Category Archives: Mussar

Rav Wolbe zt’l on the beginning of Mesillas Yesharim

Found on Flickr

Found on Flickr after a lot of searching


In Z’ria U’Binyan B’Chinnuch, Planting and Building, by Rav Shlomo Wolbe z’tl (English translation by Rabbi Leib Keleman) the beginning of Mesillas Yesharim is quoted, which states (pages14-15):

“The foundation of Chassidus (piety) and the root of perfect service of Hashem is understanding and appreciating one’s obligation in one’s personal world.” It is tempting to gloss over the apparently repetitive phraseology, “The foundation of Chassidus” and “the root of perfect service of Hashem,”…in this short phrase, Ramchal teaches us that there are two, parallel processes in serving Hahsem.

The first one, Chassidus, demands a foundation. Chassidus constitutes the top floor in the construction of a human being and construction always requires a foundation. The taller and loftier the building we wish to construct, the deeper the foundation we must dig. To reach the heights of Chassidus, we must first lay a strong foundation and then build on it.

The second one, Divine service, evolves organically from within, and such growth requires a root, Ramchal hints. Where there is no root, there can be no growth. In one terse sentence, Ramchal informs us that we must be involved in both construction (building ourselves through the acquisition of ma’alos– good qualities) and growth (sowing internal seed that will sprout during our lifetime). And with this understanding we should learn the remainder of the introduction to the Mesillas Yesharim

This is exactly why our there needs to be both building and construction in raising a child and in building ourselves. A sprinkle of piety here and a pinch of servicing Hashem there helps make things taste better. Of course, I’m referring to the ta’am (taste) of a mitzvah. Hey, I’ll admit that that as a man I can only do one thing at a time. If I’m being asked to work on constructing a edifice with a strong foundation, then how work on nourishing my ever growing roots?

My own interpretation of this is that since roots are under the surface, working on growth is something we keep to ourselves, like a smokeless fire (see this post). What our families, friends, and people we bump into will see is how those roots essentially help with the construct of the “building” in the form of those mitzvos that we perform out in the open, such as davening, learning, or a chessed.

Speaking of Mesillas Yesharim, A Simple Jew was kind enough to tell me about a new edition of Mesillas Yesharim coming out July 31, 2013 from Artscroll. with seriously useful commentary.

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.

Sweet deal on the "must have" parenting sefer

The English translation of Zeriah u’Binyan beChinnuch, Planting and Building by Rav Shlomo Wolbe z’tl (translated by Rabbi Leib Keleman) is currently on sale for $11.69 if you use this online coupon code: FLD10.

From the Feldheim website:

An English translation of the acclaimed Hebrew best-seller, Zeriah u’Binyan beChinnuch. The author, an acknowledged Torah authority, is one of the foremost spiritual leaders of our time. This book has been prepared from several of his lectures, and presents basic guidelines for parenting and education. The wisdom in this important book fills a great need for our generation and Rabbi Wolbe’s vital teachings should be read and re-read by every Jewish parent and educator.

Now, here’s the nitty gritty about this sefer, if you have kids or are in a formalized chinuch position, then it’s in your best interest to read this sefer. If you live in Chicago, email me and I’ll let you borrow my copy. Last February in Chicago I heard both Rabbi Yakov Horowitz and Rabbi Paysach Krohn quote and base discussions around this sefer at two totally separate events. Rabbi Wolbe z’tl completely “got it” about how to use sechel in the way we educate our children. I often catch myself using techniques and teachings from this sefer. I also catch myself not following some of the ideas in the sefer and pay for it. I don’t get any kickbacks from Feldheim (but wish I did), I just happen to feel very passionately about Planting and Building and it is truly 88 pages of knowledge. Don’t forget to use the code “FLD10” to save 10% when you order it.

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)

Fifty shades of Frum

Really low-tech graphic by me

For the past two months I have been trying to figure out a way to write this post without it seeming like I am: ranting, being hypocritical, ignorant, preachy, or being non-tzenu’ah (immodest).

