Category Archives: Hirsch

Should I stay or should I grow?

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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.

New site exploring the teachings of Rav Hirsch

Recently a new website was started to relate and explain various teachings and concepts found in the writings of Rav Shimon Raphael Hirsch z’tl. The site reflects years of study, thought, and teachings of Rabbi Gershon Seif.

Rabbi Seif is a friend of mine and I have been privileged to hear him give shiurim on the teachings of Rav Hirach for a number of years every Shavuos night. He is a true Talmid Chacham who is keenly aware of the challenges facing the Torah observant Jew today.

He is site can be found here,


The Rav and the Rebbe

Published in Song of Teshuva,  a commentary on Rav Kook’s Oros HaTeshuvah by Rav Moshe Weinberger and adapted by Yaacov Dovid Shulman.

Rav Weinberger tells over the following story (pages 134-135):

When Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik went to a farbregen (a Chassidic gathering) on the occasion of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s eightieth birthday, he was very impressed by the Rebbe’s brilliance and erudition.  But on the the way home, Rav Soloveitchik said that there was one thing with which he did not agreee.  When he offered the Rebbe a l’chaim (a toast), the Rebbe said, “Now the descendants of R. Chaim Volozhiner and the family of the Baal HaTanya have come together.”  Rav Soloveitch said that this was not true.  They had come together earlier, when Hitler had put the Chassid and the misnaged (the opponent of Chassidism) together in the same oven.  That was when we realized that there is no difference between one Jew and another.

It should not take someone who hates and persecutes the Jewish people to remind us that there is no difference between Jews on the level of the soul.  We must appreciate that the sould of every Jew is inseparable from the Congregation of Israel.”>Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Drasha in honor of Chicago Hatzalah

Drasha for Hatzalah Chicago – by Rabbi Leonard A. Matanky, Ph.D.
by Hatzalah Chicago on Monday, May 9, 2011 at 8:37pm
On April 3, 2011, Hatzalah Chicago had a beautiful dinner to congratulate its first EMT-B graduating class and to honor the wives of Hatzalah graduates for their unyielding support.

Rabbi Matanky graced us with his presence and delivered a most moving drasha for Hatzalah Chicago:

I was thinking of beginning my brief remarks this evening with a story from Hatzola – one of the amazing but absolutely true accounts that have appeared in the press or on the internet – those selfless acts of compassion, daring deeds of rescue and split-second decisions that have saved countless lives.

I really was thinking of beginning that way… but then I realized that knowing so many of you – the best Hatazola stories are yet to be told – because Hatzalah of Chicago is yet to begin saving lives and creating those stories.
And so this evening – instead – I’ve decided to share with you a story that is more than 150 years old – a story of the terrible cholera epidemic which claimed the lives of hundreds of Jews in Vilna and the response of one of our greatest Torah luminaries – someone that Reb Chaim described as having the stature of a ראשון – the great Reb Yisrael Lipkin, or as we know him – Reb Yisrael Salanter, זצ”ל

The year was 1848, and not unlike our modern day organizers of Hatzalah, when Reb Yisrael saw the medical emergency of his time, he jumped into action, renting a hospital with hundreds of beds, enlisting the aid of volunteer doctors and organizing dozens of “yeshiva yungerleit” to serve the needs of those afflicted with that terrible disease.

Under his direction, people worked day and night – the doctors administering medical care, and the “yungerleit” supporting all of the other needs of the patients – whether chopping wood for fuel, lighting fires, or anything else, regardless if it was a weekday or Shabbos.

One Friday night, among those stricken was the grandson of one of the “g’virim” of Vilna, Reb Yosef Chalfan. And… as these “yungerleit” had done for so many others – they cared for him, doing melacha on Shabbos – until he was out of mortal danger.

Soon afterwards, the grandfather appeared before Reb Yisrael, grateful for saving his grandson’s life – but humbly and respectfully suggesting that perhaps… the “yungerleit” did a little too much, that maybe others – who weren’t the creme de la creme of the yeshiva community – should have been called upon to work on Shabbos.

Hearing this, and fearing that such an attitude could jeopardize his entire life-saving campaign, Reb Yisrael uncharacteristically attacked this “g’vir” – accusing him in the strongest of language of challenging his halachic knowledge, his judgement and his ability to lead.

In fact, Reb Yisrael’s verbal attack was so powerful –  that R’ Yosef Chalfan immediately removed his shoes, sat on the ground as if he was sitting shiva, and begged Reb Yisrael for forgiveness.

