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Thursday, 31 July 2014

Building Israel with a Spear in One Hand

Megillah 20

Start-up Nation: The Story of Israel's Economic Miracle tells the story of Israel’s incredible rise to the top of the hi-tech industry in the world.   The Jewish state has by far the most start-ups per capita and currently ranks number three overall after the US and China.

And yet, there is no comparable country in the world that has endured its entire existence under the threat of annihilation by its neighbours.  Israel has survived war after war in a region that refuses to acknowledge its basic legitimacy as a country.   At this very moment, we find ourselves in a bitter battle with an enemy whose entire raison d'ĂȘtre is to wipe us off the map.

How does Israel flourish in such a terribly hostile environment?

The Mishnah lists a number of mitzvos that must be performed during the day including the second Megillah reading and Bris Milah.   One should not perform these mitzvos until sunrise, but if one did them any time after dawn, one has still fulfilled one’s obligation.

How do we know that dawn is the beginning of the halachic (Jewish legal) day?

When the Jews returned from the Babylonian exile to rebuild the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, they met with resistance from the local Samaritan population who made multiple attempts to thwart their efforts.  The Samaritans were not indigenous to Israel; they had been transplanted to the country by King Shalmaneser in order to replace the exiled Jewish population and were far from enthused by the return of the original inhabitants of the Land. 

Nehemiah held high office in the court of the Persian king Artaxerxes.   Upon learning of the difficulties of his brethren in the Holy Land, he requested permission of the king to ascend to Jerusalem to assist them in their efforts.  Permission was granted; he arrived in Jerusalem and set about organizing the repair and reconstruction of a massive fortification wall around Jerusalem.  When the Samaritans saw the renewed Jewish effort, they attacked.  The Book of Nehemiah tells the story of our perseverance to build and defend at the same time:

“Those who built the walls and those who lifted and carried the burdens would do their work with one hand, while one (hand) held a weapon . . . We were carrying out the work, while half of them were holding the spears from dawn until nightfall . . . at night we were on guard and by day we worked.”  From here, Rabbi Zaira derives that the Torah’s “day” begins at dawn.

The State of Israel’s predicament of building under the most hostile of conditions is sadly not a new phenomenon.  Although G-d promised the Land to the Children of Israel from the beginning of time, we have had to earn it in blood, sweat and tears.  We built a country under extreme adverse conditions the first time we entered under Joshua, the second time we entered under Nehemiah; and this third time is unfortunately no different. 

And yet we have flourished.  Israel today is an oasis in a region of despots and poverty.  First we made the desert bloom; but then, lacking an abundance of natural resources, Israel has managed to become a world leader in human capital.   With one hand we built while the other hand defended our national borders.   

May the Almighty grant our soldiers swift and lasting success on the battlefield so that they may return home as quickly as possible and get back to the task of making Israel the most prosperous, incredible country on the planet.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Is money tight?

Megillah 19

My buddy Shmully was an excellent rabbi.  He is learned, charismatic, caring and all-round great guy.  Sadly, the emphasis is on the word ‘was.’  After getting his semicha (ordination) he went to work for a couple of years in a big synagogue under a tough senior rabbi.  The personality clashes were too much for Shmully and he decided to leave the rabbinate.

Shmully had the good fortune of marrying a girl from a well-to-do family and Shmully’s parents also do okay.  Left with a poor taste in his mouth, Shmully decided to go to law school and today he is a successful lawyer.  Good for him.  But is it good for Klal Yisrael (our people)? 

The Bible records two instances of our greatest prophets who requested to see G-d reveal Himself to them.  In both cases, G-d does not do so, since “a man shall not see Me and live.”  Nevertheless, G-d “passes by” Moses and Elijah, protecting them in a cave or rock cleft as He does, so that they can catch a glimpse of the Divine light.

In the first story, Moses asks G-d to forgive the Children of Israel for worshipping the Golden Calf.  Having accomplished this goal, Moses decides to capitalize on the opportunity of Divine favour and asks G-d to reveal Himself to Him, as described in the Book of Exodus:

 “And he (Moses) said:  Please show me Your glory.  And He (G-d) said: I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim the name of the L-rd before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy.  And He said: You cannot not see My face, for man shall not see Me and live.  And the L-rd said: Behold, there is a place by Me, and you shall stand upon the rock.  And it shall come to pass, while My glory passes by, that I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand until I have passed by.  And I will take away My hand, and you shall see My back; but My face shall not be seen.”

In the second story, Elijah flees for his life from the wrath of King Ahab.  In the desert, he finds a cave where G-d appears to him, as described in the Book of I Kings:

 “And he (Elijah) came there to a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the L-rd came to him, and He said unto him: What are you doing here, Elijah?  And he said: I have been very jealous for the L-rd, the G-d of Hosts; for the children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant, thrown down Your altars, and slain Your prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away.  And He said: Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the L-rd.  And, behold, the L-rd passed by.”

Rabbi Chiya bar Aba quoted Rabbi Yochanan: Had an opening the size of a fine needle remained in the cave where Moses and Elijah stood, they would not have been able to stand due to the [Divine] light.

Nahmanides explains:  Imagine a king passing through a crowded street.  Before him walk his bodyguards who clear the way for him, pushing and shoving the people out of the way.  You want to make sure that you are out of harm’s way, because they will have no mercy on any obstacle in their way.  Similarly, when G-d in all His glory passes by, as He did for the final plague in Egypt and as He did it when He revealed Himself to Moses and Elijah, it is dangerous to be around.  G-d is ‘accompanied’ by fiery angels who destroy any obstacle in the way of His path. 

By placing Moses and Elijah in a tight space in the cleft of the rock or cave, no Divine light was able to enter and they were protected from any danger posed by the Almighty’s ‘entourage.’ 

Imagine how Moses and Elijah must have felt in the tight spaces of their respective cave/rock clefts!  The space was so tight, says Rabbi Yochanan, that there was not so much as a needlepoint’s space left for the Divine light to enter.  Physically, it must have been pretty uncomfortable!  But of course they understood that the tightness was there for their protection.   They were able to experience the Divine light passing by, but not be harmed by the fiery angels.

Have you ever felt stressed out by the constrictions of life?  Maybe you felt you were in a very tight financial spot and you wondered how G-d could do that to you.  Rabbi Yochanan teaches us that sometimes G-d places us in a tight spot in order to show us His light and at the same time protect us.  Sometimes we can only achieve our potential when we are constricted.

Take my buddy, Shmully, bless him.  He had some issues in the rabbinate and so he went into law.  He’s still an active volunteer in his community, but imagine if he’d stayed the course and dedicated his life full-time to serving G-d and man!  But he had family money to fall back on and so he failed to reach his potential.  If money had been tight, he would have had to bite his tongue and figure things out in the rabbinate, either by subordinating himself to the senior rabbi or finding another pulpit.  But since things weren’t tight, Klal Yisrael lost out on Shmully. 

