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Confessions of a meaning-aholic

Posted on 20 September 2017 by admin

I admit it. I am a “meaning-aholic.”
I know that no such word currently exists in Webster’s Dictionary, but I think it’s high time that this word, or a word like it, found its way into the holy grail of English parlance. Ever since I was a child, thoughts concerning the meaning of life and its expression in this world have never been far from my mind. Is there a G-d? What does He want from us? What is my unique mission in life? The search for answers to these age-old questions has consumed many of my waking hours and forms the primary colors on my palate of meaning. It was this search, no doubt, that spurred my religious awakening in the midst of my teenage years, and with it my adoption of greater spiritual commitments and Jewish practice. My career choice to become a rabbi, and an outreach rabbi in particular, seemed a natural extension.
At the tender age of 26, having dedicated the last eight years of my life to Torah studies in some of the finest study halls that Israel and America had to offer, I was finally ready to share my knowledge with others. I was recruited by DATA (Dallas Area Torah Association), a Dallas-based kollel (an advanced institution of higher Jewish learning for married men) and Jewish outreach organization, straight out of Ner Israel Rabbinical College, and was ready to hit the ground running.
What I didn’t realize back then was how much my “meaning-aholism” would impact my many encounters with Jewish individuals over the years. I was and am always on the lookout for others like me who have meaning on the mind and am quick to discern — to the best of my ability — those individuals around me for whom meaning seems to comprise less than a starring, or sometimes even supporting, role in their lives. Over 10 years after arriving in Dallas, and thousands of conversations and meetings later, I am certain of one thing that would have surprised my younger self: Most people are not meaning-aholics.
So, where do most people stand? As it relates to the pursuit of meaning and purpose I have discovered four distinct groups of individuals.

Group 1: ‘Leave-Me-Alone-ers’

These are individuals for whom the call to purpose and meaning does not seem to acutely resonate.
If there lies in man an inborn drive to seek out life’s meaning, there also lies in man an opposing impulse to do away with or shut one’s eyes to anything that might hinder one’s freedoms and autonomy. For as much as meaning offers its actor, it is rarely acquired without a healthy dose of newfound personal responsibility. Meaning isn’t cheap and its truth demands action. For those to whom the burden of responsibility looms heavier than whatever joys meaning might bring their way, the pull to escape meaning’s grasp will be an ever-present one.
“Leave-Me-Alone-ers” may couch their distaste for meaning mechanisms like religion and the like in calculated intellectual dialectics, but by the end of the many conversations I have had with “Leave-Me-Alone-ers,” a rooted self-interest in personal autonomy and freedom is always uncovered as a present and prominent feature of their personalities. As I have written about before, it is virtually impossible for human beings to separate their emotional and intellectual lives from one another. If your emotions find religious or meaning-oriented duties distasteful, your intellect will quickly develop the logical arguments to support that position. (As an aside, the opposite is true as well. A religiously motivated individual will similarly discover the intellectual rationale to support his practice. The question for the truth-seeker is, then, not whether or not there are logical arguments to be made on both sides, but as to which argument is stronger, and therefore worthy of making demands upon our lives.)

Group 2: ‘Busy Bodies’

These individuals are so busy with daily life and all its details that they find no time to consider the larger issues of life.
A recent lunch and learn with a group of 30-somethings illustrates the dynamic of this group perfectly.
I asked the participants of this group if they had yet identified what they were living for, what the purpose of their lives was. Each participant, blank-faced, turned their gaze toward the others, hoping that one of them might break the growing silence that was slowly filling the room. One of them finally piped up, “I guess we’re at a point in our lives where we’re mostly focused on developing our careers and haven’t given much thought to those kinds of questions.”
What the above group may not have realized is that if they were not dedicating the time to ask and answer the important questions of life now, there would be little reason to assume that they would suddenly wake up one day in the future with newfound focus and interest. In the world of meaning, there is no time like the present!
In my experience, the 30-something population is only slightly more likely to fall into the “Busy Body” population than older populations. It seems that either the bigger questions of life matter to you or they don’t, the aging process adding but limited motivation to an otherwise disinterested soul.
Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato (1707-1746), the illustrious Italian kabbalist and philosopher, writes of the plague of “busyness” on the purpose-driven life in Chapter 2 of his magnum opus The Path of the Just:
One who walks along in his world without contemplating whether his ways are good or evil is similar to a blind man walking on the bank of a river. His danger is certainly very great and his calamity is more likely than his escape…
In truth, this is one of the cunning strategies of the evil inclination, to constantly burden people’s hearts with his service so as to leave them no room to look and consider which road they are taking.
For he knows that if they were to put their ways to heart even the slightest bit, certainly they would immediately begin to feel regret for their deeds. The remorse would go and intensify within them until they would abandon the sin completely.
This is similar to the wicked Pharaoh’s advice saying “intensify the men’s labor…” (Exodus 5:9). His intention was to leave them no time whatsoever to oppose him or plot against him. He strove to confound their hearts of all reflection by means of the constant, incessant labor.

