Monday, October 31, 2011

Commemorating Your "Own" Yartzeit

The experience of looking up on a memorial plaque during davening and noticing your own name, exactly matched in both Hebrew and English, with a little light bulb lit up next to it, along with and engraved date of death can be a little unsettling.

I knew my namesake's yartzeit was coming up soon, but the exact date slipped my mind amid all the busy running around from Yom Tov and delving back into work at grad school. I was genuinely surprised when I noticed the small light bulb glowing this morning after I finished Shemonah Esrei.

It's hard to describe the exact feeling that coursed through me, but chilling may have to do. Though I've heard many stories and learned various bits of information about the concept of gilgulim, or 'reincarnated' souls (for lack of a better term), I'm not 100% sure what I understand or believe. The notion of naming a child for a deceased relative, as is the Ashkenazi practice, seems to incorporate some aspect of gilgul, in addition to the more mundane belief of serving as a merit for the family member who has passed on and a living reminder of their legacy.

My great uncle - my paternal grandfather's older brother - though not a particularly religiously observant man, was a pediatrician, fought in World War II, and was one of the first white doctors in my hometown to treat minorities, often at reduced cost or for free. He was well known in the general community, in addition to the Jewish community, and I have often been "recognized" waiting in line at the pharmacy by an elderly person looked at me with a confused expression and informed me happily that my namesake was their pediatrician back in the day.

I was once at a local hospital signing in for a blood test when the nurse filling in my data suddenly stopped. She reread the information on the screen, turned to me, and asked if I was 90-something years old. I realized that the hospital had never properly declared my great-uncle dead, and quickly explained to her that I was indeed the 20-odd years I looked.

After noticing the lit bulb, I quickly walked over to a family friend, who is of my father's generation, and asked him if he would say kaddish for my great-uncle, who was this man's own pediatrician in his childhood. I figured it would be more meaningful than asking the fellow sitting next to me, who could say kaddish since his parents have passed away, merely out of convenience. The family friend graciously agreed.

I stood nearby whenever he recited the kaddish, and sensed some strange aura of fulfillment answering him. I have no idea, even if the concept of gilgul is readily applicable in our day and age, if there was some aspect of my neshama responding to the kaddish being said for my namesake. It certainly felt something akin to what I just described, but who can know for sure?

I can only hope that my own actions, including my study of Torah and observance of mitzvos, which exceed the level of religious practice of my great-uncle, can serve as an aliyah for his neshama in the Olam HaEmes.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Jewish Music Fridays: The Groggers

Hello and welcome to what will hopefully be a regular feature here on Shades of Grey. Based on my checking hit-counter statistics, Fridays don't seem to be a very big day for serious blog post reading, which has led other bloggers to also pursue some form of lighter reading on this final workday of the week. In addition, everyone can use a little musical pick-me-up to get ready to leave the stress of the week behind and get ready for Shabbos.

My solution will be to post short snippets about Jewish music artists out there that I enjoy and feel need a bit more exposure to the public, hence really big name Yeshivish singers/groups and Maccabeats need not apply.

To start off, we've got The Groggers. Here's their bio from their website:

“The Groggers are a unique Jewish pop-punk band with a comic twist. Based out of New York, the band formed in early 2010 and took the internet by storm with their controversial music video, “GET.” The song, which brashly dealt with the delicate issue of a Jewish husband withholding a ritual divorce from his separated wife, sparked much controversy surrounding the video and the band. The uproar caug…ht the attention of several prominent bloggers and websites, including those dedicated to the resolution of such sensitive domestic complications. After surviving their tumultuous internet debut more determined than ever, The Groggers began work on their first full-length album and unveiled their second video “Eishes Chayil” in November of 2010. The new video featured Jewish music legend Rav Shmuel and was well received by critics and fans alike. In August 2011 they released their debut album “There’s no ‘I’ in Cherem” which harnessed a powerful blend between unrelenting pop-rock melodies and cleverly entertaining lyrics. With their highly eccentric, yet accessible, messages and authentic musical chops, The Groggers are able to captivate both Jewish and Non-Jewish audiences alike."

