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.