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Friday, 28 February 2014

Are you a community sponge?

 Sukkah 25

“This community seems to fall on the shoulders of three or four people,” Jack said to me in exasperation.  “Why can’t others step up and do their part?  It seems that whenever we need something done, it’s the same people who are called upon!  How can we expect them to do everything?”

The Mishnah states “Those on a mission to do a mitzvah are exempt from the mitzvah of sukkah.”  Rashi gives examples of people who are journeying to learn Torah or to visit their rebbe (Torah teacher) or en route to redeem captives.

 Tosfos asks where we draw the line with this exemption that would seem to imply that one who is involved with one mitzvah is absolved from carrying out other mitzvos.  For example, is someone who is wearing  tzitzis (or tefillin) not obligated to do any other good deeds?  Or how about if I find a lost object and I’m in the process of trying to locate its owner, can I turn away a poor person who comes to my door asking for assistance?

 Tosfos concludes that the exemption only applies when the two mitzvos would be in conflict with one another.  For example, if stopping on my journey to build a sukkah would thereby delay my arrival to learn torah, then I would be absolved from the mitzvah of sukkah.

 We are often called upon to take on communal responsibilities and we excuse ourselves on the grounds that we are already doing so much for the community.  ‘Shouldn’t other people be stepping up to the plate?  I’m already doing my part!’

 Tosfos teaches that we are only off the hook if this new mitzvah would conflict with my current commitments.  If not, then I should volunteer my services.  After all, isn’t that what we are here on earth for?

 Some people are always going to be takers.  They will always find an excuse not to contribute time, money and effort.  Others are always dependable – you can count on them to volunteer and lead and contribute, time and time again.  The Almighty provides the strength and resources when you are working to fulfill His mission. 

You can make this world a better place!  Just keep raising your hand every time something needs to be done and G-d will help you make it happen!  You can be that guy!

Thursday, 27 February 2014

Live like you were dying

Sukkah 24

I was finally the husband,
that most the time I wasn't.
And I became a friend a friend would like to have.
And all the sudden going fishing,
Wasn't such an imposition.
And I went three times that year I lost my dad.
Well I finally read the good book,
And I took a good long hard look at what I'd do
If I could do it all again.

I went sky diving,
I went rocky mountain climbing,
I went 2.7 seconds on a bull name Fumanchu.
And I loved deeper,
And I spoke sweeter,
And I gave forgiveness I've been denying,
And he said someday I hope you get the chance,
To live like you were dying.

Tim McGraw 2004

Are you allowed to construct a sukkah with one wall made from a living animal?  Rabbi Yehudah permits it.  Rabbi Meir prohibits it, either because the animal might run away or because in the middle of the festival it might keel over and die, and you would lose your wall.

The Gemara cites various other examples of situations where we are concerned about death.  For example, if a kohen gives his wife a gett (bill of divorce) that will take effect an hour before he dies she is no longer allowed to partake of the terumah tithes, because he might die within the hour. 

Similarly, if one purchases a flask of wine, not knowing if tithes had been separated, according to Rabbi Meir he may drink the wine on condition that he will leave over enough wine to apportion later for the tithes.  Rabbis Yehudah, Yossi and Shimon demur, concerned for the possibility that the flask might burst before he has the opportunity to offer the tithes.  Or worse yet, what if he dies after drinking but prior to tithing?

One more example: In order to perform the service in the Temple on Yom Kippur, the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) must be married.  Rabbi Yehudah teaches that the Beth Din haGadol (High Court) would arrange for a single lady to be ready to marry him, in the unlikely circumstance that his current wife should die just before Yom Kippur!

Many of us believe that we will live forever.  We allow the days and years to pass by without taking life too seriously.  But our Sages teach us that we must live with the awareness that death “crouches at the door.”  Any moment could be our last. 

The Mishnah teaches us that we must “repent one day before you die.”  The Talmud infers that we must therefore repent every day, because we never know when we will die.  As a result, our rabbis inserted the confession prayer into our daily morning and afternoon services.

When you “live like you were dying,” your life looks very different.  You treat people differently.  You take matters more seriously.  You live a life with focus and direction, wherein every moment counts. 

May you live till 120!  But may you treat every moment of your life with the care and consideration as if it were the last.  Then you will truly have a life of meaning and purpose.  

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Cutting the umbilical cord

Sukkah 23

“I can’t keep up,” said Jake, “it seems like every other parent is paying their kids’ graduate tuition, supporting them for years in kollel, buying them a house, taking them and the grandchildren to Pesach hotels, paying for grandkids’ school fees.   When do these kids start fending for themselves?  At this rate, I’ll be working till I’m 95!”

If three walls of the sukkah are man-made and the fourth is a tree, then it is a kosher sukkah so long as “if the tree were taken away, it could stand on its own.”

The imagery here is powerful.  The Mishnah is asking us to picture the uprooting of a tree – an object that may have been there for many years and is permanently situated in that place – in order to see if the flimsy, temporary sukkah can stand on its own!

As parents, we are often scared to remove ourselves from our children’s lives.  Today, more than ever, parents support their children – from helicopter parents who hover over their children’s teachers and coaches, to parents who feel obligated to bear their kids’ financial burden through multiple university degrees and kollel.

Many parents feel that they must help their children buy their first home and if they’re not yet ready then they must continue to provide room and board for their adult children through their twenties and thirties. 

But the Mishnah teaches us that sometimes we must be prepared to uproot ourselves to ascertain whether the sukkah can stand on its own.  The solid tree with its deep roots and its powerful trunk and flowing branches must cease its support for the sukkah and allow it to test its ability to stand independently. 

It is an awesome responsibility to remove the tree, but without that decision, it is impossible to tell whether or not the sukkah is kosher.  Without stepping back as parents, we are hindering our children’s ability to thrive as independent human beings.

Today, I pledge to provide my children with the tools to achieve success.  But then I shall take a step back and watch them develop on their own.  Not every sukkah will stand immediately without the tree’s support, but unless we uproot the tree, we will never allow any sukkah’le the ability to succeed in life.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

So you want to be an Olympic athlete?

Sukkah 22

The Olympics are over.  Time to get back to work.  Back to school. Back to life.   The Games bring such a frenzy of obsession – people are up all hours of the day and night to watch! 

Did you notice how easy the athletes make their sports look?  Whether it’s figure skating or bobsledding, you often think, “I could do that!”

Our mishnah says that if the sukkah has more shade than sunlight, it is kosher, which would imply that if the shade and light were equal, it would be invalid.  A different mishnah states that if a sukkah had more sunlight than shade it would be invalid, which implies that if they were equal, it would be kosher.  How do we reconcile these two teachings?

Answers the Gemara: No problem.  Our mishnah speaks from the vantage point of the schach, the other mishnah speaks from the vantage point of the ground.  If schach and gaps (shade and light) are equal, then there will be greater light below at the ground level and the sukkah would be invalid.

Rabbi Papa relates this conclusion to the adage, “As a zuz above is an istera below.”

Rashi explains that if you have a small gap in the schach, the size of a zuz coin, the light will spread to the size of a large istera coin by the time you reach ground level.  The lesson for us is that if we just bring a little light into people’s lives, it will spread and become a great light.  Sometimes all it takes is a smile or a kind word to completely change someone’s day for the better.

