Take the First Step

“You go first.” “No, you go first.” Does it really matter who goes first? It depends, I suppose, on the context, circumstances, and personalities.  At times, granting another the right-of-way or, in other situations, offering to take the lead, are gestures which reflect both thoughtfulness and grace. At other times, showing initiative and taking the first step may be the most effective way of facilitating an end to the gridlock that often disrupts and frustrates our interpersonal relationships.

As we are now one week into the month of Elul, it may be worthwhile to consider the value of taking the first step and showing initiative. It is well known that our rabbis have sought to capture the special quality of the month of Elul, by noting its association to the pasuk, “אני לדודי ודודי לי”, “I am to my Beloved and my Beloved is to me.”[1]  On the surface, this formulation highlights the special relationship that exists between God and the Jewish people, reflecting an important feature of the month of Elul. As we make our way closer to the Aseres Yemei Teshuva, we remind ourselves of this special relationship, in an attempt to motivate and incentivize greater effort and attention in the weeks ahead.

The Sfas Emes[2] suggests a much deeper message contained within this verse.  On Rosh Hashanah, God makes His annual “appearance” to the world.  On the day in which we coronate God as King of all kings, He emerges and appears, availing Himself to each and every one of us.  By visiting the world in this way, Hashem demonstrates his commitment to mankind, as well as His love for the Jewish people.  The date of his arrival is scheduled and the precise time is predetermined.  On the first of the month of Tishrei, we experience the fulfillment of “ודודי לי”, my Beloved is to me. But rather than wait for Tishrei to begin in order for God to first reestablish our weakened connection, we deliberately choose to initiate that process; to preempt, as it were, God’s imminent arrival. Throughout the month of Elul, it is we who take the first steps towards repairing that which has been broken and restoring our fractured relationship.  We do not wait for the moment of God’s revelation, for the remarkable display of “ודודי לי”.  Rather, we inaugurate this glorious season by showing initiative; by demonstrating “אני לדודי”, first and foremost – I am to my Beloved.  After taking the first step and after displaying our initiative – then “ודודי לי”, my Beloved is to me.

If demonstrating initiative within the realm of one’s relationship with God is indeed beneficial, it would seem as if much could also be gained by similarly applying ourselves in our interpersonal relationships. There is a common tendency that many of us have to procrastinate and postpone uncomfortable conversations that must take place.  We continuously defer such encounters, in the hopes that they will be initiated by the other. This proclivity reflects a natural aversion to awkward moments and difficult discussions.  While this tendency may be natural, it is appropriate for us to challenge ourselves and acknowledge that we can do better. It behooves us to recognize that to initiate a conversation which leaves one feeling vulnerable and exposed is, in and of itself, of great spiritual value, particularly during the season of repentance.  Taking the first step towards reconciliation is often awkward, painful, and, at times, even humiliating.  These feelings, while understandably uncomfortable, better enable us to achieve the proper state of mind during the days of awe.

In less than one month, we will all be paid a very special visit. Thankfully, our Visitor generously informs us of His itinerary prior to His arrival.  Rather than show up unexpectedly, He provides us with an incredibly generous opportunity to prepare and ready ourselves for this extraordinary experience. The month of Elul is a gift with profound potential. But, like most gifts, it is up to the recipient to choose if and how it is to be properly utilized. The gift of Elul has been delivered.  It arrived a week ago.  It is now for us to decide whether to take full advantage of this opportunity and initiate the process that is scheduled to begin.

“You go first.” “No, you go first.” Does it really matter who goes first? Sometimes actually, it does.



[1] Shir Hashirim 6:3

[2] Elul, 5661

Generous to a Fault

Consider the following statements:

  • “Clean up the mess that you made.”
  • “Go find the keys that you lost.”
  • “Fix the window that you broke.”
  • “Throw out the food that you burned.”

Granted, in the absence of any context and additional information, it is difficult, if not impossible, to offer an informed opinion regarding these statements. Are these accusations fair? Are the complaints warranted? Perhaps. Perhaps not. With such an incomplete picture, we can never know. What is clear however is that these expressions reflect genuine resentment, harbored by an individual who makes no effort to conceal the grudges that he bears.

It is remarkable therefore to consider the following. When God informs Moshe to prepare a second set of luchos, as a replacement for those which Moshe had destroyed, He says, “Inscribe these tablets with the very words inscribed on the first tablets – the ones that you broke.”[1]  Rather than merely communicate His instructions, Hashem takes the opportunity to “remind” Moshe that it was his (i.e. Moshe’s) personal and unilateral decision to destroy the luchos.  Surprisingly, however, rather than interpret this expression as one of resentment and disappointment, our rabbis come to the exact opposite conclusion. They regard this statement as an explicit endorsement; Hashem’s clear declaration of approval of Moshe’s bold decision to break the luchos.[2]  This interpretation however, seems quite surprising.  Would it not be more reasonable to conclude that God’s reminder to Moshe of his actions was nothing more than an expression of disapproval and denunciation?

Rav Baruch Epstein z”l [3] offers an extraordinary insight, with profound and relevant implications.  Indeed, most often people cannot resist the temptation to remind another of their missteps and indiscretions. Stating the blatant and obvious failures of another affords one a momentary sense of satisfaction and superiority. While this may very well be human nature, there is one problem; doing so is both insensitive and improper. It is unnecessary to remind a child that it was he who made a mess. It is unproductive to remind one’s wife that it was she who lost the car keys. It is pointless to remind one’s husband that it was he who forgot to remove the food from the oven. Yet, many of us are guilty of doing just this. We do so primarily because we are human and because, at times, we lack the resolve to exercise self-control, particularly at moments when our patience is being tested. Not so by God. Hashem is perfect in all of His ways and His words reflect precision and they model refinement. Therefore, argues Rav Epstein, the very fact that Hashem “reminds” Moshe that it was he who had destroyed luchos, in and of itself, proves that Moshe’s unilateral decision was met with divine consent and approval.  Had destroying the luchos been, in fact, the wrong decision, there would have been no need to remind Moshe of that which he already knew.

