days, probably.  I look at it like a retreat, like Shabbos or being in a Sukkah.  A temporary recharge.

"Making an empty space for new thought"

Photo from here

The sefer Da Es Nafshecha teaches the following:

When Hashem created the world, He first created an empty space to allow room for the world to exist.  This can be compared to making the preparations require to erect a building.  First, a large hole must be dug in order to lay a foundation; otherwise, the building won’t last.  In fact, the deeper the foundation, the more stable the building will be.  So too, when a person wants to access the foundation of his thought, he must first access the empty space that is the place for the foundations.  This empty space is the source of our thoughts.

Often in Jewish meditation writings (based on Torah-true sources) the phrase “empty tge mind” is used.  Base on this teaching, I think my own approach of mentally clearing out the garage or warehouse isn’t really the goal.  Looking below the surface and clearing out the foundation should be my starting point.

Weight Watchers and mussar

About four weeks ago I took the plunge and joined Weight Watchers.  I had joined once before, back in 2004 (when we lived in Indianapolis) and had lost twenty pounds.  Since then I had done a fairly good job of keeping fourteen of those off, but since my father a’h has passed away (just over a year and a half ago) I have put on that weight back on and finally got sick of it.  I’ve been slowly losing weight every week and have also changed what I’ve been eating, such as introducing these weird things people refer to as fruits and vegetables.   I attempt to be the kind of guy who extracts as many lessons as I can from things I experience and here are a few thoughts regarding Weight Watchers and mussar.
  • Tracking- With Weight Watchers, all food/beverages have point values (now it’s called Point Plus).  Having a written or digital record or what you eat helps you see your habits offers accountability.  As a person who as practiced the technique of Cheshbon HaNefesh (making an accounting of your soul and daily activities, struggles, and successes) on and off for almost 20 years this isn’t new to me, which is why I don’t mind “tracking” (many in Weight Watchers can’t stand tracking).  Seeing where you spend your points, what difficulties you have during the day, or even what food victories you’ve had helps give you a feeling of accomplishment.  Being able to go back and look at what was difficult in previous weeks helps you learn and focus on future goals. 
  • Everything counts- Foods and beverages have values (as mentioned above).  Water is zero points, so are pears, apples, cauliflower, carrots, etc.  I am allocated a specific number of points per day.  How I choose to gain those points, is my choice.  This has allowed me to understand that there are trade-offs.  For example, if I want to use four points, do I get more energy and nutrition from a 4 point shot of bourbon or a four point granola bar?  I haven’t given up a l’chaim after kiddush on Shabbos morning, but I understand it’s spending points and there is a trade off.  This got me thinking about mitzvos.  We are taught not to ascribe a value/reward for a mitzvah against another mitzvah, because we don’t know its value.  Conversely, when it comes to those actions that move us away from Kedusha (holiness) and our Creator we don’t know what the negative value is.  Things are not always what they seem.  A small piece of candy might have four points, while a large apples is still zero points.  The apple is, by far, a healthier choice and give one more energy.  A seemingly trivial mitzvah in our eyes might have a huge value to our creator, even it the “point value” is zero.  
  • Ratzon- I have found that being more watchful of what I eat and drink has helped me focus on what I want vs. what I need.  Just this past Monday I was in a grocery store and went through a moral battle regarding if I really wanted a piece of fried chicken.  I had already cheshboned the point value and I knew, based on what I was planning to eat for dinner, that I had the extra points available to “spend” on that perfectly crispy fried little chicken leg.  I bought it.  It sat in my car for the ride home and it’s currently in the fridge.  I didn’t need it.  I wanted it, but didn’t need it.  Had I been the better man, I wouldn’t have spent the $1.29 for it.  However, I’m realizing that it’s a choice.  This is real free will.  Rav Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler zt’l has a whole teaching about something called the “bechira-point”, which explains that there are specific challenges that allow us to truly exercise the God-given gift of free will.  His example is in regard to observing Shabbos.  If you have been keeping the laws of Shabbos for a number of years (or your whole life) then you really have no urge to flick on a light if it’s dark in a room.  