Next time you feel like G-d has placed you in a tight spot, just think, ‘How can I grow from this challenge?  What is G-d forcing me to do with my life?’  Maybe He’s protecting you.  Maybe He’s placing you in exactly the right spot to see the Divine light.  Don’t fight it, embrace it and work with it.  The Almighty has incredible plans for you in life! 

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Are you and your spouse always fighting about money?

Megillah 18

A number of years ago, acquaintances of mine, Josh and his wife Marg, got divorced.  His story was that they were always fighting over money.  He felt that on his meagre earnings he could never afford to make her happy.  He wished he could be like his brother Frank, but Frank was a cardiologist and Josh worked in construction. 

Last year, Jane left Frank.  Josh was shocked!  Frank had all the money in the world – they lived like kings.  Why didn’t their marriage work?

Three times a day, we pray the Shmoneh-Esrei, the prayer that originated as eighteen blessings and is now nineteen.   The order of these blessings was established by the Men of the Great Assembly at the end of the Second Temple period.  The Gemara discusses why they ordered the blessings as they did, beginning with the first blessing of ‘Shield of Abraham’ and continuing through the prayer until the final blessing of ‘Grant peace.’ 

Why did the Men of the Great Assembly see fit to place the final blessing of ‘Grant peace’ after the Priestly blessing?  For immediately following the priestly blessing in the Book of Numbers, the Torah states, “And they (the priests) shall place My Name over the Children of Israel and I shall bless them.”   And the blessing of the Almighty is Peace, as it is written, “G-d will bless his nation with peace.”

The first message to note here is that the kohanim (priests) do not bless us.  The Torah states clearly that they place G-d’s Name over us, but ultimately the blessing comes from Him.   The Talmud then explains: What is the greatest blessing of G-d?  Peace.  There is no greater blessing than peace.

On an individual level, when you are blessed with peace at home (shalom bayis), everything else flows from there.  It doesn’t matter whether you’re rich or poor, those are secondary needs.  The first and foremost blessing we seek is peace.  Peace – shalom – comes from the word shalem, meaning complete.  When you and your spouse are at peace with one another, you are a complete entity and you can conquer any challenge together.  Sometimes challenges will be related to money, other times health or children.  Whatever the challenge is, with shalom bayis you can rise above, because you have each other and you are working as a single, united entity.

Money is not the cause of marital strife.  Marital strife comes first and then the lack of peace between you and your spouse engenders a lack of the wherewithal to face life’s other challenges.  If you want to overcome the challenges of life, first you need to make sure that you have a solid unified marriage unit.  Once you have a complete marriage no challenge will destroy your unity.  But achieving that unity entails doing whatever you can to make your spouse happy and praying to G-d constantly for peace at home.

On a national level, we need peace desperately now.  Our people are at war with an enemy that seeks to destroy us.  They refuse to acknowledge this important truth, that if only they would seek peace, all their other needs would flow forth – economic stability, human rights issues, etc.  But they don’t want peace and therefore their poor citizens are being put in harm’s way, despite our inordinate efforts to protect them.

We must pray for peace.  G-d’s blessing is peace.  G-d desires peace for all His children.  May the Almighty grant us peace in our homes, communities and Israel very soon.  

The Star of David is not our traditional National Symbol

Megillah 17

What is the symbol of the Jewish people?  Ask most people and they’ll tell you the Star of David.  But the Star of David as our national symbol actually isn’t that old.  Maybe a few hundred years old, perhaps a thousand years.  But believe it or not, there’s no historical, archeological or biblical evidence that David ever used such a star!

When the State of Israel was established, the leaders of the fledgling country debated what the national symbol should be.  The two hottest picks were the Star of David and the Menorah.   Eventually, they decided to feature the Star of David on the flag and the Menorah as the emblem on the coat of arms. 

Why was the Menorah the classic symbol of the Jewish people?   

The Mishnah states, “One who reads the megillah retrospectively has not fulfilled his obligation.”

Our Sages explain that the practical meaning of the Mishnah is that one does not fulfill one’s obligation of reading the megillah on Purim if he read it out of sequence.  It must be read from beginning to end in order.  

Literally, however, retrospectively means to read it and imagine that you are simply reading stories that happened a long time ago, like a history book.  The Torah is not a history book.  Torah comes from the word horaah, meaning instruction, or the word orah, meaning light.  The Torah should light up our lives by instructing us how to live meaningful lives.

Windows are normally designed to let light in.  The windows of the Holy Temple, however, were designed in such a way that the light of the Menorah could shine forth from the Temple to the world.  Instead of flowing inward, the light of the Temple flowed outwards!  The Menorah is the symbol of our people, because our mission is to spread the Divine light of Torah throughout the world.

If you read the megillah or any book of the Torah as a mere story, the Mishnah says that you’ve missed the point.  If the Torah doesn’t speak to you, if the Torah doesn’t sing to you, if the Torah doesn’t light up your life, then you’re not reading it right! 

Learn the Torah!  Delve into its teachings!  Take ownership of the Torah!  Make it meaningful to you!  The Torah’s light is an eternal message.   It is our compass for all generations.  Once you apply yourself to your Torah study, you will see how the Torah applies to your life and you too will want to share the light of Torah with all around!  

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Defend Israel, just don't kill anyone in the process

Megillah 16

Today's Life Yomi is dedicated in honour of the yortzeit of Yitzchak ben Chaim Yaakov (Mishkinsky) Ivry by his children, Yosef David and Sylvia Joar Ivry.

We find ourselves currently in the midst of a terrible war with Hamas in Gaza.  In the international opinion arena, Israel is being attacked from all sides.  Nations are condemning, world media is lopsidedly reporting and in some places, it has become unsafe for the local Jewish community.

And yet when you ask the man on the street, ‘what would you do if your country was being fired upon?’ they unhesitatingly respond that of course they would counter-attack!  How is such hypocrisy possible?

The Megillah states: The King said to Queen Esther, “In Shushan, the capital, the Jews have killed and wiped out five hundred people and the ten sons of Haman.  What must they have done in all the other provinces of the king?!  What is your petition now?  It shall be granted to you.   What is your further request?  It shall be one.”

Rashi asks: What is the meaning of this verse?  It begins with Ahasuerus talking ill of the Jewish people’s activity.  And then he continues with an offer to grant Esther her wishes!

Rabbi Abahu taught: This verse teaches us that an angel came and slapped his face, forcing him to change the malicious way he was speaking.

Ahasuerus had granted permission to Esther and Mordechai for the Jews to defend themselves from the anti-Semitic pogroms that Haman had initiated.  And yet that did not stop him condemning the casualties inflicted by our people upon those who were seeking to destroy us! 