I must say, "GET" was particularly interesting, and definitely on the controversial side. These guys are very talented, produce great-sounding music and write some pretty creative lyrics. Their videos are also top-notch and are released with a refreshing regularity, almost akin to secular musical artists. The lead singer L.E. Staiman started out as part of Aryeh Kunstler's performing band, though I'm not sure if he is still with Aryeh and co or not. The last song/bonus track on Aryeh's first album "The Chevrusa Break Up Song" (preview it here, it's #12) features Staiman's characteristic creative lyrics and sense of humor. I tend to think it's the precursor that began the evolution of The Groggers.

Anyway, I'll stop talking and let the readers check out their music (and videos) for themselves. I particularly like "The Shidduch Hits the Fan" the recently released "prequel" of sorts to "Upper West Side Story." The introductory story/lyrics/Jewish culture reference are quite funny


"Eishes Chayil"

"The Shidduch Hits the Fan"

"Upper West Side Story"

I don't have their album yet, but I will definitely by watching The Groggers' musical career with interest.

UPDATE 12/16/11:

L. E. Staiman, the lead singer and creative genius behind The Groggers has put together two hilarious songs inspired by recent events in the Jewish world.

First, based on the recent Anonymous Stern girl controversy from The Beacon, we have an acoustic song titled "Anonymous Girl":

And here is a song composed by Matisyahu's shaven beard called "View From the Sink."

Update 2/13/12: "Jewcan Sam (A Nose Job Love Song)" depicts the tale of a young man trying to win the affections of a girl he likes, but requests that he first get a nose job. I like the music, though the lyrics/theme may be a bit much for me. The ending of the story line is a little too borderline sketchy for me... but The Groggers' style tends to push the envelope.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Rav Schachter Is A True Gadol

One of the many reasons I'm proud to have gone to Yeshiva University is the caliber of the rabbeim in the Yeshiva. Although I remained in the same shiur with the same rebbi for the entire duration of my academic career there, I was fortunate to be exposed to and learned from a great number of the 0ther Roshei Yeshiva in MYP and rabbeim in the other morning programs - including BMP, IBC and Mechina, believe it or not.

Unlike a number of students I knew, I really liked staying in YU for Shabbos often. Aside from fact that as an out of towner who hated schlepping around the tri-state area I was more likely to stay on-campus, I enjoyed the meals in the caf, the lively davening at the Carlebach Minyan, Shenk Shul's communal feel along with Rabbi Orlian's inspiring drashos, and the general camaraderie among my friends that I didn't get a chance to participate in during the week as much as I would have liked.

Shabbos on campus also provided me with the opportunity to hear divrei Torah from rabbeim that I would not normally have learned directly from during my morning shiur. Rav Schachter is one of the best examples of this. I LOVED his post-kiddush parsha shiurim, along with his Pirkei Avos shiurim, pre-Yom Tov halacha shiurim, and his oneg musings. Aside from his absolute gadlus in Torah knowledge, he is very down-to-earth and realistic in how he approaches the modern world we live in - case in point, the very sharp comment he made about who needs to be machmir nowadays.

While I don't have much to comment directly with regard to the apparent corruption of the beis din system as it exists now, Rav Schachter's interview in Ami Magazine - republished here on Vosizneis - I will say this interview is refreshing and eye opening. Refreshing that Ami, a rather chareidi publication would A) Interview Rav Schachter and B) Print exactly what he had to say without censoring/distorting it and eye-opening as Rav Schachter always is whenever he opens his mouth to share his vast wisdom with us.