Group 3: ‘On-My-Terms-ers’

This group of people seek out meaning and recognize its importance, but only adopt those elements of meaning that conform or coexist with their preconceived ideas of what their life should look like. They want meaning, but on their terms. They want the life-sustaining gifts that meaning offers without the sacrifice and commitment that meaning demands.
In a sense this group is similar to the “Leave Me Alone-ers” in that personal autonomy remains a prized possession. The difference between the two lies primarily in the “On-My-Terms-ers” recognition that meaning, too, is a highly valued commodity. “On-My-Terms-ers” seek a “happy medium,” adopting those elements of meaning that feel comfortable in their lives and discarding those elements of meaning that require a trip outside of their comfort zone. “On-My-Term-ers” reap the gifts of meaning and spirituality to the same degree that they adopt meaningful practices. Pragmatism, unlike truth, seems to be the principal determining factor in their lives, and meaning must bend itself to their will, not the opposite.

Group 4: ‘Meaning-aholics’

This small group of people is consumed with discovering the meaning in this world and is willing to turn their lives around in order for their lives to be in consonance with the dictates of meaning, no matter the cost.
My general rule of thumb is that people change their lives when the pain of not changing is greater than the inevitable pain of changing. For “Meaning-aholics” the knowledge that their lives are not being lived meaningfully and to the fullest extent is much more painful than the pain caused by leaving their comfort zones.
As we enter the High Holiday season and the meaning of life lies keenly on the mind it is worth asking ourselves the difficult question as to which group we most prominently align. For some of us it might be clear, but for others it might be more difficult to isolate. Some of us don’t fit so neatly into just one group, and for some of us it might depend on the day, or the mood we are in.
For most of us, we can identify on some level with all four groups. We’ve sensed the pull and desire for personal autonomy, we can identify with how busy life can get and how little time we feel we can dedicate to our spiritual lives, we’ve felt the internal tug-of-war between our values and our desires and yes, we’ve experienced those blissful moments of clarity when all there was in the world was God and His will.
The question we must ask ourselves: Which group will we commit to be a part of for the year to come?

To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin email him at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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Empathy, action go hand in hand during disasters

Posted on 20 September 2017 by admin

Dear Families,
One of the most important Jewish Values is “empathy — rachamim” and one of the best ways to teach it is by modeling. Rachamim, the Hebrew word, is usually translated as compassion. As we acknowledge other people’s feelings, thoughts and experiences, we feel compassion for them — we identify with them and want to help them, which is also called empathy. Psychologists tell us that compassion and empathy begin to develop in the first years of life. In fact, scientists assume that we are biologically wired for these feelings. Yet, we must also teach our children to be empathetic and compassionate. Rabbi Wayne Dosick in Golden Rules says:
You can teach your children that a good, decent, ethical person has a big, loving heart when they feel you feeling another’s pain, when they know that you are committed to alleviating human suffering.
You can teach your children that a good, decent, ethical person has big, open hands when they watch you give of your resources — generously and often — and when they watch you give of the work of your hands — willingly and joyfully.
You can teach your children that a good, decent, ethical person can fulfill the sacred task of celebrating the spark of the Divine in each human being and the preciousness of each human being when you teach them to imitate G-d, who is “gracious, compassionate and abundant in kindness; who forgives mistakes, and promises everlasting love.”

