Category Archives: growth

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.

Should I stay or should I grow?

Photo and layout by me
If you like it then check out this

Warning: Were I not blogging under my real name, this would have been much easier to write. I actually thought about using my nom de plume, Jack Gerouac, but I’m not really into hiding behind another name, hence the reason I blog with my own name. By the way, don’t bother looking for any posts written by “Jack Gerouac”, his blog Al Ha Derech  was just me playing with WordPress over a year ago.

I am into “growth”, but ironically not into change. I don’t mind change if it’s neatly pressed and freshly startched, like remembering to turn off lights, smile and say, “Hi,” or count sefira. Those are fairly low-maintenance changes. I’m talking about the real changes, the kind you cheshbon over and make excuses why you don’t need to change. The kind you sweat over and cry into your Tehillim about. As Avi Shulman says, “Until the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change, we will never change.”

Go ahead and laugh. Come on! You would think that since I’m attracted to Mussar, I would be all over change like the color black on my hat. At one point, many years ago, I was. I didn’t mind changes in location, routine, or the hard work involved in tikun ha’middos. Over the years, that has changed. Think about the famous smooth rocks that Rabbi Akiva found. Yes, they changed form and became rounder after years of being exposed to flowing water. However, they also were worn down and eventually went from having clearly defined edges to being smother. We all know that the Deled in Shema is enlarged because we don’t want to confuse it with a Reish (changing echad, one, to acher, other). Rav Hirsch expands on this and says that the Daled of echad is right angled and clearly defines where two points meet and become one, such is monotheism  The Reish, however, is curved where the horizontal and vertical lines come together, showing the less defined way of polytheism. Just like effort can be gradual I have seen, in myself, that the Yetzer Hora applies the same tactic of gradually changing our path of getting closer to Hashem. 

I will not get into details, but since December I have been steered into choppy waters in the dynamics of relationships with others. I’ve been forced to confront lies, which ultimately distance one from Hashem. Most recently changes occurred in my employment status (and subsequently my LinkedIn status). There is also a change in my behavior that has been present for a while, but recently is being re-addressed proactively. 

While most of this was playing out towards the end of February, I attended a great program and heard Rabbi Reuven Brand, Rosh Kollel of the YU Torah Mitzion Kollel recommend a book, called Mindset (to find the best price for it check out this). In the most basic way I can think of, Carol Dweck, Ph.D shows how everyone has one of two mindsets.  Either it’s a “fixed” mindset or a “growth” mindset. Her website explains it like this:

In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong.

In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.Teaching a growth mindset creates motivation and productivity in the worlds of business, education, and sports. It enhances relationships. When you read Mindset, you’ll see how.

After reading the back of the book, I realized right away that for most things in life I have a “fixed” mindset and it really stinks. Reading this book was an eye opening experience for me, almost on a par with learning Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh. When I first learned it, I experienced a complete paradigm shift in my relationship with Hashem. After getting into Mindeset I am now examining almost every thought, word, and action I have to see if it’s a fixed-related or growth-related.
That is the easy part. The real work is changing who I have become over the years. This is the type of growth I was referring to at the beginning of this post. It’s real serious bechira-type growth. It is painful, but necessary. The midrash I quoted in the picture states that a source (or malach) give each blade a grass a push in order that it will grow. The message is that to become better people we need the cause and effect of “push and grow”. No matter how tough it is, I have to grow and become more that what I limit myself to being.


Graphic from here

In the realm of social media (i.e.- engaging with others online), I run in a few different circles.

There’s this blog which, until this past week, was linked to my Twitter account. It is a probably the crossroads between the ideal and the ordeal of my life.

My Twitter account, which I use mostly for staying on top of items of interest and also as the main tool of my own PLN (personal learning network).

My LinkedIn account is, for now, used for business networking.

Finally, there’s Facebook, which is was initially a very personal, real life, platform. Slowly some “blogging friends” were given access, but it mostly a good way to stay in touch with friends from Wichita, New York, and local Chicago types. I tried “importing” by blog posts into Facebook, but gave up because a majority of my posts were not something that the majority of my Facebook friends would find interesting. When Facebook first opened to the public I joined and saw that was mostly a way to express chizonius (the external), like people posting what they went shopping for and when they were making coffee. It’s still the number one vehicle I would use if I needed to get Tehillim said for some own, because of the amount of people who use it multiple times a day and the easy of sharing info. This blog is more of the penimius (internal) of who I am. As I wrote above, it is where the ideal and ordeal collide. What inspires me is revealed and what I find as a challenge also makes its way on this blog.

