Archive | Rabbi Yogi

Happiness, growth more related than you think

Posted on 30 November 2017 by admin

A despondent congregant came to speak with me. She felt immense anguish over the large chasm that existed between her current spiritual state and the spiritual state that she felt confident she was capable of achieving and, alas, was not.
What do you say to such a person when you concur that hers is a very real dilemma, worthy of careful consideration and personal concern, and yet, you equally recognize that her heightened degree of private turmoil is such that instead of serving as a source of personal motivation to bridge her spiritual gap it has rather become for her a deep-seated source of internal paralysis and harmful self-loathing?
One can imagine the delicate balance required of anyone considering a response to such a sensitive inquiry. The answer given will either affirm the spiritual dilemma at hand and perpetuate the congregant’s negative beliefs about themselves, or soothe the congregant’s nerves while minimizing what should be a serious issue of concern to any committed Jew. I therefore decided to address both sides of the matter at hand.
I offered suggestions that I thought might booster her spiritual growth, but I also tried to raise her up in her own eyes. “The fact that you care so deeply about your spiritual life, about living your life with the utmost meaning, is itself an incredible achievement that needs to be recognized,” I told her. “Unlike so many others, you are playing the game of life the way it’s supposed to be played. And that alone should fill you with an incredible feeling of pride and self-satisfaction!” I was pleased to see that my words had hit their mark and that my congregant left with a newfound kick in her step as well as a vision of how to proceed going forward.
I found myself reflecting upon this exchange with a congregant upon completing Victor Frankl’s masterful work, Man’s Search For Meaning.
He first clarified his belief that man’s primary motivational force is the striving to find meaning in one’s life, which is in contradistinction to Alfred Adler’s belief in the primacy of the will to power, and Freud’s central focus on the pleasure principle. Frankl recognized the centrality of the will to power and the will to pleasure in mankind, but saw those as expressions of a frustrated will to meaning. “Sometimes the frustrated will to meaning is vicariously compensated for by a will to power, including the most primitive form of the will to power, the will to money. In other cases, the place of frustrated will to meaning is taken by the will to pleasure” (p.107).
Frankl bemoans what he deems to be the “mass neurosis of the present time,” something he terms “the existential vacuum.” What is this existential vacuum? In Frankl’s words, it “can be described as a private and personal form of nihilism; for nihilism can be defined as the contention that being has no meaning” (p.129)
In other words, we live in a world in which people have largely ceased believing that human life and the process of living has intrinsic meaning. Rather, more and more individuals are convinced that life is but the “result of biological, psychological and sociological conditions, or the product of heredity and environment” (p.130). And what meaning, what dignity, can there be for man who is essentially reduced to an advanced, randomly conceived machine?
Or as Frankl puts it in a postscript written almost 40 years after the original release of his book, “As to the causation of the feeling of meaninglessness, one may say, albeit in an oversimplifying vein, that people have enough to live by but nothing to live for; they have the means but no meaning” (p.140).
Frankl adds that one of the primary reasons why this epidemic is so pronounced in the modern age is that “man has suffered another loss in his more recent development inasmuch as the traditions which buttressed his behavior are now rapidly diminishing” (p.106). This seems to me a reference to the post-enlightenment’s abandonment of religion en masse. For if religion is that vehicle that most directly asserts meaning into man’s life, and if meaning is the dominant motivational force of man, modern man’s abandonment of religion can be seen as nothing less than catastrophic in its psychological implications for mankind.
It is for this reason that Frankl urges the reader to run once again toward meaning, and not away from it. The challenge: This striving for meaning necessarily introduces a new degree of tension into one’s life that, like the tension of my congregant, is oftentimes uncomfortable. In one of the most compelling paragraphs in the entire book, Frankl writes:
“Thus it can be seen that mental health is based on a certain degree of tension, the tension between what one has already achieved and what one still ought to accomplish, or the gap between what one is and what one should become… We should not, then, be hesitant about challenging man with a potential meaning for him to fulfill. It is only thus that we evoke his will to meaning from its state of latency. I consider it a dangerous misconception of mental hygiene to assume that what man needs in the first place is equilibrium or, as it is called in biology, ‘homeostasis,’ i.e., a tensionless state. What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task” (pp.104-105).
It’s worth noting that for all of the tension that the striving for meaning spawns, it is this very progress that generates the seeds to human happiness. Again the wise words of Victor Frankl:
“To the European, it is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’ Once the reason is found, however, one becomes happy automatically. As we see, a human being is not one in pursuit of happiness but rather in search of a reason to become happy, last but not least, through actualizing the potential meaning inherent and dormant in a given situation” (p.138).
How similar is this reflection to the teaching of the great German Torah sage, Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch zt’’l (1808-1888), who taught in his commentary to the Chumash (Devarim 4:1) that the word simcha, “happiness,” is etymologically related to the word tzmicha, “growth.” The concept is that one cannot achieve the state of happiness by pursuing happiness directly, as happiness is not a product in and of itself. Happiness is, rather, the natural byproduct of, and emotional response to, the experience of human growth.
The time has come, then, for us to reconsider our emotionally-fraught relationship with tension-filled meaning, if for no better reason than the selfish pursuit of our very own happiness.
To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin, email him at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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Many common phrases born from Tanach

