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Monday, 31 March 2014

The Life Yomi Pledge

The Life Yomi Pledge: If you learn the Life Yomi and share it with one other friend each day, I will make you an equal partner in my merit of learning the entire Daf each day.
(I know this sounds a little complicated, but I explain below!)

Mazal tov!  We have just completed our first entire tractate of Life Yomi together! 

I want to take this opportunity to thank you all for making Life Yomi a reality!   Every day I wake up and see the hundreds of people who have taken the time to make Life Yomi part of your life, I am inspired to learn the Daf and invest time and energy into this wonderful project!  

I want to say a special thank you, firstly to my wife, Rabbanit Batya Friedman, for pushing me to learn every day and encouraging the Life Yomi series!  And secondly to my chavrusa, Rabbi Jonathan Gross, for urging me to publish my thoughts online and then for being the greatest promoter of Life Yomi!

Praise for Life Yomi:

My deep gratitude to you knows no bounds. About a week ago, you sent me a link to your Life Yomi insight on the Gemara on מח  regarding simcha and sasson. You were right in your assumption that I would like what you said. It was a fantab insight and I spoke this morning for our daf yomi siyum of Sukkah, and I anchored my drasha on your vort. Therefore, not just on behalf of myself, but on behalf of others, I thank you profoundly. 
Rabbi Hanoch Teller, Jerusalem

What a gratifying project! I wish you continued hatzlacha and am looking forward to going through Shas with you.
Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld, Isralight, Los Angeles

The Life Yomi Pledge:  Many of you have asked if you can really consider yourself to be part of the Daf Yomi movement.  After all, you’ve only learned part of the Daf each day.   So here’s my pledge:
If you learn the Life Yomi and share it with one other friend each day, I will make you an equal partner in my merit of learning the entire Daf each day.
That means that all you have to do is share the daily Life Yomi teaching with one other person via email, Facebook, Twitter or Google Plus.  In return, I promise to share with you my spiritual reward for learning the entire Daf.   And so when you get to the end of a tractate or at the end of the entire seven-year cycle, you can celebrate the completion of the Talmud with the confidence of knowing that you earned it with your daily efforts!

Free dedication opportunities:  Normally, when you’re asked to dedicate a piece of learning in honour of a birthday, anniversary or yortzeit, you are asked to pull out your wallet.  Not Life Yomi!  If you wish to dedicate a day of the Life Yomi, all you need to do is pledge to send the teaching (either that day’s Life Yomi or another one that speaks to you) to eighteen (chai) people!    And in return for sharing the Life Yomi, all of the merit of those who have learned the Life Yomi that day will accrue to you or your loved one!   You don’t have to provide the names, I trust you.  Just email me and let me know which day you’d like to dedicate and for which occasion.  

A bird in the hand isn't always worth two in the bush

Sukkah 56

“Adam wants to drop out of school.  Rabbi, could you talk some sense into him?”  Jay had brought his teenage son to see me to talk about his future.
“How are you doing in school, Adam?” I inquired, “Are your marks okay?”
“Yes, I’m doing well.  I just feel that school’s a waste of time.  The economy is great here in Alberta.  I could be making a good wage already.  Why should I bother finishing my studies?”

The kohanim were subdivided into twenty-four groups of families.  Each group would serve in the Holy Temple for a period of one week.  At the end of the twenty-four week cycle, the first group would be back on to serve and the cycle would begin anew.  Service, of course, meant not only offering the sacrifices, but partaking of them as well.    

Since the changeover of shift took place over the weekend, both the outgoing and incoming groups were present over Shabbos.  Therefore they would split the rights to the weekly lechem hapanim ­– the showbread, each group receiving six out of the twelve loaves. 

According to Rabbi Yehuda, the outgoing group would only receive five loaves, while the incoming group would get seven.  Rabbi Yitzchak asserts that this bonus was compensation for closing the gates that had been opened that morning by the former group.

What kind of a bonus is that?  At the end of the week, they ended up with the same total number of loaves!  Whether they get seven now and five later or six now and six later, it’s ‘six of one, half a dozen of the other!’

Abaye offers a psychological explanation for the rationale.  “A small squash [now] is better than a large squash [later].”   Rashi elucidates this “simpleton’s metaphor.”  If your friend offers you a small unripe squash now or the choice to take it next month when it ripens, most people will opt to take it now, for fear that your buddy might change his mind in the future.  And thus, the kohanim would rather take seven loaves this week and five next week, because the immediate gratification is compelling.

Rashi calls it a “simpleton’s metaphor,” because wise people understand that delaying gratification generally leads to greater pleasure in the future.  Yes, they might have seven loaves today, which are more than enough to go around.  But next week, they’ll only have five and they’ll have to ration their portions.  Yes, I get a squash today, but if I can withstand the temptation for immediate gratification, I should end up with a much bigger, riper, juicier squash next month.

Wise people invest time and money into attaining a solid education.  Yes, you could start working at fourteen, but if you stay in school and go on to university, then chances are you will end up with a much healthier salary in the future.

And if this is true for material reward, then how much more so for spiritual reward!  This world offers us no shortage of temptation to satisfy ourselves immediately with worldly gratification.  But the Almighty promises us that if we withstand earthly temptation and seek spiritual pursuits, the ultimate reward in the World to Come will be so much greater than we could ever imagine!

You are not a simpleton.  You could be reading anything right now.  You have chosen to read this because you are wise and you value spiritual growth.  Don’t settle for a small squash!  You deserve the most tremendous award-winning pumpkin ever imagined!  If you could picture all of the pleasure of a lifetime packed into a room, that wouldn’t hold a candle to the pleasure destined for you in the World to Come.  Every time you resist the temptations of this world that deferred reward just gets bigger and bigger.  B’teavon!

Is there any other religion as fun as Judaism?

Sukkah 55

“Honey, have the kids got their costumes ready?” Bill asked Jenny, eagerly anticipating his favourite festival, Purim.
“Yes.  Jimmy is dressing up Batman and Sally is Aurora.  How about you, Bill, are you dressing up?”
“Still trying to decide,” replied Bill.
“Well, we’d better be on our way.  We’re going to miss the Megilla!” Jenny called down the hall.
“Oh, come on,” Bill responded exasperatedly, “we don’t have to get there right at the beginning and sit through all the boring stuff.  I don’t think they start with the Hamans until chapter three or something.  The kids will go out of their minds, they won’t sit still.   We’ll make it in time for the fun part!”

On each of the intermediate days of Sukkot a different chapter of Psalms was recited together with the musaf offering.  Each of these was carefully chosen as a means to effect reflection and introspection on the part of the people.  On the second day, they would chant Psalms 50, “And to the wicked, G-d said: Why do you teach My laws and carry My covenant upon your mouth? For you despise discipline and throw My words away!”

Rashi explains that the Psalm was directed at those who came to the Temple for the party without making the proper spiritual preparations.  Sure, the Simchas Beis HaShoeivah – the Water-Drawing Festival – was the most joyous occasion on the Jewish calendar, but in order to truly appreciate it, one had to assume the right spiritual state of being. 

