No More Excuses: Liberation from the Throes of my Smart Phone 📱

Image result for dumb phone

Dear Henry,

Two years ago, on the fourth day of Passover, I wrote a very powerful post on my blog about how I would be utilizing the holiday of Passover to experience the liberation from my addiction to my Smart Phone. It was very well written, if I may say so myself, and very sincere. To quote Yours Truly:

But we suffer from a different enslavement, a bondage of the spiritual sort. We are enslaved to our phones. And for me, this Passover 5776, I will be free at last. As soon as I finish this piece, I will travel to Verizon, having the courage to do something I have longed to do for years: downgrade for the sake of an upgrade.

There was but one fundamental problem with this passionate post of mine from two years ago: I chickened out.

When I got to the Verizon Store in downtown Denver two years ago, the fellow who worked there looked at me like I was crazy after telling him my aspirations to downgrade my phone, but patiently explained to me how I didn’t need to go the route I was intending to embark upon. He explained to me how I could block my ability to waste time on email, Facebook and Twitter, and to only use the items on the phone that were actually helpful and useful to me, that wouldn’t turn into time wasters. I realized that I needed the camera on the phone– what would I do when I observed a gorgeous Rocky Mountain Sunset? Are not my hundreds of Instagram followers relying on me to catch the moment?!  I needed the thousands of songs that were stored on my phone on my music app– how could I get through a day, or a chore while not listening to Zusha or Backstreet Boys??? I needed GPS to guide me to my every destination– how could a boy get to his destination without being told every single direction? I needed the convenient calendar, which so seamlessly keeps track of daily and recurring appointments and meetings. I needed the texting function, which enables you to text quickly, and to see the flow of the texting conversation.  I needed my newly discovered favorite app, Bitmoji, which enabled me to truly express myself to my friends.   And I needed the emoji option where could make gnarly signs like 🤙🏿✌🏽 and 👊🏿. As none of these things are time wasters, it didn’t take long for me to reconsider, and ultimately, keep my iPhone.

Two years later, I am older, and I am wiser, but I did not learn my lesson. Because I am publically reaffirming my pledge to (at least temporarily) drop the smartphone altogether. From Passover until Shavuos, I will be using a dumb phone. And this year, being two years smarter than I was in the Spring of 2016, in great thanks to the Moment App, and in thanks to Mishpacha Magazine, I have answers for each one of my reasons to keep the smart phone two years ago:

1)   But Danny you NEED your camera!

2). But Danny, you NEED your groovy jams!

3) But Danny, you NEED your GPS on your phone!

4) But Danny, you NEED the sweet iCalender!

5) But Danny, you NEED to be able to text quickly, and to see the flow of the conversation on the screen!

I indicated in my blog post from two years ago how I was terrified at the prospect of finding out how much time a day I wasted in front of my screen. Sure enough, there is an app that conveniently calculates that number for you- Moment. It keeps track of screen time, and there would be days where I would be on it for over five hours– about one-third of my awake hours.

No Camera? No Problem!

Thankfully, within the Moment app there is a smart phone boot camp, and a program called “Bored and Brilliant” where it assigns tasks to help minimize the screen time. Surprisingly, some of the daily challenges included not taking a picture for the whole day, or not even listening to music or a podcast. The idea is that when one takes a picture, his/her brain turns off and doesn’t opt to remember the occasion as well. As the app preaches, ” There is a Photo-Taking Impairment Effect. When you’re taking a photo instead of experiencing the moment, you’re missing out of what is happening right in front of you. You want to capture the scene to remember later but what are you remembering? You never really experienced it in the first place.” Therefore, I realized, yes by surrendering my Smartphone I am also giving up my camera. But is that necessarily a bad thing? If I see something amazing, and cant snap a picture of it is that detrimental to me? True, I won’t have a picture to prove to my friends on Facebook that I saw something cool, but the image will forever be etched in my heart and my mind– is that not a worthwhile tradeoff? I have written before about the miracle and blessing of childbirth on Shabbos– which we were blessed with on two occasions. When our children were born, there could be no pictures. No phone calls. Just precious memories that will endure forever.

Surviving without my favorite jams or podcasts????

When individuals listens to music, or anything external, it is true that there is much to be gained. When I listen to the holy words and tunes of Zusha or Yehuda Green, I feel closer to the Abishter. I have been enormously enriched and inspired by listening to podcasts or lectures on inspirational Jewish topics. Therefore, I was surprised on the day where Moment challenged me to not listen to anything on my commute to work. And to be totally honest,  the nine minute drive to work one day in silence, was among the longest nine minutes of my life. I must have yawned twenty-five times, unsure how I would be able to teach a Talmud class to high school seniors. But when I got to my destination I noticed I was a much better version of myself than I could have imagined. Perhaps not being able to listen to something on my way to work, or even an educational podcast, might not be the worst thing for myself. Maybe it  enabled me to connect internally, with myself– something that does not happen all that much. I look forward to the challenge of forcing myself to spend more time with, myself.

But how can I get around without GPS spoon-feeding me directions, make meetings without my iCal, or survive without convenient, easy text messaging?

I remember, many many years ago, during our first year of marriage, when we lived in Boston. For some reason, and I don’t claim to know how this is even actually possible, Boston has intersections that occur twice. For example, there are two Commonwealth Avenue and Washington Avenue intersections, but they are 5 miles apart. Like I said, how that works, is beyond me. But on many, many, many occasions, my wife and I would be driving to Taam China, only to get totally lost. The printed Mapquest maps were of no use to us on the pitch black icy roads. So the question begs itself: How could I possibly be willing to forego my smartphone which would necessarily mean giving up Waze and Google Maps, in which I don’t even need to know the address of the place to which I am going? The reality is, that while this very well might make my life more inconvenient, (having to go through the trouble of printing directions, or thinking about where I am going,) this is not necessarily a bad thing. Mishpacha Magazine featured last week a life changing article by Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu from the New York Times which was called The Tyranny of Inconvenience. 

