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Friday, 31 January 2014

Dealing with Difficult People

Yoma 84

Should I reach out to difficult people or distance myself from them?

If one was bitten by a mad dog, Rabbi Masya ben Charash permits the consumption of non-kosher food to cure the patient.  How do you define a mad dog?  The Talmud explains:  Its mouth is open, its saliva drips, its ears flap, its tail hangs between its thighs and it walks on the edge of the road.  Some say also that it barks without its voice being heard.

 Where do mad dogs come from?   According to Rav, they are created from witchcraft.  According to Shmuel, the dog is possessed of a bad spirit.  What’s the difference between these two opinions?   According to Shmuel’s opinion, one should avoid coming anywhere near the dog, because the bad spirit is dangerous and one may become contaminated.

Sometimes we encounter people that are difficult.  They may be new acquaintances or people we’ve known our entire lives.  And we wonder, do I really need them in my life or are they just bringing negativity into the atmosphere?  Is it okay to distance myself from negative people?

It depends.  Why are they negative?  Is it because, like Rav suggests, they have been messed up by external influences?  Maybe they’ve had a terrible upbringing.  Maybe they’ve had unfortunate occurrences in their lives.    Such people aren’t dangerous.  The right approach is to reach out to them and be there to help them through life.

Other people, however says Shmuel, are simply possessed of a mean-spirit.  They are constantly critical, negative, cynical.  And they’ve chosen to be that way.  Such people, says the Talmud, one should distance oneself from.  They’re only going to weigh you down.  They’re going to bring negativity into your life.  It doesn’t mean you should be mean to them, we must be nice and kindhearted to everyone.  But they needn’t be in the inner circle. 

When it comes to difficult people, we need to determine why they are negative.  Is it because they’ve had bad experiences in life?  Or is it because they are mean-spirited and choose to be bastions of negativity?  Such people should be avoided, as they pose a danger to the positivity and joy with which we choose to live our lives. 

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Getting our Priorities Straight

Yoma 83

“Life’s short.  Eat dessert first.”  Why don’t we eat dessert at the beginning of the meal?

In the midst of the battle with the Philistines, King Shaul decreed a public fast in an attempt to beseech Divine assistance.  His son, Yonatan, who had not heard about the decree, satiated himself with some honey he found.   Upon hearing of the decree, he was surprised and exclaimed, “See how my eyes lit up for I tasted a little of this honey.”   Jonathan felt that had the army not been hungry whilst on the battlefield, they would have achieved greater success.

From this biblical narrative, the Talmud derives that eating sweet foods lights up one’s eyes.  Therefore, when one is ill and one’s sight has dimmed, one should enjoy sweet foods to alleviate the pain.

Notes Abaye: Sweet foods are actually only beneficial after eating the main meal.  If you eat sweets prior to the meal, it just makes you hungrier.   What does Abaye mean?  Clearly his teaching is our source for having dessert at the end of the meal, but why does he suggest that eating dessert first would make one hungrier? 

Let’s start with kids who want the sweets first.  As parents, we know that if they eat the sweets, they won’t eat the main course.  In fact, they will just want more and more dessert!  As adults, we know that we should fill ourselves with the nutritional main course and then partake of dessert as a treat at the end.

But the same thing applies throughout life.  Some people believe that the purpose of their work is to earn enough time and money to enjoy a good vacation.  Or to earn enough money to have a deluxe retirement.   In other words, the only reason I’m working is for the vacation or retirement life.  If I could have the vacation today, I wouldn’t bother working.

Says Abaye: You’ve confused your priorities.  The vacation is not the goal.  Nor is the retirement.  “Six days shall you work.”   We were placed on this earth to be productive.  Vacations are okay, but just as dessert, not as the priority.   Making vacations the priority sends a bad message to our children, who grow up with a sense of entitlement.  Instead, we need to impress upon them the importance of hard work and earning the ability to contribute to making this world a better place.

Dessert belongs at the end of the meal, otherwise it just makes us hungrier for more dessert.  

Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Every Kid is Unique

Yoma 82

The art of child-rearing lies in understanding the unique qualities of each child.

