Israel, Judaism, Modern Orthodoxy, Short Fiction, Career Guidance

Location: Israel

Monday, August 22, 2005

Response on use of Nazi comparison

Dear R,

I respectfully disagree. I expect only time will tell how things develop, which I hope will only be for the best, and such analogies will no longer be necessary or come to mind.

I at least have come to terms with the anti-religious bend of the institutions and centers of power in Israel. While I don't believe that they wish to kill us physically, I do believe they want to diminish us in every other way (perhaps it is less of a Purim-like threat and more of a Chanukah-like one).

I agree that part of the solution is to be closer with the average secular Israeli Jew which our community has not been so good at, and I attribute as part of the reason for current events. However, there is an important and influential minority, who have developed a large squad of officers who are comfortable inflicting pain on Jews. This same minority is hyper-sensitive to the concerns of a large population of Arabs that would be happy with us dead.

I am not sure that I should feel brotherly love for this group of deeply assimilated, hateful, anti-religious Israeli Jews and the institutions they lead in their current state. We are on diametrically oppossed paths, with little or no common-denominator. Others have stated that they are pushing the Dati-Leumi crowd into a corner and forcing them to choose between allegiance to the State (in its current makeup) and allegiance to God. If the two are not now compatible nor have a common purpose, I know where I stand.

It is similar to the recurring argument about politicians that try to influence the goverments "from within" or at what point they leave it because they don't want to be associated with it. I believe these questions will come up on a larger scale.

This past week for me in Gush Katif was traumatic on various levels. I am not the first nor will I be the last to make comparisons to the Nazis -- even people that went through the Holocaust are saying the same. I am not making this comparison to be alarmist or to cheapen the use of the term. The comparison comes unbidden. What makes it even more painful is that it is our brothers doing this.

My general sense was that the Police and especially the Yasam units had no problem being rough and implementing these orders. I know it was very difficult though for many of the soldiers. The poor boys and girls were also victims in a sense, and were used and pressured to be a part of it. Typically, they only did one forceful eviction and were then rotated. Just the one eviction burned many of them out and I fear for their long-term psycological health.

This past week has been a big step backwards for the Jewish State. I'm not sure what the best way forward is, either on an individual level or a community one.

I'm sorry that you're offended and find my arguments unnacceptable. For me it was a very real and frightening experience that fills me with dread. Perhaps I should call them Hellenists -- but emotionally that term has no meaning for me. From personal family history and education I know what a Nazi means. I know how things started there, and whether we care to admit it or not, there are unarguable parallels.

There was also a lot of bravery, strength and compassion evident in the more humane soldiers and that gives me a measure of hope.

May we just have good notices and an end to sorrow.



First I'd like to clarify that I do mean Front in the sense of War Front. This is a psychological, spiritual and emotional war of the highest degree, besides being the largest military operation in Israeli history. It is correct that there has not been physical murder, and the brutal beatings have been kept to a minimum. Nonetheless, no one should have any illusions that this is nothing less than a battle for the spiritual, religious and political future of the People of Israel. Sharon has employed the entire security apparatus to this end. He is also supported by the courts, the media, the international community, and most painfully by Moetzet Yesha. Others are elaborating elsewhere regarding the duplicitous betrayal by Moetzet Yesha leaders.

I'll just mention two examples that I came across personally. I'm sure other incidents will come to light with time. Moetzet Yesha sabotaged the home-grown volunteer effort that was running smoothly in Nvei Dekalim until they bullied their way in and that let the organization collapse and eroded the morale and resistance. Secondly, they were directly responsible for handing over the gate of Nvei Dekalim to the army, accelerating their entry to the Yishuv.

The Disengament so far has been one of the most impressive military and logistical excercises conducted to-date. No expense has been spared to make sure the operation goes smoothly. In the sweltering heat, soldiers have been provided with the additional equipment of blue mesh vests bearing the Israeli flag and emblem in a cynical use of these symbols. Members of the press have been issued pretty red caps so that they wont be confused with settlers. Every free bus and truck in the country has been commissioned to help with the transfer. The army created a portable roving tire repair shop to insure that Jews and their possesions are transported with minimum delay.

The actual tactics for forcefully removing people from their homes was chillingly effective. A bus pulls up to the entrance of a home. 40-50 soldiers form a perimeter around the bus and the house ensuring no one can get in or out. Slowly, patiently, methodically -- even caringly and gently they escort the residents out. By now, most people have seen images of the screaming, crying resistance or quiet resignation.

Someone once told me that the only difference between the Nazis and all others that tried to kill Jews before the Holocaust, was that the Nazis were efficient.

Well, now we've come across an even more capable and efficient people. The Israeli government has showcased these brilliant population removal techniques to the security forces of the world. Now they know how to deport docile Jews worldwide.

First you start with a demonizing campaign. Next you pass appropriate legislation. An authority is established to help the target population with their transfer and create carrot-and-stick laws to encourage and/or frighten the people to move.

What is really impressive is the operational side. Troops are provided with detailed and marked satellite maps of the community. Airborne drones conduct 24-hour reconnaissance and via infra-red probably know exactly how many bodies are in each house, of what size, and whether they are sleeping or not.

Advance troops arrive to offer "help" to families that might be interested in moving. Among these troops they confirm who is a long-time resident, who is cooperating with the authorities and who is resisting, and formulate the order of evacuation. More troops come in quietly and unobtrusively and hang out, silently building up their forces in the area.

The psychological aspect has also been well thought out. There is constant misinformation from multiple sources, including media, government, police and army. An environment of uncertainty and fear is established. The uninvited moving containers was an excellent example of developing the sense of defeat.

The most important part in this sort of battle is neutralizing the leadership. This in my opinion was the masterstroke of the whole operation and the reason for Sharon's confidence. At some point he got Moetzet Yesha in his pocket. I'm not sure what their motivation was, though I have my suspicions. The bottom line is that Moetzet Yesha put on a great Public Relations show, but that was about it. They torpedoed every single tactical move that could have made a real difference. They were also able to get most of the Rabbinic leadership to tow the line with them.

The use of force was also well balanced. The army showed masterful restraint and patience, but then after a certain amount of time attacked quickly, brutally and without remorse. This neutralized the more agressive resistance and put bodily fear into the rest.

The logistical support was examplary and impressive. On my way out of Nvei Dekalim, I was transported to the new and expanded Reim Army Base. It is a city. I thought I had been taken to an airport. There were multiple traffic coordinators sending empty trucks, full trucks, empty buses, full buses, troops and transports to their correct destination in an extremely professional and efficient fashion.

All in all the Israeli security forces get high marks for their execution of this exemplary case of ethnic cleansing.

On a better note, after we've been informed that most of the Yishuvim have been Jew-cleaned, I just spoke with Marc Zell of Alon Shvut. He is in Gadid -- and it is packed. There are hundreds of people still there. It seems refugees from other Yishuvim as well as a number of original families are still holding on. People have still been streaming in.

It is not clear what the future holds, especially now that it has been painfully clarified that we live in a state that bears a remarkable resemblance to the Nazi regime in its early years.

We lost this battle the day that massive numbers of troops were willing to forcefully remove their brothers from their homes. The reason for this social failure deserves deep and serious analysis and contemplation. There is a real divide in Israeli society if thousands of young men and women are able to man-handle women and children despite their begging and pleading.

Just like in Germany where there were Germans and German Jews, we are seeing a phenomena in Israel of Israelis and Israeli Jews. Shimon Peres was probably the first to verbalize this distinction when he lost the election to Bibi and stated that the Jews had won and the Israelis had lost.

What are the implications of a growing divide? What are the hopes of reuniting with people so far removed from a Jewish identity? What should our attitude to the State, the Army, and the institutions we used to venerate be? I know I will never look at someone in uniform the same way again. I had two experiences with security forces after my departure from Nvei Dekalim. This first was my going on an army transport filled with troops that had just assisted in the cleansing of Morag. They were embarrassed, caring, helpful and even sad upon seeing me. The conflict of emotions was difficult and I broke into silent tears. The second experience was when I walked by a group of policemen at a gas station outside of the expanded closed military zone in the south. My eyes locked with one of them and there was one message in his contact: "Enemy".

