Archive | Rabbi Yogi

Growth-mindedness does have its risks

Posted on 07 September 2018 by admin

I’d like to share with you a response I received to my last column.
Dear Rabbi Robkin,
I read your article regarding Stanford psychologist Carol S. Dweck’s dichotomy of having a “growth mindset” versus a “fixed mindset.” Your article describes the fixed mindset in man as one who “places artificial limits and avoids failure,” whereas the growth mindset generally “thinks big, exhibits more positive effort, and experiences less helplessness.”
You then described an experiment where Apple executive Scott Forstall nurtured a group of growth-minded individuals within a company think tank. These individuals were predisposed toward risk taking in order to fulfill Forstall’s charge to “do something that we will remember for the rest of our lives.” And it was these members who ultimately created the iPhone.
You then challenged us readers to adopt a growth mindset in preparation for the High Holidays so that we might break out of our adopted molds and grow to our potential.
I have several problems with this piece, but let’s start with the “experiment.” I am skeptical of the true risk taken by the company. Apple wasn’t the trillion-dollar behemoth that it later became, but it did have capital. This think tank may have been a risk, but I imagine the true risk was not for the company. The risk was taken on by the individuals within the think tank, some of whose ideas might not have panned out. Mr. Forstall does not let us know whose proposals were rejected, who left the company and who was fired.
Growth-minded individuals, who, as you say, are less risk-averse, sometimes succeed. We see this throughout history. There’s a reason that we discovered the western hemisphere, visited the moon and, yes, invented the iPhone.
And then there are the failures that are too many to name. They jumped off the Eiffel Tower with strap-on wings, explored the Antarctic, climbed Mount Everest and died. They lost their money in risky stock purchases. They put all of their funding into developing a car and lost it all. They flew to Hollywood to start a career in acting and ended up addicted or in debt. Society as a whole is not impacted by these failures. Collectively, we may even benefit from them, learning what not to do and moving on from there. But for the majority of the growth-minded, the results of risk taking are not as rosy as we’d like to make out.
Then there are the success stories, like Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, Christopher Columbus, Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Howard Hughes, Thomas Edison, Harvey Weinstein and, well, Donald Trump. These people are successes. There is no doubt about it. They are also highly controversial figures. There is a consequence to beating the odds. You develop an ego, take more risks and build up casualties. You may be fine, but you may leave a trail of misery in your wake.
I think there is something to be said for having checks to unbridled growth. There is a difference between fear of failure and avoidance of risk. The fixed mindset as laid out in your article may not build trillion-dollar companies, but it will have a better chance at maintaining that company. The fixed mindset may make a lousy firefighter or cop, but it will make a great breadwinner and family member. Growth with balance is the key. We have a word for unchecked growth in the medical world — it’s called cancer.
As always, it was a pleasure reading your article and your insights. I look forward to your next column.
Dr. Shimshon Kaplan
Cleveland, Ohio

I accept Dr. Kaplan’s assertion that unbridled and unchecked growth-mindedness has its drawbacks and risks, and I equally concur that fixed-mindedness is an underappreciated asset with considerable value to both the individual and society at large. I would only add that, even as the examples in my article are secular in nature (from both psychology and business), leaving room for Dr. Kaplan’s compelling counter-examples, the aggressive growth-mindedness I am endorsing is specifically the spiritual kind.
To this extent, consider this mishnah in Pirkei Avot (Chapter 2:7) which discusses excess and, by extension, the topic of growth-mindedness.
“One who increases flesh, increases worms; one who increases possessions, increases worry… one who increases maidservants, increases promiscuity; one who increases manservants, increases thievery; one who increases Torah, increases life; one who increases study, increases wisdom; one who increases counsel, increases understanding; one who increases charity, increases peace.”
The mishnah is juxtaposing the acquisition of physical goods and pleasures with the acquisition of their spiritual counterparts. And whereas exorbitant physical indulgences and their associated drives come with an exhaustive laundry list of detrimental personal costs, the same cannot be said of an ever-growing spiritual ambition and arsenal. Rather, “One who increases Torah, increases life.”
All that said, growth-mindedness in spirituality isn’t without its risks. To be open to growth is to be open to personal experimentation, and experimentation isn’t a one-way street. A common fear that I hear from outreach professionals like myself is that as quickly as a student can experiment themselves into Judaism and observance, they can experiment themselves out. And so we cling to the hope that our students will be growth-minded in their personal receptiveness to positive change, but fixed-minded enough to remain steadfast in their newfound commitments. A tall order indeed.
How beautiful, then, is the imagery of Torah as a tree of life. For a living tree grows and flourishes over time, while its roots, dug deep in the ground, serve as a resolute anchor, holding its fixed position in place and guarding it from the mighty winds that would uproot it. And so it is in Torah. We must always be growth-minded, adding new layers and fresh dimensions to our life’s spiritual edifice, and at the same time, we must be fixed-minded, establishing sacred anchors that keep our course straight and guard us from destroying all that we have built. Growth paired with stability. Two necessary components for the spiritual life.


