Isaac Kaplan

"Is it any wonder I've got too much time on my hands?"

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Do Some People Have It Easy? Revisited

I wrote about this two years ago, but the question is still relevant. That's why I'm discussing the issue once again.

Unfortunately, many of us or our loved ones have a big nisayon to contend with. Whether it involves health, parnassa, shalom bayis, shidduchim, chinuch - many of us struggle with something big. What can make it more difficult is seeing a neighbor or friend who seems to have the easy life - a nice home, fancy car, no obvious health issues, no older singles, no kids off the derech - what could be the guy's biggest challenge, choosing between a Lexus and an Infiniti? It's easy to be jealous of someone who seems to have everything going his way.

Many rabbonim, including Rabbi Paysach Krohn, say that such an attitude is wrong. "Nobody has it easy!" says Rabbi Krohn. Many challenges are only known behind closed doors. The neighbor with the fancy house may have tremendous shalom bayis issues that nobody except for a few close friends and family will ever know about. These days, many health issues are kept secret. Based on what Rabbi Krohn says, everyone's got a challenge, we just don't necessarily know about it.

But based on the gemara and other sources, I don't know if that's true. The gemara in Avoda Zara (3a) says that G-d does not give His creatures a nisayon they can't handle. Based on that, we can speculate that some people can't handle anything. In that case, the biggest nisayon G-d will give them just might be whether to shop at Bloomingdale's or Saks. If that's all they tolerate, that's all they'll get.

Rabbi Ezriel Tauber Shlit"a, in his work "Self Esteem" (highly recommended, by the way - this is not Dr. Phil/Stephen Covey fluff, despite the title) expounds on this point:

The greater a person is, the more is expected of him.


"You must have Hashem's favor," the rabbi added. "Otherwise, He would let you have things easy. You must be able to overcome your despair. Hashem only challenges a person whom He knows can persevere and overcome. You must believe in yourself as much as He believes in you."

- When I was in yeshiva, some rabbeim would often discuss the "tehillim-zuggers" who were in Europe. These were men who didn't know how to learn chumash, let alone gemara. But they were still considered good Jews, my rabbeim said. Why? Their brainpower was limited, so their tafkid was to say tehillim. And because of that, they were great. Of course, if R' Akiva Eiger or the Chasam Sofer would've settled with being "tehillim-zuggers," that would have been tragic. All that potential, wasted.

In the same vein, perhaps some people have it easy when it comes to nisyonos. When it comes to challenges, they are the "tehillim-zuggers" of our time. They can't handle too much, so their nisyonos may seem easy to the rest of us. As Rabbi Tauber explains, nisyonos represent G-d's confidence in man's ability to rise to the occasion. And some people simply don't have what it takes.

It's also important to keep in mind the famous Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:12), that says that much of the evil in the world comes from people's own actions. The classic example would be a chain smoker who later gets lung cancer - many of us wouldn't feel too sympathetic - in a sense, this person dug their own grave. I think we can extend to this to similar situations involving social and emotional challenges as well.

- But as Rabbi Tauber writes, the key for anyone facing a challenge is to believe in themselves and rise to the occasion. Rabbi Soloveitchik zt"l expounds on this in "Fate and Destiny," another recommended read.

May G-d give all those facing a challenge the ability to realize this and overcome whatever difficulties they may be facing.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Not #1, But Definitely Top 10

I'm usually a fan of Rabbi Yakov Horowitz's material, but I just can't agree with his latest post.

To summarize for those not willing to read the article: Yonason Rosenblum decries the extravagant Pesach celebrations at hotels. At one point, he quotes a rav saying that "Pesach in hotels" in the biggest threat to yiddishkeit today. And Rabbi Horowitz basically (and correctly) says that such a statement is ridiculous. However, he goes on to give the hotel guests a free pass:

For each of the past eight years, I have accepted invitations to join a total of four different Pesach hotel programs as a scholar-in-residence. Throughout that time, I never saw any of the exaggerated claims made by that Rav – guards at tea rooms, waiters almost trampled, and on and on. And to imply that there is “no ruchniyus” in a comfortable setting where mothers and grandmothers who toil all year long raising their children and volunteering for chesed activities can peacefully sit at the table and enjoy the Seder and their families is untrue and condescending.
This is where have to disagree with Rabbi Horowitz.