Tosfos says: Wait a sec.  Actually the zuz is the larger coin, not the istera!  When we gaze up at the stars, they seem tiny and yet we know that they are huge.  They just appear small because they are so far away.  Rabbi Papa’s analogy means that although at ground level the gaps may appear small like an istera, it is only because we are far away.  At the schach level, they are in fact quite large, like the zuz.

From afar, everything appears small.  From the comfort of our armchairs watching TV thousands of miles away from the Olympics, it all looks so easy.  But obviously, if we would get up close, we would see the hours and years of training that every athlete endures to reach the Games.

Throughout our lives we encounter people who are successful, whether materially or spiritually or both.  And we are tempted to ask G-d, “Why them?”  But if we would take the time to ponder the amount of time and effort these successful people have invested to achieve success, we would realize that they have earned it.  From afar, it seems so easy and small, but up close one understands what enormous effort goes into achieving greatness.

Today I pledge to invest the time and effort to become accomplished.  I know that there are no shortcuts to success.  Becoming great means working hard to get there.  When I see success, I will acknowledge the effort that has gone into that achievement.  

Monday, 24 February 2014

Say something (meaningful), I'm giving up on you

Sukkah 21

Facebook status update: Today I had eggs for breakfast.
Tweet: Running late for the bus.  Should I take cab?
Google plus update: Lost two socks in washing machine yesterday.  Wearing two odd socks today.
LinkedIn update: Loving the new renovations at the airport.

Yesterday, Rabbi Shimon taught us that sleeping under a bed canopy in a sukkah invalidates the mitzvah, from a story in which Rabbi Gamliel praised his servant Tavi for his erudition.   In a related teaching, Rabbi Shimon says: We learned two laws from the “chatter” of Rabban Gamliel about Tavi. 

Asks the Talmud: Why does Rabbi Shimon refer to Rabban Gamliel’s statement as “chatter?”  He should have been more respectful and quoted the “words” of Rabban Gamliel!

Rabbi Acha bar Ada answers in the name of Rav: From here we derive that even the ‘chatter’ of Torah scholars requires study, as the verse in Psalms says, “his leaves do not wither.”  This means that even the leaves of our Sages that ‘blow in the wind’ contain important lessons.

How many of us can say for ourselves that our idle chatter and conversation is meaningful?  Today, we are seeing an epidemic of frivolous chatter around us.  People feel the need to post what they had for breakfast on Facebook, like anybody else cares.  Or they tweet how they are feeling about missing the bus home, also not particularly relevant to anyone else.

Our goal should be to raise our level of chatter to that of our Sages, whose every word is precious.  When we post a Facebook update, we must ask ourselves, ‘what value am I adding to my friends and the world around me?’ 

We all have value to contribute.  Maybe you’re reading a good book and you have an inspirational thought to share.  Maybe you saw something in the newspaper that got you thinking about the important questions in life.  There’s so much meaningful ‘chatter’ that we all have the ability to bring to the table that it is embarrassing when we see people chatter about frivolity!

Today I pledge to think before I post my “chatter.”   I am a thoughtful person.  I have the ability to contribute to my friends’ lives and add my voice to the important conversations.  I shall strive to aspire to the level of scholarship such that one day people will say “even her chatter requires study.”

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Stop making excuses for being mediocre

Sukkah 20

Mo’s life is pretty average.  He makes an average living.  His level of education is average.  His Torah literacy is average.  There is really nothing outstanding about Mo.  He’s not a bad fellow, he’s just pretty plain.

On many occasions, I have attempted to motivate Mo to strive for greatness, but he’s bogged down in his own mind by impediments from his childhood.  And even when he can get past those, he is so busy chasing his tail that he can’t seem to break free from the daily grind and achieve success. 

Why do some people go through the doldrums of life without ever being able to soar higher?

The Mishnah states that one who sleeps on a bed with a canopy inside the sukkah has not fulfilled his obligation of dwelling in the sukkah, because instead of being beneath the schach, he finds himself beneath the canopy.  How do we know that the bed would disqualify him from being in the sukkah?

Rabban Gamliel’s non-Jewish servant, Tavi, was once under a bed canopy in the sukkah.  “Did you see my servant, Tavi?” asked the rabbi of his colleagues.  “He is such a Torah scholar that he knows that servants are exempt from the sukkah.  That’s why he’s sleeping under the bed canopy!”

Thus we see from this exchange, says the Mishnah, that sleeping beneath the bed canopy invalidates one’s mitzvah of sukkah.

Asks the Tosfos: If Tavi was such a scholar that he knew he was exempt from the mitzvah of sukkah, then why was he even in the sukkah in the first place?  Tosfos answers that Tavi wanted so much to listen to the Torah discussions of the Talmudic Sages that he was prepared to squeeze into the sukkah.  Not wanting to inconvenience the scholars, he found a corner of the sukkah to occupy: on the bed where nobody else would want to sit, due to its canopy. 

Did Tavi have a prestigious background?  No, he was a slave!

Did Tavi come from a family of Torah scholars?  No, his family wasn’t even Jewish!

Most people in Tavi’s situation would simply throw their hands up and resign themselves to a life of mediocrity.  Not Tavi – despite his humble roots, both physically and spiritually, he became such a great Torah scholar that the Mishnah determined the law by his behaviour! 

Maybe he was just a brilliant guy that everyone treated with respect?  No, he was shoved into a corner of the sukkah that nobody else wanted! 

And yet Tavi didn’t allow circumstances to impede his spiritual growth.  He stayed in the sukkah – no doubt being jeered at by some of the young scholars who knew that where he was sitting didn’t even qualify for the mitzvah – just to hear the words of Torah.

How many of us settle for mediocrity due to our parents, our upbringing, our background?  I could never be a great Torah scholar, I came to it too late in life. . . . I could never be a leader of the community, I’ve always been an introvert. . .

Or maybe it’s due to my current circumstances.  I just don’t have the time to learn Torah. . . I don’t live in a Jewish centre. . .  People don’t respect me. . .

These are all excuses!  Success in life is in your hands, whether it’s spiritual or material success!  You have the power to overcome any shortcomings in upbringing, background or circumstance!  If Tavi could do it, so can you!

Today I pledge not to be a victim of history or circumstance.  I shall be the best that I can be.  G-d has blessed me with the ability to succeed spiritually and materially.  I will capitalize on His blessing.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

Homosexuals in the Orthodox community

Sukkah 19

Jane and Susan came to see me about naming their new baby in the synagogue.  “We’re assuming that you won’t accept us in your Orthodox shul, right?” 

It’s not the first time I’ve had conversations of this sort with gay couples.   Sometimes I almost feel as if I’m being tested, so that they can point their finger at Orthodox Judaism as unaccepting and intolerant. 

“Of course!  We would be honoured to have the baby-naming in our shul,” I replied, “welcome to our community!”

Rabbi Oshiya teaches that one may sleep under invalid schach that is less than three tefachim (handsbreadths) wide since it joins together with the valid schach, thereby becoming validated.   Rabbi Yitzchak ben Elyashiv notes that in fact if there was not enough acceptable schach to cover the sukkah, the unacceptable schach would actually validate the acceptable schach by completing it!