Get into a growth mindset during Elul

Posted on 23 August 2018 by admin

While you’ve certainly heard of the iPhone, few know of the revolutionary process that went into recruiting the talented team that would eventually create this incredibly popular device.
The story starts with the groundbreaking research of Carol S. Dweck, a psychologist at Stanford University. Dweck studied the science of how our self-conceptions influence our actions. Her work with children revealed two mindsets in action: a “growth” mindset that generally thinks big and seeks growth, and a “fixed” mindset that places artificial limits and avoids failure. Growth-minded students were found to employ better learning strategies, experience less helplessness, exhibit more positive effort and achieve more in the classroom than their fixed-minded peers. They are similarly less likely to place limits on their lives and more likely to reach for their potential.
Onto the scene arrives Scott Forstall, a senior vice president at Apple, who read Dweck’s book on mindsets and was so inspired by her findings that he decided to identify and recruit a team comprising solely growth-minded individuals for his brand-new, top-secret project. To separate the growth-minded employees at his company from their fixed-minded peers, Forstall delivered a curious pitch to superstars across the company and watched carefully for their responses.
Forstall warned that this top-secret project would provide ample opportunities to “make mistakes and struggle, but eventually we may do something that we will remember the rest of our lives.” Those who immediately jumped at the challenge were accepted as part of the team, while those who did not were left off. Forstall surmised that he had found his group of growth-minded individuals who, far from growing dismayed or discouraged by the tremendous challenges that lay ahead of them, would remain inspired, curious and committed through it all. And it was this team of growth-minded individuals that just so happened to go on to create the iPhone the world has grown to love. (From The One Thing — The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results by Gary Keller)
As is evident, the effects that our mindsets have on what we go on to accomplish in life is truly remarkable and, at the same time, incredibly frightening. The good news, as Dweck pointed out, is that mindsets can and do change. And like any other habit, you can set your mind to it until the right mindset becomes routine.
While a Jew should always be growth-minded, it is during the month of Elul, the Hebrew month before the High Holidays, that we are reminded to switch gears if we have reverted to a life model of fixed-mindedness. Beginning in the month of Elul, the resonating sounds of the shofar echo in synagogues throughout the world before our morning prayers, reminding us to wake up from our spiritual slumber and meet the challenges of the moment.
Elul invites us to reconsider the possibilities of our lives — how we might proceed forward toward a life of meaning, commitment and purpose, and how we might return from the wayward paths we have claimed as our own.
Yes, growth in all of its forms invites challenge and therefore the possibility of failure as well. But with a growth-mindset by our side, the high expectations that come with the new year can be met with an equal amount of excitement and determination to make this year the best ever.
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the outreach director of DATA of Plano. He can be reached at


The wealthy may not necessarily be so rich

Posted on 25 July 2018 by admin

After a record-breaking Amazon Prime Day, the newest figures came out and the net worth of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos topped a whopping $150 billion. Of course, the internet went crazy (no surprise there) estimating how much money Bezos was making per day, per hour, per minute and per second. (Money magazine did a calculation of Bezos’ staggering net growth from Jan. 1 to May 1 of this year and found that he made $275 million a day, which, when broken down, equals $11.5 million per hour, $191,000 per minute and $3,182 per second.)
News of wealth of this proportion generally leads to mass daydreaming by the public. We all wonder what we might do, where we might go and what we might purchase with so much money at our disposal. It’s a fun game to play, no doubt, but it’s important in the midst of all the hysteria and hoopla surrounding the acquisition of physical wealth that we not lose sight of the deeper, truer wealth that remains accessible to all of us and the dangers that surround the unchecked pursuit of money.
Ben Zoma famously taught that the Torah’s definition of wealth is far different from the world’s. “Who is rich?” he asked, “One who is happy with his lot” (Pirkei Avot 4:1). True wealth, Ben Zoma taught, is not measured by how much one possesses but by how little one lacks. Someone who has attained his goal and wants for nothing is the truly wealthy individual. Whereas the individual flush with cash and possessions who nevertheless craves more and more never finds that peace of mind he so desperately seeks.
Such an individual never ceases imagining that the next new and exciting acquisition will finally provide him with that much-sought-after, illusive inner serenity. And all for naught. Ironically, it is the unending pursuit of money and the feelings of dissatisfaction with one’s current standing that often accompany the pursuit of money that causes a man to be poor by Torah standards.
How do we become the types of people who become happy with our lot? The commentaries (Chasam Sofer, Chofetz Chaim and others) suggest that the answer to that question lies in the unusual wording of the mishnah itself. For instead of utilizing the common phrasing “One who is happy with what he has,” the mishnah adopts the distinct phrase “One who is happy with his lot.” And a “lot” implies that the happiness referenced herein stems specifically from the knowledge that all that one has is allotted by the Almighty for a specific function and purpose in this world: your one-of-a-kind purpose in this world.
So, whether one has vast wealth or far less than one’s neighbors, our collective happiness depends on recognizing God’s fingerprints on our wallets and trusting that we have exactly that which we need to fulfill our purpose on this Earth. Any happiness-depriving jealousy of others would be deeply inconsistent with such a spiritual vision.
On the flip side, King Solomon warns of the intoxicating nature of money and our endless and fruitless pursuit of it: “Whoever loves silver will not be sated with silver, and he who loves a multitude without increase — this too is vanity” (Kohelet 5:9). The Sages similarly recounted, “No one leaves this world with even half of his desires fulfilled. One who has one hundred wants two hundred. If he has two hundred he desires four hundred” (Kohelet Rabba 1:34).
As for an insight into the deep-seated makings of mankind’s unquenchable thirst for money, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch Zt’’l (1808-1888) offers this following profound commentary on Pirkei Avot 4:1:
“Striving after money, the means for pleasure, has no limit; for though money in itself does not give pleasure, it makes possible all future enjoyment. Therefore, the lust for money can never be satisfied.”
The physical pleasures of this world all have a satiation point. Eat enough food and drink enough drink, and your stomach is full. One’s hunger pangs subside, and there’s hardly room inside for more. So it is with other earthly pleasures. A hunger for pleasure wells within, yearning to be quenched, and once satisfied goes silent again — or at least for a short while.
Money is different. It offers no direct physical pleasure and therefore has no satiation point. Money rather represents the capital for all future pleasures to come. And just as the possibilities for man’s future are limitless, so too is his drive to acquire the medium (money) that will help finance those prospects.
As far as Judaism is concerned, wealth is not to be disparaged. On the contrary, money in the right hands can serve as a powerful force for good in this world. The world needs more individuals devoted to significant charitable giving as it does breadwinners committed to familial self-reliance. Money, however, must always remain in our eyes as a means to such larger sacred goals, never as an end in itself, a goal to achieve. After all, one can go mad laboring to score a goal on a target that never stops moving.