Otherwise, what differentiated the festival from any other contemporary pagan festival?  They drink, we drink.  They eat, we eat.  They sing and dance, we sing and dance.  It was only with the right spiritual and psychological preparation that one would have a truly uplifting, meaningful experience.  The recitation of the Psalm was a final reminder to those who had not prepared themselves to reflect upon the holiness of the moment.

Many people adhere to religion today because it’s fun and enjoyable.  Some megachurches have mastered the art of making services into a rock concert.  And sadly, many synagogues are following suit.  Who wouldn’t want to go to a free, weekly rock concert?  Similarly, many families and communities celebrate Chanukah and Purim as the highlight of the year.  What a wonderful feel-good Judaism!

Unfortunately, that misses the point.  Judaism is not about fun and games.  It’s about developing in ourselves and our children a deep and meaningful connection with the Almighty.  Just showing up to the party isn’t going to cut it, because there are a lot of parties out there that one could attend.  We eat, they eat.  We drink, they drink.  If that’s all it’s about, then why choose our religion?  Why do Chanukah, when one could just as well do Christmas?  If the Purim Megilla is just about waving a gragger when Haman’s name is read, haven’t we lost our bearing?

Judaism contains much celebration and joy.  But in order to fully appreciate the festivities, it takes a deep spiritual commitment and warrants the necessary preparation.  In order to reach chapter three, one needs the discipline to sit still for chapters one and two.  It’s hard, it’s tough, sometimes it’s burdensome, but it teaches our children that Judaism is not just a joke.

Are you just getting ready to party or are you getting ready for the party?  Are you taking time for yourself and with your children to learn about and internalize the meaning of the celebration?  Are you drawing spiritual sustenance from the joy of the festivities into the routine of daily life? 

Only once you are able to answer affirmatively, will your Judaism and that of your children will be meaningful, deep and sustainable for generations.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

What's the quickest way in and out of shul in the morning?

Sukkah 54

In the morning Shacharis service, the kaddish prayer is recited a number of times by the mourners.  The first kaddish appears about five minutes into the service and we often do not yet have a minyan present and are therefore unable to recite the kaddish at that point. 

In order to rectify the situation, at the end of the service, we learn the Life Yomi and subsequently have the mourners recite the missed kaddish.  Recently, I have begun to announce, “Sadly, we missed the first kaddish and we will say it now.” 

Why is it so sad?

The Mishnah states that the minimum number of shofar blasts in the Temple each day was twenty one.  The maximum was forty eight, which took place on Friday of Sukkot.  The Gemara points out that there seem to have been other occasions that they blew forty eight times, such as the eve of Passover.

The Passover sacrifice was offered on the 14th Nissan in three shifts.  While the first two were packed with people, the third had less of a crowd.   The Hallel prayer, which incants the praises of the Almighty, would accompany each offering.  Due to the third group’s sparse numbers, they often didn’t manage to complete their recitation of the Hallel by the time everyone had completed their sacrificial offerings.

Rabbi Yehuda says, “They wouldn’t reach the chanting of I love when G-d listens, since there were so few people.”  As a result of the shortened service, there was no need to blow the shofar over and over and therefore this occasion did not warrant forty-eight blasts.  And thus, this case is not an omission of the Mishnah.

What do you do if you’re late for davening (prayers) in the morning?  You consult the back of the Siddur (prayerbook), in order to ascertain which prayers may be skipped in order to catch up to the congregation.   Evidently, most of the Pesukei d’Zimra – the Verses of Praise of the Almighty – may be skipped over. 

The reason that our Sages gave us this list is that sometimes stuff happens and we don’t make it to shul on time.  Maybe the baby woke up just as you were leaving and needed a bottle.  Maybe there was a huge overnight snowstorm and you had to dig the car out.

But some of us get caught in a rut of coming to shul late.  We do it legitimately, once or twice.  And then the pattern of misbehaviour becomes natural.  What was once bedieved (post facto), is now l’chatchila (ab initio).  If you can get away with skipping over a few prayers and still do your duty of going to the daily minyan, then why bother getting there on time?

Rabbi Yehuda reminds us that the third group also did their duty.  But they were the procrastinators who couldn’t be bothered to get up early on the eve of Pesach to run to perform the mitzvah.  They strolled in late in the morning and did what they had to do.  But half-baked: They offered the sacrifice but didn’t complete the Hallel.  They failed to fully praise the Almighty.

No doubt some of them felt terrible and made an effort to join an earlier shift the next year.   But there were probably many others who got used to the ‘quick in and out’ that the third shift afforded them.  And it became par for the course and normal in their eyes when only a quarter of the Hallel was sung each time.

The Men of the Great Assembly arranged our prayers with great care and attention to detail.  They purposely instituted the recitation of the Pesukei d’Zimra at the beginning of the prayers, in order to impress upon us the greatness of the Almighty before we ask Him for our daily needs.  It’s not just a meaningless preamble to the primary prayers; it’s of the utmost importance.  Praising G-d, whether through the Hallel or the Pesukei d’Zimra, is paramount to our relationship with the Almighty!

And so it’s sad when we miss the first kaddish.  It means that we don’t even have a minyan of people who care enough about their relationship with G-d to praise Him the way we are supposed to.   Don’t get me wrong – I appreciate the dedication of every individual who has made the effort to come to Shacharis in the morning. 

But are you just doing your duty or are you enthusiastic about serving G-d in the most ideal manner?   Are you a third-shift procrastinator or are you jumping out of bed to praise the Holy One blessed be He?

Friday, 28 March 2014

Nobody will miss me

Sukkah 53

Our yeshiva in Melbourne had closed for summer break and so many of the boys had chosen to sleep in that day.  (Does one “choose” to sleep in or is that just the absence of getting up?)  Being punctilious about tefillah b’tzibur – praying with a congregation – I started to knock on the doors of the dormitory, seeking minyan men. 

Bleary-eyed, Moshe stepped into the study-hall in his pyjamas.  “Do you have a chiyuv (obligation)?” he asked me innocently, referring to the duty of a mourner to recite the kadish with a minyan. 
Menachem immediately turned to him and chided, “We all have a chiyuv to pray with the minyan.  Some of us just think that everyone else will take care of their chiyuv for them.”

Amidst the epic celebrations of the Simchas Beis Hashoeivah (Festival of the Water-Drawing) on Sukkot at the Temple, Hillel the Elder would exhort the people, “If I am here, everyone is here.  If I am not here, then who is here?”

Rashi explains that he was talking on behalf of G-d, so to speak.  Hillel’s warning to the people was that they should not forget their religious obligations throughout the year.  As long as they observe the commandments, G-d will be present in the Temple and they will be able to come on Sukkot to celebrate.  If they fail in their commitment to Torah and mitzvos, then G-d will forsake the Temple and there would be no further reason to celebrate.

On a deeper level, our Sages explain that Hillel was offering an incredible insight into the attitude we must have regarding our attendance and participation in community events.  

