Thursday 28 August 2014

039) Tzedakah - Corner Stone or Stumbling Block

No one can debate the fact that giving charity or Tzedakah is a cornerstone of our religious system. Much has been written about the topic and it is not necessary to reproduce the copious wordage that has been expended in that regard.

Sadly, not everybody writing on the importance of giving is as concerned about the giving as they are about the receivingI personally know of one particular author who wrote a book on Tzedakah, who told me that his organization desperately needed funds and he had to impress upon his readership the importance of giving. Sure, he was expounding Torah. But he lost my buy-in.

I also knew a famous Meshulach (fund raiser for Torah institutions) who because of his astute professionalism took 80% of the money he raised, for himself. Sure, he got people to fulfill the great mitzvah of Tzedakah, and in a perfectly legal manner also filled his own coffers. What a clever man. What a win-win situation.  But I could never give my money to such a person.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov warns us not to just give money to anyone who requests it, no matter how many times they tell you it’s for Tzedakah. Money, he says should only be given to an Oni Hagun (someone whom you know for certain needs help). Indiscriminate giving is not an act of kindness, but an indication of how you have been duped into falling for the oldest trick in history. Don’t think you have always performed a great mitzvah every time you have been relieved of your money.

But never before have I ever come upon such (spiritual) trickery and (financial) thievery as when I read a pamphlet accompanying Jewish Life, a mainstream orthodox magazine in my community recently. This was an appeal by a well known international charity, known as Kupat HaIr which collects money for poor Torah scholars. This organization is endorsed by whom they call ‘Gedolei HaDor’ (Rabbinic Giants of our generation). By contributing money, these great rabbinic leaders will sincerely offer up heartfelt prayers on your behalf. And then:
 The poor will finally know what it’s like to be wealthy, and children will began (sic) applying themselves industriously to their learning to the point where mothers will rub their eyes in disbelief and excitement… 
Once-a-year…Maranan Hagaon Harav … shlit”a,  Maranan Hagaon Harav … shlit”a, and Hagaon Harav … shilt”a – each in his own shul- will recite the same tefillah [prayer]…on your behalf as a contributor to Kupat HaIr…you will merit to raise your children easily; you will merit having all your physical and spiritual ailments cured…less doctors…less worries…
During the holy moments when the aron [ark] is open…they will pray for you, contributor to Kupat HaIr….we want the best for our contributors…in recent times the number of children born…has grown so large that the burden of proof is no longer upon us. People counted out one hundred and four perutos [coins] – twice the numerical equivalent of the word ben [son] – gave them to poor and humble Torah scholars and merited…one child or more – the following year…the segulah has the power to change a persons mazel for the better… to merit parnassah [wealth], medical cures, and the like…
 After reading this arrogant deception and open manipulation, the frightening things for me are:
  1. That such incredulous claims are made by so called leaders of our generation.
  2. That the impossible is promised only to those who pay.
  3. That this superstition is endorsed by a normative publication in a modern orthodox community in 2014.
  4. That people actually fall for it and contribute with great expectations that a few dollars can create miracles. 
The Kotzker Rebbe says:
Ten Righteous men may have been able to save Sodom. But fools who follow even a great leader, can reduce that leader to a fool himself.
(Kochav HaShachar p 85, par 4)

If I had read that leaders of another religion had made such claims as those quoted above, I would have laughed. When I read that leaders of our religion make and endorse such ridiculous claims, I want to cry.

Are we following fools, or are we the fools the Kotzker refers to, who are reducing our leaders
to becoming fools themselves?

How did such a noble mitzvah as Tzedakah go from being a cornerstone of our faith, to become a stumbling block for the ignorant and gullible?

If I have to give money for someone to pray for me, I’m sorry but I don’t want their prayers.

They are not praying for me but preying upon me.

Wednesday 20 August 2014

038) Rather Make The Wrong Decision And Be Right

One of humanity’s great questions is: At what stage do we sacrifice self-principle for self-gain? Almost everybody trades principle for benefit at some stage. Some people are able to hold on just a little longer, while others hardly entertain the notion of principle at all.