What a profound example of proper behavior for each of us to model and emulate. For most of us, moments of disappointment and frustration with other individuals, particularly with those who are close to us, are not uncommon occurrences. How we handle ourselves in these situations, will likely determine the extent to which we succeed in inspiring others towards genuine reflection and motivate sincere change.  The Torah [4] instructs us to emulate the ways of God. While we can never achieve perfection, we carefully study His ways, ever so closely, as we strive to model His precise and deliberate instructive behaviors.

So, the next time someone messes up and, in the process, lets us down, let us resist the temptation to remind them of that which they already know.


[1] Shemos 34:2 and Devarim 10:2

[2] Bava Basra 14a

[3] Torah Temimah and Tosefes Bracha, Devarim 10:2

[4] Devarim 11:22

Know Where You Stand

Several weeks ago, I received the following text message:

“Quick question – I am sitting on a bus, older man standing right next to me. Not sure how old he is, but I think possibly old enough that I should be standing for him. I’d like to offer him my seat but I don’t want to upset him by having him think that I think he looks old. What should I do?”

I was deeply impressed by this query, one which reflects a genuine concern for the halacha and profound sensitivity towards the feelings of a complete stranger. I must admit, this question brought me tremendous personal nachas (particularly because it came from one of my children).

The mitzvah to stand for an elderly person is recorded in this week’s parsha.  In Vayikra 19:32, the Torah states: “מִפְּנֵי שֵׂיבָה תָּקוּם וְהָדַרְתָּ פְּנֵי זָקֵן וְיָרֵאתָ מֵּאֱלֹקֶיךָ אֲנִי ה”, “Rise in the presence of the elderly, show respect for the learned, and revere your God; I am Hashem.”  Displaying honor and rising for an elderly or learned individual is not merely a gracious act of piety; it is, in fact, a biblical obligation.  The Torah instructs us to exhibit a prominent and noticeable display of honor and respect for our elders, sages, and teachers.

While this particular mitzvah may seem relatively simple, both in definition and practice, the parameters, guidelines, and details of this mitzvah, like all mitzvot, are quite complex.  Consider the following questions:

  • Must one rise to honor of an elderly individual who is antagonistic towards Torah teachings and values?
  • In what specific location(s) should one would not stand for a teacher?
  • Must/may one disrupt the study of Torah to stand for an elder?
  • Must/may one interrupt his/her vocational duties to stand for an elder?
  • After standing for an elder, when may one resume his sitting position?
  • When one becomes aware of his teacher’s presence, may he close his eyes, pretending not to see him, in order to circumvent the obligation to stand?
  • Must a teacher make an effort to avoid unnecessarily strolling in the presence of his students and be mindful of the inconvenience of their having to stand?

These are only several of the most relevant questions that are discussed in the TaImud and commentaries.  Remarkably, Chazal trace the answers to each of these questions back to that single aforementioned verse. It is a pasuk no more than 10 words, from which our rabbis glean a multitude of principles and laws.

Other related questions include:

  • For the purpose of this mitzvah, at what age is one considered an elder?
  • May one who is observing shiva stand for an elder or teacher?
  • Should one disrupt his davening to stand for another?
  • May one fulfill the requirement of standing when leaning against a wall?
  • Is there a limit as to how many times one must stand in a given period of time?
  • Is one required to stand for an elder who is blind?

(For a more comprehensive treatment of these and related halachos, see Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 244 and related commentaries.)

In our modern world and “progressive” society, title and status are most likely to be granted to one who wields wealth, power and fame.  We are expected to respect one who carries the skills to be most productive, rather than those individuals who possess the most experience.  Youthfulness is often times valued over age and wit generally impresses more than wisdom.  It would do us well to embrace the teachings of our Torah and appreciate the timeless lessons contained within.  Let us take a moment to rediscover the values and truth embedded in this most underappreciated mitzvah.  For when it comes to matters as fundamental as these, it is quite helpful to know where you stand.













An Open Letter to the Orthodox Community: Don’t Say No to Drugs

In 1982, Nancy Reagan visited the Longfellow Elementary School in Oakland, CA, as she embarked on her historic national anti-drug campaign.  During this visit, she was asked by a young schoolgirl what she should do if she was offered drugs. The First Lady responded, “just say no.”  The rest, as they say, is history. “Just Say No” clubs and organizations were established all over the country and one of the most famous slogans in modern times was born.  The “Just Say No” rallying cry has since become ingrained in the minds of hundreds of millions of people, spanning all races, ethnicities, and religions.

I wonder however if the Orthodox community has taken Mrs. Reagan’s instructions a bit too far.  Indeed, we can all agree that the only proper response from one who has been solicited to accept drugs is “no.”  Too often, however, many of us express “no” to the mere suggestion that we discuss drugs at all.  Many of us naively believe that the Orthodox community is, more or less, unaffected by the drug epidemic, which so dreadfully affects the general population.

