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Thought for the Day: Those Little Things Are Often the Main Things

Every group has its inside jokes, and vasikin is no different. There is one for Pesach involving Rebbitzin Isserles, there is one for Shavuos regarding the menu, and there is some sharp mussar regarding the 11 observed days of s'firah. Twice a year there is the quite popular announcement: For those of you who appreciate the smaller things in life, sunrise was one second today than yesterday. Small though it may seem, it is a welcome respite.

This time of year also comes with a personal simcha for me, as my rav, R' Dovid Siegel, shilta, comes for his annual visit from Eretz Yisrael. I am very fortunate that he always makes time for us to discuss my "life trajectory"; how the last year went, where I feel there are particular challenges, and counsel regarding the upcoming year. I never know the precise day he will arrive, so it is always a wonderful surprise. This year even more than usual. The person who usually sits next to me is away for a family simcha and his seat i…

Thought for the Day: The One Job During Prayer -- Express the Simple Meaning of Each Word as it Leaves Your Mouth

We are accomplishing huge things with the shofar blasts on Rosh HaShana.  There are Jews who barely distinguish themselves from the surrounding culture. They light Chanuka candles next to their decorated xmas trees. They'll have ham and cheese on their matzah during Passover. They'll drink herb teas during their Yom Kippur fast. Shofar, though? They don't want to hear any old horn; they want 100 blasts on a kosher ram's horn shofar. Big, big things are happening with those blasts and every Jew feels it deep in his soul.

R' Akiva Eiger was once asked  before Rosh HaShana what was the appropriate כוונה/intention for the shofar ceremony. There is so much going on, this Jew knew he would not be able to keep everything in mind, so he wanted just one -- the most important one -- כוונה/intention on which he could concentrate. R' Akiva Eiger told him that he was asking a very important question and he had an answer for him: Have in mind to fulfill the Torah mitzvah of …

Thought for the Day: When Can You Relax and Just Coast? Not In This World...

I got an email yesterday reminding me that it was Rosh Chodesh today and tomorrow, so davening would be starting 10 minutes earlier. Not to be outdone, the vasikin minyan started earlier today and will start even more earlier tomorrow. On the one hand, we are only starting earlier than usual by a few seconds. On the other hand, we are starting at 4:49 AM CDT. You decide who is more frum. 😛

Fine, fine... we are not starting earlier because of Rosh Chodesh. In fact, next Rosh Chodesh, we'll be starting later each day. Rosh Chodesh, of course, has nothing at all to do with when we daven. What's the point (besides the obvious showing off how dedicated us vasikin daveners are, while taking a jab at the rest of the world; just saying)? The point, though, is to underscore how bad it is to jump to conclusions from a tiny data set. The Pele Yo'eitz has an entire section devoted to the evils of הֶסַח הַדַעַת/running on auto-pilot. I wrote a post some time ago that hits the topic th…

Thought for the Day: Not Just What the Shulchan Aruch Says, But Where He Says It

I have a terrible memory for isolated facts. This is not false modesty; it's just the fact. It seems like I have a good memory because I can remember connected facts; facts connected with reasons. When I learned Hebrew, for example, I worked diligently to memorize enough grammar and vocabulary to build a sort of scaffolding. As that scaffolding became more sturdy and turned into a solid structure, I was able to add new facts by adding onto the existing structure. You now know far more about the way I think than you expected; you have only yourself to blame.

Why is this important? I now finally know enough halacha (about daily living, anyway), that I have a structure on which to hang new concepts! Woo hoo! Good thing, as R' Fuerst threw a few at us in his Sunday morning shiur on תפילת הדרך. The new idea started with a question: Are women obligated in תפילת הדרך? My first thought was, "Why not?  Hmm... it's not a time-bound, positive mitzvah. It is for protection on the…

Thought for the Day: Putting Prayer in Context -- The First Three Brachos of Shmone Esrei

Everybody loves grammar, right? The Hebrew word ללמוד means "to learn". The Hebrew word ללמד means "to teach". Same root letters (three, as is typical): ל-מ-ד; the two words differ only on בנין/conjunction. ללמוד is in the simple conjunction, whereas as ללמד is in the intensified conjunction. The Hebrew language itself tells us that teaching as in intensified form or learning. Of course, to give over an idea, one needs to have a deeper understanding himself first. That is one reason I look forward to giving a shiur. It takes me hours of preparation to give a 45 minutes shiur; must of that time is spent really just clarifying for myself the ideas to be presented.

