Yated Article: Circles within Circles

Circles within Circles

Elul and Tishrei are bedecked in gold.

Yellowing foliage in amber light. Swirling piles of ocher and sienna. Time and space dipped in honey.

What is the pathway to the light? How can we, the limited, fill our lives with the limitless? How can we, who dwell in the tangible and mundane, bind ourselves to the intangible and divine?  

Shiurei Daas (chelek 2, shiur 9) opens the door:

Paleis maagal raglecha,” counsels Mishlei (4:26). “Weigh the circle of your feet.”

Concentric circles. Expanding waves. An ever-changing ebb and flow rippling across the surface of our lives. And before each step, before each movement, we must measure this circle; we must be certain we place our feet exactly right.

What is the circle? What are we measuring?

Rav Yosef Yehudah Leib Bloch, zt”l, Telzer Rosh Yeshivah, leads us by the hand.

The first step is understanding the stakes. We teeter on the edge of a precipice. Any embrace of the mundane, any tilt away from the divine, is catastrophic. There is no neutral. The slightest movement toward unnecessary, un-G-dly purpose is an implied denial of the completeness of G-d, an attribution of inherent value to a void that only appears to exist. Avodah zarah, ultimate heresy.

But who can live with such exacting standards? Who has never wasted a moment or indulged in an unnecessary mundanity?

Very few, it would seem. The way forward, the Rosh Yeshivah reveals, is a deep understanding of the individuality of human nature. The key is defining the word “unnecessary.”

Nourishing our humanity, and feeding our physical and mundane needs, are not extraneous, blasphemous indulgences, but necessary parts of avodas Hashem. Needs are relative to a person’s personal level, continues the Rosh Yeshivah, and one must not leap in extremes. Each person must position his feet correctly on his place in the concentric circular scale: Paleis maagal raglecha.

But what is the extent of authentic human need? With what do we measure? Shiurei Daas opens a fountain of insight into our avodas Hashem.

Kol hanitzrach k’dei shetihiyeh lo shleimus utiferes adam – Whatever is necessary to preserve the wholeness and majesty of man.”

The English language cannot do these words justice.

Poetry. Oxygen. Tiferes adam. Words that describe the fullness of human nature. Most of us need more than the basic necessities. Few can maintain asceticism in the extreme. The mundanities a person needs in order to experience the full richness of healthy life are all included in human necessity. Rav Bloch lists examples: “physical pleasures, leisure time, social interaction, enjoyment of nature and so on.” We need time to be normal. To laugh. To breathe. To respect our individuality. To be human.

But how much time should we devote to these mundane pursuits?

Every person is different. We need to know ourselves. The stakes are high.

If the slightest overstepping of bounds is abominable heresy, if an individual’s needs fluctuate even within himself, it would seem that we must constantly monitor our ever-changing state. We would need to live with hyper self-awareness, measuring and re-measuring every act and thought against the scale of our “human necessity.”

But who can live calmly and happily in a state of constant vigilance?

“Very few,” answers the Rosh Yeshivah.

Once again, our human limitations, in the context of shleimus utiferes adam, define expectations. In order to live a life of “uninhibited vigor and joy” we must be full and confident participants in the moment. We cannot be removed, doubting observers. The imperative to measure our necessities cannot detract – must not detract – from tiferes adam, even if it inevitably results in occasional error. 

The final takeaway, concludes Rav Bloch, is that we must “set before us the truth that there is no real purpose in this world other than ratzon Hashem.” Our lives as a whole must be calculated toward that goal. Not in a counterproductive and obsessive manner, but in a human, healthy and honest way, along a path that preserves the majesty of human equilibrium and respects our unique nature and needs—leading us, step by step, toward the center of the circle.

Published Yated Magazine Sep 13 2017

Here is a PDF of the source:

Pages from shiureydaat14


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Mazal Tov! It’s a “Book-Mitzvah!” New book out – and it’s a good one – and it’s our 13th! 

“Social Skills Around the Clock” by Rifki Schonfeld illustrated by YJ Studios (yours truly, and team). Tons of rich comic-style illustration with great, practical content:


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New YJ Studios Website Design

I completely redid my website: www.yjstudios.com

Check it out.

