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Author Archives: Neil Harris
Star Wars, agenda, and Achdus
Spoiler, there isn’t much substance to I what have to say. Also, I am spoiling the end of the Skywalker saga. After reading an excellent essay by Rabbi Harry Maryles that was a reaction to an eloquently writing article by the OU’s President, Rabb Mark Bane (whose writing I absolutely love) I decided to do something that I normally don’t do when after reading a post by Rabbi Maryles, I went to the comments. Reading them, it hit me, all of his readers must be Star Wars fans. Why, because the joke is that no one hates Star Wars more than Star Wars fans. Let me explain.
Like many fans, I can be biased and critical when it comes to change, innovation, or retcon (retroactive continuity) of Star Wars mythology. Many hardcore fans will scream until they are blue in the face about changes in “Force powers”, feminism, Social Justice Wars, lack of lack of race inclusion, and more. Reading over many comments on Rabbi Maryles’ post it seems that most people feel comfortable pushing their agendas as cornerstones of why there can be no Achdus among frum Jews. I even pushed my own agenda by commenting that I’d be embarrassed if a non-Orthodox friend were to read the comments because it’s obvious that we can’t get along. We, frum Jews, are more critical of our brethren than any other group and I believe this is traffic jam stopping the Geulah.
Why, because, as a Star Wars fan, I fell prey to losing sight of the big picture. That picture is that each of us need to celebrate the common ground that we share. No matter if it’s the Yid that complains that the Agudath Israel takes ownership for the Siyum (well, they did organize the thing) or Star Wars fan that complains that Rey was too over-powered of a character the big picture is lost. That picture, in my own little view, is that in the end good triumphs over evil.
Trust me, no legit Star Wars fan is complaining after seeing THE RISE OF SKYWALKER that the Jedi won the ultimate battle. There are no people on Reddit writing posts that express their dismay that the Sith lost. Achdus is about putting aside the things that make us different and focusing of each of us being an eved Hashem and loving Hashem’s Jews, those that follow the Torah like we do and those who don’t. They all count.
Time moves faster than me
I checked my recent writing history today and the last legit post of mine was really 3.5 years ago. For some that’s a long chunk of time. In that time I have seen my kids grow older, starting with my son who is returning next week from his first post high school year learning in Eretz Yisrael, to my oldest daughter officially a senior in high school, to our youngest daughter now having the status of an 8th grader.
I have seen my wife and I go through not so fun times, grown closer together, sat shiva and been in an aveilus for my mother (erev Pesach 2018). I have spent hours over the past few years exploring abandonments, yet not truly exploring the special חלק אלוק ממעל, chelek Elokei mi’maal, that portion of Hashem from above that is with me. I say I am exploring myself, but I don’t think that’s really the case.
I’ve listened, learned, read things that have helped me to continue my growth in Torah and avodas Hashem. I have gone from a state of total social withdrawal from friend to a point where I am on the footpath toward bridges. I have laughed and cried over meaningless things in 2 Avengers movies. I have experienced the death of a former NCSYer/friend.
If I had to pick a highlight of the past year it is seeing my daughter grow as people. I am nervous to see what changes have taken place with my son, but I have a whole summer to spend with him.
Without any pretense I feel that I haven’t changed. I am still a slave to habits, not so nice stellar middos, and a fixed mindset. Despite all my davening and learning I still find it a struggle to redirect these behaviors to something good.
With all that I sit erev Shabbos and write, because, “I don’t have the strength to remain silent,” to quote Rav Kook zya.
Just One Dance
My wife’s comment on Simchas Torah pretty much summed it up, “I feel like this is the biggest tease for you.” You see, my mom a”h was niftar right before Pesach and when I asked a shiloh about how I should observe dancing on Simchas Torah I was told that I should just dance once during each hakafah. In a way it was the biggest tease. I was in a shul whose Morah d’Asra is the person I have learned more Torah from than anyone else in my adult life. I was surrounded by both baalei batim and klei kodesh that were inspired and on fire for Yiddishkeit. While not being the most physically active dude I really do live for dancing on Simchas Torah. Yet, I spent a majority of the night and day sitting with a sefer. I felt as if I’d been put on “pause” while the rest of the world kept moving.
