Saturday, September 26, 2009

Another Gem from ShulWeek

Rabbi Michoel Feder (not real name) was shopping in a crowded kosher bakery on Erev Yom Kippur (day before Yom Kippur) where he met a man from his congregation, Jack Bender (not real name). Jack was a man who came to shul every year for the high holidays and usually seemed bored, uncomfortable, and anxious to get out of there.

Jack said, "Rabbi, I come to the services every year; but really, what's the point? How many people do you know who keep all the 'resolutions' they make on Yom Kippur? Is there a person in the world who repented on Yom Kippur for all his sins and never sinned again? And most of us have trouble seeing even the smallest improvement from one Yom Kippur to the next. Isn't it all a waste of time? Who are we fooling? Certainly not G-d. And if were honest not even ourselves. I've seen a lot of scams in my time but this is the biggest ever."

There was a hushed silence. The assembled crowd was shocked that Jack could speak so disrespectfully, yet at the same time, everyone wanted to know what the Rabbi could argue or how he would respond. All eyes and ears were focused on Rabbi Feder.

"I had to do a number of chores today in preparation for the holiday, one of which was to take my car to the carwash," began Rabbi Feder, "Have you ever been to a carwash Jack?"

"Of course I have," answered Jack, "I have brought my car there many times. What's the point?"

Rabbi Feder continued, "Within minutes of driving out of the carwash your car has already lost its pristine gleam and within a week it starts to look like any other dirty car. Why does anyone bother? Sometimes Yom Kippur feels a lot like a car wash."

"Granted," replied Jack pensively.

"Have you ever tried to clean a car that hasn't been washed in years? It's almost impossible. The dirt and the grime have eaten into the paint. It's practically impossible to make the car shine. It's true that the gleam on our car is very short-lived, but there's a more important reason we make our weekly trip to the carwash. It gives us the possibility of returning to the shine of the original paint-work," explained the Rabbi, "Yom Kippur is the same. The sheen with which we leave shul after Yom Kippur may wear off pretty quickly, but if we never experienced a Yom Kippur, soon we'd become so spiritually dulled that we would be virtually unable to get back to the luster of our "original paint-work."

Jack attended Yom Kippur services with a whole new attitude. The emotion that he had was palpable. That and every Yom Kippur since, has been a new and moving experience for Jack and for all who know him.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Trial by Jury, part II

I wanted to add something about my jury duty that I didn't really feel was so appropriate for Erev Rosh Hashana.

If you took a thousand frum people and left them in a room by themselves for a day, the noise would be terrible. In this corner you'd have Shprintze and Yente talking about Shprintze's next door neighbor, who just happens to be Yenta's third cousin twice removed. In the next one, you'd hear Leah and Yocheved discussing seminary, while Devorah and Brocha are discussing Shabbos clothes. Towards the front of the room, you'd listen to Baruch and Reuven talking about the mesechta they're learning, while Bentzion and Yoni decide to learn daf yomi b'chavrusa (together). Underlying all the conversations would be a group effort to set up their neighbors/friends/family with everyone else. Jewish Geography would be rampant, with everyone trying to be related to everyone else. In one word, it would be tumultuous.

Now, take in comparison the scene I witnessed my first day of jury duty.

When I came in on my first day, I was seated in a room with (literally) a thousand chairs. On the day I was called, every single chair was full. You would think, picturing the above scene, the place would be hopping.

You would have been totally wrong.

There were a thousand people there, but you could've heard a pin drop. Outside of what civil courtesy and a plethora of questions (one or two), I didn't say a word to anyone. Nor did they say anything to me. Each person was in his or her own world, with no intergalactic communication.

I'm sure everyone knows the joke that two Jews talking to each other who haven't found a friend/relative/neighbor etc. in common haven't been talking long enough.

Maybe the rest of the world isn't all related.

Or maybe they just don't talk as much …

Friday, September 18, 2009

Trial by Jury

This week, I was called upon to do my duty as a New York State juror. I had to take off work and waste spend hours over the course of the past few days cooling my heels, waiting to be dismissed. Sitting there as I did, I had a lot of time to think, and one of the thoughts that kept popping into my head was how apropos it was for me to sit on a jury (not that I did – I was just on a panel) right before I myself came on trial.

Every judge will tell you (as the one in charge of my case did … numerous times) that one of the hardest parts of making a trial is finding a "fair and impartial jury." Everybody has some sort of bias, and it's very hard to set them aside and listen to the testimony with an open mind. The judge wasted the time of more than seventy people – over a three day period – trying to find such people.