Sometimes we think to ourselves, ‘Why should I bother going?   There will be enough people there without me.  Nobody will miss my absence.’

Hillel teaches that if everyone were to have that attitude, then nobody would show up.  “If I am here, everyone is here.  If am not here, who is here?” was Hillel’s motto.  Everyone must have the attitude that their showing up to the event or cause is integral and then lo and behold, everyone shows up!  But once one person starts with the excuses, why should anyone show up?

This is true for synagogue programs, community events and communal leadership responsibilities.  If you adopt the perspective that you are indispensable, then you will be indispensable and integral.   If you cop out and leave it to someone else to take care of, then chances are, nobody will step up to the plate.  

If you are there, then everyone will be there.  But if you do not show up or step up, then who will?  

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Why is my life so difficult?

Sukkah 52

“Why isn’t my life getting any easier?” Sadie asked me, sounding simply exhausted, “It seems like the more I do for G-d, the more troubles He sends my way.  All my life I’ve believed that if I bend over backwards to help people and go the extra mile to be a good Jew, then G-d will reward me with a good life.  But He just keeps piling it on!  Why, rabbi, why?”

Why do some people seem to breeze through life while others just have one challenge after another?  Is that fair?

Describing the scene in the messianic era, the prophet Zachariah writes, “The land will eulogize each according to their family.”   While Rabbi Dosa explains that the subject of the eulogy will by Mashiach ben Yoseph (a precursor to the Messiah who will be killed during Armageddon), the rabbis teach that they will eulogize the yetzer hara (evil inclination), as evil will be eradicated from the world.

Why would they eulogize the yetzer hara?  Shouldn’t we breathe a sigh of relief at the news of his demise?

Rabbi Yehuda taught, “In the future, the Almighty will bring the yetzer hara before the righteous and the wicked and slaughter him in their presence.   To the righteous, he will appear as a tall mountain; to the wicked, he will appear as piece of hair.   Each group will then begin weeping.”

The wicked will weep at the realization that they did not have the strength of character to “conquer this piece of hair,” i.e. they were not prepared to resist even the slightest temptation.  But why will the righteous weep?

Before our souls descend into this lowly world, they are spiritual beings inhabiting a certain heavenly plane.  We are placed on this earth in order to be challenged by the vicissitudes of life and grow to greater spiritual heights. The more we overcome temptation, the greater we become. 

But at the same time, as we become stronger, our yetzer hara becomes stronger in order to offer us even greater levels of temptation.  Once we pass one level of the ‘videogame’ of life, we climb to a more difficult level.  And thus the more we conquer the yetzer hara, the more he grows.  That’s why he appears to the righteous as a tall mountain.

In the messianic era, the righteous will weep at the yetzer hara’s demise, because at that point, it will be ‘game over.’  They will realize how much they grew and what they achieved with every level of temptation they conquered.  But no more yetzer hara means no more spiritual growth; and that absence of growth potential will be eulogized by the righteous. 

Growth in life only comes from being placed by G-d in challenging situations.  You don’t learn to love people when you are given only nice people to deal with.  You learn to love people unconditionally when G-d puts annoying, difficult people in your life.  You don’t learn patience sitting on the beach drinking margaritas.  You master the attribute of patience by resisting the temptation to scream at your kids when they’ve just dropped your heirloom vase. 

Next time you feel the urge to get upset at G-d for sending bad stuff your way, think about the growth opportunity He is providing you!  Next time temptation knocks at your door, think about how the yetzer hara will appear to you in the messianic era – will he appear as a tiny piece of hair that you couldn’t overcome or will he appear as a mighty mountain that you succeeded in conquering?  

Is your cohen status tying you down?

Sukkah 51

“Rabbi, my son Harry is going to call you.  He’s been seeing a young lady and they’re talking about marriage.  I told him he needs to speak to you.”
By the tone of Hayley’s voice, it was obvious something was amiss.  Off the bat, I assumed that Harry’s girlfriend wasn’t Jewish.  Hayley hadn’t asked me to try to stop Harry, so I figured the discussion would be about conversion.

Harry called the next day, sounding agitated.  “Rabbi, Charlotte and I want to get married, but she’s not Jewish.” 
Aha, I knew it.  “So you’re calling me because you want to talk about conversion?” I asked, almost rhetorically.
“No, it’s not that,” replied Harry, “I’m a cohen and my mom says that I can’t marry Charlie even if she converts.  Is that right?”
“Yes, your mom’s right,” I responded, a little taken aback by the unexpected direction the conversation had taken.
“But isn’t there something I could do to undo my cohen status?  I heard that sometimes the rabbi can annul it or something.  Shouldn’t we just be happy that Charlie is ready to do whatever it takes to be Jewish?”

The members of the tribe of Levi were the cantors and choir in the Holy Temple.  Who played the instruments?  Rabbi Chanina ben Antignos maintains that the musicians were also Levites.  

Rabbi Yossi, however, has a tradition that the instrumentalists were Israelites from the Beis Hapegarim and Beis Tzipriya families from the town of Emaum.  These special Israelites were chosen because they could trace their lineage all the way back to Abraham and Sarah, and their daughters were fit to marry kohanim (members of the priestly cohen family).   When the kohanim would see these musicians on the platform playing, they would automatically know that they could marry their daughters, without needing to investigate their lineage.

A cohen may not marry a convert.  He may not marry a divorcee.  And he may not marry someone who has had a prior relationship with a non-Jew.  Many people feel that this is way too demanding.  Isn’t it hard enough to find someone Jewish to marry, without having to pile on all these additional burdensome antiquated restrictions?

Listen to the description offered by Rabbi Yossi!  The Beis Hapegarim and Beis Tzipriya families prided themselves on their ability to intermarry with the families of kohanim.  They were famous for how well they maintained their family records and instilled values of chastity into their daughters.  And the kohanim in turn would watch to see who was called up to the honour of playing the Temple instruments, knowing that these individuals were worthy of marrying into the priestly family.

If you’re a cohen, it’s not a liability; on the contrary, it’s an incredible honour!  It’s not about ‘how do I fix this annoying extra thing that G-d has burdened me with?’ like it’s some rare disease you have to deal with!   

So why does the average cohen feel burdened by his status?

In an effort to combat racism and intolerance, as a nation we have unceasingly preached our belief in the equality of all human beings.  But then we don’t understand why seventy percent of our children have no issue with intermarriage.  ‘If everyone is equal in the eyes of G-d, then what difference does it make who I marry?’

Our belief that we are G-d’s chosen people does not stand in contradiction to our ideal of tolerance for all peoples.  We must instill both of these values in our children.  We can and must be tolerant and loving of all humankind – all children of Adam and Eve who were created in the image of G-d.  And yet at the same time, we believe and must imbue our children with the pride of knowing that G-d chose Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah and their offspring, the nation of Israel, for a higher calling.

Likewise, within our nation, there is a subset of people who were summoned by the Almighty to an even higher calling.  Aaron’s family was singled out to serve in the Tabernacle, and later the Holy Temple, as kohanim (priests).   This Divine calling is an awesome honour, but at the same time, an awesome responsibility. 