Gnawing at me was a story that Rav Moshe Weinberger, Rav of Cong. Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY always tells before Maariv of Simchas Torah.
Rav Isaac l’Kalover recounted that there was once a Jew who came to a trade show in Leipzig to sell his merchandise. He planned to make a lot of money so he stayed in the nicest hotel he could find. While things didn’t workout as he planned in terms of selling his merchandise, he had a great time in the hotel. He ate the nicest meals that he had even eaten in his life and the bed and room were more comfortable than he had ever experienced in his little town. After a few days, the management began to get a bit worried. They noticed that he wore the same clothes every day, seemed to be enjoying the food a bit too much, and generally didn’t act like someone accustomed to such wealth. One day after this Jew enjoyed a big meal the manager came over to him about his stay and the food. He assured the manager that the had never experienced such nice accommodations or such delicious food and that he was very satisfied.
Still concerned, the manager showed him the bill and asked whether he thought there would be a problem paying it. The man admitted that while he had intended to make a lot of money at the big trade show, things had not worked out and he had no money to pay the bill. Infuriated, the manager grabbed the man and was about to take him to the police who were likely to beat him up and kill him. Protesting, the man said, “Wait! You won’t get any of your money back by handing me over to the police. But I will make an arrangement with you. I am a very talented dancer and I attract big crowds back home. Let me dance outside the restaurant and you will see that my performance will attract a crowd and you will see that the additional business brought into your restaurant will far exceed my bill.
Indeed, the Jew danced up such a storm that a large crowd gathered and ultimately, the business brought in by his dancing far outweighed the cost of his own hotel stay and use of the restaurant. Reb Isaac’l concluded that during the previous year and even Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, we have enjoyed the beautiful accommodations of this world, but that we do not have the Torah and mitzvos to “pay” for our stay here. But as the days of judgment come to an end on Hoshana Raba, we say to Hashem that he should not take us away from the world. The dead cannot serve Hashem. Rather, we promise that we will dance in honor of Hashem and the Torah on Simchas Torah and that our dancing will bring so much honor to heaven, that it will more than “pay” for our stay in this world. (Adapted from Rav Weinberger’s 5775 drasha by Binyomin Wolf)
So, I was left with the question of how effective was my “payment” this year if I was only dancing once per hakafah? Aside from the learning I attempted do do using hakafos this question was running hakafos in my head. I tried to have the kavanah of being as “Simchas Torahdik” as possible while not going as nuts as I would had I not been in a a a aveilus. Even when I came home that night I still wasn’t sure if I had fulfilled my chei’uv by dancing.
However, what questions and reservations I had were washed away when I recalled an offhand remark I heard on my way to shul just the day before on Shabbos morning. I had the honor of waking my friend’s mother to shul (she uses a walker and I had trouble keeping up with her). She mentioned that like myself, she had a son-in-law that was also in aveilus. In the course of our conversation, she said that the whole year of mourning is the last act of kibud av v’em that a person can do, even if it means curtailing your dancing.
“Make His will like your will,” says Rabban Gamliel ben Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi in Pirkei Avos 2:4. I often find ascribing ideas like ‘being m’vater’ (to give up) or ‘bittul’ (to nullify or be selfless) my actions or lack of actions as something of an afterthought. I’m probably not as mindful as I should be about putting my wants or ‘will’ in the proverbial back seat in my Avodas Hashem. In this case the back seat ended up being a front role seat in the social hall/basement of a shul. All in all, not too shabby.
