Archive | Rabbi Yogi

The Torah still provides the word on moral values

Posted on 08 February 2018 by admin

Do you believe that morality is complicated, that living a moral life requires dedicated years of in-depth study? Or is morality, in your opinion, something more intuitive, something any sensitive person can pick up by way of a mixture of genuine empathy and sympathy for one’s fellow man? Perhaps you may argue that a realized morality indeed requires a healthy mixture of the two.
As for myself, I find myself firmly ensconced in this third camp. I believe that intuition alone can only take us so far, and that we need help from a higher source to ultimately know that which is right and that which is wrong. And yet, I am equally mindful of the fact that all of the study in the world, all of the wisdom and guidance from on high cannot possibly establish the proper behavior and response for every given situation. That is when our sechel, our good sense, must kick in, informing us how to cater the wisdom of old to the unique situation that lies before us.
And yet, as confident as I am in this position, I am consistently reminded of how many of the people I meet feel that they can rely upon their sechel alone to ensure that they are living morally. It was a recent lunch I had with a local Sunday school teacher that showed me the broader implications of this position, upon his insistence that “you don’t need Torah anymore to teach morality.” His feeling seemed to echo this growing societal sentiment that between one’s own natural intuition and the lessons learned from living in a “good” society like our own, one indeed had everything that was needed at one’s disposal to learn to be moral.
How sad it is, by extension, that the Torah has now become, for a great many people, nothing more than a repository of ritual practices and ancestral stories. Our holy Torah is no longer appreciated as a primary source of morals and values.
To this I say, let us examine the necessary contribution of the Torah on the world of ethics.
First, there are the many ethical statutes that the Torah commands and mankind as a whole fails to recognize. Take lashon hara (“evil speech”), for example. Although most societies have some sort of law on the books against slander (as does the Torah), the Torah extends the limits of sanctioned speech to include a prohibition on sharing derogatory information that also happens to be wholly true. Add to this prohibitions such as not coveting, not straying after your heart and eyes and not hating your neighbor in your heart. All these prohibitions rest solely in the heart of man, and you enter into a whole new arena of moral refinement that societies cannot and will not demand of their people.
Second, the Torah codifies meaningful halachic details within the ethics that mankind naturally recognizes. Consider the virtue of charity, something almost all societies value. The Torah takes a giant step further by describing both a hierarchy of charitable giving (family first, then the poor of your city, then the poor of the land of Israel, etc.), a list of eight distinct levels of charitable giving (the highest form: providing meaningful employment; the second highest form: giving without knowledge to whom one is giving and without the poor person’s knowledge from whom he is receiving), and a prescription for determining how much of one’s income one is obligated to give (10 percent for the average person, with a sliding scale depending upon one’s utter wealth or dire poverty). And these three legalistic details are just the tip of this halachic iceberg.
Finally, and this point cannot be stressed enough, without the Torah’s guidance, how is one to rule correctly in scenarios in which one has two competing moral values at stake? How are we to determine which value has primacy and which value must be abandoned?
Unbeknownst to a great many people is the realization that many of the most hotly debated moral disputes of our times surround these very scenarios of competing value systems. The fight between the anti-abortion movement and the abortion-rights movement is, at its core, a fight over the primacy of either the value of the life of the unborn child or the value of a woman’s right to self- determination. The fight over the right of a doctor to assist in ending the life of a terminally ill patient is similarly, at its core, a fight over the primacy of the value of relieving human suffering or the value of not aiding in a suicide. We too, in our daily lives, encounter scenarios like this on a regular basis — things as common as whether or not to honor the wishes of one’s parents or the wishes of one’s spouse (or our own wishes, for that matter).
It is in these most thorny moral environments that we need come to the realization that morality is anything but simple, and that only with the proper training and study can one hope to come out of the end of this moral universe whole.
The Chazon Ish (Rabbi Avrohom Yeshaya Karelitz, 1878–1953), at the beginning of Chapter 3 in his ethical work Emunah U’Bitachon, sums things up as follows:
One of the obligations of morality is that a person should try to instill in his heart this great principle: In any case in which one finds oneself in opposition to a fellow Jew, one has to weigh the matter in accordance with halacha, in order to define the persecutor and the persecuted. The study of perfecting one’s character traits (mussar) instills in one love and pity for the persecuted, and severe condemnation of the persecutor; how terrible is, then, the danger of misidentifying the persecutor as the persecuted and vice versa. The only way to know the truth is to study the books of the halachic authorities — those books of rulings that we have received from the great Rabbis of the past.
It is only in a return to the classical recognition of the Torah as our guide to all things moral that we might find ourselves with the much-needed clarity and confidence to choose and act correctly in all our moral endeavors. Then, and only then, can we assure ourselves of our moral standing.
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the director of outreach at DATA of Plano.

