Category Archives: lessons


Image from ABC

Rav Simcha Wasserman zt’l taught that the mitzvah of kiruv falls under the category of Hashavas Aveidah, the mitzvah of returning a lost object.  I’ve read this in his name and also personally asked Rabbi Akiva Tatz (co-author of the book Rav Simcha Speaks) about this and he confirmed it for me.

So, here’s my question, if Hashavas Aveidah can be applied to a person, then can I recite the tefillah of Rav Meir Baal HaNeis and give tzedakah in hope of finding myself?

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.

"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”.

3rd yahrtzeit of my dad a"h

Note I wrote that was saved by my dad a”h

Tonight, the 16th of MarCheshvon, is the 3rd yarhzeit of my dad, Albert Lyon Harris, Avraham ben Zorach.  My brother made arrangements to be in town and we went to ma’ariv so that we could say kaddish together.

Of course, seeing my dad’s brother and sister with their spouses at our son’s bar mitzvah recently has brought up the natural feelings of loss, even before the yahrzeit.  Not having my in-laws or my father present for our simcha was hard.  However, the loss of a loved one in this world does help crystallize the feeling of loss the I now experience during Tisha B’av, the day of national mourning for the loss of the holy temple, the Beis Hamikdash.  It also puts more feeling behind the 12th Ani Ma’amim which affirms our believe in the revival of the dead in the time of Moshiach.

The note above was something that my father saved, for some reason.   My bar mitzvah was December 3, 1983.  Later in the month we must have gone out for Chinese food and I wrote this note.  I guess I gave it to my dad.  About six years ago, he had purchased a Hebrew/English gemara Pesachim on eBay and sent it to me.  Sitting between the pages was the note about the Chinese food.  He got a tremendous kick out of the fact that before I kept Kosher I hated Chinese food, yet I now love it.  His foresight to keep this note and send it to me is a reminder that he remembered the little things about me when I was growing up (that I had forgotten about) and figured that eventually I would change my tune and taste buds.  We should all see our loved ones for who they are and for who they may become.

Reflection on Rejection

Picture from here
There are times when we put ourselves out there and the result is rejection.  I am not a big fan of being rejected or, while I’m at it, constructive feedback (which is now what people previously referred to as criticism).  I understand the whole, “message is really from Hashem” thing that we commonly associate with negative things that happen or are said to us.  Seeing how I gravitate towards mussar and self growth, you’d think that I’d be all about constructive feedback and, even, rejection. I’m not.  I’m sensitive and don’t like like it. I listen, process, accept and attempt to change course, but my natural reaction is usually one of resistance.  As an armchair analysis, this is probably, davka, why I like mussar, since growth sometimes comes after uncomfortable criticism.
My wife, in her infinite wisdom, thinks this is due to not being involved in organized sports when I was growing up (sadly rag-tag soccer games and skateboarding doesn’t really as “organized sports”).  Had I played baseball when I was growing up I would have dealt with the reality of striking out, missing catches, and losing games.  I grew up playing video games on Atari and a Franklin Ace 1000 (a clone of the Apple II+).  If you lost a game then you simply restarted or moved on to something else.  There isn’t any personal connection or a blow to the ego if you lose at a video game.  Your future success isn’t impeded by being defeated in Defender, Dig Dug, or any of the Zork adventure games.
A number of weeks ago I wrote something that I thought was worth sharing beyond this blog.  I contacted a national Jewish newspaper, a Jewish website, and an online Jewish journal.  Respectively, the feedback was:
  • A very well written piece, but it might be misinterpreted by more right wing elements
  • While we liked the essay, the writing on our website is focused on the not-yet-observant Jew
  • No reply
I got the message.  What I wrote either wasn’t meant for those platforms, or, simply, should just remain on this blog.  I am not sure what will become of this essay, but the whole rejection process reminded me of the snippets that I posted once from two rejection letters that Georger Lucas received after pitching Star Wars to different movie studios.  Sadly there is neither a a chapter on rejection in Orchos Tzaddikim nor a series of mp3 from Rav Weinberger that I can draw strength from.
Rejection, failure, or reassessing a situation is part of life.  In a panel discussion with Dr. David Pelcovitz and Mr. Moishe Bane there is a great lesson given.  Reb Moishe Bane mentions that one of the key life lessons he feels it’s important for people to learn is the “glory of failure” as he calls it.  He mentions that there have been countless times that a CEO or yeshiva administrator has had to deal with the reality of not being able to make payroll and has had to chose to find funds via unethical means or simply swallow their pride and admit failure. The latter choice is where the “glory of failure” come in. We learn from our mistakes and grow from the experience.
Thinking about this, I came up with a few examples that might be of comfort for anyone who feels beaten down, rejected, or is simply pushed up against the the wall.  Over course, were I to go through the many inspirational stories penned by R Paysach Krohn, R Yechiel Spero, or the “Small Miracles” books, we would be here forever.  I won’t even mention any of the amazing stories from Hassidic Tales of the Holocaust. 
Parshas Va’eschanan– Moshe’s plea to enter Eretz Yisrael and Hashem telling him that it wouldn’t happen.
Interestingly, in Likutei Moharan II, lesson 78, Reb Nachman taught: “Gevalt! Never give up. There is never a reason to give up.” This was said toward the end of Reb Nachman’s life on a Shabbos and is connected to the parsha listed above, actually. See Reb Nachman’s Wisdom #153 (pages 302-306 of this pdf).*
Reb Jonathan Rosenblum writes about the struggle of starting the Gatehead Kollel:

