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Monday, 30 June 2014

Jewish Activism: Challenging an Ancient Tradition

Taanis 19

Prior to the messianic era, chutzpah will reign supreme, says the Talmud.  That’s certainly the case in our generation.   People have no problem challenging G-d, Torah and our rabbinic tradition.   Why shouldn’t they?  After all, didn’t Abraham challenge G-d?  Didn’t Moses challenge G-d?  And the Vilna Gaon often challenged his forebears’ opinions! 

We believe in activism!  What’s wrong with a little challenge to the tradition?

They once asked Choni the circler, “Pray that it rains.”
He replied, “Go and bring in your Passover ovens from the courtyards, so that the clay doesn’t dissolve in the rain.”  He then prayed, but nothing happened. 

What did he do?  He drew a circle on the ground and stood inside it and declared to G-d, “Master of the Universe, Your children turned to me because I am like a member of Your household.  I hereby swear by Your great name that I shall not move from here until You have mercy upon Your children.”  And it began to sprinkle.

Choni said, “That’s not what I requested.  I want sufficient rain to fill the pits, ditches and caves!”  A torrential downfall began to pour.
He said, “That’s not what I requested.  I want rains of goodwill, blessing and generosity.”

It began to rain pleasantly until the inhabitants of Jerusalem had to ascend the Temple Mount due to the abundance of rain.  They said to him, “Just like you prayed for the rain to fall, now pray that it stop.”
He replied, “Go and check if the Wanderers’ Stone has been rubbed out.”

Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach sent him a message: If you weren’t Choni, I would excommunicate you for your insolence to the Almighty!  But what can I do? You act mischievously before the Almighty and He does your bidding just like a child that acts mischievously with his father who then gives in to him.  Concerning you, King Solomon writes in Proverbs, “Your father and mother shall rejoice and those who bore you shall be happy!”

Listen to the holy words of Rabbi Shimon.  Not everyone has the right to challenge.  Had anyone but Choni spoken with such chutzpah to the Almighty, he would have deserved to be excommunicated from the community. 

We are certainly all entitled to have a conversation with the Almighty and ask him for our needs, but there’s a certain level of respect that is required when you do so.   He’s not your friend; He’s the King of kings.   Choni earned his place in the Almighty’s palace.  Most of us have a long way to go to reach that level.

And similarly with our rabbinic tradition:  There’s a bizarre trend amongst people ranging from the laity to rabbis whereby many believe that they have a right to challenge the rabbis of yore.  Did they earn the right?  Do they even hold a candle to the level of spirituality and scholarship of our Sages?

Certainly, you should have an open conversation with the Almighty.  Speak to Him regularly.  Tell Him your needs.  But always remember who He is and who you are. 

Certainly, you should engage with the tradition and find your place within our heritage.  Speak to our Sages; let their words jump off the page of the Talmud and come alive.  But always remember who they are and who you are.

Yes, before the messianic era, chutzpah will reign supreme.  But you should strive to be part of the solution, not part of the problem!

Sunday, 29 June 2014

How do you Love Your Fellow as Yourself?

Taanis 18

In his quest for spirituality, the great Chasidic master Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk would spend extended periods in self-imposed exile, travelling through the towns and villages of Europe. He travelled as a simple beggar, often together with his brother Reb Zushe, wandering from town to town, never staying long enough to feel comfortable.

It once happened after a long period of exile that Rabbi Elimelech decided the time had come to return home.  Just as he entered Lizhensk, he heard someone cry out, “Quick, call a doctor, Eluzer is sick!”

Eluzer was Rabbi Elimelech's oldest son. The rabbi raced home in a panic and flung upon the front door.  “Eluzer, Eluzer, my son!” he cried.
“And hello to you too, long time no see,” said his wife, “What are you taking about?”
Flustered he told her that he had heard that Eluzer was ill.
“Oh,” she replied, “That’s not our Eluzer.  That’s Eluzer Goldberg, up the road.”
“Boruch Hashem,” he responded, breathing a sigh of relief.
Then he stopped and a great feeling of disappointment came over him.
“Meilech, Meilech,” he said to himself, “What have you accomplished with all your months of exile, if it still makes a difference to you whose Eluzer is sick?”  And with that, Rabbi Elimelech turned around, left Lizhensk, and went back into exile.

One time, the Roman princess was found murdered in Lod.  The Romans immediately blamed the Jewish community and threatened to execute the entire city unless they turned over the murderer.  Two brothers, Lulinus and Papus stepped up and took the fall in order to save their brethren.

The governor, Turainus said to them, “If you are of the nation of Chanania, Mishael and Azarya, let your G-d come and save you from my hand just like He saved Chanania, Mishael and Azarya from Nebuchadnezzar. 
They replied, “Chanania, Mishael and Azarya were completely righteous and worthy of having a miracle performed on their behalf.  Nebuchadnezzar was a real king and worthy of having a miracle happen because of him. But that wicked man (i.e. you, Turainus) is a commoner and unworthy of having a miracle happen because of him.  Moreover, clearly we are deserving of death by Divine decree.  If you do not kill us, the Almighty has many killers.  And the Almighty has many bears and lions in His world that could attack us and kill us.  But the Holy One blessed be He only handed us over to you because He plans to take vengeance upon you for our blood.”

Nevertheless, he killed them on the spot.  The end of the story, they say, is that no sooner had he killed them when two ministers arrived from Rome and split open his head with wooden staffs.   Due to this great miracle, that day, 12th Adar, was declared an annual public holiday.

This incredible story of self-sacrifice is a model of dedication to us all.  How courageous were these two young men to give their lives on behalf of the community!  Nonetheless, why did they both have to surrender themselves?  All it takes is one murderer – and yet they needlessly offered two lives!

Imagine the scene: The Jewish community of Lod is at its wit’s end.  The entire city is slated for execution. Try as they may, they have no leads on the homicide case.  Suddenly, Lulinus volunteers himself.  “I will go and admit to the crime,” he says.
Seeing what his brother is about to do, Papus jumps to his feet.  “There’s no way I will let you die.  I’m going instead.”
“I’m sorry, dear brother,” replies Lulinus, “I said first.”  And they begin fighting with one another until finally they decide to face the guillotine together.

What makes their story so special is that they did not just see each other as brothers, everyone was their brother.  Their love for their fellow community members was as powerful as the love one has for a family member, and that’s why they were willing to sacrifice themselves.   By teaching that they were brothers and executed together, the Talmud is instructing us the lengths to which we must go for those around us.  Everyone is your brother and sister and the thought of any other person perishing or even suffering should devastate you.

How far are you willing to go to help someone in need?  If it was your brother, would you act differently?  If it was your own child, would you be more sensitive to his plight? 