Tonight, nearly 162 years later we have gathered to honor and to celebrate – the very same mitzvah that Reb Yisrael defended so fiercely – a mitzvah that according to the חתם סופר is greater than שבת and greater than building even the Beit HaMikdash – or in his words –  עדיף מן ?הכל – greater than everything; and therefore it’s a mitzvah that WE – the frum members of our community should be proud to fulfill with our best and brightest…

Tonight we have the זכות to honor and celebrate the מצוה of SAVING LIVES – NOT when it’s convenient, but when it’s needed – 24/7 – on weekdays and on שבת and on יום טוב.

And on behalf of the rabbonim of the community I want each and every one of you to know – that when in a few months from now, Hatzalah actively begins it’s efforts – we are behind you every step of the way.

And therefore, while I pray that no one is ever sticken ill – if they are, and if I have the zechus to see one of you driving to respond to an emergency ON Shabbos – I and all of the rest of the רבני העיר will be cheering you on, proud that we have frum people who understand what הקב”ה truly wants from us.

Which is to be “partners” in His world, to recognize that true and lasting kedusha emanates, not from passive acquiesence – but active involvement.

For as Rav Soloveitchik, זצ”ל taught, Har Sinai, the site of the most sacred and exalted event of all time, is today bereft of any קדושה. While the most sacred site in the world is הר הבית. Why? Because at Sinai, G-d reached out us. While at Har HaBayit, WE reached out to הקב”ה – we because partners with the Divine.

And that’s the reason your work on behalf of Hatzalah is a true מלאכת הקודש, because you are partnering with הקב”ה.

Which is something that Reb Matisyahu Solomon, once taught – a lesson about the prayer of אבינו מלכינו.

Asked the mashgiach of Lakewood, what are we really asking for when we say – Avinu Malkeinu – our father our king, זכרינו לזכויות – remember us for merit?

Are we asking Him to give us credit for things we didn’t do – to give us merit that is undeserved!?

Obviously not. Rather, what זכרינו לזכויות means is that we are asking הקב”ה to give us the ability to DO great things – to give us the opportunity that not everyone has… to achieve זכויות.

And that’s what we are celebrating tonight – we are celebrating the MEN who will be given the זכות to save lives – and thereby are partnering with God. And we are celebrating their wives, who have not only stepped in so that their husbands could study, but are now ready to allow their husbands to sometimes leave them – on a moments notice – leave them and their families – for the sake of others and thereby THEY are partnering with God; and we are celebrating all those who have taught these men and who have organized this sacred effort – all the while creating זכויות –  – and thereby partnering with God and building the merit of our community – לשם ולתפארת – according to halacha and with the support and the gratitude of our community.

And so, on behalf of an entire community, and in the name of the rabbonim who have the honor to offer some assistance, I thank all of you – and I look forward to those stories of miracles and wonders, of lives that will be saved and lives that will be rescued.

May הקב”ה bless you with limitless זכויות, with boundless commitment and with the guidance to lead, serve and save.

Sent via Blackberry by AT&T

The time of our freedom

Pesach is z’man cherusanu, the time of freedom.  Rav Hirsch explains that until the time of Hashem taking us out of Egypt, all cultures had slaves.  It was how the world worked back then.  B’nai Yisrael were the first “free people”.  The concept of freedom, prior to our Exodus was something that the world didn’t understand or couldn’t even comprehend. 

With this idea from Rav Hirsch in mind, I look upon the next week and especially the seder nights an opportunity to anchor myself to a freedom that is true.  The freedom to recall and bring to action the unique role of being both a child of Hashem and also a servant.

We are all tied down.  This can be both a positive and a negative.  Being tied down to the role of a spouse and a parent is a wonderful bracha.  Those responsibilities center us and become a lifeline to us.  Feeling tied down to one’s job or economic situation can have a terrible effect on a person.  True freedom is when we can decide what we want to put of strengths into.

We can look at someone who lives a carefree life as being the most “free” of all men.  However, making the choice not to play by any one’s rules and taking the “road less traveled” doesn’t always show true independence.  To rebel l’shem rebellion, just to say that you are your own person isn’t always an example of freedom (there are those that, mamesh, rebel against society or a culture, in the name of Heaven, but I’m not writing about this).