Rabbi Yossi is teaching us what an incredible honour it is, to marry off one’s daughter to a cohen!  Likewise, our Sages teach that a cohen should only marry off his daughter to a Torah scholar.  Intermarrying with the priestly family must not be taken lightly. 

What’s more, it’s not only about marriage; it’s about the reverence and esteem in which we hold our kohanim generally.  As we all know, they are offered the first Torah reading, they must be honoured with the leading of the Grace After Meals and similarly we must look for any other opportunity to accord them with the honour they deserve. 

Many of us eagerly await Yom Tov to receive the priestly blessing, as the kohanim ascend the duchan. But you don’t have to wait for the festival – you can approach a cohen anytime and request a blessing for yourself and your children!  The kohanim were chosen by G-d as conduits for His blessing!

Sadly, that’s not the attitude most of us have.  We treat kohanim just like anybody else.  We’ve forgotten what respect even means.  And so it’s no wonder that most kohanim don’t feel it’s an honour to be a cohen.  Instead they just feel it’s a pain in the neck.  What a tragedy!

If you are a cohen, you are the recipient of an unbelievable Divine blessing!  It’s not a burden, it’s a calling!  You were chosen by G-d to serve Him and fortunate is the young lady who merits your hand in marriage! 

And if you are not a cohen, ask yourself, ‘Am I treating the kohanim in my life with the respect they deserve?  And am I instilling in my children the value of marrying into the family of Aaron?  Am I doing my part to ensure that kohanim feel that G-d has blessed them with His choice?’

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Being happy doesn't mean clowning around

Sukkah 50

Nina had had enough of her husband’s antics.
“Everything’s a joke for Ray,” she complained to me, exasperated by his flippant attitude to life.
“But Rabbi,” responded Ray, “didn’t you tell us that we should be in a constant state of joy, and that if we are always happy, we will be able to survive whatever challenges life throws our way?”

The highlight of the calendar in Temple times was the Simchas Beis HaShoeiva – the Festival of the House of Drawing.  Literally, the drawing referred to the water that was drawn and offered as a libation upon the Altar. 

Tosfos offers a deeper insight into the meaning of the word ‘drawing’ from the Jerusalem Talmud:  When the musicians would play, the people would be filled with joy.  Joy is a prerequisite to the manifestation of the Shechina (Divine presence) and so the name of the festival refers to the “Holy Spirit [of prophecy]” that was drawn down as a result of the happy mood experienced by the revelers.

One famous reveler who received the Divine message at the festival was the prophet Jonah.   Amidst the great joy, G-d instructed Jonah to journey to Ninveh to chastise the people and convince them to mend their wicked ways.  Instead of embracing his Divine mission, Jonah ran away from the word of G-d.  He ended up on a ship that was about to capsize due to a fierce storm.  Jonah acknowledged his being the cause of the storm and was thrown overboard.  Swallowed alive by a large fish, Jonah rethought his actions and vowed to complete his Divine calling.

Why does the Talmud single out Jonah as the archetype of the prophet who received the word of G-d amidst the joy of the festival?  Surely, if the festival celebrated the drawing down of the Holy Spirit, there would have been many joyous people who began their prophetic careers there!

Previously (Sukkah 48), we discussed the secret to achieving happiness in life.  While many people believe that religion is a means to achieving happiness, we learned that au contraire, happiness is a means to achieving spirituality.  As Tosfos teaches here, once the people were in a state of joy, they were able to receive the Holy Spirit.  In addition, we learned from the verse “They shall exit with joy” that if we strive to maintain a mood of joy, then we will be able to withstand all the vicissitudes and challenges life throws our way.   In other words, you don’t need to go looking for happiness.  Happiness is already inside you.  But you must strive to reveal it if you desire to soar in life.

And yet how can you be constantly happy?  Bad things happen in life, tragedy strikes innocent people.  There is much suffering in the world – when you just laugh it off, isn’t that cold and callous?  What’s more, if everything’s just a joke, why bother fixing anything?  If I want to maintain my happiness, the easiest way is to avoid conflict altogether! 

But conflict is real, suffering is real, tragedy is real.  And we can’t just laugh it off.

That was Jonah’s problem.  Jonah was such a joyful guy that he wasn’t looking to add problems to his life.  He was happy to have as little conflict in his life as possible, so that he could just be in a wonderful mood all the time.  And so when G-d asked him to save Ninveh, he ran in the opposite direction. 

“Constant simcha (joy) is a great mitzvah,” does not mean that you avoid tough decisions or situations of conflict.   The challenges of life are designed to make our souls stronger.  True simcha is the embrace of the Holy Spirit.  When we face difficult issues and ordeals in life with the inner joy in knowing that G-d has a plan, then we can step up and deal with the challenge, giving the matter the seriousness it demands. 

Simcha does not mean levity.  It does not mean callousness.  Simcha is the joy we experience as we are manifested with the Shechina.  It is a mature joy, one that comes of the strength and fortitude displayed when one is able to face up to life’s challenges, without losing faith and without shying away when life calls for tough decisions.  

Money makes the world go round

Sukkah 49

Frustrated by the distinct status we accord those who financially support Jewish institutions, Rabbi Henoch Leibowitz is said to have once quipped, “The world stands on three things: on money, on money and on money.” 

Giving tzedakah (charity) is one of the most important mitzvos.  Without the generosity of countless individuals, we would not have witnessed the incredible growth of Jewish institutions in the State of Israel and throughout the diaspora that we have merited over the last half century.   

We owe so much to those whose munificence has brought Jewish life back from the brink of destruction. Tzedakah has built synagogues, schools, yeshivos, communities, as well as saving the lives of so many individuals and families in need.  Is there any act more worthy than the giving of tzedakah?

The prophet Hosea declared, “Sow yourselves charity [seeds] and reap [your crop] according to kindness.” 

Rabbi Elazar derives two lessons from this verse.  Firstly, performance of kind deeds is better than giving charity, since sowing seeds does not always bear fruit, whereas reaping crops always feeds one’s family.  Secondly, one is rewarded for the mitzvah of tzedakah commensurate with the measure of kindness one shows when giving the money.

Furthermore, the Talmud offers three advantages of kind deeds over charity:
1. The mitzvah of charity is only performed with your money.  Kind deeds may be performed by yourself or your money. 
2. Charity is only for poor people.  Kind deeds may be performed for both poor and rich.
3. Charity is for the living.  Kind deeds may be performed for either the living or the dead, such as ensuring a proper funeral and burial. 

Tzedakah fuels our machine.  Without it, we would cease to move forward.  But the drivers are the people who have dedicated themselves to using that fuel effectively.   Our Sages teach that one who collects money for the poor is greater than the givers themselves.  Likewise, one who invests time in community building, says Rabbi Elazar, is even greater than the one who donated the funds.  Fuel by itself is useless; it must be poured into a machine to achieve its potential.