THE LATE SUMMER OF 1941 found Rabbi Dessler in Chesham in Buckinghamshire along with other Jewish refugees from the constant German bombing of London. He was once again separated from his entire family. His son Nachum Velvel was learning in Telshe Yeshiva in the United States; his wife Bluma and daughter Hennie were trapped in Kelm at the outbreak of the War and were fortunate to be able to wend their way to Australia for the duration.
Rabbi Dessler was then in his fifty-first year, and had but 12 years left to live. Though many of his classic essays had already been formulated, not one word had been published except in stencils for his talmidim. Had Rabbi Dessler passed away then his name and thought would have been lost to posterity.

That summer a letter arrived at his lodgings from Rabbi Dovid Dryan, the mohel of Gateshead and founder of the fledgling Gateshead Yeshiva. Reb Dovid proposed the establishment of a kollel of outstanding young kollel scholars in Gateshead. Unbeknownst to Rabbi Dessler, Reb Dovid had sent the same letter to 21 other rabbis. Also unbeknownst to him, every other rabbi responded negatively to Reb Dovid’s suggestion: 18 did not bother to answer at all; another 3 commended the idea but decided it was impracticable under the wartime circumstances. The naysayers might have added that the number of those who appreciated the importance of Torah learning, much less the concept of Torah lishma, in England in those days in were few indeed. The few yeshivos that existed were small in size, and the idea of Kollel learning was unknown.
Rabbi Dessler alone replied positively to Reb Dovid’s letter: “My heart sees a great light in the matter which Your Honor suggested – your merit is very great.” He replied as he did not because he saw success as guaranteed, but because he viewed the matter as too important not to try.With Rabbi Dessler’s encouraging response to Reb Dovid Dryan’s letter, the face of English and all European Jewry was changed forever. By early 1942, the first group of young scholars was already in place.

If R Dovid Dryan had not written 22 letters initially we would ever have had what became Gatehead.
Learning in yeshiva I often heard a story about the Rav zt’l that I sort of thought was an urban legend. However, it was told over by Dr. Norman Lamm at a hesped he gave for the Rav.