So, which one best represents me? All of them express aspects of who I am. Modern Uberdox is probably the most “real” because even though I blog under my own name, most people that I know, don’t read it (that I am aware of). That give me a little leeway with what I write and share, even though it is open to the pubic. I bring this up now because I understand that you are taking time out of your day to read this and I am appreciative. Time used to go online for anything is time that can be spent somewhere else.

There are times when you can simply add on to a house and not only update it, but make it bigger and better. Other times you find a structure is just not sturdy enough to work on and you have to level it and rebuild.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught:
If you believe that you can ruin, believe you can repair. (Likutei Moharan 2, # 112)

While always attracted to growth and Mussar, I have tried for most of my observant adult life to build upon my own foundation. That has been successful for some time. I can say with confidence that my davening is tangibly different than it was a year ago. In the arena of several middos, this isn’t the case. With all of the learning I’ve done and work on myself, my Yetzer Hora got the upper hand with one specific middah and it’s been a slap in the face for me. It took a number of difficult situations over the past four months to finally accept the truth that I must rebuild from scratch. Not a fun realization, but I am grateful that it came with minimal loss. I now see that really working on myself is painful and difficult. If it comes too easy, then I am focusing on the wrong thing.

Like iron to a magnet

Photo used with permission & text added by me

Last Shabbos Kodesh I is was learning Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh (vol 2, chapter 6) and Rav Shwartz explains a person who likes a particular food will eat it over and over again, never getting bored of it.  Likewise, he says, we might listen to the same song many times, because our neshama “connects to the song.” He brings up the question of why many people don’t experience this when it comes to Avodas Hashem? The answer can be found by checking out the link above to chapter 6, but the idea is that we need open ourselves up to “tasting” the goodness of Hashem. After the initial difficulty of working on this a person will be drawn after this “taste” of Hashem “like iron to a magnet.”

The phrase comes from the second to the last paragraph at the end of the first chapter of Mesillas Yesharim (found in Hebrew or English).  The Ramchal says that your every inclination be directed singularly towards our Creator and that all we do be for only one purpose- to draw close to Him and remove all the barriers that block you from your Maker, “until you are actually drawn after Him (may He be Blessed), like iron to a magnet.”  You really need to click the link(s) above and see what the Ramchal says inside. My few typed words really don’t give it over properly.

Rabbi Yaakov Feldman beautifully explains the idea of “iron to a magnet” follows in his own translation and commentary on The Path of the Just:

When metal is drawn to a magnet it becomes magnetized; when something is drawn to fire it is destroyed. In both cases, the object drawn in is nullified and changed.  But the metal nullified by the magnet benefits from the nullification, while the object nullified by the flame loses all.

So too, when one is drawn towards God, the become Godly. In fact, the faster he holds onto the “magnet,” the better, and the sooner the separation the sooner the loss. But the more one avoids contact with the “flame” (those things that separate us from God) the better off he is. (page 20)

Feb 26 @ 8pm- Nourishing the Neshama

“Nourishing The Neshama” is a new project in Chicago.  It’s a partnership project of Ida Crown Jewish Academy, the YU Torah Mitzion Kollel, NCSY, YU Institute for University-School Partnership, and Congregations Chochevei Torah, KINS, KJBS & Or Torah.

Tuesday night, Feb 26 at 8pm come hear Rabbis Reuven Brand (Rosh Kollel of the YUTMK, Micah Greenland (Midwest Regional NCSY Director/Interm International Director of NCSY), and Leonard Matanky ph.D (Dean of ICJA and Rav of KINS) as they lead a discussion about bringing meaning to Mitzvos at the home of Orah and Lev Katz- 3045 W Jarlath (WRP).

I am very excited about this new program and can’t wait to get invovled.

My disdain of hipsters

DIY shirt inspired by this

I used the word “disdain” with a smile.  I don’t hate anyone (except for the nation of Amalek), but I really don’t like hipsters.  They have always rubbed me the wrong way.  No, this isn’t a rant.  Just take a breath and give your eyes another 1.5  minutes to read this post.

The main reason I disdain hipsters is, ironically, because I was a hipster before there were even hipsters, yet I (and my contemporaries) don’t get any credit.  My issue with hipsters is that they are coasting down a road that was paved by the punks and alternative-types in the 80s, yet they think being so anti-establishment is completely their chiddush.  It’s smacks of coolkeit (a termed coined by The Rebbetzin’s Husband in this post).  It’s a lack of hakoras hatov, on their part.  There are always people in every culture and subculture that go against the grain and do their own thing.  There’s the guy that loves to quote lines from obscure movies, the girl that can throw out a song lyric that seem apropos in any given situation, and the dude who is learning a sefer that most people have never heard of.  Now some people do this because they want to be noticed, while others are just into doing “their own thing”.  Then there is are the hipsters, who have skillfully jumped on every bandwagon, yet pretentiously figured out a way to do it while seeming to be original.

