Two Weeks of Freedom

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Dear Henry,

It’s hard to believe, but it has been over two full weeks without Iggy the iPhone. And my life has carried on.

At first it was downright frightening.  How would I navigate my way home from downtown? How would I find subs for my basketball team, and scorekeepers, when I didn’t even have their phone numbers anymore? Denise the Dumbphone can only hold 1000 contacts after all, so I lost many of my regular numbers.  How could I make it 7 weeks, when I can barely make it 7 hours???

The truth is, even now, 2 weeks later, there are some challenges. Some text messages just will not come through. Without an iCal to remind me of meetings, I was 15 minutes late to a meeting today, and missed a couple critical Facebook messages which required my attention.

But, after a few days without Iggy, I began to literally experience a sense of euphoria. So much stress in my life simply evaporated. My mind felt clearer than a stage 4 Colorado River rapid.  I felt like I was an optimal, better version of myself. I began to think more clearly. One day, while sitting on the couch, with my broken foot wrapped in ice, I looked at my children playing. And I thought to myself, “Holy cow, I have children. They came from The Better Half and I. These little creatures, with their colorful personalities, are unreal gifts from The Abishter. They look and act like us.” I couldn’t get over it. My mind was blown. And I thought to myself, how many people have such wonderful gifts in their life, children, or otherwise, that they simply never acknowledge or notice, because they are too busy looking at their smartphones? How come I personally don’t regularly marvel over the myriad of gifts that I have? My mind was literally blown, and it continues to be.

This past Sunday, my kids were playing at my parents house, and The Better Half was at the hardware store (I don’t do tools). I was home alone. Two weeks ago I would have taken to the couch, caught up on Twitter, or the NFL Mock Draft reports, and probably fallen asleep. On this day, however, I sat at the table, sipped a Fast Lane tea, and studied a page of Talmud. This would have been unthinkable two weeks ago, with Iggy in my pocket.

Two days ago, I got home from my 5:30 AM study session, with twenty minutes “to kill” before I needed to go to work. Rather then catch up on emails, or Facebook, I noticed that my oldest daughter had awoken, and was sitting on the couch, looking at her sticker book. Despite having had this book for about a year, I never noticed what it was. I sat there with my daughter as she explained the book has removeable stickers that one takes out, and puts in various pages in the book. We connected and bonded over this for twenty minutes before I had to leave. I asked myself how often I have really played with my kids in a manner in which I was fully present the last few years. Embarrassingly, the answer is: NOT ENOUGH. With Iggy in my pocket, it was almost impossible to be fully present, ever.

I also am connecting with other people on an entirely different plane. When people send me unreadable text messages, (which is at least a daily occurance) I have no choice but to call them. And EVERY SINGLE TIME I call them, I walk away glad that I did. We connected in a meaningful way that simply is not possible via text. I hear the other person’s voice. I find out more about what is going on in their lives;  the triumphs, and the difficulties.

I am additionally extremely more effective and efficient in my daily work schedule. I now have a pink planner called Pearl the Planner, and I write my tasks with a black pen. Pearl makes me jot down my top three goals every day, and I must check off every task upon completion. Needless to say, it is working wonders. Something about a pen and paper in front of me enables me to succeed in ways that looking at a screen never will.

And even though I am not using social media very much, when I am using it, is is effective. Like having Von Miller retweet me is a feat I never accomplished while tweeting every couple hours from Iggy.

Thus, after two weeks, the only real downside of downgrading, is I can no longer use the thumbs up emoji or the fist with the thumb and pinky raised in the air. Besides that, I really don’t miss much.

I am never one to push an agenda on anyone, but this is such a life-changing exercise I double dogg dare all of my thousands upon thousands of readers to try going 24 hours without your phone. Heck, as tomorrow night begins the Jewish Sabbath, maybe try going Sunset tomorrow night until nightfall Saturday night without your phone.

It might just change your life.

Forever yours,

Danny Wolfe

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A Dumb Phone and a Broken Bone

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Dear Henry,

I aint gonna lie. At first I felt overwhelmed. I felt stressed out. How was I going to make it home safely from downtown Denver without Waze? And how on earth would I find a score keeper to keep score at our Hoops and Halacha basketball games that evening, and find replacement players for the 10 guys who texted me they couldn’t come play that evening, two nights before Passover? How could I possibly figure this all out, on a dumb phone? Why didn’t my contacts all transfer over? (Turns out I can only have 1000 on my phone at a time). And why do so many texts I receive turn up as gibberish which I cannot read? While my aspirations of getting rid of my smartphone for seven weeks were noble, how could I even make it one lousy week? The overwhelming feeling gnawed at me, and I didn’t know exactly how I would survive.

But then, something miraculous happened. For the first time in 16 years, I broke a bone. Apparently, now that I am in my thirties I don’t jump as high as I used to, and I assumed I would have another split second to turn my foot back to the normal position after jumping up for a loose ball. But that split second cost me dearly, as I landed squarely on my fifth metatarsel bone, fracturing it on impact. At first as I hopped in agony to the sideline, I was hoping it was just a bad sprain. But when I needed to get wheeled to my car, I realized it would be a bit worse, a feeling that was confirmed by X-ray the next morning.

Only six hours after quitting my iPhone in order to introduce myself to more inconvenience, I broke a bone, and would come to understand a fraction of what real inconvenience is.

Inconvenience is not when you need to type a text message slowly– it is when you must crutch yourself to the bathroom, getting out of breath in the process.

