Is there an antidote for the embarrassment we feel klopping al cheit on the same sins as last year, even as we entertain more than a suspicion that we will be doing so again next year as well? Paying attention to those around us who have made dramatic changes is one piece of advice. Whether it a formerly off-the-derech kid whose Shemoneh Esrai now attests to an intense relationship with Hashem or a neighbor who managed to stop smoking, they prove that change is possible.
The deepest changes – like gaining control of one's temper or being overly judgmental of others -- never happen quickly and may only be evident to one's closest friends and family. But even from more mundane successes like losing weight and maintaining the loss, we can learn some basic rules that apply to all successful efforts to change.
First, one has to know where one is holding. Someone once noticed Rabbi Noach Weinberg making a small notation every time he smoked a cigarette. Reb Noach explained that to defeat the yetzer hara one must first know the score. Similarly, uncovering the patterns of one's eating or facing the amount of time we waste daily checking our Blackberry every thirty seconds is the first step to gaining control in those areas.
Once those patterns are known it is possible to start developing a counterinsurgency strategy against the yetzer hara – a concrete plan for restructuring one's life. General resolutions to do better are useless. Specific rules -- the clearer the better -- are required. They should be few in number; the important point is reestablishing a sense of control and breaking the feeling of helplessness, whether with respect to the lure of chocolate bars or the need to constantly check one's emails.
When we gain control over any area of our lives, we feel empowered to tackle other, more intractable problems. As in chess or war, one first seizes control of part of the battlefield and then gradually expands the area of control. Talk to anyone who has successfully lost weight, and he will inevitably tell you that his success has given him new confidence in his ability to gain control of other areas of his life.
Perhaps the reason that the Alter of Kelm placed so much emphasis on seder (order) was the feeling of control that follows in its wake. Someone once entered the Talmud Torah of Kelm and heard the Alter delivering what he assumed was a hesped (eulogy) so mournful was his tone. Only later did the visitor learn that the subject of the shmuess was a pair of unaligned galoshes in the anteroom.
A sense of order is not equally distributed at birth, and seder can become its own tyranny. But those who possess it, or have developed it, by adopting various rules to help structure their lives, gain control of their most precious commodity: time. They have far more energy to focus on the important tasks ahead because they are not forever figuring out what to do next. Even when they are thrown off schedule – by a week of sheva berachos, for instance – they immediately return to their schedule rather than being off-kilter for weeks. Because they are not constantly buffeted by a thousand competing choices – e.g., what minyan should I go to this morning? – they have more energy for the big choices before them.
Two years ago, I came up with a rule elegant in its clarity – no email before Shachris (though even there the question arose as to the din before haneitz or whether, for purposes of the rule, learning could substitute for davening.) Following that simple rule did provide a small sense of victory. But one cannot rest on one's laurels. It turns out there is more time to waste in the day after Shachris than before. Now it's time to find out how just how much time is wasted and the patterns involved – could it really be that I check my email every time I have to think about the structure of the next paragraph? Next comes formulating a few more easy-to-follow rules. Stay tuned.
Veteran Eidah Hachareidis leader Reb Shlomo Pappenheim, recently shared with me this story of his grandfather Reb Shalom (Gottfried) Pappenheim. The elder Pappenheim worked for Aaron Hirsch and Sons, one of the two major metal dealers in Europe, in the early twentieth century. Both firms were owned by Orthodox German Jews.
Once when czarist Russia was preparing for a possible war with Turkey, a massive order for metal was sent to Aaron Hirsch and Sons. It arrived on the first day of Yom Tov when no one was in the office. Receiving no response, a second order was placed offering a much higher price. Again, no response. Subsequently, the czar's agents sent a third order at yet a higher price. Only after the two-day Yom Tov and following Shabbos, did anyone in the office see the telegrams. The firm responded that the order would be filled at the price originally offered. Such was the integrity of the firm.
At one point, Shalom Pappenheim was dispatched to Spain to negotiate the purchase of a mine. As the negotiations proceeded towards a successful conclusion, his hosts suggested a toast. But Pappenheim told them that he was forbidden to drink wine with them. When they inquired why, he forthrightly explained the reason was a fence of the Sages against too great conviviality with non-Jews, lest it lead to intermarriage.