Family talk time

  • What does it mean to be kind to a friend? What does it mean to be kind to an animal?
  • Think of a time when someone hurt you. How did it feel?
  • Try to “put yourself in someone’s shoes.” What does that mean? How does it help us to understand others?
  • Tell about Rabbi Tanchum of whom it is said, “When he needed only one portion of meat for himself, he would buy two; one bunch of vegetables, he would buy two — one for himself and one for the poor.” How could you do this in your family? Make a promise to think of others when grocery shopping — buy a second portion of something for the food bank.

Today as we read, hear and watch the sad and frightening stories of hurricanes, we question how much to share with our children and that is an individual family matter. Yet, we must look inside ourselves not only to feel empathy toward those who are suffering and struggling but to decide how we can act to help others. This is part of the healing for those in need and for growing for each of us as we reach out to help.

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Thoughts on sounding, hearing shofar

Posted on 20 September 2017 by admin

Dear Rabbi Fried,
What should I be thinking about when I hear the shofar on Rosh Hashanah? It seems like there should be more focus than just how well of a job the blower did this year!
Wishing you a happy Rosh Hashanah,
— Jill K.
Dear Jill,
I don’t want to toot my horn, but I blow the shofar in our shul and also hope that people are thinking about more than just how I did (or if I deserve to have my shofar’s license renewed, all puns intended).
The sages have pointed out many hidden reasons for blowing the shofar; we will try to enumerate a few of them in the space we have available.
Maimonides in his Code offers the most popular understanding; his words are quoted in many machzorim/High Holiday prayer books: “Even though the real reason we blow shofar is a Heavenly decree and its reason is not revealed, we find a hint for it in the verse ‘wake up the slumbering from your sleep’ — wake up and repent! This is referring to the people who are ‘asleep’ in the vanities of the time.” According to Maimonides the shofar is a spiritual, annual alarm clock which awakens us from our reveries and makes us become focused upon our purpose in the world and begin the process of teshuvah: self-improvement and growth.
Another important focus is that shofars and trumpets were blown upon the coronation of a king. Rosh Hashanah is the day we “coronate the Heavenly King” and declare him as our King and us as his subjects. At the moment of hearing the shofar we resolve to live our lives as loyal subjects of our beloved King and to heed His decrees, the mitzvos, and live lives which bring only the most honor to His Kingdom as dedicated members of Klal Yisrael.
A further hint mentioned is that the Talmud declares the ram’s horn to be reminiscent of the ram offered by Abraham in place of his son Isaac. This further teaches us the lesson of complete dedication and subjection to the Divine Will, regardless of the difficulty involved or the level of sacrifice required. This thought deepens the level of our fealty to the Kingdom of Heaven.
One thought which I always feel connected to is the notion that our shofar reflects the shofar blast sounded by the Al-mighty at Mount Sinai. With this, one accepts upon themselves, at the moment of hearing the shofar, to become more dedicated in the coming year to the study of Torah, thereby becoming more deeply connected to Sinai and all it represents.
One final thought I’ll mention is that our shofar is a precursor of the “shofar hagadol,” the great shofar that will be sounded throughout the world with the arrival of Moshiach, the Messiah, ushering in the next period of history, the “time we’re all waiting for”! This is not just allegorical; rather, through our teshuvah at the time of our shofar blowing, we actually bring the world a step closer to that final shofar.
Personally, I usually shift my thoughts during the blowing to all of the above at different moments, as well as other thoughts, some of them personal. Each person should think about what connects them most to the moment.
All this is in addition to the most important thought of all: to have in mind to fulfill the mitzvah of shofar! (Make sure not to blow that one!)
This year we’ve all had a “shofar blast” of sorts leading up to Rosh Hashanah with the devastation wreaked in our backyards in Houston and Florida. It’s certainly created much food for thought for introspection; our belief is that whatever happens in the world has something to do with Klal Yisrael. It gives us that much more to contemplate during the Shofar Service this coming Rosh Hashanah!
Best wishes for a very meaningful Rosh Hashanah. May all y’all and our people everywhere be blessed with a sweet, joyous New Year filled with peace, good health and much blessing!

