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Teves 5763 – Retaining “Kosher” Videos and Computer Games – by Rabbi Leib Kelemen

1 Teves 5763

From the Desk of: Rabbi Leib Keleman

Retaining “KOSHER” Videos and Computer Games

On March 13, 1975, the Steipler Gaon zt”l, Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky zt”l, and Rav Shach zt”l signed a psak urging Klal Yisroel to stay away from television. Their warning preceded by a decade the avalanche of scientific research demonstrating the very real dangers posed by the gilui arayos, shfichus damim and avodah zarah that is the mainstay of television programming. Today, nearly all Bnei Torah (and scientific authorities) acknowledge the damage caused by TV content.

Tragically, awareness of the damage caused by the medium – by the flashing images themselves – has been slower in coming. Over the last quarter of a century, “kosher” videos and computer games have become increasingly popular, and today even some Bnei Torah are confused by efforts to ban these seemingly harmless media. While mechanchim have generally given encouragement to the heroic efforts of men like Rabbi Ephraim Appelbaum (who runs seminars throughout North America showing the dangers of TV, videos, and computer games), some baalei batim have expressed skepticism. Anti-video posters recently hung in charedi neighborhoods in Eretz Yisroel and signed by Gedolei Yisroel were met with disbelief in some quarters.

Last Av, in an extremely significant psak, Rav Elyashiv shlit”a, ruled that a video on lashon harah – sinas chinom related issues produced by the Chofetz Chayim Heritage Foundation could not be shown in Eretz Yisroel – not bein hametzarim, and not any other time. “Videos do not belong in chareidishe homes,” the gadol told the Chofetz Chayim Heritage Foundation’s emissary, “Not wedding videos, not any kind of video.” Once again, the einei hador perceive a looming danger, and while we cannot fathom the breadth and depth of the concern, we might offer a humble guess as to what some of the problems with “kosher” videos and computer games might be.

First, there is the possibility that “kosher” videos and computer games represent the edge of a technological slippery-slope: Once the video and computer equipment is in place, it can be used for viewing kosher or “treif” materials. The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 409:3) rules that one may only keep a dangerous animal at home if it is bound in chains, but it is much more accepted to chain dogs than videos and computers. Until it becomes commonplace to lock up this sort of electronic equipment, the debate over the kashrus of “kosher” materials is moot.

Second, studies show that videos and computer games devour time that children would otherwise use for pleasure reading, doing homework, or spending time with real people. Harvard University researchers demonstrated, for example, that children from homes with no videos were 11% more likely to do homework on weekdays and 23% more likely to do homework on Sundays. When a New Jersey elementary school spontaneously announced a “No TV Week,” the New York Times reported, “Students in every class started spending more time reading books and talking to their friends and families.”

Third, videos and computer games stimulate children in a way reading and exercise does not, prolonging the time it takes children to fall asleep. Brown University researchers recently found that watching even one video produced a shortened sleep duration and daytime sleepiness up to 48 hours later.

Fourth, both videos and computer games reduce impulse control by shortening the viewer’s attention span. The average length of a video scene (before switching to a different camera’s perspective or changing the scene altogether) is 3.5 seconds. Studies show that the more time someone spends watching videos, the more his attention span deteriorates toward this 3.5 second threshold, making it painful if not impossible to concentrate on a shiur that lasts 45 minutes (or even 30 or 15 minutes).

Fifth, videos and computer games impede imagination. A study of gifted 4th, 5th, and 6th graders included in the Surgeon General’s report on television found that even watching “educational” television depresses students’ subsequent scores on tests of creativity. Harvard researchers explained these findings: viewers never need to conjure up an image. This is a frightening side-effect in light of the teachings of Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe shlit”a and other gedolei hamussar about the crucial importance of koach hatziur – imagination – for mitzvos like emunah and tefillah.

Sixth, we now know that the medium itself – the moving, flickering images – acts directly on the brain to suppress mental activity. Harvard researchers first demonstrated that someone watching even the most exciting video slipped into brainwave patterns typical of someone asleep. Last February, researchers at the University of Chicago announced identical findings. Every activity a child engages in during his busy day refines some set of skills. Reading is practice; writing is practice; and interacting with people is practice. All these activities in some way help a child prepare for the challenges of adult life. Staring at a video display is also practice, but not for any activity. Videos and computer games are practice for inactivity. When someone watches a video display he is practicing sleeping – often for hours every day. In the Moreh Nevuchim, Rambam describes the intellect as the essential glue that binds us to HaKadosh Baruch Hu. This is not glue that we can afford to dissolve, even a little.