I redid it using WordPress, a page editor called Elementor, and a plugin called Weaver. I also edited some of the CSS code here and there. My former website was created in Dreamweaver, but I feel for a site such as mine WordPress will be more dynamic and easily updated.

My goal was a clean, easily navigable site that showcases the illustration.

I have not yet done the final step of transferring the pages, which are essentially WordPress blog pages, to the root menu. For now I am using a redirect workaround.

Happy to hear feedback. Tell me how it looks on your computer, tablet, or phone, and if it loads fast or slow. I still need to do some tweaks. My picture… I know.

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Yated Artist’s View Column: Station Wagon Summers

Station Wagon Summers

“Yerushalayim Is Not for Sale” plays for the third time, as we pass Kauneonga Lake and approach the final hill before Shor Yoshuv bungalow colony. Mordechai ben David sings about the “massive construction atop a Jerusalem mountain,” while the seven-year-old version of me tries to figure out what the word “Utahovernight” could possible mean.

How can I explain to my children today the feeling of sitting facing backward for three hours in the back of a brown-and-beige station wagon, wedged between boxes marked “milchigs” and “fleishigs”? How do I explain that unique combination of intense nausea and absolute ecstasy? Those stubborn window handles that you cranked round and round to let in a blast of hot Route 17 car exhaust, or the way the teeth in the hole of the cassette tape pressed against the tip of your finger as you tried to wind a shiny black mess back into the spool of a cassette? Lost sensations.

Behind me is the sweet freedom of the “last day of school.” Ahead stretch miles and miles of wide-open, glorious summer. A feast of endless delights awaits: little orange salamanders with tiny black speckles peeking out from beneath wet forest leaves; the thwack of a stickball broomstick connecting with a bouncy blue ball; the magical aroma of old wood, French fries and sweet ice-cream in a small bungalow colony canteen; and all around me, verdant green, deep blue and puffy, towering mounds of white.

These are the ingredients of summer. The thousand helpings of wonderfulness to nourish a child’s soul.

There will be winding forest paths that end in a mysterious burnt-out camp; gnarly tree roots that jolt beneath my bicycle wheels as I bump and bounce my way to the ice-cold swimming pool; and family suppers in the cool summer evening, to be eaten on a screen-enclosed porch, until nothing but a pile of watermelon pits remains.

There will be others with us as well. Swarms of fellow sun-darkened children, kindred sojourners in our bungalow world. And it is “ours.” We children own, by majority rule. It can’t possibly belong to those “giants” who live in our bungalows and appear from behind the white picket fence surrounding the shul.

Our throngs make great discoveries, announced with shouts of glee: the slithering garter snake whose forked tongue flicks in and out with astonishing rapidity; a wandering goat that appears by the colony entrance and munches on offerings of leftover cholent; the arrival of the truck peddlers hawking kosher knishes, kosher socks and a plastic wallet with a horse-head design on it (which stays in my desk drawer for the next fifteen years). Our young tribes run and shout from one great event to another, with little thumb-sucking dawdlers toddling and tripping behind.

The days melt into each other, but nothing compares to the most anticipated event of the week. After a long summer Shabbos, when the stars emerge and the cool night falls, when the fireflies glow in intermittent rhythm, we – the children – scatter throughout the colony to find branches and twigs. We drag fallen logs from the forest behind the baseball field until a giant mound of kindling takes shape next to Rabbi Stein, ztz”l’s, bungalow. The fire roars skyward. Sparks explode in fiery showers. Guitars appear and Rabbi Brazil’s sweet voice is joined by the rest of the crowd. Roasting potatoes wrapped in silver foil glow red-hot. Time stands still.

The final days are bittersweet as the everlasting summer draws to a close and ominous moving trucks appear in front of the bungalows. Soon it is our turn, and box after cardboard box is lifted and squished into the back of the truck in a remarkable feat of engineering that appears to defy physical explanation.

I watch from the back of the station wagon as we drive down the hill and the bungalow colony disappears in the distance. I feel a lump in my throat and sadness in my heart, but I am sure we will return next year, just as we did the year before – for we shall remain forever young.

Published in Yated Ne’eman Magazine 6/30/17

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