How important is principle and why does it always get in the way of things we really want to do?

The Kotzker Rebbe has a profound and rather novel way of looking at the concept of principle. Instead of being that self-righteous ‘nerd’ that always rears its ugly head every time we want to do something exciting or advantageous…principle itself can become just as useful and beneficial. There is a special satisfaction that comes with living a life based on principle. And this satisfaction can often outweigh the advantages of unprincipled gain.

Of course, not everyone can perceive the pleasure and tranquility of living a life based on high standards of principle and integrity - but some will. Knowing that one has the strength to stand by one’s principles is probably one of the sweetest tastes that life has to offer. But it is an acquired taste.

The Kotzker Rebbe says: 
No matter what, never ever regret a decision one made based on principle.
(Amud HaEmet)

This reminds me of something I think Winston Churchill once said: “I'd rather make a bad decision and be right than make a good decision and be wrong.”

Principle becomes a currency that has a value. It becomes a commodity that, through its acquisition, enriches the soul.

It’s no accident that the Kotzker was also one of the greatest proponents of personal independence and freedom, that the Jewish world has ever known. He abhorred the mindless followers of mass movements. These movements had become extremely popular, as numerous Chassidic groups began infiltrating Poland at that time. Their reach and popularity had become almost unprecedented in Jewish history. In his view, being a part of any overbearing and dominating system, albeit Halachically sanctioned, spelt the end of intellectual individualism.

And, in the world of Kotzk, intellectual individualism and independence was at a premium.

It was the dominant currency of Kotzk.

Freedom and independence were also integral to the primacy of principle – because only ADHERENCE TO PRINCIPLE BRINGS TRUE INDEPENDENCE.

As Winston Churchill once did say; “You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.”

Monday 18 August 2014

037) Off With The Sheitel

I was quite surprised when I heard that a family friend had recently decided to stop wearing her sheitel (wig). She said that she never felt ‘spiritual’ wearing something heavy on her head all day.

My wife then made a rather profound observation, although it took a while to resonate with me. “The reason we wear a sheitel is not because of spirituality,” she said, “but because of tzniut (modesty)”. At first, I had difficulty in comprehending her comment because surely everything we do in Judaism is spiritual? And then a host of teachings flooded my brain and it started to make sense to me. Let me share some of these teachings with you.
The Kotzker Rebbe, comments on the verse; “You shall be holy because I your G-d am holy”. He says: ‘Kedusha’ doesn't mean ‘holiness’. It means ‘preparation’1A human being cannot be holy. He can only prepare to be holy. ‘Holiness’ can only come from G-d.
(Amud HaEmet, p71, par 5)

It seems as if many people are under the illusion that if they observe certain practices they will become more spiritual. Most of us would like to think that that is indeed the case. But the Kotzker tells us that we cannot become spiritual, we can only prepare to become spiritual.

In a sense, it may perhaps be compared to falling in love. You may indeed fall in love with someone, but until they love you back you do not yet have a relationship with them. Yet you could quite conceivably live your entire life under the illusion that you do. Similarly we too could live our entire lives under the illusion that we are ‘spiritual’. But spirituality, like love, is a two way street – “You shall be holy because I your G-d am holy.” Spirituality, by definition, needs to be reciprocal.

Ironically, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, the master of all things spiritual, makes a fascinating point in relation to prayer:
“Davening”, he says “is meant to be a ‘chiyuv’ - an OBLIGATION - and not necessarily an UPLIFTING experience.” 
(See Sichot HaRan2For the uplifting experience, he reintroduces us to the ancient concept of Hitbodedut; where, in addition to formal prayer, we speak freely to G-d in our own words and in our own time and way.)