With all this, the defendant on trial for attempted murder comes into court not knowing what the jurors think of him and his case. They don't particularly care for him, but neither do they know anything about the prosecutors. There is no connection between any of the jurors to anyone on the case, nothing that would cause the juror to lean toward any particular verdict.

We, on the other hand, come into our trial knowing that the jury is partial – to us. Our Father is the one judging our case. Instead of finding the people who will be able to see the matter clearly and make a just judgment, Hashem tries to find loopholes and somehow find us innocent of our "alleged" crimes. We go into that courtroom on Rosh Hashana knowing that the case is slanted to our benefit.

And yet …

There are so many sins that we are unable to atone for. So many sins that we can't do teshuva (repentance) for because we don't even know that we did them. I would like to take this time to publicly ask mechila (forgiveness) from all of my readers. If my words insulted you or hurt you in any way, please know that it was unintentional. I hope you'll forgive me.

Have a Ksiva V'Chasima Tova and a gut g'bentched yur.

Monday, September 14, 2009

A Note on Rosh Hashana

Rav Tzvi Hersh Meisels was a Baal Tokea – he was a skilled shofar blower. Before being sent to Auschwitz, Rav Meisels was a Rav in Hungary - the Veitzner Rav. Somehow, he smuggled a Shofar into Aushwitz. On one Rosh Hashana, he managed to blow Shofar for men who were going to a labor transport. He describes how he had managed to blow Shofar more than 20 times, reaching some 1,000 men; and he was exhausted. But then his son Zalman Leib who was there with him told him about another transport. There were some 1,400 boys who had been locked up in one of the blocs and they had been condemned
not to a labor camp, but to the crematorium. These boys had found out that somewhere in Aushwitz there was a man who had a Shofar. Through a variety of messengers they pleaded for Rav Maisels to come into the bloc where they were waiting to be murdered, and to blow the Shofar for them before they died. He did not know what to do.
It was clear to him that, if he went into the bloc, he might never get out. It was definitely a question of Pikuach Nefesh, of life and death, and those whom he consulted told him that he was not obligated to go in and blow the Shofar. His son Zalman Leib begged him not
to go into the bloc.

Rabbi Meisels began trying to find out what it would entail to fulfill this last request. First he had to get permission to go into the bloc. He did this by bribing the Capos – the Jewish overseers who stayed alive by serving as guards for the Nazis. The Capos made it clear that if the SS men should arrive and find Rav Meisels among the boys he would inevitably be added to their numbers – 1,401 to the crematorium. Notwithstanding the nature of the danger, R'Meisels decided to go into the bloc to blow Shofar for these doomed souls.

These are his words to describe the scene that unfolded: "Where is the pen and who is the writer who can transcribe the emotions of my heart as I entered the bloc. I met the sea of eyes of the youngsters who pressed forward to kiss my hand and my clothes. They cried with bitter tears and wailing voices to the heart of heaven. "When I began to recite the verse, 'Min Hametzar,' they stopped me and begged me to say a few words before the Shofar service. In my emotional state I could not speak, my tongue cleaved to its palette. I could not open my mouth or my lips. But the boys would not let me continue. I spoke words of Drash focusing on the verse 'Bakessah liyom Chageinu,' explaining that although Hashem's design and purpose for this Holocaust was at this moment, on Rosh Hashana, hidden and concealed from us, nonetheless we were not to despair for even if a sharp sword is placed on one's throat he should not desist from seeking mercy."And then he describes that he blew the shofar and as he was about to leave, one boy stood up and cried out, "Dear friends, the Rabbi has strengthened us by telling us that even when a sharp sword is on our throats, we should not despair of mercy. I say to you however, that while we can hope for the best we must be prepared for the worst. For the sake of Hashem my brothers, let us not forget in our last moments to cry out 'Shema Yisrael' with fervent devotion. And then with heart rendering voices and with great enthusiasm they all cried out 'Shema Yisrael, HaShem Elokeinu, HaShem Echad!…'"

Rav Meisels survived the Holocaust eventually made his way to Chicago. In 1955, he published a sefer, Makdishei HaShem containing Halachic responsa from the Holocaust, as well as his own reflections and this poignant episode.

What those 1,400 boys understood in the Holocaust was even though their lives were going to be snuffed out in but a few moments, they knew that they were going to eternal life in the world to come. That's the hope the Shofar can instill in each and every one of us.

May we merit hearing the Shofar of Moshiach

From Shulweek by Rabbi Baruch Lederman

Friday, September 11, 2009

Parshas Netzavim-Vayelech

I'd like to apologize for the general dearth of posts. I've just started a new full time job plus a new full time semester, so I'm just a little overwhelmed and overtired. I'll try to catch up and keep going, but please be patient (and yes, that includes dealing with my nomination as a kreative blogger by Staying Afloat). Enjoy this week's dvar torah!