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Historic church visit enjoyable, valuable decision

Posted on 20 September 2017 by admin

As I write what you read now, it is last Sunday afternoon, after Kever Avot, our annual pre-Rosh Hashanah cemetery visit to recall and honor those we love who have predeceased us.
I visited many family graves during a recent stay in my hometown, but I remembered everyone again as I placed a stone on the local grave of my husband. And this was certainly a far different Sunday experience for me than the one I had just a week before …
On Sept. 10, I was in a small group of National Federation of Press Women members who stayed on after the conclusion of the group’s annual conference (this year in Birmingham) for a four-day tour of the homes, and other places of importance, in the lives of Alabama’s most honored writers. Our first stop — and its picture graces the front of the state’s official Civil Rights Tour brochure — was Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, the first pulpit of Martin Luther King before he became a figure of history. Its name has long since been expanded to Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, and it is a current candidate to become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
This was an auspicious Sunday for our group of 30-plus to visit: It was the church’s Women’s Leadership Day Celebration, with all elements of the service introduced and/or led by women, some of whom are ordained ministers; current Pastor Cromwell A. Handy, latest in the line of MLK’s successors, had only a minor role.
The enthusiasm with which Black worship is so often portrayed on TV and movie screens was somewhat in evidence — but only somewhat. Decorum ruled. Parishioners arrived wearing what I would call “Sunday best,” their young children in suits and party dresses. The nearby parsonage which was once MLK’s home is now a museum; although it is closed on Sundays and no tours of it or the church are given on those days, there is a sign welcoming all to worship. And indeed, our group was warmly welcomed by the large congregation already in attendance as we entered and took seats on several of the old wooden pews toward the back of the second-floor sanctuary.
A period of quiet meditation with an organ music background preceded the Call to Worship: “…we are God’s handiwork, created to do good works which God prepared in advance for us to do. God is a Spirit, and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth…”
After several readings and musical selections, by percussion ensemble and choir, came the formal recognition of visitors. As we entered, we had been given press-on cards to fill out with our names and addresses. Then, when the offertory was taken — called the “celebration of giving” and involving the ritual passing of collection plates — we were asked to remove those badges from our clothing and drop them into the plates, so the church would have a record of its visitors. (Of course, all of us also contributed something more tangible to the collection…)
But what was most interesting, and most touching — quite literally: As money flowed and music played, everyone rose, and many parishioners left their rows to walk where we visitors were standing, to give us handshakes and hugs, and to say, “God loves you, and we love you.” There was no reason to doubt their sincerity.
In our visiting group, only three of us were Jewish, and afterward, we talked a bit about the service, which we found paradoxical — very informal in a very structured way — but a most enjoyable and valuable learning experience. I didn’t hear anything from the Catholics among us, but the Protestants, almost to a woman, said they’d be much happier if their own church services were more like the one we’d just attended and participated in.
And that — the participation of loving and giving — was my takeaway from this very special interfaith Sunday.

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Shofar not exclusive to Rosh Hashanah