His premise is that our pursuit of convenience trumps our true preferences, and it has become our ultimate value. According to Wu:

But we err in presuming convenience is always good, for it has a complex relationship with other ideals that we hold dear…though understood and promoted as an instrument of liberation, convenience has a dark side. With its promise of smooth, effortless efficiency, it threatens to erase the sort of struggles and challenges that help give meaning in life. Created to free us, it can become a constraint on what we are willing to do, and thus in a subtle way it can enslave us… The dream of convenience is premised on the nightmare of physical work. But is physical work always a nightmare? Do we really want to be emancipated from all of it? Perhaps our humanity is sometimes expressed in inconvenient actions and time-consuming pursuits.

So yes, while it is true that foregoing a GPS is inconvenient, that is not always a bad thing. The Torah and Talmud are filled with statements that extol the virtue of hard work, and putting in effort to accomplish tasks. It is true and undeniable that there are many ways modern technology can add ease to our lives, making things simpler and more expedient than ever imaginable. Just yesterday I set an alarm for my power nap by doing no more than lifting up my wrist and speaking to my watch. I did my ten minutes of chores that evening by telling Siri to set a timer for the ten minutes. I am blessed with an Apple Phone, but those poor people who use Androids do not even need to bother lifting up their fingers when sending a text message—they can simply swipe their fingers from one letter to the next. Self-driving cars are quickly being produced so as not to trouble us with having to drive. Now instead of dialing up a taxi like we used to have to do in the old days, we simply press one button on our phones to summon our rides.  Recently I bought a juicer, so I can make homemade fresh juice. However, after realizing that I can simply purchase fresh certified kosher juice in any grocery store, I stopped bothering to put in the effort to juice the fruits and vegetables myself.

All of these conveniences that technology affords can greatly enhance our efficiency and be blessed, useful tools. However, at least for me, I am concerned about the overall impact it having upon me. In regular every-day endeavors, am I willing to put in the necessary time work or energy for important tasks? Or perhaps, I am less inclined to do so, since that would be inconvenient, and I no longer have the patience for inconvenient tasks. Says Wu, “We are spoiled by immediacy and become annoyed by tasks that remain at the old level of effort and time. When you skip the line and buy your concert tickets on your phone, waiting in line to vote in an election is irritating. This is especially true for those who never had to wait in lines (which may help explain the low rate at which young people vote).” If I sanctified the time saved with these convenient technological advances that make my life easier by doing something productive,  that would be phenomenal. But I cannot truly claim that is the case. The time saved by these conveniences is either wasted on other time-wasters the phone offers me, or it is used pursuing other convenient ways to get tasks done.

By foregoing my GPS I will have to not only put in effort to get to my every destination, but I will also have to use my brain. For some reason, after living in this city for 21 years of my life, I still rely on GPS to get me from place to place, so as not to have to go through the bother of actually being mindful of what I am doing and where I am going. That can, and should change.

It is for this same reason that I no longer have any qualms about foregoing my iCal. Back in the olden days, people would write down appointments on things called “personal planners.” The world functioned back then, people still made it on time to meetings. By golly, my world can continue to function with the use of a pen and paper to schedule my meetings.

This is also one of two reasons why I no longer am bothered by the inability to text as efficiently by downgrading to a dumb phone. Yes, it will be annoying and inconvenient to press each button on my phone multiple times before getting the letter I want, and it will be tough not being able to see the flow of the text conversation. But I embrace the struggle of having to work hard to send a text message. And I hope, that the inconvenience, might actually encourage me to do something not done very much these days: pick up the phone and press “dial.” Allen Gannett, CEO of Media Maven noticed recently that the most successful people he knows are “phone-prone.” When getting an email or a text they simply responded with, “call me.” They explained to him that a phone conversation helps create empathy and promotes open communication and is “a much more real and civilized conversation on the phone because you’re able to express emotion and hear a person’s voice and understanding what’s happening.”  Inspired to try it for himself, he “had fulfilling conversations that wouldn’t have been possible through typing alone. I helped one of my customers solve a thorny issue and ended up reassuring him about some of his career worries. I’d never have heard the stress in his voice by emailing.”

Will downgrading my phone mean I text less and call more? Yes? Is that a bad thing? I am not so sure.

So, here I am, two years later, but this time a changed man. I am confident that this seven-week social experiment will greatly liberate me and enhance my life. I am going to learn about myself, and observe the things that I really do need vs. the things that I don’t need. Heck, with the time saved by being inefficient, I eveni plan on reporting about the journey on this blog. Then when I come back to the phone in seven weeks I will be armed with new strategies for how to maximize the convenience the phone offers.

Will it be easy? No, not at all. But that’s exactly the point.


A Timely Message from Parshas Noach

This weeks parsha begins by describing how Noach was a righteous man, who was perfect, in his generation. Rashi famously quotes the debate amongst the rabbis as to whether or not this is a compliment for Noach, or a criticism. Perhaps he was only righteous in comparison with the other lowly people of his generation, but if he would have been in the generation of Avraham, he wouldn’t have been anything special. Or, perhaps, he was truly righteous, in every sense of the word. Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe explained this debate by saying that people can reach greater spiritual levels due to a number of circumstances. Sometimes they might grow because they are so disgusted with the morally corrupt society around them, that they swim against the tide, and act in an upright manner. Perhaps, suggests Rav Wolbe, according to the opinion that our verse is meant to imply that Noach was not truly righteous, the idea is that if such a person lived in a righteous generation he would have lacked the impetus for growth. On the other hand, perhaps if such people were able to withstand the enormous pressures thrown at them by society, then obviously these people would thrive if they lived in a righteous generation, and reach even higher levels of greatness.