This idea is further reiterated by the Kotzker in a most surprising and poignant teaching.
The Kotzker Rebbe once remarked to one of his students: “Cheshbon HaNefesh (meaningful introspection), must be done on the way to shul. Not at shul. At shul we simply get down to the business at hand – Torah study and prayer.”
(Amud HaEmet p 75, par 2)

Let us not fool ourselves into believing that we transform into ethereal lofty spiritual beings when we pray and observe mitzvot and wear our sheitels. If davening is essentially an ‘obligation’ (Rabbi Nachman’s words, not mine), then there is no need to feel that something is wrong should we be left emotionally cold after the experience. I'm also confident that we are guilty of no sin if we complain that our sheitels are sometimes uncomfortable and uninspiring.

Rather let there be full disclosure from the very outset: By keeping Torah and Mitzvot we are only preparing for spirituality. We do not suddenly shed the bonds of earthliness and morph into otherworldly beings.

When spirituality gets misrepresented and over dramatized, as it commonly does, it’s not surprising that so many feel let down when their unrealistic expectations are not met. This is when the sheitels start coming off.
Rather wear a sheitel for ‘modesty’ than for ‘spirituality’. 

Understanding this may help us grapple with the frustration of wondering why we don't hear a choir of a hundred angels singing to us every time we don our sheitels or go to shul.

Our reach into the realm of holiness can only go as far as preparation and groundwork. What happens after that is anybody’s guess.

1. Kedusha lashon Hazmanah
2. The great modern halachic authority, R’ Moshe Feinstein was asked if it is better to daven with a minyan (even if it may be a little distracting), or to pray at home with more kavanah (fervor)? He responded that it is more important to pray with a minyan, which is an obligation, even if one’s ‘spirituality’ is compromised. (Igros Moshe O.C. 3;7)

Thursday 14 August 2014

036) Created Or Inherent Spirituality - Which Is Stronger?

To the layman it may seem that spirituality is, by definition, spirituality. It may seem that there can be no differential between one kind of spirituality and another. In truth, however, that would be like saying that art is art and there is no differential between one kind and another.
In broad terms, the Kotzker Rebbe distinguishes between two very different forms of spirituality. Essentially he differentiates between the type of holiness one is (potentially) able to achieve during the week, and between that which one is (theoretically) able to achieve on Shabbat:
During the week, the type of spirituality one achieves is predominantly a result of NEGATION of the physical.  Whereas on Shabbat, it results from the INCORPORATION of the physical. The latter is superior.
 (Amud HaEmet  p62, par2)
As a rule, the weekday spiritual encounter generally involves some form of battle against materialism. We engage in practices that remind us of our mission to try subdue the physical world. For example, we wear Teffillin to remind us that any contact with materialism has to be controlled and directed, so that we don’t become victims of a world that can very easily suck us under.
On Shabbat, however, the emphasis is completely inverted. For example, we no longer guard our food so much, because we eat big meals. We no longer guard our time so much, because we are encouraged to relax. Even sleep becomes more noble. We sing. We go for walks. We talk. Our study schedule is not so demanding. The holiness of Shabbat is therefore attained through incorporation of the physical, not through its negation. And strangely enough its holiness is superior to that attained during the week.
The Kotzker explains the reason for this:  During the week, whatever spirituality we find is mostly as a result of our efforts and our strivings to become better. On Shabbat, in contradistinction, the spirituality ‘descends’ upon us, almost as if it were a ‘gift’. The latter is superior to the former.
This distinction is an important one. Forget the weekday and the Shabbat for a moment, and let’s apply this principle more laterally: There are two types of spirituality we can experience. The first is the ethereal environment we create when we follow the rituals and dictates of the law. Don’t underestimate the power of this spirituality. It can be very tangible and very real. But it comes about as a result of some sort of fight which we win against the world around us.  Negative elements are identified and duly negated.
The second type of spirituality, however, involves no such battle. It results from a process that is far more natural. The holiness in the moment is identified and simply allowed to become incorporated within. Very little change is required. It is almost as if the spiritual beauty in everything around us suddenly becomes apparent and the need to fight simply goes away.
Put another way: The first type of spirituality is created by our religious laborsThe second is discovered and one realizes that it was there all the time. The first is created by observance. The second is discovered by observing.
Unfortunately, many who master the first category, have difficulty in mastering the other. Those who are masters of observance are often not comfortable to let go and allow the inherent holiness of the surrounding world to rain down on them. And those who see and trust the beauty and goodness even within the secular and the mundane, often do not see the benefit of ritual and observance.
To be truly spiritual means one has to be comfortable with both approaches.
Yet, in the Kotzker’s world (not that one should ever have to choose between the two – because the real Torah personality masters both), it seems that he believed that the second category was still superior.
NOTE: Someone read this blog before it was published and asked: Surely that which one achieves through one’s own efforts are worth more than something given as a gift? To which I responded: Yes. It is tempting and pacifying to think like that. Imagine a child who saves up a few cents. Very noble.  But in a real monetary sense, those few cents are nothing in comparison with a larger amount of money received say through an inheritance. So too in spirituality. The little one achieves is very noble and nice. But it pales into insignificance when compared to that which comes from the world of the Spirit itself