The article and it's reposting are kind of old, but I don't think it has gotten enough exposure, which is why I am talking about it here. With so many "gedolim" from the more right wing elements of our society spouting things vitriolic and divisive, or clearly negatively agenda-driven, brain-washed/hoodwinked by devious and malevolent askanim, or oblivious to the reality of the society around us - it is wonderful to see a gadol, a TRUE American gadol, demonstrating what it means to earn such a title for being recognized as the Torah authority he truly is.

I am encouraged by some of the positive yeshivish/chareidi responses on the article (ignoring the few typical anti Modern Orthodox hateful remarks). Perhaps if we, the Modern Orthodox world can rid ourselves of the influence of the vitriolic left and demonstrate our realistic, true belief in rabbinical figures such as Rav Schachter, we can create a unifying force for all of Torah Observant Judaism.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Thank G-d For Glasses

I'm near sighted. I first got glasses in middle school because I had trouble seeing the dry-erase board, even from the front row of desks, which obviously hampered my ability to perform in the classroom. I'm not entirely sure if the cause is genetic, or perhaps due to my use of a night-light in my room for many years, or perhaps straining my eyesight in the summers as I walked along the beach looking for shells, fossils and sharks' teeth in my youth.

Initially, I only needed them for distance, and was told to not wear them outside of the classroom, in case my eyes became dependent on them for seeing in general. Stupid kid that I was, the summer after my 9th grade year I wore my glasses all the time, and found out later that year that I done exactly that. Thus, my driver's license requires me to have glasses or contacts to correct my vision before I get behind the wheel of a car.

Though I was self-conscious about my glasses at first - I feared being called four-eyes and other nasty nicknames that were so prevalent in middle school teasing - I grew to like them. They even made me feel as though I were more intelligent, though I doubt there is any real connection there other than stereotypes of nerds and professors always wearing glasses.

As I grew more religious, I made sure to have a second pair of nicer glasses that I wore l'kavod Shabbos and Yom Tov, since my everyday pair often became scuffed and worn. When I became yet older, I made sure to have that nicer pair of glasses also available for going on dates and attending weddings.

Parenthetically, I remember the time I was on a date and discovered I needed a new prescription, since I could no longer read street signs in New York until I was literally right next to them. Not such a great thing when you're not a local and already have issues with finding your way around town.

Yesterday and this morning, I learned a tremendous lesson that will forever impact my appreciation for the existence of glasses to correct my less-than-perfect vision.

I recently went to my ophthalmologist for my annual checkup and was given a new prescription, which of course meant I needed new glasses. Ever since ASoG and I moved into our new apartment, I had been breaking my own personal rule and relying solely on my weekday glasses when my nicer Shabbos/Yom Tov/Wedding/Former Dating pair went missing sometime during packing, never to resurface. As such, when I went to Lenscrafter's to get my new prescription yesterday with ASoG, I bought a new, nice pair to replace the ones that are MIA as well as update the lenses of my weekday pair.

The new pair, which is half-rim, won't be ready for another week. My weekday pair, which has a full rim, wouldn't be ready with the new lenses until this morning. I figured, "I can rely on my trusty contact lenses to get me through the afternoon/night/morning at school!"

Boy was I wrong.

Although I have contacts, I don't wear them regularly. I initially got them to be in a school play during high school wherein I didn't want my spectacles to ruin the look of my medieval character. After that, I wore them every now and then, mostly for special occasions like weddings, a date or two, or while dressed in a Purim costume that either didn't call for glasses or wouldn't fit the glasses inside the mask. I've always had a bit of a hard time getting the contacts in and out, though the process is a bit smoother when I wear them more frequently. As of yesterday, I hadn't worn the contacts for any significant period of time, and after 15 minutes of struggling with my overly blinky eyelids, I finally got them in.

They hurt! The left one felt like it was inside out (it wasn't) then resolved to burning, while the right was merely achy and tired. I wore them for a few hours while attempting to study for grad school, but kept tearing up and failing to blink/rub out the irritation. Of course, I took them out and began to feel a lot better.