Consider the manner in which many well-intentioned members of our community would likely respond to the following questions:

  • Do substance and alcohol abuse and addiction affect members of the Orthodox community, to any significant degree?
  • Should we, as a community, organize public gatherings to discuss how best to detect alcohol and substance abuse and introduce methods of intervention and treatment?
  • Do substance abuse and addiction afflict individuals who come from supportive families and functional households?
  • Do people who are committed to a life of Torah observance and seek to embrace Torah values abuse alcohol or drugs?
  • Do individuals who truly appreciate the value of self-control struggle with alcohol or drug addictions?

Did you answer “no” to any of these questions?  If you are like most of us, then you probably have.  The uncomfortable truth, however, is that the answer to all of these questions is a resounding “yes.”

  • Yes, substance and alcohol abuse and addiction undeniably affect a significant population within the Orthodox community.
  • Yes, we must absolutely come together as a community and discuss methods of detection, intervention, and treatment of alcohol and substance abuse.
  • Yes, substance abuse and addiction often affect members of supportive families and functional households.
  • Yes, it is not uncommon for individuals who are genuinely committed to Torah observance and values to develop addictions to alcohol and drugs.
  • Yes, most often, individuals who struggle with alcohol and drug addictions thoroughly and deeply understand, appreciate, and value the virtue of self-control, despite their destructive behaviors.

But why the disconnect?  Why does our community so glaringly miss the mark on this particular issue?  After all, our community consistently displays profound sensitivity to the needy and disadvantaged, demonstrates care and concern for the weak and vulnerable, and is typically proactive in addressing the myriad of social issues that affect the members of our community.  Why then do we seem to possess a lapse in awareness and deficient sensitivity when it comes to the issue of alcohol and substance abuse and addiction?  It is my impression that many Orthodox Jews (simply) lack information, exposure, and context, all of which would enable us to develop a more informed, nuanced, and accurate perspective of the reality.  Our detachment from the facts on the ground does not reflect insensitivity or indifference.  Rather, our disconnect is, among other things, a reflection of our limited exposure, inadequate education, and impaired understanding.

Whatever the underlying causes of our disconnect may be, its effects, albeit unintended, are no less harmful and destructive.  The common misconceptions that we, as a community, continue to harbor and, at times promulgate, clearly and predictability obstruct our collective ability to responsibly and effectively address substance abuse and addiction. The longer we maintain the belief that members of our community are either immune to or unaffected by alcohol and drug abuse, we fuel the fires of stigmatization, causing our very own friends and neighbors to shoulder their hefty burden alone.  The longer we allow ourselves to view the families of those who suffer from addictions with prejudice and presume their shared culpability in their child’s/spouse’s/sibling’s/parent’s addiction, the further we estrange those who desperately need comfort, support, and reassurance.   The longer we view alcohol and substance addiction as a failure of character, rather than what it actually is – a physiological illness, we further alienate members of our community who may already feel helpless and ashamed.  As individuals, we must band together and inspire a paradigm shift in the way we approach alcohol and drug addiction, recognizing it for the illness it is.  As a community, we must hold ourselves accountable, knowing that there are those among us who are afraid to come forward and step into the light, lest they be unfairly judged, mislabeled, and misunderstood.  We must learn to encourage and embrace those struggling with addiction, as well as their families, assisting and supporting them on their road towards healing and recovery.

Needless to say, success in achieving such a radical and fundamental shift in thinking and action will take time, effort, and coordination to actualize. But we need to start and that time is now.  Please join me on April 22 at 8 p.m. at TABC, for an important community awareness event, coordinated in conjunction with Amudim.  Participants of this event will become more informed and enlightened regarding the growing epidemic of substance abuse and addiction within our community.  With your participation, this event can be a major step forward for our community.  However successful this event may ultimately be, it will be a starting point, with more work to follow.  I hope this event will inspire our community to slowly but surely create an environment where families can comfortably seek and easily discover support.  And then we, a more attentive and informed community, will more naturally strive to sustain and nurture that supportive environment.  I hope and pray that we demonstrate the courage, commitment and resolve to restore peace and health to all in our midst.

Awareness Event - FULL PAGE

The Spaces in Between

Let’s face it – technology has taken over our world. In countless ways, today’s amenities and style of living seem like the stuff of yesterday’s science fiction.  For better or for worse (or both), every sector of our life has been dramatically transformed through technological advancements.  Perhaps the most astounding development over the past several decades is the accelerated pace of technological progress and change.  Ever-increasing processing speeds, the continued expansion of digital storage capacity and remarkable improvements in the technology of automation, have enabled us to achieve yesterday’s goals in a fraction of the expected time and realize tomorrow’s dreams, what appears to be, ahead of schedule.

Unfortunately, this new, fast-paced reality leaves us with little or no time to stop, reflect, think, and process.  There was a once a time when we truly appreciated the qualitative value of moments of reflection.  Some may have even deemed these moments as essential for healthy living. Breaks in our routine afford us the opportunity to introspect and self-analyze, both thoughtfully and critically.  Moments of boredom and disconnect allow us to plan methodically and responsibly.  But when life whisks us from one frame in time to the next, without pause or interruption, we are denied these precious opportunities for reflection and growth.  In our technologically advanced era, the pauses, breaks and the natural staccato of our behavioral routine, have been all but eliminated and supplanted with “new and improved” lightening-speed, high-definition, streaming lifestyles.

There is something else as well.  Breaks in time have an added value, in that they allow us the opportunity to cherish the moments in life that seem extraordinary and appear transcendent.  Whether we are experiencing God’s amazing blessing and bounty, or even when faced with a personal setback or loss, such moments are experienced with an enhanced appreciation when we are afforded the opportunity to close our eyes, breathe, and take in the moment for all it is.