Having the opportunity to speak about תפילה, therefore, is always very appealing to me. Every preparation means more review; more review means a chance to learn something new about תפילה; learning something new makes that next תפילה a more fresh/interesting experience; the more fresh and exciting any experi…

Thought for the Day: Risking Your Life to Save Your Life

Bike the Drive was amazing. Beautiful weather and... actually, once you have beautiful weather for the event, there isn't much more to say. Did I mention that I also do this ride to help raise needed funds for Chai Lifeline? And that you can still make donations? I did? OK; just confirming. I actually ended up biking more than 54 miles. Why I did that is only semi interesting (even to me), and certainly not something with which I need to waste your time on this venue. Feel free to ask, though.
In any case, being as I was on the road for more than 3 1/2 hours, I had lots of time do listen to shiurim; some twice. One in particular peeked my interest: a shiur based on a topic discussed on Sanhedrin 78 about whether one is allowed to undergo a risky surgery. R' Chaim Ozer was presented the following question: a Jew with a condition that -- left untreated -- would surely claim his life withing a few months had been offered a surgery that -- if successful, would extend his life by s…

Thought for the Day: The Judgement of Jewish Courts

The gemara (Sanhedrin 71b) discusses the strange case of the בן סורר ומורה/rebellious son. The boy is put to death for gluttonous and drunken behaviors as a youth; but only if this occurs while he is between 13yr/0m and 13y/3m, his parents have similar sounding voices and are of similar physical stature, neither of his parents can be blind, deaf, mute, or have any physical deformities, and the must bring him to the court with warning, and they must both want him to be put to death. Given all that, it is easy to understand that this never actually happened and practically speaking just can't. Chazal tell us that the Torah gives us this mitzvah to give us the reward of learning for its own sake and also to derive philosophical lessons.

For example, Chazal tell us that the בן סורר ומורה is killed now -- while he is innocent -- before he grows older to commit more egregious sins -- which he surely will -- and becomes guilty of capital crimes. There is a lot to say on this, but I would…

Thought for the Day: Is it a Sin to Unwittingly Violate the Torah?

The word sin is distressingly overburdened with connotation in present day America. My use of the word is simply to mean "transgress the Will of the Creator." Nothing more nor less is implied.  To violate the Torah, on the other hand, is do something proscribed by the Torah or to fail to do something that is required by the Torah. We usually equate those two concepts (with good reason!), but for today's purpose we need to separate them. For today we'll say, for example, that driving a deathly ill Jew to the hospital on Shabbos is a violation of the Torah.  Of course, there is no greater mitzvah than to save a Jewish life and in that case it would be a grave sin not to drive on Shabbos.

One of the criteria by which we judge the sinfulness of a particular violation is why it was done. At the top of the hit parade, we have violations done knowingly; aka, במזיד. The worst sort of sin is to violate the Torah for no reason except to transgress the Will of the Creator; aka …

Thought for the Day: Convincing Someone to Sin -- The True Original Sin

One of the many, many, many, ... (have I made my point?) mistakes made by xtianity is the concept of "original sin". First and foremost, is the tragically mistaken and damaging idea that sin causes one to fall from grace. Honestly!? That religion purports to pray to their father who art in heaven (among other divine beings, of course) and they also purportedly also claim to pray to his only (sic/sick) son -- whom he (the father) stood by and allowed others to murder. Why? Because he loved those others sooo much. Uh huh.  I have children and grandchildren. All of them have transgressed my will from time to time. Sometimes its cute and expected. Sometimes its awful and painful. It has never, ever, not even once, not even entered the realm of possibility (have I made my point?) caused a diminution of my love for them nor to lose an iota of grace that I feel for them. So their deity is less loving and forgiving than me. Uh huh.