The Mishnah says that we do not force a child to fast on Yom Kippur.  Instead, we educate the child to fast a year or two before the age of bar/bat-mitzvah, in order to get them accustomed to doing mitzvos.  This instruction of ‘a year or two’ seems a little vague.  The Gemara explains that it all depends on the kid.  Some children are able to fast younger than others.

The Talmud is teaching us two powerful lessons about education and child-rearing:
1.  Forcing kids to practice my way of life is futile.  The goal is not to create a carbon-copy of myself.  If I try to do that, I will fail. 
2.  Every child is unique.   As the wise King Solomon wrote in Proverbs, “Educate each child according to his way.”  If my approach to educating my children is cookie-cutter, that too will fail.

Every kid is different and I must be in tune with my child’s needs.  Some kids are visual, others are auditory.  Some kids need more discipline and structure, others need more creative freedom.   

Let us strive to tune in to each of our children’s unique abilities and characters, so that we can provide them with an education that will make a real impression on the way they ultimately choose to live their lives.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

Don't get caught

Yoma 81

Is my eleventh commandment, “Don’t get caught”?

Rabbi Gidel bar Menashe of Biri d’Neresh was teaching his congregation about the prohibition of drinking on Yom Kippur.  According to Rebbe, one is liable for drinking vinegar because it restores one’s vitality.  “I disagree,” said Rabbi Gidel, “one is not liable for drinking vinegar on Yom Kippur.”

The following Yom Kippur, the reports came back to the rabbi.  All day long, the people had been drinking vinegar.  After all, didn’t Rabbi Gidel say that vinegar is okay?  When Rabbi Gidel heard this, he was outraged.  “I never said that vinegar may be drunk on Yom Kippur, I simply explained that one would not be liable for punishment for consuming vinegar!”  Unfortunately, in the people’s minds, their calculation was, ‘If I’m not going to get punished for drinking the vinegar, then I may as well drink it.’

Most of us strive to be good people.  But what drives us?  Are we doing the right thing out of fear of punishment or getting caught?  Or are we doing it because it is fundamentally right?  Are we just waiting to break out of our shell of goodness to break the law when nobody is watching or are we fundamentally committed to doing the right thing, come what may?

If I want to truly consider myself a good person, I need to constantly ask myself, ‘if there were absolutely no negative repercussions to me, would I still act the same way?’  Once we can answer that in the affirmative, we have started on the right track to truly becoming a human being created in the image of G-d. 

Monday, 27 January 2014

Everything in Moderation

Yoma 80

The key to enjoying this world is moderation.

The minimum amount that one must eat on Yom Kippur in order to be liable is the volume of a large date.  Would you believe, there’s also a maximum amount!  Resh Lakish says that if one eats excessively, one is similarly not liable for punishment.  Why not?  The Torah says, “You shall afflict yourselves,” and while fasting is a form of affliction, so too is overeating!  Eating excessively is damaging to the body and therefore constitutes affliction.

The Talmud is clear: Everything in moderation.  Our bodies are a gift from the Almighty that we must take great care of.   Any excessive behaviour is detrimental and dangerous.  It is a mitzvah to drink wine for Kiddush on Shabbos, but to get drunk is condemned.  It is a mitzvah to eat good food on Shabbos, but we must avoid gluttonous consumption.

The Torah instructs us, “And you shall guard your lives very carefully,” which our Sages explain refers to the requirement to protect one’s health and treat one’s body sacredly.  If excessive indulgence is considered affliction, then we have a biblical obligation to eat and act with moderation! 

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Passion Repression

Yoma 79

Starving a desire is the best means to quelling it.

The Talmud distinguishes between three amounts of eating and their legal consequences.  Although of course, we are not allowed to eat any leaven on Passover, in order to receive Heavenly punishment, one must consume at least the volume of an olive.  Less than that is not considered ‘eating.’  Similarly, in order to join in the quorum for bentching (Grace After Meals), one must have eaten at least the olive’s volume quantity.  In order to necessitate the recitation of bentching, however, one must have eaten at least the volume of an egg, because the Torah says, “And you shall eat, and you shall be satisfied.”  Any lesser quantity would not fill you up and satisfy your hunger.

