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Showing posts from 2010

Growth Through Hypocrisy

Wikipedia defines hypocrisy as:
Hypocrisy is the act of persistently pretending to hold beliefs, opinions, virtues, feelings, qualities, or standards that one does not actually hold. Hypocrisy is thus a kind of lie.I was feeling particularly unimpressed with my actions one day and sighed, "I am such a hypocrite.";  which only made me feel worse, because I hate hypocrisy with a passion.  (I actually used the word "fraud", but I don't want to admit that in public.)  It was pointed out to me, however, that if I hate being hypocritical, that means that I don't define myself as exemplifying that character trait and so I am not a hypocrite.  (Oh gosh... does that mean I am being hypocritical about my hypocrisy?  Not going there...).  So I am making an effort not to regard myself as "a hypocrite", but rather as someone who acts (at times) hypocritically.

So lets begin anew: I was feeling particularly unimpressed with my actions one day and sighed, &q…

Thought for the Day: G-d is Not a Vending Machine

... that takes prayer in the top slot and dispenses results in the bottom tray.

You are wondering why I am pointing out the obvious?  Then I guess you don't know me so well; but I am saying it now davka because the fact that many people (mostly non-religious and non-orthodox Jewish) think this way came up recently.  A former colleague who is both a statistician and a religious atheist (i.e., dogmatic in her belief that reality just "poof" came into existence for no reason) very gleefully reported that a case study had been performed with two groups of sick people; one group had people praying for them, the other did not.  She told me with a note of triumph that  there was no statistically significant difference in their cure rates.  I told her my conclusion from those results: Sounds like proof that G-d doesn't always do exactly what you ask, even if you ask nicely; I am not shocked.

Not to let it rest so easily (after all, she is a religious atheist and feels compell…

Derech HaShem: 1:3;3,4 Two worlds

The Ramchal now explains to us the necessity of two very different stages of our life.  First, olam haze (the here and now), that is very well known to us; or at least we feel that way.  The second, some mysterious after life know as olam haba, that we believe in but somehow does not have the same reality to us.  We will see, though, that in fact the situation is quite the opposite: olam haba is the more "real" of our realities and olam haze is a temporary preparation arena for olam haba.  In fact, it is not unlike the development of the fetus in the womb as preparation for life in this world.

In order to most exquisitely experience the relationship with his Creator, one must be the master of his own perfection as a human being.  That is, he must remove all of his own flaws and also strengthen positive traits; both through his own efforts.  Obviously, that means that man must start off in a state of imperfection.  However that statement bears some contemplation.  For as alon…

Derech HaShem: 1:3;1,2 Man, Free Will, Soul/Body

The human being is, in fact, that creation whose purpose to have the closest possible relationship with HaKadosh Baruch Hu.  Man's essential character is that he lies between perfection on the one hand and all manner of imperfections on the other.  Moreover, he has the wherewithal to both remove imperfections and to increase his perfection.  However, this movement from his created state to increased perfection must be by his own choice and as a result of his desire to move in that direction.  That is, if his choices would always eventually lead to perfection, then he will not come out as the owner of his perfection and HaShem's desire to bestow the greatest good would not be fulfilled.  Rather, man must be left equally balanced and given all the information he needs to make an informed decision between his options.  He is then allowed to both decide what he wants and then to live out the consequences of that decision.  To keep everything in balance, says the Ramchal, man has b…

To Be or Not To Be... That really *is* the question

We are taught that we earn our reward by exercising our free will to choose to do  mitzvos and avoid aveiros. At this point, I am wondering why it isn't eternal reward a "slam dunk"?  I mean, ok... I have a yeitzer ra which sometimes (often) compels me to make bad decisions.  It seems hard to call that "free choice" when I know I really want to do the right thing and am compelled by my baser urges to sin.  My starting point for this question is simply that I do not understand how the choice is anything but obvious and forced to a rational being.  Put another way, it seems that the choice being offered is something like standing in front of an open furnace; I have free choice (in some sense) about whether or not to enter the furnace, but there is only one rational choice.  And if I do choose to "enter the furnace"; how can I be punished for being irrational?  "oneis rachmana patrei" -- the Torah exempts one who who forced; and acting …

Thought for the Day: Instant Coffee and Avodas HaShem; Pleasure in This World, Take II

Contrary to popular belief, I don't like coffee.  I do, however, very much like giving myself the pleasure of enjoying a good cup of coffee.  Now, before you get (more) annoyed; please let me explain.

First, I would like to establish the following:
All pleasure is the result of enjoying the fruits of some labor. In case there is any doubt, just ask yourself how many people in their right minds want to live their lives in bed with a feeding tube?  Ummm... none.  The disagreement is not about the fact that enjoyment of pleasure only comes from effort; rather people tend to want to decide on their own the level effort they are willing to expend and on what.