The Talmud teaches us that we are all responsible for one another.  We are all part of one great body.  When your toe hurts, you don’t simply dismiss it and say, ‘Well, it’s not me.  I’m the hand.’  If any part of the body is suffering, the entire body suffers.   And this is true whether we are dealing with physical or spiritual pain.

What are you doing to alleviate your brother’s suffering?  Does it pain you that your sister is in pain?  The ultimate love of your fellow is when you can truly feel their pain.  Love your fellow as yourself and do whatever you can to alleviate their suffering!

Escape the Pitfalls of your Grandparents!

Taanis 17

There is a chasidisher mayseh (Chasidic story) related to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave that tells of an innkeeper who is unable to pay the rent on his inn.  The squire landlord throws him and his wife into a pit and seizes control of the inn.  Taking pity upon the unfortunate souls, the squire’s daughter secretly sends food down into the pit each day so that they do not starve to death. 

This scene continues for many years and on her deathbed, the righteous lady instructs her children to continue to feed the family, beginning a family tradition of righteous mercy that goes on for generations.  Meanwhile, in the pit, children are born to the innkeeper and his wife and then grandchildren and great-grandchildren.   While the original occupants of the pit remember the world outside, as time passes the message of the elders begins to become myth.  It’s a nice story, but life is good inside the pit.  Schools are built and industry begins to flourish.   Who needs an imaginary world outside? 

The priestly families were divided into twenty four divisions, called ‘mishmor’, each of which served a weekly rotation in the Holy Temple.  Every mishmor was then subdivided into seven, for each day of the week, called the ‘beis av’.  Although each beis av only served one day, they were required to be present in Jerusalem throughout the entire week of their mishmor. 

The Rabbis taught:  Why did they say that members of the mishmor are permitted to drink wine at night but not during the day?  It is so that in the case where the members of the beis av were overburdened on their shift, their fellow mishmor members could step in to assist them.   Why did they say that members of the beis av are forbidden to drink wine day or night?  It is because they are occupied constantly in the Temple service. 

From this teaching, the Rabbis instructed that even nowadays, in the absence of the Holy Temple any cohen (priest) that knows which mishmor and beis av he comes from and knows that his family was part of the Temple schedule, is forbidden to drink wine on that day just in case the Messiah comes and he is immediately called upon to serve.  If he knows which mishmor he belongs to but does not know which beis av, and he knows that his family was part of the Temple schedule, he is forbidden to drink wine that entire week.  If he does not know which beis av or mishmor he belongs to but he knows that his family was part of the Temple schedule, he is forbidden to drink wine the entire year, since any day of the year might be his appointed time of service.   Rebbe says, “In my opinion, every cohen should be forbidden to drink wine anytime, since they might all be called upon to serve at the inauguration ceremony of the Third Temple, but what can I do?   Their fix is due to their downfall!”

Rashi explains Rebbe’s rationale for permitting wine to all priests at all times.  Since the Holy Temple has lain in ruins for so many years, the priests have experienced the downfall of being unable to serve.  Consequently, the priests have the fix of being allowed to drink wine anytime, since they are no longer constantly worried that the Temple will be immediately rebuilt. 

How tragic!  The fix that allows the priests to drink wine is that they have long forgotten their true calling in life!  They may drink wine because they are no longer yearning for the day that the Temple will be rebuilt.  They are like the family in the pit that has long since dismissed the story of the beautiful world outside as an ancient myth.  Life moves on and unshackled by the burden of history, they can enjoy what they have today.  If they only knew what they were missing!

The same is true for all of us in our own lives.  Who wants to deal with the hassle of keeping Shabbos or kosher?  Of putting on tefillin every day and being burdened with commandments?  So at some point, many of us had a grandparent or great-grandparent who said, ‘Why bother?  My life is fine without that ancient myth.’  And they dropped it all.

But life is not the same.  The gift of Shabbos is gone.  The ability to have a relationship with the Almighty is gone.  And of course, the greatest tragedy is that the ultimate reward outside the pit of this world – Olam Haba (the World to Come) – will be out of reach for generations of children and grandchildren who never knew G-d’s purpose for us on earth.

You have the power to change the course of history for yourself, your children, your grandchildren and all generations to come.  Know that the world outside the pit is real.  It is very real.  The world that you see around you is the myth.  It is a short-term fix until you can return to reality.  All the effort is worth it because one day you will see a beautiful world beyond your wildest imagination.

Look forward to that day and prepare yourself for your elevation to the real world!

Friday, 27 June 2014

Do Jewish Values change?

Taanis 16

What are Jewish values?  Nowadays, people will justify all manner of campaign and cause in the name of Jewish values.  According to the recent Pew study, almost half the people polled believed that having a good sense of humour was an important Jewish value! 

What are Jewish values?

Abraham offered Isaac as a sacrifice upon Mount Moriah.  What is the meaning of the name Moriah?  According to Rabbi Levi the son of Chama, the word is related to ‘horaah,’ meaning instruction.  The word Torah comes from the same root.  Since horaah came from the mountain, it is called Moriah.  According to Rabbi Chanina, the word is related to ‘mora’ meaning fear, since it is the “mountain from where fear came forth for idol-worshippers.”

Rashi explains Rabbi Levi’s teaching based on the words of Isaiah, “For from Zion shall go forth Torah.”   The Prophets and Sages who were the moral compass of the world gave their instructional message from Mount Moriah.  He elucidates Rabbi Chanina’s teaching as referring to the fear held by those who would ignore the great message emanating forth from Jerusalem and the Jewish people.

We were given a special gift from the Almighty called the Torah.  The Torah is an instruction manual or guidebook charting the course of Heavenly morality.    Without the Torah, who is to say what’s right or wrong?  Everyone has their own personal feelings!  The Torah gives us a basic standard for ethical living.

“From Zion shall go forth Torah,” means that the nation of Israel was entrusted with the special role of teaching morality to the world.  At times, the world has embraced our message, but often it has been rejected out of a deep-seated fear of what a moral, ethical life entails.   We should not be surprised, says the Talmud – the twin factors of instruction (horaah) and fear (mora) were woven into the very fabric of Mount Moriah.

There is a puzzling phenomenon amongst many Jews today that twists this role of instruction.  Instead of conveying the Torah’s standard of morality to the world, they believe that their role is to convey the world’s standard of morality to the Torah!   And by some befuddled understanding, they then contend that they are promoting Jewish values!   How can you teach the Torah what Jewish values are?!

Jewish values are extraordinary because they are eternal and unchanging.  G-d gave us a piece of Heaven that does not need improving – the Torah is His wisdom, it is a perfect work.   Our job is to unabashedly instruct the world what the Almighty expects of humankind. 

Some people think that chutzpah is a Jewish value.  That may be so, as long as we don’t try and use it on G-d.  His ways are perfect, His wisdom is perfect.  Any suggestion to the contrary is just chutzpah and a sad confusion of what Jewish values truly are. 