Some people have been blessed with the wherewithal to support our people financially.  Others have dedicated time and effort to supporting through their deeds.  Ideally, one must strive to excel in both of these areas.  We are obligated to donate a minimum of ten percent and as much as twenty percent not only of our money, but more importantly of our time and expertise!

Many synagogues raise a huge proportion of their annual budget during the aliyot (calls to bless the Torah) over the High Holy days, as wealthy individuals make substantial pledges upon being called up.  The gabbaim (lay ritual directors) scrutinize the membership list to ensure that they will get the best ‘bang for their buck.’  At the Family Shul, we always make sure to apportion a number of aliyot to members who may not have the means to donate a significant cash amount, but have gone above and beyond in their volunteer efforts for the synagogue and community.  Without these individuals, all the money in the world would bear no fruit. 

Are you doing your share of kind deeds for those in need?  When you give charity, are you doing the mitzvah in the kindest way possible?  Are you donating at least ten percent of your time and expertise to individuals and institutions?  And are you doing your part to protect the dignity of all human beings both during their lifetimes and after?  

Sunday, 23 March 2014

The Secret of Happiness

Sukkah 48

Who wants to be happy? J

There is no shortage of books available today on the topic of how to find joy and happiness in life.  Many people endure a lifetime of searching for that elusive key to happiness.  Can religion make me happy?

There were once two heretics called Happy & Joy. 
Happy said to Joy: I am better than you, [because I appear first] in the verse [in Isaiah] “They will achieve happiness and joy.” 
Joy said to Happy: I am better than you, [because I appear first] in the verse [in Esther] “The Jews had joy and happiness.”
Happy said to Joy: One day they will send you away and appoint you as a mere guide, as it says [in Isaiah] “For they will exit by joy.”
Joy said to Happy: One day they will send you away and fill water through you, as it says [in Isaiah] “You will draw water with happiness.”

In this obscure, comedic exchange, the Talmud teaches us the secret to finding happiness in life.

Firstly, if you’re looking for happiness, stop looking in the “Self-Help” section of the bookstore.  Heretics believe that life is about putting oneself first, with the illusion that ‘If I get ahead of the pack, then I will be happy.’  If everyone looks out for number one, nobody will be happy, because everyone will want to be in first place all the time, ignoring everyone else’s needs and wants.   

Instead, teaches the Talmud, the more you devote your life to helping others, the happier you will be.  As a baby, you knew that if you cried, you would be fed and nurtured.  As a child you screamed and threw a tantrum and got what you wanted.  But the older you get, the less you should be putting yourself first.  If you want a happy marriage, it means putting your spouse first.  If you want a joyous family, it means putting your children first.   And family is a model for life – the more you dedicate yourself to helping other human beings, the happier you will be.

Secondly, many people believe that the pursuit happiness should be their goal in life.  Happiness, says the Talmud, is not the endgame; it is merely a means to an end.  We should “exit with joy,” meaning that joy should be our guide through life.  If we are joyous, then all of life’s vicissitudes and challenges will become much more tolerable. 

What then is our ultimate goal in life?  It is the pursuit of spirituality.  We are here to make this world a place of G-d.  We achieve this higher purpose through Torah and mitzvos.  Torah is compared to water, as the prophet says, “Yo, all who are thirsty [for spirituality] go to the waters [of Torah].”

And so the third lesson of this Talmudic exchange is that the best way to “draw water,” i.e. fill your life with spirituality, is through happiness.  When we are joyous, we become vehicles for spirituality and we can transform and elevate the world. 

There is a common misconception that spirituality is designed to make us happy. Religion should be used as a crutch – it should be comforting and feel-good.   But that’s only true if religion is the means to achieving your ultimate goal of happiness. 

According to the Talmud, not only is such a notion heretical, but it’s mixed up.  Such a perspective confuses the means with the end.  Religion isn’t designed to make you happy.  It’s the other way around – happiness should be employed as a means to achieving your spiritual goals, as King David writes in Psalms, “Serve G-d with joy!”

A certain heretic called Happy once said to Rabbi Abahu: In the World to Come, you are destined to draw water for me, as the verse says “You will draw water with happiness.”
He responded: Had the verse stated “to happiness,” you’d be right.  The fact that it says “with happiness” [means that] the skin of such a person [as yourself] will be made into a flask and we will use it to fill water.

Our goal in life is not to be happy. Happiness is only a means to an end.  With happiness, one can soar to the greatest spiritual heights and bear the challenges life throws our way.  In the World to Come, we will enjoy spiritual delights, served to us on a platter made of all the vehicles that helped us reach our goal.  

If spirituality is the ultimate goal, wouldn’t we rather get there happily?  Smile!  It’s the first step on the road to G-dliness!  

Should we expose our students to the anti-Israel voice?

Sukkah 47

There is a new Jewish student movement on campus.  They call themselves “Open Hillel,” and they contend that they should be allowed not only to present the pro-Israel side of the debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also the opposing view. 

This perspective is not limited to college.  Recently, a student group at a prominent Modern Orthodox high school insisted on hearing the voice of an academic who was less than sympathetic to Israel’s cause, causing a furor in the school and the Jewish world.

In Judaism, we pride ourselves on being open to discussion and debate. In the interests of academic freedom and openness, do these groups not make a valid point?

The Torah states, “In sukkot you shall dwell for seven days. . . On the eighth day, you shall have a cessation [of activity].”   This verse is the basis for our two connected festivals of Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah. 

In the Land of Israel, we live in the sukkah for seven days of Sukkot and then return to our homes for an eighth day, called Shemini Atzeret.  In the diaspora, where we observe an additional day of every festival, we end up celebrating for a total of nine days.  The first seven belong to Sukkot; the ninth day is certainly part of Shemini Atzeret.  The eighth day, however, is complicated.  Is it the eighth day of Sukkot or is it the first day of Shemini Atzeret?

In other words, do we continue to dwell in the sukkah or not?  The Talmud concludes that we should dwell in the sukkah but not make the blessing over the mitzvah, so that we do not risk taking G-d’s name in vain.

How about the performance of the mitzvah of lulav?  Perhaps we should also do that sans blessing?  Tosfos demurs, citing an essential difference between sukkah and lulav.   Whereas there are no negative consequences of sitting in a sukkah, the lulav is different.  We are forbidden to pick up a branch on a holy day due to the prohibition of muktzeh, which precludes us from moving any unnecessary raw materials.  On Sukkot, the lulav branch is absolutely necessary for the mitzvah and therefore we may raise it.  On Shemini Atzeret, since it is of questionable necessity, it would be forbidden to move it.

Tosfos is teaching us that sometimes more is less.  We think that we are doing a mitzvah by taking the lulav on the eighth day – after all, it can’t hurt, right?  And Tosfos points out that yes, it could hurt.  If, in fact, it’s unnecessary for the festival, it becomes de facto prohibited.  In other words, one does more damage by taking the lulav on the eighth day than by not taking it.  And therefore we abstain from the mitzvah of lulav on Shemini Atzeret.