Many have said that this is not the end, but the beginning. The beginning of what? I think it will be the beginning of greater persecution and Jew-cleansing. It will be the beginning of more terror and loss of life. It will be the beginning of more discrimination of religious Jews by those in power.

However, it also needs to be the beginning of community soul-searching. Where did we go so wrong that such a divide and estrangement could develop? What do we need to do to correct it? Why has our leadership failed us so miserably? What should our relationship be to this unholy State and its destructive and hateful institutions? How do we take these lessons and use it in a constructive, responsible and intelligent fashion? What is our hope for the future and how do we get there?

I don't have answers.

I don't even know who to ask.

Impressions from the Front

I apologize for the long ramble, but some have asked me to document my experience here.

Shabbat and Tisha B'av were the most moving experiences I can recall. Every prayer was meaningful, every song filled with emotion. The communal feeling of threat and the appreciation of the precariousness of life is palpable. I've fallen in love with the place. It is physically beautiful and the view of the Mediteranean doesn't hurt either.

This morning, I walked around the Yishuv with my friend Jeremy Brody, who miraculously made it in and out of the area. We walked through what had obviously been a gorgeous home, now gutted completely. Even the doorframes were removed. The owners left Israeli flags of various sizes all over the house. I don't envy the soldiers whose job will be to demolish the home.

We then saw a bit of the multitude of greenhouses and factories. They were enourmous operations. This convinced me more than anything else that those who think Alon Shvut or Efrat, Maale Adumim or Ariel or any place else in Yesha is safe from the immolation of the Left are completely deluding themselves. The economic investment and value of Gush Katif is worth several times over the economic value of the rest of Yesha combined. If the government is capable of giving away Gush Katif, they will be willing, ready and able to give away the rest. I forget the poem, but I think it went something like this: "First they came for the blacks, and I did nothing. Then they came for the gypsies, and I did nothing. Then they came for the gays, and I did nothing. Then they came for me -- and there was no one left to help."

I've been sleeping on the terrace of my hosts' house. It's the only place where you don't run the risk of suffocating from the heat in this all-time high heat wave. On Saturday night I got to see a shooting star. On Sunday night I got to see a mortar -- which actually left a nice smoke trail. At 4am, after a fitfull sleep it was most unwelcome. The yishuv loadspeaker then asked everyone to take cover. I went inside. It was just too hot. I was too tired and cranky too listen to anybodies orders, so I went back to my spot on the terrace, for the hour and a half I had left to sleep.

We had an early morning minyan at the main gate of Gadit to prevent soldiers from delivering expulsion orders. They apparently did not make it until much later thanks to all the protestors at Kissufim. The army however had escorted two buses full of journalists. I was treated to a first-hand reminder how one cannot trust the media at all.

Some journalists encouraged a couple of the wilder local youth to bring over some barbed wire and then drag it violently back and forth over the road. All the media got their photo-op. Shortly thereafter the boys discarded the barbed wire and were not seen again. It was completely fabricated.

The davening at the gate was fairly meaningful though we were often distracted by vehicles that we were letting in and out.

Later on I made my way to Nvei Dekalim where I got to help Ruth Leiberman with some of her PR work and to see the wilder scene at the front gate there. It was encouraging to see the many soldiers that refused orders and left the area. The numbers of teens as well as adults that are ready and waiting to bodily resist the expulsion is truly impressive. You could see visible fear and concern on the faces of the security forces.

After helping with a few other odds and ends in Nvei Dekalim I make my way back to Gadit.

I pass a woman who spontaneously breaks into grief-stricken crying who is consoled by her friend.

I step carefully over the freshly torn-down barbed wired fencing that separated Nvei Dekalim from Gadit. It was a wise move to prevent the army from 'dividing and conquering'. To my right was a convey of trucks with large containers that was paralyzed by protesters and civilian vehicles. There is a touch of chaos in the air. A middle-aged man is yelling at a couple of dozen teenagers that the leadership decided to permit free passage for those that are moving out.

However, it's been discovered that the army has hired a number of such trucks to just drive around the yishuv to deepen the feeling that people are giving up. The psychological warfare is ongoing.

In the background are loud metallic noises. Usually it sounds like the dismantling of the greenhouses. Sometimes it sounds like gunfire from Khan Yunis -- I haven't been here long enough yet to tell you the caliber or the range, as most of the long-time residents can.

I keep walking. A massively built truck-driver gets out of his vehicle and tells a passerby "This kid is going to send me to jail again". The passerby asks him "Why"?. "Because I'm going to murder him" is the serious reply as he quickly walks after a teenager that just punctured his tire.

Tonight there was basically what amounted to a very large pep-talk. The crowd was visibly elated by news of hundreds of cars making their way to the south for us.

My feeling is that the tide is turning and I'm off to a barbecue that my hosts are serving.

Looking forward to a much larger celebration soon.


Where were you when JFK was shot?

Growing up, I noticed that phrase came up in adult conversation a lot. For our generation the question will be "What did you do during the Hitnatkut?" I'm in Gadid and Nvei Dekalim helping out. Every individual is of tremendous help. We are witnessing a national crime -- anyone standing idly by is a party to it.

The upcoming days will determine the fate of the future of Israel. There are massive forces at play. The army, police, government, media, courts and international community are preparing for a death blow (the first of a few planned ones -- notice how the newspapers our titling this "Hitnatkut 2005" -- I can give you a list of who is planned for 2006). The media is lying outright and the government is deluding itself on many counts.

One just has to walk through Nvei Dekalim to see that there are easily over ten thousand "illegal" residents here -- and not all of them teenagers. I had the privledge to meet senior citizens that came all the way from the US to get in.

There is talk among the soldiers that there will be mass refusal of orders starting this week. It was easy to perceive this from the multiple checkpoints I got through without any real permits. This is besides the fact that they are stretched thin and completely lying about the number of security forces in the field.

However, a growing number of families are finally starting to give up because of the extraordinary pressue. They've started packing. On Thursday, a family moved out of Nvei Dekalim, with most of their belongings. They left behind an old computer and a large and beautiful fish tank (with the fish still in it). I was asked to help a group of Americans settle into the vacated house. Suddenly a six year old boy walks in, his eyes starting to tear and asked "What are you doing here?" "This is my house." I felt like a rapist -- that I had totally violated this boys home and privacy. It seems that the parents had indeed accompanied the moving truck but had left the kids behind with an aunt and uncle and were planning on coming back to Nvei Dekalim for Shabbat. The human tragedy occuring here is enormous -- one helping hand can make a huge difference -- and with all the people that are here it is still not enough.

Another family in Gadid has also started packing (many in fact). However, the presence of additional people has indeed comforted and strengthened the resolve of many of them, and they are now planning on sticking it out. Where yesterday Gadid seemed as if it would quietly evacuate, now there is a growing feeling that a stand can be made. However, these feelings can easily fluctuate.

I've met part of the American contingent that got into Nvei Dekalim. It's a mixed group. Some of them are not religious at all. Some don't speak any Hebrew. Some left their work and went into debt to come here.

We live a mere hour and a half away -- how can we not help?

I'm not sure if and when I'll have internet access again. I just wanted to make this heartfelt plea to all my friends and neighbors. Do something. Anything.

Try to make it into Gush Katif. I can't tell you how many amazing stories I've heard of people who made it in. One brought a whole van-full of people without any documentation and bribed his way through each checkpoint with cartons of popsicles.

Join the marches.

Block the roads.

Go to Har Habayit.

Babysit for those that are going.

Contribute supplies.


It is not only a matter of whether we win or lose. This is up to God. The issue is what are we doing personally about it. This is not a time for passivity. Everyone needs to extend themselves to the maximum for there own selves, for their families, for their communities and for Klal Yisrael.