Fulfill your mission on earth.  Teach the world true Jewish values!  

Thursday, 26 June 2014

The Secret of Eternal Joy

Taanis 15

There are two types of Jews in this world, those who love G-d and those who love humanity.  You see it all the time.   On the one hand, you’ve got people who are so pious when it comes to serving G-d and yet when it comes to interpersonal relations, they fail miserably.  And on the other hand, some people dedicate their lives to helping others, but are lax in their service of G-d.  Are the two sides of the Tablets – that separate our Divine relationship from our human relationships – mutually exclusive?

King David writes in Psalms, “A light is planted for the righteous; and for the upright-hearted, there is joy.”

Rabbi Nachman the son of Isaac explains: Not everyone is rewarded with Heavenly light nor is everyone rewarded with Heavenly joy.  The righteous are rewarded with light and the upright-hearted are rewarded with joy.  Rashi explains: Only the upright-hearted receive Heavenly joy, because being upright-hearted is better than being righteous.

Elsewhere, the Talmud gives the definition of ‘righteous’ as one who follows the strict letter of the law.  He does no more, because he is not obligated to do any more than the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) tells him to do.  

By contrast, one who is ‘pious’ or ‘upright’ understands that there is the letter of the law but there is also the spirit of the law.  If you love G-d, why would you just want to do the bare minimum for Him?  One who is upright looks for ways to serve Him even more devoutly.

What is the meaning of King David’s term ‘upright-hearted’?   It’s a combination of ‘upright’ and ‘goodhearted.’  We have two general types of mitzvos – those between us and G-d, and those between us and our fellow man.   Upright is the term applied to one who goes above and beyond the letter of the law in the service of G-d.  Goodhearted is the appellation granted to one who goes above and beyond the letter of the law in the service of man.

Very few people achieve the level of ‘upright-hearted.’  We either excel in one service or the other.  Not to say that we don’t do the basics in the other area.  But we end up being merely ‘righteous’ – doing the bare minimum we are obligated to do. 

The Almighty wants you to be excellent in your performance of mitzvos!  He wants to grant you Eternal Joy!  In order to get that, you must strive to be upright-hearted.  Most people do not achieve such a level – hey, most people probably couldn’t even call themselves ‘righteous.’  But we all have the propensity to achieve greatness.  

Shoot for upright-heartedness!  You deserve Eternal Heavenly Joy!  It takes a real commitment to G-d and man.  It takes thinking about how you can go beyond the letter of the law and not just do the basic minimum to get by.   But you are destined for excellence, why settle for just getting by?   Strive for love of G-d and man today!

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Prayer: Do you feel like you're talking to a brick wall?

Taanis 14

Why do most people find prayer so difficult?

The answer is simple.  We are frustrated because at some point in our lives we davened and davened (prayed) and nothing changed.  Maybe you were davening for an ill loved one to recover and they did not.  Maybe you were davening for career assistance and the dream job that would have solved all your problems never materialized.

You poured out your heart before the Almighty.  You spent hours concentrating on every word.  And then – it was all for naught.  And so the next time you’re called upon to pray for something, you think, ‘Why bother?  All that effort for what?’

The problem is that most people do not appreciate the function and process of prayer.  If we would, then we would not give up.

The Mishnah teaches: For the following woes we cry out even on Shabbos – for a city that was surrounded by a foreign army, for a river that overflowed [and threatens to flood the shores] and for a ship that is caught in stormy seas.  Rabbi Yossi says, “We may cry out for mortal assistance but not for Divine assistance.”

Rashi elucidates Rabbi Yossi’s position:  We generally avoid beseeching G-d for our needs on Shabbos, unless it is of urgent necessity and we need Him to respond immediately.  In the situations in this Mishnah, which are major calamities, we are not sure that G-d will respond to our prayers and therefore we should not profane the Sabbath unnecessarily. 

All prayers are answered.  But not all prayers are answered the way we want them to be answered.  Rabbi Yossi here goes so far as to prohibit prayers that will unlikely have the results we seek.  But if there’s no guarantee that G-d will respond to our prayers, why bother praying on Sunday or Monday?

The answer is that prayer is a mitzvah.  Rabbi Matisyahu Salomon likens it to the mitzvah of esrog.  What happens when you shake the lulav and esrog on Sukkos?  I have no idea.  But I believe something happens, otherwise I wouldn’t waste my time and money on it.

Mitzvos between man and his fellow man are visible.  We can easily see the consequences of giving tzedakah or helping an old lady cross the street.  In contrast, the consequences of mitzvos between man and G-d are not readily discernible. 

Prayer is one such mitzvah.  When calamity befalls us, the Torah instructs us to pray.  That is the mitzvah.  Sometimes the consequence of that mitzvah is that the Heavenly decree is annulled or ameliorated.  But sometimes it’s not.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the prayers went unanswered.  Just like any mitzvah, you will be rewarded for your efforts in this world and the next.  Just perhaps not the way you desired and anticipated.  That’s beyond our comprehension; it is G-d’s purview.

Don’t give up on your prayers!  They are turning worlds over!  You may not always see the results but the Almighty wants to hear your voice!  It’s not easy to pray, but rest assured that G-d is always listening!

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

All Hands on Deck are needed to Rebuild the Temple!

Taanis 13

Heralded as a major wake-up call, the recent Pew study on the state of the Jews in America really achieved nothing.   Sure, it was an interesting snapshot, but nothing will change.  Non-Orthodox Jews are not willing to take the leap of faith needed to make a commitment to a Judaism that is sustainable.

And the response of the Orthodox was predictable. ‘See, we told you so,’ was the typical attitude, if they even bothered reading it at all.  After all, most of the Orthodox community confines itself to a few enclaves in New York and Israel, and does its best to keep insulated from the outside world.

The two most solemn days on the Jewish calendar are Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av (the 9th Av).  The former is the Day of Atonement and the latter is the day of national mourning for the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.  Five activities are prohibited on these two days: eating, washing, anointing, wearing leather shoes, and marital relations.

The Beraisa teaches: [Despite the prohibition against washing] anyone who is obligated to immerse in the mikvah may immerse in the regular manner whether on 9th Av or on Yom Kippur.  Rabbi Chanina the deputy High Priest exclaimed, “The House of G-d is worthy to have immersion missed for its sake once a year!”

When you immerse in the mikvah, you become purified and spiritually refreshed, returning to a level of completeness that was lacking prior to immersion.  Imagine how you would feel walking out of the mikvah on the 9th Av on your spiritual high.  You walk past everyone sitting on the ground in mourning, praying for redemption and you think to yourself, ‘I already feel redeemed!’ 