A few verses later, the Torah also describes in this week’s parsha that “G-d saw the earth and behold it was corrupted, for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth.” Rashi quotes a midrash which describes how “all flesh” even refers to animals who began acting immorally with other animals of other species. Rav Pam quotes the Beis Halevi who asks how it is even possible for animals, with no free will, to act in a “corrupt” way?  He answers that the midrash that Rashi quotes teaches that when humanity devolves to the lowest possible levels of wickedness, the immorality poisons the surrounding atmosphere to the extent that it even affects the animals.  The immorality affected the entire world.

With this idea in mind, it is even more remarkable how Noach is described as a righteous man, perfect in his generation.  I would argue that it truly doesn’t matter whether or not Noach would have been just as righteous in Avraham’s generation. What matters, and what we should focus on, was that he was able to remain righteous in his generation.

In a very depressing week, reading the news, and seeing on social media how many people have suffered due to horrific acts of cruelty and immorality, perhaps this idea can offer us a glimmer of hope and inspiration.  Rabbi Wolbe, who passed away in 2005 described his own generation as “a morally corrupt generation that has overstepped all boundaries of decency.” It is frightening to think how Rav Wolbe might describe the state of affairs in 2017. It is clear that we live in a generation where immorality is rampant. At times, as we read the news, it feels utterly helpless. But then, we remember that we too, can be like Noach. We can be perfectly righteous, despite the morally bankrupt environment we live in.

I recall an old saying: “At first when I was young, I wanted to change the world. But then, I realized it would be too hard to change the world, so I resolved to change my nation. After realizing that too, was too difficult, I decided to change my town. But that too was impossible. So as I became older, I realized that the only thing I can change is myself.” I can, and will make a cognitive decision to remain perfectly righteous in this generation. Thankfully we are blessed with a perfect, timeless instruction manual for living in a moral and upright fashion: our holy Torah. Our Torah, which insists that we guard our eyes from even gazing inappropriately, ensuring that we would not G-d forbid objectify members of the opposite gender. Our Torah, which demands that man cherish, and honor his wife, treating her with more respect than he would afford himself.   It is times like now, more than ever, that we need its eternal guidance.

Naming our Daughter

                Good Shabbos. Our sages teach us that when parents name a child they are imbued with ruach haKodesh—Divine inspiration that is required to attribute a name—which is a person’s essence- to a human being. Sara and I had been in mutual agreement since our last daughter was born that any future daughter we would be blessed with, we would want to name Esther after my great aunt, of blessed memory, Estelle Rifkin, who treated us like her own grandchildren. We were prepared to name our daughter Esther regardless of when she would have been born: January, June, March, or May, her name would have been Esther. It is therefore, a very neat example of Hashgacha Pratis, (Divine Providence) that the Talmud asks, “Where in the Torah is there a reference to Esther? It is from the verse in Devarim, V’anochi Hester Astir es Panim…and I will certainly conceal my face…. That pasuk, is taken from none other than this week’s parsha—Nitzavim-Vayeilech, on the day we are sponsoring Esther’s kiddish, on a day that we would have named her, if only we could have waited 7 whole days to give her a name.

The Torah teaches us there in Chapter 31, Then My anger will flare up against them, and I will abandon them and hide my Face from them. They shall be ready prey, and many evils and troubles will befall them. And they shall say on that day, ‘Surely it is because our G-d is not in our midst that these evils have befallen us. And I will keep my face hidden on that day because of all the evils they have done in turning to other gods.

                The Rabainu Bachya explains on this second, seemingly redundant verse “V’anochi Haster Astir” that the first pasuk we quoted of hester panim was a reference to the first exile, but this second one, with the double language, is referring to the Roman Exile in which we currently find ourselves. The language is doubled to indicate that this present exile will be much longer than the first. Thus, it would emerge according to the Rabainu Bachya, that Esther got her name from this verse in the Torah which refers to our current exile.

When I reflected about my own Esther, and her circumstances into which she was born, this idea absolutely, totally, blew my mind, and showed me that indeed G-d gives us some sort of super natural abilities when He allows us to name our children. Ever since we moved to Denver, I thought to myself about how I would feel about having a child born in Denver—the place where I, my parents, grandparents, and great grandparents were born. At first, I got sentimental, I got warm fuzzies, and thought how neat it was. And indeed, I am overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude to the Almighty for allowing us to live in this medina shel chesed—this nation of kindness in which we are allowed to practice as we please. And I am grateful to my great grandparents for moving us to the most beautiful state in this republic, instead of a place like, New Jersey, Cleveland, or Detroit.

But then I was reminded of a sobering Klei Yakar from Parshas Vayechi, and a Meshech Chochma from Bechukosai. The Klei Yakar comments on Yaakov losing his ruach hakodesh so he could not reveal the end of days to his children, because if they found out about the end of the days, and if in fact it was not for a long time, then people would despair and no longer long for the Geula, the redemption, and they wouldn’t cry out to Hashem. But the Klei Yakar comments that even today, when we don’t know when Moshiach will come, we still don’t long for the redemption, since we all live in large houses that we view as our permanent home, and are quite comfortable in galus. Similarly, the Meshech Chochma in Bechukosai comments that the reason Yaakov Avinu insisted in not being buried in Egypt, was that if he were, his descendants would view Egypt as their true home, and the would not long to go to Israel.  By doing this, he instilled deep within the hearts of his future descendants an awareness that their living in exile was as a sojourner—not a real resident. He didn’t want his descendants getting confused and confusing their homes in galus for the real thing. We are not meant to be in galus.