With tears of anguish on this Tisha B'av that will hopefully turn to tears of joy.

Bentzi Spitz of Alon Shvut

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Life Path Quotes

"You make a living by what you get. You make a life by what you give."

- Winston Churchill

"Every person that I have known who has been truly happy, has learned how to serve others."

- Albert Schweitzer

"The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you're still a rat."

- Lily Tomlin

"Life is like a coin. You can spend it any way you wish. But you can only spend it once."

- Miguel de Cervantes

"Be the change you wish to see in the world."

- Mahatma Gandhi

"If the things we believe are different than the things we do, there can be no true happiness."

- Dana Telford

"It is only with the heart one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye."

- Antoine de Saint-Exupery

"For this is the journey that men make: to find themselves. If they fail in this, it doesn’t matter much what else they find."

- James A. Michener

"I don't know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody."

- Bill Cosby

"My objective in life is not to have a spiritual life that is separate from the rest of my life."

- Ed McCracken

"The goal is not to have but to be, not to own but to give, not to control but to share, not to subdue but to be in accord… not to amass, but to face sacred moments."

- Abraham Heschel

"Possessing material comforts in no way guarantees happiness. Only spiritual wealth can bring true happiness. If that is correct, should business be concerned only with the material aspect of life and leave the care of the human spirit to religion?"

- Konosuke Matshushita

"Success means living the life of the heart."

- Francis Ford Coppola

"Where the spirit does not work with the hand, there is no art."

- Leonardo da Vinci

"The size of your success is determined by the size of your belief."

- Lucius Annaeus Seneca

"Work can provide the opportunity for spiritual and personal, as well as financial, growth. If it doesn't, we are wasting far too much of our lives on it."

- James Autry

"Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing."

- Theodore Roosevelt

"You see things, and you say, "Why?" But I dream things that never were, and I say, "Why not?"

- George Bernard Shaw

"To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition."

- Samuel Johnson

"Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go."

- T. S. Eliot

"To be successful, have your heart in your business, and your business in your heart."

- Thomas Watson

"All progress depends on the unreasonable man. The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself."

- George Bernard Shaw

"Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it."

- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

"I am looking for a lot of men who have an infinite capacity to not know what can't be done."

- Henry Ford

"It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare. It is because we do not dare that they are difficult."

- Lucius Annaeus Seneca

"Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what's a heaven for?"

- Robert Browning

"If you really want to help this world, what you will have to do is teach how to live in it."

- Joseph Campbell

"Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all others."

- Winston Churchill

"A musician must make his music, an artist must paint, a poet must write, if he is to ultimately be at peace with himself."

- Abraham Maslow

"A happy life is one which is in accordance with its own nature."

- Lucius Annaeus Seneca

"If we don't change our direction, we are likely to end up where we are headed."

- Ancient Chinese Proverb

"If he was to become himself, he must find a way to assemble the parts of his dreams into one whole."

- George Eliot

"To be independent of public opinion is the first formal condition of achieving anything great."

- Georg Wilhelm Hegel

"The world will never starve for want of wonders, but for want of wonder."

- G. K. Chesterton

"The moment that one definitely commits one's self, then Providence moves, too."

- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

"Profit and morality are a hard combination to beat."

- Hubert Humphrey

"Many people have the wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose."

- Helen Keller

"Anyone who proposes to do good must not expect people to roll stones out of his way, but must accept his lot calmly, even if they roll a few more upon it."

- Albert Schweitzer

"This is the true joy in life: The being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one. The being a force of nature…"

- George Bernard Shaw

"There is no security in life, only opportunity."

- Mark Twain

"Two roads diverge in a wood, and I-

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference."

- Robert Frost

"To venture causes anxiety. Not to venture is to lose oneself."

- Soren Kierkegaard

"Fortune favors the audacious."

- Desiderius Erasmus

"Throw your heart over the fence and the rest will follow."

- Norman Vincent Peale

"There is a growing legion of businesspeople who are hungry to build something of enduring character on a set of values they can be proud of."

- Jim Collins

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has."

- Margaret Mead

"The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and, if they can't find them, make them."

- George Bernard Shaw

"He broke new ground -- because he had the courage to go ahead without asking whether others were following or even understood."

- Dag Hammarskjold

"All work that is worth anything is done in faith."

- Albert Schweitzer

"Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage."

- Anais Nin

"Don't be afraid to follow your bliss, and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be."

- Joseph Campbell

"If you think you're too small to make a difference, you've never been in bed with a mosquito."

- Anita Roddick

Heroes in the Dark






"My Lord?" asked the awakening boy.

"My Lord? Art thou here?"

"Uuh?" came a groggy reply.

"My Lord! Thou art here!"

"Yes, yes boy. What is the matter?"

"My Lord, we are dead, and gone to our doom. I have just awaken from our fateful blow and this stygian darkness must surely be the otherworld. Thine voice and mine are all that remain of our former existence."

"Nonsense boy. I do not feel dead yet. I may feel slightly ill - and truly, 'tis an unnatural darkness and an ungodly stench, but ye must be wrong. I still feel my good sword in my hand. Let me concentrate a moment and will the sword's power to illuminate us."

Magically a bright light emanated from the sword.

"Tis most wondrous my Lord. The sword shines, yet this scenery now seems more frightening than our former darkness."

"Aye, a place quite strange it appears. A sickly green cave of some sort, with bright orange puddles spread about. But look, our captor has left us food. Fruits of all sort, some chickens, and this can only be a side of beef - but cruelly cut off, and none of this food is in good condition. Very strange."

"My Lord, we must be dead. No one is known to have survived the monster we fought. And feel the heat, I feel that shortly I shall suffocate - this can only be the domain of Lucifer himself."

"Quiet boy. I shall be dead when I can no longer act, so until that time let me be. Surely the dragon put us in a prison of his devising. I still feel his breath and slimy tongue over my body, and thou also seems quite slick to the touch. We must investigate this cave and attempt to locate a means of escape."

"Yes my Lord. I shall always follow thee - past death itself it seems."

"Good. Now there appear to exist small dark openings at either side of this chamber. Let us investigate the lower one first."

"My Lord, as we move in that direction the stench gets worse - I feel I shall perish once again merely from the smell. This can only be hell."

"Seize thy whimpering. Let us approach closer; but I fear that this smell of decayed flesh only leads to a trap. Grab one of those chickens that we may use as bait."

The cave started to vibrate slightly.

"Doth thou feelist that my Lord? The Devil does not wish for me to take the chicken."

"Don't be foolish, boy. It is merely an earth tremor. These things are known to occur. Now pick up that chicken and come here."

The boy and the Lord slowly approached the opening.

"It seems to be a portal of some sort, that opens and closes on a regular basis. Yet the smell definitely originates here. Perhaps this leads to a graveyard or a slaughter house. Boy, place the chicken near the portal and let us observe what occurs."

For a few moments nothing happened, then suddenly the portal opened up.

"My Lord! It has swallowed the chicken - and everything else in its vicinity! Let us move from here, I beg of you!"

"We shall try the other portal, boy. Not merely on account of thy cowardice, but because I hear sounds that are not encouraging from the end of this opening. I fear that if we went through, we would exit quite damaged, if at all. Very well, let us make for the high opening at the other end of this cave."

So the Lord and the boy started walking towards the other end of the chamber.

"Boy, do not the floor and walls of this cave seem abnormally soft to thee."

"Verily my Lord. I was pondering this selfsame question myself, as well as the continued 'earth tremors' thou hast named. I fear for our souls, and the danger of not accepting what fate has ordained for us."

"Never mind. I think perhaps my sword can cut through this not so sturdy wall. But let us get closer to the opening first."

"My Lord. A wild thought came to me. If as thou sayest we are not dead, I believe I know where we are."

"I am tired of thy blabberings, boy. We are almost upon the opening, and there is a hint of fresh air, yet still I fear a trap. I shall try to penetrate the wall with my sword."