The second thing, though, is they can't even co…

Thought for the Day: When A Pocket Is Muktza, But the Garment Is Not

I was the envy of all the other bike commuters last week. Why? I had brought a windbreaker. What's the big deal? It was cold on the commute home. Why didn't the others have a windbreaker? It was warm for the morning commute and -- fer cryin' out loud -- it's May... how cold could it get? Why did I have a windbreaker? I live in Chicago, where weather apps are still more for laughs than practical use. Why didn't they -- who also live in Chicago and have for some time -- not have windbreakers? Never underestimate the power and allure of wishful thinking.

Speaking of unexpectedly needing a raincoat on Shabbos (smooth segue, no?): You have a work credit card in your possession that is needed by a non-Jewish coworker, Bob. Bob needs it for a business trip and he is leaving Saturday evening; he will only be in your neighborhood for a couple of hours Saturday morning. No problem, you decide; you'll just leave it in the right pocket of your raincoat that you'll leav…

Thought for the Day: מִדָה כְּנֶגֶד מִדָה Is Absolutely *NOT* Quid Pro Quo

One of the things I learned when I started learning was that there are three basic categories of questions that people ask in learning. There are regular/yeshivish types of questions; basically, the question that the statement was obviously meant to provoke. For example, the first mishna in Shabbos says there are two ways of leaving a domain which are are actually four.  Clearly, one is meant to ask what is the criteria by which the four are grouped into only two? Then there are פלפול/tiny detail/"Brisker chakira" kinds of questions. These can be questions on choice of particular words, grammar, or tense/person. On that same mishna, some of the cases of leaving are actually entering; that's more of a פלפול question. Finally, there are "bala batisha" questions... the kind of thing that are quite obviously off point. Again from this same mishna, the cases are about a homeowner giving/taking to/from a poor person on the street. Those can be interesting (Tosafos ri…

Thought for the Day: Belief In Creation is a Game Changer

Now that my children are grown and have their own families with their own abodes, this is how it works. When I go to my childrens' homes, I knock and then wait to be invited before walking in. Once inside, I pretty much stay to the living room, dining room, and first floor bathroom. I do not go upstairs. Nor do I take even a glass of water without first asking. When my children come to my house, they knock and then walk in. They pretty much have free roaming around the house -- with the exception of some obviously private areas -- and are comfortable getting themselves something to eat or drink without asking specific permission. My grandchildren don't knock, they just come in. They are unaware that there are private areas. They only ask if they can have this or that if they can't reach it.

Obviously, since the children grew up in our house, they learned from a very early age what they could take/touch and what they couldn't. They never questioned our authority to be a…

Thought for the Day: The Torah was Given to Humans, So Accuracy and Consistency Beats Precision

Accuracy and precision are related -- but different -- concepts. Accuracy is how well you can stay on target, precision is how well you can hit a certain point. To illustrate, in an physics lab we once needed a beam pipe (a vacuum pipe in which charged particles travel while being accelerated and then directed to targets -- physicist toy). We worked with a manufacturer who said they could give us the 100 m of pipe we needed in 100 sections, one meter each. We specified a tolerance of 0.1%, and they agreed. We took delivery and it didn't work. When we assembled our beam pipe, it was short by 10 cm! We complained, "We specified very tight accuracy; you messed up!" They replied, "No, you specified a tolerance of 0.1%, or one mm out of each meter section. We made each one precisely 999 mm; just one mm short."

There is a lot to learn from that story, but the lesson that interests me is that being more precise does not necessarily make you more accurate. Precision is…

Thought for the Day: From Secular Scientist to Orthodox Rabbi

Well... ahem... I am now an international speaker! I spoke over a teleconference for Aneinu. The topic was: From Secular Scientist to Orthodox Rabbi -or- There and Not Back Again. I thought it was cute to have a subtle (or not so subtle, depending on your background) Tolkien reference. I also thought everyone else would think it was cute as well.  As it turned out, I quickly sized up the situation and realized that no one noticed. In the interest of time, therefore, I elided all the cute stuff I had planned to say in the introduction.
But, hey... I can record it here, just to prove that I really have a very eclectic background. I had planned to lead with: If this were a Quentin Tarantino motif, the narrative would begin with with the motzei Shabbos, 9 Shvat, 5777 when I showed my wife the document I had prepared for R' Fuerst to sign, conferring my smicha as an Orthodox rabbi. My wife and I then walked over to the rav's house, so we could both be present when he signed it. Ho…

