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Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Stop beating yourself up spiritually!

Brachos 7
One Yom Kippur, Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, the Kohen Gadol, entered the Holy of Holies to burn the incense offering, when he saw a vision of Hashem sitting on His throne of glory.
“Yishmael, my son, bless Me,” He said.
Yishmael responded, “May it be Your will that Your mercy conquer Your anger and that Your mercy overpower Your other attributes and that You behave with Your children with the attribute of mercy and treat them with leniency.”
His vision then concluded with the Almighty nodding His approval to the blessing.

Rabbi Yochanan quoted Rabbi Yossi: How do we know that the Holy One blessed be He prays?  As the verse [Isaiah 56:7] states, “And I shall bring them to My holy mountain and gladden them in the house of My prayer.”  Since it does not say, ‘their prayer,’ rather, ‘My prayer,’ we deduce that the Holy One blessed be He prays.
What does He pray?  Rav Zutra bar Tuvia quoted Rav: May it be My will that My mercies conquer My anger and that My mercies overpower My other attributes and that I attend to My children with the attribute of mercy and that I deal with them leniently.

Sometimes we disappoint ourselves with our religious behaviour.  We don’t measure up to our own self-expectations.  You know you could have done better.  You should have done better.  And so you conclude that Hashem must be even more disappointed.  That kind of attitude leads to a downward spiral where you become so obsessed with your failures that your entire life begins to stagnate.

Stop beating yourself up.  The Almighty’s love for you is greater than the love any mortal parent has for their child!  As Rav teaches, He is forever reminding Himself – so to speak – that His mercy must rise above everything else.  Anything you did, He has long since forgiven you.  It’s time to pull your socks up and face a bright future!  Any lingering feelings of self-doubt are the machinations of the yetzer hara who doesn’t want you to get up and move on to wonderful accomplishments in life!

But what’s a little strange about our Gemara is the notion of Hashem praying.  Who’s He praying to?  Himself?  Is He simply reminding Himself?  Does that constitute prayer?  Obviously, Hashem doesn’t need to remind Himself of anything.  And He doesn’t need to pray.  What is the message of the Gemara? 

To pray in Hebrew is ‘lehitpalel,’ which is a reflexive verb form.  Why? Our job in this world is to be imitatio Dei – we must strive to emulate G-d.  When we pray, we’re talking to Hashem.  But at the same time, it’s almost as if we’re holding a mirror up and asking ourselves how we’re doing in terms of our duty to be children of the Divine.

And so the Gemara is saying that if you want Hashem to have mercy upon you, first you need to hold up that mirror and ask how you’re judging others.  Sure, they could have done a little better by you.  But had you acted the way they did, don’t you think you’d want a little leniency?  Here’s the deal: if you stop judging others so strictly and start cutting them a little slack, the Almighty will cut you some slack and shower you with His mercy!

Did Yishmael the Kohen Gadol see the Almighty nodding to him?  Of course not.  Not even Moshe Rabbeinu was able to see Hashem’s face, “for no man can see My face and live.” Nodding to another person implies that the two of you are in agreement.  The Divine nod was a symbol of Yishmael’s understanding that the outpouring of mercy was to begin with him.  ‘If we’re on the same page,’ G-d responded, so to speak, ‘you have my guarantee that I too will shower upon you My mercy and compassion.’

Don’t ever allow your yetzer hara to convince you to get bogged down because you believe you’re stuck spiritually.  You’re never stuck – Hashem’s mercies are boundless!  May you treat others with abundant mercy and rest assured that the Almighty will forever shower His mercy upon you!

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Is life on a machine worth living?

Brachos 6

The news came out of the blue.  Rachel, a dear member of the community, urgently needed a kidney transplant.  One day she was out for a jog when she started feeling pain in her abdomen.  The next thing she knew she was in the Emergency Room being told by the doctors she was suffering from kidney failure.  Rachel was quite young with a husband and three little kids and the thought of spending the rest of her life on dialysis if she didn’t find a donor in time was terrifying.