Such an attitude is totally inappropriate, says Rabbi Chanina.  You cannot experience personal redemption while the nation as a whole is suffering.   No point going to the mikvah and becoming cleansed when everyone else is still unredeemed.

Members of the Orthodox community who choose to shut themselves off from the rest of the Jewish people are like that person who goes to mikvah on Tisha B’Av.  What’s the point?  Who are you kidding?  Have you no empathy for anyone else?  Seriously, is it all just about you?

It’s time for Orthodox Jews to stop practicing a brand of Judaism that is ridiculous.  Personal redemption is meaningless if the world is still unredeemed.  You can’t rebuild the Temple by purifying yourself.  Redemption is a national event.   If you truly seek redemption, start looking outside the walls of the mikvah to see what’s going on with the nation as a whole.

Be part of the solution!  Seek redemption for our nation, not just for yourself!  And convince your friends to do the same.  Each of us must do our part to awaken the nation as a whole to redemption!  

Birthdays vs. Anniversaries: Which are more important?

Taanis 12

“What’s more important an anniversary or a birthday?” Cecil asked me, “I’m in two minds whether to go home to South Africa this year for my old man’s seventieth birthday or next year for my folks’ fortieth wedding anniversary.  Of course I’d love to go for both, but it’s way too expensive!  What do you suggest, Rabbi?”
“How are your parents doing?  Are they in good health?” I inquired.   Sometimes it’s not a good idea to delay a visit.
“Yes, thank G-d, they keep in great shape, may they live till 120!” 

Which occasion is more significant in Judaism – birthdays or anniversaries?

When the Jews returned to Israel from exile in Babylonia, they wanted to reinstitute the Temple service, but there was an acute shortage of communal resources.   Nine families stepped up to the plate and offered to cover the costs of wood for the altar.   As time went on, the economic situation improved and there was no need for the individual families’ donations.  Nevertheless, in recognition of their original dedication, they were each accorded one day a year to contribute the wood.  The families celebrated their day as a personal family festival.

Rabbi Chisda taught: Any fast that one does not complete until nightfall is not called a fast.

The Talmud questions this teaching from a story told by Rabbi Eliezer the son of Tzadok.
“I am a descendent of Son-of the son of Benjamin.  One time, the 9th Av (a day of national tragedy, observed as a public fast) fell on Shabbat.  The fast was postponed to Sunday (since there is no mourning on the Sabbath).  Our family fasted [so as not to separate ourselves from the community] but we did not complete the fast, because that day (the 10th Av) is our family festival [of the wood contribution].”

Here, the Son-of family didn’t complete their fast, but they still partially fasted.   The Talmud infers that, contrary to Rabbi Chisda’s opinion, an incomplete fast is still deemed a fast.  The Talmud concludes, however, that they didn’t really need to fast since it was not the actual day of the 9th Av.  They simply did not want to be in complete celebration mode when everyone else was in mourning and so they too afflicted themselves a little. 

Our purpose in life is to contribute.  The more we contribute in life, the more we have fulfilled our Divine mission.  Babies are pure takers.  As we mature, hopefully we take less and less and begin to give back.   The festival of the wood-contribution was so important that it overrode the Son-of family’s obligation to fast!  Such is the significance and value accorded to contribution! 

Birthdays are wonderful but they don’t celebrate any personal achievement.  The only thing you achieved by your birthday is that you managed not to die over the last twelve months!  It’s certainly an opportunity to thank the Almighty for granting you the health to reach another birthday and to think about all the goodness He has given you in life.  But in terms of your accomplishments, it really doesn’t signify anything.

Anniversaries, however, are extremely meaningful.  There are two major milestones in life that reflect our ultimate purpose on earth.  When one is single, it’s all about ME.  No need to worry about anyone else.  I can come and go as I please, spend money as I please, say and do whatever I like.  But then you get married and everything changes.  Suddenly it’s all about giving your life to someone else. 

Why would anyone do that?  The answer is that our purpose in life is to give.  Marriage is about unconditional giving.  Of course, the second milestone is having children – at that point, it’s completely about selfless giving.  You can never expect to get back the hundreds of thousands of dollars and hours you have given your kids!

And so every year, on your wedding anniversary, it is surely a cause for celebration.  It is the celebration of contribution.  You have given of yourself to someone else selflessly for another year!  That’s the purpose of life, that’s worth celebrating!

Always remember why you are here.  You were given this mortal life to be a contributor, to be a giver.  The more you give, the greater your accomplishment.  Become an achiever today – become a giver today!  And then you will have much to celebrate!

Monday, 23 June 2014

Why do the righteous suffer while the wicked prosper?

Taanis 11

One of the tenets of our faith is the belief in reward and punishment.  Twice a day, we read in the second paragraph of the Shema prayer that the Almighty rewards our good behaviour and punishes us if we transgress His Word.

And yet we see many righteous people leading extremely challenging lives and no shortage of sinners who seem to have pretty good lives!  It doesn’t seem to add up, does it?

Why do the righteous suffer while the wicked prosper?

The Torah states that Hashem is a “G-d of faithfulness without error, He is righteous and fair.”

The Talmud explains each clause.  What is the meaning of “G-d of faithfulness”?  Just like the wicked will be punished in the World to Come for the lightest sin they have transgressed, so too are the righteous punished in this world for the lightest sin.

What is the meaning of “without error”?  Just like the righteous will be rewarded in the World to Come for the lightest mitzvah they have performed, so too are the wicked rewarded in this world for the lightest mitzvah.

And the meaning of “He is righteous and straight”?  Our Sages teach that when a person passes from this world, all of his deeds pass before him and they say to him ‘You did such and such an action in this place on that day’ and he responds ‘Yes.’  And they tell him ‘Sign here!’ and he signs, as the verse states in Job, “He shall sign by the hand of each person.”  Moreover, they make him acknowledge the veracity of the judgment, as he will say to them ‘You have judged me well,’ thereby fulfilling King David’s dictum, “For the sake of your righteousness by your words.” 

Imagine you could package all of the pleasures of a lifetime into a box and open it up to have one extreme moment of pleasure.   That intense feeling would give you a sense of the magnificent reward in store for you in the World to Come.   Every moment in Heaven is pleasurable beyond your wildest dreams.  And so if you are righteous, G-d wants to maximize that reward for you. 

But let’s be realistic.  Nobody’s perfect, right?   We all have our shortcomings and skeletons in the closet.  And so G-d says, “Look, I get it.  I know you’re not perfect, son.  How about I punish you in this world, which will hurt a little – but nothing compared to the heat of the Afterlife – and then I can give you unlimited pleasure in the World to Come?”