One of the most stunning moments in our history was kerias yam suf, the splitting of the sea.  With the Egyptian army in high pursuit and the deep and raging waters ahead, it appeared as if our liberation would be short-lived and our moments of joy and elation would be transformed into tragedy and misfortune.  And then suddenly the tide turned (literally) in our favor.  The sea opened and embraced our people, while simultaneously crushing and defeating our relentless enemies.  As we know, this spectacular moment was received by a grateful people, who responded with a united and publicized outpouring of song and praise.  The shiras hayam has been memorialized and preserved in our hearts, as we recite these words each and every day.

A closer look at the Torah text, reveals a message which is incredibly profound.  In the Torah scroll, the shira is written ariach al gabay l’veina; every line is occupied with text, as well as empty spaces.

shira 2

This remarkable textual anomaly conveys a message which is essential for our generation.  When inspired by an awesome moment, we express ourselves with words of song and thoughts and praise.  We employ all of our intellectual and emotional resources in an effort to mine the reservoirs of human vocabulary. We commit ourselves to this task because we hope, at least to some degree, to capture transcendence and then, on occasion, we boldly attempt to preserve it in ink.  But this is only half the challenge.  When experiencing an awesome and transcendent moment, we must recognize that there is another dimension, which can only be captured and preserved through pauses, breaks and, at times, through silence.  These empty spaces do not express disruptions in thoughts or emotion.  These pauses are not meant to convey confusion nor a lack of awareness.  To the contrary, it is precisely when we peer deep into the spaces that lie in between the words, that we can achieve an enhanced level of perception and insight.

Last week, I was blessed to hold my first grandchild.  As I stared at her for the first time, my eyes simultaneously locked on the breathtaking view of the Jerusalem sunset, my heart and mind were flooded with emotion.  I will not dare an attempt to describe that remarkable moment, as I recognize from the outset that failure is all but inevitable.  But, I can say with certainty, that this moment was, and continues to be, experienced not through the high-definition and brilliant text of life, but rather in the pause and in the silence of the blank spaces that lie in between.  I am deeply grateful that although I spend way too much time huffing and puffing on the treadmills of technology, I am still able to access the pause feature in my heart and mind.  I am grateful because I am absolutely convinced that there are moments in life that I don’t want to be streamed and shared.  And, for whatever it’s worth, I remain determined to resist the mounting counter pressure that constantly stares me down.

I truly hope that my children manage to secure and preserve their natural capacities to pause and reflect.  Perhaps their generation will ultimately come to realize that certain moments cannot – and should not – be captured, recorded or uploaded.  Finally, I pray that as our world continues to speed forward and achieve unprecedented levels of acceleration, we succeed in forever appreciating the empty spaces that lie in between.






Free Will or the Will to Be Free?

Freedom is in the air.  Following weeks of focused preparation, we will soon gather in our homes and synagogues, in observance of Pesach, the festival of our freedom.  Our annual celebration of yetzias mitzraim reminds us to recognize and cherish our gift of eternal freedom, cheirus olam.  Although 3300+ years have passed since the Exodus, there is still plenty of freedom for us to celebrate; arguably, more than ever before.  We enjoy unprecedented religious freedom and economic opportunity, both of which have enabled the exponential growth of our communal infrastructure.  Profound advancements in technology allow us to communicate freely with family and friends all over the world. Global (and even local) travel has never been easier and there are very few barriers, if any, between us and anyone with whom we are seeking to connect.  And so yes, it would seem that we have never been freer than we are today.

Remarkably however, there do appear to be several indications that our path towards absolute and demonstrable freedom may be partially obstructed.  Does modern man truly possess the freedom to exist, live and choose voluntarily?  If that were indeed the case, then we would likely observe widespread contentment and happiness.  Genuine freedom would allow individuals and families to demonstrate passion and commitment to the preservation of their values and achievement of their goals.  If we were truly free, we would constantly ascend to new heights of self-awareness and achieve new levels of self-control.  Yet, numerous studies (do we really need data anyway?), indicate that in all these categories, we were once better off than we are today.

Why is that so? Shouldn’t our freedom to live, to be, and to choose, enable us to experience true happiness, commitment, satisfaction, and fulfillment?  Why do our lives, so suffused with freedom, appear to leave us with the constant nagging feeling that there is so much more to be desired?

There are undoubtedly many different paths to explore if we are to properly address these questions.  For the moment though, it may be helpful to consider the inherent value in simply asking ourselves these questions, even without pressing forward, in search of specific answers.  Honest and critical examination of the widely held assumption that we do, in fact, choose purposely and freely, may allow us to discover much about ourselves and the real driving forces in our life.  And we should not stop there.  Rather, in the spirit of the Pesach experience, let us share these questions with others and discuss them with the members of our family.  Perhaps consider these additional challenges, in an effort to achieve deeper insight and greater perspective regarding our personal freedom:

  • How often do I feel that I can express myself freely and speak genuinely?
  • How often am I able to secure the time to devote to the things that I truly want to accomplish?
  • How often do I say, “I can’t because I’m too busy” or “I just wish I had more time”?
  • To what extent does technology enable me to achieve more of my life’s goals? In what ways does technology interfere and, at times, obstruct these efforts?
  • Do the conveniences and efficiencies of technology enable me to better manage my time and discover new opportunities for growth?
  • Do the marvels of modern communication enable me to achieve greater satisfaction and fulfillment in my relationships?

