Follow by Email

Sunday, 21 August 2016

Rabbanit's Challah

Daf Yomi Bava Kama 82

Ask anyone who has tasted the Rabbanit’s Challah, and they will tell you that it’s the most delicious they’ve ever savoured.  But it wasn’t always like that.  For years, Batya didn’t have much success.  She tried this recipe and that recipe, but all to no avail.  Eventually she came up with a fabulous bobomayse: the sea level pressure in Edmonton combined with the dryness of the air were simply poor ingredients for bread-making. 

That was her story and she was sticking to it.  Until one day, she decided to give it another shot.  What prompted her renewed effort was the sorry state of affairs at our weekly shul shaleshudos (afternoon Shabbos meal).  You see, the challah was always stale, and the new trend was for people to leave shul and go home for the meal.  Unfortunately, that often meant that they didn’t return for Maariv (evening service).

Rabbanit to the rescue.  Determined to ensure we had a stable Maariv minyan, she set out afresh to bake challah, both for the house and the shul.  Lo and behold – admittedly along with a new and improved recipe – the challah turned out exceptional!  And that is the (okay, maybe a little dramatized!) story of the Rabbanit’s Challah

Ezra the Scribe enacted ten ordinances.  The sixth: He instituted that a woman should get up early to bake bread.
Why?  So that the bread would be ready for the poor.
Rashi explains: On days that she is baking, she should start early enough in the day to ensure the bread is ready in time for the paupers who come to the door.

Most people go through life only thinking about themselves.  I’m hungry, so let me bake some bread.   It doesn’t make you selfish – chances are you’re also baking for your spouse and kids.  Maybe even your parents.  But what about others beyond your personal ‘daled amos’ (private sphere)? 

Ezra’s question to his new countrymen was, how much effort would it take to throw in an extra couple of cups of flour for the needy?  He knew that if he wanted to build a great country, he had to begin by building a great society.  And so his message to the matriarch baking for her family was, how about you get up a couple of hours earlier, throw in those extra cups of flour, and be able to have fresh bread ready when the beggar comes to your door?  Suddenly you are serving society with relatively little additional effort!

Let me tell you about one family I know that excels in this regard.  Rabbi Moshe and Rebbetzin Miriam White of the Edmonton Kollel have (kene hora) a sizable family.  And so each week, the rebbetzin bakes up a storm for Shabbos.  But she doesn’t stop there.  She says to herself: If I’m already baking, let me throw in another bag or two of flour (not just a cup or two!) for people who might not otherwise have Shabbos.  And with that, she bakes another dozen loaves and delivers them to the Israeli kioskniks at West Edmonton Mall! 

You might not have the dedication of a Miriam White, but there are always little ways that you can benefit others once you’re already in the zone.  You’re already out shopping.  Would it break the bank if you threw an extra can of beans into your shopping cart to deposit into the food bank bin at the front of the supermarket?  You’re on the way to a simcha (celebration) – who can you think of that might need a ride?  You’re taking your kid to a birthday party – which of their friends would appreciate a ride?  Don’t wait for them to call you; you’re going anyway, pick up the phone and offer to pick them up!

Most mitzvah opportunities don’t cost a cent.  All it takes is a little thought beyond your immediate daled amos.  May you always think of others and the abundant opportunities you have to build a G-dly society on Earth!  

Stealing from the Poor

Daf Yomi Bava Kama 81

The tzedaka (charity) collectors in Bartosa had a problem.  Whenever they saw Rabbi Elazar they would be forced to run the other way.  Why?  Every last penny that he had on him, he would insist on giving away to the poor!  On one occasion, Rabbi Elazar was off to purchase a bridal dowry for his daughter.  But lo and behold, on the way, he bumped into the collectors.  Before they could stop him, he had thrust the entire amount into their hands and escaped into the distance. 

But now, what of the dowry?  All he could afford to buy was a single stalk of wheat, which he duly placed into his silo, in advance of the upcoming wedding.   When the big day arrived, his daughter went to claim her wheat stalk.  To her great surprise, she was unable to open the door.  A miracle had occurred – the Almighty multiplied that one stalk into hundreds of thousands of pieces of wheat.  So great was the overabundance that the door would not open! 
“See how the Almighty treats His beloved!” she declared incredulously.