Posted on 16 November 2017 by admin

Recently, I’ve been thinking of the many moralistic adages and maxims that pepper our daily conversations with family and friends, curious to see how many of them are consistent with Torah thought and values.
What I’ve discovered is that while some of the most famous English adages seem to have been plucked straight out of Tanach (The Five Books of the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings), others, though quoted frequently and with an air of authenticity, directly contradict thousands of years of Jewish tradition.
Take the phrase, “Two heads are better than one.” Although the exact phraseology is first recorded by the English writer John Heywood in his collection of English proverbs (1546), it was probably inspired by King Solomon’s wise statement in Kohelet/Ecclesiastes (4:9), “Therefore two are better than one, for they may well enjoy the profit of their labor.”
Another expression, “Two wrongs do not make a right,” though not a direct play on a Biblical verse, calls upon us to not take revenge, itself a Biblical prohibition, and the saying “Honesty is the best policy” is certainly meant in much the same vain as the Biblical verse “Distance yourself from a false matter” (Shemot/Exodus 23:7).
Other adages find similar expression in the oral tradition of the Mishnah, most notably in the ethical teachings found in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers).
“There’s no time like the present” certainly sounds a lot like Hillel’s statement (Avot 1:14), “And if not now, when?”
“Actions speak louder than words” is meant in the same vain as Shamai’s directive (Avot 1:15), “Say little and do much.”
And the oft-stated maxim “Don’t judge a book by its cover” appears much like an adaptation of Rabbi Meir’s exhortation (Avot 4:27), “Do not look at the container, but at what there is in it.”
On the other hand we have the phrase, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me.” This expression is recorded to have appeared in the Christian Recorder of March 1862 as an “old adage,” and though meant to persuade the child victim of name-calling to ignore the taunt, refrain from physical retaliation and remain calm, the phrase in and of itself is most certainly inconsistent with Jewish tradition, which has always recognized the depth of pain that verbal insults can inflict upon their intended victim. Besides the Torah prohibition of hurting someone with words (onaat devarim), the Torah includes a special prohibition against humiliating others (Sefer Ha-Mitzvos, lo ta’aseh 303), a sin which the sages of the Talmud compare to murder (pointing out that the blood leaves a person’s face).
And what of the the old proverb, “Children should be seen and not heard”? The author of this ditty had obviously never attended a Pesach Seder!
There is, however, one phrase in particular that more than all others captured my attention. It is a phrase steeped in great moral complexity, and for that reason has been rendered into two opposing statements over time. It was the Roman poet Ovid (43 BCE-17/18 CE) who wrote in his collection Heroides (II:83) that “the result justifies the deed.” This would give rise to the modern rendition, “The end justifies the means.” (It is Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527), the father of modern political science, who is often quoted as championing this position in his renowned work The Prince, but that is a matter of scholarly debate, many arguing that his approach was much more nuanced than any one citation might reveal.)
On the other hand we have the counter-expression, “The end doesn’t justify the means,” which seems to have developed as a response to the earlier common phrase.
So, what does Judaism have to say about this moral conundrum? May one be as Robin Hood, stealing from the rich to give to the poor? As in everything in Torah, the answer is nuanced, each scenario requiring its own halachic assessment. On the one hand one may violate all of the commandments of the Torah (cheat, lie, steal, etc.) in order to fulfill the supreme mitzvah of saving a life (the only exceptions being the three cardinal sins of murder, idolatry and sexual immorality). On the other hand, the Talmud (Sukkah 30a) rules that one may not fulfill a mitzvah by means of a sin (à la Robin Hood).
It would seem, then, that the general rule of thumb in Judaism is that the ends do not justify the means, but that there are extenuating circumstances which necessitate certain evils for the sake of much greater goods.
It seems to me that G-d, too, adheres by the overarching principle of the ends not justifying the means. In the story of the Covenant of the Parts we read of G-d’s promise to Abraham that after much suffering under the hands of a foreign nation his children would one day come to inherit the land of Canaan.
The Torah records: “And the fourth generation shall return here, for the iniquity of the Amorite shall not yet be full until then” (Breishit/Genesis 15:16).
Rashi (1040-1105), the primary commentator on the Torah, illustrates that G-d was explaining to Abraham why He could not bring the Jewish people to the Holy Land any earlier than the fourth generation. The reason: Delivering the Jewish nation into Canaan would mean the expulsion of the native Amorites from the land, and G-d could not exile the Amorites from the land any earlier than the fourth generation, a time when (G-d knew that) their sins would have accumulated enough to be worthy of the punishment of exile.
You see, G-d, too, had a “mitzvah.” He was to bring the holy nation into the Holy Land. And yet, His message for all generations is that even such a monumental deed could not be done at the expense of a nation not yet worthy of exile. Such a supernatural orchestration of events would be the divine equivalent of a mitzvah brought about through a sin. And such an action is no mitzvah at all!
It would certainly be interesting if we all examined the phrases we use most commonly in our lives, considered their deeper meanings and reflected upon whether or not they are consistent with our tradition. I am quite sure you will similarly find it a rewarding experience.
To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin, email him at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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Don’t forget to use Torah for intended purpose