I see those hipsters sitting in front of their MacBooks or brainstorming about social networking and it strikes a cord.  They remind me that I still can get anchored to accomplishments of the past.  I see them and it takes me back to high school and my freshman year at college, when I was more idealistic and hung out with same-minded people who helped fuel my creativity.  When late nights out with friends revolved around coffee, watching people get drunk, and pseudo-philosophical discussions about Albert Camus, Ayn Rand, Jack Keroauc, and why bands should not sign with major labels.  Hipsters, by their nature, gravitate toward the past and seeing them totally blinds me from being grateful for my own present and envisioning the many simchos in my own future.  I’m not anti-the past, but if you keep looking back, then you can never look forward (as told to me by my brother-in-law many years ago).  Eventually the hipsters will get older and a newer breed will take their retro-throne.

It’s a well know teaching of the Baal Shem Tov that when we see deficiencies in others, it’s really a reflection of the deficiencies in ourselves.  With this in mind, I find myself wondering why do I actually care?  Why do I feel that I (and those who are in their late thirties and early forties) need recognition for doing something before someone else did it?  That’s the heart of the matter.  It’s guyvah, arrogance, and pure ego to think, “Hey, I did that first.”  I am guilty of it more often than I’d like to admit.  I don’t try to be the first person to eat a new restaurant (I’ll wait two weeks until the buzz dies down) or attempt to be the first of my friends to get the newest iPhone, just to say, “I got it first.”  However, I do find that I’ll read something and share it with someone and then get upset when that person shares the same thing without giving me the credit.  It’s a lacking on my part, I know.

Of course, my own frumkeit says that it’s because I remember that the 48th way to acquire the Torah is to say something in the name of the person who said it.  As the 6th mishna in the 6th chapter of Pirkei Avos concludes:  “One who says something in the name of its speaker brings redemption to the world, as is stated (Esther 2:22), “And Esther told the king in the name of Mordechai.”  As I wrote, it’s ego.  If I had stronger Emuna and Bitachon, then I’d be more secure in not needing recognition from others.  I think that’s the point.  It’s not that Morechai had a desire to be quoted by Esther.  It’s Esther (it’s always the woman) who knew it was derech eretz to tell Achashverosh.  Bringing the geulah means being mevatar your ego.

The Fire of Judaism (link)

Rabbi Mordechai Torczyner, Rosh Beit Midrash of the Yeshiva University-Torah MiTzion Beit Midrash Zichron Dov posted the text of a drasha he gave over Shabbos.  Not only was I inspired by what he posted, but he eloquently weaved examples and sources that were a pleasure to read.  Here’s a teaser:

As our topic this morning is how we raise Jewish children, one lesson here is that we need to do more than tell our community’s children about our ideals; we need to live these ideals, visibly. I know this is likely obvious, but I state it as a first important step for parents, and for all of us, as adults; we are role models by dint of our simple presence.

The entire drasha (not too long) can be read on his blog, here.

"After changes upon changes, we are more or less the same"

Graphic by me

The tile for this post comes from the “missing” verse to Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer”:

Now the years are rolling by me
They are rockin’ evenly
I am older than I once was
And younger than I’ll be and that’s not unusual.
No it isn’t strange
After changes upon changes
We are more or less the same
After changes we are more or less the same

It’s funny, I think, how some things sort of lead up to other things. Since the first day of Chanukah I’ve been playing a few Simon & Garfunkel songs on my mp3 player (mostly in the car and in the kitchen, while making lunches for the kids). It started with a radio newscaster mentioning the “Sound of Silence” and then I started humming and found an old CD.  This has lead to me playing (and singing along) to some songs that I really haven’t thought of in almost 30 years. 

The truth is, my father a”h, was a big Simon & Garfunkel fan.  I remember being in 2nd grade and listen to our LPs of their “Greatest Hits”, “Sounds of Silence” and “Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme”.  I learned words like “superficial” and “confidence”.  I’d listen to them all the time and can remember long car trips to Texas and Pennsylvania listening to the cassettes, as well.  Driving to and from work last week and listening to a song here and there has reminded me that I have always liked music and enjoyed singing.  At some point, I started equating singing secular music with my pre-teshuva past, almost on the same level (in my head) as eating non-kosher.  This is, of course, narishkeit (nonsense).  I’m happier when I sing.  Also, I even heard a difference this past Shabbos night in shul when I was davening.  My voice sounded better than it had in a long time during Lecha Dodi because I had been exercising my vocal cords.