King Solomon said: One may take a short-cut through another’s property.  As it was taught: If a person completed the harvesting of his field, and yet blocks entry to others into his field, what do they say about him?  What benefit does he get from denying us access through his property?  In what way is anyone causing him harm?  Concerning him, the verse states, “When you could be good, do not be called bad.”
The Gemara asks: Does Scripture really state, “When you could be good, do not be called bad?”
The Gemara answers: Indeed, it states something similar.  The Proverbs declare, “Do not withhold good from its owners, when you have the power to do it.” 

The Proverbs teach that one may not withhold good “from its owners.”  What does that mean?  In our case, the people who want to take a short-cut through the field don’t own it, it belongs to the farmer!  If he chooses to allow them to cross, isn’t he doing them a favour out of the goodness of his heart?

In Pirkei Avos we learn, “Rabbi Elazar of Bartosa says: Give Him of His, for you and yours are His.”  On a simple level, Rabbi Elazar is teaching that when you give tzedaka, you shouldn’t have the attitude that you are giving away your personal hard-earned cash.  No, it all belongs to G-d.  He gave you the money, He continues to be the true Owner of that money, and He is instructing you to give it away to the poor.  The right attitude to tzedaka is to constantly acknowledge that it’s not your money.

But the Lev Avos deepens our obligation to the poor based on the verse in Proverbs.  He explains: When the Almighty provides sustenance to the world, He creates exactly enough to go around.  The only catch is that He doesn’t initially apportion it to whom it truly belongs.  Some people get more than their fair share, others get less.  It is the responsibility of those who received more to redistribute the funds to their rightful owners.  And so the meaning of the Mishnah is: Give him – the poor person – that which is his!

In other words, when you give tzedaka, you’re not giving away your personal money to the poor.  You’re not even giving away G-d’s money to His children.  You’re redistributing the funds to their rightful owners!  If you were to hang onto it, it would be almost as if you were stealing from the poor.  The Almighty prepared exactly enough to go around; why are you hoarding wealth that is someone else’s due?!  And now we understand the verse, “Do not withhold good from its owners!”

That is the meaning of our Gemara.  Hashem placed exactly the right amount of His chen (favour) into this world to bring joy and blessing to all His children.  This farmer has completed his harvest and stands nothing to lose by allowing others to traverse his property.  That potential benefit is not his; it’s theirs.  And so by denying access, he’s not withholding something that belongs to him; he’s stealing Heavenly bounty from its rightful owners!

When you do good to others, you’re not doing them a favour; you’re giving them what is due to them!  Whether it’s tzedaka that you are giving or other forms of assistance – from a kind word to a helping hand, or even just a smile – the Almighty has already destined them to be the recipients of His bounty.  In fact, if you were to withhold that smile, you would be stealing their joy! 

In every situation in this world, Hashem created givers and receivers.  If you are fortunate enough that He created you a giver, don’t abuse your gift!  You have a duty to redirect Heaven’s bounty to its rightful owners.  The more successful you are at that redistribution, the more the Almighty will entrust you with His bounty.  That’s the meaning of our Sages’ dictum on the verse, “You shall surely tithe” – when you tithe surely, you will prosper! 

Don’t ever take the Almighty’s blessing for granted.  Some of it you were meant to keep.  The excess, however, was only given to you because He knows that you are better at handling money than a lot of other people.  May you handle Heaven’s bounty wisely!  

Friday, 19 August 2016

Open Sesame

Daf Yomi Bava Kama 80

Mar bar Rav Ashi was once standing in the Mechuza market when he heard someone prophesy, “The new Rosh Yeshiva (head of the academy) in Mechasya signs his name: Tavyumi.”
“Hey, that’s me!” he said to himself and off he went to Mechasya. 
Meanwhile, they were about to install Rav Acha of Difti as the Rosh Yeshiva.  When they heard Rav Ashi was in town, they sent a pair of rabbis to confirm their decision.  But he wouldn’t let them leave and so the yeshiva sent another pair.  Once again, he kept them from returning. 
The yeshiva board kept sending pairs of rabbis until they were ten in total.  At that point, Mar began expounding the law.  Sure enough, they were so impressed that they decided to install him as the Rosh Yeshiva, instead of Rav Acha.