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Shabbat or kashrut: not mutually exclusive

Posted on 25 January 2018 by admin

Just as God works in mysterious ways, so, it seems, humans grow in mysterious ways, as well. I can tell you this as a person who has engaged in Jewish outreach for more than a decade, and witnessed the growth of hundreds of individuals. What takes one person a decade of spiritual toil to accomplish, can develop almost overnight in others.
I’ve also seen how the paths in which individuals adopt new mitzvot in their lives differ, each person deciding which particular mitzvot to adopt or ignore (either forever, or until a future, more auspicious time when the neglected mitzvah might be re-examined). Each person decides on a particular course, or order, of mitzvah adoption, as well as the degree to which they plan on committing and investing themselves in each of these mitzvot. These are the decisions that each person must make for themselves, each one an expression of their unique souls, strivings and singular service of the Almighty.
And while the variations distinguishing each spiritual journey are many, certain patterns that seem to repeat themselves. One such similarity is what I call the “Shomer Shabbat over Shomer Kashrut Conundrum.”
You see, though many engage in some form of kashrut (kosher) long before they commit themselves to Shabbat observance, most people (at least in my experience) accept the full practice of Shabbat before they accept the full practice of kashrut. In other words, though many are fully Shabbat-observant for decades and, at the same time, 100 percent kosher in the home, they may tend to compromise observance of kashrut outside the home.
To confirm this interesting conundrum of Judaic spiritual development, my partner in Jewish outreach, Rabbi Nasanya Zakon, shared with me a question he recently posed to a group of his students. “Would you be quicker to fully keep Shabbat or kosher?” The unanimous answer was Shabbat.
What is it about the unadulterated practice of kashrut that seems so daunting to so many? And, what is it about the laws and practices that arrive at that point in time during which both one’s commitment and inspiration in Judaism rest at its peak?
It can be difficult to give up the many delicious non-kosher foodstuffs one has grown to enjoy. Additionally, losing the convenience of dining out in the many non-kosher restaurants dotting the map is an equally difficult pill to swallow. Kosher is more expensive, and does require more planning.
But is this quantifiably more difficult than severing from electronics, Internet and automobiles for 25 hours once a week? And, what of the work complications Shabbat observance creates? Consider the many jobs that require work on the weekends that must be ruled out, or at a minimum, might require special accommodations, and with it, the potential loss of hours and salary. The Sabbath-observant individual will also miss multiple family and friend get-togethers scheduled on Friday nights and Saturdays, not to mention concerts scheduled for the same time.
I don’t think that the difficulty of keeping kashrut is what lies at the heart of the matter. Rather, I believe the difference lies in our appreciation and lack thereof for these two distinct mitzvot. With all the complications and “burdens” Shabbat places upon its practitioner, the benefits of observance are well-known and appreciated. After all, who hasn’t experienced the sublime sense of calm, peace and tranquility that permeates the Sabbath-observant home? Without the distraction of electronics and cell phones, families and friends find themselves enjoying each other’s presence around the Shabbat table, engaging in meaningful discussions, singing beautiful melodies and enjoying delicious delicacies. Communities come together during these times, as does the Jew with his Maker. Few can argue with a day free from errands and a few extra hours of sleep.
However, aside from the occasional case for increased self-control, kosher is seen by most as the quintessential chok, a commandment whose reasoning we do not know, and whose practice is more a sign of religious commitment than anything else. Religious commitment is seen by many as praiseworthy, but personal interest motivates change In kosher’s case, the burdens are perceived as far outweighing the potential benefits.
Scorecard: Treif 1, Kosher 0.
This is why it is so important to educate ourselves of the true benefits of kosher. The Torah teaches us that eating kosher foods accomplishes the vital role of preserving our inherent holiness, while consuming non-kosher foods spiritually pollutes our hearts. This makes it more difficult to connect to God.
In an amazing halachic twist, the Chofetz Chaim (Sefer Machaneh Yisroel), writing in the late 19th century to Jewish soldiers in the army, noted that if a soldier has the choice to either go to an army base in which he can keep Shabbat but cannot keep kosher, or go to a different army base in which he could keep kosher but not Shabbat, he should choose the base that allows for the observance of kashrut and not Shabbat. The punishment for Shabbat desecration is more severe than that of violating kashrut, though if the soldier must obey orders against Shabbat observance or kashrut on the pain of death, he is not accountable for violating either mitzvah. That being said, consuming non-kosher foods sullies the heart and soul of the Jew, meaning it is the poorer choice a Jew can make.