The Gemora in Sotah (13b) derives from 31:2 that the righteous die on the day on which they were born, as Hashem completes the years of the righteous from day to day and from month to month. How can this be reconciled with the Yerushalmi (Rosh Hashana 3:8) which relates that when doing battle, the Amalekites chose soldiers whose birthdays were on the day of the battle, as on a person's birthday his mazal is stronger and protects him from dying? (Taima D'Kra)

Rav Chaim Kanievsky
explains that on a person's birthday, his mazal is indeed stronger and able to assist him. However, the form of aid that it provides depends upon the type of person that he is. For an ordinary person, death is considered a punishment and his strong mazal helps to protect against it on his birthday. However, for the righteous, death is considered beneficial as it brings them directly to Gan Eden, and their strong mazals actually work to bring this about on the day of their birth.

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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

For the Geeks in Your Lives ....

I Differentiate You!

A mathematician went insane and believed that he was the differentiation operator. His friends had him placed in a mental hospital until he got better. All day he would go around frightening the other patients by staring at them and saying, "I differentiate you!"

One day he met a new patient, and true to form, he stared at him and said, "I differentiate you!" but for once, his victim's expression didn't change. Surprised, the mathematician marshalled his energies, stared fiercely at the new patient, and said loudly, "I differentiate you!" but still the other man had no reaction.

Finally, in frustration, the mathematician screamed out, "I DIFFERENTIATE YOU!"

The new patient calmly looked up and said, "You can differentiate me all you like; I'm e to the x."

(For those that haven't had calculus, if you differentiate e to the x, you get e to the x.)

Received from ArcaMax Jokes, taken from, published on August 5, 2009

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

My Tznius Barometer

EDIT: While in general, I love comments, for some reason this post has inspired a bunch of nasty comments that I have no interest in seeing - or sharing, so I've closed the comments for this post. For those of you reading it for the first time, the ikkur is at the end. It is not a post about tznius in general, and my opinion on this may seem a little extreme to you. It is the way I feel, and is not necessarily halacha for everyone. You can do whatever you want. My point is about trusting in your own sense of right and not always relying on others to tell you what's right and what's not.

We had an optional class in tznius (feminine modesty) when I was in seminary. A whole group of us got very into wearing our clothing just so. We would throw open our closet doors and model our entire wardrobes for our teacher to look at and pass judgment on. She would tell us why this sweater was perfect, but that sweater was a tad too tight, why this skirt was too short, and this one too long. And we would sit there soaking up every word.

One of the things I miss the most about seminary is the peer pressure to be better than you were before. Everyone was aiming high, striving to become more ___ people. To become more tznius people. Clothing that before I would never have been caught dead wearing began to look good to me. The people I admired were no longer the ones who dressed in the height of fashion, but rather the height of tznius. It was a wonderful year.

Unfortunately, like most good things do, seminary came to an end. I came back to America, affectionately called shmutz l'aretz, where tznius is not "in style." The situation here was worse than I could've believed possible. Good Bais Yaakov girls were wearing skirts that were too short even according to my pre-sem eyes. And they were wearing the newest style: short sleeved shirts with long sleeved shells underneath.

I don't mean to offend anyone by this. I am not trying to preach to anyone; if you wear this style, that is your decision and you are entitled to it. This style strikes me as one more way for us to imitate the goyim. It gives off the impression that the person wearing such an outfit wants to be like her non-Jewish neighbors and wear short sleeves, but compromises and wears long sleeves underneath it to make herself feel covered.

It's scary to see people a while down the line and see how they've changed (I've already discussed this here). I recently saw one particular girl who was one of those very into tznius while in sem (not my sem). She was wearing a very loose shell under a short sleeved shirt. If the short sleeved shirt would've been long sleeved, it would have been a perfectly tzniusdig (modest). But it wasn't, and it wasn't.

I'm sure there were extenuating circumstances which led to her wearing this outfit, which she would never have even considered wearing in seminary. Even so, it scared me. You see, this girl was always my tznius barometer. I would look at her and know I was looking at a girl who epitomized the ideals of tznius in dress and demeanor. Whenever I had a question about my behavior or clothes, I would always seek her opinion.

And now … who can I rely on?

I know the answer, the only answer.


Once we finish school, we are basically left on our own to grow or not as we choose. Through all those years, we have looked to others – our teachers and classmates – to model what we should be doing. There comes a time when we realize that we are on our own. We have to be our own barometers, our own consciences. Only WE know what we need to be working on and how we're doing with it. There is no report card because this is the real world.

And what a beautiful world it is…

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