"No! Lord, no!"

But is was too late. The Lord had dug his sword into the wall. It entered easily, opening a gash that started gushing a thick dark liquid over them. Luckily, at that very moment the boy had grabbed the hilt of the sword to try to prevent his Lord from this very action. There was a terribly loud screeching sound. Suddenly, the floor left their feet. The only thing holding them in place was the Lord's sword that they were both holding, stuck in what was now the chamber's ceiling. They dangled over the bottom opening - waiting to swallow them, yet they were just within reach of the top opening. The chamber continued to shake and shudder violently. Heavy liquid covered them so that they were nearly blind.

"What in Creation's name happened!"

"My Lord. I believe we are within the beast!"

"What!? When thou sayest that we were in hell, though improbable, was perhaps believable, but to say that we are within the monster is most surely impossible!"

"As thou sayest my Lord. With whatever belief, however, we shall surely be dead if we do nothing of our precarious position. I do not relish going down further into what must be the dragon's bowels."

"Then we must cut through whatever this material may be, whether it be stomach or wall."

"No, Lord. Then we shall surely drown in the beast's blood ere we exit its body"

"Boy, though I do not know what we are in, whether dragon or some evil magical spell, I shall find purchase in the nearby opening and then attempt to break through"

Before the boy could respond, while the Lord's legs were reaching and kicking around the upper opening, the chamber appeared to convulse and spasm. Great volumes of air rushed through the upper opening, pulling the contents of the chamber, including the Lord and the boy into the opening. Up they went, through a long slimy tunnel, the boy and the Lord holding onto the sword and each other for dear life. They kept on bumping into ridges protruding from the tunnel wall. The tunnel narrowed, showing light at the end of it. The opening came into view surrounded by sharp jagged edges. Finally they exited, flying in the air, together with the assorted contents of the dragons' stomach. They landed abruptly on a pile of hay, in the land of the living, ready to re-experience life.






And so our heroes saved the day. It was reported that the dragon never again ate another human being. However, whether this was from fear, memories of a bad headache, or simply indigestion was never determined.

The Hurd and the Oorns

The Hurd is unique and atypical as far as creatures go. Let’s start by describing its birth. Benevolent mammalian animals seek out virgin land and start to burrow and hack and dig a fairly large nesting space. These mammals then bring the bones of the Hurd and connect them. This is followed by cartilage, muscle tissue, skin, circulatory and respiratory systems and the Hurd is finally dressed with a variety of adornments. Once the Hurd starts to breath, the birthing mammal disappears typically never seeing its child again.

A Hurd will come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes and colors and will almost never move from its initial nesting space. Its main food and sustenance comes directly to it. Most of the sustenance was arranged by the mammals beforehand, so that its water and energy supply feeds right into its digestive system. Its defecatory system also draws feces away from it, in a clever underground pathway, that allows for a sanitary environment around the birth-nest.

Hurds never mate and rarely have progeny, though they will often grow in spurts over the course of their life.

The most interesting part of the Hurds is the Oorns. An Oorn is a parasitic/symbiotic animal that lives in the entrails of the Hurd.

The Oorns are parasitic in the sense that they are an outside organism that invades the Hurd, damages its internal systems, and over the course of the Hurds’ lifetime will eventually destroy it.

The Oorns are symbiotic in the sense that they provide some measure of sustenance as well as systemic cleansing of the Hurd. This is accomplished via exchange of materials because of the frequent ingestion and excretion of the Oorn from the Hurds body.

Another important symbiotic aspect of the Oorn/Hurd relationship is that most Hurds die faster without an Oorn in its body, despite the damages that the Oorns do inflict on the Hurd in the course of their lives. Likewise, Oorns can’t survive long outside its host Hurn body. Most Hurds will carry at least one Oorn, though often that number will multiply by several hundred percent over time.

A Hurd may host several generations of these Oorn parasite/symbiotes. The Oorns will either be from the multiplied cells of the initial Oorns, or will be completely new Oorns that ousted the original organisms. In either case, once the Hurd is old and decrepit from the ravages of time and the Oorns, the Oorns will escape from the dying Hurd system. At that point the vital systems usually collapse. Respiration, circulation and digestion fail. Thereafter, scavenging vulture-like mammals will tear apart and consume the Hurd. There have been some cases of perfectly healthy Hurds that were destroyed purely for the sake of birthing a younger and typically larger or fancier Hurd. These instances are obviously coordinated between the scavenging/vulture mammals and the birthing mammals.

In some cultures, a Hurd is known simply as a House and the Oorns are obviously People.

To blog or not to blog...

To blog or not to blog. That is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the pangs and arrows of commentary, disinterest and argument, or should one just limit the exposure of one's thoughts.

An interesting and dangerous medium. However, with no risk there is little reward, and there are worse things to clash with. The clash sharpens ones instincts, until one is forced to retreat, regroup and redirect.

Judaism vs. Western Culture and The Boom of Vice

There was a time, apparently decades ago, when “Western Culture” was what could be called ‘prudish’. There was a concept of modesty. There was respect. There was an expectation that most people were decent, honest and hard-working. It was a time when a religious Jew could more comfortably interact with the secular world and both learn from it and contribute to it. There were of course major barriers and challenges that don’t exist today. Nonetheless, it was a time when the philosophy of “the Rav”, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, grew and flourished in America. He formulated a vision of a halachic person that could be strong in their observance, yet be a major participant in the secular culture of the day.

This is one of the founding pillars of institutions such as Yeshiva University and today’s Modern Orthodox communities.

Secular culture has changed dramatically since then. Morals are out. Instant gratification is in. The diseases of materialism and superficiality have infected Modern Orthodox communities far and wide. In many communities, Judaism has evolved into being part of a social group, with minimal spiritual or moral depth. The duality of paying lip service to Jewish ritual yet being immersed in western culture, has led to the inevitable disenfranchisement of our young. The teens who go astray take two general directions. The more honest ones discard religion altogether, as they see their parents negligible commitment and don’t bother going through the motions themselves. Many though, to the parents’ relief, follow the parents’ style of duplicity, and generally take it a step further.

To further add fuel to the flame, the gods of Marketing, have exposed us and our children to nudity and outright sexual innuendo on an unprecedented scale. Our children’s heroes and role models are the movie, music and sports stars who also happen to worship themselves.

The percentages of all of the vices and social ills of the religious commitment now parallel the percentages in the secular world. We are fully integrated now. Alcoholism, drugs, gambling, divorce, spouse and child abuse, have all exploded in recent years to levels never seen before in the Orthodox community.

Some of these disturbing trends are slowly but surely becoming legitimized by growing use. Gambling has become an acceptable pastime for children. Alcohol abuse has become commonplace. It is now being explained that these things have become socially and culturally acceptable in our communities and therefore one should not make a case of it.

I believe that the exact opposite is true. We must fight the negative influences of this culture with all our might. The Orthodox Union has been courageous in leading the battle against alcoholism via the ‘Kiddush Clubs’ which had achieved a certain amount of acceptance, if not respectability.

I’ll illustrate the problem with something becoming ‘culturally or socially acceptable’ with an extreme but true example. In a certain Jewish “religious” community in a South American city, it was common practice for boys of bar-mitzvah age and older to make use of prostitutes. This was done with the parents consent and sometimes even encouragement. There were many explanations as to why this was a wonderful thing to do: “It’s healthy”, “It creates a better marriage”, and other reasons. The bottom line was that this was a halachically impermissible act that had become so commonplace that it was accepted by the community and even explained as a good thing.

The regular use of prostitutes was done by boys who otherwise put on tefillin daily, davened very nicely, were serious learners and overall wonderful people. The same problem is happening with many other vices that are clearly unacceptable from a halachic point-of-view. However, the addict has no problem finding the authority that approves of his vice, and the addict curiously becomes a talmid-chacham when it comes to explaining why his vice is okay if not actually recommended by halacha.

