| Voice in the Crowd |

Speaking to Myself

What I am about to write, though, is really and truly intended for myself. It’s a personal feeling, and nothing more, but one I hope to honor now and always.


It’s almost a cliché: A mashgiach stands in front of the room with a somber expression on his face, insisting that the message about whatever wrongdoing he is addressing is not really intended for his audience. Rather, “Ich mein zich — I am speaking to myself,” and if others happen to overhear and draw conclusions relevant to their own lives, then so be it.

It can be hard to imagine that an elderly tzaddik really needs to hear admonitions about breaking into the kitchen or waking up after zeman Krias Shema, but the “speaking to myself” disclaimer is basic baal mussar etiquette.

What I am about to write, though, is really and truly intended for myself. It’s a personal feeling, and nothing more, but one I hope to honor now and always.

Over the past few months, the individuals within the wider community have all tried to increase zechuyos for our brothers and sisters in danger, but people differ as to how those merits are created.

The sugya of personal kabbalos is tricky, and when people judge the commitments undertaken by others — “This is not enough,” or “How can you do this when I stopped doing that?” or, silliest of all, “You must not care about the situation in Eretz Yisrael, because you are not expressing it in the way I think it should be expressed” — that creates pirud, which does nothing to create zechuyos for Eretz Yisrael.

All this is part of my elaborate introduction: Any reader who doesn’t agree with what I write here might well be correct. I am sharing a sentiment and nothing more.

One of the things this magazine has done so nicely over the years is to reveal lesser-known giants, the ones doing their holy work quietly, gallantly, loyally. In 2017, Mishpacha published a feature about one of those rabbanim, a simple, touching celebration of the relationship between Rabbi Mordechai Berg and his kehillah. After Rabbi Berg passed away, the broken members of his Monsey kehillah reflected on the lessons of their beloved Rav.

One of them spoke of the Rav’s loving authenticity, recalling, “Someone in shul hosted a Super Bowl party, renting a huge screen and offering a lavish spread. During the intermission and halftime show, the screen was closed, and there was a shiur. Many considered it a unique kiddush Hashem, but Rabbi Berg had his own opinion.

“ ‘Listen, rabboisai,’ he said from the podium, ‘I understand why someone would want to watch professional sports, and why it’s engaging. But please, recognize it for what it is. It isn’t Torah and doesn’t come from the same world as Torah. Torah is Torah, and this isn’t it. I urge you to be honest about what you’re doing and don’t fool yourselves.’” (With Loyalty and Love, January 2017)

It took me a minute to chap the gadlus in that story, but when I did, I realized how obvious it was.

There’s a tendency, sometimes, to take a gray area in communal life and, to borrow a term from the early days of the Oorah’s Smorg (the first frum cultural influencer), to “kosherize” it. Yeah, it’s weird for frum people to do a cigar-rolling or wine-tasting or public weight-loss competition, but look, just look at the cause. We feel like we are elevating, transforming, tricking the yetzer hara into serving our holy agenda.

And (ducking): Maybe it’s not true.

Rabbi Berg had the guts to stand up in a middle-class balabatish American shul and say, Sorry, guys, it ain’t so: You want to watch football, enjoy, I get it — but don’t pretend it’s holy because you had a half-time shiur, and then pat yourself on the back.

Be honest, and if you are honest, then perhaps you can grow.

So here we go (yes, the introduction is still going, like a rich guy with a kid in shidduchim doing his first Agudah convention gig and taking it a bit too seriously).

Ich mein zich.

Something has shifted in the last few months, and you can’t hide from it.

We’re starting to comprehend what our grandparents knew in their bones, to viscerally understand that we are alone in this world and that the excitement and allure and dazzle of secular culture is not meant for us. We always knew this intellectually, but now the knowledge is in our kishkes.

We are not very well-liked. The ones who shook our hands and slapped our backs and told us how impressed they were with our community? They didn’t really mean it.

American culture pulled us in, and at times, we confused the recognition it might bestow upon us — celebrate Judaism night, a frum Yid singing the national anthem, a yarmulke in the box seats — with kevod Shamayim.

(Introduction over. Here’s the actual piece, and admittedly, it’s the sort of take that, if someone I did not know shared at a simchah, would impel me to switch tables.)

If someone is a rabid sports fan and they really get excited about the fine points of the big game, then I am not addressing them — the time invested, the shemiras einayim stuff and all that, is their cheshbon to make.

But this is to anyone else who is not really a sports fan but feels like he is missing out if he is not at least somehow aware of or clued into the hype and glitter surrounding the game.


It’s not our song. It’s not our team. It’s not our world.

Eateries in frum neighborhoods have found sly ways of advertising their “Super Sunday” fare — ask about our “Super Wings Platter,” or “Football-Shaped Subs,” anything short of saying the word “Super Bowl,” because after all, it’s a frum publication.

(The speech is over. We’re doing closing remarks now.)

A half-time shiur is wonderful, but it doesn’t retroactively transform the whole experience into holy.

Jews saying, “Yeah, I do enjoy a good game, but these are just not my people,” who understand that the ones cheering from the stands are more similar to the fans we’ve seen in Morocco and Turkey singing Gaza battle songs — that is holy.

Because it’s a major first step to getting out of here.

“Turn away, turn away, get out of there… get out of its midst, purify yourselves, you who bear the klei Hashem” (Yeshayahu 52:11).

Let me close with this. (Major speaker hack to recapture waning interest of the audience. Alternative phrasing, “To be mesayem.” The data show no correlation between use of the expression and actually being mesayem.)

This is not an initiative, and it’s not branded; not a single rabbi or organization or VIP or askan signed off on it. It’s just a suggestion from a guy who works in a hoodie in his basement: This Sunday, maybe this would be a nice gesture for Eretz Yisrael — for Klal Yisrael, for every beleaguered Yid who feels the simmering dislike on the subway, at the DMV, in the park with his kids.

Find the shtoltz to turn your back on a society that is in the middle of spitting you out anyhow, and use that time and focus instead to say a kapitel for all of us. This Sunday, take a moment to reflect on what it means to be distinct, and let that be a zechus.

Ich mein zich.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 998)

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