Throughout our daily lives, we encounter many situations where more turns out to be less.  The debate over Israel is one such instance.  While it might sound fair to present all sides of the debate, there is too much at stake here.  How do we guarantee that the student who attends the anti-Israel lecture shows up for the pro-Israel lecture?  How do we ensure that the pro-Israel speaker is as eloquent as the anti-Israel speaker? 

What’s more, we are talking about the safety and security of our people!  While there may be persuasive arguments on both sides, those who wish to destroy us are not interested in rational and objective deliberation.   They are banking on the delegitimization of Israel as the first step towards the destruction of the Jewish state, which ultimately leads to the annihilation of our people!

Does that mean that we should not dialogue with the other side?  Of course we should.  If we desire peace, then we must be prepared to come to the table.  But forums such as Jewish high schools and campus groups must be devoted to making sure that our students are educated and energized with a pro-Israel vigor that will guarantee the future of our people.   They must walk out with the strength to stand up to the Hamans who wish to destroy us, without any equivocation. 

Because the other side does not equivocate. 

On campus, sadly, our students are being fed more than enough surreptitious as well as overt anti-Israel bias in the classrooms and lecture halls.   Jewish student group gatherings are the only opportunities we have to counter this brainwashing.  We must be ever-vigilant in our efforts to teach the truth and protect the State of Israel and the Jewish people.  

Friday, 21 March 2014

Is religion brainwashing our kids?

Sukkah 46

Rich and Deb were in my office discussing their children’s education. 
“I want the kids to have a solid Jewish education,” said Deb.
“That’s great,” I responded, “So what’s the problem?”
“I don’t want to brainwash them,” blurted Rich, “when they get older, let them choose for themselves if they want to learn Torah.  I don’t believe in ramming religion down their throats.”

The Torah states, “And it shall be if you hear, you will hear the voice of the L-rd your G-d.”  What is the meaning of the double expression?

Rabbi Zaira (or Rabbi Chanina bar Papa) teaches: A human being can fill an empty container but cannot add anything to a full container.  In contrast, G-dliness can only fill a container that is already full; an empty vessel is unfillable.  

The meaning of the apparent redundancy in the Torah verse, says Rabbi Zaira, is that if children hear the word of G-d – if we fill up their vessels when they are young, then they will continue to fill their vessels when they get older, i.e. they will continue to seek to listen to the word of G-d as adults.  But if they grow up empty, then it will much harder to fill them with G-dliness when they get older.

Why is that so?  Why can’t G-d fill an empty vessel? 

The answer is that there really is no such thing as an empty vessel.  As we know, at the very least any container is full of air.  In English, we have an expression, ‘full of hot air.’  The equivalent biblical expression, coined by King Solomon, is “hevel havalim.”

Nobody reaches adulthood with nothing in their vessel.  Between TV, movies, videogames, the internet, and whatever atheistic ideas we’ve been fed through school and university, our vessels are all overflowing by the time we’ve begun to make our own choices in life.  Unfortunately, they’re often full of rubbish. 

Ever tried to fit anything into a full rubbish bin?  Not only does it not fit inside, but when it overflows, it causes the area around it to become sullied.  That’s what Rabbi Zaira means when he says that a human being cannot add anything to a full container.

Teaching Torah to children is not called brainwashing or ramming religion down their throats; it’s called giving them the ability to make their own choices when they grow up.   Tragically, we live in a time when most Jews are unable to make choices about their Judaism – they simply don’t have enough information to make an informed decision.

It’s a free world out there.  People will choose to live as they wish.  Our children may or may not choose to live as we have for thousands of years.  But if you have any hope whatsoever that they will follow in your footsteps, you’d better provide them with the tools to make an educated choice.  That means giving them the most solid Jewish education available to you.  

Thursday, 20 March 2014

Save yourself! Don't wait for Jesus!

Sukkah 45

I met Jake when his mother was dying of cancer.  A billboard-charting performer, he had left his guitar in his mother’s hospital room.  I picked it up and began to sing to her.  Sadly, the Almighty took her from this world shortly thereafter, but over the shivah, Jake and I struck up a friendship that would endure for years to come.  In fact, my first studio recording was thanks to Jake’s assistance and generosity.

Jake went back to California and now and then we would drop one another a line.   His sister, Shirl, lives in town and so over the years, she would keep me abreast of his life.   He has continued to have a successful performance career and he has become a world-renowned music producer.

Unfortunately, the latest update has been heartbreaking.   I am told that Jake has found Jesus and believes that he can have the “best of both worlds.”  He can accept Jesus as his savior without renouncing his Judaism. 

He keeps calling Shirl and trying to get her to see the light.  Thank G-d, she has been strong.  But Jake never ceases pleading with her, “Why have the Jews always been so stubborn in our rejection of Jesus?”

Chizkiyah offers a teaching by Rabbi Yirmiya who quoted Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi) as saying, ‘My merit could atone for all the sins of my generation.   Together with my son Elazar, we could atone for all the sins of past generations.  Add to the mix King Yotam ben Uziyahu, and we could atone for the sins of all humankind from the beginning until the end of time!’

This bold statement is Rashbi’s response to Christianity.   While it is a powerful piece of the Talmud, it was deliberately uttered in an obscure fashion and left unexplained for most of history.  Clarifying Rashbi’s intent would undoubtedly have meant death or exile for the Jewish community wherever we found ourselves.  But his implied message is unambiguous.

Firstly, as opposed to Christianity, which preaches that Jesus needed to endure ‘suffering’ in order to atone for the people’s sins, Rashbi tells us that one can atone for others based on ‘merit’.  Thus, Judaism’s picture is much more positive.  The more merit one accrues, the greater salvation one brings to the world.

Secondly, Rashbi teaches that no one individual is responsible for every other human being for all time.  Certainly, in each generation, there may be a tzadik hador – the leader of the generation, as was Rashbi in his day.  But beyond that, one needs to share the ‘burden.’  There are many righteous individuals in history and it is hubris to accredit oneself with the sole ability to ‘save humanity.’ 

Thirdly, who does Rashbi choose to join him in his quest?  His son.  Rashbi’s message is that you may be the greatest, most righteous human being to have walked the earth, but you are still human.  You have parents, father and mother, and they are mortal human beings.  My son may be an incredible person, but he is still a “son of man.”

And then who is his final choice for the team?  Yotam who?  While Yotam was one of the kings of our people, he was a relatively minor character in history.  But that’s precisely the point.   You don’t need to have your name splashed in the headlines to make a difference.

Yotam was the most humble of the Jewish kings.  When his father Uziyahu took ill, he assumed the leadership of the kingdom.  Nevertheless, while his father was alive, he refused the royal title, continuing to credit his old man with the top job.  Rashbi’s message in choosing Yotam is that if you want to save the world, you must humble yourself before the King of the universe and realize that we are merely vehicles to do His bidding. 

You can be the savior of all humanity!  You don’t need to suffer; instead, you must strive to maximize your merit by doing as much good as possible!  You may have mortal parents, but you are a child of G-d!  As long as you always humble yourself before Our Father, Our King, He will use you as a vehicle to save the world!  