I'm not going to rehash the whole "materialism" and "gashmius" bit, although that's obviously a primary factor here. It's been done a million times before. I will say one thing, however:

Perhaps nothing signifies the obsession with materialism more than going to hotels for Pesach. Rav Soloveitchik compares the holiness of the Seder night to Kol Nidrei night (interestingly, one rav pointed out that on Erev Pesach this year, we will lain parshas Acharei Mos, which contains the krias hatorah of Shacharis and Minchah of Yom Kippur). Yet Pesach has gone from an ultra-spiritual experience to an ultra-materialistic experience. In a way, it's worse than the fancy car and the fancy home, because it's killed the meaning of one of the most weeks of the year.

-- But to me, the biggest reason why this makes the top 10 is the staggering sum of money that gets spent here. One rav told me that he heard this has become a billion-dollar industry. I’m almost certain that’s an exaggerated figure, but at the same time, when you see the pages and pages of resorts advertising in the Jewish Press, there are definitely tens of millions being spent here. And at a time when aniyim are suffering, mosdos are suffering, and there are so many great causes that can use the cash, this is terrible.

And granted, the richies also blow plenty of money on fancy houses and fancy cars. But in those areas, they don’t spend much more than the average Joe. How much more does it cost to lease a Lexus than a Toyota Camry? On the upside, probably about $10,000 a year. And when it comes to buying a house, in most frum neighborhoods, even a shnooky house costs an arm and a leg.

But even with inflation being another excuse for kosher retailers to jack up Pesach food prices, there is a significant cost difference between making Pesach at home and going to Cancun.

And all that money that aniyim and mosdos will never see is why I think this makes the top 10 list.

- So what’s the solution?

I don’t want takanos. The wedding takanos became the biggest joke in Flatbush. Plus, it would cause a serious loss of money to Katz, Lasko, Chaim Kaminetsky, and others. As much as these programs are wrong, I don’t think it’s fair to cause them to lose parnossa.

Then you have the people that say the rabbis should give mussar about the topic. Yeah, because that’s worked really well with TV, tznius, and materialism in general.

My suggestion? Start a campaign where the richies will match their Pesach travel expenditures with a matching contribution to tzedakah. (Of course, we would need a minimum threshold. The people spending Pesach in Fleischmann’s don’t need to get involved, because they’re probably in a hotel for the right reasons.)

I would love to see various mosdos and organizations band together to form such a plan. I would definitely list the donors in a full-page ad in the Yated and Jewish Press, thanking them for these donations. These richies love recognition, and if everyone sees they gave 75 grand to tzedakah, that’ll give them their glory. I would even try to get the more generous richies on board first, to try to pressure them to get everyone else involved.

Maybe we can’t stop people from going away for the holiday. But if we can at least give the aniyim and mosdos some of that cash, that's progress.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

"Ess Shver Tzu Zayn A Yid"

In my years in the yeshiva system, there was one anecdote that has recently bothered me. Maybe it wasn't the anecdote per se, but the way the rabbeim delivered it.

Here's the anecdote:

In the 1920's and 1930's, many American Jews assimilated. One gadol attributed the mass assimilation to a common saying that reflected the attitude of the Jews at the time: "ess shver tzu zayn a Yid - it's hard to be a Jew." Many Jews felt that their religion wasn't much more than a difficult burden. And at a time when many frum Jews were looking for jobs on a weekly basis because they couldn't work on Shabbos, perhaps we can't blame them for having such a negative attitude.

In any case, the lesson is: don't treat Judaism like a burden. Don't say, "it's hard to be a Jew."

This story bothers me on multiple levels:

1) Sometimes Judaism can be difficult. Keeping kosher in a small town in Middle America? Not so easy. Paying 5 tuitions, a mortgage, etc. in the tri-state area in 2008? Painful. Besides, Pirkei Avos discussed the concept of "l'fum tzara agra." Sometimes, Judaism is hard.

