Monday, September 22, 2014


One of the greatest Rebbe's of our generation said that the main problem of the frum world today is .... "frimme nirven" - "frum nerves". People are tense. Was I yotzei, wasn't I? Did I say it or didn't I? Did I wash the entire hand or did I miss a spot? Then people go to a shrink and have to pay big bucks and take pills. Another big Rebbe said that it is not just the "frimme nirven" but basic nerves. People are nervous. They have no menuchas hanefesh.

On Rosh Hashana we read in the haftorah the pasuk הלוך הרגיעו ישראל - Hashem comes to calm down the Jews. That, on the very very tip of the iceberg, is the lesson of the day. And this day is the root of the whole year. We need to be calm on Rosh Hashana and the rest of the year as well.

Of course we should take halacha seriously and of course we should have a fear of judgement but we ALSO have to be .... chilled.

[Heard from the Rebbe Shlita]

Honoring Guests

An American tourist walks into a shul in Yerushalayim where many prominent people davened such as the President, Yitzchak ben Tzvi and Menachem Ussishkin, the famous Zionist leader. The shul was packed and there wasn't a seat available. The gabbai approached the anonymous man and showed him to a seat right next to the President. The man was taken aback-  a complete stranger walks into shul and is put next to the President?!

At krias hatorah, he is honored with an aliyah. When the gabbai says that he will donate ..... The man says "TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY THOUSAND DOLLARS". Wonder of wonders. This is many decades ago when that was more than a princely sum.

His donation paid for the completion of the building and a sign thanking him is hanging on the wall until this day....:-)   

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Husiatiner Rebbe Ztz"l

At my Shabbos table I like telling the children stories of tzadikim. It is more interesting to them than the pilpulim I enjoy saying ["OK Leebie, let's chazer the Abarbanel's six kashas". Leebie is 3...]  and it strengthens their emunah in tzadikim.

This week I told them stories about Admor, Rebbe Yisrael Friedman of Husiatin [d. 1948]. He was a grandson of R' Yisrael of Rizhin and was thus his namesake. He had some really crazy ruach hakodesh. His biographer [Dr. Meir Gruzman of Bar Ilan University] remembers him well from his childhood and there are still people around today who can testify to his tzidkus and unique powers.

He felt the Holocaust coming and at the age of 80 made aliyah with some of his chasidim. To the others who remained behind he said that they should get out of Europe as soon as possible.

A secular women who had emigrated from Europe and wanted to leave the ancient traditions of her ancestors behind, was extremely nervous about the fate of her parents and siblings back in Europe. She was convinced by a brother in law of a close friend of hers to go see the tzadik and get a bracha for them. She finally went and had the gabbai write out the names of her parents and 8 siblings. The tzadik looked at the kvittel and went down the list. He picked out two of the names and blessed them that they should be zoche to come to Eretz Yisrael [which they ultimately did]. She was distraught when she realized that this meant that everyone else had perished. Of course, this was proven to be the case. This formerly cynical woman became a great admirer of the Rebbe and even had his picture on her wall.

The Holy Rebbe, R' Aharon of Belz would do the same. When someone would ask him for a bracha for a relative back in Europe, if he saw with ruach hakodesh that the person was alive he would give the person a heartfelt bracha. If he saw otherwise, he would say "Hashem should have nachas from all of his children". He was consistently on the mark.

זכות הצדיקים יעזור ויגן ויושיע! 

New Articles

Chiddushim on Rosh Hashana in lomdus and avodah, here.
Nitzavim - here.

Looking For Shelter

I am looking for a vacant apartment that will be available on Rosh Hashana in Yerushalayim. If you know of one, please contact me.

Machnisei Rachamim

From my archives as per the request of a beloved friend:

One of the most famous debates in Jewish history was over the issue of saying [or singing] the poem מכניסי רחמים where we supplicate the angels and ask them to bring our prayers before Hashem [and other similar prayers where we turn to the angels for help]. The problem is that the Rambam [Hakdama to Chelek in the fifth of the 13 foundations of our faith] rules that one may not daven to anyone other than Hashem, so what business do we have turning to the angels as intermediaries. If you need to speak to a big politician, or li-havdil a famous rabbi, sometimes you have to go through intermediaries but Hashem is accessible to all and it is FORBIDDEN to turn to anyone else.

In fact, the Maharal [Nesivos Olam chapter 12] changed the language of the tfilla so it won't sound like we are asking the angels for help [יכניסו רחמינו instead of הכניסו רחמינו]. The Chasam Sofer would say a long tachanun while everybody else was saying the poem so he wouldn't have to join. Many others as well avoided saying it. However the custom in most communities is to say it and it is printed in all of the slichos books. There is a mabul of literature on the topic and I will not quote all of the sources I know about that discuss it. That would make me seem very scholarly and knowledgeable when all it really means is that I have the Otzar Hachochma program with it's 60,000 books and rapid search engine. The one source I will note is the Yeshurun Journal in Volume 3 where there is an excellent, thorough treatment of the topic.