When he first issued the decree of the annihilation of the entire Jewish people, that would have meant millions of innocent lives lost.  Such numbers were inconsequential to him – he had engaged in many wars and his armies had murdered many innocents.   But when it came to our self-defense, suddenly he was alarmed at the number of fatalities!  And the angel had to come down and set him straight.

Such is the way of the nations of the world.  We are judged by double-standards.  They would never allow rockets to terrorize their population day in day out.  Their response would be swift, forceful and permanent, such that the enemy would never be able to threaten them ever again in the future.

But when it comes to the State of Israel, most agree that Israel had to respond, but they do not cease to attack the measure of our response.  Israel is the most humane army in the world – dropping leaflets from the sky and leaving voice-messages on phones warning the people to evacuate their homes prior to an attack!  Who else would do such a crazy thing?  Any other army would orchestrate a surprise attack, they wouldn’t warn their foes! 

Israel does its very best to protect innocent lives, to limit collateral damage.  But as the Megillah has shown, no matter what we do, the anti-Semites of the world will always seek to condemn us.    

May the Almighty grant us an everlasting peace in the Holy Land and may He bring our boys and girls home safe from the battleground where they are doing their very best to protect human life on all sides.

Life Yomi dedications don't cost a penny!  You can dedicate a day of learning in honour of a birthday, yortzeit or anniversary.  All you need to do is send it out to 18 (chai) people.

Sticks and Stones

Megillah 15

My daughter can home from school the other day bawling her eyes out.
“What happened?” I asked sympathetically.
“Malky called me mean!” she replied.
What do you do when your kid gets called a name for the first time?  Of course you teach them the classic chant, ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me!’

What does Judaism have to say about name-calling?

Rabbi Elazar quoted Rabbi Chanina: Let not the blessing of an ordinary man be light in your eyes, for two men great in their generation received blessings from ordinary men which were fulfilled in them. They were David and Daniel.
David was blessed by Aravnah, as it is written, “And Aravnah said to the king, May the L-rd your G-d accept you.”
Daniel was blessed by Darius, as it is written, “Your G-d who you serve continually, He will deliver you.”

Rabbi Elazar further quoted Rabbi Chanina: Let not the curse of an ordinary man be light in your eyes, because Abimelech cursed Sarah, saying, “Behold he is to you a covering of the eyes.”  
This was fulfilled in her offspring, [as it says], “And it came to pass that when Isaac was old his eyes grew dim.”

Our souls have three faculties of expression through our bodies – thought, speech, and action.  We are all aware that our actions have consequences.  Most of us understand that what we say has consequences.  But most of us would be surprised to know that even our thoughts can have real impact upon the physical world!

Returning to the faculty of speech: Judaism does not believe that ‘words will never hurt me.’  Words, of course, can be extremely damaging.  In some ways, words are even worse than actions, because they travel much greater distances and can spread so quickly! 

You need to be so careful about what you say to others and what others say to you.  Rabbi Chanina says never to take a blessing or a curse lightly.  Every word that comes from another human being must be considered with great gravitas.  If someone has said something nice to you, no matter who they are, thank them for their kind words!  And if G-d forbid, someone says something not so nice, do your best to placate them, so that like the wicked Balaam, they’ll decide to switch their curse to blessing.

Don’t think to yourself, ‘I’ll just ignore them – if I don’t give their words credence, they’ll have no effect.’  That’s like having someone punch you in the face and thinking, ‘If I don’t take that punch seriously, it won’t hurt me.’  Punches hurt whether you want to acknowledge them or not!  And the same is true of words – don’t just dismiss them as meaningless.  G-d is sending you a message and the message might be to do whatever you can to help this person whose mind is clearly not at ease.  Do your best to pacify them and then ask them for a blessing!

You can’t get enough blessings in life.  When you ask someone for a blessing, you empower them.  When I go to the hospital to visit a patient, I explain to them that our Sages tell us that the Shechinah – G-d’s presence – is found at the head of an ill person.  As such, they have the power to give blessings.  I’ll then ask them for a blessing.  That is incredibly empowering – they think I’ve come to offer something to them; once they feel that I’ve come to receive their blessing, that itself has healing power!

Seek blessings from all whom you encounter!  Empower people to be vehicles for the Divine!  The more blessing you have in your life, the happier you will be, the more successful you will be, and ultimately, the greater blesser you will become!

Friday, 25 July 2014

Read the Good Book lately?

Megillah 14

In a typical yeshiva curriculum, one traditionally concentrates on Talmud study with less emphasis on Bible study.  As one swims through the great ocean of the Talmud, however, one regularly encounters verses from Scripture, which often entails looking up the original source.  But short of such intermittent encounters, many yeshiva students aren’t very familiar with the Bible.

I was once sitting on a plane when I overheard two Christian girls behind me discussing the Bible.  One asked the other if she’d read the “Good Book.”  The other responded that she had indeed read it a number of times. 

When I heard that, I was overwhelmed with feelings of lowliness.  Here are these two young ladies who had both read the Bible multiple times, and I, a rabbi, hadn’t made my way through our Written Law even once!  I immediately resolved to start learning Tanach (Bible) on a regular basis.

Yeshiva-curriculum issues aside, why don’t more Jews read the Bible?

The Megillah states, “The king removed his signet ring from his hand and he gave it to Haman.”
Rabbi Aba bar Kahana taught: The removal of this ring was more powerful than the forty eight prophets and seven prophetesses who prophesied to Israel, none of whom were able to return them to righteousness; whereas the removal of the ring returned them to righteousness.”

The Rabbis taught: Forty eight prophets and seven prophetesses prophesied to Israel and did not detract from nor add to that which is written in the Torah, except for the reading of the Megillah.
How did they expound this obligation?  Rabbi Chiya bar Avin quoted Rabbi Joshua ben Korcha who explains, “If we sang a song at the Red Sea when we were taken from slavery to freedom, should we not offer praise for being taken from death to life?”

The Gemara asks: Were there no more than forty eight prophets and seven prophetesses?  Is it not written in the Book of Samuel, “There was one man from the Ramasayim-Tzofim,” which is interpreted to mean ‘one of the two hundred (masayim) seers (tzofim) who prophesied to Israel?

The Gemara answers: There were indeed many more prophets, as the Beraisa teaches, “Many prophets arose among Israel, double the number of those who left Egypt.  However, the prophecy that was needed for all future generations was recorded in Scripture, and that which was unnecessary was not recorded.”

The reason many of us are not conversant in the Bible is that we read through it and we find it arcane, complex and perceive it to be written to an audience thousands of years ago.   We read the prophecies of Jeremiah and we think he was talking to the Jews prior to the destruction of the First Temple.  We read the Book of Ezra and we think that it’s a story of the return from Babylonia, something that happened long ago, way in the past.