The first step in dealing with the issues, addictions and abuses that are ultimately generated by our Western Culture, is to admit there is a problem.

[to be continued…]

The Letter of Ramban

A Letter For The Ages/Iggeret HaRamban/The Letter of Ramban

This letter was written by Rabbi Moshe Ben Nachman, more widely referred to by his acronym Ramban and known in English as Nachmanides. The Iggeret HaRamban was printed for the first time in Mantua, Italy, in 1623 as part of the book "Tapuchei Zahav" by Rabbi Yechiel Mili.

This letter occupies a special place in the world of Torah literature. It is recited and studied regularly by masses of jews who hold dear the lessons of this letter and try to live in accordance with its lofty spirit. Through the ages, Ramban's letter has been cherished by Torah scholars as well as the masses of Jewry.

This letter was sent by Ramban from the city of
Acre in Eretz Yisrael to his son in Catalonia, Spain, to inspire him to act with humility. He instructed his son to read this letter once every week and to teach it to his children as well, so that they might learn it by heart, in order to train them in their youth to fear God.

Ramban assured his son that on the day that he read this letter his wishes would be fulfilled from heaven:

"Heed, my son, the discipline of your father, and do not forsake the guidance of your mother (Proverbs 1:8). Accustom yourself to speak gently to all people at all times. This will proect you from anger - a most serious character flaw which causes one to sin. Our Rabbis taught (Nedarim 22a): "Whoever flares up in anger is subject to the discipline of Gehinnom, as it is written: Banish anger from your heart and remove evil from your flesh (Ecclesiastes 11:10). The evil mentioned here refers to Gehinnom, as it is written: And the wicked are destined for the day of evil (Proverbs 16:4).

Once you have distanced yourself from anger, the quality of humility will enter your heart. This sterling quality is the finest of all admirable traits, as Scripture writes: On the heels of humility comes the fear of HASHEM (Proverbs 22:4). Through humility, the fear of God will intensity in your heart, for you will always be aware of from where you have come and to where you are destined to go. You will realize that in life you are as frail as the maggot or the worm - all the more so in death. It is this sense of humility which reminds you of the One before Whom you will be called for judgment - the King of Glory. Of Him it is written: Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You (Kings a 8:27; Chronicles 6:18), surely not the hearts of men (Proverbs 15:11). Furthermore, it is written: Do I not fill heaven and earth? says HASHEM (Jeremiah 23:24).

After you give serious thought to these ideas you will stand in awe of your Creator and will be guarded against sin. Once you have acquired these fine qualities, you will indeed be happy with your lot.

When your actions display genuine humility - when you stand meekly before man, and fearfully before God; when you stand wary of sin - then the spirit of God's Presence will rest upon you, as will the splendor of His Glory; you will live the life of the World to Come.

And now my son, understand clearly that one who is prideful in his heart towards other men rebels against the sovereignty of heaven, for he glorifies himself in God's own robes, for it is written, HASHEM reigns, He dons the mantle of grandeur (Psalm 93:1).

For indeed, of what should man be prideful? if he has wealth - it is HASHEM who makes one prosperous. And if honor - does honor not belong to God? As it is written: Wealth and honor come from You (Chronicles b 29:12) - how can one glorify himself with the honor of his Maker? If he takes pride in wisdom - let him understand that God may remove the speech of the most competent and take away the wisdom of the aged (Job 12:20).

Thus, all men stand as equals before their Creator. In His fury He casts down the lofty; in His goodwill He elevates the downtrodden. Therefore, humble yourself, for HASHEM will lift you.

Thus, I shall explain to you how you may accustom yourself to the quality of humility, to walk with it always. Let your words be spoken gently; let your heat be bowed. Cast your eyes downward, and your heart heaven-ward; and when speaking, do not stare at your listener. Let all men seem greater than you in your eyes: If another is more wise or wealthy than yourself, you must show him respect. And if he is poor, and you are richer or wiser than he, consider that he may be more righteous than yourself: If he sins it is the result of error, while your transgression is deliberate.

In all your words, actions and thoughts - at all times - imagine in your heart that you are standing in the presence of the Holy One, Blessed is He, and that His Presence rests upon you. Indeed, the glory of HASHEM fills the universe. - Speak with reverence and awe, like a servant who stands in the presence of his master. Act with restraint in the company of others: If one should call out to you, do not answer with a loud voice, but respond gently - in low tones, as one who stands before his mentor.

Take care to always study Torah diligently so that you will be able to fulfill its commands. When you rise from study, ponder carefully what you have learned; see what there is in it which you can put into practice.

Review your actions every morning and evening, and in this way live all your days in repentance.

Cast external matters from your mind when you stand to pray; carefully prepare your heart in the presence of the Holy One. Purify your thoughts, and ponder your words before you utter them.

Conduct yourself in these ways in all your endeavors for as long as you live. In this way you will surely avoid transgression; your words, actions and thoughts will be flawless. Your prayer will be pure and clear, sincere and pleasing to God, Blessed is He, as it is written: When You prepare their heart [to concentrate], you are attentive [to their prayers] (Psalms 10:17).

Read this letter once a week and neglect none of it. Fulfill it, and in so doing, walk with it forever in the ways of HASHEM, may He be Blessed, so that you may succeed in your ways and merit the World to Come that lies hidden for the righteous. Every day that you shall read this letter, heaven shall answer your heart's desires... Amen, Selah".

Shush Yourself!

Why you can talk in Shul

Well you can’t. But this article is aimed at you, and now that I have your attention, I’ll get right onto the business of berating anyone that doesn’t have a problem with talking in shul.

Different types of shuls

Before we really get into it though, I believe an analysis of the talking in shul phenomena is appropriate.

Shuls can be categorized into three types as regards talking:

  1. Quiet
  2. Buzzing
  3. Roaring

  1. Quiet. The quiet shul is categorized by extreme quiet. For people who are unaccustomed to this, the experience of entering such a shul can come as quite a shock. They become disoriented and confused and start to question what denomination temple they have entered, or perhaps it’s a different religion altogether. Once they’ve understood it’s still the same religion and even the same prayer services (though they may be unfamiliar with actually praying), they become uncomfortable and antsy. Their palms start to itch and they get sweaty. They look nervously around to see if anyone else is suffering from this strange predicament. They are not unlike addicted smokers who suddenly find themselves without a light and with no one in sight to assist them. More on the phenomena of a Quiet shul later.
  2. Buzzing. The majority of the shul is quiet and participating or paying attention to the services. However there is a comfortable group of people yapping away. The group is usually situated in a corner of the shul. The group is usually characterized by one main yapper, the buddy sitting next to him to whom most of the conversation is directed and who is listening dutifully, and then the immediate surrounding audience who may chip into the conversation and/or have nearby murmuring discussions of their own. This relatively low level talking activity creates an effect not unlike the sound of bees buzzing which permeates the shul like a warm blanket. This sound is annoying to the majority of shul-goers especially those sitting close to the yappers. It prompts the regular “shushing” which does give very temporary and short-lived relief. More importantly, the buzzing allows others in the shul to comfortably start their own conversations when they desire.
  3. Roaring. This is the most interesting and the most disturbing phenomena to Rabbis today. Roaring is when the majority of the congregation is talking. This is most common during the reading of the Torah. It is characterized by the fact that someone may be standing adjacent to the Torah reader, but because of the simultaneous discussion of the majority of the shul, one cannot hear what is being read. The phenomena is further characterized by the Rabbi, President, Gabbai or some other shul official getting up, and stopping the services completely. He will wait until quiet is restored. Then the services will commence again. Within a few seconds the roar is back, as unrelenting and as loud as crashing waves upon the shore. The display is comically sad.