I will add something interesting which I didn't see anyone bring up: In some editions of the Rambam he writes  וכן אין ראוי לעבדם כדי להיותם אמצעים לקרבם אליו אלא אליו בלבד יכוונו המחשבות ויניחו כל מה שזולתו
Meaning that one is not allowed to SERVE anyone in order that he should be an intermediary between us and Hashem, rather all of our thoughts should be directed at Hashem Himself. This would indicate that if one is not actually SERVING the angels then just asking them for help would be fine and thus מכניסי רחמים would be permitted. [This was pointed out by Rav Asher Weiss Shlita in Minchas Asher on the Moadim סימן א].

However, in the Rav Kapich edition of the Rambam and so in the Rav Shilat edition the Rambam's words are rendered [from the original Arabic] as ואין עושין אותם אמצעים להגיע בהם אליו אלא כלפיו יתעלה יכוונו המחשבות ויניחו כל מה שזולתו. Meaning that one is not allowed to use the angels as intermediaries to get to Hashem. According to this the Rambam omits any mention of serving the angels and simply forbids turning to them at all as a means of getting closer to Hashem. This would effectively forbid us from saying מכניסי רחמים because that is exactly what we do.

So whether it is permitted or not would be dependent on what is the more accurate translation of the Rambam's words.

Interesting, no??

What is also interesting is that in our generation very few seem troubled by this issue. I believe that in our Internet/fast food/cellphone/sports obsessed/money pursuing/blackberry generation people are rarely troubled by theological issues. Ask the average guy in shul what was the machlokes between the Gra and the Baal Shem Tov over the concept of Divine Immanence and he will give you a blank look, probably not understanding the question. Ask him if the Yankees should trade for a relief pitcher or who won last year's Super Bowl or what his favorite restaurant is and you will receive a precise answer....

Ahhhhh, the galus.

We want Moshaich now!

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Virtue And Happiness

From an article written by a researcher at Yale. I myself am only an acceptance letter and 4 years of intense study away from getting an undergraduate degree at Yale. However, I see no reason to spend over 50,000 dollars a year in order to have no money at the end. I can have no money for free...:-).

Students at a one-week seminar on happiness I co-taught recently at Yale University made a proposal so simple that I was mystified: they wanted to organize a conversation table in every dining hall.
During my days as a student at Yale, I always looked forward to dinner as it was a time when I could share my ideas and adventures with my friends. So I naively asked my students, “What do you do at dinner if you aren’t having conversations?” “Texting and checking social media on our phones,” they replied. And even when they put down their devices, they told me, conversations center on how stressed they are by work and extracurricular activities. By contrast, at the proposed conversation tables, students would be asked to disengage from technology and to discuss a variety of meaningful topics.

Such proposals indicate that although students today are connected to others electronically, they aren’t always creating connections with the people around them. By the time I started using Facebook and other social media, I had been out of college for more than a decade. By then, my identity was firmly rooted in strong friendships, family ties, and moral commitments guiding my life projects. But today’s college students began navigating social media more than a decade before entering college.
During the seminar, students asked: In a society where we spend so much time on Facebook bragging about ourselves and getting envious of others, how do we build strong friendships where we can express our vulnerabilities? If we are constantly measuring the worth of a person by GPAs and résumés, how do we learn to give and receive unconditional love? What would communities of friendships oriented toward the common good look like on college campuses?

Learning about Happiness, Growing in Virtue

The seminar framed the question of happiness by using Aristotle’s classic definition in the Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle argues that happiness—human flourishing—is the highest aim (the telos or purpose) of human life, the only end that is not a means to some other end. Aristotle defines happiness as “an action of the soul in accordance with virtue.” Virtues are habits we have to practice daily. According to Aristotle, to be happy, we should reflect on the purpose of our lives and strive toward virtues such as justice, courage, wisdom, and prudence.

Before the seminar, students read Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. Because virtues are habits made up of repeated actions, I asked them to keep a journal reflecting on one act of kindness they performed each day. These ambitious Yale students, accustomed to adorning their résumés with big accomplishments, initially wondered what effect daily acts of kindness could have. But by practicing the daily disciplines of reflection and intention, they learned just how hard and how transformative small acts of kindness can be.

One student stopped in the middle of a road in New York City to help a drunken young woman who had fallen over. Her date was so moved by her care for a stranger that he began to wonder how he could be kinder. When visiting her family at home, another student got up early to have coffee and quality conversation with her mother. The day she was to return to Yale, her family couldn’t get things organized to leave on time, so instead of criticizing her family, she smiled and tried to smooth things over. Through these acts of kindness, students learned how important it is for our happiness to build social connections throughout the day with both family and strangers.