And on the flipside, G-d always recompenses any mitzvah that anyone performs.  And let’s be honest, most people, however wicked they might be, have some redeeming qualities.  So G-d says, “I gotta tell you, I really want them to get their just desserts in the Afterlife, for all the pain they caused in this world.  So how about I reward them for their good deeds now – we can get that out of the way – and then give them what they deserve in the World to Come?!” 

This world isn’t WYSIWYG!  What you see in this world isn’t what you get.  This world is merely a hallway that leads to the World to Come.  Sometimes what we are seeing in this world is G-d finessing the situation so that He can place people where they belong in the World of Truth.

He is a “G-d of faithfulness without error.  He is righteous and fair.”  Trust Him – He knows what He is doing!  We are mere mortals, unable to see the whole picture.   But one day, when you’re on the other side, you will say ‘Wow, I’d never have seen that one coming!”  For the moment, just know that G-d doesn’t make mistakes, He loves good deeds and will faithfully recompense the righteous in due course!

Sunday, 22 June 2014

If G-d is good, why is there evil in the world?

Taanis 10

If G-d is good, why does He allow evil and suffering?

In his bestselling book, Harold Kushner suggests that perhaps G-d is not in control of events in this world. 

Traditional Judaism teaches that G-d is indeed in control and that G-d is good, nay perfect.  How could He be good on the one hand, and allow evil on the other hand?

The Rabbis taught: Egypt is four hundred parsas (approx. a thousand miles) by four hundred parsas, which is one sixtieth of the size of Ethiopia.  Ethiopia is one sixtieth of the world, which is one sixtieth of the size of the Garden of Eden.  The Garden is one sixtieth of the size of Eden itself and Eden is one sixtieth of the size of Hell.   The result is that the entire world is like a pot lid compared to Hell.  Some say Hell has no limit.  Others say Eden has no limit.

In ancient times, Egypt was the most beautiful country in the world.  Quenched by the Nile, Egypt was famous far and wide for its rich agricultural resources and abundant prosperity.  Situated at the crossroads of Africa, Asia and Europe, Egypt was an economic hub and important trade route.

In contrast, Ethiopia has forever been mired in famine and strife.   The Midrash teaches that Moses passed through and resolved a civil war, subsequently being appointed emperor for forty years.   No sooner had he left, however, that the country once again sunk into sectarian violence.  Until our day, we have seen the devastating effects of war and famine upon the inhabitants of Ethiopia.

The Rabbis here are teaching us that for all the happiness and prosperity in the world, there is abundantly more suffering.   We are taught that Egypt is four hundred by four hundred parsas.  The significance of the number four hundred is that it is the gematria (numerical value) of the ‘evil eye.’  Material prosperity, explains the Talmud, is fleeting, since it is always at the mercy of the forces of nature.

In fact, Egypt is merely one sixtieth of the size of Ethiopia.  Sixty is the number in Jewish law of negation.  If, for example, a drop of milk falls into a pot of meat soup, but it is less than one sixtieth, it becomes nullified.  The Rabbis’ message is that prosperity in this world is nullified in the totality of suffering in the world.  Why?

Our purpose in this world is to be challenged.  If everything were good, what would our purpose be?  It is only by means of difficulty and challenges that we are able to grow, thereby fulfilling our souls’ missions in this world. 

When we succeed at overcoming the challenges of this world or not losing faith in the Almighty in the face of adversity, we are rewarded in the World to Come.  When we imagine Paradise, the most creative picture we can conjure up is one of the Garden of Eden.   The Talmud here points out that if Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, one can only imagine how beautiful Eden itself must be!

In Judaism, it’s not as simple as two options: heaven or hell.  You can achieve a certain level of heaven, while others have achieved a better level.  The Garden is one level of reward, but it doesn’t compare to the house of Eden! 

Sadly, however, too many people fail the tests of life and end up regretting their time on earth.  Thus, hell is massive.  Hell, in Judaism, is the eternal regret that one endures, thinking about missed opportunities during your lifetime.   Here we can forgive ourselves – in the World of Truth, however, there’s no lying to ourselves anymore.  The pain of those memories of opportunities lost is excruciating.

While Judaism doesn’t have the notion of ‘eternal damnation’ per se, “Hell has no limit.”  We believe that sins and merits do not cancel one another out.  What that means is that you could be sitting in Heaven, enjoying the fruits of the Garden of Eden, and at the same time living with the regret of missed opportunities in this world.  In other words, the pleasure and pain of eternity are concurrent.

The good news is that “Eden [also] has no limit.”  Despite all the apparent suffering in this world, if we would stop for a moment and think about all the blessing the Almighty has bestowed upon us, we would be eternally grateful.  His bounty far outweighs the challenges! 

And so too in the World to Come, G-d’s mercy and loving-kindness have no limit.  Hell is not punishment for punishment’s sake.  G-d wants to cleanse us of our iniquities in this world so that He can offer us eternal reward.  And so, when you think about it, Hell is really Eden in disguise – it’s G-d’s blessing to help us! 

There is an old Chasidic idea that says ‘Some people in life receive the test of poverty, others receive the test of wealth.  Given the choice, I’d take the latter test!’  May we all be blessed in this life and in the next with abundant prosperity and may we all meet the challenges that prosperity brings with it!  

The Talmud's Secret of Wealth

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Do you want to be wealthy beyond your wildest dreams?  You can have everything you ever wished for and more by following this one simple formula for success!  Our secret has been embedded in the Talmud for over a millennium.  The rest of the world has only recently discovered it.

But you deserve to know – this is your heritage.  It’s not rocket science; it just takes following the magic formula wisely and without cutting corners.  You can do it!

How do you become rich?

The Torah states, “Tithe, you shall [surely] tithe.” Why the double expression?
Rabbi Yochanan would relate the word ‘tithe’ (aser) to the word ‘rich’ (ashir) and explain that the Torah is teaching that if you properly apportion tithes, you will become wealthy.

He once encountered his nephew, the son of Resh Lakish.
Rabbi Yochanan asked “What verse are you studying?”
The boy replied, “Tithe, you shall [surely] tithe.”  But what does that mean?
Rabbi Yochanan answered, “Tithe to become rich.”
The boy was incredulous. “Seriously?” he exclaimed.
“Go and try it,” responded the rabbi.
“What are you talking about?” said the boy, “You can’t test the Almighty!  The Torah states: Thou shalt not test Hashem!”
The rabbi replied, “Let me tell you what Rabbi Hoshiya would say: This is the only exception when we may in fact test G-d.”

What was his proof?  The prophet Malachi announced, “Bring all your tithes to the Temple storehouse, so that there may be food in My House.  You can test Me with this, says G-d.  Shall I not open for you the windows of heaven and pour out unlimited blessing?”  Rabbi Bar Chama adds: The meaning of ‘unlimited’ is that your lips will be so sore from saying ‘Enough already!’