The 8th Yahrtzeit of my Dad a”h
When today comes around I usually think about things my father missed since he has been gone. I decided that this year I’ll attempt to list a number of things my father knowingly and unknowingly accomplished.
He had 3 successful service oriented businesses • He visited Israel • He passed down his love of nature, Frank Lloyd Wright, short road trips, and chopped liver to my brother, David, and I • He turned a hobby of collecting etchings and art into an impressive eBay Store • Was actively involved the the Jewish Burial Society in Wichita, KS • He lived to see his 3 grandchildren • He conditioned me to only eating latkes with sugar sprinkled on top of them • He and Indiana Jones shared a massive dislike of snakes • He left a void in both his family and community • He showed us the challenge of a snipe hunt, the adventure of Bear Rocks in Cooks Forest, PA, and musical antics of Sha Na Na • He happily took me anywhere that interested me including galleries in SoHo, the Guggenheim (a few times), and dozens of bad movies during high school and beyond • He once let me drag him to 5 different Starbucks in one afternoon • He survived multiple trips to zoos, children’s museums, and even Six Flags Great America • When visiting he’d help stock my freezer and occasionally hangers in my closet • He would always try to go to the Lower East Side and take a peek inside Mesivta Tifereth Jerusalem, or as he called it the, “Time Warp Yeshiva.” • He showed my family that you could take an RV into almost any neighborhood in Indianapolis and feel safe • He drove hours upon hours to make sure I got to youth group retreats • He taught me that it’s never too late to change no matter if it involves smoking or working on relationships.
Back to normal
Walking out of shul, the morning after Yom Kippur, a follow early Sunday morning riser casually said to me, “Back to normal, right?”
I was taken off guard (and also hadn’t had any coffee) and responded, “Some may say.” As I got into my car I realized that I really should have told him that I think the whole point isn’t to go “back to normal”, but to have a new normal. If after the past 40 days my habits and attitudes are supposed to go back to the way they were then I have missed the point. I know in the next hour or days or weeks I will be challenged and tested; the decisions, kabballos, and raw confessions I made to Hashem can go either way.
My new normal is one in which I dedicate myself and my energy to the Rabbono Shel Olam. It’s a normal where I think for 30 seconds before I open my mouth to someone in my family when I feel that I am losing my patience. It’s a normal where I constantly ask Hashem to help me find the Simchas haChaim that is within me. It’s a normal where Shevisi Hashem isn’t just a concept but a reality. It’s a normal where I will make mistakes, push myself away from Hashem by aveiros, and know that coming back is my choice. Back to normal, I hope not.
The elephant in the room
I have started this post about 2 dozen times over the past 3 years and I never seem to get more than about 300 words written about why I stopped blogging. Looking back, it's been just over a year since my last post and prior to that there were a few postings every 6-9 months all the back to 2014. I guess the good thing about writing now is that the odds are good that no one will read this and it allows me a little wiggle room with being real about things.
I can pinpoint the moment that I decided to stop writing, it was when I had conveniced myself that I didn't really have anything to say. This was my conclusion after getting dealt a humbling and embarrassing blow, that forced me to be truthful and re-evaluate my middos and myself. Needless to say, it wasn't the best day ever. I lost confidence in myself on multiple levels and found myself retreating, withdrawing both from friends in my community as well as those I had "met" online. I found myself for the next 5 months terribly introverted (not my nature) and unsure of much, besides the fact that my wife and kids loved me. Slowly I got back into the groove of things, but the desire to write seemed overruled by the desire to think I didn't have much to offer online.
I found myself self stuck with a creative desire to express myself and no outlet. Then I succumbed to my official midlife crisis (not the pretend one of forming a band), my hobby of urban exploration and documenting neglected architecture. This was the furthest thing from writing a blog. Writing reveals what we are thinking, what is behind and under the surface. Photography, at its esssence, captures an image as we see it and freezes it. It's two dimensional, it starts and stops. Of course, the right picture or portrait, can convey emotion but the shots I have been taking since the beginning of 2015 are of buildings that have been abandoned and forgotten. Many of the buildings have historical value and their owners were happy to have their properties documented. Honestly, most people don't see why I enjoy these kind of photos. As my wife astutely suggested, it might be because I feel dilapidated and abandoned from who I can truthfully be.