To grow in virtue, we need to live in a well-ordered society. So we also read Alexis de Tocqueville’s classic Democracy in America. Students were struck by Tocqueville’s observation that Americans’ drive for wealth could become disordered if material things become their ultimate ends. They also discussed the threat to ordered liberty posed by a retreat from social obligations into hyper-individualism, which is particularly characteristic of Americans. Many students were inspired by Tocqueville’s notion that the antidote to individualism is Americans’ love of virtue and their penchant for forming voluntary associations.

The Little Platoons Project: Cultivating Compassion

We concluded the seminar with a practical exercise called The Little Platoons Project. The project title comes from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.
To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind. The interest of that portion of social arrangement is a trust in the hands of all those who compose it; and as none but bad men would justify it in abuse, none but traitors would barter it away for their own personal advantage.
Although it is easy for students to propose macro-level social changes that would increase happiness, in the Little Platoons Project, students had to design a project they could carry out with ten to twelve people that could increase their happiness. We divided students into pairs, and instructed them to define an issue they wish to address, and to propose a way to address their issue of concern while also consciously building strong ties among platoon members. The conversations table was one such little platoons project. Other project ideas included training Yale students about how to become long-term foster care parents, and doing arts workshops that would bring together Yale students and New Haven community members.

The little platoons project taught students the principle that our own happiness cannot be separated from the good of the community where we live. Furthermore, as Burke suggests, our obligations to our community do not stop at doing only what is just. Rather, as philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre explains in Dependent, Rational Animals, the common good requires that we go beyond fulfilling the strict duties we have to others out of justice. The common good requires helping anyone who needs our help—not just our own kin, our own community members, or those who help us. Beyond just helping others, MacIntyre and Burke both argue that we also need to cultivate love, affection, and attachment for others.

Contrary to the illusion of self-sufficiency that underlines much political philosophy and happiness literature, MacIntyre argues that all human beings are vulnerable, not just infants or the elderly and infirm. To achieve happiness in the Aristotelian sense—leading a flourishing life that follows a purpose within a well-ordered society—we must acknowledge our dependence on others. Thus, according to MacIntyre, the virtue of misericordia, or a compassionate heart that reaches out to help others, is the key to the common good. By learning to see our own vulnerabilities in those who need our help, we can break the contractual view of personal relationships and social groups so deeply embedded in our consumerist and individualist society.

Justice, Love, and Vulnerability

College students are very familiar with the virtue of justice. But the students were intrigued when I said that to contribute the common good, we need not only justice but also unconditional love for others. How do you experience unconditional love if you didn’t have it in your family? How do you share unconditional love with others?

Those of us gifted with good educations and valuable skills should certainly share our gifts. But if, in serving others, you don’t see your own vulnerability in their neediness, you may be doing justice but it can’t be called love. One student told me she was met with distrust when she tried to do a service project on a Native American reservation. “Did you love them?” I asked her. I explained how my own work with vulnerable populations in the US, Haiti, and Central America taught me that people are very perceptive about what is in our hearts. For example, in Haiti, people didn’t just want the money I brought. They wanted to touch my hands, feel my hair, and stare into my eyes. The Haitians wanted to see me and for me to see them, for us to embrace one another body and soul.

Love requires rejoicing that another person is alive and celebrating that he or she is who he or she is. If you open yourself to receive the love of those you help, you will learn, as I did in the farms of Central America, the urban housing projects of Washington, DC, and the mountains of Haiti, that what people value most is not the things you give them but the connection they make with you. If you can let yourself be loved just because you exist—not because of your money, your power, or your knowledge—then you can transform your own heart and that of others. If they are rooted in the virtue of misericordia, our little platoons and small acts of love really can transform our hedonistic, success-crazed society.

Why Students Should Study Happiness

Humanities and social science students have told me that studying happiness gave them a rare chance to move from academic critique to personal reflection, from discussions about utility to ones about virtue, truth, and beauty. But it’s not only the poets and the philosophers who are interested: half of the students in our one week-seminar were STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) majors. Many of these students said that, toward the end of college, they realized how much the humanities and social sciences could contribute to designing good collaborative engineering labs, or developing applications of their medical findings for poor communities in the US and abroad.
One graduate student in biomedical engineering even used some of our seminar material in a recent presentation in her field of immunology. Our immune system, she explained, may be under attack from many microscopic viruses that we don’t know about until they hurt us. But we can build up a stronger immune system through the lifestyle choices we make. Strong friendships and serving others can actually stimulate a robust immune system.

Margarita Mooney, PhD, is an Associate Research Scientist in the Department of Sociology at Yale University.