When the boy heard this teaching, he was astounded and replied to his uncle, “Wow, had I reached that verse in Malachi, I wouldn’t have needed your help or Rabbi Hoshiya’s explanation!”

Tosfos tells the story of a wealthy individual whose field would produce a million dollars’ worth of produce each year.  The man would dutifully separate $100k as tithes every year throughout his life.

One day, he took ill.  He was lying on his deathbed and called over his son and said, “Son, you should know that this field that I am bequeathing to you produces a million bucks’ worth each and every year.  Make sure to separate $100k as I’ve always done.” And he died.

Sure enough, that year, the field made a million dollars and the young man tithed $100k.  The next year, however, the son looked at the books and realized how much money he had given away and decided not to give that year.

The following year was a disaster.  The field only made a hundred thousand!  The man was devastated.

Upon hearing of his loss and earlier decision not to tithe, his relatives came to visit him.  They were all dressed up for the occasion and beaming with joy.   
“Why are you so happy about my ruin?” the man asked.
“Actually, we’re upset that you’ve caused yourself all this damage.  Why didn’t you properly apportion the tithes?  Think about it: When you originally inherited the field, you were the landowner and G-d was the priest.  The tithes were His portion for distribution to the poor.  Now that you neglected to give Him His portion, G-d become the landowner and you are the priest since your field is no longer producing a million dollars’ worth.  Instead, He apportioned you the tithe of $100k!”

The Almighty wants you to prosper!  He wants you to be happy in this world!  Judaism has never looked askance upon material wealth.  As long as you give your tithes faithfully, you are doing what G-d wants and He will increase His blessing! 

You deserve to be rich beyond your wildest imagination.  Do your part for the Priest and He will do His part.   He wants you to be happy and He wants you to be successful.  Just follow the magic formula and He will do the rest!

Thursday, 19 June 2014

Is your Red String Kabalah Bracelet authentic?

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In late 2011, a short-lived movement sprang up around the world called Occupy.  They claimed that they were the 99% of ordinary people, while a mere 1% live in abundant affluence.   The Talmud offers the same equation regarding death.  Only 1% of people die naturally, while the other 99% die due to the evil eye (ayin hara)! 

What is the evil eye?

Rabbi Jacob Sakili (in his thirteenth century work Toras Hamincha) explains that the evil eye is an eye that desires that which is not his.  In other words, the evil eye is caused by jealousy.  The eye sees and covets and the jealous impulse then incubates in one’s mind.  But how does it affect the other person?

Rabbi Nissim of Gerona explains that the mind and the soul are one and the same.   Part of your soul resides inside your body and part of it is outside.  When you think evil thoughts about someone else (due to jealousy), your soul has the power to negatively affect that other person.  It does so by travelling beyond the confines of your physical body and meddling in the other person’s affairs.  Such is the power of the evil eye.

How do you avoid being harmed by the evil eye?

The Torah states, “G-d will charge you with blessing in your silos.”  Why does the Torah not say ‘G-d will charge you with blessing in your fields’?

Rabbi Isaac explains: Blessing is only found in something that is hidden from the eye.  Similarly they explained in the yeshiva of Rabbi Ishmael: Blessing is only found in something that the eye has no control over.

Many people believe that they can guard themselves from the ‘spell’ of the evil eye by wearing red strings and the like.  Maybe they achieve some sort of mystical protection, maybe they don’t – that’s way above my pay-grade.

The Torah teaches us that the best protection from the evil eye is to hide oneself from its clutches.  If you show the world everything you’ve got, you can expect that there will be jealous people out there who, consciously or unwittingly, will give you the evil eye.

If instead you avoid ostentation and live your life “hidden from the eye,” then the Almighty can bestow His blessing upon you unimpeded.   G-d wants to bless you, but if your neighbour is casting an evil eye upon your lot, G-d’s blessing will not be able to take hold.

G-d wants you to be prosperous and live a good life in this world.  Don’t mess up His plans by feeling that you have to brag to everyone.  The less you show, the better off you will be.  If there’s nobody to cast an evil eye, G-d can provide you with an abundant flow of uninhibited blessing.

Don’t be the 99%!  You can be the 1% who is not negatively impacted by the evil eye!  All it takes is modesty and discretion and you can have everything you wish for in life!

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Become a Talmid Chartscroll!

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Yankel considers himself a learned man.  He’ll always give you his opinion on matters of Halacha (Jewish law) and he confidently quotes the Talmud.  

I once asked Yankel to show me where in the Talmud his interesting idea was.  He eventually came back to me with his dubious source.   Not only did the Talmud say nothing of the sort, but I was flabbergasted as I listened to him break his teeth over a few basic words in Aramaic he read from his Artscroll Gemara!

King Solomon wrote in Proverbs, “Just as iron sharpens iron, so does man sharpen his friend.”  Rabbi Chama the son of Chanina explains: Just as one piece of iron sharpens another, similarly Torah scholars sharpen one another in Jewish law.

The prophet Jeremiah famously announced, “Are these words of Mine not like fire? Thus says G-d.”  Rabba the grandson of Chana explains: Just like a single piece of wood cannot ignite a flame, similarly words of Torah cannot be sustained by a lone individual.

The Torah was not designed to be a written document.  Certainly, much of the Torah is written, but most of it is oral teaching.  The reason for the Torah’s oral transmission is that one can only truly master the Torah when one verbalizes one’s learning with a friend.

The more you speak out your thoughts and listen to your friend’s responses, the sharper your understanding becomes.  There is nobody in the world who has become a talmid chacham (Torah scholar) by means of self-directed private study.  If you want to grasp the Torah, you need a Torah teacher, you need Torah peers, and ultimately, you need Torah students.

With the information explosion of our generation, it is very tempting to lock yourself in a room with an internet connection and an Artscroll subscription thinking that you can achieve Torah mastery that way.   It won’t work.  You may gather some information, but you won’t have learned Torah.  You might become a Talmid Chartscroll, but you'll never become a Talmid Chacham.

Torah takes comprehension.  Torah takes sharpening.  Torah takes fire.  Ever walked into a beis medrash (Torah study hall) and watched the yeshiva bachurim (boys)?  They’re alive – they’re on fire!  You can only achieve that when you are learning with others. 

Find a study partner – your Torah experience will be worlds apart from anything you’ve ever experienced!

NB  This is not, G-d forbid, an indictment of Artscroll.  I regularly seek guidance from their myriad seforim, including the Schottenstein Talmud.  But, as the front cover warns, it should only be used "as an aid to Talmud study," not the starting point!

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

How to be an Incredible Teacher

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Isn’t it amazing how in one family you can have a child who is a genius and incredibly dedicated to her studies and then the next kid just hates school and is always scoring poor grades?!