Seventh, videos and computer games make children fat. Another Harvard study demonstrated that the odds of a child becoming obese rise 12 to 20% for each daily hour spent in front of a video display. Epidemiologists also agree that watching a video display two or more hours daily is a global marker for high risk of pediatric hypercholesterolemia. People have long been aware of the tendency to snack while staring at a video display (usually on less-than-healthy foods). But researchers at the University of Tennessee recently revealed a more insidious link to obesity: Watching a video screen depresses metabolism – often below the level someone would have doing any other activity (including sleeping!). In other words, a person burns fewer calories watching a video display than he would burn if he were fast asleep. And the effect on metabolic rate persists after the video session for at least the length of the session. That is, a 25 minute video-watching session depressed metabolic rate for at least 25 minutes after viewing had ended.

There are other potential dangers too. In 1997, 700 Japanese children were rushed to the hospital, many suffering from “optically stimulated epileptic seizures” caused by viewing bright flashing lights in a Pokeman video game broadcast on Japanese TV. As a researcher from the University of Chicago explained, “Seizures and other untoward effects of video games are significant enough that software companies and platform manufacturers now routinely include warnings in their instruction booklets.” Other researchers report very serious cases of motion sickness caused by videos and computer games. The list of possible problems with videos and computer games goes on, and still it probably falls far short of our gedolim’s deep concerns.

As a generation, we have turned the technological corner and confront dangers that laymen and even scientific experts will probably not comprehend until years from now, when vast damage has already been done. As in the past, the vast majority of Bnei Torah will rely on the penetrating vision of our sages and be spared immeasurable personal losses.

Practically, there are two steps we must take immediately. At the personal level, each of us needs to approach our rav to seek halachic guidance regarding videos and computer games. No longer can anyone live under the illusion that Daas Torah has nothing to say about these media. At the communal level, we need to provide moral and financial support for groups like Rabbi Applebaum’s – Parents Concerned with Media Influence – and we need to bring their programs into our elementary and high schools. This Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Applebaum’s organization will be launching a national campaign to turn off videos and computer games for the Aseres Ymei HaTshuva. What an impressive korban that would be for Klal Yisroel to begin the new year.

Rabbi Leib Keleman

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Kislev 5763 – Davening on Hot Coals – Tefillah Like You Mean It – by Rabbi Yehoshua Karsh

1 Kislev 5763

From the Desk of: Rabbi Yehoshua Karsh

Davening on Hot Coals – Tefillah Like You Mean It

JemSem proudly presents a pre-publication printing of a fascinating essay by Rabbi Karsh on improving kavanah in tefillah. Rabbi Karsh would enjoy any insights, thoughts and constructive criticism of the essay. Please forward to cckollel@aol.com.

I want to thank my mentors and colleagues who took time to look over earlier versions of this essay. Their many comments and suggestions are apparent in the final draft. They are: Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz, Rabbi Mordechai Becher, Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo, Rabbi Avraham Edelstein; and for his painfully direct and meaningful criticism, and for devoting more time than he had to for this, Rabbi Menachem Nissel. Thanks to Jacob Brudoley for suggesting that I write this essay and to Jacob and Sherri for providing initial funding for its production. Thank you to Sheldon Mazor, Janet Cohen, and Alysa Hoffman for their thoughts and comments. Thank you to Rivka Lev for her very professional proofreading of the manuscript. Thank you to Miriam Shreiber, publisher of Jewish Image magazine, for publishing much of my writing and for publishing an early version of this essay. Thanks to my father for many things, and specifically, in this case, for editing this essay. Thank you Hashem Yisborach.

For Tzippy, A.Y., Sruli, Moishe and Shauli

Chapter One

I rarely looked forward to davening. In fact, I often dreaded it. It was a source of secret embarrassment and shame. There, I said it. I feel like I’m standing up at a “Don’t Like Davening Anonymous” meeting.

If your davening experience has been meaningful, and you feel that you have the tools to continue growing in davening, then this essay isn’t for you. This is for people who find davening consistently boring, who use it as a time to practice patience or organize their day, or who don’t do it at all.

What are my qualifications for writing this? They aren’t as much a list of my accomplishments, as my failures. I rarely ever had kavannah. I tolerated davening, but rarely found it exhilarating. I desperately needed Hashem’s involvement in my life and wanted davening to be everything I had \ learned about in Day School and Yeshiva.