Concerning the prohibition of eating on Yom Kippur, the Talmud suggests a middle amount between these two quantities: the volume of a large date.  The Torah says that we must ‘afflict’ ourselves on Yom Kippur.  It doesn’t say ‘one must not eat.’  Nor does it say ‘one must not eat to one’s fill.’  It goes without saying that we are not allowed to eat anything, but the determination of this measurement is necessary in order to calculate the minimum amount required to be punished for the transgression.   Similarly, in another application, if one is ill or infirm and must eat on Yom Kippur by doctor’s orders, what would be the maximum that one could consume without becoming biblically liable?  The Talmud concludes that this measure must be somewhere in between the olive and the egg volumes and suggests that the large date amount would put the faster’s mind at ease, while not filling him up.   In other words, even though he may still be hungry, he has crossed the line of eating vis-à-vis Yom Kippur.

We all reach a certain point in our lives when we realize that we must watch what we eat in order to maintain good health and an active lifestyle.  And yet sometimes we struggle with what goes into our mouths.  We feel that we must eat until we are completely satisfied.   According to the Talmud, that amount is way beyond what it would take to put our minds at ease.    Even though we are not full, even though we may still be hungry, that amount should suffice to keep us going.  We don’t need to completely satisfy our hunger in order to maintain healthy bodies and minds. 

In fact, holding back a little will eventually train our mouths and stomachs to expect less and over time our needs will be diminished.  The same is true of worldly desires in general.  Concerning sins of the flesh, our Sages instruct us, “If you satisfy it, it will be hungry; but if you starve it, it will be satisfied.”   This means that when we allow ourselves to pursue our desires, they only multiply and we want more and more, that is, ever coarser, worldlier pleasures.   When we hold back, however, when we starve our appetite for mundane, physical indulgences, we slowly but surely find that we mature out of them.

Friday, 24 January 2014

Sneakers or Crocs on Yom Kippur?

Yoma 78

G-d created the world for our enjoyment.

We are forbidden to wear leather shoes on Yom Kippur.  How about sneakers or crocs?  They’re pretty comfortable, aren’t they?  Shouldn’t they also be prohibited?

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi would wear bamboo sandals on Yom Kippur.  So would Rabbi Elazar of Ninveh.   Rabbi Yehudah would wear sandals made of reeds.  Abaye’s were made of palm-branches.  Rava made his from twisted reeds and Rabba bar Rav Huna would tie a cloth around his feet.   Only leather shoes are forbidden.

What’s the problem with leather?

When Adam and Eve were created, G-d said to them: I have created this world for your enjoyment and mastery.   There are four general levels of creation: inanimate objects, vegetation, the animal kingdom and human beings.  We are allowed to benefit from the three lower categories and are granted dominion over them.

One day a year, however, we are told to stop and humble ourselves before the Almighty.   On this day, G-d tells us, just like he told Moses and Joshua, “Remove your shoes.”   Stop thinking that you are the master of all my creations, that you have the ability to do whatever you like to my creatures for your enjoyment.  Today, you shall not tread upon my other creatures.

That’s why only leather is forbidden; it’s a reminder to us that we are not truly masters over anything without G-d’s sanction.  G-d granted us dominion over the animal and other kingdoms and life-forms in order to serve Him.   

Does that mean we can’t enjoy worldly pleasures?  Absolutely not.  Judaism does not preach asceticism.  Au contraire, we have many mitzvoth that encourage us to take pleasure in this world.  On Shabbat, we are instructed to eat good food.  On festivals, we are told to be happy and our Sages add, ‘there is no joy without meat and wine.’  Throughout the week, we are enjoined to eat healthily in order to have the strength to serve the Almighty.