Posted on 02 November 2017 by admin

I am a firm believer that a connection to Torah not only enhances a person’s morality, but that it is the greatest character-building tool at humanity’s disposal. Between its everlasting ethical teachings and principles to its morally enlightening stories of the great men and women of our past, we are given a vision of a moral life to aspire to and laws to help guide us along that very path.
That being said, it is no wonder that new students of Torah find the presence of morally deficient observant Jews incredibly perplexing. These students have come in contact with Jews who, as fastidious as they are in their performance of the ritual laws, utterly fail in their obligations to their fellow man. There is the religious relative whom they are sure would never dream of missing a day that didn’t commence with the donning of tefillin and the recitation of holy prayers, who is nevertheless known as an unscrupulous businessman, and the Orthodox couple they are friendly with who just can’t stop yelling and antagonizing each other.
To many it remains as a mystery — how can one live a dedicated, religious life on the one hand and remain a callous, bad-tempered and unscrupulous individual on the other?
While recently thinking about this question, the analogy of a mirror struck me as most appropriate. You see, Torah is like a perfectly shining mirror hanging on the wall. By affixing the mirror in a prominent place, you are likely to stop in front of it and take a good look at yourself before leaving the house. Is your hair right? Did you miss a button? You might even notice something of greater importance, like a new mole growing on your neck that requires a trip to the dermatologist. While hanging the mirror on the wall doesn’t guarantee that you will look better than before, it definitely increases your chances!
It’s important to recognize, though, that not everyone who lives in mirror-filled houses benefits equally. You see, some people didn’t “choose” to affix those mirrors on the walls themselves. They were rather born into a family that hung mirrors all over the house. And while they undoubtedly utilized the family mirrors on occasion, mirrors on the wall became more a matter of family custom than anything else — their utilitarian value having long been relegated to secondary function. When they grew up and it came time to build a house of their own, fresh mirrors were quickly put up, of course, for such was the minhag, the custom, but it didn’t take long for the mirrors to become an afterthought once again.
To the sensitive soul, the Torah cries out to be studied every day and presents its student with a list of blemishes, imperfections and deficiencies that must be addressed before he leaves this world. This daily process of profound self-examination and heartfelt study certainly benefits the individual at hand in a most profound way. But for the individual for whom the Torah and Torah living has been reduced to a matter of culture, no longer a central life force, the Torah becomes like that forlorn mirror on the wall, always there, but never being used.
It’s hard to imagine, but culturally religious Jews do indeed exist! A person can play the part, wear a beard and payos, dress in modest clothing and observe the Shabbat, but unless the Torah is utilized as more than just a tool for fitting in with one’s community and family, its majestic powers remain untapped, and the reputation of God and His Torah suffer in the process.
Of course every person and every situation is unique and no one explanation, even a good one, can account for every scenario. For some, the Torah is truly front and center in their lives, but they have difficulty escaping the many rationalizations which paint their unbecoming behavior as acceptable or even meritorious and stop the wheels of teshuvah, repentance, from ever turning. Who knows, maybe the individual you are pointing toward is actually working diligently on changing her character traits, but her process is mostly being done in private, away from the peering eyes of all those around her.
At the end of the day, it is precisely because of the frailty of humankind that the Torah was given to man, but like any good product it cannot help you if you do not use it. The problem is with people, not with Torah! As for us, it is our job to proudly hang the mirrors of Torah throughout our homes and to teach our children that those mirrors were affixed in the hopes that we would utilize them every day, perceive their personal messages for us and ultimately make ourselves into better people and better Jews.
Let’s make sure that our children know the difference between bagels and matzah balls, strong fixtures in our Jewish culture, and the Torah, which is so much more.