Thought for the Day: A Slice of Watermelon (Yum!) Or A Whole Apricot (Eh)

R' Fuerst, shlita, has so far this year given almost 20 shiurim on hilchos brachos. And, he told me today, still going strong. If you are wondering how much there is to say already, then I suggest you start listening. They are all available at psak.org. (You can also get to the same place via rabbifuerst.com; so use that, if it is easier for you to remember.) Here's a detail that wasn't (and likely won't be) covered.

One of the issues that causes confusion is the order of brachos. Just before the shiur a few weeks ago, a chaver of mine made a bracha on a something and I asked why he chose that over the other thing. He replied that he likes that one better. I said, "חביב/what one likes best always goes after שָׁלֵם/whole." (Using the verb "said" is being generous to myself; "blurted out" is probably more accurate.) "Even when one is האדמה and one is העץ?", pressed my chaver. At which point I should have said, "Oh... good poin…

Thought for the Day: Don't Worry, Have Faith; Don't Panic, Have Fun

I seems my coffee cup that praises the virtues of both coffee and bourbon has an even stronger Torah source than I had thought. Then I saw an amazing quote in the Pela Yo'eitz in his chapter on worry:
העבר אין, העתיד עדיין, דאגה מניין? קום שתה יין Which translates (more or less) as: The past is no more, the future is not yet, why worry? Let's drink some wine. I have heard the first part before, but was very gratified to see his addition that wine-ing does help with worry.
The Pele Yo'eitz explains very simply. Whatever has happened, has happened. What about the future? That's one of two cases: (1) you can affect the outcome; (2) you can't. If its (1), then do it! You don't have time to worry in that case, because you have work to do. If you can't affect the outcome, so then worrying won't help either. Rhetorical question: When, then, does the situation demand or even allow worry? Obvious answer: It never does.
The depth and simplicity of this idea can b…

Thought for the Day: Redemption Begins with Respect

Moshie recently started davening with us at the vasikin minyan. I'm not great at guessing ages, but I'd guess he's eight or ten. The kind of kid it is hard not to like. Davening is obviously important to him -- he's is there with the rest of us before 6:00AM, even on Shabbos. He loves being there and -- being a kid -- is not embarrassed to come up and tell you he loves you. We are always happy when someone joins the minyan. After all, ברב עם הדרת מלך/the glory of the King is enhanced with a multitude.  We are all there because davening is important to us and doing things in the best possible way is important to us. We wouldn't be getting up "in the threes" during the summer to daven unless that were true. Moshie's in that mold, as well. He is a beautiful addition to our minyan.

One more thing about Moshie. I said I am not good at guessing ages. It's even harder in Moshie's case. The 8/10 number I guessed is his mental/emotional age. I'm gu…

Thought for the Day: Evil Begins with Simple Solutions and Simple Solutions are the Beginning of Evil

I started this blogging activity when I was watching my mother die. It was the first time I was in a situation where I could absolutely do nothing but sit there and watch as events lead to the inevitable conclusion. I needed to do something, but there was nothing to do. So I started writing; thoughts, feelings, ideas... anything to keep myself occupied. It was not to distract myself from the situation, but to channel the energy. (Someday,  בעזרת השם, I'll put those notes into a more accessible form.)

I found that writing was good for me, so I decided to continue. My first thought was to have two blogs. One entitled "Life is a Journey" for my own musings, and this one for my divrei Torah. I found, though, that I just couldn't separate my thoughts from the Torah perspective that I have strived (and continue to strive) so hard to cultivate. Today's thought is more in the "Life is a Journey" mold. Not an apology; just noting.