That was the story of the Goldberg family.   Shaindy, their eldest was consistently top of her class.  Her head was constantly buried in a book and she loved school.  Her little sister, Eva, however, absolutely detested going to school.  They couldn’t get her out of bed in the morning.  She never seemed to have any homework.  And this was a kid of all but seven years old – Sally and Henry dreaded the day when they would have to deal with her as a teenager!

All that changed when Eva entered Rabbi Eliyahu Glatt’s third grade class.   Rabbi Glatt is the most incredible teacher I have ever met.  Suddenly, Eva was loving school.  She was scoring straight A’s and she adored reading.   All thanks to Rabbi Glatt!

What makes a good teacher?

In the second paragraph of the Shema, the Almighty offers the following blessing: “I shall provide the showers of your land in the right time, yoreh (early rains) and malkosh (late rains) and you will gather your grain and your wine and your oil.”

Why are the early rains called ‘yoreh’?

The Rabbis offer three reasons.
1. Yoreh is from the word ‘l’horot,’ meaning instruction.  Rain doesn’t just water the field.  The first rains also instruct people to plaster their roofs, to bring in their fruit which are drying outside and to take care of all their needs prior to the onset of the heavy rains.
2. Yoreh is from the word ‘l’ravot,’ meaning to quench thirst.  The job of the first rain is to saturate the earth and water it to the great deep. 
3. Yoreh is from the word ‘lirot,’ meaning to aim and shoot.  The first rain falls directly without violently being blown around stormily.  Instead it falls gently. 

You’re probably thinking, ‘Yoreh also sounds like Torah.’  Are the words related?  Of course they are.  Torah comes from the word ‘l’horot,’ meaning instruction, as the Torah is our guidebook.   And so the first meaning given by the Gemara behind the word for ‘early rain,’ is instruction or teaching Torah. 

We may not all be a Rabbi Glatt, but we are all required to teach Torah.  This obligation is found in the first paragraph of the Shema, where we read, “And you shall teach them to your children.”  In fact, our Sages explain that anyone you teach Torah to becomes your spiritual child!

So how do we become effective Torah teachers?  The Talmud offers three directives.
1.  The first rains don’t just water the fields; they take care of all of the needs of the people.  Similarly, a good teacher truly cares for her students.  It’s not just about the subject matter – a good teacher is involved personally in their students’ general lives and wellbeing.
2.  The first rains don’t merely sprinkle the surface of the field.  They saturate the earth to the great deep.  Similarly, a good teacher doesn’t just give her class and hope for the best.  She works hard to ascertain that the material has completely permeated the students’ entire being.  Once that happens, she can rest assured that they have truly understood the lesson.
3.  The first rains don’t move about frantically; rather, they descend gently.  Similarly, a good teacher understands that she must teach calmly if she wants the students to absorb the material.  One of the most important requirements of a good teacher is the attribute of patience.

You too can be an amazing teacher!  We all have a mitzvah to teach others.  Find children to teach.  Find adults to teach.  But remember that teaching is a skill.  Practice the methods of horaah (instruction) described by the Talmud and they will say of you “yoreh” – he shall teach!

Monday, 16 June 2014

How to make Chips Off the Old Block

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James and Terrie dragged their son Joey in by the scruff of his neck to see me.
“Rabbi, you gotta talk some sense into him,” they shouted, “we found him smoking weed behind the shed.”
I was shocked.  Joey was a good kid.  Just two years ago, he’d done a brilliant job for his bar-mitzvah.  How had this happened? 

I asked them whether they had ever smoked marijuana.  If they had, I thought, they might be able to impress upon their son the ill-effects of the drug.  They asked Joey to leave the room and then admitted to me that they still smoked up on occasion with friends.
“And you expect him to be clean?!” I exclaimed incredulously.
“Yes, we do.  We realize that we’re not perfect, but we hope that he’ll do better in life.”

When Rabbi Nachman was departing from Rabbi Isaac, he asked him for a blessing.  He responded with a parable: A fellow was walking along in the desert and he was hungry, tired and thirsty, when he happens upon a tree.  Its fruit were sweet, its shade was pleasant, and a stream of water passed below.   He ate the fruit, drank the water and rested in the shade. 

When the fellow was finally ready to depart, he exclaimed, “Tree, O tree, how shall I bless you?  If I shall wish that your fruits be sweet, behold your fruits are already sweet!  That your shade be pleasant – behold, your shade is already pleasant!  That a stream of water may pass below you – behold a stream of water already passes below you!  Rather, may it be G-d’s will that all shoots planted from you be just like you.”

“Similarly with you,” continued Rabbi Isaac to Rabbi Nachman, “how can I bless you?  If I were to bless you with success in Torah scholarship, you are already a scholar!  If I were to bless you with wealth, you are already wealthy!  If with children, you already have children!  Rather, may it be G-d’s will that your offspring be just like you.”

Many people want their kids to be better than themselves.   You’re not perfect, but you want your kids to be perfect.  You may not be a great Torah scholar yourself, but you want your kids to become successful in Torah.  You smoke, but you don’t want your kids to ever touch a cigarette.  You bludged around in school leading to a mediocre career but they’re never allowed to leave their desks.

Rabbi Isaac teaches that there’s no magic wand you can wave to bring out the best in your kids.  They will model themselves after you.  How you choose to act will determine what they do.  If you want your kids to turn out awesome, then you better start striving to be awesome yourself! 

Don’t want them watching TV?  Start with curbing your own TV habits.  Don’t want them drinking?  Don’t go out drinking.  Want them to watch their language?  You’d better watch yours. 

You know you’ve made it when the best blessing you can hope for is that your offspring be ‘chips off the old block.’   Imagine Rabbi Isaac could turn around to you when you would ask for a blessing and apologize that there’s not much he can offer because you’re doing excellently in every sphere of life.

When that day comes, you will be well on the way to ensuring that your kids too are excellent, or in the words of Rabbi Isaac “just like you!”  

Sunday, 15 June 2014

How to achieve overnight success

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In 1963, four unknown lads from Liverpool recorded the LP Please Please Me, which shot to number one on charts worldwide.  The Beatles went on to become the most successful band of all time.  What was the secret of their overnight success?

Rava taught: A young scholar is like a seed in the hard ground.  Once it sprouts, it sprouts.

Rashi explains: Once a seed sprouts forth from the ground, there’s no stopping its growth.  Similarly, once a Torah scholar’s name is out there, his prominence never ceases to grow.  

In The Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell documents the incredible rise of the Beatles and other unbelievable success stories, such as that of Bill Gates.  He concludes that success never happens overnight.  Each of his case studies racked up over ten thousand hours of hard work before they achieved their respective breakthroughs.   Prior to being discovered, the Beatles had played thousands of hours in clubs in Hamburg, and Bill Gates had plugged away days and nights mastering programming long before most people had even heard of computers.