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Should we be interested in the spirit of our age?

Posted on 19 October 2017 by admin

Every new generation seems to offer up its own fresh take on life and living, sometimes building upon the sentiments and belief systems of previous generations and sometimes consciously moving away from them to forge new paths forward.
An undeniable spirit pulses through each society and time which often comes to define that particular era in the process. Exploring recent American history, we find the silent generation (1927-1945), on the one hand, with its spirit of conformity and adherence to the status quo, and the baby-boomer generation (1946-1964), on the other hand, which shook everything up with its spirit of free love and peace.
When it comes to trying to pin down the nature of any given time period, hindsight becomes an invaluable tool, for only after the fact can any era be examined in its totality and more accurately compared with other generations, both prior and future. Isolating the spirit of the current day and age, on the other hand, isn’t nearly as simple. It is in many ways comparable to the difference between a man trying to capture a good photograph of a tornado he can see coming from miles ahead and another trying to get a similar image whilst tossing and turning in the eye of the storm.
All that being said, and with a healthy dose of personal chutzpah, I’d like to share with you what I believe to be the beating pulse and central spirit of this newest and current period in American history. It can be briefly summed up as “Be yourself, and be proud of it!,” and is encapsulated in a quote I found online attributed to the singer Lady Gaga, “Don’t you ever let a soul in the world tell you that you can’t be exactly who you are.” In America 2017 we embrace differences in all areas of life and extol those who aren’t afraid to “be themselves” in the fullest sense of the word.
It seems that I’m not the only person who has noticed this newest of societal trends. In an op-ed to The New York Times (Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ Is Terrible Advice: June 4, 2016), Adam Grant, organizational psychologist and professor of management and psychology, similarly noted, “We are in the Age of Authenticity, where ‘be yourself’ is the defining advice in life, love and career.”
The question we are left to ponder as individuals is whether or not this current sentiment is something we should be interested in embracing and espousing ourselves. On the one hand, most of us believe that we should encourage others to express their personalities and bring their unique interests and talents to the collective table. If that’s what “be yourself” stands for, I think most of us are all in. The problem lies, however, with a newfound take on our “be yourself” sensibilities that is becoming more and more evident with time and that must be earnestly reckoned with.
Greater numbers of people are opting out of the noble institutions of marriage and parenthood, claiming that it’s just not “them.” Others see “being themselves” as a license to act out many of their most primal, natural urges without a second thought. Why be monogamous, so the thinking goes, when it contradicts our very nature?  Why avoid cursing or gossip or unabated hedonism when it feels so very good inside?  To others, “being themselves” discharges them of personal accountability — “What can I do? After all, I am what I am.”
It is this darker side of the “Be Yourself” Generation that we must be wary of and remain in diligent opposition to. For it was none other than the great and saintly Vilna Gaon (1720-1796) who clarified in his ethical treatise, Even Shleima (1:2), that, “the main purpose of human existence is to strengthen ourselves constantly in the breaking of our traits.” And as if to add emphasis to that original, commanding statement, he continues, “And if (a person) is not involved (in the breaking of his traits), what is his life worth?”
Is this not one of the central lessons of brit milah, ritual circumcision that just because something is natural doesn’t mean that we must accept its existence in our lives?  The essential question we must ask ourselves, then, is not whether or not any given trait or drive is natural but whether or not following in that trait’s or drive’s path is spiritually ruinous or beneficial.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also make mention of the vital contribution on this subject made by Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook (1865-1935), first chief rabbi of the State of Israel, in his poetic writings on the subject of teshuva, repentance. In Orot HaTeshuva (15:10), Rav Kook writes as follows: “When we forget about the nature of our souls, when we divert our attention from our inner lives, everything becomes mixed up and confused. The essential teshuva, which immediately illuminates the darkness, is found when one returns to himself, to the root of one’s soul.”
Ironically, Rav Kook is teaching us that it is only through the act of rising above our natural inclinations and the breaking down of our naturally selfish and sometimes destructive traits in teshuva that we uncover our sparkling, true selves, “the root of one’s soul.” It is of this deeper, spiritual self that the Torah shares in the enduring words of Shakespeare’s Polonius when he opined, “to thine own self be true.”
To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin, email him at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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Lead with faith, truth will follow