There is a great story told about Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendelovich, on the occasion of the dedication of his new yeshiva in Monsey. His students observed that he looked a little sad, and they asked him, “Rebbe, why are you so sad? You have worked countless hours for this momentous occasion!” To this he responded with a moshel, a parable which helped describe his feelings: In the Bronx Zoo is located an attraction where a Polar Bear lives. And in this area, they set up the environment such that it can support a Polar Bear. They make it feel very cold, give it frozen fish for food, and make it think that it is actually in a freezing climate. But when you take a step back you smell the unmistakeable stench of urine that permeates the Bronx. And you observe the graffiti in various languages. And you realize, that no matter how hard they try to make it feel like an Arctic climate, you are still, very much in side the Bronx. So too, we Jews in exile have infrastructures that make us feel comfortable, that make us feel like we are home. But at the end of the day, this is not how it is meant to be. We Jews in galus are like Polar Bears in the Bronx zoo.

With this background, how appropriate is it, therefore, that our first child born in my birthplace, and my parents birthplace, and my great grandparents birthplace, is named Esther. And not only is this my birthplace, but is also the place that, after moving around for 11 years, we have “put down our roots,” buying a house, and having no intention of leaving for many years. It is appropriate to name our native Coloradan born daughter Esther not only because we see Esther in this week’s parsha, but because, as the Rabainu Bachya beautifully explains, that Esther min HaTorah is a reference to THIS LONG GALUS—This long exile—in which we currently find ourselves. Lest I get overly excited when calling my princess by her name, thinking about how great it is to have a child in my “home,” HER VERY NAME IS A REMINDER THAT THIS IS NOT HOME. That in fact, we are very much still in galus.

Now that I have described the incredible hashgacha pratis regarding the timing of her birth and the meaning of her name, I want to discuss briefly her namesake my dear Auntie of blessed memory. Less than a year before I was born, my grandmother, Margot Keinon, was tragically taken from this world, at a very young age. I never merited to meet her, though she inspires me everyday. After this tragedy, my auntie promised herself, and us, that she would raise us like her own grandchildren. She would strive to be the grandmother on my mother’s side that we never merited to meet. And indeed, she succeeded. I have very fond memories of spending nights over at her house, at her cooking me delicious homemade Chinese food, of watching Broncos Games on her couch. And perhaps the most powerful memory I have of her, is how every single time she saw me, she told me how wonderful I was, and how I could truly accomplish anything I put my mind to. Whether it was her comparing my looks to that of Mel Gibson’s, which I took as a compliment, despite his anti-Semitic leanings, or whether it was that I could become the president of the United States of America, she was perhaps the one person, more than anyone else I knew, who imbued within me a healthy sense of self-esteem, and a feeling that I actually could accomplish anything I set my mind to. Ever since she passed away, I was resolved to forever cherish and preserve her memory, by naming a child after her. I pray that our Esti will carry on her superb character traits, and will be a shining light for the Jewish people for many, many years to come.

Esther Menucha

Parshas Nitzavim: Vayeilech-The Awakening

The Torah tells us, very beautifully that, “this commandment that I command you today- it is not hidden from you and it is not distant. It is not in heaven…nor is it across the sea…Rather, the matter is very near to you—in your mouth and your heart—to perform it. “ The glaring question that emerges is, what commandment exactly are we talking about that is so close to us and so easy to perform? The Ramban says that based on the previous few verses in the Torah, it seems clear that the Torah here is referring to the mitzvah of teshuva, the commandment to return to G-d.

Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz asks, that if it is so easy, and so natural to return to the Almighty, if the matter is so near to us, then why doesn’t every single person in fact return to G-d in heartfelt teshuva? How can it be that anyone is capable of going astray when the Torah testifies it is so easy to return to Hashem? He answers with a very sharp insight: That if only we knew that we had gone astray, it would be easy enough to come back. Our problem, however, is that we don’t even realize how far we have gone. We get so accustomed to our lives, that we never stop and realize that we are going down the wrong path. If only we could be awoken to the reality that there is something amiss, the matter of returning to G-d is in fact very near to us, and very much attainable.

When I first got married, for the first seven years of marriage, I never stepped on a scale. It didn’t seem necessary. However, one time, when I randomly chanced upon the scale, I was absolutely shocked at how much weight I had gained in my first seven years of marriage. But upon reflection it made sense—my wife crafted every single meal of every single day to satisfy my picky eating habits. Before, my mother would make a lot of food for everyone in the family, and certain things I could eat and certain things I would have to skip. But that changed when I got married, and so did my weight. Once I recognized that I had a weight problem, I was able to make some adjustments, and follow a diet plan, and effectively lose the weight. For me, more than half of the battle, was waking up to the reality that I was in fact overweight. And once I recognized that reality, the battle would be to build up the courage to stand on the scale when I knew deep down I had not been eating in a healthy manner.

Similarly, I believe that many of us go through life, totally blind to our spiritual reality. We might not even recognize that certain things are not as they should be. To rectify that issue, we are blessed with the holiday of Rosh Hashana. The Rambam writes that a way we can understand the mitzvah of hearing the shofar is that its piercing blow can awaken us. It is as if the shofar calls out, “awaken, you sleeping ones, arise from your slumber.” Many of us fall into the same daily routine, going through the mundane aspects of life every single day, numb to our spiritual decline. To snap us out of our daze, we hear the blow of the shofar. Once we wake up, and recognize the reality for what it is; once we stand on our spiritual scales, the Torah promises that rectifying our actions and returning to Hashem is not as difficult as we might think—it is rather very close to us, and something that is extremely attainable. The challenge however, is building up the guts to look at ourselves in the mirror, and being real with the possibility that something might be amiss. We should all be blessed with the ability to honestly assess where we are at, and to have a deeply meaningful experience during these special days ahead.



