Monthly Archives: August 2015

The Jewish Mind Five Reasons I Visit The Graves Of Holy People

Today, I had the opportunity to visit the grave of the Klausenberger Rebbe, Yekusiel Yehuda Halberstam, in Netanya. (You can read more about this amazing person here.) People often are a bit surprised by my visits to these graves. So friends and family, here are five reasons, that I, a fairly rational and well educated adult, schlep in the heat of the day, in the snow, rain, and once with an entire army escort to the graves of the righteous:

1. These visits connect me with the history of my people. In this connection, I forget about my own personal preoccupations and worries and am reminded of these big picture thinkers. The Klausenberger Rebbe lost everyone he loved to the hands of the Nazis. Yet he never faltered because he kept his eyes on the big picture: building and strengthening the Jewish people. His legacy is testimony that he had what it takes to get the job done. That’s the kind of power that I need to recharge myself with.

2. These holy sites bring me into contact with people who I might never see or meet otherwise. Let’s be honest here: those of us who go to grave sites are usually in a pretty raw state. We’re there because we’re in contact with life in it’s hard times. We want something special; perhaps God forbid, we’re up against a life threatening challenge. So when we speak with each other at the grave site, we really listen and speak from the heart. As someone whose profession requires me to be opaque, it’s nice to have a place where I can let it out and not be thought of as crazy or worse, ‘unprofessional’.

3. Call me crazy but I believe that there are special heavenly access points. Of course, prayer is heard wherever one utters it. There’s no need to schlep to Netanya or to Cambria Boulevard in Queens or to some way out village in Samaria to get one’s prayer heard. Yet I know unscientifically that there are places where prayer has greater power. A marriage ceremony is one such access point. A bris is another access point. The grave site of a holy person is another. Perhaps it’s my own strengthening of faith and commitment that ‘energizes’ the prayer; perhaps it’s some mystical dimension that is way beyond my comprehension; perhaps it’s a combination of things. Who knows? Yet I feel that, akin to hitting a baseball with an aluminum bat, there’s something special to praying at these grave sites.

4. It’s my way of sticking my thumb at the tyranny of rationalism. This isn’t meant as an endorsement of paganism but I’m a bit tired of the hyper rationality of contemporary orthodox Jewish life. We’ve gotten so cerebral and logical that aside from turning our intellects into supreme beings, we’ve gutted the rapture and joy of pure spirit. So I go to to these grave sites to disconnect from that. Do I pray to the dead? Of course not! But I do embrace the possibility so eloquently stated by the Arthur C. Clark (he wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey among many other books), ‘the universe is stranger than we imagine; indeed it is stranger than we can imagine’.

5. Cemeteries are usually beautiful, quiet places. What’s not to love about a nice place to sit?

And here’s a bonus reason for visiting the graves of the righteous: Judaism recommends it. From Caleb’s visit to the tomb of the patriarchs all the way to the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s a’h weekly visits to the grave of his ancestors, good old Judaism, the one which has endured all these years, puts great emphasis on visiting the graves of the righteous.

So in the merit of all the holy ones, both living and passed, may we all have a wonderful new year.

The Cognitive Parent Sending Your Children Off To Israel Part I




With Rosh Chodesh Elul a little over a week away, many of you are getting your sons and daughters ready for their year in Israel. How exciting! Their year abroad in Israel will be the biggest step towards adulthood that they’ll ever have taken.

May it only continue with much success!

Still, it’s normal to feel a bit of apprehension. All the endless blood, sweat, and tears that you’ve invested in them from day one will now be tested as never before.

Will they make good choices?

Will they be able get themselves out of the jams of independent adulthood without you being there?

Will this be a year of growth and development?

Rest assured that the schools you and your children have chosen will help them along. Hopefully, their friends will form a network that brings out the best in their year in Israel. And of course, despite the physical distance, you’ll be there for them in spirit as well as through the phone and email.

As a teacher as well as the address to whom yeshiva and seminary students turn when they run into trouble, here are a couple of tips which I’ve ‘collected’ over the years.