If you are like me, confronting these questions generates a degree of inner discomfort. We are faced with the realization that although modern man has succeeded in achieving unimagined feats and accomplishments, our existence, in many ways, seems quite confined and our choices seem remarkably limited.  Our freedom, while ours to be claimed, seems forever elusive, evading actualization.

And so, as we celebrate zman cheiruseinu, the festival of our freedom, let us challenge ourselves with the following question: do I truly possess freedom of will or do I simply carry the will to be free?  Only after we have asked ourselves this question, may we begin our journey in search of answers.


It’s About Time

You only get one chance to make a first impression.  Our initial encounters profoundly shape and define our experiences and relationships. And so, as we prepared for our exodus from Egypt, those first moments were exceptionally critical. It is not surprising, therefore, that at that fateful moment in time, Hashem presented our fledgling nation with a lengthy and detailed series of instructions, as our formal entry into the world of mitzvos was set to begin. Remarkably, the very first mitzvah given to the Jewish people is Kiddush HaChodesh, the sanctification of the new month.  This mitzvah, which serves as the basis of our calendar system, is essential for the functioning and maintenance of numerous aspects of our ritual observance. It is somewhat peculiar, however, that this particular mitzvah, of all mitzvos, should be the very first given to the Jewish people. The Jews who were preparing to leave Egypt at this time were not yet a committed and God-fearing people. They were emotionally fragile, spiritually immature and on the verge of complete assimilation, many of them still profoundly confused regarding their true loyalties.  One has to wonder, therefore, why the Master of the Universe chooses the platform of kiddush hachodesh upon which to make His initial introduction.

The Seforno (Shemos 12:2) observes how this monumental point in history was a critical juncture in time.  At the moment of liberation, the Jewish people would undergo a transformation, transitioning from slavery to freedom. With this transition, control over one’s time is transferred, from master to newly emancipated slave.  Enslavement denies the individual the ability to manage and use his time autonomously. A slave is coercively subjected to the wills and whims of his master, thereby denying him any personal control over his time or schedule.  With liberation, this all changes.  Suddenly, personal autonomy over one’s time, as well as the ability to manage that time, is reinstated. It is at this point in history, says the Seforno, that our existence as a people who possess the ability to make meaningful choices, officially commences.

The degree to which we properly manage our time reflects, to a certain extent, how much we truly cherish our freedom.  While many of us are often immersed in a multitude of tasks, running from one appointment to another and gasping for time, as if struggling for another breath of air, we do possess the ability to control our time, perhaps more than we realize.  Difficult choices need to be made, yet by recognizing how valuable our time is, we can choose to elevate our days by sanctifying our hours.  Occasionally, painful sacrifices must be undertaken, but by making responsible and deliberate choices as we manage our schedules, we can enrich our minutes by being more mindful of the passing seconds.  It is not an easy task; far from it. Yet there is no more appropriate way to celebrate the beginning of the month of Nissan, than through a renewed appreciation of the incredible and irreplaceable gift of time.

Please consider the wisdom of the following parable, author unknown: Imagine there is a bank that credits your account each morning with $86,400. It carries over no balance from day to day. Every evening deletes whatever part of the balance you failed to use during the day. What would you do? Draw out every cent, of course!

Each of us has such a bank. Its name is TIME. Every morning, it credits you with 86,400 seconds. Every night it writes off, as lost, whatever of this you have failed to invest to good purpose. It carries over no balance. It allows no overdraft. Each day it opens a new account for you. Each night it burns the remains of the day. If you fail to use the day’s deposits, the loss is yours. There is no going back. There is no drawing against the “tomorrow”. You must live in the present on today’s deposits. Invest it so as to get from it the utmost in health, happiness, and success.

The clock is running so make the most of today.

Chodesh Tov!



Purim, Alcohol and the Messages We Send: A Call for Consistency

It’s hard to believe but Purim is just around the corner. In less than two weeks, Jews all over the world will gather and celebrate a day endowed with meaning and infused with joy.  Purim provides adults and children with the opportunity to connect with God and with each other in a remarkable way, offering an experience which can be impactful and, at times, transcendent.  Many enjoy cherished memories of Purim celebrations which inspired sustained periods of growth and elevation.

One of the unique features of a traditional Purim celebration is the excessive consumption of wine. Although there is a Talmudic basis for this practice, many rabbinic scholars have established limits and set specific parameters, in an effort to dissuade individuals from becoming intoxicated.  Among the great rabbinic authorities who have advocated such an approach, are Nimukei Yosef (Megillah 7a), Rama (O”C 695:2), Chayei Adam (155:30) and Aruch Hashulchan (O”C 695:3-5).  It is not my intent to offer my own view regarding the halachic definitions and parameters of alcohol consumption on Purim. It would be presumptuous (and irrelevant to most) for me to express an opinion regarding this matter. Our rabbis have presented a remarkably wide spectrum of views, all a matter of public record.

For full disclosure, it has never been my personal practice to become overly intoxicated at a Purim seudah.  Yet, for my entire adult life, I enjoyed the practice of drinking considerably more wine than I did on any other day throughout the year (which, admittedly, is not all that much).  Our personal Purim seudos have always been especially celebratory and festive, reflecting deep and genuine expressions of religious emotion and joy. I will not deny that these experiences were sharply enhanced by the impact of our collective alcohol consumption.

For the past several years, however, I have consciously limited my alcohol consumption on Purim to no more than a single token drink.  This deliberate choice was proudly broadcast to the other participants, most of whom chose to follow this lead. What initiated this sudden change of practice? What precipitated such a significant departure from our customary Purim experience?