Torah study: antidote for instant gratification

Posted on 12 July 2018 by admin

In our June 28 article, we noted the great difficulties human beings have with overcoming the pull of instant gratification and the psychological basis for this human paradigm, according to the study of behavioral economics.
We also introduced the advice dispensed by scholars in the social sciences to utilize our propensity for nearsightedness to our advantage in battle by implementing immediate pains or pleasures that encourage self-control and disincentivize succumbing to instant gratification (for example, I can only listen to my favorite podcast when I work out at the gym, and if I smoke a cigarette, I have to give $5 to the KKK). I was curious what traditional Torah sources had to say about the subject of overcoming the pull of instant gratification and if they were, in fact, in line with the findings mentioned above.
The Torah sources that immediately came to my mind were two mishnayot in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). The first mishna comes at the very beginning of the second chapter.
“… weigh the loss (that may be sustained through the fulfillment) of a commandment against the reward [that may be obtained] for (fulfilling) it. And (weigh) the gain (that may be obtained through the committing) of a transgression against the loss (that may be sustained) by (committing) it. Keep your eye on three things, and you will not come to the hands of sin: Know what is above you: an Eye that sees, and an Ear that hears, and all your deeds are written in a book.”
Based on what we have learned, this mishna’s advice seems, well, futile. Yes, a proper cost-benefit analysis of any particular sin or mitzvah should surely lead to a religiously sensible reaction, but human beings, as we have demonstrated, suffer from a serious inability to properly evaluate different options in the face of temptation. After all, how accurate are your mental determinations when you’re a heaping pile of emotions and drives? (It is for this very reason, by the way, that another mishna in Pirkei Avot, 4:23, warns us: “Do not seek to appease your fellow man at the time of his anger, or to comfort him when his dead lies before him.” For, as long as someone is shaken and agitated, he isn’t amenable to rational suggestions.) And thoughts of future divine retribution from an all-knowing God? For many of us, that’s way too far off in the future to inhibit pleasure seeking in the present.
Here’s the second mishna on the topic, found at the very beginning of the third chapter:
“Akavia ben Mahalalel says: Keep your eye on three things, and you will not come to the hands of sin: Know from where you came, and to where you are going, and before Whom you are destined to give an account and a reckoning. From where did you come? From a putrid drop. And to where are you going? To a place of dust, worms and maggots. And before Whom are you destined to give an account and a reckoning? Before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He.”
The problems with the advice given in this mishna are similar to the problems introduced in the first mishna. Thoughts of one’s humble beginning and eventual end, as well as considerations of a future day of reckoning, are distant from life in the present, and therefore infinitely less persuasive. Such thoughts similarly require rational thinking processes, something humans carry in short supply during periods of enticement.
I knew there were vital points of consideration that would open up the gates of wisdom for me, but I didn’t know what they were. Luckily, I would soon find the missing link I was looking for in former Chief Rabbi of Israel Yisrael Meir Lau’s magnificent commentary on Pirkei Avot. Rabbi Lau notes most interestingly that these mishnayot do not reference methods to avoid “sin” itself. Rather they depict practices that would ward off “the hands of sin,” “li’dei aveira.”
“In Hebrew, the word for hands can also mean handles. Sin is stored so to speak, in a container whose handles are corrupt personality traits, such as ego and lust. The more pronounced these traits are in a person, the more he is prone to sin. When a person does not possess these handles, he will not come to sin” (Volume II, page 323).
According to Rabbi Lau, the advice laid out in these mishnayot was never meant to aid someone currently in the grips of sin itself. These mental considerations were rather intended for quieter, less turbulent times in one’s spiritual life. For in moments of personal calm and quiet, far away from the intoxicating snare of the lesser angels of our nature, soulful contemplation indeed finds its place. And within these calm confines, thoughts of one’s purpose and place in this life and thoughts of the consequences of one’s actions have the ability to resonate deeply within us and potentially neutralize or at the very least lessen many of our worst personality traits which serve as the “handles to sin.”
This, indeed, parallels that which we referenced earlier from the findings of behavioral economics: “When we can hold all alternatives at a distance, our evaluations of them remain true to their values in our lives.” Like a healthy diet or regular exercise that wards off obesity and the host of physical side effects that come with it, focused soulful contemplation acts as preventive medicine for the spiritual life, keeping the negative character traits that lead to sin at bay.
As far as what might stand in as curative medicine for the spiritual life, a Talmudic passage (Kiddushin 30b) seems to describe a panacea of sorts for the spiritually entrapped: “So says The Holy One to Israel: My children, I have created the evil inclination and I have created the Torah as its antidote.” And as the Talmud continues further on the page, “If this scoundrel (the evil inclination) accosts you (seeking to tempt you to sin), drag it to the study hall (and study Torah). If it is like stone it will be dissolved (by the Torah). If it is like iron it will be shattered (by the Torah).”
In this latter passage, we find that the evil inclination is close at hand. It has, in fact, accosted you and infected you. Now you need a cure, or an “antidote” as the Talmud calls it. The advice given is notably unlike the advice given in Pirkei Avot. In fact, there’s no mention at all of any sort of silent meditation or contemplation to keep sin at bay. Rather, we are instructed to “drag” our evil inclination (nobody said this would be easy) to the study hall and learn Torah.
Just as the findings of behavioral economics suggest, instant gratification must be met head-on with another immediate counterbalance that encourages self-control. In this case, that immediate counterbalance is Torah study, a spiritual shot in the arm and a bit of Godliness to dispel the powers of negativity and sin. In this emotionally charged space, we are told to meet negative emotion with positive emotion and unholy passion with holy passion. An immediate antidote indeed. A power great enough to dissolve stone and shatter iron.
On a deeper level, the Torah study functions as a positive channeling of the passionate desires once focused on sin, now refocused and directed on a passion for God and His Torah. Not only, then, do we have an immediate counterbalance to instant gratification, but even the satisfaction of fulfilling one’s fiery passions! (See Afikei Mayim Shavuot, Page 228, which explains that this is the deeper meaning behind Maimonides’ oft-quoted dictum: “A person should always turn himself and his thoughts to the words of the Torah and expand his knowledge in wisdom, for the thoughts of forbidden relations grow strong solely in a heart which is empty of wisdom.”)
As we’ve seen, there is a place for mindful meditation as spiritually preventative medicine, and a place for prompt reaction in the form of Torah study as spiritually curative medicine. Both strategies are needed for any long-term success in the spiritual life, and both beautifully parallel the modern findings of behavioral economics.