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Where will we find another Aharon?

Posted on 11 January 2018 by admin

Just one month ago one of the greatest living sages of the Jewish people passed away. His name was Rabbi Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman tz’’l, and if you are like the many Jews I’ve spoken with since his passing, you’ve never heard of him before.
He died at the advanced age of 104 (1913-Dec. 12, 2017), and for all those many years, it was his tiny, sparsely furnished apartment in Bnei Brak, Israel that served as a central address for visitors, students and politicians alike to beseech blessings or to discuss sensitive life and communal issues and receive sagely advice in return. His humility was legendary, as was his Torah scholarship (he penned close to 20 works on Chumash, Talmud and philosophy), but all of these details are readily available in the many articles and appreciations written about him after his demise. I’d rather share with you my own encounter with this giant of a man, an encounter that took place in my late teens (almost 20 years ago) as I was studying in yeshiva in Israel and one that opened up my eyes to different models of Torah leadership.
It’s somewhat of a religious pilgrimage: yeshiva students and seminary girls boarding buses to Jerusalem or Bnei Brak to visit the gedolim, the elderly sages of the generation. Most go in search of a blessing — a blessing for a good shidduch (“a proper mate”) being the most popular request, followed closely with requests for blessings for success in Torah study and parnassa (“good livelihoods”). I didn’t go to Bnei Brak for any sort of blessing, though a good blessing never hurt anyone! I simply felt that it would be a missed opportunity if I never met those saintly individuals living during my own lifetime.
And so it was that toward the end of a summer yeshiva semester, two of my friends and I boarded a bus to the City of Torah Sages, Bnei Brak, in the hopes of meeting and gleaning wisdom from two of the elderly guiding lights of the Jewish people, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky and Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman zt’’l.
Our first stop was to Rabbi Kanievsky’s apartment and the long, winding line that was forming outside his doorway and snaking its way all the way down the external staircase to the street below. We had made it in time for his official visiting hours and waited patiently for our turns to come. Rabbi Kanievsky has a well-known reputation for responding to petitioners’ questions with short, direct answers, and as we would soon see, the meetings in his home proved no exception to the rule.
With a sefer (a book of Jewish content) open in front of him, individuals were ushered in to his living room. The rav would look up from the sefer, listen to the question or request, and answer in his typical, curt fashion. The moment each visitation was finished, the rav would return to his precious study, careful not to waste any moments that presented themselves in the short intervals between visitors. You see, as much as Rabbi Kanievsky allotted time each day for those who would seek out his wisdom, it was no secret that his desire was to just as quickly return to his studies, to that elevated Torah universe steeped in wisdom and holiness. It’s as if he understood his communal responsibilities as a leader among the Jewish people, but didn’t want to leave Sinai for any more time than was necessary.