My early experience with tefillah was sort of like “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” I looked around at my friends and teachers davening, and assumed they were all blissfully engaged, that I was the only one whose mind was wandering. I couldn’t tell anybody about it or get any tips on how to make things better, because if they found out that I was spending my time daydreaming, I would be the laughing stock of the school. I do remember asking one of my teachers how he managed to daven with kavannah. I must have been in eighth grade, and I remember him telling me it wasn’t easy for him. His expression made it clear that he was uncomfortable with the question. It took me a long time to realize that if I was in a room with a lot of people davening, very few of them were actually concentrating on their davening. But this isn’t about other people. I hope that everyone I’m around is caught up in his or her tefillos. This is about you and me. We’re the ones with the problem.

What is the problem? For the sake of clarity I’ve chosen two issues upon which to focus. The first is the feeling that I’m actually doing something important. I know that if I really felt that it was earth shattering that I was davening, I would do it with gusto. The second is paying attention. We’re supposed to pay attention to what we’re saying, but I found that I couldn’t focus for more than a few seconds without my mind wandering.

In order for this essay to be of help, you have to be ready for change. You have to need Hashem’s presence in your life and be willing to take some risks, to live on the edge. I’m going to show you things that others will tell you are dangerous or perhaps weird, but davening is about a relationship. When it comes to relationships, safety doesn’t work; you have to take chances. You have to be open to the possibility that you’ll be hurt or disappointed. Play it safe and what you end up with will be static and unsatisfying.

What if you think Hashem doesn’t like you? What if you think He hates you? Who wants to spend time with someone who hates him? Chances are that if you don’t like yourself, you’re going to assume that Hashem doesn’t like you either. If this is how you’re thinking, don’t give up. You can change how you feel about yourself, and when you do, your assumptions about how He feels will change as well. Davening can help make that happen, but you have to give Hashem some space to show you His love. You have to let Him show you how much He cares for you, how much He does for you.

Maybe you’re afraid of the intimacy implied in a relationship with Hashem. You fear you won’t have a life. You will have to give up everything you enjoy. Not just enjoy, but need. And what if you open yourself up and give yourself over to the relationship, and He doesn’t respond in kind? The bottom line is, you aren’t asking Him to get involved in your life; He already is. You’re just opening your eyes to the fact that He’s there, and that He’s involved in all of the details of what you’re doing. And when your relationship with G-d gets deeper, your life becomes more meaningful. You will discover that you can enjoy more not less, and that what you really need, Hashem alone can provide. The other stuff was just that – stuff. Yes, it’s true that sometimes a close relationship with Hashem can leave you vulnerable to more pain, but along with that risk, comes the assurance that your life will be more purposeful.

We are going to be focusing on that aspect of tefillah that is “supplication.” We are going to be asking for things. There are also “thank yous,” and “praises,” and tefillos that teach us what we should strive for, but we’ve got to begin at the beginning and the beginning is asking for things. The love of a child for his parent is founded on the gratitude he has for what he has received. All loving relationships begin with what I get out of the relationship. As they mature there is sharing, and when they’ve really matured, each side gives, not caring if he receives.

A relationship with Hashem is no different. Once you’ve practiced asking for things, you can apply your experience to the other more sophisticated aspects of tefillah, which are more about giving and sharing.

Chapter Two

I’m going to introduce you to four techniques I’ve been using. They all involve practice, but they show results immediately.

The first technique is simply to ask Hashem for something. Not only will you ask Him for something; you will get it – whatever you want. Yes, you read that correctly, whatever you want. He’s ready to do this at any moment; you just have to ask.

Sometimes, we think we asked, but did we really? Did we ask like someone who really believed he was going to get what he requested, or like someone who, if he received it, would feel like he won the lottery? Imagine going to your boss and asking him for a raise the way you ask Hashem for things, with no feeling and no expectation of receiving it. Do you think for a minute that you would get that raise?

Much of the time we ask Hashem for things we don’t really want. What I mean by that is, we think we want these things, but if we were really honest with ourselves, we would realize that we don’t want those things that badly. For instance: if I would ask Hashem to end starvation in the Sudan, and while I was asking for that I measured the intensity of my feeling with something like an intensity detector, on a scale of one to ten, my tefillah might register a four. Now, if I asked for tickets to a sold-out ball game or some very popular clothing I really wanted, it might measure off the scale. The problem is that I don’t ask for the tickets, because I think it’s petty, and I ask for the end of starvation, but I don’t feel strongly about it. So my experience with davening is that I ask for things that I really don’t care that much about, never really expecting to get what I ask for. I’m embarrassed by the reality of my wishes and desires, and therefore live in denial.

This is now going to change, because you’re going to ask for things that you really, really want. You’re going to expect to get them, and finally, you’re going to get them. When you’ve done this a few times, your relationship with Hashem will change forever. Your life will change forever.