Posted on 05 October 2017 by admin

I was only a few blocks away from my in-laws’ home in Baltimore, driving down Reisterstown Road, the miles-long street that cuts through the Jewish hub of Pikesville, when I quickly switched from the left to the right lane and just as quickly hit the side of an oncoming vehicle. The evidence at the scene was by no means conclusive as to whose fault it was. Did I not see the car to my left when switching lanes, or had the car I hit been speeding and pulled into what had previously been an empty lane?
It all happened so quickly that I wasn’t sure myself as to whom was at fault, but the other driver stepped out of his vehicle irate and I immediately apologized to him. I told him that I assumed that I must not have checked my sideview mirror before switching lanes and he seemed appeased. No police were called to the scene for an official statement, the other driver sufficiently convinced that I had owned up to the mishap and would share that sentiment when the insurance company came calling for my accounting of the day’s events.
I continued to think about the accident for days to come, questioning whether or not I was at fault. One thing was for certain, I had a minivan full of rowdy kids, the music was playing and my mind was not fully focused on the road. Although my doubts remained, it seemed most likely that it was I who was primarily at fault.
When the insurance company did finally call, it felt like a moral test of sorts. Without any official statements made at the scene of the accident, it would essentially come down to personal accountings, and I was keenly aware of multiple personally beneficial ways that I could present the details of the accident so as not to seem culpable. After all, I tried convincing myself, I wasn’t wholly convinced of my role in the crash, and who’s to say that the other driver wasn’t merely looking out for his own self-interest when he angrily exited his car, convinced of my wrongdoing?
But those weren’t the only thoughts I had that day. I also contemplated what it meant to be a person of faith. Not faith in the Aristotelian sense, of a Creator-God who builds worlds and just as quickly runs away from them, but of faith in a deeply personal God who calls upon us to perfect His world by acting as He acts, running toward that which is righteous and fleeing from all that is evil. Faith in the God of Israel, whose seal is emet, truth (see Talmud Yoma 69b), surely demanded my dogged commitment to the truth as well. My faith had taught me that values, and truth in particular, were of the greatest importance and that a life of righteousness might be paved with truthful, self-incriminating statements to insurance agents. My faith also reassured me that as God was my ultimate provider I need not stoop beneath my morals for monetary gain.
I took a deep breath and told the insurance agent the whole truth that I wasn’t sure myself as to what had happened that day, but that I couldn’t say for sure that I had checked my sideview mirror. I knew that those words would meet the insurance company’s burden of proof against me (especially since I knew what the other driver’s statement must have been) and yet I felt good knowing that the truth had not been sacrificed upon the altar of the almighty dollar.
I’ve thought about that call from the insurance agent many times over the years and feel that through that experience I’ve gained a clearer appreciation of what is required if one wishes to speak truth in even the most challenging of times. I realized that for those with powers of intellect and ingenuity, there were almost always ways to extricate oneself from even the most precarious of situations. The price, however, is often in the truth that must be sacrificed along the way. Becoming people of truth requires that we set aside those intellectual capacities that have served us so well in the past. We must become as “simpletons” who speak the truth without knowledge of which words self-incriminate and which words do not.
I can’t help but wonder if there lies a connection between the Hebrew word temimut (simultaneously translated as “integrity,” “innocence” or “wholesomeness”) and the word tam, the Hebrew word for a simpleton (as in the Haggadah’s relating of the four sons, one of whom is the simple son, the tam). Perhaps integrity and truth demand that we go back to a more simple way of thinking, setting aside our more complex ways of thinking for the study halls and the classrooms.
I consider all of these thoughts on the heels of the holiday of Sukkot, the holiday in which we are commanded to leave our comfortable, secure houses, and live for seven days in primitive outdoor huts, whose simple roofs of branches and twigs make for the perfect skylight up to the heavens. As we lie down in the evening and stare up at the moon and the shining stars that fill the night sky, we are filled with a sense of awe and renewed faith that it is not our sturdy, alarm-monitored houses that truly protect us, but God above.
Sukkot also welcomes us back to a more simple time and space, a world separated from the dominating forces of materialism that more and more saturate our world. On Sukkot we reaffirm that while we need money to live, it is faith that must always lead the way. And when faith leads the way the truth is sure to follow.