The Problem

Talking in shul is symptomatic of a much deeper problem in Orthodox Judaism today. It indicates a lack of seriousness by people for this aspect of the religion. It demonstrates poor education and lack of respect or sensitivity to the shul and the Rabbis. It makes it perfectly understandable why Orthodox youth from such homes will look at their parents worship and dedication in shul and realize that the service and by association the religion is not serious. The youth are more honest with themselves and decide to chuck the whole false social rituals of their parents and seek spiritual fulfillment elsewhere.

These problems seem to continue to grow in many quarters. Many respected authorities speak and write about these issues and continue to do so. The aim of this article is to focus on the specific problem of talking in shul, suggest solutions and perhaps by successful implementation have a positive impact on other aspects of the trouble outlined above.

The Solution

Talking in shul is a multi-faceted problem. As such, a multi-pronged approach is suggested.

Credit: Part of the inspiration for this article came from the best-selling book The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. Mr. Gladwell explains with tremendous insight the underlying causes of ‘social epidemics’ and how small changes can have major effects. Talking in shul is a social epidemic, and there is obviously a ‘tipping point’ where a shul transforms from a buzzing one to a roaring one. Many of Mr. Gladwell’s thoughts and analysis are being brought to bear on our particular problem.

The Power of the Few

It’s just a few ringleaders. There are a few people who just can’t seem to help themselves from talking. They are the ones that get it started. When these people are absent on a Shabbat, the talking volume goes down and the congregants breathe a sigh of relief.

Profile of a Yapper

A yapper is the term I am using for the person who can’t refrain from talking in shul. The yappee is his accomplice, who is generally a close friend and is being polite and listening attentively, to what one of my Rabbi’s once termed ‘verbal diarrhea’. The yapper is often a leading or established member of the community and perhaps a little too self-important. What he has to say is more important than anything else going on and he frankly doesn’t really care who he disturbs and doesn’t really consider or think twice that his talking is profane and out of the place in the shul.

It is almost like the man that goes into a mikvah holding a ‘sheretz’ – the mikvah has no effect on him and he does not accomplish anything.

They are probably the single most important factor in the talking problem. There are a variety of strategies in affecting these people:

  1. One on one discussion: Scheduling individual meetings with the prime offender(s) to discuss the topic and not only ask him to minimize his talking, but encourage him to have a more positive effect on those around him.
  2. In-the-act attack: This can take two forms a) walking up to the offender during services an asking him to quiet down (this can be done with various levels of loudness, which may cause various levels of embarrassment; b) calling out the offenders’ name from the podium – I have heard that this can be very effective.
  3. Expulsion: This is obviously a last option. But just as a shul wouldn’t tolerate someone suddenly smoking in the middle and refusing to stop or leave, so to there should be a limit to the blatant disrespect a person shows to the shul.

To some, the above may seem extreme, inappropriate or unrealistic. Many of the offenders are ‘leading’ members of the community or even founders of the shul. I recall a discussion years ago amongst two regular yappers that had just been chastised, how they would found their own shul so they could talk as much as they want, and hire their own Rabbi so they could do whatever they want. This is a dangerous phenomenon that can extend into other areas of religious observance and morality.

It is obviously difficult for a Rabbi to castigate a person on whom his livelihood depends, however, in balance he has the spiritual considerations and needs of his congregation.

Tips for the Yappee

The Yappee finds himself in the uncomfortable position of being the sometimes unwilling accomplice to the Yappers diatribes. They are good friends, this is their opportunity to catch up and the Yappee doesn’t want to offend his friend in any way by suggesting he should stop talking.

There are two practical ‘minhagim’ that while they may make the person appear to become ‘frumer’ it is proven in cutting down on people talking to them. The first is standing. Many people have the minhag to stand during the repetition of the amidah and/or the reading of the Torah (which coincidentally are the main Yapping times). It is a little less comfortable for someone sitting to talk to someone standing.

The second minhag are those that cover their heads with their talit. It is more difficult to get someone’s initial attention and have comfortable discussion, when the sides of a person’s head are covered. The above are non-directed and non-insulting ways to cut down on talking. While the Yappers may be the initiators, they need someone to Yap to, and if you are that someone, you are an equal partner in their crime.

The Sticky Message

Besides zeroing in on the few people that are having a major impact on the noise level of a shul, the congregation on a whole needs to be explained and reminded of the importance of quiet and decorum in the shul. This is a message that bears repeating and needs to ‘stick’. There should be frequent sermons from the pulpit addressing the issue in fresh and inspiring ways. There should be signs and notices and frequent reminders.

There are also people who truly don’t know that it is not acceptable to talk in shul. One worshipper when confronted with this, in all honesty exclaimed: “I thought you’re supposed to talk in Shul!”

Talking in shul is almost an unconscious habit. They need to consciously stop themselves. Reminders help. It’s a marketing principle that a consumer needs to hear a message at least six times before acting on it, and as anyone in sales knows, the hardest thing to change are peoples habits. The message needs to be crafted in a way that won’t automatically be rejected – that will get people’s attention, hold it, penetrate their minds and enlighten them. Again, the Rabbi is typically the best person to customize and tailor the message for his congregation – though fresh perspectives and outside consultations can also be of assistance.

The Context Effect

It has become acceptable to talk in shul. And when one walks into a shul where it is not acceptable, it becomes immediately clear. In The Tipping Point, Mr. Gladwell discusses the dramatic drop in NY crime during the early 1990s. The theory that drove this success was dubbed The Broken Window theory. If one sees a broken window on a building, it sends a signal of neglect and lack of care. Before you know it, there’s another broken window, and another. Then there’s graffiti on the wall. Panhandlers show up. It’s then no surprise when a mugger attacks a victim completely unafraid that anyone will show an interest or trouble him during his criminal attack. By cleaning the graffiti, by removing the panhandlers, William Bratton and Rudolph Guilliani helped bring NY crime down from an all-time high to a 30 year low in the space of just a few years.

The principle is that the shul officials as well as the congregants need to demonstrate that they care. When a non-talking neighbor doesn’t ask his yapping friend to stop talking he is giving tacit agreement. And then it spreads. I don’t know if shuls need to be as draconian as Guilliani’s ‘Zero Tolerance’ policy, but it is certainly important for shul participants to be sensitive to disrespect of the shul, both big and little, obvious and subtle.

There should never be a place or a time in a shul where there is a feeling of ‘hefker’ – that anything goes, that there is no control on what is occurring.

One tactic that is often used successfully is controlling the times when people are allowed to enter or exit the sanctuary. If done properly, it sends an orderly message.

Another tactic that is done in some shuls is for a Gabbai to announce every so often the page that the congregation is up to in the prayer book. This accomplishes several things, besides informing the usually less initiated where the congregation is up to in the services. It reminds the yappers that services are going on (they may understand this intellectually of course, but it obviously is far from penetrating to a personal and practical level), and it unites on a regular basis the congregation in a common activity – in the past this purpose was served simply by the Chazan reading the last sentence of the paragraph he’s up to, but that has just become background noise to the yappers.

For all its evils, talking in shul does fill an important social need. For many people it is the only time for friends to catch up and socialize. They have no other time during the week where they are in a relaxed and comfortable environment and can converse relatively uninterrupted. A partial solution to the social need is to organize times before and after where people can satisfy their urge to converse.

The key point of context is that it should be directly as well as indirectly clear that prayer is important, hearing the Torah is important, decorum is important, and anything that lessens these is undesirable and cannot be tolerated. This can be structured into the style of services, the timing and organization of the shul activities, what’s hanging on the walls and various other incentives to prayer and impediments to talking.

Some clues from the differences

What turns a buzzing shul into a roaring shul? It is usually a critical mass of people. From limited observations (this is by no means a statistically significant study), buzzing occurs when 10 or less people are talking on a somewhat continuous basis. Once more than 10 people are talking continually, the talking quickly spreads into roaring. This can be observed during two periods.

In the early part of the service, when the typically more dedicated worshippers show up, the shul is pretty quiet. There may be a handful of yappers and there is a low level buzzing that slowly picks up as more congregants show up. Then at some point, most typical right after the ‘kedusha’ during the repetition of ‘shacharit’ the buzzing grows in intensity and turns into a roar. There will be at least 10 people talking continually and on-and-off conversations throughout the rest of the congregation.