Inconvenience is not being unable to use GPS navigation from your phone– it is when you must give yourself an extra ten minutes to get dressed in the morning, after which it would be best to change clothes, because I became a sweaty mess in the process.

Inconvenience is not being unable to ask your smart watch what the weather is– it is having to put one’s broken foot in two plastic bags before bathing oneself.

As I spent the next few days on the couch, with my left foot on an elevated couch pillow, I had a lot of time to think and marvel about the unreal irony, that on the day I had opted to boldly and bravely play martyr, and ‘inconvenience’ myself, I experienced a personal inconvenience that dwarfed the inconvenience of no iPhone. And I thought to myself, as the timing was uncanny, that perhaps the Abishter was telling me something: You want to see inconvenience? I will take away your regular use of your foot for 6-8 weeks- and then you will have a tiny idea of what inconvenience is.  I also initially entertained the idea that the Almighty was telling me another message: You want to spurn the conveniences I give you in life, and make your life more difficult than necessary? That is foolish– I will show you real inconvenience in any case. (I have sense concluded this was not the message to be gleaned, as will be explained in a subsequent post.)

These were some initial thoughts after my downgrade, and my broken foot.

I look forward to sharing with you in my next post how after only 1.5 weeks, my broken bone, and dumb phone have been absolutely life-changing.

7 Short Reflections After Day 1 of Dumb Phone

Dear Henry,

I wanted to share my journey into DumbPhoneLand with the masses of people who read this blogg from across the globe so here are some casual observations from Day 1.

  1. Who knew that some phones can only hold 1000 contacts???
  2. What do you mean I need to delete some texts messages since I have run out of room on my phone?
  3. Dumb Phone are really, really, really inconvenient!
  4. I am excited to use the really pretty personal planner/calendar I bought from Target today! I already filled in my first appointment with a gel-pen!
  5. Will having a dumb phone be more inconvenient now that I have a severe ankle sprain and am unable to put pressure on my foot two days before Pesach? Anything to get out of Passover cleaning…..
  6. I actually called two people today I had been texting with, since texting was too brutal of a task, and it takes up space on my phone. And, by golly, it was quite nice to hear another dude’s voice on the phone. It had been awhile. I was even able to personally thank one fellow (Ben, you are THE MAN) for helping me out, and I was able to express my gratitude in a way that would have been impossible by text…..
  7. This ain’t no cakewalk, but I never said it was supposed to be easy…..

Parshas Tzav: Escaping the Enslavement of Convenience

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Upon a simple reading of this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Tzav, one is amazed at the intricate details that went into every aspect of the avodah- the sacrificial service that took place every day.  One particular curious detail is how the Torah describes to us how the ashes from the previous day’s service are removed: “The Kohen should don his fitted linen tunic, and he shall don linen breeches on his flesh; he shall separate the ash of what the fire consumed of the elevation-offering on the Alter, and place it next to the Alter. He shall remove his garments and don other garments and he shall remove the ash to the outside of the camp, to a pure place.” To the modern mind, at first glance, this might appear odd. Why is the Kohen taking the trouble of changing his clothing so unnecessarily?  Would it not suffice to either wear different layers, and simply remove the outer layer after first separating the ashes? Or perhaps he could simply change his soiled clothes only one time, after the completion of his service? Why is he seemingly inconveniencing himself to the extent that he must take extra time in the changing of his clothing? Surely the kohen was a very busy individual- this does not appear to be the most efficient use of his precious time. I would like to suggest that the Torah is teaching us a profound lesson, that is echoed repeatedly throughout the Torah: Life is not about taking shortcuts, or pursuing the most convenient way of doing things—life is about putting in tremendous effort into everything that we do. As the Talmud says, “According to the pain is the reward.”  This past Shabbos, I saw this idea expressed very beautifully while I was reading an article in Mishpacha Magazine that quoted liberally from Professor Tim Wu’s article in the New York Times titled The Tyranny of Convenience. 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. Just today, I set an alarm clock to wake me up from a short nap by speaking to my smart watch. I responded to text messages by speaking to my phone, so as not to have to bother typing. I am blessed with an Apple Phone, but those 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. GPS ensures we never have to use our brains when getting to a destination. I have lived in my home city for 21 years of my life, but every time I embark on my weekly drive downtown, Waze is telling me how to get there. 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. When riding up the Super Bee Chairlift at Copper Mountain last week, from the base of the mountain to the Summit, I asked myself why I would ever bother climbing up a mountain when a chairlift could take me to the top infinitely quicker, easier, and more efficiently.  And while it is true, and undeniable that there are many constructive places for convenience in our society, one must ask himself what he is doing with the saved time that the convenience has afforded him? Is he utilizing it for a productive purpose? Or using it in the pursuit of even more convenience?  But even if one is utilizing convenience for constructive purposes, it strikes me as very difficult to remember that exerting effort, and, even, dare I say, using the inconvenient option, are very Jewish values. There is no convenient or easy way to really master a page of Talmud. One cannot conveniently, easily master being a good husband or father. These endeavors take tremendous amounts of time, and incredible amounts of work and effort.  This Pesach, as we celebrate our freedom, our triumphant exodus from bondage—let us strive to be like the Kohen, who took no shortcuts in performing the Divine sacrificial service, who worked very meticulously to fulfill every aspect of his avodah. Let us unshackle ourselves from the various elements of society to which we are enslaved. Or, to rephrase Professor Wu, let us emerge from the enslavement of convenience, but let us not be emancipated from working hard to fulfill our life goals and aspirations.

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

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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.