We asked around and a few family members and close friends were quick to raise their hands to offer to donate their kidneys to Rachel.  One young man in the community, Shmuel, heard about Rachel’s plight and he too offered to donate.  Alas, one by one, the potential donors were crossed off the list as it became clear that they were not matches for Rachel.

Finally, it was down to two: Shmuel and a cousin of Rachel’s.  They each went through months of tests, getting closer and closer to becoming eligible to donate.  And then one day, Shmuel received a call asking him to come back in to repeat a test.  He wasted no time in doing his duty and eagerly awaited the results.  Unfortunately, however, the results weren’t conclusive.
“While you are a healthy enough young man, we can’t recommend the removal of one of your kidneys.  You may need them both in the future,” said the voice on the other end of the line.

While Rachel’s cousin did indeed end up being a match, Shmuel was devastated.  It wasn’t about his own health that he was concerned, but about his inability to perform this life-saving mitzvah.
“Rabbi, I gave it my all,” he poured out his soul to me, “I so, so wanted to fulfil the mitzvah of saving a life!  And what do I say next time, when they ask for a donor?  That I’m not healthy enough to donate?”
“Shmuel,” I responded, “you did donate your kidney.  When they ask the next time around, you’ll tell them that you’ve already donated.”
“Huh?!” replied Shmuel, looking a little confused, “whatever are you talking about, Rabbi?”

Malachi [3:16] declared, “Then those who feared Hashem spoke to one another, and Hashem listened and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear Hashem and for those who think of His Name.”
What is the meaning of “those who think of His Name”?  Rav Ashi taught: If one merely thought about doing a mitzvah, but was ineluctably prevented from its performance, the Torah considers it as if he had actually done the deed!

How often do we fail to take the plunge to do something positive for fear that we will be unable to complete the task?  I’d really like to try Daf Yomi, but I’m not sure I could keep up the daily commitment.  I’d really like to join the chesed committee but I don’t know if I’ll be available every month to help out with the initiatives.  I’d like to volunteer on the school PTA, but I might get busy at work.  And so we don’t even start.

Rav Ashi teaches that first and foremost it’s about your intent.  If you will it, you are automatically rewarded.  Just get up and go!  If it so happens that circumstances work against your intentions, you still get to keep the reward!  You see, in this physical, material world, we get rewarded for our achievements.  And so, if you don’t complete the task, it was all for naught.  In contrast, in the spiritual realm, we get rewarded for our efforts!  As long as you mean well and do your best, you get the mitzvah points! 

And that’s why I told Shmuel not to worry.  Since he had every intention to donate his kidney, Heaven considers it as if he had indeed completed the mitzvah!  At the end of the day, the Almighty had a different messenger – in this case, Rachel’s cousin – to actually carry out the mitzvah.  Nevertheless, in no way does that diminish Shmuel’s mitzvah.  He set out to donate his kidney, he was unable to complete the mitzvah through no fault of his own; and so, as far as Heaven is concerned, he has donated his kidney!  And that’s why next time they ask, he can respond that he’s already fulfilled that mitzvah!

Always remember Rav Ashi’s principle: in order to receive spiritual reward, all you need is intent and effort.  After that, it doesn’t matter what obstacles stand in your way.  You’ve accomplished what you needed to accomplish.

Unfortunately, the saddest time I have to teach this principle is when talking to a family with an ill loved one who appears to be unresponsive.  Why intervene to keep them alive?  Even if they were to recover, what kind of life could they expect?  And so, sometimes the family believes that – as painful a decision as it is – the best thing for the patient is to let them go.

G-d forbid! They might be physically unresponsive, but as long as there’s brain activity, we have no idea what’s going on in their mind.  Maybe they’re wishing they could put on tefillin, or light Shabbat candles, or give tzedakah, or even lend a helping hand to a friend who needs their driveway shoveled!  Those thoughts alone suffice for them to be considered as if they’d performed the mitzvah.  Since they are physically restrained from fulfilling the mitzvos they want to do, they still get the entire spiritual reward!  And that’s why every moment on this Earth is priceless and contains unlimited potential, no matter one’s physical state!