Truthfully, I cannot point to a particular event which motivated this change. It was not a reaction to a specific experience, nor a developing crisis in my life. My personal decision to abstain from alcohol on Purim is driven by a desire to communicate clear and consistent messages to myself, my family, and anyone else who may happen to be paying attention.  As a father, as a rabbi and as a teacher, I find it increasingly more challenging to effectively promote intolerance towards excessive alcohol consumption throughout the year, while simultaneously tolerating such indulgences on Purim.  For many, particularly among our youth, the perceived disparity between these two messages is both glaring and compelling.  Our commitment to teaching the value of self-control and our continued efforts to promote intolerance for drugs and alcohol are not merely obstructed by this apparent behavioral contradiction; they are entirely compromised.  To be clear, I do not have the slightest temptation to dismiss or revise Talmudic texts, nor do I intend to imply any grievance with our sacred traditions. On the other hand, Purim does not exist in a vacuum.  With the setting of the sun and the cleansing of our bloodstreams, our religious obligations, social challenges, and personal struggles all resurface and are they right where we left them before the festivities began.  Is it realistic to assume that we can effectively communicate and inspire the virtues of self-control, while faced with conflicting messages that are, for the most part, too nuanced to reconcile?

Additionally, it is no secret that many in our community suffer, directly or indirectly, from the devastating effects of alcohol abuse.  While many of us are able to enjoy the harmlessly benign effects of alcohol consumption one day a year, others among us suffer from the torment and misery of alcohol abuse every day of their lives.  How do we, as individuals and as a community, indulge so excessively, while simultaneously protecting and supporting those among us who may be painfully triggered by our actions? Is it even possible to participate in planned and organized intoxication without provoking sadness, pain, or grief among those most vulnerable and afflicted?   

I offer these questions without presuming to have all of the answers. For myself, the decision to celebrate a dry Purim seems most appropriate and responsible, given my current surroundings and circumstances.  Of course, I will continue to cherish the memories of past Purim celebrations, powerfully enhanced by the alcohol accompaniments.  I will not attempt to forget nor revise the inspiring memories and impressions that were created by rebbeim who radiated joy and transcendence, while under the simultaneous influence of alcohol and Torah.  For now, though, I pray that my children, students, and peers can discover meaning and find inspiration in other opportunities that the day of Purim offers.  We may, in fact, miss the alcohol-induced joy of Purim.  Regardless, we’ve got bigger issues to deal with at the moment.

On Substance Abuse, Parenting Doesn’t End With Open Dialogue

children-must-be-supervised-sign-k-0214I applaud The Jewish Link for addressing the issue of substance and alcohol abuse in the yeshiva community, one of both profound and critical importance. As the article and editorial correctly indicate, sticking our heads in the sand and pretending that this is not an issue of great concern in our community, is naïve at best, reckless and immoral at worst. Indeed, awareness and education, for both parents and teenagers, is an essential measure, if we are to address this problem comprehensively and responsibly. I agree as well that open communication, honest discussion and ongoing dialogue between parents and teenagers, are indispensable tools that must be fully employed throughout this process.

It does seem to me, however, that there is an important component that was absent from your editorial coverage. While parents must work to arm their children with the skills to protect themselves and explain the devastating effects of alcohol abuse and drug use, the role of a parent does not end there. Many of the situations in which our teenagers find themselves in-over-their-heads are facilitated by the parents themselves, albeit unwittingly. Often times, due to our passive compliance, our teenagers find themselves in situations where the temptations and pressures competing for their attention are simply too powerful and overwhelm their under-developed prefrontal cortexes. It is not necessarily education and information which our teenagers lack, nor is it even a lack of motivation on their part. They simply do not have the psychophysiological wherewithal to safely manage and navigate these situations on their own. When (if) we sit down with our children and discuss the dangers of drugs and alcohol, it is very possible that they are listening, tuned in and processing. But, in no way whatsoever, does not mean that they possess the cognitive or emotional ability to make responsible choices in every setting.

To be frank, it is shocking and deeply disappointing how permissive many parents are when parenting the teenage yeshiva community.  Parents often worry that establishing clear expectations and setting appropriate limits, will possibly create a wedge between them and their children, thereby compromising and obstructing the lines of communication. Parents do all they can to avoid saying “no” to a child, out of a deep-seated fear that setting limits will trigger rebellious tendencies. This fear is amplified when teenagers challenge their parents with the proverbial “but everyone else’s parents allow it.” (Recently, a parent actually issued the same rationalization to me!) These concerns are, for the most part, unfounded and often reflect the parent’s own insecurities.

I fully recognize that we cannot, nor should we, attempt to monitor our teenagers’ every move. It is important for teenagers to develop as self-sufficient adults, which necessitates both poor decision-making and failures, as indispensable prerequisites for healthy development. At the same time, it is nothing less than criminal for parents to allow teenagers to participate in unsupervised gatherings/events/parties/reunions etc. etc., turning a blind eye to the real and present dangers that they will undoubtedly encounter.  It is simply unfair and arguably cruel for us to expect our teenagers to be able to withstand the lure of a drink, a puff or a hit, when surrounded by unsupervised peers.

It would seem to me that the most substantial measure that we can take as a community is to reclaim our role as parents. This is not the time, nor the forum, to establish what the non-negotiable, forbidden lines should be. Yet, if we can, at the very least, commit to working together as a community of parents, we can greatly mitigate the imagined fallout that we often dread, when acting as lone individuals. Our teenagers will not only respect us for insisting upon their physical and emotional safety, they will greatly admire us for our sensible and decisive intervention. Most importantly, through responsible parenting, our teenagers will experience a deep and profound sense of inner peace and security, which will ultimately allow them to achieve the greatest high imaginable.