He compares it to liquids such as mud that on their own could not be used in a mikvah.  Nevertheless, when they are added to a kosher mikvah that is lacking the requisite volume of water, they effect the completion of the mikvah and thereby validate it!

A community in Hebrew is called a tzibur.  Our Sages explain that the word tzibur is an acronym for “tzadkim v’beinonim u’reshaim” – very observant people, traditionally observant people and less observant people.  It takes all types to make up a community. 

When we exclude certain people from our community because we feel that they are not worthy, we lose our status as a tzibur.  In other words, we are only a valid tzibur when we are joined by all types.  If we were to exclude any individual due to their behaviour or lifestyle choices, we would be incomplete and thus an invalid community!  

What’s more, our Sages are teaching us that there are always going to be different types of people, some more observant, some less observant; some excelling in certain mitzvot, others excelling in different mitzvot.  Our job is to love every person equally and to be as inclusive as possible.  Otherwise, we are incomplete.

Today I pledge to be as inclusive and tolerant as I can be.  I shall fight for the inclusion of all types in the community, because without all types, I am not part of a true community of G-d.  

Friday, 21 February 2014

Surviving Rough Seas

Sukkah 18

Adel and Josh were distraught.  “Our daughter is seeing a non-Jewish boy. Rabbi, where did we go wrong?” they cried.  I put my arm around Josh’s shoulder and assured them that they had done nothing wrong.  We live in extremely challenging times and even the best families are hit with spiritual misfortune that is beyond our control.  

While there are certainly no guarantees in life, what can we do to stem the tidal wave of anti-spirituality that attempts to envelop us and our families?

Abaye teaches that one may eat a certain species of kosher fish called tzachanta from the Bav river without prior sifting, because non-kosher fish are generally not found in that river.  He explains that the Bav is a saltwater river with a very strong current, making it very difficult for non-kosher fish to survive, since small non-kosher fish have no spine or scales.  Moreover, says the Talmud, the riverbed is too pure an environment for non-kosher fish to thrive.

We live in turbulent times when it is not easy to maintain one’s spiritual connection.  Temptation abounds and materialism calls out to us.  How do we survive in these rough waters?

1. Kosher fish have strong spines.  If we want to remain strong, we must maintain a formidable backbone.  We need to stand straight and tall and be proud of our religious heritage and commitment.  We must strive to command the respect of one who walks into a room with a firm posture, with the self-confidence that we have direction and purpose in life.

2. Kosher fish have scales.  It takes thick skin and an almost impermeable suit of armor to withstand the challenges of the materialistic society that surrounds us.  We must create self-imposed barriers to protect ourselves from temptation.  For some, it might mean internet controls; for others it might mean the way that we dress.

3. Ultimately, says the Talmud, a lot boils down to the environment we create for ourselves and our families. We must choose the right friends, the right community, healthy places of entertainment.  This is the most important ingredient to survival in turbulent times.  The right environment does not just happen; we must work hard to create and maintain such choices.

We live in rough waters where non-kosher fish cannot survive.  These are turbulent times for those who choose to live a life dedicated to a higher calling. 

Today, I pledge to stand proud of my commitment to the Almighty.  I will create barriers against temptation.  And I will find the right environment in which to live and bring up my family.  

Thursday, 20 February 2014

What's worse: misguided spirituality or no spirituality at all?

Sukkah 17
Jamie and Gabe are liberal arts students in one of our local colleges.  I meet them at various Hillel events.  While they’re both lovely people, my relationship with them is very different.  Jamie is pretty apathetic about her Judaism.   She likes going to Jewish events, but is totally uninterested in any theological discussions.  She’s not anti-Judaism, she just doesn’t care. 

Gabe is a completely different story.  I can chat with him for hours on end.  He doesn’t believe in the Divinity of Torah.  He believes that you can be spiritual without mitzvah performance.  “Why would I need to put on physical tefillin to connect with spirituality?” he tells me.  With such strong attitudes contrary to traditional Judaism, is there any hope I could ever sway him?

Law 1. A gap of more than three handsbreadths from the walls of the sukkah to the schach would invalidate the sukkah. 

Law 2. If schach is placed on top of a gap in the ceiling of a house, it becomes a valid sukkah, as long as the distance between the walls and the schach does not exceed four arms-lengths (approx. 6’).

Essentially, these are the same two laws.  The schach is in the middle of the roof.  In the first law, there is air between the walls and the schach.  In the second, there is ceiling.  Why does the second law allow for a greater gap between the walls and the schach?

On a technical level, the answer is that we view the ceiling as part of the wall.  Thus, the wall is now “bent” at ninety degrees, culminating in the opening upon which the schach is placed.

On a deeper level, however, the Talmud is teaching us that something is better than nothing.  The ceiling, while not kosher as schach, is at least serving the purpose of covering.  The air-gap serves no purpose whatsoever.  So although it is much smaller, it is completely invalid.

When we meet people who are completely disengaged with their spiritual side, it is a much greater challenge to convince them to fill the void in their lives.  They don’t feel like their missing anything. 
Other people we encounter, who are in touch with their spirituality, look up and they feel that they are covered.  These people we can educate and instruct that what they perceive as spiritual cover is wanting and we can guide them towards actual schach.

All too often we dismiss people in the second category as misguided.  We think that they’re only interested in serving G-d the wrong way and they are hopeless.  The Talmud teaches us that people that seek cover from above are engaged, they are interested.  We must reach out to them and guide them in their spiritual quest.

Today, I pledge to embrace those who are seeking spirituality.  I shall not dismiss them simply because their spiritual aspirations do not match mine.  I will engage with them in the hope that one day we can stand in the same sukkah and together look up and gaze upon the same cover.   

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The bigger they are, the softer they fall

Sukkah 16

Rick used to be the CEO of a successful mortgage company in town.  Unfortunately with the collapse of the sub-prime market, Rick and his wife Rachel fell upon hard times.  They lost their own home and could no longer afford the day-school tuition for their kids.  “Don’t worry about it,” said the chairman of the school.  “We feel for you, man.  The kids should definitely stay in the school on full scholarship.” 

When I heard this story, I was surprised.  Just a year ago, I had fought to keep the Goldberg kids in the school.  They had been on partial scholarships for a number of years as the parents worked two jobs each to afford their kids a Jewish education.  When Sam Goldberg took ill and could no longer keep up the heavy work schedule, they could no longer afford to pay the partial amount.  The chairman of the board called to tell me that everybody had to pay something and if they couldn’t afford a basic amount, there was no room for these poor children in his school.

Rabbi Ami bar Tavyumi says that one may not cover a sukkah with a worn out piece of cloth.  Abaye explains that Rabbi Ami refers to patches less than the size of three fingerbreadths by three fingerbreadths, a shmatteh that would be useless to rich or poor people.  Even poor people, who might keep pieces of material to patch up their clothes, would not hang on to such small pieces. 

Now that these pieces are no longer useful to anyone, one would assume that they revert to their status of raw materials and would be fit for use for schach to cover the sukkah.  Rabbi Ami teaches us that since they were once part of a garment, they retain their original status as manufactured items and are not fit to be used as schach.