Monday 11 August 2014

035) Kotzk and Mashiach - An Unpopular View

Much of the Jewish world today is ablaze with talk of Mashiach.

Had the Kotzker Rebbe lived in our times, his views on Mashiach may have proved to be rather unpopular. Remember, ours is not the first generation to popularize Mashiach, and the Kotzker was well aware of similar messianic excitement in generations preceding his. 

He says;
It is better for people to remain unaware of the time of redemption and instead live in the tension of not knowing which times are more auspicious than others.
(Kochav HaShachar p 60 par1)

From this teaching it seems clear that instead of promising people an imminent end to their suffering (which may or may not be accurate) - it would be better for these same people to rather deal with realistic uncertainty in terms of the timing (not the concept) of Mashiach. Human beings have to dig deeper within their souls when faced with any type of angst, and it is precisely in states of profound uncertainty that we grow the most.

In a similar vein, the Kotzker writes about Eliyahu HaNavi, the prophet who is tasked with the official duty of announcing the arrival of Mashiach;
Regarding the custom of opening the door for Eliyahu on Passover night- don’t think Eliyahu really enters through the physical door of your house. Instead he enters through the doors of your heart and mind.
(Kochav HaShachar p 59, par 2)

Even here the Kotzker takes the edge off the immediacy and literalness of the famed mystical figure Eliyahu HaNavi, the great harbinger of Mashiach. He doesn't deny that Eliyahu will foreshadow Mashiach. He simply questions the popular perception thereof.

In another, and perhaps his most poignant comment about Mashiach, he says;
Why is it that Jews always cry out to G-d that He have mercy on us and send Mashiach? Rather we should cry out to ourselves to have mercy on G-d. And we ourselves effect the change that will be Mashiach.
(Kochav HaShachar p 59, par 1)

The Kotzker’s tenor in all these teachings is not to add to the hype by promising immediate and miraculous salvation which only tends to create confusion and inevitable disappointment. He reminds us that determination through uncertainty and not grand predictions, is the essence of spiritual growth. He directs us more inward than outward. He encourages us to think more conceptually than literally. And he tells us to become the miracle rather than wait for it.   

Thursday 7 August 2014

034) The Great Kotzker Contradiction - Either it Matters What Other People Think or it Doesn't

I have set myself the goal of trying to read every single Kotzker teaching I can get my hands on. In the process I have often comes across some interesting ideas and concepts. Here is one of them:

In one place the Kotzker says:
“And Leah’s eyes were weak…” Rashi explains that Leah cried a lot. She cried because people said that since Isaac had an older son (Esau), and a younger son (Jacob) - and since Lavan also had an older daughter (Leah), and a younger daughter (Rachel) - the older son could marry the older daughter, and the younger son could marry the younger daughter. This meant that Leah might end up marrying Esau, hence Leah’s tears.
The Kotzker is a little bothered by this explanation of Rashi, and asks:
Who were these people who were making these suggestions and talking like this? It was only Lavan and his wicked family. No one else. So why should Leah have been bothered by all this talk? - From here we learn that we should always be conscious and aware of what people say!    
(Amud HaEmet p26, par3)