But the Talmud teaches that any prophecy that is recorded in Scripture is “needed for all future generations!”  If it’s in the Book, then it’s relevant to us!  Our challenge is to read the Tanach with enough depth and concentration, together with our classic commentators, to develop the insight to apply the prophets’ messages to our lives today.

Torah comes from the word horaah, meaning instruction or lesson.  The Torah is not a storybook; it is an instruction manual for how we are to live.  The Written Torah consists not just of the Chumash (Pentateuch), but of the entire Tanach – the Torah, Prophets and Scriptures.  It’s all relevant, the lessons and instructions throughout Tanach were recorded for posterity because they contain an important message for all generations.  But if you don’t read it, you can’t hear the message.

Read the Bible!  Start by taking an English Tanach and devoting ten minutes a day to simply reading through it.  You will finish it in less than a year.  Next year, read some of it each day in the Hebrew.  After that you can add commentaries to ensure you are getting the accurate interpretation and not misunderstanding G-d’s Word.  But most importantly, after you’ve read it, throughout your day, think about the message of the prophecy you’ve read and how it is relevant to your life today!

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Learning from the Chinese

Megillah 13

My friend Marc was telling about his recent business trip to China.  He was sitting in a restaurant and ordered a bowl of soup.  Upon tasting the soup, he realized that the chef must have slipped with the salt and so he wanted to send it back to the kitchen.
“Wait,” said his host, “First, you must compliment the chef.”
“Are you kidding me? What do you mean?” asked Marc.
“Well, if you send it back to the kitchen just like that, you will embarrass the chef in front of all the other kitchen staff.  You can’t do that.”

Rabbi Elazar taught: What is the meaning of the verse in Job “He withdraws not his eyes from the righteous?”  In reward for the modesty displayed by Rachel, she was granted to number among her descendants Saul, and in reward for the modesty displayed by Saul, he was granted to number among his descendants Esther.

What was the modesty displayed by Rachel?  It is written, “And Jacob told Rachel that he was her father's brother.”  Now was he her father's brother?  Was he not the son of her father's sister?  

What it means is the following:
He said to her, “Will you marry me?”
She replied, “Yes, but my father is a trickster, and he will outwit you.”
He replied, “I am his brother in trickery.”
She said to him, “Is it permitted to the righteous to indulge in trickery?”
He replied, “Yes, (as King David writes in Psalms) ‘with the pure show yourself pure and with the crooked show yourself subtle’.”
He asked her, “What is his trickery?”
She replied, “I have a sister older than me, and he will not let me marry before her.”  So Jacob gave her certain signs to exchange under the wedding canopy, to ensure he was marrying the right sister.

When night came, Rachel said to herself, “Now my sister will be put to shame.”  So she gave over the signs to her sister, Leah.  Thus, it is written, “And it came to pass in the morning that, behold, it was Leah.”  Are we to infer from this verse that up to now she was not Leah?  Rather, what it means is that on account of the signs which Rachel gave to Leah, Jacob did not know till then.  Therefore Rachel was rewarded by having Saul among her descendants.  

What modesty did Saul display?  Saul set out to search for his missing donkeys.  On the way, he met the prophet Samuel who told him that he would become the king but that he should not yet tell the world.  Upon his return, it is written, “But concerning the matter of the kingdom whereof Samuel spoke he told him not.”  He was therefore rewarded by having Esther among his descendants.

What happened next after Rachel gave the signs to Leah who showed them to Jacob who wakes up in the morning to find Leah lying next to him?  The Torah doesn’t say but you can imagine he went over to Rachel and said, ‘Are you crazy?  Why did we bother with our whole scheme of the signs if you were going to give it to your sister?’  Not only did she miss out on marrying Jacob (at least to begin with) but she had to bear his wrath on top of it all!  That’s how far she was prepared to go to protect her sister’s dignity!

Not allowing for someone to ‘lose face’ is an extremely important Asian quality that we could all learn from.   You don’t complain about the salty soup until you’ve complimented the chef first.  In North America, we pride ourselves on being ‘brutally honest,’ but that’s not a Torah value.   The Torah expects us to do whatever we can to boost people’s esteem and dignity.

How far would you go to protect another’s dignity?   How much of yourself would you give to avoid embarrassing someone else?   Every interaction you have with another human being, remember that their “face” was created in the image of G-d.  Will your next move be to ‘lose’ G-d’s image or to ‘save’ G-d’s image?

Do you do Friday night dinner or do you do Shabbos?

Megillah 12

The Orthodox community has been asking itself how we should respond to the devastating 2013 results of the Pew report on Jewish Life in America.   A number of the respondents have suggested that Orthodox Jews take it upon themselves to be more proactive in inviting unaffiliated Jews for a Shabbos meal.  This suggestion was made by Rabbi Steven Weil at the RCA convention in 2014 and by Rabbi JJ Schacter in Jewish Action magazine of summer 2014, amongst others.

But who do these Orthodox rabbis think they are?  Don’t they realize that they’re not the only ones doing Shabbos?  I know many unaffiliated Jews who light candles and make Kiddush on Friday night.  Yes, they might turn on the TV after dinner, but at least they’re doing something!  Why should a Shabbos invitation help our assimilation problem?

The Megillah states, “On the seventh day, when (Ahasuerus) the King’s heart was gladdened with wine (he asked that Vashti be brought before him).”

The Gemara asks, “Until now, was his heart not gladdened with wine?”  
Rava explains: The seventh day refers to Shabbat.  On that day, when Jews eat and drink, they begin with words of Torah and praise of the Almighty; whereas when idolaters eat and drink, they begin with licentious talk. 

And so it was in the feast of that wicked man (Ahasuerus): there were those who were saying “Median women are the most beautiful” and others who were saying “Persian women are the most beautiful.”
Ahasuerus replied, “The utensil that I use is neither Median nor Persian, but Chaldean.”

While it’s true that many Jews have some sort of family dinner in honour of Shabbos, is it truly a Shabbos dinner?  Rava teaches us what a Shabbos dinner should look like.  “Words of Torah and praise of the Almighty” – that turns Friday night into Shabbos!

How does your Shabbat table sound?  Is it a time to catch up on politics and current affairs or is it infused with spirituality?  Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski writes that the Shabbos meal should be all about teaching Torah to your children.  He says, ‘I don’t care if you have a dozen adult guests sitting around the table.   They have to know what Shabbos is about.  And they will be impressed and moved when they witness a true, holy Shabbos table.’ 

That’s certainly not an easy task for any of us.  We feel compelled to talk about other things, to engage our guests in talks of business, world travels and hobbies.  But even if you must, remember that it is only incidental to the primary subject matter of the Shabbos table, “words of Torah and praise of the Almighty.”