Parshas Ki Seitzeh: Eat Like a Mentsch

Towards the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Ki Seitze, we come across the very curious mitzvah of Ben Soreh U’Moreh, the wayward son:

If a man will have a wayward and rebellious son, who does not hearken to the voice of his father the voice of his mother, and they discipline him, but he does not hearken to them, then his father and mother shall grasp him and take him out to the elders of his city and the gate of his place. They shall say to the elders of his city, “This son of ours is wayward and rebellious; he does not hearken to our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard. All the men of his city shall pelt him with stones and he shall die; and you shall remove the evil from your midst…

The rabbis in the Talmud debate the nature of this mitzvah, and according to multiple opinions, “The Ben Soreh U’morer never happened and never will happen- then why was it written? To expound upon and receive reward.” In other words, according to this opinion, the reason we have a mitzvah of the wayward soon is so that we can learn about the concept, and apply it to our lives.

The obvious questions is, whether this actually happened, or not, what lesson is there to be derived from this seemingly strange mitzvah in which parents are obligated to stone their son for no clear-cut reason? Where exactly, did this wayward child go wrong?  Rabbi Shimshon Pincus quotes the Rambam, who says something fascinating: “ The wayward son is killed on account of his achila mechueres (literally translated as ‘his ugly eating’) as the verse says, ‘he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ A glutton because he ate meat in a ravenous manner, and a drunkard, because he ate wine in a ravenous manner…He ate raw meat and non-raw meat—cooked meat and not cooked meat.” Rav Pincus points out that the wayward son did not actually violate the Torah- he did not commit any definable transgressions—he even ate Kosher meat, and drank Kosher wine! The problem was the manner in which he ate and drank. He was in such a rush to fill his stomach, he couldn’t even wait until the meat was fully cooked! He had to partake immediately, without any delay whatsoever.

Indeed, it is very difficult to understand the lesson behind why parents are meant to turn over their child to be killed on account of his gluttony. But the Talmud tells us these verses are here to teach us something. I would like to suggest that one lesson could be that when G-d created us, He could have chosen to make us any creature of His choosing. But for some reason, He decided to make us a human being, with intellect and the ability to control his physical appetites. The Noam Elimelech writes that man was only created to break his nature—to overcome his natural impulses, and to elevate himself.   The Slonimer Rebbe wrote how we are put in this world to go to war with our natural evil inclination. G-d could have made us a lion, tiger, or bear. When a lion sees its prey, it pounces on it, and consumes it. It doesn’t even stop and think. But alas, G-d created as human beings, with the ability to suppress our most basic desires. Thus by virtue of our humanity, more is expected from us. When we start acting on our physical desires exactly like an animal acts on its physical desires, the reason for our existence is called into question. Thus, teaches the Torah, a ben soreh u’moreh is killed.

In Parshas Kedoshim we are given the imperative of “Kedoshim Tehyu—Be a Holy Nation.” The Ramban explains that this means we are meant to sanctify ourselves even with those things that are permitted to us. One could technically live according to halacha- he could sit at home all day eating and drinking kosher foods and beverages, then going to sleep and doing the exact same thing the next day. However, that person is completely missing the point. We are meant to live lives of holiness and sanctity—where we elevate the physical world around us—not interact with it as if we were animals.

The reality is, that we are blessed to live in a world where this is very difficult. Living in times of greater freedom and prosperity than we have ever experienced, we have every opportunity to indulge excessively in every physical pleasure we can imagine. We all know how hard it is to restrain ourselves, after a long morning service in synagogue, to not elbow our way to the front of the cholent line. It is indeed very difficult to not stuff our faces with our dinners after a long day at work. But as a holy nation, we are meant to take these physical pleasures, and to elevate them. As we rapidly approach Rosh Hashana and all of the wonderful holidays, now is as good a time as ever, to learn the lesson of the ben soreh u’moreh to make sure that while we take delight in these wonderful holy days, we remember to celebrate them with total sanctity and purity.

5 Life Lessons from the Total Solar Eclipse

After experiencing total totality of the solar eclipse in lovely Glendo Wyoming, and sitting in 13 hours of traffic on my 200 mile return home to Denver, CO, I wanted to reflect on five profound life lessons from this awesome event:

G-d is the King, and He is so incredibly awesome.

To be completely honest, as the moon totally eclipsed the sun, darkening the sky in the middle of the day, allowing for the stars to come out, and producing one of the most magnificent sights I have ever seen (the radiant corona of the sun in the middle of the sky), I had a similar feeling to when each of my children were born: A feeling of complete faith that there is a G-d who runs every detail of His splendid world. I had the chills, watching alongside tens of thousands of people from all over the world, observing G-d’s perfection and complete mastery of the universe He created. And I thought to myself how appropriate it was to witness this one month before Rosh Hashana, where the whole holiday is based on declaring and experiencing the Almighty’s Kingship.

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Ani Ma’amin: A Glimpse into the Future

Another extremely powerful part of the eclipse for me was that my 8-year-old son was singing some lyrics to a song we were listening to in the car by the Jewish musical group Zusha: Ani Ma’amin b’emuna shleima b’vias HaMoshiach- I believe with full faith in the coming of the Moshiach. While he “happened to be” singing those words, watching the full eclipse, I was reminded of the idea that when the world was originally created, the sun and the moon were the same size, and only later did the moon diminish its size. Watching the moon completely block the sun, as if it were its equal, reminded me of this idea, and the verse in Isaiah 20:26 which states that when the Moshiach comes, “the light of the moon will be like light of the sun.” My good friend further reminded me of the prayer we say every month during Kiddush Levana, the short service in which we sanctify the new moon after Rosh Chodesh: “May it be your will, Hashem, my G-d, and the G-d of my forefathers, to fill the flaw of the moon and there be no diminution in it. May the light of the moon be like light of the sun and like the light of the seven days of creation, as it was before it was diminished.” Watching the moon block the sun, appearing like its equal, invoked this powerful imagery, and provided a small glimpse into our future.