So I sit at my laptop, knowing that in twenty-four hours, I’ll be at my own seder with my wife, that I love and still have no clue how she puts up with me, my three children, that are each different and still all peas in the same pad, and my brother, who has traveled from NY to be with us, with family.  I hope that they will have nice memories of our sederim and I will try to explain that the real freedom is to choose how you want to live your life.  For me, based on my traditions, what I learned in yeshiva, from rabbis, and what I have read, it’s a freedom that boils down to what is my purpose and how can stay on track every moment of my lfe.

Rockin’ two of my favorite seforim on the iTouch

A few weeks ago I discovered that you can go to Apple’s App Store and get (for free) Mesillas Yesharim for the iPhone, iTouch, and iPad.

The Mesillas Yesharim app is pretty straightforward, letting you chose either Hebrew or English.  The English translation is fairly basic.  Of course, if you really want to learn the sefer in English, I strongly suggest finding a copy of R Yaakov Feldman’s excellent translation and commentary (I recently, after searching for a few years, found a copy at a reasonable price and it’s like I’m learning the sefer for the first time again).  A full review of this app is available at

I also, using the built in pdf reader in iBooks, was able to put the original English translation of Rav Hirsch’s The Nineteen Letters on my iTouch.  To upload it on your device, simply download it onto your computer, then import the pdf into iTunes (use the “add a file” option) and it will load and default under “books”.  Then just plug in your iToy and drag the “book” to your your decice (the same way you would drag a song, album, playlist, or shiur) and sync.

Availing myself during aveilus

Rav Hirsch brings down the idea that the root of aveilus is the Hebrew word aval, which means “but”.  This is because while one is mourning someone, there’s always this feeling of “…but, I should have spent more time with the departed” or “…I’m doing ok, but, I still miss the person”.  There’s always a “but”.

My father a”h has been niftar for just over two months and I’m hoping that this post will be somewhat cathartic for me.  It’s been hard to actually sit down and write lately.  This is mostly due to the fact that my father, while in the hospital, mentioned to me that he has always enjoyed reading my blog (I had only become aware that he even knew about it at the end of the summer).  While I’m glad that he was able to let me know this, thinking about a post or even writing something reminds me of the fact that he’s not around.  It’s the same way with Sugar-Free Grape Kool Aid.  My dad, it seems loved the stuff.  It was about the only thing I drank, besides coffee, when I was in Wichita.  I’ve thought about buying it for home, but I can’t bring myself to do it.  Hazelnut coffee is also one of those things my dad loved.  He would mix Columbian ground coffee with hazelnut flavored coffee and that was his brew.  At work we have hazelnut flavored creamer.  I try not to even look at it.

Making sure that I don’t miss a Kaddish is constantly on my mind.  There’s a very strong sense of being alone, since I’m the only one (in Chicago) saying Kaddish for my father, but there’s also sort of an unspoken connection that I have to others who are also saying Kaddish in any given minyan.

The “no music” thing has begun to drive me batty.  I constantly have tons of music-mixes going through my head.  Mixes that, in a way, reflect different aspects of who I am.  I’ve got Carlebach songs that flow into a Husker Du/Bob Mould track that will then ease into Diaspora Yeshiva Band song which will blend into early REM tracks that slide into a Rabbis Sons song and finally ending (most recently) with something from the soundtrack to Blade Runner.  It’s the ultimate mega-mix in an odd way.  I catch myself humming niggunim around my office and in the car.  I was never into sports, so I’m stuck listening to news radio (which I don’t mind) in the car.  But (there’s that but again), there’s really only so many time I can hear “traffic and weather together on the 8s”.  

I’ve felt pretty detached from things at home.  Even though my wife is great about it, it bothers me.  On the flip side, though, I’m trying to become much more “communal” in terms of my thinking about what I can offer my own community, as well as getting more involved in things.

My drive home from work is tough.  I’m lucky that I have a commute that is under 20 minutes, but I use to call my dad (almost daily) on the way home from work.  I’m fortunate that I can call my brother and shmooze with him, but it’s not the same.

Two friends (and bloggers) sent me a copy of Out of the Whirlwind by Rav Soloveitchik zt”ll.  I’ve found the sefer to be very insightful.  I’ll end with a quote from the last chapter, titled “A Theory of Emotions”:

Avelut denotes the critical stage of mourning, the grief awareness, and at this level, we will notice at once that avelut contains its own proper negation-solace and hope.  Avelut in Halakhah is interwoven with nehamah, consolation.  They are inseparable.  The latter is not a frame of mind which displaces grief; there is rather an inter-penetration of grief and solace, of forelornness and hope, of mourning and faith.  Immediately upon closing the grave, the line is formed and comfort is offerend to the mourners.  What is the Kaddish pronounced at the grave if not an ostentatious negation of despair?