Rav Acha bar Papa taught: A door of success that closes does not quickly reopen.
The Gemara asks: What is the meaning of this dictum?
Rashi explains the query: How hard must one pray for the door to reopen?
Rav Ashi answers: When one experiences challenges to success, it’s not easy to reopen closed doors and reignite the good fortune.
Rav Acha of Difti answers: One never again receives good fortune.
The Gemara responds: That’s not true!  Rav Acha of Difti was talking merely about his personal experience.

Often in life the door to a successful opportunity will close in our faces.  We wish, we hope, we pray that it will reopen and we’ll get another chance.  But, as the Gemara teaches, a closed door doesn’t reopen very easily.  Rav Acha spent his whole life praying that the door to the Rosh Yeshiva position would reopen, but alas, to no avail; causing him to conclude that once the door to success has slammed shut, one’s good fortune in life is over.

But the Almighty has no shortage of doors to open for you.  When He closes one door, it’s because He knows that it’s not the best path for your life.  Sure, you could wish, and hope, and pray for that door to reopen.  But it won’t reopen very easily, and Hashem is effectively telling you that He has better doors to open in your life.  Instead of focusing all your attention on this one opportunity that He knows is not your destiny, start expanding your horizon to see which new doors He is holding open for you! 

How many times do we look back and realize that the doors that closed were the best thing that could have happened to our lives?  Partners that were not for us.  Jobs that were going nowhere.  Investment opportunities that ended up mediocre.  At the time, those closed door seemed like the worst punishment.  You were so disappointed.  You felt like all your efforts were for naught.  And now, looking back and thinking about the alternate doors that opened, you can’t believe you were ever so fixated on that single opportunity!

Unfortunately, Rav Acha of Difti spent the rest of his life trying to pry open a door that the Almighty knew wasn’t the right destination for his personal mission.  Meanwhile, who knows how many other doors to success he failed to notice had opened all around him? 

When one door closes, trust in Hashem to open many more doors.  May the wrong doors in your life close as quickly as possible and may you recognize the right doors to enter!  

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Parking around the corner on Shabbos

Daf Yomi Bava Kama 79

The great Chasidic master, Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev once saw a Jew greasing the wheels of his wagon while wearing tallis and tefillin and mumbling away his morning prayers.  Instead of rebuking him for trying to rush through the prayers and multitask at G-d’s expense, the Barditchever turned his eyes Heavenward and declared, “Master of the universe, look at how holy Your nation is!  They even grease the wheels of their wagons with tallis and tefillin on!”

The Torah states, “If a man steals an ox, or a sheep, and kills it, or sells it, he shall pay five oxen in place of the ox, and four sheep in place of the sheep.”
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai taught: Come see how great is human dignity!  For an ox that walked on its own feet, the thief must pay fivefold.  But for the sheep, which he needed to carry upon his shoulders, he pays but fourfold.
Rashi explains: The thief carried the sheep upon his shoulders thereby embarrassing himself.  Therefore, the Almighty is softer on his punishment.

Often in life we’re quick to judge others.  After all, you’re a good person.  You’re making the effort to serve G-d.  It’s not easy to stay on track.   And most other people don’t bother.   They do whatever they feel like.  Some people have total disregard for Torah!

And so your gut reaction is aversion.  There’s a certain natural disdain you have for people who don’t share your values and make the same effort for G-d as you do.

But look at the way Hashem treats a petty thief!  Yes, he stole.  But in spite of his crime, the Almighty is still concerned for his welfare!  This poor fellow had to actually pick up the sheep and carry it on his shoulders for a quick getaway.  How embarrassing must that have been for him?!?

That’s the attitude we must have toward people who are not quite as spiritually-driven as we are.  Instead of distancing them, we should be feeling for them.   It can be embarrassing to be around those who are more connected to Torah.  Don’t make them feel any more uncomfortable than they already might feel!