Self-control is a difficult trait to achieve

Posted on 27 June 2018 by admin

Part 1 of a two-part series on self-control. Part 2 will run July 12.
I think we can all relate to the challenge of overcoming the lure of instant gratification. Whether it’s the magnetic pull of the glazed doughnut to the dieter, the couch to the procrastinator or the vice to the seduced, exercising self-control is one of the greatest — if not the greatest — challenges of life. And generally, we stink at it.
The findings coming out of the new and burgeoning field of behavioral economics help to explain this troublesome human paradigm. Humans, they argue, have present-biased preferences that make self-control difficult. Shahram Heshmat (Behavioral Economics of Self-Control Failure in Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine, September 2015) explains the concept as follows:
“… behavioral economics shows that individuals discount (devalue) too strongly future rewards and overemphasize near-term pleasures. When we can hold all alternatives at a distance, our evaluations of them remain true to their values in our lives. But our subjective evaluation of a reward (our appetite for it) grows when we are closer to the reward than when we are far away, and unless we somehow commit ourselves to our previous preferences, we succumb.
“This inconsistency rests on an illusion that we all experience every day. For example, imagine you set your alarm clock at midnight to wake up at 6 a.m. the next morning. But when the alarm goes off, the choice that you made last night now seems absurd. The warmth and comfort of the bed makes you change your mind. What was chosen the night before is now rejected.”
In other words, when faced with the potential felicity of immediate gratification, our usually trusty decision-making skills and rational thinking go out the window. And in just a matter of seconds, we transition from rational actors to irrational actors. It’s no wonder humans struggle so mightily with the forces of procrastination, overeating and addiction.
To address this problem, researchers in the social sciences suggest meeting the allure of instant gratification with another immediate pleasure or pain that encourages self-control. My father, an avid student of behavioral economics, established a rule for himself prohibiting listening to his beloved podcasts except at the gym, while working out. Suddenly, relaxing on the couch didn’t look as appealing.
Behavioral investigator Vanessa Van Edwards detailed a pain-centric approach called Anti-Charity, in which you strengthen your resolutions and quiet the voices of mutiny in your head with a commitment to give a certain amount of money to a charity you abhor every time you break with your commitment. Will I smoke that cigarette if it costs me a $5 donation to the Ku Klux Klan? I didn’t think so. As crazy as it sounds, the immediate, painful realization that smoking one cigarette means supporting a horrible institution with a minimal donation resonates more in the mind than the long-term consideration that smoking will eventually kill you.
Speaking from personal experience, I can testify to the power of the Anti-Charity strategy. Although, it should be noted that because of the halachic issues involved in potentially donating to a damaging and sinful organization (like the KKK), my commitment involved the second-best thing – a donation to a particularly disdainful political figure (the donation itself not a sin, but it felt pretty bad nonetheless).
The religious life introduces loads of new arenas requiring self-control. what we eat, how we work, when we work, how we speak, what we look at, how we judge, how we react, what we wear and on and on and on. I was curious, in light of the findings that demonstrate humanity’s trouble with properly evaluating near-term pleasures, what the Torah’s advice for overcoming temptation might be and if it addresses the central issues described by behavioral economics.
What I found in my investigation was initially disappointing, yet ultimately spiritually edifying and everyday pragmatic. Make sure to look out for my next article, in the July 12 issue of the TJP, in which I will reveal my findings.