Just like Adam and Eve who were given a landscape filled with earthly pleasures and told, “Of all the trees you may eat, but of the Tree of Knowledge, you shall not eat,” G-d similarly blesses us with a world combined with permissible and forbidden pleasures.  Our mission and challenge is to partake of the permitted and abstain from the prohibited.  And like the message of the Yom Kippur shoes, we can never forget our purpose in this world.  We were created to serve the Almighty. 

We can and must partake of worldly pleasures, but when we do, we must constantly ask of ourselves, how can this help my spiritual service?   How can I use this to make the world a better place and connect with my Father in Heaven?

The Ultimate Happiness

Yoma 77

The greatest happiness is to make others happy.

The prophet Daniel was shown a vision where sinning people were standing with their backs and behinds lewdly directed towards the Temple as they faced the east and worshipped the sun.  G-d calls upon the angel Michael to destroy the Jewish people.  Michael inquires as to the justness in destroying even the righteous amongst the people.  G-d replies that they too deserve punishment for not protesting the disgraceful actions of their brethren.

At the tender age of three, Abraham recognized that G-d was above time and space.  While the ancients worshipped the sun and the moon, Abraham understood that these celestial beings could not be deities, since they appeared and disappeared each day.  The true G-d must be Omnipresent.   Sadly, the phenomenon of worshipping the ephemeral existed at the time of Abraham, the time of Daniel, and is ever present today.   There are people who worship their houses, their cars, their jobs, movie-stars, sportspeople.  But worship of the mundane, of physical and material objects and beings that come and go, can never bring true happiness.   

Anyone who lives a life of true joy understands this.   True joy is the worship of the Almighty, it is the rejoicing in the bounty that He bestows upon us, the relationships with which He enriches our lives, the intangibles that He has blessed us with, such as education, health and family.

However, the angel Michael is castigated: You can’t live joyfully when others around you are destroying their lives.  When your friends and associates are worshipping the sun, it affects you.  Not only is this true insofar as our obligation to help them is concerned, but my environment and my friends ultimately have an impact on the way I live my life.  When everyone around me is facing the sun, unless I am sharing with them the beauty of living beyond the ephemeral, I am bound to be caught up in the cult of sun-worship. 

But here’s the greatest key to happiness: The paramount way to be happy in life is to share my happiness with others.  We are placed in this world to be givers.  What better way to give than to impress upon those around me how to achieve a life of purpose, a life of higher calling, a life of true happiness?   Today, don’t just give somebody something material to afford them temporary joy; teach them how to achieve a lifetime of rejoicing.  

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Why bother praying?

Yoma 76

Why must I pray to G-d for my needs?  Doesn’t He know what I need? 

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s students asked him: Why did the manna need to fall daily in the desert?  Why could it not simply fall once a year, why the need for a daily miracle?  Rashbi responded: Let me tell you a story.  There was once a king who would give his son an annual stipend.  As a result, the prince would come just once a year to pick up his cheque. 

The king decided to change the arrangement to a daily stipend.  This way, the son would remember on a daily basis where his sustenance was coming from and thereby have a regular relationship with his father, the king.   Similarly, explained Rashbi, the manna descended daily – an individual who had four or five children would worry lest the manna not fall tomorrow and their offspring would perish of hunger.  This fear directed one’s heart Heavenward on a constant basis.

The Almighty wants us to have a regular conversation with Him.  He always provides for us, but sometimes we forget where our bread is buttered.  Our daily prayer routine reminds us of our Father, the King and enables us to have a relationship with Him.  G-d doesn’t need our prayers to provide for us, but He wants us to be connected with Him. 

Prayer is a gift from G-d – the ability to have a constant relationship and conversation with our Father in Heaven.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Simple Pleasures

Yoma 75

Do I appreciate the small pleasures in life?

Following the sin of the Tree of Knowledge, the serpent is cursed with, “the dust shall be his bread.”  Rabbi Ami explains that this means that no matter what he would eat, it would taste like dust.  Rabbi Assi explains that the meaning of the verse is that the serpent would never be satisfied until he ate dust.   Rabbi Yose says that this is a hidden blessing – ultimately, the serpent was told by G-d that he would be able to find food everywhere!