Posted on 14 September 2017 by admin

Rabbi Fried,
I was invited to a bris at an Orthodox synagogue this past week and they blew the shofar at the end of services. When I asked someone why they’re blowing the shofar if it’s not Rosh Hashanah, they said they blow it every day in the month of Elul. I’ve never heard of any of this and was embarrassed to ask, so could you please explain?
Remaining anonymous
Dear Anonymous,
What you experienced is a custom going back at least 1,000 years, and perhaps all the way back to Sinai, as we will explain.
The Torah relates that Moses ascended Mount Sinai three times, each for a 40-day period: The first was to receive the Torah and tablets, which were broken due to the golden calf. The second time was to pray that the Jewish nation should be spared despite the sin of the golden calf. The third and final time was to atone for that sin, and to receive the second tablets.
The day Moshe ascended the mountain for the third time was the first day of Rosh Chodesh Elul; he spent the entire month of Elul and 10 additional days there, totaling 40 days on Mount Sinai. On the 40th day God notified Moshe that the Jews are forgiven and instructed him to cut out two tablets so He should inscribe them with a second set of commandments. That day was Yom Kippur, which established Yom Kippur as a day of atonement for all time.
The Midrash says that every day that Moshe was upon the mountain (that third time), the shofar was blown throughout the camp. This was in order to remind the Jews of their sin the previous time Moses was on the mountain to receive tablets and not to make the same mistake again. The blast of the shofar also awakened them to repent for that sin, joining Moshe in his prayers and request for forgiveness.
Hence, every year in preparation for Yom Kippur we blow the shofar every day “throughout the camp,” in synagogues throughout the world, creating a time of introspection and focus on our lives and where we can improve. Some communities, such as the Sephardic Jews, hold a special service the entire month of Elul called “Selichot,” in which they reach out to God for forgiveness as Moshe prayed the entire month. (Ashkenazic Jews do the same, just not for the entire month, but from the week before. This year most begin Saturday night, Sept. 16 after midnight.) This, combined with the shofar, elevates the month of Elul to a unique status of prayers, introspection and self-improvement in anticipation of the High Holy Days or “Days of Awe,” Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Another explanation is that Elul is the month furthest from the previous Rosh Hashanah, and it is the last month of the year. The further we move away in time from all the inspiration of Rosh Hashanah and that period, the less it continues to affect us. The last Rosh Hashanah was the time we coronated the Al-mighty as the King; that coronation was accompanied by shofar blasts and regal songs. That powerful inspiration diminishes with time; by nature, the last month of the year which is the most distant would be the time that inspiration would be nearly gone. In order to counteract the natural lack of inspiration and lapsing totally back to our previous ways we blow the shofar — last year’s shofar — to remind ourselves all we grew last Rosh Hashanah and to connect the end with the beginning, ending the year with a bang! (or a blast!), on a high note with our renewed connection to our previous growth and new year’s resolutions. If we do so, then the coming Rosh Hashanah will be entirely different, taking us even higher in our lifelong climb upward as Jews.

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Successful prayer involves lifelong quest

Posted on 14 September 2017 by admin

For the average Jew, there are just two or three days per year they will attend a synagogue service. Let us join one of these Jews on his journey into the synagogue, and let’s call him Jonathan.
Jonathan is a kind and caring person, believes that there is a God, but isn’t quite sure how to define that. He went to Sunday school, had a bar mitzvah and contributes to Jewish charities. So, he puts on his nicest suit, and he heads over to the synagogue. At the door, he is greeted and shown his seat.
He opens the prayer book, and he tries to follow along with the cantor. The language is vaguely familiar, and even though he took Hebrew 20 years ago, he can’t really follow along. For the parts that are in English, he reads along with everyone else, but isn’t quite sure why it is necessary to read of all this. He hears the shofar blast — and feeling good about himself for taking care of his religious duties, he probably won’t bother doing the same thing every weekend and certainly not every day. The thought of sitting through this every week is excruciating.
Makes perfect sense. If you have no idea why Judaism requires prayer, and what it is supposed to accomplish, then why bother with it? There is a famous parable of a poor man who dined at the home of the rich man. Whenever the rich man desired something, he lifted a small bell and rang it, and immediately a servant would appear with the next delicacy. At the end of the meal, the host offered the poor man any single item he desired from the table, and the poor man chose the bell.
He went home, and invited all his friends for dinner. As soon as they all arrived, he pulled out the bell and started ringing it, and of course no servant showed up. Showing up to services without having the tools of prayer and expecting to be drawn in is to behave like the poor man.
The Talmud refers to prayer as the time of war, a ferocious battle. As a Jew, our mission is to fill the world with the Divine, and we accomplish this through making sure we follow the commandments of the Torah and implement them in to our daily lives. For us to fulfill this mission, we need to be attuned to and conscious of our Creator. This is the purpose of prayer. The world is a spiritual desert, and it fights hard to pull us away from the Divine and toward physical enjoyment and indulgence. The time of prayer is the time to scrape away the coarseness of the physical world, and to focus our consciousness on God, and to guide our thought, speech and action to remain consistent with this mission.
Learning how to pray is a lifelong mission, and coming into a synagogue to pray without prior training and understanding of prayer, is akin to showing up for a tank battle with a butter knife.
The sages tell us, “Were it that a man would pray all day.” This doesn’t mean that we should neglect our livelihood, but that they wished that the pure state of mind, and focus on the Divine that we achieve during prayer, should remain with us all day long.
Be prepared. Don’t walk into the synagogue and ring your bell, and expect that miraculously you will know how to pray. If you need a place to start check out the book, Mystical Dimensions: Deep Calling Unto Deep by Rabbi Jacob Immanuel Schochet. It is available free on chabad.org.
Wishing you a prayerfully successful Happy and Sweet New Year, L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu Veteichatemu!
Rabbi Dov and Chana Tova Mandel are directors of Chabad of Fort Worth and Tarrant County.