I thought for years that by trying to control what music I choose to listen to and even drastically limiting what secular music I would play (every now and then) that I was on the correct path.  This derech is, as I’ve been thinking about since Tishrei, a major difference between trying to control and quench a bad middah or tyvah (urge) and harnessing it for our avodah.  Holding back from something that is part of who I am hasn’t brought me the shelaimus (completeness or wholeness) that I’ve been working towards.  So, despite my refraining from throwing in odd Simon & Garfunkel references throughout this post (and I had some good ones that I didn’t use), I will simply write that for the first time, in long time, I’m “feelin’ groovy”.

Growing up

Our son, just past his 2nd birthday

Our son will become a “Bar Mitzvah” this Shabbos Kodesh.  Over the years I have written about how I’ve  shepped nachas from him making a friend feel comfortable, how we danced it up on Lag B’Omer, how we learned from a chumash belonging to my grandfather, and his awesome one-liner one Shabbos night.  All in all, he’s a great young man.  There are times when he is wise-beyond-his-years and other times when he acts well below his years.  He finds humor in things that others don’t see.  He understands the importance of a moment in time.  The excitement he felt on Tzom Gedaliah, when he put on his Zaidy’s tefillin was beautiful, because, he understood that even without making a bracha, it was special.  He started wearing his Shabbos hat on Rosh Hashanah and is aware that it’s not just another accessory.  I have always told him that he needs to keep his head covered, that’s the main thing.  He fully gets the fact that wearing a black hat doesn’t mean he has any more kedusha than any other Jew.

We have been fortunate that even when he was young, thanks in part to hours of listening to Uncle Moishy, he has had a certain fire for Yiddishkeit.  He has strong sense of what is right in the world and even when he would dress up with an old Shabbos hat and a tallis and play with at “Torah” he made in pre-school, there was a look in his eyes that, to him, he wasn’t just playing.

Watching him learn to lein has been quite an experience.  His diligence and desire over the past year has been inspirational.  He has even opted to listen to the mp3 files of his parsha instead of listening to baseball games on the radio at night (sometimes).  For him, this is a major accomplishment.  His has a great group of friends in his class that he has known since the middle of kindergarten.  He is looked to as role model by many younger boys our family knows, he is liked by his teachers and respected by his rebbeim.

He, like every kid, has his moments that make me want to pull out what is left of my hair, but I love him and he usually knows that.  He is loved by many and I hope he sees this over Shabbos.  We are zoche to live in a beautiful community that is rich in Torah, Avodah, and Gemilus Chassadim.

The countdown is here, my brother arrived before Shabbos, and before we know it we’ll be with out-of-town family and friends who have come in to join us in this simcha.  The absence of my wife’s parents a”h and my father a”h is not easy, but, as we wrote in the Bar Mitzvah invitation:
“Though one’s parents have passed on, Hashem escorts them from Gan Eden to participate in their children’s simcha.” (Zohar 3:21b)

Cheshboning …À la carte

Pic from here

With Rosh HaShanna basically around the corner, Elul and all of it’s glory (and I do mean that, since I happen to love the energy of Elul) already seems like it’s almost over. My mind turns towards the things that I’ve been cheshboning.  Thinks like how I spend my free time, the way I speak to those I love, exercising patience.
I find with any real cheshbon ha-nefesh that when all is said, written, charted down, or audited I am left with a fairly stripped down view of my thoughts, actions, and words. The common thread among these thoughts, actions, and words is that they all hinge on bechira, free will. It is my choice what I think, what I do, and how I speak. That’s the good news.
The bad news is that since we have this thing called bechira, we are free to choose. When I sit and make my cheshbon of how I talked to my wife or my kids, I have to be honest and choose to examine all of the time, not just the time that I spoke nicely.  

The bad news is that since we have this thing called bechira, we are free to choose. The real life effort involved in productive cheshboning comes when we force ourselves to be non-biased, we have to choose. Subjectivity in the way we look at ourselves is the kryponite of a cheshbon hanefesh.

When I sit and make my cheshbon of how I talked to my wife or my kids over the past few months, I have to be honest and choose to examine all of the times, not just the times that I spoke nicely. I recently decided to change how I engage and stay connected with social media. Part of that change involved taking both the Twitter and Facebook applications off of my phone. For me, just taking those apps off my phone was the first step. I could have easily stayed just as connected using a computer whenever I wanted to, so I also began to regulate when and how I would use both of these social media tools with my laptop at home a few nights a week. I find Facebook to be an excellent way to get in touch with people and also get messages out to the masses. However, my life is just as exciting even without knowing what people are up to on a daily basis.

Any performance evaluation has to be based on meeting expected goals. While it’s easier to evaluate others, like the guy that has DADD or the person who always talks about someone else, that’s not the point of cheshboning. I can only look at myself and daven that I can see who I really am and who I can be.