In another place he appears to contradict this viewpoint:
When the spies returned from spying out the land of Israel, they said that the people living there were so big that they resembled giants, and that they [the spies] felt like little grasshoppers in comparison. The spies continued to report; “And so we appeared in their eyes.”
The Kotzker makes this observation:
It’s one thing to report how you yourself feel about a given situation. It’s another to extrapolate about the feelings others are experiencing in that same situation. One never really knows how another feels. Besides, it doesn't matter what other people think about you.   
(Kochav HaShachar p21, par 4)

So from two different books, we are presented with an apparent contradiction. Where does he stand on the issue of how seriously we should take what others think of us? Either it matters what others think, or it doesn’t. Did the Kotzker contradict himself?

I think there could be two answers:

On the one hand, let’s say he did contradict himself. That’s all the more reason why I would choose him as a teacher. It shows just how human he was. Perhaps when he was younger he didn't care what people thought of him. And perhaps with time he mellowed and took a different view. Or perhaps he started out worrying about how he was perceived by others, only to later on in life realize that life is there to be lived fully by the individual himself, with scant regard for those who opposed him.

On the other hand, let’s say there is no contradiction. We cannot live our lives constantly worrying about how everyone else is going to interpret our actions. If we do, we will never say or accomplish anything significant, for fear that someone might be offended. At the same time, one cannot just barge through life without caring about other the billions of other people we have to share this planet with. Victory has a bitter taste to it if it creates too many enemies.   

The solution lies somewhere in the delicate middle. We need to do what we need to do without allowing others to get in the way. But we don't need to get in the way of others either.

The art of living is to know when to be concerned about what others think, and when the time has come to push on regardless. 

Tuesday 5 August 2014

033) When You Think You're Not Teaching - You Are!

The sense of achievement at having raised good children must be one of the greatest joys one can experience in this world. If you have any doubt as to whether this is indeed so, just speak to people who have constant consternation from their children.

When it comes to raising children, some try to take a shortcut and pray that G-d grant them good children. Unfortunately though, the only shortcut is lots and lots of (sometimes thankless) hard word. And then some.

The pragmatic, ‘no nonsense’, ‘no short cut’ Kotzker Rebbe makes an interesting theological and psychological point:
 If you want to raise Torah true children, then – instead of praying for their spiritual well being - simply continue studying Torah yourselfRather occupy yourself with Torah than pray for your children. This way your children will learn from you and also study, instead of learning from you that they too need only pray for their children.
(Kochav HaShachar p161, par1)

In this teaching, the Kotzker makes striking sense by pointing out that children learn subliminally from their parents. When the parent least thinks he or she is teaching their child – that is when the greatest and most enduring lessons take place.

When moms and dads drive their children from one lesson to another, they forget that the only thing the child is really going to assimilate is the ‘lesson’ between the lessons. How the parent behaves in stressful traffic; the language the parent uses; the ability to control the stress of being late and so forth, all form part of the great syllabus the child subconsciously incorporates into his or her own personality.

When dad leaves for shul on Friday night and asks his young son to join him, and the son says he would rather stay home and play, and dad says fine: That is fine. Children need to play. But when fourteen years pass and dad continues to go to shul alone every Friday night, dad doesn't realize what an outstanding teacher he actually was. He managed to successfully communicate to his child that shul is not important.

We recently acquired a little puppy. When I went to collect it from the breeders, it affectionately jumped up to greet me. The breeder said that if I didn't want it to jump up onto people, I simply mustn't allow it to. Otherwise my inaction would be tantamount to actively teaching it that that behavior was perfectly acceptable.

I know that children cannot be compared to puppies but I think the point is well made: When you least think you are teaching – that is often when most of the teaching take place.