Reflecting upon the meeting later on that night, it occurred to me that Rabbi Kanievsky had a “Moshe personality.” He is a man of the people and yet someone considerably removed from the vast majority of us. A man inhabiting the same earth as everyone else, but whose thoughts clearly lay elsewhere. Like Moshe, Rabbi Kanievsky inspired and continues to inspire a visceral brand of fear of Heaven — for one can’t escape his invariably fiery intensity that permeates his face and eyes at all time. It’s no exaggeration to proclaim the rabbi’s life a living testament to the Talmud’s statement, “Just as … the Revelation at Sinai was in reverence, fear, quaking, and trembling, so too here, in every generation, Torah must be studied with a sense of reverence, fear, quaking, and trembling” (Talmud Brachot 22a). It’s also no exaggeration to say that even in the brief period of time we shared together with the rabbi, we felt an increase in our awe of Heaven, as if through some type of spiritual osmosis.
If a meeting with Rabbi Kanievsky was my encounter with a modern-day Moshe, I was soon to meet his counterpart, a modern-day Aharon, Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman zt’’l.
Arriving at the rabbi’s apartment at 6 Chazon Ish St., we were surprised to see no line formed outside his doorway. We didn’t see a sign informing visitors of the proper visiting hours either. And so, with a bit of good old-fashioned chutzpah, we knocked on the door anyway. A 30-something-year-old man opened the door for us and ushered the three of us into the living room, where Rabbi Shteinman zt’’l was teaching an advanced Torah lesson to married men. There was no doubt about it, we were intruding, and I for one felt completely out of place and more than a bit uneasy.
My nerves were quickly set at ease, though, as Rabbi Shteinman zt’’l warmly welcomed us in, smiled affectionately through his long salt-and-pepper beard, and interrupted his regularly scheduled class to ask each of us our names and some details about our lives. He bestowed a blessing upon us all and we left inspired by the utter love and warmth that we felt from this elderly rabbi whom we had heard much of but never met before.
The Midrash (Avos De’Reb Nosson 12:4) states that while the majority of the nation mourned Moshe upon his death (see Devarim 34:8), “the entire House of Israel” (Bamidbar 20:29) mourned the death of Aharon. Why the difference in response? To put it simply, Aharon, as great as he was, was always a man thoroughly of the people. While Moshe was far removed on the peak of Mount Sinai, Aharon was encamped with the rest of the nation anxiously awaiting his return. The Midrash adds that (whereas Moshe inspired fear and awe in his role as lawgiver, judge and admonisher of the people) Aharon inspired love, busy as he was advocating for peace and fellowship between man and his neighbor and man and his wife. In other words, while Moshe’s persona made known to the nation the other-worldly qualities of the Torah, Aharon was the man on the ground, there to show everyone how the Torah could be brought down to Earth and pragmatically utilized to better one’s life and the lives of all those around them.
A healthy nation needs both its Moshes and its Aharons. We need exposure to those great leaders so far removed from our regular existence as to serve as an example of what human beings can become, and we also need exposure to those great leaders whose greatness feels relatable, and therefore attainable. We need both to experience the awe of Heaven along with Heaven’s warm embrace.
With the passing of Rabbi Shteinman zt’’l, I am left wondering, where will we find another Aharon?
To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin, email him at yrobkin@dataofplano.org.

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How precious are the lights of Hanukkah