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What are we applauding?

One of the most powerful parts of the experience for me, was how, in the seconds leading up to the total eclipse, the tens of thousands of people with me in the Glendo Airport, started applauding, and cheering. This reminded me of how in certain Chassidic circles, when they come to the word “HaMelech” (The King) in the high holiday liturgy, everyone bursts out into a round of applause.  Having grown up with sports, I have been part of crowds who applaud when a guy hits a ball very far, or when a linebacker runs over a helpless quarterback. But I have never seen crowds applauding the Almighty for His brilliant creations. Watching this spectacle was inspiring. I thought to myself how G-d performs wonders every single day. Perhaps instead of getting excited about a strikeout or a first down, I should focus more on a sunrise or a sunset. Rather than clapping for a reverse slam dunk, I can clap for a flash of lightning or thunder.

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Keeping a proper perspective

As wonderful as the eclipse was, the traffic was, as we say in Yiddish, not gishmak. We observed the eclipse from an airfield in Glendo Wyoming, parked two miles off the highway. Apparently, this small rural town of 200 is  not equipped to have tens of thousands of cars driving on its roads, attempting to get on the highway at the same time. After moving 10 feet in an hour, I had the brilliant idea to turn around, and attempt to get on the highway from 20 miles north of Glendo, on a backroad. Unfortunately for me, tens of thousands of people had the exact same idea, and getting back to the highway, 20 miles north of where we started took me about 4 hours. Once on the highway, we were at a total standstill. People were getting out of their cars to walk around and stretch. By the time we got back to the Glendo exit, it was about 6-7 hours after the eclipse ended. Once out of Glendo, it took us about 6 hours back to Denver, for a grand total of 13 hours, or 18 roundtrip. I will be totally honest when I say that at times I felt a real sense of despair. It seemed helpless. There was nowhere to go, everything was at a standstill. But then I thought to myself, how fortunate, and blessed I am that the extent of my tzaros (troubles/problems) is being stuck in a killer traffic jam. And while I reflected that it felt like being on the Cross Bronx Expressway for 200 miles,  and I rode a whole wave of emotions as we would inch forward, pick up speed, then stop again, I couldn’t help but be filled with gratitude about the fact that at the moment, this one obstacle was my single greatest challenge. Many times in life we lose our tempers, and we become agitated over the most minor things. A flight gets delayed and we yell at the poor person behind the front desk. We get cut off in traffic, or have some car trouble. When that happens, we should yell out Baruch Hashem! “Thank you Almighty for everything you give me, and for these annoyances being the extent of my problems at the moment!”

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Baby steps

Throughout my 13 hours in the car, as I tried to stave off feelings of despair at our lack of progress (like how for several hours we moved 8 miles in the course of an hour), I tried to stay focused on the positive: That if we continue inching forward, eventually we will reach our goal: To be back home safely, in my beautiful hometown. And while I did the math at how many hours it would take if we kept the 8 MPH pace, I focused on the baby steps we made to move further along the road. I think that we all find ourselves in a similar predicament right now. It is Rosh Chodesh Elul, and we need to start thinking about a plan to return to the Almighty through heart felt teshuva. Often it seems so confounding, knowing we have so far to go before we get to where we want to be. Yet the lesson is that we need to identify for ourselves, and focus on baby steps, that we can actually obtain.

It might take 13 hours, but with enough of those baby steps, we will reach our spiritual goals and have a blessed, sweet new year.


Parshas Behar Bechokosai

In the second half of this week’s double-parsha Behar-Bechukosai we read about the terrifying curses that await the Jewish people for failure to act in accordance with G-d’s will. Right in the middle of these frightening curses, the Torah tells us, “I will make the land desolate; and your foes who dwell upon it will be desolate.” Rashi and the Ramban quote that this is actually good news for the Jewish people, as throughout our exile, the nations of the world who try to inhabit the land will not find success with the land. The Ramban also comments that this phenomenon “is a great proof and promise to us (that ultimately we will return to Israel) because in all of civilization there has never been a land as good and as expansive as it, which has always been settled, and yet, it is left so desolate as Israel is now, which from the time we left it, has never received any nation or nationality; and though they have all tried to settle it, none have been able to do so.”

Amid the horrifying curses, G-d promised us that the land of Israel would never thrive and prosper under the rule of other nations. The Ramban (1194-1270) confirmed this to be the case in his day. And, Mark Twain, l’havdil, confirmed this in his time as well, in the 1800s, when he observed:

…[a] desolate country whose soil is rich enough, but is given over wholly to weeds-a silent mournful expanse….A desolation is here that not even imagination can grace with the pomp of life and action….We never saw a human being on the whole route….There was hardly a tree or a shrub anywhere. Even the olive and the cactus, those fast friends of the worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.”- 1867 (Quoted in Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad. London: 1881).