You know that guy who parks around the corner instead of driving right up to shul on Shabbos?  He deserves a medal.  How about the lady who reroutes her shopping cart down the alternate aisle in the supermarket so that you don’t see her non-kosher food purchases?  She is a hero.

Well maybe not quite medal-deserving heroes!  But instead of looking at them as hypocrites and thinking, ‘Who are they kidding?’ it’s time to switch your approach to a Divine attitude.  Hashem looks at these people and says, ‘Wow, they’re actually suffering embarrassment on account of their behaviour.  What incredibly holy souls!’

In life, there are always two sides to every coin.  No matter how inappropriately someone appears to be behaving, with the right attitude, you can feel compassion for them.  Reb Levi Yitzchak didn’t see a fellow who was degrading his prayers, he saw a man who was wearing tefillin even though he had to rush off to work!  Can you imagine how that fellow must have felt when the rabbi ‘caught’ him multitasking?  And yet Reb Levi Yitzchak immediately assuaged his embarrassment by finding something positive and encouraging in his actions.

You can always find positivity in every person and every situation.  If you can’t see it, stop judging the other person for their behaviour, and start judging yourself for your inability to be compassionate.  May you always see the overwhelming goodness in every individual!  

Monday, 11 July 2016

Standing up for Heaven's Honour

Daf Yomi Bava Kama 40

Prior to entering the land of Canaan, Moshe sends twelve spies to survey the routes and navigate the most expedient and strategic approach to the takeover.  Unfortunately, however, the spies overstep their authority; instead of returning with a military strategy, they present an entirely negative view of the Israelites’ ability to execute a successful conquest.

They’re in the midst of engendering a revolt against Moshe’s leadership, when suddenly one lone spy speaks up.  Calev declares, “If Hashem has desired us, He has brought us to this land and given it to us, a land flowing with milk and honey!  But do not rebel against Hashem and ye shall not fear the people of the land!”

What a risky move.  Calev, together with Moshe’s assistant Yehoshua, finds himself surrounded by angry Israelites holding rocks, ready to hurl at these optimists.  But at the eleventh hour, sure enough, they are saved, and Calev is promised a special portion in the land that he so courageously stood up for.  The other spies are punished immediately; and those who followed their skepticism are condemned to wandering for forty years, and ultimately perishing, in the wilderness.

The Rabbis taught: If one borrowed an ox assuming it to be tame, but it ended up being wild and causing damage, the owner must pay half the damages and the borrower must pay half the damages.
The Gemara asks: Why should the borrower pay anything?  He should simply say, ‘I borrowed an ox, I didn’t borrow a lion!’

Our Sages tell us, “One must always be like a yoked ox.”   An ox simply accepts the yoke placed upon it, no questions asked.  It goes along the path it is being directed upon, without veering to the right or to the left.

Likewise, we are enjoined to accept the yoke of Heaven upon ourselves and perform the bidding of our Master.  Sometimes we understand what we are doing; other times we put our head down and accept the will of our Creator.  In fact, according to the Kabbalists, the highest level of spiritual achievement is when we perform the ‘rational’ mitzvos with the same subservience to the will of G-d as we perform those mitzvos we don’t comprehend!

At the same time that we must be like an ox, however, Rabbi Yehuda ben Teima, in Pirkei Avos, instructs us that we must “be as mighty as a lion . . . to do the will of your Father in Heaven.”  What does he mean?

Although our general approach should be to put our head down, accept the yoke of Heaven, and get on with the task of serving G-d; sometimes we are called upon to stand up for what is right.  Sometimes when the honour of Torah and the glory of Heaven are under attack, we must be willing to pull our heads out of the yoke of unthinking subservience, and become the king of the spiritual jungle!

And yet, not very many are prepared to do that.  When the going gets tough, most people turn their eyes Heavenward and exclaim, ‘I borrowed an ox, I didn’t borrow a lion.’  It’s much easier to look down and continue ploughing away.  You simply say to yourself, ‘I’m here to do my job.  I’ll place blinders on to the world around me and not get distracted.  It’s really not my problem.’