This is what you do. Find something that you want. It can be something small, like tickets to something or it can be big like a shidduch or the healing of a loved one. All that matters is that you really want it. I mean really want it, so intensely that you feel the need concentrated in your gut.

Step two: you must believe that Hashem will give this to you. He certainly can give it to you. He can do anything. He loves you and wants you to be happy. I know that you’re thinking: what if it’s something He doesn’t want me to have? First of all, who do you think gets you those things? Do you think you’re getting them on your own? He’s getting those things for you anyway. Secondly, we aren’t doing this just to get things. This isn’t about things; this is about a relationship with Hashem. This is just the way we’re going about making it happen. Again, think of the bond of a child to his parent. It begins with the child asking (demanding, really) and receiving what he asked for. That is the basis of what later becomes a love defined by and founded upon gratitude. Sure, we should want more sophistication than this. We shouldn’t have to get new things in order to have gratitude. We should be able to feel as profoundly about other people’s needs as we do about our own. But the reality is, most of us don’t. And if we wait until we do, we’ll be waiting forever.

There are some of you who are wondering, what if the answer is no? What if I want something and He is determined that I shouldn’t get it? I have guided many people, including one of my sons, in what I’m suggesting you do.

The experience has always been deep and meaningful and no one has regretted embarking on this journey. Be wary of getting too philosophical when you daven. There’s a time for tefillah and a time for learning. When you daven, you have to be focused and motivated. Your tefillos need to be simple and meaningful. If you start dissecting them as they emerge, you interrupt the flow and stifle the passion of your expression. Leave the philosophy for later. I assure you that when you work through your experience later on, you will come to the conclusion that your tefillos were answered. While you are saying them, be assured of that, and let it flow. And don’t hesitate to ask for something huge. If you have a child who is ill, ask Hashem to heal him. He is the source of healing, not the doctor. Don’t hold back.

A common piece of advice that many will offer you is: “Be careful what you ask for, because you might get it and then regret it.” This is a self-defeating thought for you at this stage. Yes, it is possible that what you ask for might not be good for you, but never asking for anything would be much worse for you. You must take some risks. And why are you so certain that you’re so out of touch with yourself that you can’t be trusted to ask for what you want? I say, go for it.

So, here’s what you’re going to do. You’re going to find something that you really want. And you’re going to ask Hashem for it once a day. The best time for this is at the end of the Shmoneh Esreh, before you take your three steps back. A wise man told me that if you insert your tefillah there, the Shmoneh Esreh fuels the tefillah and gives it power. Ask for it in your own language, in a way that expresses your feelings most honestly.

Hashem’s response is immediate. It just takes time for us to see it. I suggest you keep a diary for the next week or two. Write down anything that seems related to what you asked for. If you want tickets to the Super Bowl and a friend calls and tells you he knows someone who has tickets, write that down, along with any other related phenomena. If you’re davening for a shidduch and someone calls you with an idea, write that down. You’ll see an immediate increase in activity and shortly you will receive the answer to your tefillos. Remember, you aren’t doing this to test Hashem; you’re just paying attention to something that is going on all of the time.

When you start seeing all of the activity in response to your tefillos, it can be scary. You may get so frightened that you want the whole thing to stop. Don’t! Just pull yourself together and let it happen. When it happens, write that down too, so that later on, when you need a boost of faith, you can look back at it.

Warning: if you talk about your results with too many people, it takes away from the effect. When your tefillos are answered, you’re so excited that you want to tell everybody. There’s nothing wrong with doing that, but when you talk about things that have the potential to affect you, it diminishes their power. Just as it is therapeutic to talk about things that hurt you, talking about your issues lessens their impact. So maybe the first time you’ll tell everybody about the results of your tefillos, but you’ll see what I mean, and then the next time, you’ll start paying attention just for the sake of the relationship and keep it quieter. Keep on doing this. Ask for things, watch them for a while, keep a journal, get them, and then ask for some other things until you’ve built up a reserve of experience. Once you feel you have a good reserve, you can slowly move to the next level and incorporate some of the more sophisticated techniques mentioned in the Gemara or other seforim.

Now, after all of this, some of you are wondering, what does that have to do with tefillah? Well, my friend, this is tefillah. The best metaphor I can find to explain the difference between what we just did and what you find in a siddur, is the difference between a musical novice playing a simple song and a concert musician playing a symphony. The tefillos were written by nevi’im and chachomim and were exquisitely composed. If you sit at a piano and play something like chopsticks, you’re playing music. It’s not Beethoven, but it’s music. You will never play Beethoven if you don’t first play something like chopsticks. Someday, with practice, you’ll be able to daven with the sophistication that is available in the composed tefillos, but first, you have to cut your teeth on the core of tefillah. And believe me, practice asking Hashem for things and you will see an immediate improvement in the intensity you experience during the composed tefillos.