Examine your assumptions so you can change

Posted on 31 May 2018 by admin

Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey know a thing or two about the nature of human change. For over two decades, this highly decorated professorial pair from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education researched the subject, and in the process uncovered an underlying rationale that helps to explain why human beings find change so difficult and what we can do to overcome those very obstacles. “Immunity to change” is the term they used to describe our species’ adversarial relationship with change, and in 2009 they cowrote a book by that very name.
Kegan and Lahey quoted a study that showed that when doctors tell heart patients that they will die if they don’t change their habits (diet, exercise, smoking, etc.) only one in seven will be able to follow through successfully. It’s hard to imagine a greater motivation than life itself, and yet that doesn’t seem to be enough — the ability to change remaining maddeningly elusive.
As Kegan joked in an online lecture, “If 14 frogs sat on a log and three of them decided to jump into the water, how many frogs would be left on the log? … I know a big part of you wants to say 11 is the answer to that question, but I wanna suggest to you that 14 might be a better answer, because there’s a big difference between deciding to (do something) and actually doing it.”
Kegan and Lahey set out to uncover what it is that stands in the way between our genuine intentions and the change we wish to see, and in the process uncovered what they term “hidden competing commitments,” which inhibit the probability of change.
Here’s an example of what this looks like: Multiple studies have found that one year after being prescribed life-saving medication (say, to prevent strokes), only 53-57 percent of patients will still be taking their medication. When asked why they stopped, the most common answers given were “I don’t know,” followed by “I get busy.” These non-answers, said Kegan and Lahey, are indicative of the immunity to change and the need to uncover the hidden competing commitments that stand in the way of these patients’ success.
Kegan and Lahey would probe a patient’s psyche. “How would it feel to do the opposite of what you’re doing now? If you did take your medication every day?” The answers given were eye-opening not only to Kegan and Lahey, but to the patients themselves, having never consciously considered the question before. “I would feel like a sick, old man,” patients would often say. “I’d be like my dad, with one foot in the grave.” Hearing these words come out of his mouth, one patient noted the glaring irony in his situation: “That’s interesting. You’re showing me that the thing I’m doing to not feel like an old man is likely to leave me a dead man.”
• Hidden competing commitment: the commitment of the patient to not feel like a sick, over-the-hill man.
• Big assumption: If I have to take medicine every day for the rest of my life, it means that I am an old person in decline.
Kegan and Lahey would subsequently invite the patients to examine their big assumptions, asking them to observe their big assumptions in action. In the case of life-saving medication, the patient might be asked to commit to taking the medication for one or two weeks and measure whether this, in fact, made him feel like a sick old man. Human beings, as “meaning-makers” at their core, might also consider adopting a fresh perspective, turning the medicine-taking process from a dreaded burden (“Death, here I come”) into a pleasing opportunity (“Thank God I can stay young and vibrant with one little pill”). The thinking goes, remove the roadblock laid out by hidden competing commitments, and the commitment to change can take over.
In my decade plus as an outreach rabbi, I’ve heard many similar-sounding non-answers from otherwise religiously motivated individuals as to why they are not committing to particular mitzvot or observances. If Kegan and Lahey could hear my students speak, they would point to their immunity to change and some, as-yet-undiscovered, hidden competing commitments. Maybe my students are committed to living a certain kind of lifestyle, and they assume that certain mitzvot are simply incompatible. Or, perhaps they harbor negative associations with certain observances that they would otherwise be open to incorporating into their life.
Like Kegan and Lahey, I encourage my students to examine their big assumptions for what they are: assumptions. Commit to a mitzvah for a period of time and examine the reality on the ground. As King David exclaims, “Taste and see that Hashem is good” (the literal translation of Psalms 34:9). “Taste and see” — experiment and experience a life with Hashem and His commandments, and you will find that “Hashem is good.” A life lived in consonance with G-d is “good.”
It’s not unusual to hear fresh perspectives out of the mouths of mitzvah-experimenters, as well. Unrealized spiritual and earthly benefits of mitzvah observance are often discovered in the process, and even when certain mitzvot are found to be incompatible with lifestyles once held dear, it’s not unusual to hear that they are more taken with this new lifestyle than they are with their old one. “Taste and see.”