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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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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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In struggle to change, start from bottom

Posted on 24 August 2017 by admin

Change is difficult!
That much is abundantly clear to all of us. For if there is one thing we humans are, it is creatures of habit, and change is all about disrupting equilibrium. I’ve thought a lot about change over the years, what needed change and how to get there, and pursued personal transformation with sincere and ambitious resolve. And while I have, no doubt, experienced my fair share of personal successes in the game of change, far too many of my attempts suffered from failure to thrive.
As many of you can most likely relate to, my endeavors in personal change seemed to frustratingly follow a similar course and pattern. The outset, marked with a burst of excitement and optimism, propelled a change of course for a good few days, weeks — or, in the best-case scenario, months. Inevitably, though, time and nature exerted their influences and a reversion to the mean pronounced the end to the experiment.
The fact that a return to one’s “normal” is, well … normal, doesn’t make what feels like a colossal individual failure and a confirmation of personal inadequacy any easier to take, and it certainly makes any and all subsequent attempts at change harder to justify. After all, why go through all the exertion and pain that change requires if you’ll end up back at square one anyways?
I knew there had to be a better way to create meaningful, long-lasting change; I just didn’t know what it was.
It was a chance vaad (ethical discourse) with one of the leading ba’alei mussar (ethicists) of our generation, Rabbi Reuven Leuchter Shlit’’a, that first reformed my understanding of the nature of change as well as the nature of change’s counterpart, teshuvah, repentance.
R’ Leuchter shared with us a piece of Aggadata (non-legalistic rabbinic literature) that I must have heard dozens of times before, and yet his interpretation of the composition was fresh, revelatory and indeed life-changing!
The Talmud under discussion was a portion in Tractate Menachos (29b) that discusses the letters God used in creation:
“This world was created with the letter hey and the world to come was created with the letter yud. And why was this world created with the letter hey? Because… anyone who wants to leave this world (in sin, by falling out of the bottom opening of the hey) may do so. And what is the (significance) of the upper opening on the side? To teach us that anyone who desires to return in teshuvah (‘repentance’) can elevate himself and enter through it. And why can’t he simply return through the bottom opening (of which he initially descended)? (Answer:) That will surely not succeed.”
Rabbi Leuchter explained that this Talmudic teaching isn’t merely informing us that human failure and the ever-present possibility of repentance are hardwired into creation, but also what successful and unsuccessful teshuvah looks like. The Sages’ admonition that failure will meet all who attempt to return through the very hole they fell from serves as a strong warning against fighting one’s compulsions head-on and apprises us of the futility of this brand of teshuvah. There is a mighty gravitational pull that our sin of choice exerts upon us that keeps us returning to our old ways and it’s our imagining that we can overcome this compulsion by sheer force of will that has us stuck in this tired cycle of frustration (sin, repent, repeat). The Talmud is encouraging us to reckon with this dynamic force for what it really is, a substantive, compelling and spiritually deadly force that cannot be overcome in head-to-head battle.
So what is the way to topple this intimate, intangible adversary? By rising above it and re-entering the spiritual world through the upper opening in the letter hey. In other words, true, long-lasting teshuvah can only be found through the process of changing and redirecting our higher selves, by changing from the top! In dedicating study time to the areas of the Torah that examine any particular mitzvah or aveira (sin) we slowly find ourselves more closely aligned with that spiritual ideal or repelled by that spiritual pitfall in such a way that an organic mindshift around the matter noticeably develops.
It is particularly through this very process that we create the weaponry strong enough to succeed in spiritual battle, for our concentrated efforts in the study hall have borne a potent anti-gravity that elevates us above our powerful gravitational pull toward vice.
As Rabbi Leuchter writes in his newly published book Teshuva: Restoring Life — “The work of teshuvah is carried out on a much deeper level — it is not about using tactics to change our actions. It is rather about working on ourselves to the point where our drives and desires, and indeed all of our being, are in line with the world of the Torah” (pp. 26-27).
For the first time in my life I felt like I had the winning methodology of teshuvah in my hands, and it did indeed work! I must admit, though, that as my microfocused Torah study slowly came to an end, much of my newly formed mindshift eroded. I had to learn the hard way that for many of us there is a secondary process needed to seal the teshuvah deal — change from the bottom!
Next time we’ll discuss change from a more detailed look at change from the top.
To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin, email him at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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Unexamined religious practices as dangerous as ignoring unhealthy living