Davening is a practice that can affect you to your very core. It’s not always fireworks. Sometimes it is, sometimes it’s a struggle just to do it, and other times it’s the gentle hum of your being in well-balanced order.

Chapter Three

We are now moving from a technique that will bring a sense of meaning to your tefillos to one that will help you focus and stay focused on them. This technique involves relaxation and full breathing before and during your davening. Some people call this “meditation”; I call it “paying attention.”

The minute you mention “meditation” or “breathing” to Jews, they get nervous. But this is just applying stuff you’re doing all the time. When you’re learning or reading something interesting and realize an hour later that your leg fell asleep and you didn’t notice, or that someone was talking to you, and you didn’t hear them, you were “paying attention.” Women use it when they deliver babies naturally. People who suffer anxiety use it to relax. Some people call it self-hypnosis and use it to deal with pain or to remember lost moments. You’re going to use it, because with a little practice, you’ll be able to deeply concentrate on anything you want for a significant period of time. Your davening will be life-altering. It might feel like fireworks are exploding inside of you, like walking over hot coals, or like the soft whisper of a loved one. Whichever it is, it will change your life.

Tool #1: Breathing

The key to this process is taking relaxed, full breaths. Exhale all of the air from your lungs (without straining), pause for a moment and then fill your lungs completely (but don’t blow them all of the way up like balloons).

Exhale again and remove all of the air from your lungs. (Remember not to strain; empty them the best you can.) Pause for a moment and then fill your lungs again. Don’t pause after you inhale. Once you fill your lungs, begin to exhale. Don’t rush. Breathe fully and comfortably.

After just a few moments you will be more relaxed, alert and focused. The longer you keep up your deep breathing, the deeper and more pronounced the effect.

Tool #2: Relaxing your body

This is best done sitting comfortably or lying down, but can also be done standing. Close your eyes and silently ask your body to relax. Imagine waves of relaxation rippling from your head to your toes. Focus on your toes. Relax them. They might tingle as they relax. Now your feet: focus on them and they will relax as well. From there, move step by step through your body, relaxing each part as you come to it. Pay special attention to your stomach area, your back, your shoulders, your neck, your face, and your forehead. These muscles gather tension and often require more attention before they fully relax. Focus on relaxing. If your mind wanders, gently bring it back to relaxation. Don’t worry if it wanders, don’t struggle to focus; when you notice it wandering, acknowledge what you’re thinking about and then go back to where you wandered from and continue.

Eventually you’ll develop your own breathing and relaxation techniques. Do whatever works for you.

Warning: dramatic shuckeling may disturb your focus. A slow, swiveling, half-circle shuckel, or standing straight and still, works best.

Before we apply the techniques described above, a word about the siddur. The siddur is a collection of all sorts of things, many of which are tefillah. The word siddur itself means order, and like the seder on Pesach, it is designed to help us navigate the many opportunities for connection with Hashem as they present themselves. You should look at your siddur as an organizer for talking to G-d. Find one that you like. There are thousands of siddurim, each serving the needs of a particular niche. Find the one that was designed for you. All work goes much more easily when you have the right tools.

Three Scenarios

Scenario #1
You have 5-10 minutes to spend in a quiet place before davening.

Scenario #2
You have a moment to spend before davening.

Scenario #3
You are in the middle of the Shmoneh Esreh and you discover that your mind has just traveled elsewhere.

Scenario number one is the best-case scenario. Five to ten minutes is enough time to relax and focus your thoughts. In this case, you begin with your breathing and combine it with relaxation. Once you’re relaxed, you can just focus on your breathing. Just pay attention to how you’re breathing, and when your mind wanders, gently bring it back to your breathing. Or you can follow your thoughts and let them go wherever they want. You’re an observer noting what you’re thinking about. Or you can introduce a specific thought or visualization that will prepare you for tefillah.

Scenario number two is the most common; you have just a moment before davening. In this case, start some deep breaths and generally relax yourself. Ten deep breathing cycles will greatly enhance your focus. If you still have time for a visualization like the one mentioned above, go for it. If you find your mind wandering later in the davening, pause and do some more deep breathing; you should easily regain your focus.

Scenario number three is embarrassingly common. You find yourself in the middle of Shmoneh Esreh and you’re not even sure how you got there. Stop for a moment and begin your deep breathing. Do at least three cycles and try to generally relax; for the next while, daven with your breathing. You do this by davening during the exhalations, and remaining silent while you inhale. You might need to pause in between brachos for more breathing and relaxing. During that time, you can focus on the general meaning of the next brachah. When your mind wanders, don’t strain. Let the thought go its course and then go back to the tefillah. Eventually, after some practice, you’ll be able to recapture your focus when you first discover that you’ve lost it.