Why does Abaye need to mention that these pieces are useless to rich people?  Obviously if they’re useless to poor people, then how much more so they’d be useless to rich people!

How do we treat successful, rich people who have taken a hit?  We feel bad and we want to be able to help them get back on their feet.   How about their children that are struggling in school or in life?  We invest resources in them to bring them up to speed.  Do we treat people from less well-to-do backgrounds with the same care and attention?   Or do we dismiss them, because after all, how much can we expect from them based on where they’re coming from?

Says Rabbi Ami, if you’re according a worn out cloth of a rich person its original status, then why should you not do the same to a poor person?  After all, every individual, rich or poor, has a very important original status as ‘created in the image of G-d’!

Today, I pledge to treat everyone with the same care and attention.  If someone is suffering or stumbling, it doesn’t matter whether they have fallen from a high place or a low place, I will do whatever I can to lift them up.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Make life happen!

Sukkah 15

“Don’t drop out of university,” I said to Gerri.  “But it’s just too much,” she replied.  “My life is terrible.  I hate my parents.  I’m behind on the rent.   I can never seem to meet the right guy.”  Gerri has been coming to my synagogue office to meet with me for a number of years.  She often turns to the bottle to drown her sorrows.  Why do some people have it made in life and others are stuck in a rut?  It seems almost as if they are destined to live a sorry, difficult life.

If one wants to create a sukkah from a roof made up of wooden planks not yet plastered, he must loosen the planks or remove every other plank.   Why can’t he just leave the ceiling as is?  Thin wooden planks atop a building are, by definition, a sukkah!

The Torah states, “The festival of Sukkot, you shall make for yourselves for seven days,” meaning that we must actually “make” a sukkah, and not that we should merely walk into an already made sukkah.  In order to fulfil the requirement of the mitzvah of Sukkot, we need to actively build a sukkah, not just passively sit in the sukkah.

Many people meander through life passively.  Their lives are simply whatever was made for them.  They were brought up a certain way, for better or for worse.  They might passively accept the silver spoon in their mouths; they might curse their horrible upbringings.  They end up in whatever jobs, whatever relationships.  Their life is whatever it makes of itself.

Sukkot teaches us that we must not have an attitude that our life is ‘made’ for us; we must ‘make’ our lives!  We have the power to determine our success!  We choose our material lot in life.  We choose our spiritual path in life.  We choose our relationships.  We are responsible for making it all happen!

Today, I pledge to take control of my life.  The direction my life will take is not predetermined, it is not already made.  My life is what I make of it.   Even though life, like the sukkah, is fleeting, G-d wants me to build the most beautiful, amazing, awe-inspiring structure on earth.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Prayer - Can we change G-d's mind?

Sukkah 14
Does G-d change His mind?  Can we change G-d’s mind?  When we pray for the healing of an ill person, what are we praying for?

The Torah employs a strange expression to describe the way Yitzchak and Rivkah prayed to G-d for a child.  The Torah says “vaye’etar,” which we translate as “and he prayed.”  When he is answered, the Torah says “vaye’atar,” the passive form of the verb, denoting that G-d was “prayed of.”  The regular word to pray is l’hitpalel.  And if G-d answered the prayers, it should simply have stated vayakshev – and He heeded.   What is this extraordinary word “vaye’etar/vaye’atar”?

Rabbi Elazar relates it to the word “eter” which means a ‘pitchfork’ and explains that “just as a pitchfork turns the grain on the threshing floor over and over from one place to another, so too the prayers of the righteous turn over the attitude of the Almighty from the attribute of toughness to the attribute of mercy.”

We cannot change G-d’s mind.  That’s not what we’re trying to achieve with our prayers.  But sometimes G-d wants us to work a little harder to drawn down His blessing.  Just like the grain on the threshing floor was already there before I used the pitchfork, G-d’s attribute of mercy is ever-present.  At times, though, G-d wants us to pour out our hearts to Him to locate that merciful ‘grain.’   And if you can picture the piercing of the pitchfork, so too must we be prepared to pray with such intensity and meaning that our prayers pierce through the Heavens.

It’s important to point out that we can’t always improve a harsh decree.  In Avram and Sarai’s case, the only hope available to them was to create a new identity in the names of Avraham and Sarah.  Sometimes the decree is completely sealed and no matter how much we pray, there is no revealed attribute of mercy on the threshing floor to find. 

That is why the Torah uses this special expression regarding Yitzchak and Rivkah. In their case, there was hope, there was opportunity.  But G-d wanted to hear their prayers pierce the Heavens.   In Judaism, the pitchfork is not for the devil, it is the most effective tool in each and every one of our arsenals to draw down G-d’s mercy in a revealed manner.

Today, I pledge to pray with my pitchfork.  I shall pour out my heart to G-d with the same intensity with which I would perform tough manual labour.  And then, if there are grains of mercy on the threshing floor, I know that G-d will be “prayed of.”

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Sibling Rivalry

Sukkah 13

George and Samantha were in my office.  “Rabbi, we’re moving shuls.  It’s not that we don’t like you.  We just feel that this congregation is not the right fit for us.  We’re different to most of the others in the shul.”

The Torah instructs us to use the hyssop plant for ritual purification.  The Mishnah in tractate Negaim teaches that we may not use Greek-hyssop, blue-hyssop, desert-hyssop, Roman-hyssop, or any other form of hyphenated hyssop.  The hyssop mandated by the Torah is just hyssop.

Abaye explains that any item whose name was modified with a hyphen prior to the giving of the Torah was excluded from the Divine commandment if the Torah mandates the plain species.  When the Torah says hyssop it wants hyssop, with no strings attached.

Before the Torah was given, we were all Children of Israel, in time becoming known as Jews.  Sadly, many of us feel that we need a hyphen next to ‘Jew.’  We feel the need to define ourselves as ‘Chasidic-Jew’ or ‘Yeshivish-Jew’ or ‘Modern-Orthodox-Jew’ or ‘Open-Orthodox-Jew’ or ‘Lubavitcher-Jew’ or ‘Conservative-Jew’ or ‘Reform-Jew,’ the list goes on and on.

To adhere to a particular philosophy of Judaism is fine – the Talmud is the obvious example of different paths to the Almighty (as long as they are within the boundaries of halacha).  But Abaye says that first and foremost, we must recognize that prior to the giving of the Torah, we were all just Jews.  Therefore we must validate and love every single Jewish person, independent of the hyphen. 

That means praying together, celebrating together, and working together to create a large, broad and diverse community for all.  Our Sages tell us, “The glory of the King is in a multitude of people.”  G-d doesn’t want us shteibelize ourselves into tiny communities that don’t associate with one another; G-d wants us to celebrate our diversity as a single Jewish people, altogether under one roof.

Today, I pledge to love every Jew.  We are all brothers and sisters who stood “as one person with one heart” at the foot of Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah.  The hyphens that came much later are really not all that important to G-d.  What’s important is that all of his children love one another, despite our different tastes in music or clothing style. 