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US Military’s secret language warriors

Posted on 14 September 2017 by admin

Finally!
A recently published book, Sons and Soldiers, tells the little-known story of an unusual World War II American army intelligence unit which successfully convinced many German soldiers to surrender and to reveal significant intelligence as well.
There have been a few earlier books on the subject of the “Ritchie Boys” but none as complete as this.
They came to be called The Ritchie Boys because their specialized training took place at Camp Ritchie, Maryland.
What set them apart from the usual army warrior was that instead of firearms, they would be using their knowledge and language skills as weapons.
They all spoke German and most were young German Jewish men who had escaped from the growing Nazi terror in the 1930s as well as the Holocaust which eventually, for many, consumed the family they had left behind.
Sadly, such was the case of my friend and fellow Jewish War Veteran, Rudy Baum (of blessed memory), who eventually settled in Dallas after the war.
Rudy’s older sister fled to Palestine before Rudy left for America. Both would be reunited at war’s end when Rudy visited Palestine, previous to returning to the states.
Brother and sister strongly believed in the importance of their children and everyone in general learning what the Nazis did, the horror of the Holocaust, so in 1996, they self-published the story of their family in both German and English in a paperback titled Children of a Respectable Family.
As a benefactor at the Dallas Holocaust Center (now the Dallas Holocaust Museum/Center for Education and Tolerance), Rudy donated his book sales to the center. Additionally, after retirement, as a volunteer, he shared his personal story with visitors.
The Rudy Baum I knew was a quiet, contemplative, highly intelligent, quick-witted, caring person. He never spoke much about his military experiences.
His book, Children of a Respectable Family, includes information I never heard him discuss. I learned that he received the Bronze Star for meritorious service, operating a sound system from the back of a Jeep while under fire, successfully enticing German soldiers to surrender.
Each surrender saved at least one or more American soldier’s life and the information (intelligence) gathered from that prisoner probably helped save other lives as well.
In addition, Rudy helped produce propaganda leaflets, interrogated Nazi prisoners, and upon promotion to First Lieutenant, supervised and managed groups of intelligence teams.
Upon reaching Buchenwald and viewing the deplorable conditions, General George Patton ordered the military police to take trucks into the nearest town, Weimar, to round up all the adults to return to Buchenwald.
Rudy and the other interpreters formed the civilians into lines to view the dead and dying. They were required to view — and the more able ones — to help clean up and bury the dead. The civilians’ denial of awareness of what was going on in the camp infuriated Rudy. “These denials fueled the hatred I had felt for all Germans.”
Rudy’s comment at war’s end was, “War was hell, but the Holocaust was horror!” With the war over and Rudy having accumulated enough points, he was ready to return home, but the military had other plans.
After first being promoted to captain, Rudy was appointed Media Control Officer of Marburg, a university town outside of Frankfurt. His assignment was to help restart the cultural life of the city by hiring a staff and producing a city newspaper.
By screening so many applicants with follow-up interviews, Rudy’s attitude toward German civilians began to change. He found many individuals who were decent people, who were active in the anti-Nazi movement.
Thinking of what happened to his parents and other members of his family, and the poor souls of Buchenwald, Rudy finally came to the conclusion that “not every German can be held responsible for the heinous crimes of the Nazis.”
Like other Ritchie Boy members, Rudy Baum was one of a kind, a member of the only group of its kind in the United States military.
From the viewpoint of fellow Ritchie Boy Gunther Stern, “We were fighting an American war, and we were also fighting an intensely personal war. We were in it with every fiber of our being. We worked harder than anyone could have driven us. We were crusaders. This was our war!”