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Arguing for the Right to Free Speech

Sukkah 44

Jane and Daisy came to see me distraught. 
“Rabbi, we need your help!  Mom and Dad are constantly bickering at each other.  They never say anything nice to one another.  We don’t want them to get divorced!  What really annoys us is that they’re always trying to make us take sides.  Whenever the other one’s not home, they’ll go on and on about why we should hate our other parent.  Rabbi, what do we do to save their marriage and stop this madness?”

On the final day of Sukkot, Hoshana Raba, we wave a willow branch, just like our ancestors would do throughout Sukkot in the Holy Temple.

Rabbi Ami offers three requirements for the mitzvah:
1. The willow must be the right measurement (tzricha shiur)
2. The willow should be taken by itself (bifnei atzma)
3. One cannot fulfill one’s obligation with the willow from the lulav

Asks the Talmud: Requirement #3 seems to be superfluous – if the willow must be taken alone, then obviously one does not fulfill one’s obligation when it is taken along with the lulav!

Our Sages teach that the four species represent different parts of the human body.  The lulav represents the spine, the etrog represents the heart, the myrtles represent the eyes, and the willows represent the lips.

If the willows represent our lips, then Rabbi Ami is providing us with an important lesson about the way we use our lips and mouth.

Firstly, what issues forth from our lips must be measured.  We must think before we speak.  Every word is precious and we must calculate what needs to be said and what should remain unspoken.

Secondly, if we have anything to say about someone else, it must be said “bifnei atzma”, which may be translated as “in the face of herself.”   It is forbidden to talk about anyone behind their back.  If we have an issue with someone, then we must discuss it with that individual face to face.

Thirdly, the mouth is connected to the spine via the neck.   Rabbi Ami teaches that one cannot fulfill one’s obligation of the willow (lips) if it is tied to the lulav (spine).  As long as we remain stiff-necked, or stubborn, we cannot make peace with anyone with whom we are in a situation of conflict.  We must separate our lips from our spines and humble ourselves if we wish to resolve disagreements.

As a human being you are bound to enter situations of discord throughout your life.  But if you remember these three key lessons, you will resolve matters swiftly and efficiently.   

You must learn to bite your tongue and not respond impetuously.   If you have an issue with someone, don’t go around telling everyone else, that’s not helpful.  Go directly to the person and discuss it with them face to face. 

And finally, don’t be stubborn.  Be the first to say you’re sorry so that you can resolve conflict and mend the relationship!  Just like willows fluttering in the wind by a cool stream, your life will be a breeze!  

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Are you a caveman?

Sukkah 43

The latest Pew study is bleak indeed.  We are dwindling as a people as we become less and less interested in connecting religiously.  How do we stop the bleeding?

Many who are religiously inspired feel that they really can’t do anything about it.  “I just do my thing and hope for the best with the rest of the Jewish people,” a congregant said to me after the study was released, “what more can I do?”

“In sukkot you shall dwell for seven days.”  Does that mean 24/7 or just daytime?

In an attempt to decipher the meaning of the word ‘days’, the Talmud offers two other occasions in the Torah where the word is used: the mitzvah of lulav and the priestly inauguration.  While the lulav is only blessed during the daytime, the priestly inauguration was over an entire 24/7 week-long period.   The Talmud then endeavours to determine which of these two mitzvot are more comparable to the mitzvah of sukkah.

On the one hand, sukkah is more comparable to the priestly inauguration, since both were effective all day long, while the mitzvah of lulav is a one-shot deal – you bless and wave the lulav and you are done for the day.  On the other hand, the mitzvah of sukkah is more comparable to the mitzvah of lulav, since both are obligations for all generations, whereas the priestly inauguration only happened once in history.

In the end, the Talmud concludes that we derive the obligation to dwell 24/7 in the sukkah from the same wording that is employed “they shall dwell” regarding both the priestly blessing and the mitzvah of sukkah.

Nevertheless, the fact that the Talmud first attempts to demonstrate the similarities between sukkah and lulav shows that there is more to their relationship than the obvious fact that they are both part of the same festival.

The Talmud teaches two key facts regarding the lulav – you bless it just once a day and it is a mitzvah for all generations.   The former seems to be a negative attribute while the latter is a positive characteristic of the mitzvah, i.e. if you would bless it more than once, it would be more comparable to the mitzvah of sukkah.  Is it possible to bless the lulav more than once each day?

Certainly!  Instead of leaving the lulav at the synagogue after morning prayers, you could take it home for other family members to make the blessing.  You could then take it into work to share with colleagues who did not do the mitzvah.  Maybe there’s someone on the train who’s looking at you funny for holding a palm branch and yet deep down you know that their soul is yearning for an opportunity to make the blessing.

If you treat the mitzvah of lulav as a one shot mitzvah, then you haven’t fulfilled the dictum of the festival, “in order that your generations shall know.”  But if you find opportunities to multiply the lulav blessings throughout the day, you have made it into a mitzvah for all generations by spreading its light and warmth throughout our people. 

Of course this attitude doesn’t only apply to lulav.  There are many mitzvos you can do on your own and be finished with them for the day.  But when you choose instead to share your experience with others, you make the mitzvah – and ultimately, our people – sustainable for all generations.

If the room is cold, you have two choices: either put on a coat or bring in a heater.  The former will warm you up; the latter will warm everyone up.  If you are doing mitzvos, you may be warm, but that isn’t enough.  Cavemen don fur coats, human beings share the love!  We are enjoined to positively affect the entire room – everyone should feel the warmth!

Do your mitzvah today!  And then multiply it by sharing the merit with those around you!  Don’t just be a “righteous individual in a warm coat!”  You have the power to sustain our people for generations!

Monday, 17 March 2014

How to get the flight attendant to stop bothering you when you're davening on the plane

Sukkah 42

A colleague shared with me an issue that was tearing his synagogue apart.  It is customary that one who is in his year of mourning leads weekday services.  In his synagogue there were too many mourners and not enough services to go around.  It seemed like every day there was a fight, it was becoming quite uncomfortable.  Some had suggested that they hold multiple minyanim in different rooms, and my colleague, the rabbi, was struggling to figure out the best solution.

Nowadays we do not bless the lulav on Shabbat for fear that one might carry it in the public domain, which is forbidden on Shabbat.   But in the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, they would bless the lulav on Shabbat. 

How would they avoid the problem of carrying?  They would all bring in their lulav sets on Friday and hand them over to the Temple officers.  On Shabbat, the officers would spread out all the lulavim and each person would find theirs to bless.

Particularly when the first day of Sukkot fell on Shabbat, it was important that one find one’s own lulav, because on the first day of the festival, in order to fulfill one’s obligation the Torah requires ownership of the lulav.  On other days of Sukkot, a borrowed lulav suffices.  To alleviate this concern, when the people dropped off their lulav, they would pledge, “Anyone who picks up my lulav [tomorrow] is hereby given it as a gift.”