If you follow the steps outlined above, you’re guaranteed to experience profound clarity in your tefillah. It’s never the same experience twice, and there are days when it’s a struggle to focus on anything. Don’t let those days discourage you. Keep at it and you’ll experience tefillah as you always dreamed you would.

Chapter Four

Now comes a third technique. Mystics of old called it Hisbodedus. This involves talking to Hashem about whatever is on your mind. At first, it feels funny, but before you know it, you’re talking about deep things and loosening up deeply embedded pains and emotions. You have to find a place and a time where you can talk out loud to Hashem. There are some who go to the shore of a lake or an ocean, or climb to a mountaintop. There are others who sit in a car, or walk in a forest or talk to Hashem while they’re lying in bed at night. Perhaps the most practical place and time for Hisbodedus is after Shmoneh Esreh, just before you take your three steps back. I have a good and wise friend who tells his students to do this and many of them actually do.

I know the discussion of this technique only lasted a few sentences. Don’t let that be an indication of its value. Most often it’s the simple things that are the most powerful. Hisbodedus is very powerful, it is often exhilarating, and it can change your life.

Chapter Five

One more thing before we end. This is something that has been very helpful to me and I want to share it with you. There are times when you feel like the ground has been pulled out from under your feet, like you’re free-falling, or like someone has just punched you in your emotional solar plexus and you find it difficult to breathe. It’s difficult to gather your thoughts, you need a powerful hug, someone to tell you that everything will be O.K., that they will handle it. For those moments and many others, I say Tehillim. Not just one or two kapitlach (chapters); a lot. Less than ten minutes does very little for me and sometimes I need to say it for half an hour or an hour. You just open the Tehillim and read. You’ve got to say it, though, not just read it to yourself. You’re saying it to Hashem, articulating your pain, your fear and your anxiety. Try to pay attention to the meaning of the words, but if you can’t, don’t worry about it. Saying Tehillim is powerfully restorative. It helps you find your center. You will find comfort and strength. You will feel Hashem’s presence, and most importantly, his love, envelope you.

So that’s it. Now that you have some of the tools I have been using to light a fire under my davening, it’s just a matter of applying them. Don’t wait to put these into action. Start now. I guarantee that they will change your life forever.

Rabbi Yehoshua Karsh

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Elul 5762 – The Heroes of Elul – by Rabbi Menachem Nissel

23 Elul 5762

THE HEROES OF ELUL 23
By Rabbi Menachem Nissel

“A certain style of manliness is once again being honored and celebrated in our country since Sept. 11…. I am speaking of masculine men, men who push things and pull things and haul things and build things, men who charge up the stairs in a hundred pounds of gear and tell everyone where to go to be safe. Men who are welders, who do construction, men who are cops and firemen.” (Peggy Noonan in Wall Street Journal)

Since the tragic attacks of September 11, Americans have consoled themselves with the rediscovery of the “American hero.” Gone is the greedy “me-too” and “dot.com” generation, which celebrated the pursuit of instant wealth, pleasure, and ego gratification. America is once again dignified with noble men of valor, who stepped forward in the hour of need with the spirit of bravery and self-sacrifice.

This is a good time for the Torah community to reflect on what makes a person great and the meaning of the word hero.

At the turn of the secular millennium, countless lists were compiled of the greatest this and the greatest that of the millennium, century, decade, and year. The JemSem chizuk website (www.jemsem.org) was not spared the onslaught. We were contacted by a respectable Torah organization with a request to ask our readers to nominate the “greatest Jewish women of the twentieth century.” We respectfully declined. I would like to explain why.

Let’s say we were asked to nominate “the greatest Jewish woman in the Torah.” Miriam the Prophetess would be a perfect candidate. She was a genuine hero. Along with her mother, Yocheved, she stood up to Pharaoh and defied his decree of genocide, saving a generation of Jewish children. She was the visionary who convinced her father to remarry her mother, thus making possible the birth of Moshe Rabbeinu. She watched over her brother as he lay in his crib on the Nile. She was the leader of the Jewish women at the Exodus, leading them in song after crossing the Red Sea. And in her merit we had be’er Miriam, the wellspring of Miriam, which supplied the Jews with water through their forty years of wandering in the desert. On a mystical level, this be’er represent the oral Torah and Miriam is identified as the mother of the oral law.