“Praise” means singing zemiros (Shabbos songs) – we have booklets dedicated to that exciting part of Shabbos!  And, thank G-d, today we have no shortage of accessibility to “words of Torah” – there are numerous books in English on the parsha (Torah portion of the week), as well as countless divrei Torah (Torah talks) on the web that you can print off before Shabbos! 

And of course, if it’s all about the kids, you need to make sure that your Torah is age-appropriate.  One of our favourites at home is Torahific! by Rabbi Maimon Elbaz.  Each week he asks questions about the parsha and then provides kid-friendly answers from our great commentators across the millennia.  We also look forward to hearing the kids give over their own divrei Torah.  When you first do it, it feels a little weird making the guests listen to your seven-year-old read off her parsha sheet for five minutes, but after a few times you realize how inspired they are watching this kid become passionate about Torah.

Shabbos is not just Friday night dinner!  Make Shabbos Shabbos!  You will be inspired!  Your kids will be inspired!  Your guests will be inspired!  And Shabbos is what makes us special and holy! 

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The Need to Have it All and then some

Megillah 11

The list of celebrities who end up committing suicide is heartbreaking.  They have everything in the world!  What would motivate them to take their own lives?

Certainly for some, the pressures of the public eye just get to them.  But for many, they’ve tried every experience in the world.  The only thing they have yet to try is the taste of death.  What makes it so tantalizing?

The Megillah states, “In those days when the king settled on his throne . . . in the third year of his reign.”  If he had just settled on his throne why does it say it was already his third year on the throne?

Rava answers: What is the meaning of “settled?”  His mind was settled.  Ahasuerus said, “Belshazzar calculated and erred.  I have calculated but I did not err.”

The Gemara explains that Belshazzar’s error was based on the prophecy of Jeremiah, “For when seventy years are complete in Babylonia, I shall remember you,”  implying that G-d would redeem the Jews from Babylonia and bring them home seventy years after their exile from Israel.

According to Belshazzar’s miscalculation, the seventy years had passed uneventfully, and so he said, “Now they certainly will no longer be redeemed.”   He brought out the stolen vessels from the Holy Temple and used them for his own needs.
Daniel then said to him, “You have exalted yourself above the Master of Heaven as they have brought the vessels of His house before you.”
It then says, “That very night, the Chaldean King Belshazzar was assassinated.”

A number of years later, Ahasuerus made a different calculation.  Once he saw that the seventy years had passed and the Jews were not redeemed, he said, “Now they certainly will no longer be redeemed.”    He brought out the stolen vessels from the Holy Temple and used them for his own needs.  Satan crashed the party and had Vashti killed.  

Why were Belshazzar and Ahasuerus so desperate to use the Temple vessels?  They had all the vessels in the world at their disposal, wasn’t that sufficient for their needs?

The answer lies in our incredible desire for what we can’t have.  The longer we can’t have something, the more we desire it.  In fact, science has shown that the more one longs for the unattainable, dopamine levels in the brain increase and increase, until our brain practically explodes.

The best way to avoid being caught in the terrifying net of desire is to concentrate on permissible things.  Think about all the wonderful blessings the Almighty has bestowed upon you.  Think of everything He has given you.

And then when you think about what you do have and is attainable, take a step back and realize that you don’t even need all of that.   If you indulge in everything you can lay your hands on, you will always want more.  Our Sages tell us that ‘one who has 100 wants 200.’  But if you indulge in a little less than what you could, then you will feel satisfied with what you have without desiring the forbidden.

Thank G-d constantly for everything He has given you.  And then indulge in just a little less than you have.  It will make a world of difference. 

Facebook Fast For Israel (guest post)

Megillah 11

Today’s Daf discusses which kings ruled over the entire world and suggests from the following verse that Darius was one such ruler.  Following Daniel’s departure from the lion’s den unscathed, the verse states, “King Darius wrote to all the peoples, nations and languages, may your peace multiply.”

Tragically, our nation is not currently at peace.  What can we do for Israel thousands of miles away?

An important proposal from Rabbanit Batya: 

Could've Would've Should've

Megillah 10

Mark is a lovely young man with a great personality.  He is dedicated to G-d and community and is loved by all.  He just has one little problem – his failure to launch.  He’s pushing thirty and still living at home with his parents.  It’s beginning to bother his parents who imagined that by now they’d be able to wander around the house all day in their pyjamas.

“I could’ve been a doctor,” he tells me one day.  “My life would’ve been different if I’d gone to medical school.  Instead, I chose a fine arts degree because that’s what I enjoyed.”
“So why don’t you go now?” I asked.
“Oh, it’s too late for that now.  I should’ve done it years ago.”

The Megillah begins “And it was in the days of Ahasuerus.”

Rabbi Levi (or some say, Rabbi Jonathan) taught: We have a tradition from the Men of the Great Assembly – any place where Scripture employs the phrase “And it was” denotes trouble.

“And it was in the days of Ahasuerus.” And there was Haman.
“And it was in the days the judges judged.” And there was famine.
“And it was when man began to multiply.” “And G-d saw that man’s sin was great [and decided to bring the Flood].”
“And it was when they travelled from the east.” “Let us build a city [with a tower reaching to heaven].”

When you live your life by “And it was,” you are asking for trouble.  Too many people think about what they should’ve done, what would’ve been and what could’ve happened, instead of looking forward to what they should do and what they could become if only they would look ahead.

Don’t live in the past!  As the clichĂ© goes, “Yesterday is history, tomorrow’s a mystery.  Today’s a gift – that’s why it’s called the present!”  If you want to achieve happiness and success in life, don’t look backwards, always look forward.  Lot's wife looked back and remember what happened to her.

You can be whatever you ever dreamed of.  You have an entire lifetime ahead of you.   A couple of ‘lost’ years are nothing in the great scheme of life.  Don’t think about what “was;” just imagine what ‘will be!’  

Sunday, 20 July 2014

Judaism is not Fundamentalist!

Megillah 9

My first encounter with Christian missionaries was as a young teenager in Sydney.  One of the local bus drivers, Tuvia, was a Messianic.   Tuvia was the friendliest bus driver in Bondi.  He would welcome every passenger that boarded his bus, and proceeded to give a running commentary en route, as if he were operating a tour bus.  Inevitably, despite being a local, you learned something new about the area from Tuvia each time you travelled with him.

But as I say, Tuvia was a Messianic and Messianics have an agenda.  Seeing my yarmulke, Tuvia didn’t hesitate to drill me with questions about the Bible.  He was dedicated to showing me the light of Jesus.  Looking back, I think it was inappropriate for him to be challenging a thirteen year old kid with theological questions, but at the time, I took it in stride and researched and responded to his taunts.

His first question that I will never forget was the biblical verse “Let us make man in our image as our form.”  Clearly, said Tuvia, there was more than one divine being that created man – an early hint to G-d’s ‘son and partner’ in creation. 