Saturday, 15 February 2014

In the future everyone will be world-famous for fifteen minutes

Sukkah 12

Look around you!  How many people are as smart as you?  Are part of your social milieu?  As cool as you?  Many of us are tempted to dismiss most people around us as irrelevant to our lives.  That’s a big mistake.

The Mishnah teaches that in order for schach to be valid, it must be a raw material that grows from the ground.  The Gemara offers a number of reasons for the Mishnah’s stipulation, one of which is Scriptural.  After beginning the construction of the Second Temple, Nehemiah gathers the people together in order to ascertain family lineage, including which kohanim are fit to serve in the Temple.  Subsequently, he reads from the Torah that Ezra the Scribe wrote and the people burst out weeping.

Nehemiah comforts them and tells them that today, Rosh Hashanah, is a day of joy, not a day to weep.  He then teaches them about the festival of Sukkot and instructs them to bring “myrtle leaves. . . and leaves of the braided tree.”  The Gemara is perplexed by this instruction, since the myrtle leaves are from the braided tree, i.e. they are the same thing!  Rav Chisda explains that the first reference was to irregular myrtles that are invalid for the mitzvah of the lulav.  Such myrtles should be used as schach for the sukkah.  The second reference was to kosher myrtles that were to serve the purpose of hadasim on the lulav.

Nehemiah’s expression of empathy powerfully comforted the people.  Nehemiah said to them, ‘I know you feel crushed at this moment.  Many of you feel that your families have been disqualified because you can’t prove your lineage.  In addition, I have read the Torah to you and you feel overwhelmed and unworthy.  But I want you to know that every person has an important role to play in this world.  If you can’t be a myrtle for the lulav, you can still be a myrtle for the sukkah.’

Pirkei Avot teaches us to treat everyone with the utmost respect, “for there is no man who has no time.”  Every individual has a special mission and purpose in this world.  If not, G-d would not have created him.  It is our job to respect every person and bring out the best in them.  We must help them discover their special mission.  In an army, different troops play different roles.  But the general is useless without the privates. 

Today I pledge to treat everyone with respect and endeavour to discover the unique talents and gifts that the Almighty has bestowed upon every individual, great and small.

Friday, 14 February 2014

Women and Tefillin

Sukkah 11

Recently, two Orthodox Jewish day-schools, SAR in Riverdale and RaMaZ in Manhattan have begun to allow girls to wear tefillin for the daily shacharit service.   Are Orthodox girls permitted to wear tefillin?  Can we still call them Orthodox?  Can we still consider the school Orthodox? 

Rabbi Amram the Pious was once making tzitzis for his wife’s tallis.  Instead of looping the four strings through the hole, he took one long string and doubled it over back and forth, intending to cut off the ends.  But he went ahead and made the tzitzis, forgetting to cut the strings.   He went to Rabbi Chiya bar Ashi and asked him what to do.  The elder rabbi replied: No problem.  According to Rav, you can just cut off the ends and that makes the tzitzis kosher.  You have fulfilled the requirement of “and they shall make them.”

Why was he making his wife a tallis?  Since when do Orthodox women wear a tallis?  

Tosfos explains that Rabbi Shimon maintains that since the verse states “and you shall see it,” one is only obligated to wear tzitzis during the day, when they are clearly visible.  Since we are not obligated to wear tzitzis at night, it falls into the category of “positive time-bound” mitzvos, from which women are exempt.  

The other rabbis aver, however, that “and you shall see it” absolves blind people from the mitzvah, and there is no difference between day and night.  Thus, if the mitzvah of tzitzis is binding all hours of the day and night, then it is not a time-bound mitzvah and ergo, women are obligated to wear a tallis!

Today, the halacha accords with Rabbi Shimon.   But notwithstanding the current accepted practice, clearly in the days of the Talmud before the High Court made its final decision, it was normal for women to wear tzitzis.  When Rabbi Amram comes to Rabbi Chiya, he doesn’t say, “Why are you making a tallis for your wife?”  He encourages him to complete the mitzvah for her!

Did Rabbi Chiya’s wife wear a tallis?  Probably not.  But he respected Rabbi and Rebbetzin Amram’s choice.  This scene depicts one of the most beautiful features of the Talmudic era.  Throughout the Talmud, our Sages are constantly debating the halacha and undoubtedly each one practices according to the way he understood the law.  Did he say, “I’m not talking to you unless you share my opinion?”  Absolutely not.  Did he say, “You’re not Orthodox if your wife wears a tallis?”  Resoundingly au contraire. 

May a woman today wear a tallis?  Yes, she could.  Although women are exempt from time-bound positive commandments, they may still choose to perform any mitzvah and of course, receive spiritual reward.   Women do many such mitzvos, including shofar, lulav, and megillah.  Nevertheless, since women generally did not take the mitzvah of tzitzis upon themselves, our Sages instructed that a woman who wishes to wear a tallis should do so privately, so as not to seem that she is acting holier than every other woman.

How about tefillin?  Tefillin a little more legally complicated and in fact, for various reasons, our Sages actively discourage women from wearing tefillin.  What if a woman chose to wear tefillin, could she still be Orthodox?  What if a school allowed girls to put on tefillin, instead of forcing them to have to look elsewhere to fulfil their spiritual yearnings, is the school still Orthodox?

There are a number of wise rabbis today, including Rabbi Haskel Lookstein, who permit girls and women to wear tefillin if that’s what their heart and soul is telling them to do.  Is it widely accepted in the Orthodox community?  No, it isn’t.  But, instead of castigating these girls, women, schools and rabbis, let’s ask ourselves, ‘how would the rabbis of the Talmud have dealt with differing practices?’  Would they have excluded these well-intentioned souls who are doing a mitzvah that is merely contemporarily discouraged?  Would they have said, “You’re not Orthodox”?  I highly doubt it.   The rabbis of the Talmud were very comfortable with a large tent of Orthodoxy where different customs and practices were tolerated and encouraged.

Before we jump to write major segments of our community out of Orthodoxy, let us stop and think how our Sages felt about various approaches to halachic practice.  Certainly, if someone is suggesting the sanctioning of behaviour that is beyond the pale of halacha, that is unacceptable.  But if there is room in the halachic tent, if a certain practice is not forbidden, even if it is in fact a ‘discouraged’ practice, we must be tolerant of and defend vigorously each rabbi’s and principal’s responsibility to make the right halachic decision for his shul and school community. 

Let us strive to do our very best to encourage people to be part of a tolerant, vibrant Orthodox Judaism, even if we don’t agree with every halachic position every rabbi may take.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Build me up, buttercup baby!

Sukkah 10

“Why doesn’t anyone listen to me?” asked Shirley, a member of our sisterhood special projects committee.  Shirley has been involved for many years with the sisterhood but feels that if things continue down the road that they’re going on, she’ll have had enough.  She tells me that she’s fed up with trying to get people to do things and she thinks it’s time to call it a day.   “If they would only listen to my critiques, they might start doing things right!”  Why is nobody paying much attention to Shirley and why will she eventually get burned out of communal volunteer work?