We spend our lives running from one pleasure to another.  If we’ve tasted one delicacy, we need to try the next big thing.  We try new restaurants, new delectable treats for our palate, but in time, we find that we need something else to tickle our taste buds. We buy beautiful cars and then get bored of them after the novelty quickly wears off.  After a while, it all just feels like dust and we’re seeking something else to get us excited.  In the end, every worldly pleasure just tastes like dust.

If I would take a mental leap forward and imagine how I would feel about this material pursuit that I’m currently considering, I would realize that sooner or later, it will feel like dust, so why bother with the pursuit of material pleasures that will become meaningless?  Instead, let me begin by understanding that, like the snake, I will only ever be satisfied by eating the dust.  If this is the case, I should enjoy the simplest of pleasures of life, realizing that that is all I need.   

And like Rabbi Yose points out, what a blessing this is!  Simple pleasures are to be found everywhere.  If every bite I take, I thank G-d for giving me a taste that millions of people in the world don’t have; if every book I read, I thank G-d for granting me a literacy and education that millions others don’t have; if every glass of clean water I drink, I thank G-d for bestowing His bounty upon me, I will find that life is so much simpler and more pleasurable, and that ultimately, bigger and better dust is just the same dust.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

How to Win the Lottery

Yoma 74

Today I thank G-d for making me a multi-millionaire.

The manna eaten by the Israelites for forty years in the desert had whatever taste the consumer desired.  If you wanted steak, it tasted like steak.  If you fancied caviar, it tasted like caviar.  Chocolate lovers?  You could have lived on chocolate for forty years.  And yet the Israelites were never satisfied.  Because it’s not the same when you eat something with your eyes closed as when your eyes are open.  At the end of the day, for all the taste opportunities provided by the manna, it still looked like the same old piece of bread that I ate yesterday.  And the day before.  And the day before that.  That’s why a master chef gets marked on their presentation – good food is just as much about great presentation.

In fact, says the Talmud, a blind person is never really satiated, because s/he can’t see what they’re eating.  In light of this, the Talmud suggests that a person aim to eat during the day, when they can see what they’re eating and be truly satisfied.

Think about it for a moment.  Not only can a blind person not see, they cannot even appreciate what they are eating!  Our senses penetrate far deeper than our surface needs.  Think about the emotional and psychological pain that a person with a physical disability endures throughout their life.  The employment discrimination, the way strangers treat the physically-challenged, the list goes on.

Now, imagine you were offered a million dollars to donate your eyes to science.  Would you do it?  How about your legs?  Ears? Hands?  If each of these faculties is worth a million dollars or more to me, then I should thank G-d every waking moment for making me a multi-millionaire!  I have the ability to see, hear, walk, smell, touch, taste – yes, says the Talmud, my eyes are critical to my ability to taste, not just my tongue! 

Today, with every breath you breathe, with every step you walk, with every morsel of food you place into your mouth, thank G-d for making you a multi-millionaire.  

Getting Richer

Yoma 73

Am I doing better today than I was five years ago?

When the nation of Israel would go out to war, a specially anointed Kohen would accompany them as their spiritual guide.   How many priestly vestments would he wear?  The Talmud says that he would not wear four, for that was the number that a regular Kohen would wear.  He could not wear eight, for that was how many the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) wore.

Why could he not match the regular number of Kohen vestments? The Talmud offers the famous dictum, “We increase in holiness and we do not decrease.”  Since he was accustomed to ordinarily donning four garments, his newly sanctified task called for an increase the number of his holy vestments. 

Throughout our lives, many of us strive to improve upon our material situation.  When we are in college, we are happy to see the world via youth hostels and hitchhikes.  In the early stages of our career, we progress to motels and buses.  As our stations in life improve, we will have nothing less than the finest hotels and rental cars.  Likewise with our clothing – in our youth we might have sufficed with looking rugged and good.  By our later years, we are making more quality choices.

If this is true of our material lives, then how much more so must it be true of our spiritual lives.  Every spiritual matter has its representation and manifestation in the physical and material.  That is why the Kohen was required to perform his spiritual service in beautiful vestments.   But the Talmud reminds us that one must forever be increasing in one’s relationship with the Almighty.