Next principle:
As we mature, our ideas of what constitutes pleasure also matures. This does not mean that we give up pleasures, rather that our ideas and attitudes change.  As a trivial example, I was aghast the first time I saw a book without pictures.  I don't read any picture books any more. Its not that I can't find any…

Derech HaShem: 1.2 More on the purpose of creation

The Ramchal has established that the purpose of Creation is for G-d to have a beneficiary with whom He can fulfill His desire to bestow good on another.  In order to most perfectly achieve that goal, the Highest Wisdom decreed:
The beneficiary must be (as much as possible) the owner of its reward.The only true source of good and perfection is HaKadosh Baruch Hu, Himself; therefore the best and most perfect experience of good is a relationship with Him.The first goal is achieved by allowing the beneficiary to realize and experience the good through its own efforts.  Something that is "owed" to it, and not just the result of being "at the right place, at the right time".  It is in some way like the difference between the experience of warmth at the beach versus the experience of warmth after exercising; or the difference between enjoying a symphony as a member of the audience versus as a member of the orchestra.  The second goal is achieved by making the goal of the c…

Pleasure in This World and in the Coming World

The Ramchal in Derech HaShem has established that the purpose of creation is for the Creator to bestow from His goodness to beneficiary.  I think that when non-religious people hear that, their first thought is something like:
I'd rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints; the sinners are much more fun.Worse, I fear that some religious people secretly wonder the same thing.  A few years ago a non-religious reporter in Bnei Brak asked an American ba'al tshuva to comment on whether he or the ultra-orthodox, chareidi children had a more difficult nisayon.  The ba'al tshuva surprised the reporter by saying, "They have a much more difficult nisayon, because they think there is some fun in the outside world that they are missing; I know that there isn't anything to miss!"

When the Ramchal says "bestow goodness", he doesn't mean harps and long white gowns living on a fluffy background of mist.  He means FUN! EXCITEMENT! WHOA!  R' Dessle…

Derech HaShem: 1.2 The Purpose of Creation

It is, I think, a testament to the genius of the Ramchal that he is able to express entire meaning of life in one short statement:
The purpose of creation is for HaKadosh Baruch Hu to bestow His goodness on another.That's it; the rest is commentary.  Please take a few moments to reflect on that before continuing.  Just reflect on what it means that HaShem created you and your entire environment (ie, all of creation) for no other reason other than to love you and shower you with His goodness.

The Ramchal now notes that true perfection exists only with respect to HaShem Himself, and as a consequence, the nature and experience of the beneficiary is attachment to the Creator Himself.  This is for two reasons:
HaShem is perfect and therefore anything He does will be in the most perfect way possible.  Since He is the ultimate in good, it follows that the greatest experience of goodness is attachment to HaShem Himself (to the greatest degree possible for a created entity).There is no rea…

Thought for the Day: This just in -- I caught my breath! Baruch HaShem

I had the following conversation with my son (via texting.... sigh, you do what you have to):
Me: Guess what!  This is mamash soooo exciting!!!!
Son: LOL what?
Me: Are you sitting?
Son: Yes
Me: I don't want you to get hurt when you are bowled over by this exciting news.
Son: I'm sitting....
Me: Arms on the chair?  Maybe it would be better if you were on the floor already...
Son: I'm in a car on the way home. Strapped in and everything.
Me: You better not be driving! x-(
Son: I'm not.
Me: Ok...
Me: Are you getting annoyed?
Son: No, I am not getting annoyed.
Son: But I'm hoping this is leading to something about receiving a check in the mail.
Me: Bigger than that!
Son: Kk. I'm excited... what is it?
Me: Do you know the body produces enough toxins to kill a person in just a few minutes?
Son: Ok...
Me: But... and this is the exciting news now...
Son: Wait.  I know: G-d lets us live.  Wow!!! Miracle!
Me: I KNOW!!!

So what prompted this?  We've had a rough few mo…

Derech HaShem: 1.1 Belief in and about G-d

The Ramchal begins by making six points of belief that are vital to an understanding of G-d and the entire system:

G-d exists; His existence precedes all and is eternal.We can never really know G-d Himself; that knowledge is beyond the capability of a created being.G-d exists perforce.  That is, the whole concept of existence only has meaning within the context of G-d.  In a sense, He precedes even existence itself.G-d does not depend on anything else, but everything else depends on Him.  He brings into being and constantly sustains everything.G-d is absolutely without parts or division.  When we speak of G-d's attributes (His knowledge, His mercy, His kindness), those are completely our perception and not something intrinsic to Him.  From G-d's point of view (so to speak), they are all one: Him.
G-d is unique and cannot not even be described in terms of anything besides G-d Himself.The importance and implications of (6) are discussed at some length in Da'as T'vu…

Derech HaShem - Preface

I am learning (once again) the Ramchal's Derech HaShem with a chavrusa.  The plan is to go very slowly and methodically to understand each concept before going on.  I've decided to write up notes as we go along both to clarify my own thoughts and to share them with any who are interested.  Even more than usual, I welcome comments, insights, and questions on these posts.  I will do my best to respond, expand, and disseminate those points that are not clear at first.  Please note: this is not a translation of Derech HaShem, rather something like marginal notes on the text.  As such, they may not be edited as some of my other posts; but I think it is worth getting the thoughts out sooner rather than waiting till I have time to pretty them up.

