Monday, July 23, 2007

The First Time I Ever Cried on Tisha B'Av

(Please excuse the repeat, but I felt this was worth re-posting. Originally posted August 11, 2005.)

Tisha B’Av is right around the corner and the days and weeks leading up to it are structured halachically to evoke a certain sense of pain, sorrow, and yearning for better times. This is a difficult task for most of us. In 21st century America, it’s hard to “get in the mood” for Tisha B’Av. We live, more or less, in comfort. Some of us live in great luxury.

I imagine it was easier to be mournful in Nazi Germany, or in Stalanist Russia, or during the time of pogroms, or the Crusades or the Spanish Inquisition. Yes, then Jews could sit on the floor and cry out to G-d to redeem us and bring us to a better place and time.

But today? You must be joking.

It is difficult to legislate emotion. Therefore, the halachic strategy (as a good friend of mine terms it) legislates behavior, which, through proper analysis and understanding elicits (one hopes) the requisite emotion.

Many of us have gone without shaving and bathing these past nine days. We have shut off our radios and i-pods. We have curtailed certain joyous activities. But while these behaviors may make us uncomfortable, we are still far from grief-stricken. I doubt that many of us feel truly despondent over the lack of a Temple in our midst. We go through the motions of mourning, but the emotional component—which is the point of it all—remains elusive.

One Tisha B’Av, I was sitting on the floor in shul, the lights dimmed, and I thought, Why am I here? Why are any of us here? Because a building was destroyed? What does that have to do with me? How does that affect me?

I acknowledge its tragic place in Jewish history. I am willing to go through the routine of recognizing the catastrophe. Yes, I want to feel badly about it, but try as I might I can’t conjure up any real sense of pain, loss and longing.

I decided to focus instead on something sad that had recently occurred in my own life. That year I had discovered that a friend of the family had married a non-Jew. I was devastated. How could this have happened? Here was someone who had a Jewish education, a strong connection to Judaism—strong enough to question why other Jewish friends had forsaken Torah—yet, who ran off and did the same thing.

It dawned on me that this was the great tragedy of Tisha B’Av. I wasn’t just mourning the destruction of the Temple; I was also mourning the aftermath of the destruction of the Temple, the real destruction which continues to this day—the fallout of that terrible time, the consequences of our people being uprooted from the Holy Land. Our people were exiled. They moved from place to place. Life became increasingly difficult. Jews dropped off. Without the Temple, the Jewish people became unmoored, lost in a harsh and hateful gentile world.

My friend was destroyed by these aftershocks. This betrayal would not have happened in a properly functioning Jewish society. The temptations of the outside world would have been muted rather than amplified. The greatness of Torah and the Jewish Nation would be blatant. But instead my friend struggled, and ultimately rejected this lifestyle. My friend’s departure from Torah marked the end of a long series of events that began not at birth or at high school graduation, but centuries earlier, when our ancestors were forced to leave their homeland, when G-d estranged Himself from His people.

And then I cried.

First I cried for those Jews who were no longer sitting on the floor on Tisha B’Av, those Jews who got up, dusted themselves off, and abandoned their faith for the pleasures and freedoms of this world. Next, I cried for those Jews who never knew to sit on the floor, whose grandparents threw their tefillin overboard on their way to Ellis Island, whose connection to Judaism is so tenuous it would take the Messiah to bring them back.

Then I cried for those of us who remain—the frum Jews. Are we really living the way G-d intended us to? Are we lost in the triumphalism of our own success? What of those we’ve left behind? I cried for those of us who have the talent and resources to do something to stop the outflow of young Jews from their heritage, and promote the inflow of baalei teshuvah back to their heritage.

Finally, I cried for myself. What if I had grown up down the street from the Temple in Holy Jerusalem, living in a Torah society framed and legislated by the Word of G-d, instead of in a foreign land, where temptation “crouches at the door”? Would I not be a holier person? Would I not be a more complete person? Would I not indeed be a happier person?

This Tisha B’Av while you are sitting on the floor in shul or at home, think of all the people who are not there to join you—your neighbors, your colleagues at work. Ask yourself where their Yiddishkeit has gone. It no doubt went up in the same flames that burned the stones of the Bais Hamikdash.

Is your Yiddishkeit not far behind?

I wish everyone a mournful and meaningful Tisha B’Av.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


It's one for the books.

Monday night, my beloved Philadelphia Phillies lost their ten thousandth game in franchise history, and for a change, Philly gets to relish in it's role of the loveable loser. Poor Philadelphia. Long ago, she lost her place, to New York, as the nation's foremost city. Then, the capital was moved to Washington, D.C. Today, she's not even a close third on anyone’s list of East Coast cities to visit. That distinction would go to Boston, or even Baltimore.

But as slippery slopes go, Philadelphia wasn’t finished. The Phillies (then known as the Quakers) started their run at futility in 1883, three years after the birth of W.C. Fields, who, having been born in Philadelphia, appreciated the town enough to (allegedly) quip: "There once was a contest. First prize: a week in Philadelphia. Second prize: two weeks in Philadelphia." And the hits just keep on coming.

I've noticed that people who grew up in Philly (such as myself) have this certain "Phillyness" to them—a feeling of not being cool enough; a sense of being underrated and an underachiever at the same time; a suspicion that any impending success will slip away at the last second.