However, this left me without anything to focus my eyesight properly. Admittedly, my eyesight isn't anywhere near blind (thank G-d), but the world beyond 15 inches in front of me was blurry and blurrier. I had a very hard time trying to read my textbooks and take notes, let alone compose a presentation for my class. I felt like an old man with failing eyesight, bent over my books, pain in my neck and back. I almost gave up studying altogether, but managed to finish my presentation preparation with some much needed encouraging from ASoG, though I didn't take a practice test I had planned on completing.

I have a bad habit of hanging onto to old things I probably won't ever use again, so it just so happened that I managed to locate a pair of old glasses from at least 2 prescriptions ago buried on my desk. After much frustration with my inability to study, I dug them up, thinking I could at least see somewhat better than with no glasses at all. Of course, I was wrong, and foolish to ignore the advice of my ophthalmologists of the past who warned me not to wear an incorrect prescription, which could do more harm than good. After that brief painful attempt, I closed my books for the night.

Going to shul for Mincha/Ma'ariv and Shacharis went off without a hitch, though I had to hold my Mishna Berura very close to do my daily daf. Surprisingly, no one seemed to notice my lack of glasses.

As I previously mentioned, without my glasses, I was also unable to drive. ASoG had to take me to grad school this morning, which also made me a lack of empowerment, being unable to drive my own car. Once I got into the classroom, I explained to my classmates about my situation, and preemptively asked their forgiveness as well as the professor's for what was probably going to be a sub-par presentation, since I'd need to remain close to the board to see my diagrams and hold my notes close to my face instead of glancing at either from a more professional distance. In the end, I did well enough to get a 4/5, though one classmate critiqued my habit of talking into my notes instead of to them.

As class progressed, I was forced to get up from my seat and stand near the dry-erase board as another classmate wrote out a few equations so that I could properly pay attention and take notes. I felt so helpless and frustrated that I couldn't see the writing on the board 7 feet away from my desk other than the colored blur of the markers being used.

Thankfully, my weekday glasses were ready in time for ASoG to get them and pick me up as soon as class was over. I can't describe the wonder and joy I experienced and felt when the world became clear once again as I slid my updated glasses over my ears. I had almost gotten used to being visually impaired, and was at first a bit shocked at the clarity and precision that welcomed me in my surroundings. I could clearly see ASoG's face as she sat in the driver's seat, street signs, leaves on trees, and various other things I seemed to take for granted before this experience.

I don't think most of us who wear glasses/contacts really appreciate the bracha that we have. If we had lived in an era before they were invented, we'd be behind in our education, unable to function fully in society (this is to the exclusion of Braille and provisions made nowadays for those who are permanently visually impaired or blind). I really felt helpless to an extreme as I kept losing things around our apartment, such as my watch or phone, or even failed to empty the leftover contents of my dinner plate properly into our trashcan - which brought about an annoyed, though understanding protest from ASoG.

I know I'll never view my glasses in the same way again (pun intended). I also wonder how many other things in my life, certainly major things, but especially little things, that I simply accept as always being there, never truly appreciating their value - be they people or objects. It's kind of funny in a way how such a seemingly simple mishap could become such a eye opening experience (zing!). I could have probably held onto my glasses until the new ones arrived before updating them, which would have avoided all these issues and made me feel less foolish for not doing that, but then I wouldn't have gained from going through almost 24 hours without the ability to see clearly and comfortably.

HaShem certainly works in mysterious ways that are beyond our comprehension, and I am very thankful for both presently having my glasses to help my vision and the lessons I learned from their brief absence.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

The King Awaits

Life's been a bit hectic since Rosh Hashana and I haven't had much time to blog, despite having received numerous ideas and bits of inspiration over the course of Yom Tov and Shabbos. I had to share an interesting notion that occurred to me as I examined the tefillos from Rosh Hashana (and afterward) related to HaShem's role as our King.