So, this is where I am holding, not quite sure what I can bring to the digital table, but attempting to be the guy Hashem knows I can be and who I need to be.
The Avodah of Pesach
I want to share something that Rav Efraim Twerski said at his Shabbos HaGadol drasha. After starting off with 10 questions Rav Twerski said over an amazing Torah from Rav Shimon Shkop zt’l that served as the focal point of the drasha. Rav Shimon asks why the Amidah starts with Elokai Avraham, Elokai Yitchak, v’lokai Yaakov, yet it ends with Magen Avraham. Rav Shimon’s answer is that Hashem doesn’t want us to follow the avodah of our parents/grandparents by rote. Yitzchak and Yaakov learned to serve Hashem based on the actions of their and grandfather, respectively. Avraham sought Hashem on his own and built a relationship that was uniquely his his. . Thus, the “shield of Avraham” is the zechus that we will find a relationship with Hashem that is “ours” and not solely a mirror of what our parents did. Rav Shimon states that Moshiach will not come due to a generation that operates and serves Him by rote, but by those that didn’t and don’t relay 100% on modeling their avodah from others. We can use zechus Avos as a foundation, but if build an avodah that is exactly like our parents, teachers, or friends then it isn’t “our” avodah, it’s not a personal relationship with Hashem.
Rav Twerski brought numerous proofs for this from all spectrums of Torah, but he said that building our own personal and unique relationship with Hashem was the purpose of leaving Mitzrayim and a prerequisite for receiving the Torah. It’s the whole focus and purpose of the Seder. The emphasis on Hashem taking us out of Egypt that is connected to so many mitzvos and brachos is the clarion call [my words] to build that unique and personal relationship with Hashem.
Note: Any mistakes in relaying this are solely my own due to writing this on Sunday.
My Dad’s 6th Yahrtzeit
So, tonight’s the 6th yahrtzeit for my dad, Avraham ben Zorach a”h (Al, of blessed memory). Like everyone else that has lost a parent I lit my 24 hour yahrzeit candle (in the cool metal cup). I can easily say that lighting a memorial candle doesn’t do it for me (and I know I am not alone). I get the whole idea about a flame representing the soul, but it doesn’t evoke a feeling or memory for me. So tonight, like every other year, I went shopping and made sure to go the men’s grooming aisle. Amid the shavers and razor blades I took a bottle of the shelf, closed my eyes, opened the bottle of Brut, and breathed in through my nose. Instantly I’m a kid again hanging with my father.
Brief review of “Warmed by the Fire of Aish Kodesh”
“WARMED BY THE FIRE OF THE AISH KODESH– Torah from the Hilulas of Reb Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Piaseczna” by Rav Moshe Weinberger and adapted by Binyomin Wolf is more than just a sefer. Having been listening to Rav Weinberger’s shiurim for over 17 years, I’m biased, but I think this allows me a more personal perspective on this work.
Rav Weinberger is the founding Mara D’Asra of Congregation Aish Kodesh in Woodmere, NY and has been mashpia at Yeshiva University since 2013. He is known for using an array of Torah sources in his shiurim to create a mosaic of passionate Yiddishkeit. Having listened to his shiurim for over 17 years (even some of those that appear in the sefer) this sefer coveys that passion. These drashos have been painstakingly adapted by Binyomin Wolf, a student and congregant of Rav Weinberger’s, who has been writing-up his Rebbe’s Shabbos morning drashos for the past 4 years. This collection of 13 derashos , starting from 2000, were given by Rav Weinberger at his shul’s annual hilulas for the Rebbe, taking place Motzei Shabbosim parshas Noach. The Rebbe’s yahrtzeit is 4 Cheshvan 5704/November 2, 1943.