If we expect that our material lot in life should always grow, do we have the same expectations of our spiritual station in life?  Can I look back five, ten years ago and say that there is a remarkable improvement in my spiritual position? 

Every day we are here on this earth, we must seek to improve not only our material lot, but more importantly, our spiritual lot.  After all, isn’t that why we’re here?

Saturday, 18 January 2014

Inside Out

Yoma 72

Am I keeping it real or is my life a façade?

The Ark in the Holy Temple, says the Torah, must be covered with gold outside and inside.  The fact that it should covered on the outside makes sense – that’s what everyone sees!  But why on the inside?  Rava explains that the Ark, which carried the Two Tablets of the Covenant and the Torah scroll, represents a Torah scholar.  Any scholar whose interior is not like his exterior does not deserve to be called a scholar.

The Talmud is teaching us that need to be honest, sincere, true people both on the outside and on the inside.  If we feel that we are putting on a show for others and that’s not who we really are, then that’s a problem.  We need to work on refining our character until we truly feel that the ‘me’ that I am portraying to the world is the same ‘me’ that I see in the mirror.

This idea of the external and internal ‘me’ extends to my family life.  Some of us are such wonderful, lovely people when we meet strangers in the street, when we go to work, when we are involved with our community.  But then when we get home – on the inside – we become different people.  Rava is asking us: Are we treating those on the inside the same way we treat those on the outside?  If not, G-d forbid, we are fooling everyone (except those closest to us) as to who we really are.

Next time you are about to raise your voice at your child, ask yourself, if s/he were a colleague, would I react the same way?  Next time you are about to make a hurtful comment to your spouse, ask yourself, would I talk to my boss like that?  It’s not easy being nice all the time – but the greatest challenge is that who we are on the ‘inside’ always matches up to who we are on the ‘outside.’ 

Friday, 17 January 2014

Living Life to the Max

Yoma 71

Am I truly living or am I merely existing?

When the rabbis of Pumpeditha would take leave of one another, they would wish each other, “May the One who revives life grant you a healthy and good life.”  This blessing was based upon the adage in the Book of Proverbs, “For length of days and years of life and peace He shall add to you.”  “What does that mean?” asks the Talmud, “are there some years of life and some years not of life?!?”

Rabbi Elazar explains that this blessing refers to those years that are turning points in a person’s life from the bad to the good.  In other words, when one is having a bad year, it’s as if one is not living at all!  The blessing is that the Almighty grant us years of life, i.e. years that are clearly good and worth living.

While there are some circumstances in life that are beyond our control in terms of fortune and misfortune that befalls us, very often the question of whether or not we are living comes down to our personal attitudinal choices.  Will this be a year of life or of non-life?  Will I make the most of every moment or will I simply pass the year going through the motions of life, but merely existing and passing time until next year and the following year and the year after that?

Living life, says the Talmud, means that my life is full of joy, full of purpose, full of meaning and direction.  If not, I may have had a year, but I have not lived a year.  May the Almighty grant us years of life and may we make every effort to do our part to live that blessing to the fullest!

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Build it and they will come!

Yoma 70

Am I a giver or a taker?

The Kohen Gadol would read the various sections of the Torah dealing with Yom Kippur, which we similarly read in shul annually.  But while we take out two Torah scrolls to read the different sections, in the Temple, they only used one.  The difference is that we can call up a couple of different people for the separate readings.  The Kohen Gadol, on the other hand, was the only reader, and so if they were to switch Torah scrolls, it might appear that they had found a mistake in the first scroll and invalidated it.  The resolution was that the Kohen Gadol would chant the additional reading from the Book of Bamidbar (Numbers) by heart.  Now, while we normally refrain from reciting the Written Torah not from the text, an exception was made in this case, so as not to inconvenience the community who would have to stand there waiting, if the Kohen Gadol were to roll the Torah scroll to the second reading.