At this point the stop and start game usually commences. The Gabbai and/or Rabbi will stop the ‘chazan’ until there’s quiet. Then the ‘chazan’ continues. Within seconds, the buzz again turns into a roar, with people continuing conversations that had been suddenly interrupted.

This game can continue throughout the reading of the Torah and until the end of services with the crescendo reaching its apex at the culmination of services. The conversations then continue uninterrupted as worshipers make their way out and then often on to the social ‘kiddush’

A self-reinforcing phenomena

The noise level of a shul is such an important characteristic, that many shuls will be defined and categorized by it. After walking distance to the shul, the noise level is probably one of the more important reasons as to why a person will attend a certain shul – more than the attraction of the Rabbi.

Quiet shuls attract a person for whom that is important, just as noisy shuls attract those that enjoy talking. After a few years, the habit becomes ingrained to the point that children growing up in noisy shuls truly don’t know any better. Children who grow up in quiet shuls tend to be more respectful in general and of shuls in particular.

Dynamic Solution

We mentioned above, ten people as the tipping point between a buzzing crowd and a roaring one. A very practical near term strategy would then be to focus on keeping the yappers from reaching that critical number and unleashing the chaos of the roaring congregation.

One of the reasons that general ‘shushing’ doesn’t work is because it doesn’t tackle the root of the problem. The problem is not that the entire shul is talking, so stopping the entire services and by association asking the entire congregation to stop talking, leaves the offenders in a comfortable group anonymity that let’s them carry on a few seconds after services have resumed.

Shushing by a neighbor is slightly more effective, with the effects often lasting a few minutes. However it is often uncomfortable for the shusher, and on some occasions the shusher himself gets out of control, making more noise than the offending talkers.

The correct approach is for a shul official to single out the main perpetrators. This is generally embarrassing for the person singled out (if it is not embarrassing to the offender – then there is a more serious problem), and while embarrassment is not something to pursue lightly, unfortunately in shuls where talking is rampant, it is difficult to stop the spread of the epidemic without excising the offending cells, one way or another.

If there are unrepentant talkers, the shul may need to make a hard choice about asking such people to leave.

Any of these ‘harsher’ tactics aimed at specific individuals will send an immediate message to other offenders that their talking is no longer tolerable and should have a dampening effect on the talking. Some talkers will be so offended by the new shul policy towards talking that they will leave of their own accord to shuls where their talking is more acceptable. In an ideal world, every shul would demonstrate intolerance of talkers, and most would conform to the proper conduct required in a shul.

Some may argue that there is importance in hard-core yappers having a shul where they can congregate and be comfortable and get at least some minimal exposure to the religious experience that is being played out in shul. This is the same logic that justifies people driving to shul on Shabbat. They may be more comfortable in a Conservative congregation (which ironically is generally quiet and respectful of services – so they may not find any comfort there either).

The Quiet Shul

There are shuls where it’s quiet and the prayer service is an enjoyable and meaningful experience – so we know it’s possible. There is a disturbing trend in Orthodox Judaism today that activities that are antithetical to Judaism and Halacha are becoming acceptable and even the norm. This erodes the entire basis of an individuals and communities observance, and is turning Orthodoxy from a religious path into merely a social club with superficial and meaningless rituals that appear false and pretentious to those around and especially to the next generation.

To paraphrase Shalom Aleichem: “Not only have Jews kept Shabbat, but Shabbat has kept the Jews.” Shul is central to the Shabbat experience. At its best it is a true communion with G-d. It is a time of calm worship and contemplation. It is a time of study and learning, surrounded by the warm (but quiet) companionship of family and friends. Post-shul and meals are the times for more serious socializing. The shul is the time and place for us and G-d, but as part of a community. A community that takes Torah, and therefore Torah reading seriously. A community that enjoys the insight and elucidations of its Rabbi. A community, that as a community prays to G-d.

All of these things are achievable in a quiet shul (and can not even be dreamed of in a loud shul). With intelligence, with patience and perseverance, dedication and commitment, every shul can truly become a ‘Mikdash Me’at’ a small Temple, worthy of Divine presence. The experience will have a profoundly positive effective on us, our families, friends, community and Klal Yisrael.

From Suicide to Love

“Suicide is bad”. I found myself in the strange position of reciting in mantra-like fashion, what would seem to be an obvious statement. The setting was a weekly informal chat group in my home, where I host post-high school boys as part of a program with a school in my community.

We had just finished watching a movie in which one of the main characters had committed suicide. The character was a bright, healthy, promising teenager with an overbearing father that didn’t understand him. The boy wanted to pursue acting while the father wanted him to focus on his studies, be serious and become a doctor. The family was one of modest means and the father was strict and authoritarian in dealing with the son. From his limited perspective, the boy saw a bleak future and no way out. He couldn’t communicate with his father and didn’t want the life his father was offering him. He went into his father’s study in the middle of the night, and using his father’s revolver, killed himself. The father stirs awake suddenly from sleep by a muffled sound. He races downstairs from his bedroom, not knowing what to expect. The father finds his son in a pool of blood. He crouches and hugs the son’s body, weeping desperately. Finally and tragically, the father perhaps realized the extent of his son’s despair.

In discussing the film with my group, the sentiment arose that suicide is a reasonable solution. This is the point where I had a fit and our discussion became heated.

“What do you mean suicide is acceptable!?” I scream.

“Well, he had nothing to live for…” squeaked one courageous student.

“He had nothing to live for?! He had his whole life ahead of him!!” I retort.

“Yes, but it would have been miserable.” another responded with a bit more confidence.

“Misery may be temporary, but death is pretty final.” I answer.

And so it went, back and forth, until I think I convinced the group that suicide is an extremely bad way to deal with difficulties in life. Just to make sure that the point got across, I summarized the discussion to one line: “Suicide is bad” and repeated it over with them a few times. I had learned from previous sessions that over the course of a long discussion, the boys developed selective hearing and only retained or understood what they wanted, sometimes even the opposite of what had been discussed. Hence the one sentence summaries.

The discussion though, led us to explore what we understood to be some of the roots of suicide: Despair, lack of hope, lack of connection, lack of purpose.

To appreciate light, one must know dark. To know goodness, one must be aware of evil. To find purpose, one must acknowledge despair.

Purpose is the polar opposite of all the things that lead to suicide. Purpose is life just as much as suicide is death. The more a person has purpose, the more alive they are. The more dejected and depressed a person is, the closer they are to the grave.

Throughout my life, I’ve been surrounded by people who were smarter, stronger, wealthier, better looking, more accomplished, more powerful and just altogether better. In comparing me to others, it was cause enough to be depressed and unmotivated. Lacking a defined role in life, feeling there was nothing special or unique that I can do or contribute – I saw no purpose for myself in life, and suicide indeed seemed like quite a logical option. Why burden the world with my presence. Why burden myself with my own depressing existence. And while I was at it, I could heap lots of guilt on the people who though they loved me, I resented at the time as accomplices in engendering my feelings of inadequacy, misery and despair.

Thankfully though, for myself and I expect for countless others, the survival instinct is extremely strong and eventually common sense rules again and we stop feeling sorry for ourselves and move on with life.

But where can one go from the pits of despair? Typically, you can only go up. However, countless people manage to stay in the lower levels of their own personal hell on earth, until they are relieved of life by a ‘natural’ death. Until then, these people ‘survive’, for as I said above, the survival instinct is very strong, but that is the extent of their level of existence.

There is little joy in there lives, little passion. No true connections, no meaning. They have superficial relationships. No goals beyond next months’ salary or the accumulation of wealth. It is a hard and unhappy existence.

Some will have episodes of happiness that intrude upon their somber lives, but will then revert to their former schedule of drudgery. Others will cycle back and forth between periods of normality or even highs, interspersed with times of depression.