Get Your Head in the Clouds: The Timeless Message of the Sukkah


When accused of having one’s “head in the clouds”, an instinctual defensive response is typically triggered. We naturally expect of each other and of ourselves to be attentive, aware and focused on our immediate surroundings at all times.  Whether preoccupied with a particular task, engaged in a conversation or immersed in deep introspection, we are more productive and effective when we are mentally and emotionally present.

Yet, according to Rebbi Eliezer, having one’s “head in the clouds” is precisely the mindset that one is to maintain while seeking to achieve optimal fulfillment of the mitzvah of yeshivas sukkah.  The Torah, while instructing us to sit in a sukkah for seven days, uncharacteristically embellishes this directive, by way of an explicit revelation of the underlying reason for this mitzvah. In Vayikra chapter 23, the Torah states:

בַּסֻּכֹּת תֵּשְׁבוּ שִׁבְעַת יָמִים כָּל הָאֶזְרָח בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל יֵשְׁבוּ בַּסֻּכֹּת. לְמַעַן יֵדְעוּ דֹרֹתֵיכֶם כִּי בַסֻּכּוֹת הוֹשַׁבְתִּי אֶת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל בְּהוֹצִיאִי אוֹתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲנִי ה’ אֱלֹקֵיכֶם

“You shall dwell in temporary shelters for seven days.  All native-born Israelites are to live in such shelters.  So your descendants will know that I had the children of Israel live in temporary shelters when I brought them out of Egypt. I am Hashem your G-d.”

On the surface, the Torah’s precise intent in this context does not seem even slightly ambiguous, nor is there any apparent need for commentary.  Quite to the contrary, the Torah’s message seems abundantly clear; we sit in a sukkah in order that we should come to remember the sukkah.  Quite simple.  Surprisingly however, the rabbis of the Mishna debate the true meaning and consequence of this pasuk.  The Talmud in Maseches Sukkah 11a records the following braisa:

תניא: (ויקרא כג) כי בסכות הושבתי את בני ישראל ענני כבוד היו, דברי רבי אליעזר. רבי עקיבא אומר סוכות ממש עשו להם

“It was taught in a braisa: ‘that I had the children of Israel live in temporary shelters’, these were the clouds of glory, so are the words of Rebbi Eliezer. Rebbi Akiva says, literal huts were made for them.”

Rebbi Akiva is of the opinion that the Torah means exactly what it says; we sit in the sukkah to commemorate the huts that protected us from the sweltering heat and the harmful elements, as we wandered aimlessly through the desert. Yet remarkably, Rebbi Eliezer offers a dramatically different perspective. Sitting in the sukkah represents something far more profound, even transcendent.  According to his opinion, sitting in the sukkah serves to commemorate the special protection that we received from the ananei hakavod, the clouds of glory, whose hovering presence provided unceasing divine protection throughout our sojourns in the desert.

This debate is neither abstract nor inconsequential, rather it is one which bears significant practical implications.  Rebbi Eliezer and Rebbi Akiva are presenting us with two divergent views regarding the prescribed mindset and focus that one should strive to achieve while sitting in the sukkah.

The Tur, in his introduction to the laws of sukkah, adopts a definite position in this debate.  In Tur Orach Chaim siman 625, he writes:

והסוכות שאומר הכתוב שהושיבנו בהם, הם ענני כבודו שהקיפן בהם לבל יכה בהם שרב ושמש. ודוגמא לזה ציוונו לעשות סוכות, כדי שנזכור נפלאותיו ונוראותיו.

“The Sukkos regarding which the pasuk teaches they were given to dwell in in, is a reference to the clouds of glory that surrounded them, protecting them from the heat and the sun.  We are instructed to make sukkos as a reenactment of this experience, in order to remind us of His miracles and wonders.”

That the Tur should even remark on such an issue, let alone assume a particular position, is notably uncharacteristic.  The Tur does not ordinarily offer opinion or insight regarding the reasons for mitzvos.  Rather the Tur devotes his work to present a comprehensive overview of halacha; the “do’s and don’ts,” not the “whys.”  Yet, when introducing the mitzvah of sukkah, the Tur clearly departs from that protocol, examining the very reason for the mitzvah of yeshivas sukkah.  The Bach, who raises this concern, explains that the Tur assumes this mitzvah to be one of several exceptions to aforementioned rule.  The Tur specifically addresses the reason for this mitzvah, for when it comes to this particular mitzvah, the prescribed mindset and recommended kavanah is an indispensable component of its complete fulfillment.  The Tur intuits this, argues the Bach, because the Torah itself, again – uncharacteristically, goes “out of its way” to say “l’mman yeidu dorosaychem” – “in order that future generations should know.” It is on this basis that the Tur deviates from his customary style and reminds us how essential it is for one to achieve this focus and kavana while fulfilling the mitzvah.

While reflecting upon these two opinions of the tannaim, a striking question comes to the surface.  According to Rebbi Akiva, it is quite understandable how sitting in a sukkah can effectively remind one of the experience of sitting in a sukkah. One need not be imaginative, nor creative in any way. Simply being in the moment and connecting with one’s surroundings, should be more than sufficient to enable a person to generate the requisite awareness for fulfilling the mitzvah.  According to Rebbi Eliezer, on the other hand, it is quite perplexing to understand how sitting in a sukkah is similar or reminiscent of the experience of being shielded by a protective cloud.  The structure of a sukkah bears no apparent resemblance to a cloud and provides no natural outlet for such a mindset.