A double-decker sukkah is not valid unless the space between the top storey and the bottom storey is minimal?  How small is minimal?  Rav Huna says a handsbreadth.   Rav Chisda and Rabbah bar Rav Huna say four handsbreadths.  Shmuel says ten.  Why?  Ten tefachim (handsbreadths) is the minimum height required to build a valid sukkah.  Explains Shmuel: If that’s the amount required to validate a sukkah, it should likewise be the amount to invalidate a sukkah.

Some people invalidate others over trivial matters – they are swift to pass judgment and look upon others unfavourably.  Strangely, when it comes to giving people the benefit of the doubt – validating them – they are suddenly reticent.  They find all sorts of excuses to assume the worst in people.  Shmuel explains that this double-standard is unacceptable.  According to Shmuel, we must validate people at least to the extent that we’re prepared to invalidate them! 

In fact, our degree to which we view others favourably should be much greater than the degree to which we judge them unfavourably.  We must ALWAYS give people the benefit of the doubt.  When it comes to criticizing, our words fall on deaf ears unless we are known to be quick to praise, commend, and thank people for their positive behaviour and actions.

The need to be overwhelmingly positive applies throughout our lives – the way to talk to our kids, our spouses, our friends, our colleagues.  We should always look for nice things to say, to validate others, to make them feel great.   Only then do have we earned the right to criticize on a very rare occasion when absolutely necessary.

Every kind word is a mitzvah.   Let’s capitalize on the opportunities to build people up!

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Do I really need G-d to tell me to wash my hands before eating?

Sukkah 9

Joe is a proud Jew.  He comes to shul every Shabbos and enjoys davening.  He does Friday night with his family and loves the festivals.   But there’s one thing about Judaism that has always bothered him.   “Rabbi, I’m a good person with a good heart,” he tells me, “I don’t need the Torah to tell me to give charity.  I would give generously anyway.  And do you think that it’s going to change anything for my stingy neighbor, Jack, the fact that the Torah obligates him to give?  Either he will or he won’t!  What’s the point of having charity as a mitzvah?  G-d should’ve stuck to the religious stuff like Shabbos and kosher!”

The Mishnah asks: Do you need to build a sukkah for the sake of the festival of Sukkot?  What if you had a year-round pergola covered by branches that was technically valid as a sukkah, could you fulfil the mitzvah in it?  Beis Hillel says: no problem.  But according to Beis Shammai, it wouldn’t work.  Why not?

The Gemara discusses Scriptural nuances that might preclude a preexisting sukkah.  Tosfos  adds that there is a practical concern.  The Jerusalem Talmud has a similar discussion about the sukkah and continues on to the topic of matzah that was not baked for the sake of the festival. 

Ever wondered about that matzah you find in the store that says “Not Kosher for Passover”?  What’s the deal with that?  How can it be matzah if it is not kosher for Passover?   Rebbe explains that since it was manufactured for year-round consumption, you can be pretty certain that the bakers didn’t really pay much attention to keeping it leaven-free.

There’s matzah and there’s matzah.  There are sukkahs and there are sukkahs.  Rebbe’s point is that if we’re doing something without any obligation, without any consequences, then we’re not concerned about being lax or cutting corners.  After all, there are no negative implications to leaving that matzah in the oven for an extra minute or two, or having the sukkah wall blow in the wind.  There’s no mitzvah to eat matzah or sit in the sukkah anyway in July!

The same thing goes even for mitzvot between man and our fellow man, like tzedakah.  If we weren’t obligated to tithe our charity dollars, we might give five or six or eight and a half percent of our earnings.  Who knows?  Who’s keeping count?  But if we’re obligated to give ten percent, then we must scrutinize our charitable ledger with a much keener eye.  Now it’s no longer ‘charity’, it’s a ‘tax’ that I’m obligated to give.  Just like we wouldn’t cheat on our taxes and we scrupulously calculate every penny, so must we take our tzedakah dollars seriously.

And likewise with many other mitzvot that we might do ‘anyway’.  We all wash our hands before eating.  But sometimes, kids just dip their fingers under the faucet for half a second.  Is that called washing?  Once we are obligated to do the ‘netilat yadayim’, we take much greater care to wash the entire hand and then do it again!  And so on and so forth. 

Many of the mitzvot we can figure out reasons for, many of them we can’t.  But even those that we can, we are so blessed that the Torah has commanded us to take extra care to make sure that we do them properly!

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

The Spirit of the Mitzvot

Sukkah 8

If I get all the details of a mitzvah right, but I don’t know why I’m doing it and I’m not really thinking about G-d, does it still count?

Rabbi Levi quotes Rabbi Meir who discusses a tradesperson has a year-round outdoor shop that is designed as a double sukkah, one inside another.  In the inner sukkah, he eats and sleeps; in the outer, he sells his wares.  The inner structure, although technically possessing the requirements of a sukkah, would not be valid for the purposes of the mitzvah on Sukkot.  Why not?

On Sukkot, we live outside demonstrating our faith in the Almighty’s protection.  If we live outside in the sukkah year-round, we have not demonstrated anything by spending the week in the same sukkah.  Although I may have fulfilled all the technical halachic specifications of the mitzvah, I have missed the spirit of the mitzvah and have not fulfilled my obligation.  Ultimately, I have missed the point.

Many of us get so bogged down in the details of halacha that we forget what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.  Some of us even forget that we’re serving G-d – we are so self-absorbed with the details.  This doesn’t mean that we don’t have to do the mitzvot the right way according to halacha, of course we do!  But we must always be acutely aware of the greater picture – why we’re doing the mitzvah and Whom we are serving.

The mitzvot were given to us as a media to connect with the Almighty.  Every detail of halacha foments that relationship.  Let’s never lose sight of the forest for the trees.

Monday, 10 February 2014

If G-d will provide, why bother working?

Sukkah 7

Why do I need to go to work?  If G-d will provide, let me sit at home with my feet up eating chocolate!

The Torah instructs us to live in the sukkah for seven days.  Living implies that the sukkah must be a semi-permanent structure.  If it is too flimsy, it does not qualify.  If it is round it does not qualify.  Why not?

The Holy Temple and its structures such as the Altar must be squared at the edges, not rounded.  Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch explains that things in nature are round.  Think about pebbles or tree trunks.  

Man can create objects with corners.  The fashioning of cornered objects demonstrates our dominion over nature.  When we make the Temple items squared, we utilize our unique ability to elevate nature and transform it into spirituality. 

When we build our houses, we build them with corners, representing our unique power and dominion over nature.  Likewise, when we build our sukkot, they must demonstrate our ability to transform this world.   The sukkah demonstrates our trust in the Almighty that He will protect us in the elements.  But we must make our effort. 

With any blessing that comes from G-d, if we do not do our part to create a receptacle for His blessing, we have no way to receive the blessing.  We can pray all day for sustenance, but if we are not prepared to go out and work, we cannot receive Divine assistance.  

If we were to simply go out and sleep under the stars, we would lack the receptacle for G-d’s shelter.  We need to make our effort by building a sukkah and showing that we are prepared to transform this world and make it a dwelling place for the Holy One blessed be He.

G-d wants to protect us.  He wants to bless us.  He wants to bestow His bounty upon us.  But we must make an effort, an hishtadlus, to create a vessel to receive His blessing.  Going out to work, building a semi-permanent structure for the sukkah demonstrates our commitment to transforming nature.  When we are committed to transforming nature, G-d is committed to infusing us with the Divine energy to make it happen. 