Our ancestors gave themselves and us to God

Posted on 16 May 2018 by admin

There is a great political cartoon I saw recently titled Genesis of the Trial Attorney. The single-frame cartoon depicts Moses coming down the mountain with the tablets of stone in his hands. The Jewish people stand below, seemingly ready to accept the law in its fullness, when one man comes forward with confidence and opines, “OK… You say ‘commandments’ but I hear ‘recommendations.’”
As Shavuot nears and we prepare ourselves to re-accept the Torah and its laws anew, the crafty assertion made by this fictional attorney bears great consideration, if not for those who stood at Sinai, but for all the future generations of Jews who would come from that notable generation. For even if those at Sinai accepted the Torah’s laws with their celebrated cry of consent — “na’aseh v’nishma” (“we will do and then we will understand”) — all future generations did not. What, then, obligates them — us — in this divine contract? After all, can a parent accept a contract that extends to their children who have no say in the matter?
Nonetheless, we know that Torah literature takes our obligation of Torah law as a given. After all, they are called the 613 mitzvot (“commandments” — not “good deeds” as the word “mitzva” is so often mistranslated). Similarly, the Talmud is replete with the statement “kvar mushva ve’omed me’har Sinai,” “(a Jew is) already sworn in at Mount Sinai.” What is, then, the halachic mechanism that binds later generations of Jews to the Sinaitic commitment of their forefathers?
None other than Nachmanides (1194-1270) tackles this thorny issue. In Nachmanides’ opinion, the oath of an entire nation is fundamentally different from the oath of an individual. Whereas an individual can obligate only himself in a contract or oath, a national oath passes on to all future members of that nation.
In my mind, I imagine it as similar to a treaty made between nations. For even if the presidents of the countries who negotiated a peace agreement were to die (or similarly, if the citizens who elected those officials were to die), the treaty’s binding nature would continue unabated. Why? Because the agreement itself ultimately lay between larger entities, in this case countries, and those entities are alive and well. So it is with the oath made at Sinai. The nation itself accepted the Torah, and all future members of the tribe would enter into the agreement of “na’aseh v’nishma” as a result.
In honor of the coming holiday and in honor of the in-depth Torah study that lies at Shavuot’s core, I’d like to offer a fresh approach to our original question based on the scholarly writings of Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik (1820-1892), known throughout the Torah world as the Beis Halevi. The Beis Halevi (Drushim, 17) was bothered with a different component of the “na’aseh v’nishma” oath: namely, why the Jewish people’s oath was ever considered halachically valid in the first place. After all, Jewish law states that a commitment is not considered legally binding unless all of the details and requirements of that commitment are clearly specified and delineated at the time of the agreement (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 207:21). In the case of the Jews at Sinai, the proverbial cart most certainly came before the horse, as their national pledge proceeded the delineation of the vast majority of the commandments.
The Beis Halevi suggests an approach to this question by noting a seeming contradiction to the aforementioned law. Halacha allows a person to sell himself as a slave (the nature of the unique type of slavery that the Torah allows is beyond the scope of this article). A slave does not know exactly what kind of work he will be forced to do by his new master, nor the number of hours his work will entail. Nevertheless, such a sale is halachically valid. Why?
According to Rabbi Soloveitchik, the reason is because a slave is selling himself and his body (something quantifiable). What a slave is not doing is agreeing to a series of future unknown obligatory tasks (as that would most certainly be ruled an invalid agreement).
So too, says the Beis Halevi, the Jews at Mount Sinai were not merely agreeing to a series of yet unspoken laws (something considerably problematic in halacha). Rather, they were offering themselves, their whole selves — body and soul — to God as servants.
Based on this, perhaps we can suggest that the reason why all future generations are obligated in a Torah to which they themselves never swore allegiance is because they were born to people who had given themselves to God as servants. And a child born of a slave is a slave himself.
Ashreinu. How blessed are we to be servants of God. Servants to a loving Master who desires our best and rewards us fully for our good deeds. Ashreinu. How lucky are we to have laws that not only uplift, but sanctify us!
Such servitude is yet freedom by another name.
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the outreach director of DATA of Plano. He can be reached at


Sorry, PETA: Humans are different from animals

Posted on 03 May 2018 by admin

I wouldn’t call myself a great animal lover. Sure, I’ve had my fair share of childhood pets. There was MC Hamster, Flopsy the rabbit, a fish tank filled with your run-of-the-mill pet store fish and, finally, our longest living pet, Kishka, the runt of her doggy litter who outlived the rest of her brothers and sisters. That being said, and like many other children, I tended to be excited at the idea of pet ownership more than the day-to-day realities of pet rearing.
The one thing that has always stuck with me, though, is care for animals. Like abuses committed against peoples, the mistreatment of any sentient being has always struck deeply at my core and, as I would learn later on in my yeshiva years, the Torah prohibits such mistreatment (tza’ar ba’alei chayim in Talmudic terminology) amongst its Biblical commandments.
Personal confession: Even as a healthy, meat-eating American, I check the PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) website almost every week — and enjoy doing so. Much of its animal advocacy has led to positive changes in the world of animal welfare, and I am endlessly fascinated with its undercover journalism. Over time, though, I began to pick up on an unspoken, yet ever-present, wholly unkosher component of PETA’s ideology.
Biblically speaking, human beings are the caretakers of the Earth (see Beresheet 1:26) and, as such, are obliged to care and show compassion for the vulnerable creatures and the environment around them (See Ramchal’s Path of the Just, Chapter 1.) We may eat animals, as long as we slaughter them humanely, and we may utilize animals for their brute strength or soft pelts if needed. Never, though, may we needlessly abuse them.
In PETA’s world, that is not the case. It is not enough to exercise compassion when utilizing animals for the good of mankind. Even the most humane slaughter is barbaric in PETA’s eyes. This same blanket castigation goes for the usage of any and all animal-sourced products as well, no matter how humanely they may have been procured and no matter how necessary they may be for mankind. Why? Because in PETA’s eyes, human beings and animals are essentially the same. The murder of a man or a pig is murder, and no need can ever justify murder.
PETA’s ideology was on full display in its 2003 ad campaign “Holocaust on your Plate,” in which billboards compared Holocaust imagery with imagery of modern agricultural practices. In one ad, a billboard is split between a picture of Jewish children in a concentration camp, all wearing prisoner outfits and standing behind barbed wire, and another picture of young pigs peering through bars in a kennel of sorts. The title on top: “Baby Butchers.” In another, similarly designed ad, we see a picture of severely emaciated men lying down in a concentration camp barracks as well as a snapshot of chickens enclosed in coops. The title for this nauseating ad: “To Animals, All People Are Nazis.”
Yes, PETA is known for its affinity of shock-value advertising, meant to awaken sensibilities and garner publicity. But underneath all of that lies the ideological equivocation of human and animal suffering and of human and animal death.
As if to eliminate any doubt as to PETA’s ideological belief system, PETA recently released a new video featuring the voice and words of rapper RZA titled We’re Not Different in Any Important Way. Over a video of human faces slowly morphing into one another and eventually into the faces of animals, RZA speaks these words:
“We are all the same, in all the ways that matter. It doesn’t matter what we look like, how old we are, what language we speak, or who we love. It doesn’t matter if we have fur or feathers or fins, the length of our nose or the number of legs. We are not different in any important way. We all have thoughts and feelings. We all feel love and pain and loneliness and joy. We can all understand but we are not always understanding. We experience ourselves as separate from the rest, but none of us deserves to be treated with less respect. Our task must be to break free from prejudice, and to see ourselves in everyone else.”
At the end of the video these words appear on the screen: “Face it: Inside every body, there is a person.”
In PETA’s eyes, humans are truly not “different in any important way,” and inside every animal “is a person.” This is human/animal equivocation at its finest. And if randomly guided evolution is all one sees, then perhaps one has a point. For without a divine soul, “the superiority of man over beast is naught, for all is vanity” (Kohelet 3:19). And if we are all the same, as PETA suggests, what rights have we over the animals?
(Alternatively, one might argue that if we are but animals at our core, why must we behave any differently from other animals who hunt and kill animals for food? What would separate mankind apart from the rest of the food chain and obligate us in a wholly distinct code of consumption ethics?)
However, it is precisely because of man’s distinct nature that he would choose to care for the vulnerable beasts around him, rather than take advantage of them — something practically unheard of in the animal kingdom. Ironically, it is PETA’s very concern for animals that speaks to the soul of man, the very thing that indeed separates and elevates him from the likes of the cow, the pig and the fish — and the very reason that man is given responsible dominion over the earth and all of its creatures.
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the co-director of DATA of Plano.