But when Hashem’s honour is at stake, looking away is not an option.  The mighty lion roars and proclaims the truth, as unpopular as such a stance may be.   Calev could have just opted to ‘go with the flow.’  But he knew that Heaven was under siege.

And you know what?  When you take that important stance for Heaven, you become a leader and others will follow.  There’s a reason why oxen are not called the kings of the field, but the lion is the undisputed king of the jungle.   Leaders take courageous positions; followers put their heads down and wait to see which way the wind will blow.

Calev took an unpopular stand for the Land of Israel.  In the end he was rewarded with a special portion in the land in his lifetime and for all eternity.  May you put your head down and accept the yoke of Heaven when that is the appropriate for course of action, but may you find the courage to roar like a lion when the glory of Heaven is under attack!

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Become a mitzvah machine!

Daf Yomi Bava Kama 39

The righteous Yosef has been sold into slavery in Egypt.  He finds himself in the home of Potiphar, who appreciates his loyalty and skill, and places him completely in charge of all his affairs.  Unfortunately, however, Potiphar is not the only one taken by Yosef’s charm.  Potiphar’s wife finds herself drawn to the young servant-boy and she begins to proposition him.

Day in, day out, he refuses her advances.  Until one day he’s at home alone, doing his chores when Mrs. P. arrives.  As she would do whenever her husband was not around, she begins to engage Yosef in inappropriate conversation. 
‘Just this once,’ Yosef says to himself, ‘nobody will ever know.’

Suddenly, he is hit with a vision.  It’s a picture of his father, Yaakov, holding up the holy breastplate of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest).  But instead of the twelve stones that would later adorn the plate, there are eleven stones and an empty space.
‘If you give in to temptation,’ the voice chides him, ‘you will cut yourself off from the family of Israel forever.’

At that point, he escapes Mrs. P.’s clutches, leaving his jacket in her hands.  He runs out of the house just as fast as his legs can carry him and waits until the end of the day when his master would return. 

The Torah declares, “If an ox gores a man or a woman and they die, the ox shall surely be stoned.”
Mishnah: A stadium ox is not liable to be put to death, for the verse states, “If an ox gores,” i.e. but not if humans caused it to gore.
Rashi explains: A stadium ox is designed to gore.  They train it for that purpose.

You can’t blame the stadium ox that gores a human being.  Let’s be honest, that’s all it knows!  That’s what it’s been trained to do by the matador!  It seems to be evil, but in fact it’s a ‘killing machine.’  Machines don’t make choices; they do exactly as they’ve been programmed.

Oftentimes we look around and see people acting contrary to the will of Hashem.  Our first reaction is to dismiss them as sinners.  Whether consciously or not, we are judging them and looking down on their actions and behaviour.

But how many of those people are choosing to act as they do?  They’re not acting defiantly!  Most of them were trained from birth to overlook the basics of Jewish observance.  You can’t hold them responsible, they’ve been programmed a certain way.

Sometimes we even encounter people who were born into it and, at some point, chose to reject their faith or practice.  And we’re quick to judge them, viewing their every action as a challenge to the Almighty. 

But that’s likewise absolutely wrong.  Maybe they made a poor choice years ago.  A choice that led them down a certain path to bring them to who they are today. 

You know what our Sages teach us?  G-d doesn’t hold them accountable for every bad decision they make today.  Because the ‘decisions’ they appear to be making are not really decisions at all.  Once they trained themselves to act contrary to the will of Heaven, on a certain level, they removed their decision-making ability.  Now what seems to be a sin is really nothing more than behaviour by rote.  It’s what they’re programmed to do. 

And so Hashem looks at them and says, ‘I’m not going to judge them.  I’m not going to punish them.  They’re not making conscious decisions to abandon Me.  I will only hold them responsible for their original poor decision.  Beyond that, I immediately forgive them.’ 

And if it’s good enough for G-d, it should certainly be good for enough for us.

Here’s the good news.  While you don’t get punished for continued poor behaviour based on pre-programmed decisions, you always get rewarded for good behaviour, even when you’re simply acting the way you’ve been programmed!   And so if you train yourself to do mitzvos, even if years later you’re doing them by rote – because you couldn’t imagine doing anything else – you still get incredible reward for each and every act of obedience to the will of G-d!