Stop worrying that you won’t finish the job before you’ve even started.  As Rabbi Tarfon teaches in Pirkei Avot, “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task.  Nonetheless, that does not mean you are free to neglect it.”  May you set out with the finest intentions and best efforts and may Heaven show you the path to the fulfilment of your incredible potential!

Monday, 1 January 2018

How to survive prison

Brachos 5

Rabbi Chiya bar Abba was ill.  Rabbi Yochanan went to visit him. 
He asked him, “Do you appreciate Divine affliction?”
He responded, “I don’t care for it or the accompanying reward!”
“Then give me your hand,” said Rabbi Yochanan.  Rabbi Chiya gave him his hand and he healed him.

 Rava taught in the name of Rav Sechora in the name of Rav Huna: Any person that the Holy One blessed be He desires, He strikes with afflictions, as the verse [Isaiah 53:10] states, “And the one whom Hashem desires, He struck with sickness.” 
Now, I might think that one continues to be afflicted even if one does not accept the afflictions lovingly.  Therefore, the verse continues, “If his soul accepts asham,” meaning just like an asham (guilt) offering must be made willingly, so too must afflictions be accepted willingly.
And if he accepts them, what is his reward? He will see offspring and merit long days, and furthermore, he will remember his learning well, as the verse concludes, “and the desire of Hashem will succeed in his hand.”

The greatest, most challenging question that any spiritual person has ever been faced with is the matter of theodicy: Why do bad things happen to good people?  How could a good G-d allow the righteous to suffer?  No mortal human being has ever managed to sufficiently answer this question, despite many a lifetime of attempts to do so.  Even Moshe stood atop Mt. Sinai and pleaded with G-d to elucidate His ways, but to no avail. “You shall see My back,” replied the Almighty, “but My face you shall not see.  For no man can see My face and live.”  In other words, human beings can not fathom the ‘face’ of G-d – we do not see the big picture and can never fully appreciate His dealings.

Rava teaches here that one of the reasons that righteous people suffer is specifically on account of their righteousness.  The Holy One blessed be He afflicts those whom He is particularly fond of.   But that makes no sense!  If He likes you, why would He want you to suffer?

Let’s take a step back and ask ourselves why we’re even here to begin with.  Before you came down to Earth, your soul was enjoying life up in Heaven, basking in the rays of the Shechina (Divine presence).  One day, an angel walked in and said, ‘Who wants to go down there?’ And like you’d done a million times prior, you hid under the table, hoping you wouldn’t be chosen to descend into the rotten, physical world.  But then, one day, your time came.  You couldn’t say no any longer and so down you went.

Why?  You’re here for seventy, eighty, one hundred twenty years, and then you’re going back up to Heaven.  Seems a little futile doesn’t it?  If you’re going back to where you came from, why bother coming down to begin with?

The answer is that yes, you’re going back to Heaven, but hopefully you’re getting to an even better place than you started.  You see, Heaven is not a single destination.  There are myriad levels of Heaven.  The more you accomplish during your lifetime here on Earth, the higher the level of Heaven you’ll gain entry to.

So how do you accomplish great things on Earth?  Well, first off, you commit to the commandments G-d has set out for us in the Torah.  The more mitzvos you do, the stronger your bond with Heaven.  But the second aspect to building your soul-power is the development of your faith in Heaven.

It’s hard to maintain your faith when pain and suffering come your way.  Whether it’s health issues, financial difficulties, or relationship woes, sometimes life’s just too much to bear.  When life’s not treating you right, you wonder where G-d has disappeared to.  Has he forgotten you?  You don’t deserve these travails!

Here’s the thing: Hashem never forgets His children!  Any time he sends hardship your way, it’s in order to strengthen your soul-power.  When you maintain your faith in Heaven through all the challenges, your soul is elevated.  That’s why the Gemara calls it ‘afflictions of love.’  Our forefather, Avraham, the Mishnah tells us, was tested ten times, culminating in the instruction to sacrifice his own child.  Why?  Explains the Mishnah in Ethics of the Fathers: because Hashem loved him so much!  The more tests one passes, the stronger one becomes both in this world and the next.