I’m thankful that I live in a community with so many friends who helped me during shiva and continue to do so.  I attempt to remember that I’m loved by my creator and that this current situation is a really springboard for growth on many different levels.  But…

Real Ahavas Yisrael

Most agree that it’s a good idea.  There are plenty of people we meet, however, that  we just don’t like.  That’s OK.  The mitzvah is to love them as Jews, not like them as people.  Recently I experienced true Ahavas Yisrael from almost complete strangers.  They helped me because it was a mitzvah, looking beyond my background or my hashkafa.

Real Ahavas Yisrael, not the kind that end up as a short story in a gloss weekly Jewish magazine or as a chapter in children’s Gadolim biography.  Real Ahavas Yisrael that wakes you up that the cup of coffee that you psychologically know you need in order to function.  Real Ahavas Yisrael, I’m talking about the kind that reminds you that we have to help others because Hashem is constantly helping us.  Real Ahavas Yisrael, the kind you daven that your kids will practice when they become older.  

Originally I was going to fill the post with several quotes on the importance of loving our fellow Jews from the likes of the Rambam, Rav Hirsch, and the Chofetz Chaim.  I decided against this.  Often in life we tend to meet people and try to figure out “what their angle” is.  It seems that society has programmed us, well me, to think that most people I encounter have a hidden agenda.  An act of kindness, a true Chessed, has an agenda as well, the most pure agenda, the will of Hashem.  I am humbled that my creator has allowed me to meet a few people in my life that remind me of the kind of Jew I want to be.

A defining moment

Recently, in what started out as a casual (not that I really believe in these things) conversation with the head of local adult education program, I was asked what I’m my interests are in regard to learning.  I mentioned that I  ‘enjoy’ mussar and had for many years.  I was then asked how I got “into Mussar”?  I smiled and responded that it was more like mussar got into me.

This conversation brought me back to what I might loosely call a “defining moment” in my Yiddishkeit, while learning in Israel in 1990.  I had spent my freshman year at YU and now I had an opportunity to actually learn Torah “all day” for the upcoming year.  It was the end of my first day in a yeshiva in Israel, and our Rabbeim had left for evening, thus leaving about 40 fresh off the plane guys in the beis medresh with several of our madrichim and a few kollel-types.  On the schedule was something called “Night Seder”.

I’ll be honest, I had no clue what this was.  A nice amount of guys left our yeshiva (which back then was in Gilo) and took a bus into town.  The dozen or so left sort of just hung out.  I looked around and saw that a few people were learning b’chavrusah and some were just “reading”.   I decided to start checking out the books in the yeshiva’s small library.  I happened upon a small book called “The Path of the Just” .  I had never heard of it (not that I really had heard of much aside from Rashi, Rav Hirsch, and R Aryeh Kaplan) and decide to pick it up.

As most people, the first sentence hit me with its’ humility and deep insight into how to open up to someone:

“I have written this work not to teach men what they do not know, but to remind them of what they already know and is very evident to them, for you will find in most of my words only things which most people know, and concerning which they entertain no doubts.”

Wow.  I kept reading and reading and reading.  I quickly realized that I wasn’t one of those people who didn’t really know all the things the RAMCHAL expected me to know.  That was fine with me, I was willing to learn.

I had always been interested in psychology and why we do what we do.  That aspect of insight in the life of a Torah Jew was, as a 19 year old, something that I hadn’t formally come accross during my development in Torah observance.  The whole idea of becoming a better person was an area of Judaism that I had thought about but never really read anything about, until now.  I felt my world sort of opening up and I quickly began to see the “bigger picture” of a whole different aspect of Avodah.  It was a classic Peak Experience,  as Abraham Maslow would have put it.

Eventually when I reach the end of this sefer I was again, amazed.  It ends with this pasuk from Tehillim:

Let Israel be happy in its Maker, the sons of Zion rejoice in their King” (Psalms 149:2)

The end result of growth should be that we have a relationship of simcha with Hashem.  Simple, yet deep.  That evening and the subsequent ones spent reading and learning Mesillas Yesharim with several different people helped give me an anchor and a direction that I hadn’t thought possible. As I look back, it may have been a defining moment for me.