2) My bigger problem is, the rabbeim provided no solution to this problem. It's like a father telling a depressed kid, "cheer up." What the heck is that? For most people, emotions don't work like the on-off switch that turns on a light. They can't just get happy.

And in the same vein, if a kid finds Judaism to be a meaningless set of burdens, what's he supposed to do about it, after hearing the above? Just feel like an even guiltier schmuck for having those thoughts? That's really productive.

After telling such a story, a rebbi has got to follow it up with a discussion of what's great about Judaism, what's great about Torah and mitzvos, and the tremendous opportunity we've been presented.

3) And that leads into my third point: too many mechanchim portray Judaism as a bunch of meaningless burdens. They suck all the life and beauty out of Yiddishkeit, instead ranting about TV, concerts, and "kids these days." And then on top of that, they'll tell over an anecdote like the above. Again, just to make the kids feel even more guilty, I guess.

The best rabbeim I had weren't the ones who shouted until they were blue in the face about how evil girls are. The best rabbeim were the ones whose faces shone when a kid had a good pshat to offer, when a kid brought clarity to a difficult sugya. But that's a discussion deserving of its own post.

-- So in the end, I've got no problem with the anecdote - besides, the Torah says that one reason for the Tochacha is not serving G-d with joy.

But if there are no solutions given about how to get to that level of joy, then telling over the anecdote is pointless.

Monday, April 07, 2008

The Death of Quality

I took a speed-reading course and read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It involves Russia.
- Woody Allen

There's an ad for a yeshiva which I find very disturbing. The yeshiva claims that by the time the kids get out of there after 12th grade, they'll have finished shas 40 times. And before that, while in grade school, they'll have memorized Tanach and Shisha Sidrei Mishna. Sounds amazing, doesn't it?

This place rubs me the wrong way in so many ways I don't know where to begin.

First off, the way they hype the kids coming out knowing all this stuff just sounds like a "get rich quick" scheme. From the get-go, something smells fishy. If only Rav Eli Teitelbaum zt"l were still around to tell these guys off the same way he ripped the MLM and network marketing schemes.

And assuming that, in fact, the kids will go through shas 40 times in high school. One of two things is going on: a) the kids are killing themselves and are having absolutely no free time at all, or b) the quality of those 40 times is basically non-existent. And this place claims they're gonna have a strong secular studies department, too. Whoever these kids are, I feel for 'em, and hope they stay frum after all this.

But what really gets to me is the learning by rote and the sole focus on bekius. If you're finishing shas 10 times a year, good luck squeezing a Rashi into the mix, let alone a Tosfos. It's scary, in so many ways:

- 1) Are these kids going to learn how to learn, how to think in terms of lomdus? No. Suddenly, that's not important. I know some will say that once they get to Israel, they'll start learning b'iyun. And at that point, their knowledge of shas will be extremely helpful. But let's be realistic: in many ways, they'll be way, way behind their peers, and they may be screwed up for life.

It's one thing if a kid joked around in high school and didn't learn much. Perhaps once he gets to Israel or Yeshiva Gedola, he can get serious and start thinking in learning. At least he hasn't developed any bad habits in his approach to learning.

However, a kid who goes to this school will have to develop a totally new approach to learning: after 12 years of pure memorization by rote, he'll suddenly be faced with unfamiliar rishonim and acharonim, as well as the formidable challenge of making sense of a challenging sugya. That's a tall, tall order, especially for someone entrenched in a diametrically opposite approach to learning all his life.

- 2) Besides, is there any precedent for this derech halimud in our mesora? Many of the same people who trash YU for not following the mesora are suddenly clamoring to send their kids to a place whose derech halimud flies in the face of everything we were taught about R' Chaim, R' Akiva Eiger, and the K'tzos, for starters. (Not to mention that we'll be lucky if these kids even know the names of those acharonim when they step out of high school.)

This yeshiva claims that some of the gedolim in Eretz Yisroel support a similar yeshiva in Israel, but so what? What's appropriate for Eretz Yisroel may be totally inappropriate for America. (If anything, the precedents set by the likes of R' Shraga Feivel, R' Hutner, etc. have proven as much.) Have any American gedolim signed off on this place?