That doesn’t mean you should simply go through the motions, without any effort or feeling.  It goes without saying that the more effort you put in, the greater your reward.  But whatever the case, whether you’re feeling it or not, G-d rewards your positive results!

What do our Sages mean when they describe Yosef’s vision of his father and the holy breastplate?  At Yosef’s most challenging moment, he suddenly finds himself unable to cross the line.  Everything that has happened in his life up until that point tells him: don’t do it.  

Utilizing free choice alone, he might not have been able to resist the temptation.  But with the aid of his ‘nature and nurture’ – the pattern of his life that he had conditioned himself to – he can overcome.  All he has to do is picture his father, his family, and his future, and he’s able to withstand the pressure.  And he receives eternal reward for his incredible act of Heavenly sacrifice.

It’s time to become a stadium ox for the good.  My friend, Dr. Nathan Light, calls it an Orthod-ox.  You need to train yourself so that doing G-d’s will is second nature.  May you get into the groove of Torah and mitzvos until you couldn’t imagine doing it any other way!

Friday, 8 July 2016

Does Hashem really care if you keep kosher?

Daf Yomi Bava Kama 38

What is the most boring job in the world?  Classically, this award has gone to toll collectors.  Day in, day out, all they do is sit there collecting people’s small change.   But the truth is, it’s actually only as boring as you make it.  There are some tollbooth enthusiasts who greet each driver with a huge smile, asking them how they’re doing, and brightening up their day!

Really, the most boring job, I think, is the Queen’s Guard.  These folks stand outside Buckingham Palace for hours on end, motionless, expressionless, and forbidden even to ‘stand at ease’!  And yet, believe it or not, every year the Palace receives thousands of applications for the job!  Why would anyone in their right mind want such a boring job?

The prophet Habakkuk declared, “He arose and judged the land.  He saw and released the nations.”
Rav Yosef taught: What did He see?  He saw that the children of Noah were not observing the seven laws that they accepted upon themselves.  He therefore arose and released them from their obligation.
The Gemara asks: But if so, they won!  How could they sin and profit from it?

Some people think they’re doing G-d a favour by serving Him.   They’re really not that excited about being religious, but they do it because they think they’ll upset Heaven if they veer off the tracks.

Guess what.  It makes no difference to G-d whether or not you serve Him.  You want to do mitzvos, do them.  You don’t want to do mitzvos, don’t do them.  Enough people want rid of mitzvos, Rav Yosef teaches, Hashem says, ‘No worries.  Don’t bother.  I hereby release your of all responsibility.  You’re completely off the hook.’

You see, G-d doesn’t need you.  He’s the same G-d now as He was before He created the world.  What happens here does not affect Him one iota.   He gives us mitzvos and then offers us the choice whether or not to observe.  Yes, mitzvah means commandment.  But don’t think you’re doing Hashem any favours by performing his will.  You’re doing yourself the biggest favour.

Do you know why the Queen’s Guard gets thousands of applicants annually?  Not because it’s a thrilling job; but because you get to personally serve Her Majesty.  What an incredible opportunity!

And the same is true of mitzvos.  The Almighty provides us with the opportunity to personally serve Him.  To have a relationship with Him.  To get close to Him.  Who wouldn’t want that? 

When the nations of the world sought release from their obligations, they didn’t win.  They didn’t profit from their poor behaviour.  No, they lost out on an incredible opportunity.  Very sad, indeed.

Here’s the thing about serving in the Queen’s Guard.  Sometimes it can be frustrating and challenging.  Sometimes you stand their expressionless on the outside and filled with inner turmoil about your apparently dull professional choice.   But then you finish your shift, and you get invited to the open bar at the private club in Windsor Castle, where you get to party all night with the Queen and the corgis!  And everything changes.  It was all worth it. 

Hashem is totally cool with whatever choices you make in life.  He’ll love you either way.  He’s your Father.  But when you choose to buy into the relationship, the reward is out of this world – both in this world and the next!  May you recognize and capitalize on the incredible opportunity the Almighty offers us in life!