The Ramchal prefaces his work by introducing his system and approach.  He makes the point that when trying to understand a complex system, the system must be describable in terms of parts; each part has its own function and also a relatio…

Out of the Mouth of Babes

We had a young kollel couple with a two year old daughter over for brunch one Sunday.  The little girl was just starting to talk; so cute!  I told her father that I hope HaShem thinks of us as so cute when we try to daven.  He thought it was a great way to look at things (as, of course, did I).  I have comforted myself with that thought for years now.  I try my best to daven, but often think of that cute little two year old and how we are HaShem's children.  Something happened a few weeks ago that made me realize that I was not comforting myself, but rather was giving myself a comfortable rationalization to justify my stunted growth in davening.

What happened?  I was walking home from shul with a friend's 11 year old son.  He is an interesting young man, always asking penetrating questions (in all innocence).  For his (recent) 11th birthday, he had asked for a "Pathway to Prayer" for both weekday and shabbos.  "Pathway to Prayer" is a beautiful sefer that t…

Sure we have a minyan: ... 7, 8, 9 .. what? Oh....

There is a requirement to have 10 Jewish men who have attained maturity (ie, bar mitzvah) in order to be allowed to say certain prayers.  Everyone knows that, but too often we do not feel both the privilege and responsibility of that fact.

Our shul started in the home of  Rabbi Aryeh Rodin a bit more than 20 years ago; around September of 1987.  He started it by looking for at the zip code map and choosing the region that had the most Jews.  Then he moved into the neighborhood and starting knocking on doors with mezuzahs and asking them to attend an Orthodox minyan, maybe learn something more about Orthodox Judaism, etc.  The response was... well.... slow.  We moved into the neighborhood in the beginning of 1990.  By that time, Ohev Shalom ("Where Jews of All Backgrounds Feel At Home"), had taken up residence in a second floor storefront at the back of a small shopping center in the north part of Dallas (pretty much as far north as you could get and still be in Dallas).  We a…

Forgiveness vs. Consequences

After the disaster of the spies in parshas Shalach, Moshe prayed earnestly to save the Jewish nation from destruction and is finally answered (bamidbar 14:20, following Rashi):
"HaShem said, I have forgiven them in accordance with your arguments."In the following three verses, however, HaShem uses the language of an oath to decree death in the wilderness on the generation that saw all of the miracles in Egypt and then tested Him these 10 times.  What happened?! Wasn't everything forgiven; and not by a mortal, but by HaShem Himself -- the One who is merciful, gracious, ever patient, abounding in loving kindness and truth.  Could there be a more glaring contradiction?  How does "I forgive you" go with "I am killing you"?  How can a loving G-d do that?

There is, of course, no contradiction.  The Jewish nation and that entire generation were forgiven; that entire generation died in the wilderness.  The seeming contradiction comes from our misunderstanding …

If it ain't broke, don't fix it!

I have been talking a lot about the underlying outlook and philosophical changes that comes with moving toward an orthodox Jewish lifestyle, but actually "walking the talk" comes with its own challenges.  Moreover, there is a wide chasm between the path of a Jew who is moving toward more mitzvah observance and that of a (potential) convert.  A Jew who grew up in a non-religious home has plenty of good and real excuses for current his lack of observance.  Moving toward a more observant lifestyle should be executed with measured steps and is best done with rabbinic guidance.  Each new step is itself an accomplishment to be celebrated; there is no reason to move too quickly.  In fact, it is better to move slowly and steadily than to take on too much and back slide.

A goy who wants to convert, on the other hand, cannot take small steps.  It is all or nothing; if the aspiring convert "slips back", nothing is really lost since he had no obligation in the first place.  Of …

The Nuts and Bolts of Becoming Jewish

Just to recap: For years I had been living a much more "Jewish" lifestyle (kosher, Shabbos, and holidays, regular shul attendance) than any of my family or friends. I had embarrassed my dad at restaurants by asking to read the labels before eating the food. I had disrupted family outings because of Shabbos. I had modified vacation plans to work around the holidays. And now, after all that, I had just found out that I wasn't even Jewish. My friends and family, who had put up with my "idiosyncrasies" for years were dumbfounded. I was often the sole voice of Jewish observance, and now it turned out that I was also the sole goy. I think "irony" must be HaShem's middle name. While the irony was not lost on me, I wasn't really laughing at that point. And my friends and family just took it is (additional) proof that I was totally off my rocker on this subject. Their logic was simple (and oft repeated), "You act more Jewish than any of…
A mother's hug

I was recently witness to a heartrending scene; a young single mother had to tell her son that they may lose their house. He tried to hold back his tears and was almost successful. She told him not to worry, they would always have a roof over their heads and a bed to sleep in. "That's not your job", she told him, "it is my job. Your job is to be happy and do your best in school." I even heard him murmur, "This is not helping." Then she just hugged him; and he was soothed. He needed that hug, not the words. A bit later I asked him later what was his main worry (I wondered why those reassurances had not helped); and now we calmly discussion the situation. Now he needed the words and was able to process them in a mature way.

After thinking about this for a few days, I have a new understanding of a chazal that I seem to have misunderstood for years. That gemara in Shabbos, 112b, says:
אמר ר' זירא אמר רבא בר זימונא אם ראשונים …