When a final agreement had been concluded after many weeks of negotiations, all that remained was bank confirmation that sufficient funds were on hand to cover Aaron Hirsch and Sons' check. Unfortunately, a winter storm had toppled all telegraph wires, and there was no way to obtain confirmation.
Chanukah was approaching, and Pappenheim informed the sellers that he wished to return home to Halberstadt for the holiday. They responded, "Pappenheim, we have seen how you are with your G-d, and we know that you would not cheat us," and accepted the check without obtaining bank confirmation.
No doubt many similar stories continue to be repeated today wherever frum Jews do business. But, sadly, the image of Shalom Pappenheim is not the only image of Torah Jews in the business world. A reader recently described meeting an accountant from the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) around the hospital bed of a mutual friend. The SEC accountant, who is Jewish but not religious, told him, with a mixture of pain and disdain, of the way that his colleagues in the SEC, who once had the greatest respect for Orthodox Jews, speak today of rabbis and Jews with beards. The presumption of honesty is no longer exists.
This Yom Kippur we should all contemplate how the image of a Torah Jew has changed from the days of Shalom Pappenheim and think about what we can do to rectify it.
I never fail to be amazed by the number of tzaddikim in our community. Most of them would be very hard to pick out walking down the street. In many cases, their major life work seems to have fallen upon them from Above. Or at least, HaKadosh Baruch Hu responded to their initial acts of chesed by providing them with more and more opportunities.
Rabbi Uri Lupolianski's Yad Sarah, Israel's largest volunteer organization, started with dispensing a few medical devices from his apartment. When Rebbetzin Hadassah Wiesel sent her daughters out to collect food for a poor neighbor 32 years ago, she could hardly have imagined where those efforts would lead. Every time her daughters went out to collect, they returned with the name of another family in dire need. Those original collections on behalf of one neighbor eventually grew into Yad Eliezer, which today provides food to 3,500 families monthly and has an annual budget of $22,000,000 for dozens of different projects.
I met another accidental tzadekes last week: Mrs. Malka Yarom. When she and her husband lived in Bayit Vegan, they used to put up notices in nearby Shaarei Tzedek hospital and elsewhere for those in need of Shabbos meals. Those meals regularly grew to 20-30 guests. Over time, she noticed that many of the guests were single mothers (overwhelmingly divorcees) with young children. Her first activity for this group was arranging a day outing for a group of these young mothers. The next was a brief vacation.
She noticed two things about the single mothers. The first was how grateful they were for even the smallest respite from their day-to-day lives; the second was how much they benefitted from being together with similarly situated mothers.
Divorced mothers are the invisible members of our community. A high percentage of them are ba'alei teshuva, and do not have a family support system to fall back on. Even those who are not ba'alei teshuva often experience some estrangement from their families, for whom the divorce may be considered an embarrassment. They tend to move frequently and are not established members of any community. No one ever creates a trust fund to marry children of divorced single mothers, as is frequently done for widows.
Because divorcees are less entrenched in the community neighbors are less likely to take their children to shul for Rosh Hashanah or dance with them on Simchat Torah. That is why Mrs. Yarom's organization, Eim HaBanim Smeicha, attempts to arrange every year special Rosh Hashanah and Simchat Torah gatherings for her families.
Getting sons into chadorim presents major hurdles for single mothers. The principal worries that there will be no one to speak to the rebbe and that tuition might not be paid. He also knows the children of single mothers are at greater risk. They are more vulnerable to being picked upon; they often have no male figure to learn with them; and they may feel they have less to lose by defying social norms.
That is why Eim Habanim offers tutors, therapists of various kinds, big brothers and sisters, and special activities like choirs. With respect to the later, Mrs. Yarom explains, "A child who sings is a child with whom one can still talk."
Hundreds of single mothers and their children have been helped by Eim HaBanim Smeicha over the past twelve years, but that is only a fraction of those in need of assistance, even in the Israeli chareidi community. In truth, most large Jewish communities around the world need such an organization, especially as divorce rates climb.
Mrs. Yarom stands for an important principle for all of us to consider as we contemplate our tasks for the coming year: If you see others in need, don't assume that someone else will take care of the problem. It could be that you noticed because Divine Providence has assigned you a special role in addressing that problem. Confirmation will follow soon enough if what begins with chesed for a single individual or group grows into a program for hundreds or even thousands.