From the perspective of a literal reading, what do we do with a difficult verse like this one?

King Ptolemy once gathered seventy two Jewish elders into seventy two separate chambers and did not tell them for what purpose he had gathered them. 
He entered each room and said, “Translate the Torah of your teacher Moses into Greek for me.”  The Almighty placed wisdom into the heart of each one and they all reached the same conclusions.  (Every time the literal translation would have left the reader with a misunderstanding of the true meaning of the text, they amended it to reflect the true meaning.)

The Talmud goes on to list the various amendments they made.  For example, instead of writing “In the beginning created G-d the heavens and the earth,” they wrote, “G-d created in the beginning the heavens and the earth,” lest Ptolemy understand that some other god called ‘in the beginning’ created G-d. 

The second amendment listed by the Gemara pertains to the verse “Let us make man in our image and our form,” which they amended to “I shall make man in image and form,” lest Ptolemy understand that there were multiple gods who made man together.

The message of this piece of Gemara is that the Torah is not to be read literally.  Indeed, to do so is to misunderstand the true meaning!  When Moses received the Torah on Mt. Sinai, he received both a Written Law and an Oral Law.  One without the other is like lecture notes without the lecture, suggests Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch! 

Nevertheless, for Tuvia’s sake, what then does the Oral Law say about this verse?  Nahmanides explains that after the initial explosion of creation, G-d fashioned everything from the physical earthly matter He had created. Everything was created from the dust, so to speak. 

Except man.  When it came time to create human beings, G-d turned to the earth and exclaimed, ‘Man will be a combination of physicality and spirituality!  Until now all creation has come forth from you, dear earth.  Now, we shall create man together.  His body will come from you, but his soul will come from Me.  Let us create man!’

Of course, it’s impossible to know that without the tradition provided by the Oral Law.  And so when Tuvia challenged me, it was my word against his, since he believed that his understanding was closer to the literal meaning of the text.  To which I reply, ‘I don’t care what the literal meaning of the text is.  Judaism is not fundamentalist!’

In fact, the phenomenon of reading the Bible literally and figuring out the simplest meaning of the text is complete nonsense, since doing so entails using an English or German translation of the original Hebrew.  But the only way that we know how to read the words in the Hebrew is because we have an Oral tradition that instructs us how to read each word, where each sentence ends, et cetera.  If you were to open up a Torah scroll, you would find no punctuation and the entire thing would be meaningless!

Believe in the Oral Law!  Trust in the chain of tradition that was transmitted from generation to generation – from Moses to Joshua and all the way down to our contemporary rabbis.  That chain is what makes Torah and keeps Judaism real for all generations!  

Character Perfection

Megillah 8

“Being a mensch precedes Torah,” is one of the first dictums we aim to impress upon our children.  Nahmanides points out that one could be “a despicable person with the permission of the Torah,” meaning that you’ve kept the letter of the law but failed to internalize the Torah’s goal of making you a better person.   One who is committed to the Torah should strive to become the most amazing human being.

And it takes a lifetime of hard work to be that individual the Torah wants.  Nobody has a flawless character.  We all possess natural shortcomings and bad attitudes we’ve developed along the way.  So how do we go about improving and ultimately perfecting our character traits?

The Mishnah states: The only difference between one who vows to abstain completely from benefitting from another and one who vows to abstain merely from his food is that the latter may traverse his property and borrow his non-food-related items.

The Gemara asks: If someone allows his property to generally be used a public thoroughfare, would he care if the fellow traversed his property?
Rava answers: The author of this Mishnah is Rabbi Eliezer who taught “Giving up is forbidden when one vows to abstain.”

Rashi and Rabbenu Chananel explain that when one takes a vow of abstinence from another, he is prohibited to take even those things that one would readily give up because it’s no skin off his nose, such as traversing his property.

In Halakhic Man, Rabbi Soloveitchik contrasts homo religiosus with Halakhic Man.  The former aims to break free of the shackles of this world and live a life of transcendence, whereas the latter understands that the Almighty wants us to become spiritual within the structure of this world.  

Halacha is completely this-worldly.  Our goal is to draw down G-dliness into this finite world.  Therefore, Judaism does not call for abstinence; we are enjoined to partake of the pleasures of this world and elevate them.  Indeed, although vows of abstinence are permissible within the framework of Halacha, our Sages famously asked, “Were the restrictions of the Torah not sufficient for you that you had to abstain from even more?”

What then is the purpose of a vow of abstinence?  Let’s take the example of someone who has a drinking problem.  Now, is drinking a problem?  Well, for most people, it’s absolutely acceptable to have the occasional drink.  But for an alcoholic, it’s a serious problem.  The only way for him to overcome his problem is to take a vow of complete abstinence from alcohol.  Eventually, once he has killed his addiction, he might be able to take a sip on occasion like everyone else.

The same is true of our character flaws.  Sometimes we have a trait that needs mending.  In order to fix extreme behaviour and reach a ‘golden mean,’ you need to go to the other extreme to break the habit.  For example, ideally one should be humble.  But if you find that you have a problem with haughtiness, Maimonides suggests that one go to the extreme pious level of and view oneself as “very lowly” – an extreme form of humility.  That means that you end up having to endure people walking all over you, so to speak, but that process removes any trace of haughtiness so that you can eventually find the proper, middle path of humility.

The key to kicking a bad habit, says Rabbi Eliezer, is maintaining an attitude that “Giving up is forbidden when one vows to abstain.”  How many times have you started a diet, only to give up a week later because it was too hard?  The only way to make it work is to maintain the attitude that it is forbidden to give up!  You wouldn’t dream of engaging in unlawful activity, would you?  If you want to be successful in breaking a bad habit, whether it’s unhealthy behaviour or a flawed character trait, you must be prepared to completely abstain from it, to the extent of treating it as utterly taboo.

You can change!  It’s not easy.  Sometimes it means taking a vow of abstinence – going to the other extreme – until you can achieve that middle ground.  But with some serious discipline and a strong commitment you can achieve the balance in your life that you seek.  Bad habits can be broken.  Character flaws can be mended.  It takes time and intensity, but you can the master of your heart and mind!  Just remember, giving up is forbidden when one vows to abstain, and you will be successful in becoming the person that you desire to be!  

Friday, 18 July 2014

G-d Trumps Peer Pressure

Megillah 7

One of the greatest challenges to becoming more religiously observant is the social consequences. 

Steve and Nicky came to see me to get my advice on dealing with their friends.
“Rabbi, we’re trying so hard to be figure out how to be as accommodating as possible with our friends, but it’s not easy.  They want us to eat in their homes; they want us to go out with them to restaurants.  What do we do?  What do we say?”

Rava taught: A person must drink on Purim until he does not know the difference between ‘cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai.’