Many times in the past, different rabbeim/shiurim/divrei Torah have described the interrelated dual roles that HaShem has in relation to the Jewish People, which can be summed up as Avinu Malkeinu - Our Father, Our King.

HaShem's fatherly role is described as merciful, compassionate, forgiving, the aspect of Him in which we will find Rachamim and forgiveness for our mistakes and misdeeds.

His Kingly aspect is described as one of judgement - din, which is more strict, unyielding, the attribute by which we are held to a high standard and held accountable for our actions. He is the True King, the Holy King, The King of Judgement, among others appellations.

We even discuss the idea of HaShem moving from His throne of Din (Malkeinu) to the throne of Rachamim (Avinu) when we merit a nation-wide atonement on Yom Kippur. He is, as we say in the 2nd bracha before Shema in the morning, "Av Harachamim" - "the merciful Father" and we don't just stop there, but add "Who acts mercifully," emphasizing the aspect of mercy with HaShem our Father. (The title Av Harachamim is found elsewhere in other tefillos, too).

However, as I began to review the Rosh Hashana Davening, the insertions added during the 10 Days of Repentance, and the regular Shabbos/weekday davening, I began to notice that this strict dichotomy wasn't always true. Especially with regard to HaShem's Kingship, which is actually described in terms very different from a strict sense of retributive justice.

In the first insertion during Magen Avraham we describe HaShem as "the King who desires life." Requesting that the King write us in the book of life isn't counterintuitive - the King judges, and we can either merit to be in the book of life or the bo0k of death (chas v'shalom, lo aleinu). Yet, the King desires life!

In the second bracha of Shemonah Esrei, we describe HaShem as the King who causes death - which is a fact, since death originates as a decree from Him. Yet, He is also the King Who "restores life and makes salvation sprout," which seems (to me) to be of greater emphasis, and again an indication of our King's merciful tendencies.

In Ya'aleh V'yavo, we conclude be describing HaShem as "the gracious and compassionate King" - going so far to describe the Melech as "Rachum" - which we typically associate with our Father. There is clearly some underlying currents here that indicate a greater unity among HaShem's Fatherly and Kingly attributes. A similar wording is found in the bracha Haskiveinu after Shema at Ma'ariv and in one of the Tashlich prayers.

In the paragraph from the Yom Tov Mussaf, "Mipnei Chata'einiu," we again refer to HaShem as "Melech Rachaman" - the Merciful King.

In Selach Lanu we ask our Father to forgive our errors, and our King to pardon our willful sins.

We find in Refa'einu that our King is "the faithful and compassionate Healer."

Lastly, we find in Shalom Rav that HaShem is the King, "Master of all peace." Not the King who judges and creates strife with harsh sentences, but One who creates peace for all of Israel.

I'm sure there are others I've missed. This is not meant to be a comprehensive list, but rather me shining a spotlight on an idea I had not heard of until I stumbled upon it myself.

If anyone has any more references or knows Talmudic/rabbinical sources that further discuss this fascinating notion (or at least fascinating to me) please share it in the comments.

So as we approach Yom Kippur and ask forgiveness of our Father, Our King, let us all have in mind the mercy and compassion that is utterly characteristic of HaShem, and pray that we all receive proper atonement (through proper teshuva) and merit being seal in the Book of Good Life.

To anyone I may have offended this past year with anything I wrote, I am sorry. I am especially sorry for my sometimes harsh responses/temper, in particular The Professor and Burnt Dreadlocks, for which I humbly apologize for my lack of emotional control in responding to their comments.

I hope that 5772 can be a year free of divisiveness and ill-feelings. Let us all use blogs and everything else we do in our lives, to sow harmony and unity amongst Klal Yisrael. May this year be the year - Tihiye Shana Ad Bichlal - the year that features the inclusion of the conclusion of the galus (no more galus!) and the arrival of Moshiach Tzidkeinu, Bimheira Biyameinu.

Amein, Kein Yehi Ratzon!