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Who cares about an olive? Understanding the kezayit measure

Sukkah 6

The Land of Israel is like no other land in the world.

The minimum amount of food consumption that is considered eating in order to necessitate the after-blessing is a kezayit – the volume of an olive.   We find this quantity throughout Jewish law.  But have you ever stopped to wonder: what’s the big deal about a little olive?

Every region in the world yields unique native plants and fruit.  There are Florida oranges, Nappa Valley grapes, papaya from Mexico, kiwifruit from China.  The Land of Israel is blessed with seven species: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates.   The species of Israel, however, are like no other.  Most species are arbitrarily placed throughout the world.  The seven fruits of Israel have deep meaning.

Each of the seven species plays an important role in Jewish law.   The grapes are vital for the law of the nazir, who vowed to abstain from wine.  The wheat, barley and pomegranate define certain amounts and specifications that would render one ritually impure.   The fig defines the minimum amount that would make one liable for carrying in the public domain on Shabbat.  A date’s amount is the volume of food that would remove one’s hunger on Yom Kippur.  And our old favourite, the kezayit or olive’s volume, is used extensively throughout Jewish law.

At first glance, it might appear that these legal amounts were arbitrarily pinned on these fruits because they are native to the Land of Israel.  But we know that’s not the case.  The Talmud explains that the kezayit is the basic amount that a person would generally eat and call it more than just a snack.  And the Talmud similarly explains that the date amount would remove one’s physical hunger.  So we see that these fruits possess an incredible quality – they match up with our natural human biology! 

For this reason, the Torah says that all other lands are blessed through the Land of Israel.  The Holy Land possesses a deep significance that ties the physical biology of human beings to the natural order; and if we merit, to spirituality.    One who eats of the fruits of the Land of Israel is nourished in a profound physical and spiritual manner.

Today, I rededicate myself to the Land of Israel.  I will support the Holy Land.  I will eat of its holy fruits.  And I shall pray for the day that I can dwell on its holy soil and breathe its holy air. 

Saturday, 8 February 2014

The Struggle at the End of Days

Sukkah 5

True or False?  When Mashiach comes, it will mark the end of our spiritual struggle.  Everyone will do the right thing all the time.  False.

King David writes in Psalms, “The Heavens are the Heavens of G-d and the Earth was given to humankind.”  Explains Rabbi Yossi: The Divine Presence (the Shechina) never descended into this physical world, nor did [any mortal, including] Moshe and Eliyahu ever ascend to Heaven. 

Asks the Talmud, G-d never descended into this world?  How about when He gave the Torah?  No, says the Talmud.  G-d descended but not all the way.

How about when Mashiach comes, when Zachariah prophesied “On that day, His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives?” No, says the Talmud.  Even then, He will descend, but not all the way.

Continues the Talmud to inquire about human beings never ascending.  How about when Moshe went up to receive the Torah?  No, says the Talmud.  He ascended, but not all the way.

How about when Eliyahu went up in a fiery chariot?  No, says the Talmud.   He ascended, but not all the way.

King David is teaching us that there are some questions that must remain in G-d’s hands and some decisions that must remain in our human hands.   The great question of theodicy, why bad things happen to good people, even Moshe could not comprehend.  Even Eliyahu, who ascended to Heaven and remained in the spiritual realm, is still not a heavenly being.   He too cannot understand the ways of G-d.   It may be true that he sees and comprehends more than we do, as the story of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi who once accompanied Eliyahu on his travels demonstrates, but he is still a human being and cannot know G-d’s ways.

Similarly, G-d has given the earth to humankind.  He has given us the great gift of free choice.  He allows us to determine the path of our life.  Even when He gave the Torah, He instructed us as to the good path and the bad path, but left it up to us to choose.  And while many people believe that in the messianic era, everyone will choose the right path, Rabbi Yossi explains that even then G-d will not completely descend into this world.  The only difference between the present time and the messianic era, says Maimonides, is that in the future we will not be disturbed by the nations of the world.  We will live in peace, hopefully to make the right choices in life and become more spiritual beings.

But as spiritual as we become, mortal human beings can never enter the Heavenly Kingdom.  Life on earth is about being challenged and choosing to overcome our earthly desires. 

Friday, 7 February 2014

Feelgood Religion

Sukkah 4

Why is religion so strict?  Shouldn’t spirituality make me feel good?

The sukkah must not be taller than twenty amos (approx. 30’).  What if you were to pour a sizeable amount of dirt onto the floor of the sukkah, thereby raising the floor level and effectively reducing the distance between the floor and the ceiling (schach) to less than twenty amos?  The Gemara says that would validate the sukkah. 

What if instead you padded the floor with cushions and blankets to reduce the distance to the requisite height?  That, says the Gemara, would not work.  Why not?

Our mission in this world is to connect heaven and earth.  Every time we do a mitzvah, we elevate this physical world and make it more spiritual.  As a practical visible example, I can take a piece of cowhide and fashion a Torah scroll from it. 

Connecting this physical world with the spiritual worlds above is not a simple task and we toil a lifetime to achieve this sacred task.  We face many challenges, mitzvos are not a walk in the park – our job is to overcome those challenges and achieve success in our Divine mission. 

Sadly, there are some who believe that religion and spirituality are all about comfort.  They take cushions and blankets and pad the surface in an effort to reach spirituality.  But the Talmud warns us that this doesn’t work.  Spiritual aspiration and transformation is an arduous task that requires self-sacrifice and dedication. 

It’s not about being comfortable.  It’s about getting one’s hands and feet dirty – being prepared to work hard to break free of the constraints of this physical world in order to make this world a home for G-d.  

Thursday, 6 February 2014

G-d's Diner

Sukkah 3

Today, I eat from G-d’s table.

What is the minimum size of a sukkah?  Beis Hillel says that one must be able to insert one’s head and most of one’s body, so that one can eat in the sukkah.  According to Bais Shammai, one must be able to also include the table that one is eating from. 

Why does Bais Shammai care about the table?  The table is not doing the mitzvah, the human being is doing the mitzvah and if he is in the sukkah, who cares about the table?  Says Bais Shammai: Perhaps he will be “drawn after his table”.

One week a year, we leave the luxury of our homes and venture out into the sukkah where we remember that this physical life is temporary and fleeting.  The experience refocuses us on our spiritual priorities and reminds us of our purpose and direction in life.

We are required to ‘live’ in the sukkah.  We bring in our tables, chairs, beds, whatever we need to survive for a week outside the house.  The table outside is completely in G-d’s hands – it demonstrates our complete faith that the Almighty provides our sustenance.  We often forget where our bread is buttered – we believe that it is our hard work and smarts that got us life’s luxuries. 

When we eat in the sukkah but our table is still inside the house, Bais Shammai is concerned that one will be “drawn after the table”. In other words, while he is physically eating in the sukkah, he still maintains his inside mindset – that he created all this material wealth and soon he’ll be back inside enjoying all the fruits of his success.  Thus, leaving the table in the house misses the point of Sukkot.