We often look at successful people and envy their rapid rise to the top, believing that they made it by some stroke of luck or a chance meeting with the right person.  It rarely happens like that.  Rava teaches us that the rapid rise of the tree was preceded by years of germination beneath the surface.

If you seek success in life, you must be prepared to put in the hours.   You need to invest the time and effort below the surface before you sprout forth.  Once you get your big break, the sky’s the limit!  But just to get to the surface takes incredible work and determination, the likes of which most people sadly lack. 

If you want to be that guy, you better be prepared to toil to get there!  

Fundraising 101

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Today’s Life Yomi is dedicated in memory of Binyamin ben Moshe z”l Morris by his daughter, Eve Friedman.   May the neshama have an aliya and be a good advocate in the Heavenly court for the family and all of klal Yisroel.

Rabbi Steven Weil, one of the most successful fundraisers in the country, quips that his old man expected that by now he would be writing major cheques to tzedakah, not asking for them.

We begin our lives as complete takers.  A baby cries and mommy nurses her.  A toddler kvetches and daddy responds.  A child needs and mommy gives.  A teenager asks and parents provide.

But as we become adults, the hope is that we take less and less and start contributing more and more.   When we marry, we give unconditionally to our spouse.  Bearing and rearing children is a complete act of selfless giving, as we invest hundreds of thousands of dollars into their upbringing with no expectation of receiving anything in return.  And ultimately, we must become contributors to our communities and the world.

Is taking from others ever a good thing?

The Book of Job states, “For He says to the snow: Be to the ground as showers of rain and showers of the rain of His strength.”   Why are five rains mentioned in connection with snow?

Rava taught: Snow is five times as good for the mountains as rain is for the ground. 

What is the purpose of rain on the ground?  The ground is nourished by the rain and with its help is able to bring forth vegetation. 

Snow on the mountaintop serves to compact the earth thereby decreasing erosion.  When the snow finally melts, it carries with it minerals to the land and lakes below.    Hence, the beautiful colours you see in lakes surrounded by mountains, such as Lake Louise in Alberta.

Just like the rain brings out the best in the ground and foments its identity as a source of nourishment, so too snow brings out the best in the mountain – its rich minerals – allowing it to become a source of nourishment to the rest of the earth.  What makes snow five times as powerful as rain is that it is higher up the proverbial food chain.  The earth and lakes need not only the rain from the sky above, but also the minerals from the mountains above.  Thus, the mountains are even greater providers of bounty than the earth!

As we strive to nourish others in this world, our goal is to contribute as much as we can.  We don’t want to be takers; we want to be complete givers.  When is taking a good thing?  Only when it brings out the best in us.

For example, our Sages teach that one who raises funds for tzedakah is even greater than the ones who are giving the money.  Fundraising takes incredible dedication to the cause.  But when you do so, you are using the snow to release your minerals!

Similarly, when it comes to teaching – your job in this world is to teach as much Torah to as many people as you can.  But learning from others brings out the best in you and makes you a much more effective teacher.  As Rabbi Chanina would say, “I have learned much from my teachers, even more from my colleagues, but most of all from my students!”

You were created to contribute as much as possible to the world.  The more you give the better you have fulfilled your mission on earth.  Give as much as you can and only take what you need to bring out the best in you!  

Friday, 13 June 2014

Cloning humans

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As science progresses at an unparalleled pace, man is increasingly beginning to think that he can control the universe.   In an effort to explain and have power over the the world, the ancients – who didn’t fathom the workings of nature – needed to turn to G-d.   But we, in our supreme wisdom, no longer need such archaic superstition.   We can control the universe.

We’ve already been able to clone a sheep.  One day soon, will we be able to clone human beings?

Rabbi Yochanan taught: The Almighty has three keys in His hand that were not handed to any messenger: The key of rain, the key of life, and the key of resurrection.

The key of rain, as the Torah states, “May G-d open his good treasure-house, the sky, for you, to give the rain of the land in its time.”
The key of life, how do we know?  As the Torah states, “G-d remembered Rachel and G-d listened to her and He opened her womb.”
The key of resurrection, how do we know?  As it is written in Scripture, “You shall know that I am Hashem as I open your graves.”

What do these keys represent and why does G-d have sole dominion over these three spheres?

Let’s begin with the key of resurrection.  Belief in techiyas hameisim – the resurrection – is one of the principles of Jewish faith.   Why wouldn’t someone believe in the notion of resurrection? 

The difficulty people have with such a belief is that they’ve never seen anything like it.  It completely defies the laws of nature.  It’s even more difficult to fathom than G-d or angels which are associated with spirituality.  Resurrection is bewildering because it is connected to nature and yet it is supernatural.  But if you believe that G-d can do anything then He can certainly raise the dead.  And thus, only G-d holds the key to resurrection.

Moving on to the key of rain.  International media pilloried Kim Jong Un of North Korea for his recent complaint to the country’s weather forecasters.  He told them that the economy was suffering because they kept giving bad reports.   Obviously he didn’t mean, as the media suggested, that they should give only good weather reports!  He wanted them to be more accurate in their forecasts.

But our ability to predict the weather is limited, let alone our ability to control the weather.  We can plant all the right seeds but if G-d doesn’t send the rain, we will not have food.  Only He controls the weather.  Unlike the sun and moon which appear every day like clockwork, the weather is very unpredictable.

That’s part of the reason for the heated debate over climate change.  People for whom science is a religion believe that we can ultimately achieve full control over nature.  And so if the weather patterns are changing then we are responsible.   Others who question man’s ability to master the universe are more skeptical of the notion of man-made climate change.  Of course, despite both sides’ entrenched polarized positions, the truth lies somewhere in between.  We must do whatever we can to protect the environment regardless.  But we know that ultimately the key is in the Almighty’s hand.

Finally, we have the key of life.  Once we accept that only G-d can raise the dead and only He has the ultimate say over the weather, it is easier to accept the fact that He holds the key to life.  Yes, we must do whatever we can, given the incredible advances of science, to assist those who are having difficulty conceiving.  After all, G-d granted us the wisdom of scientific discovery.  But at the end of the day, we recognize that He holds the key to life. 

We will never be able to create life.  Adam was a lifeless clod of earth until G-d “blew into his nostrils the breath of life.”  Our Sages explain that the meaning of this verse is that G-d gave Adam a soul.  Absent a soul, which only G-d can bestow, we could clone all the physical matter we want, but it will remain lifeless.  Only G-d holds the key to life.

The Talmudic Rabbis in the Land of Israel would add a fourth key, the key of parnassah – livelihood, as the verse states, “Open Your hand and satisfy all life according to Your will.”  When you acknowledge the Almighty as your true source of life and sustenance, He will bless you with health, wealth, good children and your ultimate reward at the End of Days!