Posted on 10 August 2017 by admin

“I know rabbis that are quite obese, and I just don’t get it. I mean, doesn’t the Torah command us to be healthy?”
I’ve heard and have been asked versions of this question many times over the years — and the answer is not simple!
First and foremost, it is improper to judge any individual case of obesity as self-inflicted, as one never knows another’s health particulars. As a doctor recently shared with me, you can, in fact, be naturally obese. From congenital leptin deficiency (leptin being the “satiety hormone” that helps to regulate energy balance by inhibiting hunger) to disorders like Prader-Willi syndrome and the insatiable hunger and chronic overeating (hyperphagia) that follows in its wake, to genetic predispositions to obesity and other environmental factors, obesity occurs in the general populace for a variety of different reasons other than lack of personal discipline and will.
In the end, it is the obese individuals alone who can honestly answer if they are actively doing everything in their power to get their weight under control. We, then, do not stand in a position to judge.
That being said, there is a perfectly fair question that lies at the heart of the aforementioned query. How are we to reconcile the fact that there are individuals, whether overweight or thin, who are scrupulous in the minutiae of Jewish law, and yet seem not to care about their health?
I have no study data to back up my thoughts on the matter, but I do believe I have a pretty strong theory: Humans do better adhering to carefully detailed laws (like those codified in Rabbi Yosef Caro’s definitive and extensive code of Jewish Law, the Shulchan Aruch) than ethereal religious ideals (all those sacred constructs left out of the Shulchan Aruch).
And while guarding oneself from potentially life-threatening situations may be of Biblical origin (derived from the verse “and you shall carefully guard your souls,” Devarim 4:15) and finds itself codified in the Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 427:8), the general admonition to maintain a healthy lifestyle is conspicuously absent from the Shulchan Aruch, seemingly consigned to the sea of Jewish values.
Maimonides, plainly omitting any Biblical or rabbinic citations when describing personal health, seems to similarly concur that keeping healthy, while of supreme Jewish value, is not technically law. Here are his words upon the matter: “Since having a healthy and whole body is integral to Divine service — as it is impossible to understand or know anything about the Creator when one is sick — one must stay far from things which destroy the body and accustom himself to things which preserve one’s health” (Mishneh Torah – Hilchot Deot 4:1).
For better and worse, the detailed observance of Jewish law often evolves into daily habit. The bright side: We are creatures of habit, and halachic habit forming is crucial to creating Judeo-centered lives. The dark side: If we’re not careful, our practice of halacha, the beating heart at the center of our Jewish practice, can descend into mitzvat anashim m’lumdah, the ritualistically unconscious routine that the prophet Isaiah decried many moons ago (29:13).
Unlike the well-practiced observance of halacha, the infusion of Jewish ideals and values into our lives requires a kind of proactive, zeal-like consciousness and a sacred determination.
It’s about looking beyond our technical, limited duties and into the world of spiritual possibility. It is to care to become the kind of person the Torah wants us to be, something much more than the sum total of a lifetime of halachic works.
For those to whom the practice of Jewish law is more culture than mission, more habit than calling, it is the spirit of the law and our hallowed Jewish ideals, both areas that are not and cannot be codified in law, that are most likely to become the first casualties of unconscious Jewish practice. Sadly, this is a Judaism full of body but bereft of soul.
It may surprise you that the practice of unconscious Judaism endangers the fulfillment of certain laws as well, many of which comprise the heart and soul of the religion. You see, laws like loving and fearing God revolve around emotions and matters of the heart and spirit, areas in which no corporeal actions or religious habits suffice. Similarly, laws like “you shall be holy” (Vayikra 19:2) and “you shall do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord” (Devarim 6:18), both of which command us to go beyond the letter of the law in both our divine and interpersonal relationships, cannot sprout in a mind that perceives law as the end-all.
Don’t get me wrong: A strong commitment to a halachic lifestyle is the backbone upon which all else rests. But if we cease imbuing it with kavana, conscious intention, we may find ourselves in the predicament of Tevye from Fiddler On The Roof, a man deeply convinced of the importance of passing on the faith, but unable to meaningfully explain to the next generation why it meant anything more than mere tradition.
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the director of outreach at DATA of Plano. Rabbi Yogi lives in Plano with his wife Shifra and their five children.