As a young adult Rav Weinberger was given a copy of the Piaseczna Rebbe’s collection of drashos during World War II (from 1939-1942), sefer AISH KODESH. He was immediately moved by the teaching of the Rebbe (who is also referred to as the Aish Kodesh) and saw the content of the drashos contained message for Jews today. “Every teaching of the Aish Kodesh [as the Rebbe is also known as] in any of his seforim shows a person how to reveal his soul. He teaches a Jew how to use all of his ups and downs and even his most subtle feelings to reveal his inner self.” (page 70)
The Rebbe was the light that kept shining in Warsaw during the war. He could have left and saved himself, but he know his place was with his people. That alone gave hundreds of Jews the strength to keep going. He did more than that by continuing to give drashos and teach Torah in the most difficult of times.
The teaching of the Aish Kodesh of Piaseczna are teachings of a Jew who was given a choice and could have left the Trawniki work camp [where and the remaining Jews of Warsaw were sent in 1943, it is also where the Rebbe took is last breath]. Yet he remained with those tormented Jews. In Warsaw and in that camp, he taught the Torah containted in the sefer Aish Kodesh. So even if we do not understand everything in the sefer, once our hearts are opened, we can hear the sweetness of the niggun of this Jew, who was killed sanctifying G-d’s name because of his love for the Jewish people. (page 47)
The Rebbe’s Torah transcends time and addresses issues of abandonment, fear, hopelessness, creativity, chinuch, and, above all, simcha. In Rav Weinberger’s drashos he not only give us biographical information about the Rebbe, but gives over sprinklings of teachings from both sefer Aish Kodesh and other writings of the Piaseczna. We don’t only learn Torah from the Rebbe but get a picture of what was happening in Warsaw.
He lived through the deaths of his wife and son, along with everyone else in his family. But despite all of that, he strengthened the Jews living in that place in a way that defies all logic. No one would think to find a tzaddik strengthening this brothers and sisters in the Gehinnom that was Nazi-occupied Poland. (page 51)
Looking at this sefer as a whole, it’s not just biographical, historical, and a vehicle to introduce the Rebbe’s teachings to others. In these published drashos Rav Weinberger characteristically teaches lessons from other tzaddikim, as well, and includes powerfully moving stories that ignite the neshama. He makes Yiddishkeit personal, drawing lessons from events like 9/11 and the war in Gaza. That’s what’s so amazing about the Aish Kodesh. Learning his seforim you see how relevant his teaching are. It’s the same with Rav Weinberger. I’ve listened to shiurim recorded in 1999 and the messages are still applicable today in 2015. I think the greatness of this publication is that it opens up a thirst that we don’t even know we have. We learn about and from the Piseczna Rebbe and the sefer leaves you wanting more. Wanting to learn his seforim, wanting to overcome the darkness in your life, wanting to come closer to Hashem. That’s why this is a more than just a sefer. Rav Weinberger’s own words seem like a fitting way to finish this.
The Rebbe wrote in a postscript to Aish Kodesh that there has never been such suffering in all of Jewish history as the torment endured by our people in the Holocaust. The Rebbe left us with a number of his writings from those years of fire. By studying his work, we learn in to hear the Rebbe’s whisper as he was crushed under the weight of his own suffering and the suffering of the entire Jewish nation. He whispered words of faith, trust, and light to us and to the survivors of that nightmarish period in our history. Those who merit to study the Rebbe’s teaching are filled with the holiness of the Rebbe’s light. When we learn the Rebbe’s Torah, we are encouraged and strengthened so that we do not give up hope of salvation and light even in our darkest times. (page59)
WARMED BY THE FIRE OF THE AISH KODESH is distributed by Feldman and can be ordered online here or at your Jewish bookstore.