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Look deeper into yourself as new year approaches

Posted on 14 September 2017 by admin

Dear families,
Rosh Hashanah, the 10 days of teshuvah (repentance) and Yom Kippur — what are we supposed to be doing beyond buying new clothes, planning the holiday menus and buying our synagogue tickets?
We all know that this is a time to reflect, to look deeper at our lives and plan for change. What a challenge and an opportunity!
Each day I get so many posts to read and podcasts to listen to and sometimes it is overwhelming deciding what to attend to. Two items have stuck with me this past week and here they are:
I get a daily post from Seth Godin — mainly business thoughts but it really is about life. This one stuck with me: “I got it!” The secret of the fly ball is that you don’t shout, “You’ve got it.” It’s not up to us to assign who will catch it. If you can catch it, you call it. The thing about responsibility is that it’s most effectively taken, not given. The Jewish value achrayut, responsibility, is so important in our lives and at this time of the year, we all need to “take responsibility” in all we do, from stepping up to help with hurricane victims to small things like picking up the carelessly thrown piece of trash. As you ponder what changes to make in your life this year, think responsibility — what will I step up and take charge of? Promise not to wait — as Godin says, “If you can catch it, you call it!”
The second came from JCCA, our “mothership” of the J. Our early childhood department is so fortunate to be involved in a program called Sheva — a framework of guiding principles and Jewish values. We listened to posts about Rosh Hashanah and this one resonated with me.
Cantor Ellen Dreskin related a common greeting we often hear: “You look great — you haven’t changed a bit.” I have been known to respond with a joke, “Did I look this bad 30 years ago?” But Dreskin turned it around for me — hopefully I haven’t changed too much on the outside (getting old is part of life) but just as hopefully I can say I have changed on the inside. Are those changes noticed by others? Does that matter? This is the opportunity that the High Holidays present — we must look at ourselves and decide what we will change going forward this year.
Great quote from Aesop in his Fables (no, he is not a rabbi): “When all is said and done, more is said than done.” Reflect, decide and DO! Take responsibility for the change in your life.
Shalom … from the Shabbat Lady.
Laura Seymour is director of Camping Services at the Aaron Family Jewish Community Center of Dallas.

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Calling to help during disasters can’t be muted

Posted on 07 September 2017 by admin

Dear Families,
In looking back on my “old” Shabbat Lady articles, I found this one that I had written after Hurricane Katrina and it fits so well for Harvey that I have copied it here to share. It begins:
We have all been affected by Hurricane Katrina and each of us must respond to the call for help. And continues with words for today: We would never want such a catastrophe but now we must teach our children by our example. For children of different ages, we must be careful about how much to tell and how much they should see in the news. We must reassure them and then get to work — action gives us control over situations. Helping those in need in tangible ways will allow our children to take part in helping “fix the world.” There are many opportunities in town. And don’t forget that as time passes, for our friends in Houston, this is not a quick solution. We must continue to respond to the needs for many weeks, months and even years.
As you decide what your family can do, remember to use Jewish texts to talk about the important values of doing for others. Here are some wonderful words to teach the lessons of our history. Talk with your families using these texts from our Jewish sources and then bring the words to the actions we need for today.

Separate reeds are weak and easily broken; but bound together they are strong and hard to tear apart. — Tanchuma, Nitzvaim 1

  • If I am not for myself, who is for me? If I am only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when? — Hillel
  • Those who think they can live without others are wrong. But those who think that others can survive without them are even more in error. — Hasidic Folk Saying
  • It is not your duty to complete the work, but neither are you excused from it. — Pirke Avot
  • How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world. — Anne Frank

Shalom…from the Shabbat Lady.
Laura Seymour is director of Camping Services at the Aaron Family JCC.