Rabbi Yissochar Frand points out the true miracle of this phenomenon: For two thousand years, the Land of Israel, the land flowing with milk and honey, had been under foreign dominion- under the rule of the Romans, Persians, Arabs, Turks and British. And through it all, the land an uninhabitable wasteland.  To help us appreciate how this is a miracle, Rabbi Frand suggests a scenario in which the Native Americans sought to purchase back Manhattan Island from the Americans. Perhaps they might come to the president in the year 2017, and say, “We sold you this island in the 1600s for sixty guilders (a sum estimated to be $24.) We grant the fact that the Island has appreciated over the last four hundred years, so we agree it back for double that cost, at $48.” Obviously, Manhattan would not be resold for $48, for $48,000, not even for $48,000,000. It would seem, that after 2000 years in the land of Israel, it would be reasonable to expect the land to have appreciated greatly in value, as it did so significantly in Manhattan over the course of four hundred years. But were this to be the case, asks Rav Frand, would it have been possible for the Jewish people to recover this area to become its national homeland? Or, if the land of Israel, like virtually every other country in the Middle East, had known oil reserves in 1948, would it have been possible for the Jewish people to return to our national homeland in throngs? Logic would say not. Rabbi Frand explains that we have only been able to recover the land, due to this ‘curse’ that “I will make the land desolate; and your foes who dwell upon it will be desolate.”

I believe, that aside from the inspiration that can be gleaned by appreciating the Torah’s eternal, prophetic words, there is another lesson to be gleaned as well: That sometimes, even concealed within the most terrifying of ‘curses’ is found the most wonderful blessings, and the most profound manifestations of G-ds Divine Providence. At the time, being told that G-d will lay waste to our treasured Land must have been devastating. So too, in life, we are dealt distressing blows. However, throughout it all, we must strive to remember that G-d is running the world, and He has a plan for all of us, despite our inability to always comprehend it.

We should all merit to see G-d’s miracles in our own lives.



Day off in Israel

In honor of Israel’s 69th birthday, here is a piece I wrote a few years describing how I visited Israel for 24 hours- and it was worth every second.

Dear Henry, 

    This past Monday, the wonderful opportunity arose for me to take a day off, and go to Israel to attend my littlest nephew’s bris. A lot of people might be thinking, that’s a very interesting place to go for a day off. On a day off, perhaps it would make more sense to go to the nature reserve for some bird watching, go to the farm for some good old fashion cow tippin, or to do some blueberry picking. How does it make sense to drive three hours to the airport, wait three hours for my flight, sit on the cross Atlantic flight for 10 hours, spend a day in Israel for the sake of a 2 minute service and an accompanying breakfast, then, that night, go to the airport, hours before my flight, and do the same exact thing, just this time wait 2 more hours on the plane since I am flying against the jet stream? Well Henry, and all you doubters out there, I am here to tell you that all of this was 100% worth it; I would do it 1000 times more, and I recommend you take a day off in Israel as well. 

     There are three glaring, obvious reasons this is true. The first reason is that Israel is a place unlike any other. Any opportunity to go there is an outstanding privilege that should not be passed up. We are talking about the land that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob treaded with their own two feet. This is the place that Moses so desperately desired to go, but tragically, couldn’t. This is a place that we have been exiled from for the last 2000 years. This is where G-d’s presence is so concentrated and easily perceived, where miracles happen every single day. This is the center of the universe where being a Jew comes as natural as a colorful butterfly spreading her beautiful wings at Colorado’s Butterfly Pavilion. As I once heard quoted by a great rabbi, being Jewish in America is like being a Polar Bear in the Bronx Zoo. Being Jewish in Israel is like being a Polar Bear in the The North Pole. Thus, I ask you, how on G-d’s green earth could I have passed up the opportunity to be in Israel even for one day? What would the millions of Jews brutally persecuted in the Diaspora over the past 2000 years have given for ONE DAY in Israel? What would they have given, how much money would they have paid?

      Thus as I got out of the car Sunday evening in a quiet lovely little place called Nof Ayalon, I took an intense, deep breath, and as my lungs were filled with the pristine, holy air of Israel, I honestly would have been content getting back in the car, going to the airport and heading home. That one breath of Israel reinvigorated me, rejuvenated me and reignited a spark from deep within me that words cannot adequately describe.

       There is a second reason I have absolutely no regrets about my day off in Israel. Quite simply, I was able to be with my family who I rarely see, at a major joyous life cycle event. If there is one thing my Pops taught me growing up, it is that family is everything. I was blessed growing up in a beautiful, loving family. In addition to my wife and kids, there is no one I would rather spend the holidays with than my Momma and Pops, my Bro and his family, and my baby sister and her family. I was also able to see my uncle, aunt and 4 little cousins. Being with my loving family at such a collective joyous, blissful moment– celebrating the bris of my nephew, effectively welcoming him into G-d’s eternal covenant with the Jewish People, was nothing less than magical. Celebrating together with my family was worth every second of the over 22 hours of flying time. As my brother-in-law beautiful declared as the bris was happening, “Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who has enabled me to live, and has sustained me, and has brought me, to this (glorious) day.” 

     And finally, dear Henry, the third reason that taking a day off in Israel was an amazing idea that my thousands upon thousands of readers across the vast universe should do is that it drove home what I believe is one of the most crucial ideas a person can comprehend in his life time. The Mishna states: the day is short; but there’s a lot of work. Our time in this world is not infinite. We will be here hopefully 80-90 years, but in the large scheme of the universe that is but a minuscule fraction. Being in Israel for all of one day drove this point home very hard. I had 24 hours in Israel. Was I going to use that reading articles from ESPN, or playing snake on my phone? Or was I going to cherish every one of my precious moments in the Holy Land? Being in Israel for one day made me realize I didn’t have time to waste. I had to wisely use every second. And as I waited for my plane on which I currently comfortably sit in my row to myself, I realized that although I arrived at this very airport YESTERDAY, it seems like a week ago- because in the last 24 hours I bonded with my parents, sister, nephew, brother in law, aunt, uncle, 4 little cousins, and my 

sister’s amazing in-laws. I also learned Torah in Israel, prayed at the Western Wall, visited some old friends, went to my rugelech guy, and falafel guy, ate a mind-blowing sufganiya, and engaged in one of my favorite Israeli pastimes by schmoozing with an Israeli taxi driver. In one day I accomplished an enormous amount. How much can I accomplish if I use my time so efficiently 365 days a year for 120 years? I believe the potential is endless.