It was my second year in his sheur, and I was intimidated and in awe of him as was every other talmid-that is, almost everyone else. There was one student, the youngest and one of the brightest, who was clearly the least frightened or awed. The Rav had been developing one line of thought for two or three weeks, when this talmid casually said, “But Rebbe, the Hiddushei Ha-Ran says such-and-such which contradicts your whole argument.” The Rav was stunned, held his head in his hands for three agonizingly long minutes while all of us were silent, then pulled out a sheaf of papers from his breast pocket, crossed out page after page, said that we should forget everything he had said, and announced that the sheur was over and he would see us the next day.
I Iearned two things from this remarkable episode. First, we were overwhelmed by his astounding intellectual honesty. With his mind, he could easily have wormed his way out of the dilemma, manipulated a text here and an argument there, maybe insulted an obstreperous student, and rescued his theory and his ego. But the Rav did nothingof the sort! He taught, by example, the overarching goal of all Torah study as the search for Truth. That search for Truth was of the essence of his activity in Torah, and we witnessed it in action. He encouraged independent thinking by his pupils as a way to ensure his own search for the truth of Torah. The Rav was authoritative, but not authoritarian. No “musar shmuess” no lecture in ethics-could have so successfully inculcated in us respect for the truth at all costs.

The second lesson came with the anti-climax to the story. The very next day, it was a Wednesday, the Rav walked into class with a broad, happy grin on his face, held out his copy of the Hiddushei Ha-Ran, and said to the talmid, “Here-now read it correctly? The Rav had been right all along…. 

That willingness to change course is also a source of inspiration.  The Alter of Slabodka totally switched his own derech ha mussar and the result was a focus on the greatness of man and not on the weakness of humanity, as posted here.
I have heard and read stories of both Chassidim, especially Lubavitchers, and Novardok yeshiva students and the terrible conditions in Sibera that they went through.  Many fought long and hard and survived, while others didn’t.  The end result is that we have to keep plugging.  For me, this means that while my first official attempt at getting an essay published didn’t quite work out how I wanted it to, I haven’t given up.

* Thanks to A Simple Jew for pointing me to the lesson of Prostuk

Best quote ever about internet filters

Rav Moshe Weinberger in this shiur, available for free, said the following:

“People would like to install Yiras Shamayim.  You can’t do that, you can’t install Yiras Shamyaim, that’s the only problem.  You can install a filter, but the person is the same person sitting down to the computer.”

He then expands this idea about the filter fixing the internet, not he person. Someone who has a teiyvas beheima (physical desire) for something isn’t going to be stopped by a filter. Rav Weinberger believes that we have to address the person, the pnemius of the person, Kedusha of a Jew and expose the greatness with each of us. Gevaldik!!

The entire shiur is available here.

The cold mikvah moshul

Once, when the Chofetz Chaim immersed in the mikvah, he found the water to be very cold. He questioned the caretaker, who insisted that he had heated up the water before adding it to the mikvah and even showed him the kettle he had used. The Chofetz Chaim first felt the kettle, then he put his finger into the water of the kettle, and found the water to be lukewarm. He explained to the mikvah attendant, if boiling hot water is added to the mikvah then the water will become warm. However, he noted, if the water is only lukewarm when it is poured into the mikvah, the water will remain quite cold indeed.

Similarly, if we are trying to ignite within our children an excitement and fervor for Yiddishkeit, we ourselves must be piping hot with enthusiasm. If our ardor for Torah and mitzvos is tepid and unenthusiastic, how will our children be energized and invigorated?

-From Rav Dovid Goldwasser, in the Spring 2012 issue of The Klal Perspectives Journal

Manifesto for a culture of growth

We have problems and finally the editorial board at The Klal Perspectives is letting us see the insights of many well know leaders and trailblazers within the frum community. The problem is that many (myself included) are not always inspired to grow in our Avodah.  I offered a solution a few years ago that worked for me here, but there’s not just a “one size fits all” cure (well, there might be, but you’ll have to read all of this post).