Rabbah and Rabbi Zaira made their Purim feast together and got drunk.  Rabbah got up and slaughtered Rabbi Zaira.  The next day he prayed and he was revived.  The following year, Rabbah invited Rabbi Zaira to join him once again for the Purim feast.
Rabbi Zaira responded, “I don’t think so.  Miracles don’t happen every day.”

Rabbi Shlomo Eidels (the Maharsha) explains that when the Talmud says that he slaughtered him, obviously he didn’t literally kill him.  It means that he pushed him to drink beyond his limits, placing his life in potential danger. 

We’ve all been in situations like this one at some time or another.  Our friends are drinking or engaging in other excessive behaviour and we feel compelled to join in, pushing ourselves beyond our limits.  You wake up the next morning full of regret, thinking, ‘I can’t believe I succumbed to the peer pressure.’

But peer pressure is real and peer pressure is one of the greatest challenges to our spirituality.  Every morning, we beseech the Almighty, “Distance us from bad people, bad friends and bad neighbours.”  We are social creatures and often follow the pack, especially if we are seeking acceptance and validity in any particular social group and setting.

We are all well aware of the ill-effects of peer pressure on our teens and warn them not to follow the pack and ‘just say no.’ But we must heed our own advice and do the right thing, despite what everyone else is doing.   It’s not easy to ‘just say no’ when everyone else is doing it.  Whether it’s eating out or going to the movies on a Friday night, it’s really hard to tell your friends that you’re out.  You risk alienating them and you don’t want to be left out in the cold with no friends. 

So what do you do?  You shower them love.  You bend over backwards to demonstrate that you are still the same Steve and Nicky, despite your newfound commitment.  Don’t pay any attention to those who are mocking – you don’t need them as friends, anyway.  But reach out to the ones who are sincere, try to be as accommodating as you can.  And they will respect you.  Your true friends won’t pressure you to do anything you don’t want to.

Be strong!  If you know you’re doing the right thing, it doesn’t matter what anyone is doing or thinking!  Don’t give in to peer pressure!  And one day, maybe your friends will be inspired by your leadership!

Thursday, 17 July 2014

Why do we Covet?

Megillah 6

One of the most challenging commandments in modern society is “Thou shalt not covet.”   We live in a consumer society where some people seem to have it all – the latest gadgets, the biggest houses, the fastest cars.  Somehow the manufacturers of these products have managed to convince us that we need more and more.   Yesterday, I was fine without an IPhone, now I can’t survive without it.  

And we look at our friends with their fancy houses and extravagant vacations and we ask, ‘Why did G-d give me the raw end of the stick?  Everybody else has such a good deal!’

The Book of Judges states, “Zebulun was a people who shamed his soul to death [since] Naphtali was on the high places of the field.”

The Talmud explains:  Zebulun complained to the Holy One, blessed be He, saying: Master of the Universe, You gave fields and vineyards to my brothers, but You gave me hills and mountains; You gave lands to my brothers, but You gave me lakes and rivers.
The Almighty replied: All your brothers will need you for the hilazon (the fish used for the blue dye for tzitzit) as the Torah states, “Nations will call to your mountain, and the hidden treasures of the sand.” Rabbi Joseph taught: ‘Hidden’ refers to the hilazon; ‘treasures’ refers to tuna; ‘sand’ refers to white glass.

Zebulun then said: Master of the Universe, who will inform me when they take my treasures?  
The Almighty replied: “There they shall offer sacrifices of righteousness.” This shall be your sign: whoever takes from you without payment will not prosper in his business.

If so, why did Zebulun complain about his portion? And if you want to suggest that Zebulun was dissatisfied because his portion was not ‘flowing with milk and honey’, Resh Lakish said: I have myself seen the trail of milk and honey round Tzipori in Zebulun’s lot, and it is sixteen square parsas.  Nor can you say that even so his was not as good as his brothers’, since Rabbah the grandson of Chana said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan: I have myself seen the trail of milk and honey of the whole land of Israel, and it extends from Be Kubi to the Fort of Tulbakne, twenty-two parsas in length and six parsas in breadth, totaling only 132 square parsas.  Thus, Zebulun had more than his fair share of milk and honey! 

Despite all the bounty of his portion, he wanted fields and vineyards, like Naphtali had. This is the meaning of the verse, “Naphtali was upon the high places of the field.”

The Almighty has given different blessings to every person.  The root cause of jealousy is that you hone in on one particular blessing that somebody else has and wonder why G-d couldn’t be as benevolent to you.   Of course He has been very gracious to you, but momentarily you manage to ‘forget’ all the blessings He has given you because you’ve become so fixated on the one thing the other person has that you don’t have.  And so for all the incredible bounty Zebulun possessed, all he could think about was Naphtali’s fields and vineyards.

Never mind that Naphtali had no hilazon, tuna, or white glass.  Never mind that Naphtali had nowhere near as much milk and honey.  When you covet someone else’s possessions, you don’t look at what they don’t have – all you can think about is what they do have that you don’t.

The cure for jealousy is to think about all your blessings.  Maybe the Almighty hasn’t showered you with riches.  But maybe you’ve been blessed with good health.   All the money in the world couldn’t buy good health!  Maybe you’ve been blessed with nice, respectful children.  Isn’t that worth thanking G-d for?  Maybe you’ve been blessed with a pleasant spouse who you can share your most intimate feelings with.  Isn’t that more wonderful that a fancy car?

The Almighty has bestowed incredible blessing upon your life.  When you simply hone in on one aspect of your friend’s possessions, you have no idea what their whole picture looks like.  Think about all the blessings G-d has given in you.  Your life is probably quite enviable after all!

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Is Your Child a Leader?

Megillah 5

A number of years ago, Rabbi J.J. Schacter visited Edmonton as scholar-in-residence for the Superstein Shabbaton.  The shabbaton was sponsored by Donny Superstein in honour of his parents, Jake and Ruth.  Although he occasionally returns to Edmonton for business, nowadays Donny lives in Phoenix. 

Sitting at the Shabbos table, Rabbi Schacter asked Donny about his family.  At the time, Donny was divorced, but had a teenage son, Joey.
“Where’s Joey?” asked Rabbi Schacter.
“He’s in Phoenix with his mom,” replied Donny, “He’s normally with me weekends, but he stayed with his mother this week because I came up for the shabbaton.”
“Donny,” said Rabbi Schacter gently, “Did you ever think what an impression it would make on Joey to have him see how you are spending your money?  As a parent, the greatest impact you could make on your son is to bring him up-close to watch you so that he can become involved in your philanthropic activities.  Your role as a dad is to demonstrate to Joey the true purpose of money!”