Your soul understands that this isn’t what Hashem wants you to do, so there’s really no showing of free will with this.  You might have had to struggle with this in the past, but as time moved on your bechira (free will) moved from being a choice, to being a habit.  As such, your bechira-point has moved.  I knew that my habits were changing two weeks ago, when I opted to buy an apple for a snack instead of a Reese’s Peanut Butter cup (my all time favorite candy) because the candy was 6 points and I accepted that at the time I didn’t need it.  In the sefer Da Es Nafshecha, Rabbi Itmar Shwartz  has a whole chapter on ratzon and actually give the example of the desire to eat come chicken.  As it turns out, I didn’t read this until two days my incident with the fried chicken.  
  • Getting on the scale- Every week, as part of Weight Watchers, you weigh in.  This is your official weight for the week.  Now I’ve observed that people weigh in differently.  Some take off their shoes, empty their pockets, take off eye glasses, etc.  I get it, they want to be the lightest they can be, because the scale doesn’t lie, it’s fairly final for that week.  Rabbi Akiva Tatz mentions in LIVING INSPIRED the idea (based on teaching of Rav Dessler zt’l) when you start Shabbos Kodesh and also when you are niftar (pass away) that whatever madrega (level) you are in terms of holiness and perfections is frozen during that time period.  If you are on level 6 (based on a scale of 1-10) when Shabbos starts or when you go to the next word, then that’s your level for that period.  You can’t change it.  Sort of like the weight that’s reported on the scale.  This is why it’s suggested to weigh around the same time each week.  Your weekly weight is the point of reference for either gaining or losing for the next week.
  • Influencing others- I find it fascinating that slowly, thanks to my wife, our family is adapting to my new eating habits.  There are basically two ways to be mash’piah (influence) others, actively or passively.  It’s recommended that I eat five servings of fruit day.  Four weeks ago I started with one (going from one serving a week, on a good week) and I’m currently up to three servings.  By the time I come home from work (or a Weight Watchers meeting) my kids are home from camp they are starving.  Immediately after joining Weight Watchers I attempted to actively influence them by suggesting that if they are hungry they should have some fruit or drink a glass of water (or Crystal Light).  Their basic response was, “You packed us an apple for our lunch already.  We want a real snack.”  I decided then and there not to suggest fruit and use the passive approach.  Instead, when I felt hungry, I would mention it and then proceed to grab some fruit to snack on and make sure my kids saw me do it.  After doing this for exactly a week, I noticed that my son also started “snacking” on an apple at home when he was hungry.  Children are much more observant than we give them credit for.  They notice everything and sometimes just being a good example can influence them.
  • You can’t do it alone- OK, some people probably can, but getting reinforcement from discussions with leaders and peers can’t hurt.  Rabbi Yisrael Salanter knew this over 150 years ago.  He and his students (and their students) innovated such revolutionary ideas like a Beis HaMussar (a small dwelling or room where one can practice mussar techniques and discuss ideas in privacy) and mussar vaadim (a group or chabura that would get together on a regular basis to work on a specific character trait or mussar teaching).  They would chant, discuss text regarding the subject of the day and share their feelings and report on their success and challenges during the previous week.  This is pretty much what happens at a Weight Watchers meeting (and any “fill in the blank” Anonymous meeting). 

For me, the similarities between what is part and parcel of Weight Watchers and what I’ve learned from Mussar seem to fit together like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich (which has a Points Plus value of nine).

Ohel’s advice

This was posted on Ohel’s website


Everyone is horrified by the events of the past two days and that a young child walking home could be abducted and murdered. How do we explain this to our children? How do we help them, and for that matter ourselves, make sense of this?
It is important to have an age-appropriate conversation with your children. Children may hear information which often is incomplete and even erroneous. Hearing from you, their parents, the people they trust and love, is the best source for information and reassurance.

  1. Prepare for your conversation with your children and have a unified message. Be in the right frame of mind and devote your full attention to this discussion. Are you ready to have this important conversation though you may not have answers to some of the questions?