Sukkot is an annual reminder of our Divine protection and sustenance.  Every time we sit down at the table, let’s remind ourselves that the Almighty has provided all of our material prosperity.  Let’s remember that ultimately we are eating from G-d’s table, His Altar, and not be “drawn after our table”.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Take your tongue out of the gutter

Sukkah 2

What’s my level of language?

The Mishnah states that a sukkah taller than twenty amos (approx. 30’) is “invalid”.  The Gemara compares this to another mishnah that talks about a ‘mavoi.’  A mavoi is like a condo complex or cul-de-sac with a number of houses that open to a common street.  While strictly speaking one could carry on Shabbat in this semi-private area, the rabbis decreed that the residents should place a beam at the front opening in order to remind them that this is not a public thoroughfare.  This beam, says the mishnah, may not be placed higher than twenty amos, because it would be less noticeable.  Therefore, if it was higher, it “should be lowered”.

The Talmud asks: Why in the case of the sukkah does it say “invalid”, but in the case of mavoi, does it say “should be lowered”?  And the Talmud answers:  The mitzvah of sukkah is biblical, whereas the mitzvah of mavoi is rabbinic.

Tosfos explains: If the mishnah had written that the sukkah ‘should be lowered’, I might have thought that it ‘should’ be fixed, but if I didn’t fix it, it would still be okay.  Therefore, since we’re dealing with a biblical commandment, the mishnah needed to make sure that it was unambiguously clear, employing the strident term “invalid”.  Whereas in the case of the mavoi, due to the lesser infraction, the mishnah was not as concerned, and employed a gentler term.

This choice of language is discussed in Tractate Pesachim where we are taught that one should always endeavour to use the nicest language possible.  For example, the Torah does not even refer to tamey (non-kosher) animals as such.  Rather, the Torah calls them “animals that not pure”.

Today I shall stop and think about every word that comes out of my mouth.  If the Torah is worried about using the word ‘non-kosher’ and the Mishnah is concerned about employing a term like ‘invalid’, then how careful must I be about the language that I use? 

We are children of G-d, the King of Kings.  Does the way that we talk reflect our royal, godly status?  Are we true ambassadors of the Almighty?

Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Hubby won't keep Shabbos!

Yoma 88

What do I do if my spouse doesn’t want to be as religiously observant as me?

If one had the name of G-d inscribed on his body, he may not bathe, nor smear lotions on his body, nor stand in an unclean place; for doing so would be a desecration of the Holy Name.  What if a woman needed to ritually immerse herself?  The definite mitzvah of mikvah would override the potential concern that perhaps the Name may be erased. 

What if the current in the body of water was particularly strong and the chance that the Name would be erased was more probable?  The Tanna Kamma says that she should find a piece of reed and tie it around the Name, just enough to protect it from the current, but not too tight that it would become a chatzitzah, an obstacle to complete immersion.   Rabbi Yossi disagrees.  One should immerse immediately without taking time to look for a reed as that would delay the performance of the mitzvah, and it is vital that one not delay the mikvah immersion.

Thus, according to Rabbi Yossi, the timely immersion in the mikvah is more important than the sanctity of G-d’s Name!  This is an instance in the Talmud where G-d says, ‘Let My Name be erased for the sake of shalom bayit [peace in the home].’   The Almighty would rather see His Name be erased in the mikvah waters than have the physical reunification of husband and wife delayed even momentarily, so great is His regard for shalom bayit, the peace between husband and wife.

Imagine the conversation at home.  “Honey, I can’t go to the mikvah tonight. I wrote G-d’s name on my arm and I need to first find a piece of reed.”  Hashem doesn’t want to be the cause of friction between husband and wife.  Marriage is fraught with enough tension without G-d being part of the problem.

If G-d cares so much about shalom bayit, think how far we must go to promote peace and tranquility between wives and husbands.  Certainly, in my own marriage, I need to be extremely careful never to place Hashem in between myself and my spouse.  My religiosity shouldn’t be a cause of friction with my spouse.  The ultimate blessing that G-d desires is strong, healthy marriages.  In many instances, He is even willing to put His own honour to the side to help the cause.   

I must be passionate about my spiritual yearnings, but never at the expense of the covenant to which I have bound myself, with my spouse, my children and Hashem, the guarantor of all relationships. 

Monday, 3 February 2014

Begging for Forgiveness

Yoma 87

How far must I go to appease someone whom I have wronged?

King Solomon writes in Proverbs, “If you have become ensnared by the words of your mouth, behold do this my son and you shall be saved.  Because you have come into your fellow’s hand, go and humiliate yourself and treat him like a ruler.”

Rabbi Yitzchak says that one who aggrieves one’s friend even with words, must appease him.   The Talmud tells of Rabbi Yirmiyah that stood outside Rabbi Abba’s home to appease him for having wronged him.  While waiting there, the maid threw out the trash, which splashed onto the rabbi, thereby fulfilling this dictum of going so far as to become humiliated in an effort to appease one’s friend.

If one fails to appease on one’s own, Rabbi Yitzchak says that one must bring his friends along to convince the hurt party to forgive.  Nevertheless, if one has truly done one’s best to make peace by trying on three separate occasions, one no longer bears the burden of guilt.

We see how far one must go to right a wrong for offending another human being even with mere words!  Let’s strive to avoid offending anyone, but if we do, let us do our utmost to make amends, even if it means we must put aside our own honour in the process.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

First Nature vs. Second Nature

Yoma 86

"But it's my nature.  I can't change my nature!"

“As a dog returns to its vomit, so does a fool repeat his indiscretions,” writes King Solomon in Proverbs.  Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov interprets this verse according to the teaching of Rav Huna.   Rav Huna says that when an individual commits a sin repeatedly, it becomes permissible to him.  In other words, this dog that returns to its vomit to consume it, even though it knows that its body has rejected it, craves the material so much that it is no longer disgusted by it.   Similarly, one who repeats his indiscretions craves the sin so badly, that he is no longer disgusted by it.

We all have bad habits.  For some of us it may be outright sin, for others it might be smoking or excessive eating, for others it might be chronic tardiness or procrastination.   If we can think back to when we began our indiscretion, we were probably quite bothered with our actions.  Over time, however, we began to justify our behaviour to ourselves. 

The first time we do something we shouldn’t, we feel terrible.  The second time, we still feel bad, but nowhere near as disconcerted.  By the third time, I can live with myself and by the fourth time it becomes a mitzvah!  The Talmud comments on the verse in Amos “So says Hashem, for the three sins of Israel [I can bear], but for the fourth, I shall not return him,” that G-d can forgive us for sinning once, twice, three times.  But after sinning four times, He can no longer pardon us.

Why can He not pardon us for sinning a fourth time?  Is He not an all-forgiving G-d?  The answer is that He certainly could forgive us, but after an indiscretion has become so habitual that we have committed it four times, are we prepared to break our bad habit and recognize that this is unacceptable behaviour?  As long as we are comfortable with our bad habits, how can we expect G-d to look the other way?

Today, let me take a good look at what I’m doing and ask myself: Have I become so used to some of the things that I do that while I might once have felt my behaviour inappropriate, I now justify my bad habits?  It’s time to reconsider what I’m doing and break free from some of my unnatural, but naturalized second nature.