Our Rabbis have taught us that if you want to understand the essence of a letter, word, person, or concept, the best place to go is where it is first mentioned in the Torah. Where is Miriam mentioned for the first time in the Torah? Surprisingly, she is introduced to us as an Israelite midwife, with her other name, Puah. Rashi explains the significance of this name:

“Puah is Miriam. She was named “Puah” because she would coo [“Puah” is similar to the word poah, which means “cooing”] and gently speak to a baby, in the manner of women who know how to pacify a crying infant.” (Rashi, Shemos 1:15)

This is astonishing! The very first time that the great heroine Miriam is introduced to us in the Torah, her essence is revealed as a woman whose expertise is in “poo-pooing” a newborn child. How uninspiring! Every mother calms her baby. Why does the Torah reduce the legacy of this exalted woman to her ability to do something so boring and mundane?

Rav Yerucham Levovitz, former mashigach of Mir Yeshivah, explains with a vitally important principle. The Torah does not differentiate between big actions or small actions. The Torah only differentiates between big and small people. Big people do everything with “bigness.” They put every drop of their moral strength into everything they do.

Significantly, if you want to see the greatness of a person, the dramatic acts that he does is a poor indicator. Perhaps he is a very “small” person, who does not know how to treat a spouse or a child, who is often petty and selfish, yet he finds the strength to rise up to an occasion under public glare when he is truly needed. The greatness of Miriam can only be understood once the Torah testifies that she would sing a lullaby to a baby with exactly the same passion she exhibited when she led the Jewish women in triumphant song. The “bigness” in the little things she did was the true indicator of her greatness.

Miriam lovingly calms a child that is not her own, when nobody can see her and the child will never know. This is the moment of true Jewish heroism.

Let us take this idea a little deeper. We are accustomed to a secular definition of heroism. The Oxford Universal Dictionary defines a hero as “a man who is admired for his brave or noble deeds.” In other words, heroism is not something intrinsic in a deed. It is a function of the admiration of others. If nobody will ever know about the deed, it ceases to be heroic.

This outlook is typical of the ancient Greeks and is totally rejected by the Torah. Great deeds of great people in the Torah are generally hidden, with no one except Hashem knowing. For example, the most awesome deed of all, akeidas Yitzchak, was done in total privacy. As Rabbi Moshe Meiselman writes in his classic Jewish Woman in Jewish Law (New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1978):

“How different are the great people of the Torah from Greek heroes! Perhaps the clearest example is the contrast between the Akeidah and the Greek tragedy Iphigenia in Aulis. While Abraham sacrificed Isaac to God, for God, and before God alone, Agamemnon sacrificed Iphegenia for Greece and in the presence of Greece. The essence of the Greek heroic act lay in its public appeal and public nature. There was no glorification of inner heroism, but only of public display and public approval.

“Far from the shores of Aulis was the Jewish hero. To the Jew, moral victory for both man and woman is what one does for God and before God, the source of all value. Jewish tradition frowns upon public display, for the moment a human acts in public, his motivation can be tainted by unworthy considerations.”

We are now ready to learn the Hebrew word for “hero.” Can you guess? There isn’t one! Since the “hero” concept belongs to a culture that the Torah considers false, by definition it does not exist in lashon hakodesh, the holy Hebrew language, where every word is truth. In metaphysical terms, the hero has no metzius – no place in the world of reality – and therefore he does not exist in the language of absolute reality. The hero is in the company of a whole list of words that represent concepts that have no translation into lashon hakodesh, the language of truth. They include words such as bravery, chivalry, gallantry, and fair play. Nevertheless, in this essay we will continue to use the word hero in its loose sense, to connote greatness in a person. And greatness is the hallmark of those who strive to remain hidden from the eyes of man, so they can devote every small deed in loving service of Hashem.

It is no surprise that the “Puah principle” – that greatness can only be seen in the small deeds of people – is taught to us by a woman. We live in a society where greatness is measured by the appreciation and acknowledgments of others, where fame is both glamorous and desirable, and where deeds have to be reported by newspapers to be noble. In the culture of Western civilization, the “low-achieving” female gender is at the bottom of the greatness heap.

Torah culture is quite the opposite. Torah sees greatness in modesty, though small, quiet acts of virtue hidden from public view. This is exactly where Jewish women excel. King David exclaimed, “Kol kevudah bas melech penimah – the prestige of the [Jewish] princess is her privacy” (Tehillim 45:14). She remains private, achieving maximum results with minimum profile. Famous Jewish women like Miriam only achieved greatness in the eyes of the Torah community because the truth slipped out – we became aware of their small hidden deeds.