    Begin the conversation by asking your child what he or she heard. Listen quietly until he or she finishes talking. Before you say more, summarize to your child what you heard him or her say. Keep your sentences short and simple.

  2. Reassure your child that the world is still a basically safe place. Project a sense of confidence in your ability to take care of your children and help them be safe.
  3. Explain in words your child will understand that this was a terrible act committed by a sick person.
  4. What are the rules of the home that you may or may not want to change, for example, if your child has permission to go to the store alone or walk to school alone? You may want to make some changes in the short term, discussing this with your son or daughter and asking them their opinions as well. They may not understand that an event that happened in another community should affect their daily routine. Give practical examples in an age-appropriate way.
  5. Tell your children and reassure them that it is safe to speak to you and important to share what they are thinking and feeling. Most children actually do want to speak and share information with parents, including adolescents.

    Every child, at every age, has questions. Even if they are not asking you questions immediately, go back and check in with them later in the day or over the next few days.
    Keep the dialogue going. Don’t make them anxious or scared by asking them questions too often. It is not unusual for a child to move on from a story very quickly. Young children may even go back to their routine while adults continue to talk about it.

  6. How can you explain to your child that even when they do everything right, a bad thing could happen? For example, asking directions or help crossing the street from a person “in the community”.

    We have long emphasized that “stranger danger” is a very small percentage of the people who hurt our children, that it is mainly people that we know and trust that hurt our children. It is important to talk about this story, but not to overemphasize the particulars of this case because thankfully it occurs in such a very small percentage and we want to be sure our children understand how to respond to the more natural reoccurring life events.
    While we are acknowledging the horrors of this story, we also want to talk about the more common challenges and dangers that our children face every day.

  7. An important lesson that we learn from traumatic events such as 9/11, car accidents, tsunamis, hurricanes, is we tend to create a picture of the worst part of the story, for example, the planes crashing into the World Trade Center. This is natural, but what we want to remember more is the life of the people involved. This is similar to how we are advised to pay a shiva call. We are supposed to talk about the life of the niftar much more than the details of the death.

    In this instance, you can also emphasize the extraordinary response by the community and show of support, which provides a positive and reassuring message.

  8. When you end your conversation, ask your child to summarize what you spoke about. Don’t push if your child can’t do this, but if he or she can, it is better to hear it in their words and it will give you a good picture of what they understand.
  9. Plan a response to “red flags”. It may be innocuous, a young child being scared and getting into your bed at night, bedwetting, or fear of the routine. These can all be normal reactions and with reassurance from you knowing that you are there and supportive, they should return to their normal behavior relatively quickly.
  10. Children are strong and resilient and by and large will return to their normal routines. If problems persist, contact your pediatrician or an experienced mental health professional.

OHEL professionals are available to provide support and counseling to any individual and family, as well as visit any school, day camp, overnight camp, summer community or any group that may benefit from such a discussion.

The most important word of a bracha


Soon after it’s publication, I received a copy of Artscroll’s biography, Rav Gifter, by Rabbi Yechiel Spero.  As a close friend pointed out to me, it’s an “easy read”.  This is true, because Rav Gifter zt’l was a gadol that those from America (like myself) could relate to.  Moving from Portsmouth, VA to Balitmore at the age of two, he attended public school until going to NY at age 13 to attend YU’s high school.  His life along with the interviews and accounts of Telz (both in Lithuania and Cleveland) are snapshots of both the destruction and rebirth of a great yeshiva.

I’m about half way through this sefer and I find myself thinking about the following prior to every bracha I make:

One student recalls Rav Gifter aksing them what seemed like a very simple question:  What is the most important word in the blessing of “shehalok nihyeh b’dvaro– through Whose word everything came to be?”

Each of the young men gave their suggestions.  One suggested that Name of Hashem; another thought that it might be Melech (King).  But Rav Gifter’s answer remained with this talmid some 65 years later.

“The word Atah [You] is the most important word.  It shows us that we have a personal relationship with the Al-mighty.”
(page 84)