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Use ‘lower’ desires to create higher change

Posted on 07 September 2017 by admin

In my last column we discussed the revolutionary concept of “change from the top,” the ancient Talmudic principle that long-lasting change only takes shape when forged at a higher place within ourselves.
We described the curative functions that mind-shifts have in overcoming lifelong recurring sin and negative habits and described issue-focused Torah study as the way to achieve these crucial changes in perspective.
Once aware of this groundbreaking methodology of change I employed it in my own life, tackling lifelong recurring issues and bringing them into my firm grasp. Change in even the most challenging of areas of my life was now within my powers to create, and I became an evangelist, sharing the wisdom of “change from the top” to anyone who would listen long enough. Most importantly, I was thrilled that my newfound change stuck, further confirming in my mind the veracity of this approach as well as my duty to share it with the world.
It was a few months later that I first began to feel the bonds of my change loosening. I noticed my old patterns of thought returning and with them a return to my old ways. If my recent life change felt like a breath of fresh mountain air, my reversal to old ways felt like a knife to my still-beating heart.
Before I go on, it’s important to note that even as I reverted to my former unwanted patterns of behavior, I didn’t feel like all of my hard work had been for naught. You see, even as my outer life largely mirrored my pre-change life, my inner life had been inextricably altered. “Change from the top” had touched something deep inside me and I knew that the spiritual trajectory of my life had been altered forever. I certainly wasn’t ready to give up on “change from the top” because of a recent change in course — its efficacy was obvious to me — but I had to admit that something was missing from my game plan.
As they say, “hindsight is 20/20”; it’s easy to see what was missing in my approach looking back now. What I know now is how hard it is to function from a higher place for a very long time. It requires a constant diet of issue-focused study to wade off old mindsets and habits and it seems only natural that when that study comes to its close much of the change that it inspired will slowly dissipate. It’s no different from many people’s experiences in weight loss programs. They find success in the program, think that at that point they can maintain their weight loss without the aid of the group (and save themselves the cost of membership), and quickly discover how surprisingly difficult that is to accomplish.
Even with a renewed commitment to issue-focused Torah study, I knew that it wasn’t reasonable to assume that I would always function at a place of high inspiration and mindset. I needed a fresh element that would get me through the natural lows of life, holding me steady until I might return to higher ground.
I found that missing puzzle piece while mentally reminiscing about my period of profound change. I considered the breadth of spiritual benefits reaped while living on a higher plane, but it was the surprising discovery of all the self-serving benefits of change that most caught me off guard. I came to realize that during my period of change I was a happier and more fulfilled person. Profound change quenched personal desires that had been unfed for far too long. Could spiritual change be good for more than just the soul? It now seemed so!
If I could just hold on to the realization that spiritual change held within itself powerful doses of self-serving benefit, I might establish my newfound change even in the down times. I wasn’t worried that my drive for personal fulfillment and pleasure would go away anytime soon!
It was soon after that I considered a statement of the Sages of the Talmud that deals with just this issue: “One should always engage in Torah study and the performance of mitzvot for the wrong reasons, for it is through the fulfillment for the wrong reasons that a person will come to fulfill them for the right reasons” (Talmud Pesachim 50b).
I had always understood this famous passage as a sort of permission to engage in good deeds for ulterior motives because the end goal was positive. Now, I began reconsidering this reading. Perhaps what our Sages meant was that we should go out of our way, actively searching for the wrong reasons to do good deeds, for through such consideration we will reach the spiritual heights that God expects from us. This reading seems to be hinted to in the word le’olam, “one should always,” that prefaces the above adage. The search for self-serving benefits to positive change should be something we should always be engaged in.
In the modern jargon of psychology, we might put it this way: We need to utilize our id, that part of our ever-present psyche that is fully intent on accessing immediate self-gratification and pleasure, without regard for potential future consequences, to serve our spirit.
If we focus on our narcissistic desire to be honored by others, we may find it easier or even natural to generously donate at charitable functions even when our charitable muscles are weak.
Struggling to muster the energy to study Torah? Perhaps consider your personal interest in being known by others as a wise and knowledgeable man and feel the motivation begin to bubble within you!
Wanna be seen as good? Doing good deeds will only further that perspective in the eyes of others.
There is no end to the list and the potential for positive change that it can lead to. Have no fear, the Sages assure us that even if our good deeds begin with bad intentions, eventually we will turn the corner and serve God and others for the noblest of reasons.
If the initial process was called “change from the top,” I call this process of mental consideration “change from the bottom,” as it utilizes our “lower” desires to create higher change. I’ve found the utilization of both strategies a most powerful tool in creating long-lasting change.
To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin, email him at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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