Look at what lengths the Kohen Gadol went to in order to avoid burdening the community!  It would have been a matter of mere minutes at most, and after all, it was Yom Kippur, nobody was running off to other engagements.  Surely, everyone would have been fine waiting for the scroll to be rolled!  And yet, the Kohen Gadol would not burden the community even for a moment.

Today, ask yourself, are you a community builder or a burden on the community?  There are certainly times in all of our lives that we are dependent on the community’s resources, and that’s what the community is there for.  But our ultimate goal should be to help build strong, healthy communities and provide for those others who need to rely on our services and resources.

In any congregation or community, there are inevitably a handful of people who toil night and day, volunteering time and money to make the community successful.  Most people are happy to show up and use the resources provided without much thought as to all the hard work that has gone on behind the scenes to build and invest in those resources.  

In life, in communities, there are givers and takers.  My goal must be to be a giver, not a taker. The more givers we have, that is, the more people who have the sensitivity of the Kohen Gadol not to be a burden on the community for even a moment, the more successful our communities will ultimately be. 

Unbridled Passion

Yoma 69

How do I conquer my passions and desires?

The Men of the Great Assembly were bothered by the fact that the practice of idolatry, which had destroyed the First Temple, was still prevalent amongst the Jewish people, and so they cried out to G-d.  G-d answered their prayers and handed them the evil inclination for idolatry which they killed, which is why we don’t have the burning desire to worship idols as in days of yore.  Realizing their power and ability, they then decided to wipe out the evil inclination for illicit relationships.

They proceeded to trap him for three days; however, upon searching far and wide for an egg to feed an ill person, they realized that he held the key to all reproductive relationships.  At that point, they understood that they could not completely destroy him since that would destroy the reproductive ability of the world.  They therefore settled on killing the desire for incestuous relationships, leaving other positive and negative desires intact.

To conquer our passions and desires is unnatural and undesirable.  G-d placed us here in this world to serve Him as mortal human beings.  In the absence of our physical desires, we could not serve Him.  Certainly, on a basic level, this would refer to reproduction, the first mitzvah in the Torah, but on a more general level, the same thing could be said of all our physical desires.

Our challenge in this world is not to destroy our desire, but to shift our passions away from our physical, mortal inclinations and channel them towards our spiritual pursuits. If I have a passion for travel, I should seek out the beauty of G-d’s creations.  If I have a passion to dance, I should utilize it to bring joy to a bride on her wedding day.  If I love food, I should develop my culinary skills to make the finest kosher dishes. 
G-d doesn’t want us to destroy our passions and desires; He wants us to channel them to serve Him.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Red String

Yoma 68

Very often, when we make an effort for G-d, He will complete the task.

In today’s daf, the gemara asks how the Kohen Gadol would know that the goat had successfully been sent off the cliff to Azazel in order to continue the service in the Temple.

The Tana Kama explains that once the deed had taken place, there was an assembly line of people who would intermittently stand along the road from the cliff to Jerusalem and signal to one another until the message reached back to the Temple.  According to Rabbi Yehudah, a messenger would accompany the goat-pusher to the desert and then return to the Temple with the message that the goat had reached the desert, and that was sufficient information to assume that it would reach the cliff.  Rabbi Yishmael points out that there was a piece of crimson wool in the Temple that would turn white once the goat had dropped, showing the purification of the nation’s sins.

In our service of the Almighty, sometimes we need to make an incredible effort.  We go the entire distance, because that’s what G-d expects of us.  Sometimes, however, we make an effort and G-d meets us half way, helping us in our spiritual quest.   Although the initial start may have been difficult, once we have gotten to the desert, G-d will take care of the rest.  On rare occasions, we don’t need to make any effort whatsoever, G-d simply performs a miracle for us, and effortlessly, the wool turns white of its own accord.

Today, let us set out on our spiritual journey with the plan to ‘go the distance.’  Who knows, maybe G-d will meet us half way and help us jump over those challenges we face!  But most importantly, let's tune in to those little miracles that we all encounter every day.  That string might already be turning white – we need only to open our eyes to G-d’s grace and realize that He is constantly helping and guiding us along the way.