Posted on 14 December 2017 by admin

The worlds of halachah, Jewish law, and hashkafah, Jewish philosophy, are generally perceived as two independent courses of study: the studying of halachah being the dry, detailed examination of legal texts, and the study of hashkafah being the edifying investigation into the beliefs and perspectives of the Torah. In reality, though, the Torah, in all of its many branches, is a unified living organism, each course of study part of a bigger, interconnected web. Personally, I derive great satisfaction when I discover or learn of examples of the interconnectedness of halachah and hashkafah. I’d like to share with you two marvelous examples of this sort below that happen to share a common, instructive theme.
One of the most well-known mitzvot in the Torah is the Biblical command to recite the Shema morning and night. Less known to the masses is the halachah (the law) that dictates that these daily recitations must be recited during precise blocks of times in the day and in the night. Recite the Shema before or after these blocks of time and you unfortunately lose out on the opportunity to fulfill this sacred task.
So, where do these precise guidelines come from? The Mishnah derives them from the Shema itself. “Teach them thoroughly to your children and speak of them while you sit in your home, while you walk on the way, when you lie down and when you arise” (Devarim 6:7). “When you lie down” is interpreted broadly as including the entire nighttime, for people lie down and sleep throughout the entirety of the night (Berachot 1:1). “When you arise,” on the other hand, is limitedly understood as only including the first three hours of the day, as these are the times that people generally wake up — the early risers waking up at the crack of dawn and the royal princes contentedly napping in their beds until the third hour of the day (ibid. 1:2).
Although I must have learned these mishnayot dozens of times over the years, it was only recently that I found myself perplexed by the Mishnah’s scriptural deductions. You see, the connective language of the verse “when you lie down and when you arise” implies a grouping together of these two halachically significant phrases. You would assume, then, that the time allotment for the morning Shema and the evening Shema would be parallel to each other as well. And, yet, as we have seen above, that is decidedly not the case, the nighttime Shema being alotted a whopping nine extra hours of precious time!
What, I wondered, was the deeper significance in this unusual time variance? I searched and searched for sources that might address this issue, but to no avail. Like so many times before, I turned to Rabbi Sharon Cohen, a colleague of mine and a scholar known for his knowledge of the more mystical elements of the Torah for an answer.
Rabbi Cohen voiced his appreciation for my question, one he had never heard before, and just as quickly launched into an interpretation of his own. He explained that the nighttime represents the parts of our lives when God’s presence feels hidden, when darkness and confusion reign and when faith is acquired with great difficulty. The daytime represents the polar opposite, the points in our life when we most clearly feel God’s presence and when faith comes to us with incredible ease.
The nature of this physical world, Rabbi Cohen explained, is that the “dark” periods of confusion and doubt will always greatly outnumber the “sunny” stretches of clarity and enlightenment. The time allotments for the Shema, our eternal expression of commitment to faith and service of God, mirror this earthly reality and illustrate that we will need to serve God through many long nights during the course of our existence, if only to anticipate brief periods of soulful enlightenment and spiritual clarity.
Just as the day has its daytime and its nighttime, so too does the year. The sunny months of the spring and summer are as the daytime, whereas the colder, darker months of fall and winter represent the nighttime. You’ll notice that all of the Biblical holidays fall out during the six-month stretch of spring and summer. This is because the period of Biblical times was a time of great enlightenment, when God’s hand was made visible in both nature and history through the many open miracles of the Ten Plagues, the Exodus and the Jewish people’s travels throughout the wilderness. The rabbinic holidays (Hanukkah and Purim), on the other hand, fall during the dark, cold months of fall and winter. This is because both the Hanukkah and Purim stories occurred during times of great darkness and peril for the Jewish people. In both instances the Jewish people wondered if God had abandoned them in the post-Biblical Exile, only to leave them at the mercy of other nations who bid them harm.
The miraculous salvations that materialized during the Hanukkah and Purim stories revealed to the Jewish people then, as it still does for each and every subsequent Jewish generation, that God is still with us, that He had never left our side. It should come as no surprise to us that unlike the seasonal Biblical commandments of shofar and the four species which must be performed during the day, the mitzvah of the Hanukkah lights must be done specifically at night.
(The Pesach Seder, another seasonal Biblical command, is, in fact, performed at night, but that is because the night of the Exodus shone with the light of day from the revelation of the Shechina, God’s essence. Upon Seder night, the commentators apply the verse from Tehillim (139:12), “layla kayom ya’ir,” “The night will be as bright as day.”)
The lights of Hanukkah, then, serve as much-needed torches for the many “nights” of our life, bringing even the darkest moments of our life into the light, replacing doubt with faith and confusion with clarity. How precious are the lights of Hanukkah!
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the co-director of DATA of Plano.

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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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