Is it bad if I don’t always welcome G-d’s afflictions with love?  Well, as we see from today’s Gemara, even Rabbi Chiya rejected the test!  He didn’t want to be ill any longer.  He just wanted to get better.  Sometimes we can bear it, other times we pray that G-d gives us a break.  But the main thing to remember always is that good or bad, everything that happens to us comes from G-d.

When the butler was leaving the Egyptian prison, Yosef asked him to remember him and get him out of there.  After all, he’d been placed in jail for no good reason.  The Talmud says that as a result of his lack of faith in Heaven, it was decreed that he remain there a further two years.  What does the Talmud mean when it says he lacked faith in Heaven?  Obviously, he couldn’t just sit around waiting for a miracle to happen –  didn’t it make sense for him to ask the butler to help him? 

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk explains that Yosef’s lack of faith wasn’t at the moment of his request, but over the preceding number of years.  If Hashem had him incarcerated, it was most certainly for a good reason.  In this case, explains Rabbi Meir Simcha, Yosef was imprisoned in the royal prison so that he could learn the mannerisms of royalty from the other prisoners in preparation for his imminent elevation to the position of viceroy of Egypt.  You see, every trial and challenge Hashem sends our way, He is simply making us stronger, physically and spiritually.

Nobody goes looking for a life of suffering.  But when challenges do appear, feel honoured – the Almighty has chosen you for strength and power.  May you maintain your faith in Heaven and grow ever stronger and more powerful as you pass the tests of life!

Sunday, 31 December 2017

The Right Answer is I Don't Know

Brachos 4

After 210 years in slavery, the Children of Israel are preparing to leave.  So far, Heaven has sent nine plagues to strike the Egyptians.  Moshe is told by Hashem to go to Pharaoh and inform him that at midnight, He will smite every first-born in Egypt.

And so off he goes to the palace and appears before Pharaoh.  With a fierce wave of his staff, Moshe warns the king: ‘At approximately midnight, G-d will smite every first-born in the land!’

Rabbi Zeira taught: Moshe indeed knew the exact time of midnight.  If so, why did he say “at approximately midnight”? Moshe was concerned that the astrologers of Pharaoh would err with the timing and declare Moshe a liar. 
As the teaching goes: One should accustom oneself to respond ‘I don’t know,’ lest others ensnare you in allegations of deceit.

In life, there are many situations when it’s helpful to be knowledgeable.  Whether it’s at work or with your kids, knowledge is power.  It’s a nice feeling when you know all the answers to people’s questions. 

But as any game show participant will tell you, the gravy train eventually runs out somewhere.  Because nobody knows everything.  And unless you’re on the game show, it’s okay to say, ‘I don’t know.’

Some people know everything about everything.  Until they don’t.  But, not to worry, whatever they don’t know, they can just make up.  Who’ll know the difference?  Until one day, they’re caught out, having offered ‘facts’ that don’t even come close to reality.

True people don’t need to prove anything to anyone.  They’re happier to listen to others than to show off their knowledge.  And it’s okay not to know everything.  Nobody knows everything.  Those who are humble about their knowledge are often the ones who know the most.  In most cases, those who ‘know-it-all’ know very little and do a lot of talking to cover up their general ignorance.

Here, Rabbi Zeira takes it a step further.  Instead of your default position being one of knowing the answers until you’re stumped, how about training yourself to a new default, one that assumes an ‘I don’t know’ position?

How does that work?  Doesn’t that make you look foolish?  Not in Moshe’s opinion.  He preferred to appear unsure of himself, rather than be accused of being anything less than 100% honest.

Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik says that a rabbi should never answer a shayla (halachic query) immediately.  Instead, he should say ‘I don’t know’ and tell the questioner that he will look up the answer.  He offers two reasons for this approach.  Firstly, the Talmud warns a student against responding to a halachic query in the presence of his teacher without consulting with him, as it is considered disrespectful.  Nowadays, explains Rav Soloveitchik, most ‘students’ have derived the bulk of their Torah knowledge from sefarim (holy books).  Therefore, the sefarim are considered one’s teacher.  As a consequence, responding to a shayla without consulting with the sefarim is akin to paskening (deciding the halacha) before one’s teacher without consultation!

The second reason that a rabbi should respond ‘I don’t know, let me get back to you’ is that if he were to respond immediately, the questioner might assume that it was too basic a question.  As a result, he may avoid asking questions in the future for fear that he is posing overly-simple queries.  When the rabbi responds that even he doesn’t know the answer, it inspires confidence in the questioner that his query is a really good question!  In the future, he will not hesitate to ask, thereby furthering his knowledge and halachic practice!

And if that’s true of rabbis who are supposedly well-versed in halachic matters, it should give us all pause next time we rush to demonstrate our halachic or other knowledge!  It’s okay to think about it overnight.  Smart people have nothing to prove.  They know that a little contemplation goes a long way.

The wiser you are, the easier you find it to say ‘I don’t know.’  You don’t need to have all the answers immediately.  May you always respond with humility and take the time to investigate the facts and contemplate the truth, without feeling the need to pretend you know it all! 

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Do animals have souls?

Brachos 3

The Prophet Elisha would stay at a certain home every time he would pass through Shunam.  The couple who hosted him had a special room with his name on it in their attic and he would spend much time in his ‘second home’ praying, learning Torah and in deep spiritual contemplation.  He was most grateful to his hosts and one day turned to them and asked them to request whatever blessing they were seeking.  As a holy man, he would turn to Heaven and intercede on their behalf. 

“We are good members of the community and feel very blessed” replied the couple.
“Nevertheless, you are childless,” responded the prophet, “let me bless you with a child.”
“Please do not taunt us,” said the Shunamite couple, “we are too old!”
“A baby shall you have!” declared the prophet.

And indeed, the Shunamite woman conceived shortly thereafter.  The baby was born and the couple loved their child like only a couple who had been blessed with a child after decades of trying could.  But, alas, it was not meant to be, and after a few years, the little boy suddenly died.

One can only imagine how distraught the mother should have been.  And angry at the prophet and G-d for giving her false hope!  And yet, despite the reactions of most to such a devastating situation, the woman remained calm, placed the covers over the boy, and put her coat on.

“Where are you going?” asked her husband as she opened the front-door.
“Just off to pay a visit to the prophet,” she replied, almost nonchalantly, “I’ll be right back!”
“But it’s not Rosh Chodesh or Shabbat,” responded the husband, a little confused.
And completely at peace, with unquestioning faith that Heaven would not forsake her, she replied, “Shalom.”

Sure enough, she arrived at Elisha’s doorstep and immediately upon hearing of the boy’s plight, he hurried back to Shunam.  He held the boy close and breathed the breath of life back into the boy, miraculously granting him a second lease on life. 

That is the power of faith.

The night consists of three watches.  At each watch, the Holy One blessed be He sits and roars like a lion (over the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people).  The symbols of each watch are: the first watch is like a donkey moving about, the second is like barking dogs, the third represents a nursing baby and a wife talking to her husband.

The Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eidels) explains that these three stages of the night correspond to the three levels of the soul found inside each and every one of us, called nefesh, ruach, and neshama.  Your nefesh is what animates you, transforming you from a lifeless body into an active creature.  That activity, however, is nothing more than the natural reactions of your bodily instincts.  Just like a donkey acts instinctively, so does your nefesh

The second level of the soul is the ruach, which is what makes you human.  Animals don’t have emotions, they don’t visibly express traits such as love and kindness.  Some animals, however, clearly do profess emotive reactions.  Dogs are called ‘man’s best friend’ for a reason!  They are able to provide more than mere companionship – dogs will demonstrate love and other emotions.  That’s why the ruach level of soul is symbolized by the barking of a dog.  It’s that part of you that makes you more than just an instinctively reacting mammal.