There’s a line that we all have an option of crossing.  What and where that line is is usually based on our upbringing, education, spouse, acceptable standard within the community, Rabbonim, media (even Jewish newspapers/websites), and friends.  The term “fifty shades” refers to, from what filter-based-internet research I have done, the complexities and layers of a person.  No, I haven’t read any of the books, but I’ve heard about them.  They are in the news, on the radio and in the hands of people who are reading them, for a multitude of reasons.  That isn’t the point of this post, however.

Judaism may seems to be black and white, but grey does exist (although “grey” usually means that there are several opinions about something, thus giving you other options besides “A” and “B”).  Most people, well, at least this person, love being in the grey area.  Not because it exists in the form of a reshus, (something that isn’t an outright mitzvah, yet isn’t assur), but because I pick and define my own grey area.  I feel a sense of ownership of my self-defined grey areas.  Something a person may grey as reading a secular newspaper, listening or watching sports, listening to music of their youth, watching a movie with language that we would be shocked to hear from our children’s mouths, reading a magazine with articles that we would never let our daughters read, or spending our free time with friends doing things that we wouldn’t want to share on Facebook.  Grey may be the words we say, the things we smoke, the books we read, the liquids drink, things we wear, or the websites we go to when we fool ourselves into thinking that no is watching.  Grey is what we make it.

Grey is the new pareve, or so we chesbonize.  We wouldn’t ever think of mixing meat and milk, yet we all are big fans of pareve soy milk, creamer, margarine, dark chocolate, and pareve ice cream.  Pareve has as the luxury of not being milchig or fleishig.  I, all too often ascribe my grey areas the distinction of pareve.  Sometimes, though, they are not.  Heck, just this past Sunday on my bike ride I listened to three secular songs that are as clean as my kittel, yet they lacked the kedusha of that garment (on the level of why my kittel was manufactured and also in how my kittel has been used).  Grey is totally how we see it.

Many years ago I sold over 80 CDs and cassettes (when people still bought them).  I did this for mostly two reasons.  I wanted to “m’kadesh them, by selling them and using the money to buy seforim and also because I didn’t want them in my home, due to some of the lyrics (not necessarily profanity, but more based on the sub-culture of hardcore punk music).  Don’t fret, we still have a big handful of secular stuff sandwiched between Uncle Moishy CD, HASC Concerts, and Piamenta.  Most of it is grey music, of course (written with a smile).

Well over 20 years ago, I once joked with someone and said, “I’m a baal teshuva.  There isn’t any grey with me, only black and white.”  Relax, it’s not as harsh as it sounds.  What I then explained was that my view on things was simply either something is kosher (acceptable) or it isn’t.  Either it has value/k’dusha or it doesn’t.  Rabbi Yosef Yozel Hurwitz, the Alter of Novardok said it like this:  A utensil can be either michlig, fleishig, or pareve.  A person can’t be pareve, he must be one or the other.

I can try to make things as grey as I want them to be, but it is me who is making them grey and the world doesn’t really run based on the biased meanings and values that I give things.  Sometimes, I find myself taking what is clearly dark-dark grey and slowly rationalizing it.  With each thought, action, excuse or indulgence slowly dark-dark grey becomes, dark grey, then not-so dark grey, which becomes grey, which then becomes light-grey, which become light-light grey, which is really almost white.  Grey exists, and I’m cool with that.  Either what I may view as grey can be used to get me closer to Hashem and my mission as a Jew in this world or it simply diverts me from that goal.

Well, I biked the forest…

I have to thank all of my sponsors who donated over $2,000.00 for Chai Lifeline.  Seriously, you’re amazing!  What, feeling guilty that you didn’t sponsor me?  Don’t fret, you still have time by clicking here.