I’ve been privileged to communicate with both the editor of Klal Perspectives and two of those that answered the questions posed for this issue.  A commonly recommended suggestion in four of the articles is the establishment of learning groups (some call them vaadim or chaburos) geared towards growth-oriented learning.  This is, in fact, something that the AishDas Society has been doing successful for a number of years.  For me, the vaad/chabura model works, in edition to the Bilvavi seforim. I know of classes based on this model in several shuls and it seems to work for some.  It’s not a THE solution, but it’s a viable option and an established one.  Giving people an option to grow can open up multiple doors in a shul.

Getting people to learn seforim that are growth-oriented is a major challenge.  It’s sort of like exercise. People wo do it regularly love it (so I’ve heard).  I know that I don’t exercise enough, but when I do I feel better.  The “Zumba” craze has become very popular with women who want to exercise because it’s fun (this is based on speaking with people who do Zumba and also based on a very improptu Facebook survey I took).  Zumba’s motto is, “Ditch the workout; Join the party!”

They know that exercise is hard work and often difficult. By putting music and dance moves together they have made it fun. I think growth oriented Judaism needs a similar motto. Maybe it should be, “From pause to Go with the turn of a page” or “If you’re not growing, your not living“.
There are mornings when it’s a struggle for me to get out of bed and daven with a minyan. There are plenty of times I say Shema and don’t feel that I’m fully accepting Hashem as King. There are times that I will choose not to go learn in the evenings so that I can go to sleep or just veg out. I admit it only because I know that I’m not alone. This is just something that people don’t talk about with their friends.  Those that do know me, know that being inspired is something I attempt to work on.  There are days when I successed and days when I can’t wait to try again.

I did write that there might a “one size fits all” cure and I think it’s finding a community (ie- shul, beis medrash, kollel, Rav) that is focused on Torah, Avodah, and Gemilus Chassadim, which are the foundations of our world. These three items are also the driving force behind Cong. Ahavas Yisrael and often mentioned in the writings and comments of Mark Frankel from BeyondBT.  Each of us can connect and grow by our invovlment in one of these three. We can learn, commit to meaningful davening, or involve ourselves and families in chessed. The main point, as Micha Berger mentioned to me in an email, is that our Torah life has to be a growth process.

I think back to the lyrics of the old TV show “Diff’rent Strokes” as proof for this:
Now the world don’t move to the beat of just one drum,
what might be right for may not be right for some.
There’s also a great discussion going on at BeyondBT regarding the current issue of Klal Perspectives, here.

A lesson from Eeyore (rebooted)

This week, finally, I had my initial “session” with my Partner in Torah.  The person I’m learning with is semi-local, so I decided that our first learning experience should be in person.  It was great.  He’s a really friendly guy.  Partner’s in Torah even supplied us with a curriculum, which made things much easier than the pressure of trying to figure out what to learn.

As we were learning, I admit, I felt rather grateful for my own Jewish education that I was able to receive after finishing public high school.  It’s funny how there are so many things I think of as givens within Jewish thought and law that, in fact, were so foreign to me years ago.  On the drive back I thought about an idea I learned from Eeyore many year ago.

I’m telling you. People come and go in this Forest, and they say, ‘It’s only Eeyore, so it doesn’t count.’ They walk to and fro saying, ‘Ha ha!’ But do they know anything about A? They don’t. It’s just three sticks to them. But to the Educated – mark this, little Piglet- to the Educated, not meaning Poohs and Piglets, it’s a great and glorious A.” -Eeyore, summarized from The House at Pooh Corner (chapter 5)

How each of us sees things is based on our own background and knowledge.  It’s very easy to live a traditional Jewish life and forget that to those not blessed with the same opportunites you’ve had, ‘A’ is just three sticks.

If you can give 30 minutes a week on the phone to learn with someone who wants to grow in their Jewish knowledge, give a call to 800-STUDY-4-2.

Note: This idea about Eeyore and kiruv is something I posted in 2007. After learning with my partner it popped back into my mind.