Rav Nissim Alpert z”l concedes that there is, in fact, nothing that we can possibly construct on this earth which can adequately simulate the experience of being protected by a cloud. Clouds are practically invisible, forever elusive and, if anything, generate feelings of instability, exposure and vulnerability.  Neither brick and mortar, nor fiberglass, canvas or wood, can serve to create a space which resembles the delicate features of a cloud.  Perhaps, argues Rav Alpert, that is precisely the point. The notion that we were protected by the ananei hakvod in the desert is, at its core, synonymous with the concept of hashgacha pratis.  In order to successfully connect with the memory of protection and shelter provided by clouds of glory, we must necessarily envision transcendence, rather than succumb to distractions of mere illusions of earthly spaces of shelter.  On Sukkos we are called upon to remember that our every need, without exception, is provided for by the One above.

If this is indeed the case, then why are we instructed to leave our homes? Could we not (simply) engage in focused meditation and deep introspection, enabling us to achieve an inspired awareness of divine protection, all from the familiar comforts of our own homes?  Explains Rav Alpert z”l, herein lies the dilemma.  Ironically, it is precisely from within the familiar confines of our permanent structures, where our vision suddenly becomes clouded. Because our natural shelters and our homes create a façade of genuine safety and protection, our ability to perceive hashgacha pratis often becomes considerably obstructed.  When surrounded by four walls and a roof, it is much easier to lose sight of our true and complete dependency upon G-d, and succumb to the self-generated myths of independence and dominance.

Therefore, the Torah instructs us to temporarily extricate ourselves from our permanent structures, to break away from our comfortable and familiar settings, and take a seat directly beneath the stars. Rather than obstruct our view, the schach widens our perspective and sharpens our focus.  The immediate instinctual feelings of exposure and defenselessness are soon replaced with feelings of security and protection. It is precisely within the temporary and frail structure of the sukkah, that one can begin to achieve a true and genuine sense of divine shelter and safety.

It would seem that the message of the sukkah has never been more relevant than it is today, as its message speaks directly to an early 21st century generation bombarded with unprecedented challenges and temptations. Technology has enabled us to create virtual walls and structures, providing us with a continuous sense of safety and protection.  Whether it is the security provided to us by digital firewalls or our grossly exaggerated confidence in unlimited access to knowledge and information, we are living at a time where many of us have ever-inflating illusions of omnipotence and immortality.  Anyone with a smartphone in his hand wields access, potential and power, all of which could only have been imagined a generation ago – if even that!  One would naturally expect that such extraordinary scientific advancements would yield measurable improvements in the emotional stability and mental health of our generation. Having the world at our fingertips should be more than enough to bring calm and reassurance to those who would otherwise be anxious, and restore faith and stability to society’s most emotionally compromised and spiritually vulnerable. Remarkably however, research and studies have shown the opposite to be true.[1]  Recent advancements in technology seem to be triggering an unprecedented surge in anxiety and depression.[2]  At first glance, such developments seem counterintuitive.  Shouldn’t our generation, blessed with unlimited access and control, feel greater safety and security than previous generations?  Should we not be observing a marked decrease in anxiety and social withdrawal?

Once again, the mitzvos of the Torah, which are both immutable and eternally relevant, provide us with the necessary insight, we would otherwise be lacking. Permanent structures, while providing us with protection from the elements, do not ultimately satisfy our innate need for feelings of purpose and transcendence. Access to information and the capacity to digitally monitor and control one’s home and finances, while convenient in many respects, are grossly inadequate substitutes for genuine feelings of emunah and bitachon.  Being connected to a worldwide network, while affording us the opportunity to instantaneously communicate with millions of people at the click of a button, often creates feelings of existential loneliness, rather than genuine comradery and connection.  The Torah provides us with a solution, which is both simple and profound; “אמרה תורה כל שבעת הימים צא מדירת קבע ושב בדירת עראי” (Sukkah 2b) “The Torah says that for seven days one should leave his permanent dwelling and live in a temporary dwelling.”
We must designate times in our life, during which we extricate ourselves, albeit temporarily, from the façades of safety and security, and seek shelter in the warm protective cover of the clouds of glory. These clouds can be accessed when, and only when, we walk away from our desktops, turn off our smartphones and disconnect from our familiar “reality”, which is truly virtual (at best).  The imperative to seek shelter in the ananei hakavod is more essential today than ever before. The more technologically advanced our world becomes, the more urgent and indispensable the need for spiritual cultivation and emotional reinforcement.  These engagements cannot be initiated by downloading and accessing a particular app. These processes are not the products of a carefully scripted digital code, nor facilitated through an online service.  They occur in the very spaces and places where they have been successfully conducted for centuries. We become more spiritually attuned in houses of worship and study. We become more emotionally adapted and fortified through meaningful connections with friends and family. We become more spiritually stable and secure by strengthening our connection to G-d, through prayer and study. We offset feelings of worthlessness and helplessness by recognizing the constant hashgacha pratis that we have in our lives.  We can mitigate and even overcome invading thoughts of worry and doubt by pulling ourselves away from our digital devices and strengthening our connection to our Father in heaven.

Herein lies the timeless message of the sukkah. Ultimately, the sukkah offers each and every one us an opportunity for spiritual rejuvenation and growth. May we be inspired to truly escape our permanent dwellings and seek shelter in the secure and sustaining walls of the sukkah, thereby deepening and strengthening our connection to Avinu shebashamayim.

[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/10/style/anxiety-is-the-new-depression-xanax.html

[2] https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2017/09/has-the-smartphone-destroyed-a-generation/534198/