And finally, we have the third stage, corresponding to the neshama.  Your neshama is your ability to think, to discern right from wrong, and to rise above your physical body and become a spiritual being!  The Gemara offers two descriptions for the neshama stage: a nursing baby and a communicating couple.  The Maharsha explains that these two ideas symbolize Torah study and prayer.  When we learn Torah, we are nurtured by the milk of our Heavenly Parent.  And when we pray, we are offered the opportunity to talk to Him face to face.  That’s powerful, and that’s the power of your neshama!

These three phases of the soul, says the Gemara, correspond to different stages of the night.  Just as the soul passes through each daily night, it likewise carries us through the night-times of our lives.  As we pass through life, we often face dark times.  Finances that don’t add up – with each passing month, you’re getting deeper and deeper into debt.  Medical issues that suddenly strike – just when things were falling into place, you’re hit with health complications.  How do we respond when things don’t go according to plan?

Our natural reaction comes from the nefesh.  We get upset.  We get angry.  We lash out at those around us.  We lash out at Heaven.  But when we react like that, our behaviour is no better than that of a donkey.  When donkeys don’t like what’s going around them, they kick.  They begin to bray uncontrollably.  Yes, your nefesh is important; but there’s so much more to you! 

Let us continue up the ladder of the soul.  The more refined, human response to life’s challenges is to respond with mature emotions.  Love, empathy, feeling.  Most of the time when you’re suffering in life, you’re not the only one.  Nefesh-centred individuals are fixated on themselves.  Ruach-embracing people, in contrast, are self-aware and equally aware of what’s going on around them.  They feel and demonstrate empathy towards the challenges other people are facing.  It’s that ability that makes you human!

But you’re more than just human.  You’re a spiritual being.  You have the power of the neshama.  Your neshama provides you with the opportunity to connect with the ultimate Source of life.  And there are two ways to do that.  Either by nursing from the fountain of life – the Torah.  Or by communicating directly with our Spouse, the Almighty.  When you derive your nourishment and strength from Heaven, you can face any challenge in life!

When you place yourself in the hands of our Father in Heaven, you flow through life, knowing that Hashem knows exactly what He’s doing.  We may not appreciate or understand His ways, but we know that He is completely in control of the situation and that He loves you more than anything and wants only the best for you.  And when you live with such faith, you become a testament and example to all those around you; in time, they too become inspired to live a life of faith and trust in the One above!

We might appear to be just another member of the Earth’s wonderful animal kingdom, but there’s more to us than meets the eye!  What’s more, you’re not just a human being with the ability to think and express feelings.  You’re a spiritual being, created with the superhuman ability to rise above the physical constraints of this world!  May you always rise above the vicissitudes of life and maintain your faith in Heaven! 

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Faith in Heaven during the darkest hour

Dear Friends,

Life Yomi began a year and a half into the Daf Yomi cycle.  I've decided that it's time to return to the beginning to prepare for the next cycle beginning in January 2020.  I hope you enjoy learning with me.

Chag sameach,

Rabbi Daniel Friedman

Brachos 2

In a desperate attempt to save their children from the Holocaust, many parents turned their children over to local Christian orphanages.  There they would be protected, nourished, and nurtured, until such time they could return to retrieve their babies.  Sadly, the vast majority of these Jews were murdered in the camps, and never came back. 

Following the war, Rabbi Eliezer Silver made it his life’s mission to rescue these children.  He located every orphanage in Europe and went from one to the next asking if they had harboured any of the young ones.  Unbelievably adding insult to injury, many of the orphanages – gratified to have converted these innocent souls to Christianity – denied their presence.  

But their denial did not deter Rabbi Silver.  Without waiting for their acquiescence, he would walk into the dining room and cry out, “Shema Yisrael Ado-nai Elo-heinu Ado-nai echad!”  Now, which Jewish child was not serenaded to sleep as a baby with the words of Shema Yisrael?  And the Yiddishe kinderlach would hear the familiar refrain and run up to the rabbi, responding with the second verse of the Shema, “Baruch shem kevod malchuso le’olam vaed,” thereby revealing their identity and enabling their redemption from the spiritual destruction that otherwise would have been their fate.