Posted on 19 April 2018 by admin

Imagine if your wife had a bird’s-eye view of what you did at the office every day. Would she find herself impressed with your productivity level and work ethic? Or, would she discover a ship that needed much righting? Could she rightly point to multiple items on your business to-do list left unattended to, as well as time that could have been used more efficiently (say, for more sales calls and less YouTube dancing squirrels)?
For many men, this is more of a theoretical scenario than a real one, as offices are typically tucked away in an office park, miles away from the house, and office visits from family members are somewhat of a rarity.
How different is it for our wives? Even as many modern women work outside of the house, the primary duty of taking care of the home typically remains upon them and essentially transforms our homes into their “workplaces.” And there lies the challenge. We live in their “workplaces.” How do we remain profoundly appreciative for all that our wives do for our households, never treating their familial service as a job to be held over their head, or their performance as something subject to our critical analysis?
This challenge proved too difficult for one of my students. He is a keen observer and persistently felt an underlying feeling of annoyance walking through his house each day, his dwelling much too untidy for his liking. His wife didn’t work, and he felt that she had the time to keep the house in order if it was truly a priority in her mind. He knew full well the myriad responsibilities that she had on a daily basis. They had a large family, after all. But, he still felt that there was enough time in the day to also care for the house properly and, of course, have a freshly prepared dinner ready each night by 6.
His fraught emotions turned more and more to charged, critical statements directed to his wife. “I thought you were going to take care of that already.” “Why is dinner never ready on time?” “This house is filthy.” His venting brought him relief from emotions otherwise suppressed, while his wife had to endure the heartache that came with each and every verbal blow.
Recognizing that he had an issue that needed to be dealt with and that he was the responsible party, he came to speak with me. I shared with him the Rambam’s famous injunction that we should always seek the middle path in middos (character traits), and that this requires us to veer to the opposite extreme of wherever we happen to be. That only by moving from one extreme to the other can we free ourselves of our bad habits and ensure that we end up with a balanced approach to life.
As Rabbi Reuven Leuchter explains on Page 89 of Teshuva: Restoring Life:
“The underlying assumption behind the Rambam’s approach is that every midda (character trait) has an extreme quality. When we find ourselves under the influence of a particular midda, it alone determines our perceptions and feelings. We become oblivious to any other perspective or reality. Only by shifting to the opposite extreme can we counteract this blindness. Only by focusing on the direct opposite of what we are experiencing and by treating the initial extreme as if it does not exist can we eventually arrive at a point in the middle.”
I advised my student to apply the Rambam’s methodology to his own life and to veer to the opposite extreme. His critical perspective of his wife was blinding him from ever perceiving a different, more positive reality of his wife’s help in the upkeep of their home. He needed to not only refrain from criticism of any kind, but to desist from any discussions or requests, however innocuous they might seem, concerning the subject of housekeeping. As he was not yet able to walk the middle path, any discussion of housekeeping was likely to turn ugly. The only exception to this rule would be expressions of gratitude for anything his wife might have done in the house. I encouraged him to use his observant nature to discover positive contributions that his wife had made each and every day and to heartily express his gratitude.
“This commitment would need to be for one month,” I told him, “and only then might you attempt to form a healthy, middle-of-the-road approach.”
To my utter delight, a month passed, and with it a renewed sense of peace and tranquility in the student’s home. Both husband and wife found themselves happier. A fresh set of lenses (which only took shape after a few grueling weeks of self-restraint) enabled my student to finally see how hard his wife truly worked for the family, and his wife felt appreciated for the first time in quite a while. After experiencing newfound calm in the house, my student recognized how responsible he had been for creating a toxic environment in the house, as well as how much pressure and anxiety he had exerted on his wife.
Unable to discuss any household needs with his wife, he found himself picking up the broom and the dustpan to take care of problem areas around the house. It dawned on him how rarely he had ever offered to help with the housework that mattered so much to him.
My student could now attempt life in the middle path, but he would need to be vigilant lest he slide back to his old habits.
During this period of the counting of the Omer, we are instructed to use each day as a steppingstone toward self improvement. The Rambam’s advice can help us get there.
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is the co-director of DATA of Plano.