More typical is the contented person. Mostly by circumstance and some effort, the contented person has found a certain niche in life. Good relationships. Satisfying work that one is proficient at. He is generally happy and has positive experiences in life. However that person is still trapped. His soul has been frozen. He may get some pleasures out of life, but there is still something gnawing at the back of his mind.

It’s the dreams.

It’s not the nightmares that one should worry about. It’s the dreams that will haunt you to the grave.

Adulthood is about compromise. It’s about being realistic. It’s about being responsible and paying your bills. At an early age, children are indoctrinated into the ‘real’ world. Overt enthusiasm, non-productive interests, and simple sheer irrepressible joy of life are taught to be inappropriate by adults worldwide. Parents are frighteningly successful at educating their children. Children grow up to be just like their parents. Children generally grow up to have the same values, problems and issues as their parents.

But the dreams are still there. It happens when all is quiet in the world. That is when the dream of childhood that has been covered by several layers of adulthood rears its head. It reminds us that we wanted to do something else. It reminds us that we had other hopes and aspirations. Sometimes the maddening thing is that we can’t even remember what the dream was; we just know it’s there.

But circumstances and compromise buried the dream alive. The pressure to make a living, to pursue a career or to raise a family is ever present. We are derailed by a spouse or partner or significant other that has other ideas about life.

The dream doesn’t give up though. When you least expect it and least want it, it keeps you up at night wondering. Wondering what might have been -- what could be. And then you wake up to your reality and go on with life.

Once in a while though, we come across or hear of someone who is actually living their dream. These people are so rare, that one can pass an entire lifetime without meeting such a person. When you do meet them though, you recognize them immediately. They are different. They are typically warm, open, with a quiet self-confidence. They know themselves well. They know their strengths and weakness. And they have found their ‘Mission’. It may be a social worker, an artist, a corporate CEO, a housewife, a scientist, a police officer, a computer programmer. What is different about them is that they have either consciously or unconsciously identified what it is they need to do. And thanks to fate, circumstances and willpower, they have found themselves in the right place at the right time doing the right thing.

It is bliss.

These blissful dream-livers generally radiate energy. They are more alive than your average person. They achieve more. They are unstoppable and uncompromising regarding their mission and purpose, but lay back otherwise. They get pleasure out of their work and can do it endlessly. They typically see themselves as serving others. Any material or personal reward they receive is secondary. The work itself is rewarding.

How does one achieve such a state? How did these people reach that point in life of knowing what they want to do with their lives, of identifying it, describing it and then living their dreams?

Some of them seem to have been born knowing. But that is an infinitesimal minority. The majority of this rare group started out searching and struggling like everyone else. They were the average contented person with that gnawing feeling. The feeling got stronger and they listened to their inner selves more closely. They started taking steps in a new direction. Some had more resistance then others. Resistance comes from the family, from the environment, from the community, from the world and most importantly from inside oneself. They overcame all these obstacles, sometimes at great cost or sacrifice. They demonstrated bravery and developed passion. And they came through changed.

The process forged their strength of character, courage, perseverance, dedication and energy. Once you know and prove to yourself that you have these traits, they stay with you and serve you.

How does one acquire these traits? How does one change the person they’ve become? How does one become a better person? What is a better person?

A better person is one that looks out for more than just his own self interests. A better person is someone who loves. He categorizes his strengths, his talents, his capabilities and determines what he can do for those around him. What can he do for his family, his friends, his community, his world? That person then uses his strengths in discrete specific ways. It may start off as very small, tiny steps – but they have started the journey. By consistently applying oneself, by continually doing more, despite the setbacks and disappointments and frustrations, that person becomes transformed. It may take years. In fact, in most cases it’s an ongoing lifetime effort – but they become a new, better, changed person.

The new person has slowly but surely gained energy via the journey. They have more of a spring in their step. They smile more often. They are irritated less. They are kind and helpful. More people want to associate with them. They have filled a certain important and positive niche in the lives of those around them. They know love. They know true love. And they are radiant.

An interesting biblical personage that may illustrate true love, self-sacrifice and caring for another, is Jonathan. Jonathan was the son of King Saul, the first king of ancient Israel. A brave and daring war-hero in his own right, Jonathan was popular and beloved by the people and the heir apparent to his father’s dynasty. Life seemed glorious and promising for Jonathan, until a shepherd lad named David came along. Because of King Saul’s errors, David was anointed as the next king. David exhibited uncommon courage in fighting and defeating the giant Goliath and further brilliance as a military leader and tactician. King Saul developed a burning jealousy towards David and eventually pursued him around the country with intent to kill. Jonathan by all rights should have emulated his father and looked out for his personal interests, both by defending his father’s crown as well as insuring his own dynasty.

The reverse happened. Jonathan and David struck a true and lasting friendship. Jonathan went against his own self-interests and conspired against his father to protect David from harm. Jonathan openly sided with David against King Saul’s madness, but could not do much to prevent his father’s draining pursuit. He nonetheless remained a dedicated son, and joined King Saul in his last doomed battle against the Philistine enemy where Jonathan along with his other brothers, father and most of their troops were tragically massacred. The caring, the benevolence and the light that was Jonathan were lost forever, and David mourned his personal loss bitterly.

However, the self-sacrifice, the friendship, the love and the model that Jonathan represented were immortalized by the Bible and are remembered more than 3000 years after Jonathan walked this earth.

Why are so few people then truly happy? Why is it so uncommon to find someone who is living their purpose? I think the reason is that by nature, man is self-centered. Babies are born with one primal concern on their minds. Their only concern is themselves. By the time they are toddlers and achieve some understanding, they learn to share – however it is still generally a self-serving exercise. Even into adulthood, most of us learn to have concern and even generosity for others, but often it is ego-centric, done in the expectation of similar treatment, because of social pressures or for self-gratification.

One of the first steps on the road to fulfillment is to stop thinking predominantly about oneself. It is almost a nullification of ones desires. This would almost seem counter-intuitive. I’m going to make myself happy by not pursuing what makes me happy?

Nonetheless that is a key. One has to start thinking about others. To truly care and be concerned, without any thought or calculations about what I’m getting out of it. It is not natural to have or develop that level of sensitivity to the needs of others. The major exception to this is typically the relationship of a mother to their child. However, most of us are inborn with an exclusive sensitivity to our own needs. The needs of others are generally secondary. Love again becomes the key.

Once a person has broken down their continuous self-indulgence and starts looking out for others, they become a receptacle for blessing and the fulfillment of dreams.

There was a famous Talmudic sage by the name of Rabbi Akiva who was asked to summarize the Bible in one sentence. After giving it some thought he stated: “Love thy fellow as thyself – this is an important principle of the Bible”. It’s interesting to note that he didn’t say “Love thy fellow more than thyself”. I expect that he knew human nature enough to know that it’s unrealistic and perhaps even inappropriate. But to have equal consideration, sensitivity, caring and love for ones fellow is both achievable and appropriate. When one realizes the importance of caring for the next person, for one’s spouse, family member, friend, neighbor, associate or even stranger, at the same level as for oneself, then you’ve reached understanding. When you can act on this understanding, then you have begun the steps of change. You are on your way to becoming a better person.

But the human condition is hard to change and easily reverts back to its old ways. That’s one of the reasons Rabbi Akiva kept his advice short and expressed that it’s worth repeating. By repeating to ourselves what we should know, what we should do, we reinforce it. “Love thy fellow as thyself”.

It’s a constant, daily, moment by moment battle between memory and habit. “Love thy fellow as thyself”.

It’s a struggle between whom you’ve been and who you can become. “Love thy fellow as thyself”.

It’s the difference between despair, numbness and futility, versus life, passion and energy. “Love thy fellow as thyself”.

So go out there, raise yourself up from drudgery, discover what you can do for the world around you, look at those around you with new eyes, achieve your dreams and love thy fellow as thyself. Love thy fellow as thyself!