Category Archives: personal

Should I stay or should I grow?

Photo and layout by me
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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.


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?


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.

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.

A note to my readers

I started this blog with one primary goal, to attempt to write more regularly. I figured if one person read a post and came back to read another (even if they didn’t make a comment) that would be enough of a push to write more. It worked. This blog also doubles as a good creative outlet and has kept me (for the most part) out of trouble.  It has also given me a sense of false comfort that I’ve, somehow, serving a role in Knesses Yisrael.  I’ll be the first to tell you that I know Hashem has more planned for me that my involvement in my chosen industry.  Finding a way to bring that to life is a challenge for me.  This blog is a good platform, but probably just one aspect of what I can do for our people.
That being written, I’d like to get some things off my chest. If you think I’m all into self-growth, it’s only when I’m comfortable with what’s sprouting.  If you think I’m a nice guy, it depends on the time of day and how much patience I have.  If you think I am constantly inspired, it’s only because I act the part.  If you think I am truthful, I am guilty of lying to myself and others.

The battlefield of self-growth (in my case mussar) is full of faux-victories.  Choosing not to scream at your kids or insult someone close to you isn’t so difficult, if you think before you speak and keep calm.  We might ascribe the action (or in action) as a major battle, but really it isn’t.  Unless you have a real Hulk-like temper and spend your day scream at others, then choosing not to scream, isn’t a real battle.  It could be a ploy of the Yetzer or the Sitra Achra, but it isn’t a full scale battle royal.

Recently I’ve found myself in several “real” battlefields.  Some I’ve navigated to on my own accord, others I have “run into” as tests.  I’ve been forced to confront people and myself.  Dealing with people is much easier for me than dealing with myself.  I’m realizing that the really battle is with myself and I am extremely cunning.  I thought that pulling an “Alter of Novardok” and staying in cabin not posting, à la perishus (separation) would help.  Had it been the correct course, then you wouldn’t be reading this now.  I guess a week was long enough.

The oldest thing I still wear

Before (pic from here)

I can say, after almost 15 years of marriage, there are very few things that own, let alone wear, that are leftovers from my pre-teshuva days.  My “jungle boots” have been in my possession since I was 15.  For almost 27 years they have been with me.  They traveled witht me on my NCSY “teen summer tour” of Israel, when I solidified my observance, they spent two years with me when I was learning in E”Y afer high school, went to NY with me to college, lived with me before I was married, and have survived (so far) three Uber-kids.  When we moved to Chicago, where I actually encountered real winters, I had to retire them, since they are not waterproof.  I have yet to see any weather this season that might bring them out of retirement, but I’m hopeful.

It’s funny, but even now when I put them on, there’s a certain strut in my step, memories of a young kid who felt like he could take on the world and do with politeness.  Music long forgotten plays in my head and memories of a less structured life come into play.  Even the crazy smell of them has a whiff of confidence that lingers.  I know it, nuts, right?  We all have objects that hold significance to us.  It could be your Shabbos lichter, tefillin, a sefer, a matzah cover, coffee cup, bookmark, or even a Yoda Star Wars figure (yes, I still have mine).  Some items we can only hope to pass down to the next generation.  I know that eventually I will throw these boots away, but for now I’m holding on to them, purely for nostalgic reasons.  Also, they don’t take up too much space.  

"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.

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.