I have read that a common motto in exercise is, “Feel the pain”.  After Sunday’s bike ride with Chai Lifeline, I totally understand what this means.  “Biking the forest” pushed me to the limit.  Biking 54 miles last year on Lake Shore Drive was a piece of fat-free cake compared with Sunday’s 34 mile bike ride at Linne Woods.  I found the hills to be much more challenging than I expected and to say that I pushed myself, is not an exaggeration.  Of course, it was for a great cause and if I am a little sore and sunburned, then so be it.  It was TOTALLY worth it!

Our ride started at a picnic grove where Chai Lifeline had fruit, Granola Bars, and water waiting for us.  The trail we took went north for 10 miles to the beautiful Chicago Botanical Gardens, at which point, people could turn around and return to the picnic grove.  However, I wanted to get in my 34 miles, so once I got the the Botanical Gardens, I then went back 7 miles and returned to Gardens.  All along the way Chai Lifeline had volunteers stationed with nice cold bottles of water for everyone.  After refilling my water and catching my breath, I biked back to join the group.  For those that wanted, a nice brunch was served, sponsored by Bagel Country after the event.  I was simply happy to drink some water in the shade. 

When I got home I was greeted with hugs, high-fives, and a cold drink and something to eat.  Seeing how proud my wife and kids were of what I accomplished in memory of my father a”h, made it all worth it.  As I wrote above, this was quite a challenge, but it was also a opportunity to really push myself and see the effort pay off!  I am pleased that I not only biked the furthest of anyone on Sunday, but I also brought in the second highest amount of sponsorship this year.  To know that I was able to help Chai Lifeline with your support and encouragement is a great feeling and I am so glad you were able to help me.

For the first 3 hours of my 3.5 hour bike ride I listened to some amazing shiurim from Rav Reuven Leuchter, who is a very close student of Rav Shlomo Wolbe zt’l.  Two of the shiurim were about “Chinuch on Gadlus Ha’Adom” and the third was about the first few lines of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter’s Iggeres HaMussar (totally blew my mind how he he explains R Yisrael Salanter’s view of imagination/dimyon).  His understanding of Gadlus Ha’Adom (as being conscious that we are involved in a higher madrega of avodah than just mitzvah observance, but serving Hashem) fits so nicely with the concept of D’veykus (attachment to God) as brought down in the Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh seforim.  The 30 minutes of my ride was spent listening to Yosef Karduner, Piamaneta, Diaspora, Yitzhak HaLevi, Even Sh’shiya, Bob Mould, and a Russian band called Selo N Ludy and their cover of Bon Jovi’s “It’s my life” (funniest thing ever).

Chai Lifeline is still excepting your sponsorship of my ride.  That’s right, you have until Thursday morning to still make a donation.  Any amount would be great.  I’ll be honest, for the past three years I have raised more for Chai Lifeline’s bike event in Chicago than anyone else.  This year I am only short $591.00 of keeping that record.

Please feel free to forward this page to anyone that can help.  Every little bit helps.
You can sponsor me by going here.  Seriously, this is for Chai Lifeline, they do great work.  Thanks!!!

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

Nesivos Shalom on middos

Rav  Shalom Noach Berezovsky zt’l, the Slonimer Rebbe 

In is series of seforim, Nesivos Shalom, the Slonimer Rebbe zt’l writes (in one of the many sections on Tikun HaMiddos):

One needs to feel the joy of acquiring positive traits and realize how miserable he is as long as he is mired in negativity. A person of positive traits is happy—at peace with others, at peace with God, at peace with himself. The opposite is true of one whose traits are negative—he is irritable, not at peace with others, God, or himself. It is contention within your gates—within your own personal gates there is contention: He fumes with anger at himself; he is depressed and lethargic; he is full of jealousy and animosity toward others; he doesn’t like to be around people and they don’t like to be around him; he is full of bitterness at the Almighty concerning his lot. Once a person comes to the clear realization that his happiness actually depends on the rectification of his character, he will spare no effort in pursuit of his own happiness. The whole of a person’s life and times hinges on his character. (Translation by R Jonathan Glass)