    As I sit here, somewhere over the vast Atlantic Ocean with an hour to go in my flight, I know I will be at work in a few hours and this will all feel like a distant dream. But it is a dream I dare not forget.

Danny Wolfe

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May their Memories be a Blessing

Below is a post I put up a few years ago on Tisha B’av, for things to think about as we mourn the destruction of the Temple.

As today is Yom HaZikaron, the Day of Remembrance in Israel, today is appropriate to recall these stories, and the ultimate sacrifice made by the thousands of heroes who gave up their lives so that the Jewish people can once again be in our Eternal Homeland.

May their lofty souls continue to be for a blessing.


Tisha Bav Reading Material

      On Tuesday, August 5th, the Jewish people worldwide will be commemorating the tragic ‘holiday’ called Tisha Bav. On Tisha Bav both of our Holy Temples were destroyed, and the Jewish people were cast into a painful, and brutal exile. We fast, sit on the floor as is the custom for mourners,  recite kinnos (sad dirges memorializing the sad events of our past) refrain from washing our hands, marital relations, anointing ourselves, and we do not wear leather shoes. (For more specifics check out this link:
It is meant to be a very painful day; yet for most of us, as a result of never having lived with the Holy Temples, we fail to grasp what exactly it is that we are mourning; what exactly is that we have lost. Yet our rabbis tells us that every difficulty in our lives, and every tragedy we face is connected to the fact that we do not have our Beis Hamikdash, our Holy Temple. I heard a beautiful analogy to our present situation: If a person is on life support after narrowly surviving a dangerous accident, from his own internal perspective, he might be grateful for still being alive. However to everyone looking in, they feel sorry for him, because they understand that he is not in fact really living. Living on a machine is no way to live. So too, our own state, without the Holy Temple, is analogous to living on life support– we don’t realize how much we are lacking; how much we are missing; and how this situation we call life is not what is ultimately the state in which we are meant to be living. Without our Beis Hamikdash, we are at a loss, and our existence is on a tremendously lower level than what it is meant to be.
I heard a beautiful idea from a great Rabbi named Rabbi Shimshon Pincus. Rabbi Pincus said that the way to ‘celebrate’ and observe Tisha Bav is to feel the pain of Tisha Bav– the pain of being in exile, and the pain, kabbalistically of the Almighty being in exile. It is to understand that every stress, difficulty, tragedy and devastation in life is linked to the fact we don’t have our Temple. Therefore, our job is to figure out how to feel that pain– and if the Jewish people could collectively fill up a bottle of tears from crying on Tisha Bav, the Messiah would come. The Talmud in Tractate Shabbos says beautifully “Anyone who sheds a tear for an upright person, the Holy One, Blessed is He counts them and places them in His storehouse. ”
Our tears our precious to the Almighty. Our job on Tisha Bav is to cry our eyes out. Sometimes, this is hard. Tragically, this year, it is not hard. Therefore, I have prepared below a reading list for articles you can read to cry, and understand how much we are missing by not having the Beis Hamikdash. On Tuesday, go to your room, close the door, open up your computer or iphone, and observe this powerful day by reading these articles.

1. In this article read about the widow of a soldier who gave birth 10 days after he was killed. Think about this man who never will meet his child– and the child who will grow up never having seen her father.

2. In these articles, reflect on the infectious smile of Hadar Goldin, the young man who was engaged to be married in a few weeks. Reflect on the words of his fiance, “the hero of Israel, I love you and miss you. I’m waiting for you so we can dance at our wedding soon.” 

At his funeral she said, ““I though we would be together forever,” she says. “I love you so much, and I miss you so much. I so wanted to be your bride, Hadar,”

3. Read here about two American boys, who could have been any of our close friends, who moved to Israel to serve in the IDF. One of them moved to Israel after being inspired on Birthright. The other one spent some time learning about Judaism at Aish. 
Think about the potential they had, and the pain of their famies.

4. Read this article from Newsweek, which featured on its front cover how Jews are fleeing from Europe. Reflect on the fact that it is not 1938, but 2014.

5. Read about how #Hitlerwasright was trending. Again, it is 2014.

6. Read about and remember the Fogel Family, murdered in their sleep by terrorists 3 years ago. Think about the three surviving children, who are being raised without parents.,7340,L-4041237,00.html

Watch this video memorializing them:

7. Read a eulogy about the three Israeli boys, kidnapped and murdered for being Jewish.

8. Read the second letter here, from Rabbi Eisenmann about this situation

9. Read this article about Nava Applebaum, murdered a day before her wedding because she was Jewish.

10. Read about Mrs. Sandler, whose husband and 2 children were murdered in France for being Jewish and teaching Torah.

11. Read about my heroes Chabad Rabbi and Rebbetzin Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, murdered spreading Torah, serving the Jewish community of Mumbai India, for being Jewish. Read about their son screaming “mommy, mommy” at their funerals.

Reflect more on their holy lives here:

Let us read these articles, and cry bitter tears.

The Almighty should indeed collect our tears, and transform them to tears of joy. 

May the prophetic words of King David come true speedily and soon:

“When the Lord brought out Zion of captivity, we were like people in a dream. At that time our mouth was filled with laughter and our tongue with cries of joy…Let our captivity, Lord, be a thing of the past, like dried up streams in the Negev. Those who sow with tears shall reap in joy.”