- 3) Also, a school like this can only thrive in an era of image-itis. The fact that people go for this, it just goes to show that it's all about results these days, all about the numbers. Not about quality, just quantity. These fathers just want to brag that their kids finished shas forty times. Never mind that they probably went through it the way Woody Allen "went" through War and Peace.

Many times in life, quality isn't sexy. Quantity is.

- 4) Finally, I also believe that part of the appeal behind this school is that the kids will be so busy memorizing that they won't have time to think. Many right-wingers are anti-thinking; after all, it makes a rebbi's job easier if he doesn't have to answer a kid's tough hashkafa questions!
Thinking has become evil. Drinking kool-aid is the way to go.

One of my favorite gedolim stories was in the JO eight years ago, in an article commemorating the twentieth yahrtzeit of R' Yitzchak Hutner, ZT"L. He was on a bus when he saw one of his talmiding sitting with a sefer, learning on the bus. Rav Hutner turned to the talmid and said, "nu, so when do you have time to think?"

If only we had more rabbonim like him around these days, we wouldn't have schools like this, schools that represent the many ways this generation has gone wrong.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Baseball: Bring on '08! Predictions

It's amazing how the World Series seems to end later every year, and yet the offseason seems to take longer and longer. For a short stretch in January, I almost lost interest in baseball - I hadn't been so out of it since '95. But then Santana and Bedard got traded, and it all got exciting again. And once I had the game on the other morning, the wait was over.

Anyway, it's prediction time.

-- The Orioles will hit the record books again, a year after losing 30-3 to Texas. I predict 125 losses for them this year. They lost Bedard and Tejada, and Roberts has had one foot out the door for months. They've got 19 games apiece against two of the best teams in the game, Boston and the Yanks, another 19 against a dangerous Rays team, and 19 against Halladay, Burnett, and the Jays. True, they've got Markakis and Adam Jones, but they've also got Steve Trachsel. It's gonna get real ugly in Camden, as Peter Angelos battles the Dolans for worst owner in sports.

-- World Series - Detroit vs. Arizona. I know Detroit's got bullpen issues, but if Zumaya and Rodney are healthy down the stretch, they'll be fine. I think Willis will improve, in spite of the NL-AL switch. 

I know the Mets fans won't appreciate the Arizona pick, and neither will the Sabermetricians, because of last year's negative run differential. But I credit Melvin's use of the bullpen and general strategy more than anything else. Plus: these guys made it to the NLCS last year, before running into the red-hot Rockies. And they've added Haren, giving them a great 1-2 punch for a short series. Also, they've got a bunch of players who are young and whose best is yet to come, like Chris Young and Justin Upton. Compare that to the Mets, where you don't know what you'll get from guys like Delgado and El Duque. 

I like Detroit in 6.

-- I'm picking Boston to win the AL East and Cleveland to take home the Wild Card. That means the Yankees miss the playoffs, and that means Cashman gets fired and Hank goes all-out to get Sabathia and Texieria. Not good for the game.

-- Rockies of '08? -- the Reds. I think they'll finish 2nd in the NL Central (Cubs in first), but they'll break .500 for the first time in a while, and in a couple of years, might be primed to bring the Series to Cincy for the first time since the Nasty Boys.

-- I like the Braves as the Wild Card. I think Hampton's gonna be Comeback Player of the Year. Francoeur and McCann will keep improving, and a full year of Teixeria will be huge.

-- Awards: AL MVP - Miguel Cabrera, AL Cy Young - Erik Bedard, AL ROY - Evan Longoria
NL MVP - Chase Utley, NL Cy Young - Johan Santana, NL ROY - Joey Votto

Monday, March 24, 2008

A Mechanech For All Students

The passing of R’ Eli Teitelbaum ZT”L saddens me. I didn’t know the man personally, save for an unforgettable summer in Israel that I and so many hundreds of others experienced.

Like most people, I really got to know him from the Country Yossi articles and the ads for his various projects, not to mention the “How to play Casio and Yamaha keyboards” cassettes that have gathered dust in my basement. What really struck me about the man and his projects was how, as a mechanech, he attempted to reach out to all kinds of students with all sorts of talents.