From when may one recite the Shema in the evening? 
According to Rabbi Eliezer: From the time that the cohanim (priests) enter to eat their terumah (tithes).  When do they eat their terumah?  From the time of the appearance of the stars – if they were impure, they must immerse in the mikvah during the day, following which they may not partake of the terumah until the sun sets.
According to Rabbi Chanina: From the time that a poor man enters to eat his bread dipped in salt.
According to Rabbi Meir: From the time people enter to eat their bread on Erev Shabbos (Friday night).

The Talmud opens with the fundamentals of Judaism.  How do you be a good Jew?  How do you have a relationship with Heaven?  The most basic of all Jewish prayers is the Shema, our declaration of the unity of Hashem.  The Torah instructs us to recite the Shema twice a day, “when you lie down (at night) and when you rise (in the morning).”

Straight out of the gate, the Talmud informs us how to go about reciting the Shema at night.  When things are going well – during the daytime of life – it’s easy to profess your faith and to maintain your relationship with G-d.  But how do you keep the faith at night – during the challenging times, when G-d seems to be hiding His face? When life gets tough, what’s the secret to remaining one with the Almighty?

The Gemara offers a number of approaches.  First, we have Rabbi Eliezer’s advice: you can’t just wait for nightfall to eat your holy food.  You need to purify yourself during the day and then when night arrives, you’ll be pure and able to sustain yourself with the Heavenly tithes.  In other words, when life is good, when things are going well, you need to train yourself to thank Hashem constantly for all His kindnesses. Turn your eyes Heavenward and say, “Thank you for all the good You have bestowed upon me!”  When you get in the habit of appreciating all your blessings, then when life’s challenges strike, you’ll focus on the good things and your faith will allow you to rise above the difficulties.

Purity doesn’t come naturally.  Having a healthy relationship with Heaven is a learned experience.  It takes a lifetime of training and self-mastery.

Next, we have Rabbi Chanina who instructs us that we may not recite the Shema until the poor person has eaten.  You want a relationship with G-d?  First make sure you’ve taken care of His children.  Spirituality isn’t about you and your holy bubble, it’s about making this world a palace for the King of Kings.  What’s more, once you recognize that any challenges you may be facing in life are nothing compared to those unfortunate souls who live a life full of ‘darkness’ and difficulty, it becomes much easier to welcome Hashem into your life.

Our Sages contrast Noach and Avraham, employing an analogy of a freezing room.  Noach and his wife Naama were happy to enter the Ark with just their immediate family, with little regard for the thousands of other casualties around them.  By contrast, Avraham and Sarah dedicated their lives to teaching everyone about G-d.  In a freezing room, Noach would have donned his fur coat.  Avraham would have installed a heating system, warming up the room for all to enjoy. 

That’s what the Almighty wants in a relationship.  Don’t just profess your faith, demonstrate it!  How?  By feeding those who need physical or spiritual sustenance.  Once you’ve made sure that the poor man is eating his meagre bread dipped in salt, you can turn to Heaven with your spiritual and physical needs.

And finally, we have the advice of Rabbi Meir.  It’s been a long, hard week.  You’ve lit the candles and ushered in the Shabbat.  You’re ready to put your feet up and take that well-earned rest.  Just like G-d.  You can imagine how exhausted He must have been on that first Shabbat.  He’d just created a universe!  And so He took the day off and relaxed.

Chas v’shalom! (Heaven forbid!) Of course He didn’t put His feet up!  Sure, He concluded the process of creation, but had he stopped managing and maintaining the world even for a moment, the entire universe would have immediately ceased to exist.

Likewise, Rabbi Meir reminds us that even when Shabbos rolls around, you can’t stop dedicating yourself to Heaven.  You can retire from your law practice, but you never retire from your Jewish practice.  Just when you thought you were ready to enjoy the ‘Sabbath’ meal period of your life, to sit back and relish the fruits of your labour, you’re reminded that you still have the Shema to recite.