Charlie Brown, I am convinced, is from Philadelphia.

During Monday night's game (on Rosh Chodesh Av, for those of you keeping score at home), Joe Morgan (who played for the Phillies during their 1983 penant-winning season) told the tale of Phillies' owner William Baker, who extended the height of the outfield wall with a fifteen-foot fence in order to limit his own player, Chuck Klein's, home run production. Seems he didn't want the slugger—who once hit four home runs in a game—to compete with Babe Ruth for records and, ergo, remuneration.

Typical, Philadelphia.

But then again, you probably never heard of Chuck Klein. In fact, the city's most famous athlete is an invention: Rocky Balboa.

But the Phillies did one thing right. They won their first and only World Series in 1980, when I was but a wee lad. Those Phillies—Mike Schmidt, Steve Carlton, Pete Rose, and, my favorite player, the Bull, Greg Luzinski—took the crown when I was old enough to appreciate it and young enough for it to mean everything to me (I cried when the Eagles lost the Super Bowl three months later).

So now, as a mature young man, how do I view my Phillies? Well, first off, I think they still have a good chance of catching the Mets and making the playoffs this year. They’ve got their most solid team in years—terrific hitting combined with some young, solid starting pitchers (though they could use lots of help in the bullpen).

But on a deeper level, I’m simply proud that they’ve been at it for so long. The plight and pain, the struggle and stigma that is the Phillies, along with all the other Philadelphia sports teams, and, by extension, all Philadelphians, calls to mind the genius of President Theodore Roosevelt, who famously stated:
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
This is the mussar behind my team. This is the lesson we each must learn from the Philadelphia experience. We’re not here to always win. Not only will we lose sometimes, we may indeed lose far more often. But we must show up every day and play the game. We must do what we can when we can as best we can for as long as we can.

And never give up.

Last night the Phillies lost number 10,001. And the hits just keep on coming.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Meet the Beadle

Once upon a time, there was a beadle, who worked very hard on behalf of his shul. His job was to open the shul in the morning and lock it up at night. In between, he would choose people to daven for the amud, call up the aliyos to the Torah, and assist the occasional wandering Jew with saying Kaddish and donning tefillin.

But this beadle was not satisfied simply fulfilling his duties. Because he is so special a Jew and so dedicated to his shul and its mission, he would look for opportunities to make a good shul great. And one fine day, when he noticed that a particular member had missed services several days in a row, rather than ask around after his well-being, the beadle decided to pick up the phone and find out first-hand how he was feeling.

He dialed the congregant’s number, and the congregant's wife answered the phone. The beadle explained why he had called and inquired as to the welfare of the absentee member. The response was not what he had expected. Rather than thank him for his concern, Mrs. Congregant rebuked him.

“Now you ask how he’s doing?” she said. “A member is sick and you wait three days to call? What kind of a shul is this?!”

The beadle backpedaled. Stammering, he offered that he hadn't been worried up to that point, noting that missing a day or two of shul was not necessarily an indication of ill health or trouble. But no explanations or apologies would mollify this woman. She was incensed.

The beadle felt terrible, and slumped glumly in his chair. “You try to do a good thing…,” he muttered, shaking his head, and then summing it up: “Calling people isn’t even part of my job.”

Poor fellow. It’s the hardest combination in the world: being sensitive to others while being a sensitive person yourself. Here he is: a thoughtful, caring person—and those very traits turned on him; he was accused of the opposite.

I weighed this for a moment before recognizing that the beadle had actually accomplished something rare and difficult: he had performed a mitzvah lishmah. Lishmah—for its own sake—is a term that gets tossed about effortlessly, when in fact it is a very tough standard to achieve. Every mitzvah we do is usually tainted by some ulterior motive—we keep the Sabbath, but enjoy the relaxation it provides; we study the Torah, but take pleasure in our newfound knowledge; we give to charity, but bask in our reputation of being charitable.

Even when we believe that we have achieved this lofty level, the pride we feel in its accomplishment diminishes its purity. So how is one to achieve lishmah?

I often joke, half seriously, that the only people learning Torah lishmah these days are the young men at Yeshiva University. There once was a time when admitting you were a yeshiva bochur brought insult and scorn. Those days are, thankfully, gone. Even those who believe that one should eventually earn a living accept the notion of a young man's learning full-time for several years beyond high school.

But with the stigma gone the lishmah aspect has disappeared as well. People take pride—and are given honor—for studying Torah. So when people ask a 21-year-old, “Where are you learning?” and he responds, “Mir. Brisk. Lakewood,” his answer is met with smiles and nodding heads.

But if the young man answers, “Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchanan,” the questioner might look at him quizzically and say, “Oh. So what’s your major?”

YU bochurim are the Rodney Dangerfields of the yeshiva world. They could be learning day and night off in their corner of Washington Heights and never receive so much as an acknowledgment of their efforts.

Now that’s studying Torah lishmah.

And our beadle, too, I believe accomplished this goal. By being insulted for his good will, by having his fine intentions backfire, he was actually performing a mitzvah that was pure. After explaining my position to him, I concluded, “Therefore, you should celebrate.”

He smiled wanly, proving that even my valiant efforts at making him feel better were not going to sully the purity of his mitzvah.