Be ready for homesickness. No matter how many summers your children have spent at summer camp, they‘re bound to feel homesick. Being separated from you for Rosh Hashana will be a gigantic shock for your child and for your whole family. It’s at these moments that you and your child need to hear words of encouragement: that you’re proud of them for devoting themselves to their studies and to their personal spiritual growth; that you appreciate their sacrifice all the more because it’s not easy.

Be upfront with them about your expectations of them. Tell them that you want them to grow and learn and to develop. Communicate to them that you expect them to come up with their own goals. They are no longer in high school where teachers set the standards. The direction of their lives is now in their hands. 

Davening With Fire 005 Santa Claus & Jewish Prayer

Cats Eye Nebula From Hubble















It all seems so many years ago. Do you remember Bloomingdale’s? What a great store! Back in the day, before the malls and all those Amazon websites, there were department stores, huge edifices where you could find almost anything you were looking for.

In Stamford, Connecticut, Bloomingdale’s ruled supreme, with its escalators and bustle and row after row of stuff. The fun of the place almost made me forget how much I hated being schlepped around a store.

But towering over every awesome part of Bloomingdale’s was Santa Claus. Santa Claus! The god of everything a child could ever want. Santa, the guy who would take me on his lap, listen to my wish list as only Santa Claus could, and then give me a candy cane. 

In spite of my orthodox Jewish ways and the pretty much accepted consensus that Santa isn’t real, I still smile when I recall those days. In a way, that entire seasonal ritual teaches me two lessons about faith and prayer that guide me to this day. 

The first lesson is that faith that’s based on a Santa Claus kind of deity is bound to fail. In the decades which I’ve spent engrossed in faith, it seems that so many are holding out for a god that does everything they want. ‘If God existed then he (it’s always a ‘he’) would do such and such’ or ‘If God existed then how could he let the holocaust happen?’ It seems that these often highly sophisticated and educated people still believe in Santa. I don’t know much about God but I expect a lot more from humanity. 

The second lesson is about prayer and wishing. As great as it is to wish (and it really is) it’s so often expresses of my self-centered, power or comfort driven desires. Prayer however is about personal transformation. Prayer may begin with a wish but for me it’s a process that ends with a new me. Whether or not I get what I want is besides the point; the real part of prayer is the person I become through it. 

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Davening WIth Fire 004 Wild & Untamed…The Beginning of Prayer

If you're the smartest person in the room









So if prayer is to be a wild, untamed expression of our deepest longings why all the rules?

Why pray at certain times?

Why all the restrictions about what to wear or what words to say or in what direction to face?

Why not give the natural human inclination to pray full expression?

The truth is that in spite of what you were taught in day school or cheder, much of that spontaneity is allowed and even encouraged.

Here are the words of the Rambam (Maimonides) at the beginning of the laws of Tefilla (Mishnah Torah 1:1):

…There is no Biblical minimum of prayers…There is no Biblical text for prayer…nor is there a fixed time for for prayer mandated by the Torah.

Yet in spite of such flexibility, present day practice of Jewish prayer is quite different. It’s regimented and rigid, and is often sadly hijacked by misconceptions and authority figures who have no idea what the essence of prayer is.

This sad state was already known anonymous Talmudic sage who sadly observed that people fail to comprehend the depths of prayer (Talmud, Brachot 6b). 

What the rules are intended to do however is to transform my prayer into a powerful act of rebellion and mastery.


And that’s where we’ll pick up in the next post. 


Davening With Fire 003 Wild Within The Rules

Rock Bottom


The rules of prayer cover hundreds of chapters in the Shulchan Aruch, the most embraced code of Jewish law. It seems strange though that prayer should be so highly regulated and regimented. After all, prayer is all about heart felt expression, something that would be at odds with rules and structure.

Before apologizing and advocating for those rules however, I do want to recommend that by all means pray.

Whatever method suits you.

With the rules.

Without the rules.

Pray wherever you are.


Not dressed.

In a bar (or worse).

In a synagogue.

In jail.

In a meeting.

How Ever.



To whomever.

For whatever.

Just pray. 

We can worry about the details later.