To jump right in, as much as I …

Thought for the Day: Of Spices and Kitnios on Pesach

Here's a phone call you never want to get on erev Pesach once you have finally finished all the food preparations and are ready for a well deserved rest and/or manicure: "Hey! I just saw that says that is kitnios?" I, of course, was fascinated by the halachic principles. Besides, my nails always look fine to me, so I didn't need a manicure. Nor had I spent an entire week of late nights preparing really incredible meals for my family and friends to enjoy. Nonetheless, I am not totally insensitive, so I have waited till now to write up why it was a case of "all's well that ends well". I also needed to get some details about how to learn a Mishna Brura from R' Fuerst. There were also implied threats of bodily harm if I made this the topic of a d'var Torah for a pesach meal.

At issue was cumin; a very nice spiced used in many recipes.  (Apparently -- and I just discovered this -- cumin is actually of of the most commonly used spices in the world.)…

Thought for the Day: Blood Libel and The Two Dippings at the Seder

I am deeply inspired when I find a deep connection between topics that seem to have no relationship at all. It is all the more inspiring when the two topics themselves are difficult to appreciate, but the insight revealed now by the the topics and their connection becomes a beacon of clarity.

Consider the four questions that our children ask (often in multiple languages) to set the stage for their education into Jewish history and our relationship with the Creator. The intense and constant hashgacha pratis represented by the matzah! The bitterness of separation from our Creator repesented by the maror! The freedom to exercise our unfettered free will represented by our reclining! And... and.. dipping a small piece of vegetable into salt water and our matzah with maror into the charoses (that must be shaken off before eating) that represents... um... well... Right. What is with those two dippings?

Consider now a recurring tragedy in  Jewish history: the blood libel. If there is one thi…

Thought for the Day: The Deep Hypocrisy Revealed by Those Who Espouse "Freedom of Religion"

I'll be real up front here: I absolutely do not believe you have a right to believe that π = 3. I am not even apologetic about my dogmatism on this issue. I don't really care what you say you believe, any more than I care what you say is your favorite color or flavor of ice cream. Those aren't beliefs, those are opinions and personal preferences. It would be horribly presumptuous of me to make any statement at all about your personal preferences and opinions.

How about another one: I do not believe you have to right to believe that the earth is flat. The earth is not a flat plate sitting on the back of a turtle. No amount of consideration for your feelings nor appreciation of your rights is going to change the facts. The earth is not flat, π does not equal three; if you really believe they are, then you are nut job. That doesn't make you a bad person, I wouldn't restrict where you can live or whom you can marry. You're still a nut job.

There are really three th…

Thought for the Day: Not Everyone Thinks Like You Do

Frames of reference have always been a part of the physics toolkit, but the revolution wrought by the discovery of the theory or relativity brought them to the forefront. For a simple example, consider sitting quietly and throwing a ball up a foot or so, then catching it; do that a few times. Nothing extraordinary, right? Suppose you are sitting in the back seat of a car that is traveling at 60 mph. Still no problem, right? How about the surface of a planet traveling at nearly 1,000 mph. Still no problem.

Obvious. However, stand by the side of the road and watch your friend, who is sitting in the back of car going 60 mph down the road performing the same act. What do you see? You see him throwing the ball slightly up -- but mostly forward -- at 60 mph, then racing to catch it; and he does! Not just once, but several times! Unreal! How about a martian watching through a telescope... he sees you and your friend throwing that ball at nearly 1,000 mph, then racing to catch it. His amazeme…

Thought for the Day: Taking Pesach into the Rest of the Year

I have seen a few explanations of what we are supposed to learn from ridding our selves of chameitz for the week of Pesach, but none of them really "sang" to me... until this year, that is. To put it in context, though, consider my walk to shul on erev Pesach. It was still before dawn break, and quite cloudy (though warm... ahhh...). The clouds parted near the horizon and revealed a beautiful nearly full moon. Besides the beauty of the pre-dawn sky, I was also suddenly reminded that I hadn't yet had a chance to say kiddush levana (having been in cloudy Chicago since rosh chodesh). Fortunately, I have a siddur app on my smart phone; so I was able to recite kiddush levana there and then.  As I finished aleinu, I looked back up to see the beautiful moon again, but the clouds had moved back and obscured my view once again.

Now, I enjoy hashgacha pratis stories as much as the next guy, but this was almost spooky. I walked the rest of the way to shul with that same feeling you…