You might think you’ve achieved everything you set out to accomplish in life.  You’ve completed your physical and spiritual mission.  You worked hard.  You put your time into Torah learning, shul committees and communal boards.  It’s time for the young ones to step up.  It’s their turn.

But as long as you’re still here on Earth, the Almighty has more for you to accomplish!  The meal can wait, now’s the time to recite the Shema – to dedicate and rededicate yourself constantly to the service of the King of Kings. You’re almost at the Shabbat meal, but you’re not quite there yet.  Forever knowing that you haven’t quite reached the destination will empower and embolden you to continue to develop spiritually, making your bond with Heaven grow ever stronger!

Merely paying lip service to the Shema isn’t enough.  If you want a real relationship with Heaven, you need to pay attention to the fundamentals.  Train yourself to trust in the Almighty during the day and you will have a much easier time maintaining your faith in the night.  Always remember that the road to reach the King of Kings is via His children – treat them well as you would expect princes and princesses should be treated.  And never stop striving higher and higher, maximizing every precious moment of life.  May you merit a life infused with spirituality and a deep, unbreakable bond with Heaven! 

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Do you have what it takes to win big?

Daf Yomi Sanhedrin 101

A man calls his Yiddishe Mama, “Mom, how are you?”
“Not too good,” says the mother, “I've been very weak.”
The son says, “Why are you so weak?”
“Because I haven't eaten in 38 days,” she replies.
The son responds, “That's terrible. Why haven't you eaten in 38 days?”
The mother answers, “Because I didn't want to have a full mouth when you called!”

“All the days of a pauper are bad” (Proverbs 15:15).
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked: But what about Shabbos and Yom Tov?
As per Shmuel, for Shmuel taught: A change of diet results in a tummy ache.
Rashi explains: Even poor people have delicacies on Shabbos.  But if they eat more than they are accustomed to, they could get sick.  Thus, even Shabbos and Yom Tov are bad for them.

What’s wrong with these poor sods?  After going hungry all week, they finally get a Shabbos invitation and are treated to a delicious meal; only to leave with a tummy ache!  Rabbi Yehoshua is teaching us an important lesson: Sometimes we get so caught up in a rut of negativity that even when we are blessed with good mazal, we allow the situation to become self-destructive. 

We’ve all heard stories of people who were struggling to make ends meet and then one day they win the lottery.  Overnight, they’re multimillionaires.  And then no sooner has the good fortune struck than it all comes crashing down.  There’s this sibling that won’t talk to them anymore because they won’t share their winnings.  Or that cousin who doesn’t like their new fancy-schmancy attitude.  And before long, they lose it all because they have no idea how to handle wealth.

I once knew a young lady who had a difficult childhood and was very bitter about her upbringing and past experiences.  Unfortunately she hadn’t had much luck on the dating scene either.  One day, she met a lovely young man and they began seeing one another.  The problem, however, was that she was still bitter.  She was so scarred by her past experiences that she couldn’t trust the new man in her life and treated him with the same contemptuous attitude she was so used to displaying.  Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before he decided to move on.

So how do you ensure that when the time comes for the mazal to shine down on you, you have the right attitude?  The secret is to get out of the rut of negativity long before things turn around.  If you can train yourself now to find the positivity in even the most trying of situations, you will prosper in any and every circumstance.  Training yourself to give and share generously even when you consider yourself to be lacking, will guarantee your ability to handle the wealth when it does come.  Acting kindly and graciously with every relationship that comes your way will ensure that you say and do the right things when Hashem brings that special person into your life, whether that person is a future spouse, employer, or even just a friend.

Maybe Heaven hasn’t yet given you that aspect of your life you’ve been longing for.  But in the meantime, if you focus on all the wonderful things the Almighty has blessed you with, health, prosperity, relationships, you will be eternally grateful and happy.  May you be attitudinally prepared for the blessings that Hashem is getting ready to rain down upon your life!