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Today’s rabbi spends time with people, books

Posted on 27 July 2017 by admin

Our world has changed so drastically in the last 100 years and the state of the rabbinate, an institution better known for its constancy than its elasticity, has followed suit. The community rav, that learned individual principally appointed to answer the community’s questions on issues of kashrus and business disputes, has been replaced by the modern jack-of-all-trades rabbi, whose list of expected duties extends to domains previously reserved for others.
The rabbi of the 21st century is both marriage counselor and child-rearing educator, personal adviser and Talmud teacher, and yes, he’ll need to answer the occasional halachic query as well!
I have learned that which others before me already knew — the rabbi of today’s day and age spends more time with people than with his holy books.
As such, engaging in the holy work that is the modern rabbinate has given me an intimate, firsthand look into the lives of those around me, acquainting me with their concerns and their hopes as well as their personal worldviews and outlooks. And it is with these many personal encounters in mind that I have come to believe that it is the hugely significant, yet often overlooked, art of perspective that most centrally gives rise to a life of happiness and satisfaction. This singular capacity to see the bigger picture, and the forest for the trees, informs our daily dealings with co-workers, children and spouses, and gives us the strength to persevere, even thrive, in the face of formidable life challenges. How sad it is that even the most blessed of lives are reduced, sometimes destroyed, by the inability of a family member to more richly interpret the life and events around them.
Caleb (name changed to protect identity) is such a tragic individual. A single man in his early 30s, he plays the perpetual victim to life’s circumstances. The words, “I don’t deserve for this to be happening to me,” are common refrains on his lips, the product of his general perception that the problems in his life are the result of others’ misdeeds, never his own. It’s no surprise, then, that his past is fraught with burnt bridges and severed relationships. He wants a better life for himself but cannot reckon with the reality that he is the biggest impediment to his own happiness and well-being.
Caleb recently asked to meet with me, this time to discuss a grievance he had with a longtime friend of his. I came to learn that this friend, having gifted Caleb a number of homegoods to help furnish his new apartment, had requested one of the items back. His friend had forgotten that he had already promised one particular item to someone else and asked Caleb to please return the item.
Caleb was incensed with his friend, calling him an “Indian giver” and wanted to know whether he was halachically bound to return the item he felt was rightfully his — ramifications to his friendship be damned.
I was shocked by the entire exchange. There was no attempt to judge his friend favorably, to view the entire incident as an honest mistake (something I anyway considered the most likely reality considering the fact that this was the same friend who had generously gifted him all the items in the first place). Caleb could not see past his friend’s “deplorable” request to return a gift — something he was told by his mother never to do.
“It doesn’t matter to me what the halacha has to say in this situation,” I told Caleb. “Whether or not you are obligated to return this item or not, giving it back is the right thing to do!”
Caleb couldn’t believe his ears. This was clearly not the response he was expecting from me.
“But what about the fact that he did something wrong by asking for it back!?” Caleb retorted.
“Whether it was right or wrong doesn’t matter at this point,” I said to him, looking him dead in the eyes. “Right now you have to do what’s right at this moment and that means returning the item!”
Nothing I said was getting through to him, so I decided to take a different approach.
“Caleb, what’s the most important thing to you?” I asked.
He thought about it for a few moments and answered, “Keeping the peace.”
Silence.
Even Caleb had to admit the irony in his words as well as the obvious ramifications it had on what he needed to do with the item in question and the friendship which was currently up in the air.
Like Caleb, we often find ourselves so blinded by the enormity of the moment, and the short-lived emotions that lie in that moment’s wake, that we lose something much more valuable in the process — our perspective (and with it, our ability to right our own ship).
It’s not only the Calebs of the world who suffer from lapses in proper perspective. Even the greatest of our sages are not, and were not immune to such miscalculations of the mind. It is during this period of the Three Weeks, leading up to Tisha B’Av, the national day of mourning over the destroyed Temples, that we are reminded of such an episode.
We are told that Rabbi Akiva and his sagely friends walked up to Jerusalem, ultimately reaching the Temple Mount and the Temple ruins. Upon seeing a fox emerging from the place of the Holy of Holies the others started weeping; Rabbi Akiva laughed.
Akiva’s friends, bewildered as to the source of his seemingly irreverent laughter, demanded an explanation. Rabbi Akiva didn’t let them down. “Now that I see that Uriah’s prophecy (predicting the destruction of the Second Temple) has been fulfilled, it is certain that Zachariah’s prophecy (predicting the building of a future Temple) will be fulfilled!”
From the response of Rabbi Akiva’s friends it is clear that this fresh perspective tempered their anguish and instilled hope where there was only hopelessness. As the Talmud records, “With these words they replied to him: ‘Akiva, you have consoled us! Akiva, you have consoled us!’” (Talmud Makkot 24b)
In that spirit, I pray that we too be soon consoled. May the Almighty fill this world once again with His Holy presence, drawing the redemption near, and with it the elevation of all of our perspectives!
To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin, email him at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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