Does the Torah scholar rise above personal interest?

Posted on 22 March 2018 by admin

Can you trust the rulings of the rabbis? This is a question that my brother and I have discussed and debated for quite a while now. The root of our brotherly debate is not what you might imagine. Neither my brother nor I believe that generations of great halachic authorities would knowingly corrupt the Torah’s intent.
My brother merely argues that as great as any Torah scholar may be, he is still a human being and, like other human beings, susceptible to personal leanings and interests that subtly influence his rulings and conclusions. The talmid chacham (Torah scholar) might believe that he is interpreting the Torah according to the letter of the law, his thinking goes, but in reality, it is his desire to rule a certain way that may ultimately lead the way.
I argue that through a lifetime dedicated to Torah and Torah study, the talmid chacham rises above his natural inclinations, subjugating all that he is and all that he wants to the Torah and its truth.
It was with great satisfaction, then, that I recently discovered a section of Emunah U’Bitachon (Faith and Trust, a philosophical work written by one of the greatest rabbis of the 20th century, the Chazon Ish, Rabbi Avraham Yeshaya Karelitz zt’’l, 1873-1953) that dealt with just this subject, and, of course, shared it with my brother.
In Chapter 3, Section 30, the Chazon Ish writes as follows:
“There is yet another disease of the spirit that the evil inclination uses to keep the belief in sages (emunas chachamim) from entering people’s hearts, and that is the fickle scale of personal interest (in halachic terms: negia). The disciple is obligated to believe that there is no personal interest powerful enough to incline the heart of a scholar to pervert justice, for the goal of the Torah scholar is to bring merit to his soul, and to stain his soul with sin would hurt him far more than any physical blow. So how could he — for money or from a desire to please someone — harm his soul by perverting justice? In addition to this, the quality of truth is the most basic quality of the sage, and even the slightest untruth is alien to him.”
The Chazon Ish goes on to explain the disastrous results that emerge in a society distrustful of its Torah sages:
“But the evil inclination can undermine this trust, by entrapping those who tend toward convoluted reasoning, and offering them a complete theory… that personal interest has definitive power for the petty and the great alike — even the wisest are prey to it, as are the chassidim and the righteous. According to this theory, the scholar (who gives in to personal interests) has nothing to be ashamed of, for such is human nature; but those who claim so do not know that according to this assumption, the entire generation is hereby orphaned, and there can be no judges, and no leaders (pp. 130-132).”
I asked my brother what he thought of the Chazon Ish’s statements, and he quickly texted me back with a compelling question: “How can the Torah make that assumption, that he, a sage, is above personal interest? What proof is there that they have achieved metaphysical/supernatural status, that they can transcend their humanity?”
I considered my brother’s question throughout the day. I felt euphoric when I arrived at a conclusion later that night. You see, the Chazon Ish isn’t suggesting that the talmid chacham achieves some sort of metaphysical status, and with it a relief from the pull of personal interest. Rather, he is informing us that it is in the natural state of affairs for a person who utterly dedicates themselves to Torah to develop a new set of negios (“personal interests”) — a negia toward spiritual merit and a negia toward truth. Just like any personal interest, these interests pervade his being — both his conscience and his subconscious — and direct him toward particular goals. In this case, the truth.
Consider the nature of a typical mother or father. They are probably much like everyone else, in that they desire their fair share of wealth and goods for themselves. That being said, the love that they have for their child is so great, that they will not hesitate to spend all that they have in pursuit of a life-saving procedure for their baby. The parents may have two sets of competing personal interests (accumulation of wealth versus an expensive, life-saving procedure for their child), but they do not exert their influence to anywhere near the same degree. So it is with the talmid chacham. He may share many of the same personal interests that motivate the rest of us, but his personal interest in maintaining the integrity of the Torah exists in a wholly different dimension and exerts the influence that matters the most.
(It is worthwhile to note that the Chazon Ish is not suggesting that due to the talmid chacham’s acquired set of spiritual negios he will never come to sin. The Torah itself is filled with many examples of great leaders making sinful mistakes. Rather, the Torah is informing us that there are degrees to which a talmid chacham sins, and that the grave area of corrupting the Torah is beyond the normal talmid chacham’s sin threshold.)
Now, there are examples of sages corrupting the Torah, and the Talmud has a special name for such people — megaleh panim ba’Torah she’lo ka’halacha (literally, “revealing faces of the Torah that are not in accordance with halacha”). The Talmud declares that corrupting the Torah is such a heinous crime that such people lose their share in the world to come. Yet, such sinners are the exception, not the rule. When these people are discovered, and they are always discovered due to their track record of specious halachic rulings, their rulings as disregarded and we are left once again with a pure halachic record. The Chazon Ish is teaching us that the default position of a talmid chacham is an allegiance to Torah truth, and therefore we need not concern ourselves or suspect a talmid chacham of being in the minority.
Now, I can imagine your thoughts as you read this column. “How incredibly convenient for a rabbi to preach that we should trust the rabbis.” Unfortunately, there is little that I can do for you in the way of assuaging your suspicions. If the words of the saintly Chazon Ish are not enough for you, and if you’ve never had the merit of sitting in the dust of the sages of Torah, uncovering their nature firsthand, then there is nothing that I can say that will put your mind at ease. For just as the blind man cannot see colors, so it is that many will never recognize the true nature of the talmid chacham.
Rabbi Yogi Robkin is co-director of DATA of Plano. To contact Rabbi Yogi Robkin, email him at


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