We live in a time where, increasingly, the chareidi chinuch system is catering to the elite child and leaving the “mediocre” kids behind. If you can’t handle a summer in a learning camp, if you can’t handle 5 years of beis medrash (at least!) following high school, and if you’re even thinking about that four-letter word called “work,” you’ve become second-rate.

The litvishe system in Europe was like that, catering to the elite, and it was a resounding success – 85% of the Jews there assimilated.

One of the lessons of Parshas Vayechi is that each shevet has something different to offer, and that diversity is appreciated by Yaakov. True, there was a Yissachar who learned all day, but every other shevet was blessed for their unique tafkid and talents.

And Rabbi Teitelbaum had something to offer for all students, with all sorts of talents. A kid has a talent for music? Nothing wrong with joining a choir, or learning to play the keyboard. No hand-wringing about “bitul Torah.” A kid needs a break? Nothing wrong with a weekend in Canada, or a summer in Israel, or even attending a concert. He even started a middos contest, iterating the importance of a largely neglected area of Yiddishkeit.

Perhaps his last piece in CY was his most important ever, as he was standing athwart Chareidi Judaism, yelling “stop!” (my apologies to the late Bill Buckley for that one).

Finally, his thinking outside the box led to the Torah Communications Network and Dial-a-Daf, both tremendous services to the community.

If we had more like him in our community, we’d be in much better shape. Yehi Zichro Baruch.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Why Chareidi Schools Scare Me

To me, it's about one thing: it may be very hard to get a kid to love learning Torah and Judaism, but it's very easy to get that kid to hate Judaism and Torah, and lose him forever.

Let's face it. You're dealing with a kid, someone exposed to all that Western culture and the mass media have to offer. The average 15-year old will want to have fun. And guess what? That's healthy. A kid that age who gets more excited over the Mets than a blatt gemara is probably more psychologically healthy than a kid that age with a 20-minute shmonah esrei. That's called OCD.

I had a rebbi in elementary school that, in retrospect, is one of the biggest tzaddikim I've ever met. I still remember the way his eyes lit up when someone asked a good kasha. But most of us didn't appreciate him; we were too busy passing notes or playing games under the desk. Most of the kids liked the other rebbi better, because he brought donuts to class. That's normal.

As the average kid matures and seeks meaning in life, chances are he will gravitate towards religion, especially if he grows up in a home where Yiddishkeit and Torah. And the "flipping out" phenomon has shown that even when the parents don't give a darn about Judaism, the kids will often seek the light of Torah on their own. That often comes with maturity; a 14 year old generally doesn't care about the meaning of life; but at 18? Much greater chance of that.

However, if a kid went to a school and developed strong negative associations towards Torah and yiddishkeit, good luck getting him motivated to come closer to G-d. It's extremely difficult to undo some of the stupid, stupid things that some rabbeim do and say.

Shalom Auslander's "Foreskin's Lament"contains some incidents that are simply horrifying. Here's a sampler: one kid's father passed away. The day after, the principal came in and told the kids, "a father is responsible for a son's sins until he turns bar mitzvah, so watch yourselves." Sickening.

And then there was that nutcase who was quoted in the Yated a few months ago, who said "if only everybody threw out their iPods, then Moshiach would come." What a moron. Or the morah who tells her class, "if anyone in here watches TV, get out; I don't want to see your face." Get help, lady.

How about the clowns that throw a kid out of class when they don't know the answer to a tough hashkafa question? And they call the kid an apikores and kofer, to boot.

Let's not forget the sickos who beat up kids in front of the entire class. That's a great motivator.

So a kid comes out of some of these schools thinking that G-d hates them, and that if they slip and say lashon hora once by accident, too bad - they're getting a first class ticket straight to hell. What happens? Either they become perfectionists and develop OCD, or they become apathetic, maybe even angry. And there's almost no chance of getting them interested in learning again, even as they mature. They become, to quote the Jewish Observer, "adults at risk."

The moderate/MO schools are far from perfect, and have problems of their own. But I highly doubt that anyone comes out of there hating Torah Judaism.