Nevertheless, that caveat still didn’t serve to satisfy everyone.  If you’ve been to the mall on Black Friday, you can imagine the scene on Shabbat morning in the Temple when the officers spread out the lulavim.  People started pushing and shoving and swearing at one another, each laying claiming to the same particular lulav.  Sometimes it came to fisticuffs over whose lulav was whose!  Eventually, the rabbis said ‘Enough!’ and instituted that people bless the lulav at home.

These people were in the Holy Temple to serve G-d with their lulav and they’re beating each other up!  Unbelievable, right?  How could they think that they were doing G-d’s work when they were being so rude and mean to one another?  And yet people sometimes get so caught up in their own little ‘religious’ pursuits that they will destroy anyone who gets in their way.  Of course when they behave in such an irreligious manner, the blessing over the lulav is no longer sanctified, it becomes abhorrent in G-d’s eyes. 

The same is true of my friend’s synagogue.   How could anyone fight over the amud (the opportunity to lead services)?  The whole point of the exercise is to add merit to the soul of one’s deceased relative.   When one brings discord into the synagogue, not only does it not add merit, it brings dishonour to the soul!

In some synagogues, they have attempted to reach a compromise by splitting the congregation into multiple minyanim so that all the mourners can have the opportunity to lead.  But do you really think that splitting up the shul is favourable in G-d’s eyes?  “The glory of the King is [found] in a multitude of people.”  When we pray all together, the Almighty is most pleased, not when we separate into smaller factions and subgroups.  That, our Sages tell us, is not helpful to the soul.  One adds merit to the soul of one’s relative when one does whatever is best to promote peace and unity in the synagogue, even if it means regularly giving up the amud.

The story is told of the man who starts screaming at his wife in front of all the guests for forgetting to cover the challot (bread) on Shabbat.  The reason for covering is so that we don’t “embarrass” the challot when we make the first blessing over the kiddush wine prior to the blessing over the bread.  Embarrassing someone for not covering the challot kind of defeats the purpose, right? 

We all have idiosyncrasies in our performance of mitzvos that run the risk of defeating the purpose of the mitzvah itself.  Every time you do something for G-d, ask yourself if you’re hurting anyone in the process.  Whether it’s standing up on an aeroplane to pray and getting in everyone’s way, or it’s shouting at our kids for not setting the Shabbos table on time, are you ruining your mitzvah by bringing dishonour to its performance?

How to have a spiritual experience

Sukkah 41

What is the most intense way to cleave to G-d?  How about if you were to clutch a Torah Scroll whilst in the midst of prayer?  That way you’re in communion with the Almighty and physically bound to the word of G-d!

Shmuel teaches that it is forbidden to hold onto anything while praying, lest one concentrate on the item he is holding instead of focusing on his prayers.   Nevertheless, any item that assists one’s prayers is permissible to be held during prayer.  The obvious example would be a siddur (prayerbook).  How about a lulav?

Rabbi Elazar bar Tzadok tells of the men of Jerusalem who would hold the lulav throughout their prayers, proving that a lulav is an essential prayer item and therefore permissible.  In fact, the Mishnah teaches that we wave the lulav during parts of the Hallel prayer – clearly we see that the lulav is essential to prayer. 

A Torah Scroll, however, is forbidden to be held during prayer.  Since it is not essential to prayer, it presents itself as a potential distraction to prayer and therefore problematic.  So while one might feel all spiritual and on a religious high by embracing the Torah while praying, he has acted erroneously. 

If a lulav can help one’s prayers, why can’t a Torah scroll? After all, isn’t the Torah Scroll the holiest item we have?

The Torah is designed to be learned.  Some people feel that they can have a religious experience with the Torah by performing all sorts of nouveau ritual acts with it.   But the Torah does not want our ritual acts.  The Torah does not wish to be paraded around the synagogue.  It desires but one thing – to be read from and studied intensely.

The Zohar states, “The Torah and Holy One blessed be He are completely one.”  The meaning of this Kabalistic teaching is that whereas, our wisdom and our brains and our heads and bodies are all distinct entities; for G-d, who is an utter unity, there is no distinction between His wisdom and Himself. 

Torah is the Almighty’s wisdom, which is equal to the Almighty Himself.  Therefore, when you learn Torah you imbue yourself with G-d, i.e. you become one with Him!  There is no greater way to connect with the Almighty than to learn Torah. 

Prayer is extremely important.  You must have an ongoing conversation with G-d.  But if you want the ultimate spiritual experience, learn Torah!  You will become one with G-d! 

When you learn Torah, not only do you imbue yourself with G-d by internalizing His wisdom in your mind, but at the same time your entire being is brought into the light of the Almighty.  And so you become enveloped internally and externally by G-d – that is the ultimate spiritual experience!  That’s how you cleave to the Holy One blessed be He.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Listen to the voice inside your head

Sukkah 40

Do you ever feel a sudden spiritual awakening?  Like you feel that you should be more religiously committed?   Believe it or not, everyone does.  The Mishnah teaches us that “each day a Heavenly voice comes out from Mt. Horeb” to awaken us from our spiritual slumber.

If it comes every day and everybody hears it, why are most people religiously lax?

Produce of the seventh year is sanctified and therefore forbidden for consumption.  Is a lulav included in this prohibition? 

The Braisa teaches that produce is sanctified, but wood is not, which would seem to suggest that the lulav branch would not fall under the rubric of the sabbatical prohibition.

Why is wood excluded from sabbatical sanctity?  Only produce that is either edible or is akin to food is affected by the sabbatical law.  How is something likened to food?  Just like with food, consumption and benefit occur simultaneously, similarly any other agricultural product whose consumption and benefit occur simultaneously is sanctified by the shemittah (sabbatical year). 

This principle would exclude wood which most of the time is utilized for cooking purposes.  Since the burning of the wood (the consumption) does not occur simultaneous to the eating (the benefit), it does not become sanctified.   The benefit of the lulav branch, however, does take place immediately with use and therefore would become sanctified in the seventh year.

While we all get these intermittent ‘wake-up calls,’ most of us respond by pushing the snooze button.  And when the alarm sounds again, in a half-asleep stupor, we pound the snooze button once more. In other words, we may wake up for a moment, but we tell ourselves that tomorrow we will act on our spiritual awakening.

‘Tomorrow I’m going to concentrate on my prayers.’  ‘Tomorrow I will get involved with the synagogue affairs.’  But as we all know, ‘tomorrow never comes.’   Tomorrow actually does come, it’s the day after today.  But by the time tomorrow rolls around, the spiritual high has worn off and we’re no longer inspired to transform ourselves.

In order to become sanctified, consumption and benefit must occur simultaneously.  If there is an interruption between cause and effect, then we lose the opportunity for sanctification. 

The secret to capitalizing on the wake-up call is to act immediately.  As soon as you hear the ‘voice,’ pick up a book of Psalms and read a chapter.  Or give a coin to charity.  Or learn some Talmud.  When you jump at the opportunity, you grant substance to the spiritual awakening and then it becomes transformative.

Throughout your life you have gotten the call ‘from above.’  But how often have you stopped to heed the call?  Act now and you will benefit from the sanctity with which your life will be imbued!