A more modern example of a truly great Jewish woman is Sarah Schenirer. She is the obvious candidate for “the greatest Jewish woman of the twentieth century.” She was the visionary, founder, and tireless builder of the Bais Yaakov movement. In secular parlance, she was a woman who “made it big.” Yet if you read Rabbi Hanoch Teller’s magnificent biography of her in Builders (New York: NYC Publishing, 2000), a picture emerges of an extremely modest woman who wanted nothing more than to serve Hashem hidden from public view. She stepped forward to do what had to be done because, like Miriam before her, she was the only one who could do the job.

Take, for example, Rabbi Teller’s description of the crowning day in her life, the gala celebration to dedicate the new Bais Yaakov seminary in Krakow:

“Speaker after speaker ascended to the decorated stage to address the gathering. Here was the fulfillment of Sarah Schenirer’s dream – but where was the woman who had launched the movement, dedicating every waking moment to its success, the woman who was the sole inspiration for the entire gathering?

“Sarah was, as always, in the background. She allowed others, who had built upon the foundations she had lovingly laid, to assume the limelight. Finally they found her. Standing in the last row of the audience, surrounded by some of her students, was Sarah Schenirer, a sefer Tehillim clutched tightly in her hand.”

Frau Sarah Schenirer was indeed a great Jewish woman. Her greatness was precisely for the opposite reason that would be argued by a secular biographer. She was great because she managed to engineer the greatest revolution in women’s education for generations without sacrificing a drop of the privacy of the Jewish princess.

I have been asked why we don’t mention the imahos in the beginning of the Shemoneh Esrei after invoking the avos (which, by the way, was one of the first changes to the siddur made by the Reform). The answer is clear. We always mention the imahos together with the avos. When we say Avraham, we mean Avraham and Sarah. By definition there is no Avraham without Sarah; they are two sides of the same coin. And so on with the other avos. Nevertheless, the imahos choose to be mentioned as the completion of their spouses. They feel more comfortable that way. They are always there for us, praying, beseeching, and complementing the work of the avos. But they are exactly where they want to be, exactly where future generations of their children need them to be. Away from the public glare. Private and hidden.

So who were the “greatest Jewish women of the twentieth century”? By definition, we will never know.

From a Torah perspective, there were many unsung heroes of Elul 23. Among them were the remarkable women who did shemirah for those who died at the World Trade Center. The New York Times, in a November 6, 2001 article entitled “Stretching a Jewish Vigil for the Sept. 11 Dead,” relates:

“In the darkest hours of the night, Judith K., dressed in her Sabbath finery, sat in a tent outside the New York City Medical Examiner’s office, singing the haunting repertoire from the Book of Psalms. From midnight until 5 A.M., within sight of trucks full of body parts from the World Trade Center, she fulfilled the most selfless of Jewish commandments: to keep watch over the dead, who must not be left alone from the moment of passing until burial.. Ms. K. and the others have won blessings from Christian chaplains at the site, and their dedication has moved police officers and medical examiners to tears.”

This was indeed a stunning mitzvah and a kiddush Hashem. Nevertheless, without detracting from the importance and beauty of the deed, and through no fault of the women who did the mitzvah, on its own it lacked the true definition of a great deed. It was in open view. The New York Times wrote an article about it. The mitzvah was diminished with the public glare.

Perhaps the following, totally hidden scenario captures the spirit of Jewish heroism:

“Around the world, all eyes are glued to the television as the astonishing events of September 11 unfurl in front of an incredulous world. As hard as it may be for Rachel L., she pulls herself away from the intoxicating screen and picks up a Tehillim to pray for the welfare of the victims. She cries hot tears for Hashem to have mercy on His children. In Heaven, the prayers are accepted and a decree is rescinded to save the life of one of the casualties.”

A tefillah saves a life. The act is totally hidden. Surely this is the essence of greatness. Yet here, too, we cannot say for sure that the deed was pure. Rachel’s mitzvah was reactive to an extraordinary occurrence. She rose up to the occasion and responded correctly and admirably. Would she be able to find the same power of tefillah inside of her on an ordinary day? Perhaps the astounding event brought out of her a special strength and an intensity of prayer. But there was nothing sustainable that would indicate internalized greatness. We are forced, then, to fall back to the only type of scenario of self-evident greatness:

“Somewhere, in the middle of the night, a baby cries. A mother pulls her weary body out of bed and consoles her child. She sings an old song that her mother used to sing when she was a little girl. The baby relaxes and falls back to sleep. The baby will never know and perhaps will never understand what had happened until she, too, becomes a mother.”

We have found true greatness. A Jewish mother connects through the generations to the prophetess Miriam. At that moment she has become Puah. In a small hidden deed, she has discovered the essence of the Jewish heroine, of Jewish greatness.