Rabbi Elazar quoted Rabbi Chanina: Rebbe (Rabbi Judah the Prince) planted on Purim, and bathed in the Tzippori marketplace on 17th Tamuz, and wanted to uproot Tisha b’Av (the national day of tragedy commemorating the destruction of the Holy Temple) but the Sages did not agree with him. 
Rabbi Aba bar Zavda responded: That wasn’t the story.  It wasn’t a regular Tisha b’Av; rather, it was a Tisha b’Av that had fallen on Shabbos.  Since the fast was pushed off (to the next day), Rebbe felt that it should be pushed off completely (i.e. there should be no fast that year).  That was the proposal that the Sages did not agree with. 
Rabbi Elazar was pleased with Rabbi Aba’s response and he applied to him the verse in Ecclesiastes, “Two [heads] are better than one,” in gratitude for having clarified what really took place. 

Asks the Gemara: How did Rebbe plant on Purim?  According to Rabbi Joseph, one may not do work on the festival of Purim!  (The Halacha does not accord with Rabbi Joseph.)  
The Gemara answers: Rebbe was in Tiberias, a walled city where Purim is celebrated on the 15th Adar.  As the Mishnah taught, all cities that were walled in the time of Joshua celebrated Purim like Shushan, on the 15th Adar.  Since when Rebbe planted, it was the 14th – and not yet Purim in a walled city like Tiberias – it was permissible even according to Rabbi Joseph.

Tosfos quotes the Talmud in tractate Avodah Zarah, which proves that Rebbe lived in Tiberias during the time of his friendship with Roman Emperor (Marcus Aurelius) Antoninus. 
In one exchange, the emperor tells Rebbe, “I have two wishes.  Firstly, I would like my son Asuerus to succeed me. Secondly, due to the abundance of Torah scholars here, I would like to make Tiberias a tax-free zone.  But I am afraid that if I submit both of these requests to the Senate, they will fulfill one, they would not fulfill both.  What should I do?”
Rebbe brought a man riding on the shoulders of another man.  He placed a dove in the hand of the upper man and said to the lower man, “Tell the upper man to let the dove fly forth from his hand!”
Antoninus understood, “Rebbe is teaching me: You should request that Asuerus succeed you and then tell Asuerus to make Tiberias a tax-free zone!”

Maimonides was succeeded as the head of the Jewish community in Egypt by his son, Abraham.  Despite his late arrival to Maimonides’ life (he was forty eight when his son was born), he was immediately taken under his father’s wing for all matters communal.  From a young age, Abraham would sit next to Maimonides watching as he dealt with rabbinic questions, government relations and community affairs.   Maimonides understood how to guarantee that his child would be as dedicated to community as he was.

Our Sages tell us that there are two people that one does not envy in the world – one’s student and one’s child.  We all want to see our children not just succeed but soar to even greater accomplishments than we ourselves achieved.  Rebbe’s message to Antoninus – Rabbi Schacter’s message to Donny – was that your child is an extension of yourself.  In your short lifetime, you can only achieve so much – start investing your communal aspirations in your child and your reach will continue way beyond you.

As community leaders, we are sometimes so caught up in communal matters that we forget to train our own children to be leaders.  Invest in your child’s leadership abilities and qualities!  Bring them into the conversation from an early age!  Get them inspired to follow in your footsteps!  Your leadership accomplishments will continue for generations to come!

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Godliness must lead to Cleanliness

Megillah 4

A number of months ago, I got into the office to find a message on my voicemail that made my day.  It was Gary B.  I don’t know Gary that well – he attends the local temple.  But his son, Alex, got involved with NCSY and started keeping Shabbos and kosher, culminating in his decision to spend a year in yeshiva in Israel.

“Rabbi, could you please advise us how to kasher our kitchen?  Alex is coming back from Israel and we want to make sure that he is able to eat in our home.”  I returned his call and made arrangements to come by. 

Standing there, blowtorch in hand, I commended Gary and his wife, Patricia, on their readiness to make accommodations for their son.  “Many others would totally resist their kid’s lifestyle choice.  It’s really amazing that you are willing to change your habits for him!”

“That’s really nice you say that, Rabbi,” Gary replied, “We are indeed doing our best to bend over backwards for Alex.  But I’ve got to tell you, his attitude is distressing us.  He was such a sweet kid and now it seems he’s lost all respect for us.  I don’t know what happened in yeshiva, but you’d think that he’d at least come back a mensch!?!”

The Mishnah states: If Purim fell on Shabbos, villages and big cities advance the reading to Thursday, the day of gathering.

The Gemara asks: Everyone agrees that we do not read the Megillah on Shabbos.  What is the reason?

Rabbi Joseph answers: Because the eyes of the poor are raised up to the reading of the Megillah.

Rashi explains that the Megillah reading reminds them that they are about to receive the Matanos l’Evyonim (Gifts to the Poor, one of the four special mitzvos of Purim) and that is not possible on Shabbos, since we do not handle money on the Sabbath.  Therefore, so as not to disappoint the needy, we move the Megillah reading to a day that we can distribute alms. 

Why would the poor people expect their monetary gifts on Shabbos?  They know that you can’t handle money on Shabbos and they couldn’t spend the money, anyway!  Why couldn’t we just read the Megillah and then give them the money after Shabbos? It hardly seems like sufficient reason to read the Megillah on the wrong day!

Rabbi Joseph’s message is that the Megillah reading, just like every mitzvah, must be transformative.  If you can do a mitzvah and not be a better human being for it, you’ve missed the point.  How could you read the Megillah and not be immediately inspired to help the needy?

Many of us, sadly, compartmentalize our mitzvos into those that are between me and G-d and those that are between me and my fellow human beings.  Certainly, those categories exist – as the two Tablets of the Ten Commandments attest to.  But there is an essential connection between both categories of mitzvah.  It’s not a case of ‘ne’er the twain shall meet.’ They are dependent upon one another – if the ‘G-d’ mitzvos don’t inspire you to fulfill the ‘man’ mitzvos, then you don’t get it.  You’ve failed to grasp the Torah’s expectation of you!

The Almighty gives us mitzvos to refine us, to make us better people.  When the miracle of Purim occurred, Mordechai and Esther were inspired to help the needy.  If you read the Megillah and are not immediately inspired to help those in need, you should probably read it again.

If you put on tefillin and are not inspired to be the most ethical person in your corporate world, you should probably try on those tefillin once more.  If you can spend a year learning Torah, only to come back lacking respect for your parents, you need to ask yourself ‘what was the point of it all?’

Mitzvos must be transformative.  Do a mitzvah today and become a better person for it!  Keeping Shabbos means learning to spend more time with your children.  Keeping kosher means realizing that the Almighty wants you to act humanely to all His creatures and help them achieve their spiritual mission.  Keeping the laws of family purity means learning how to make your spouse happy psychologically and emotionally – marriage is much more than a physical relationship. 

The Torah is a complex recipe for transformation – spiritual transformation, physical transformation, psychological transformation; but most importantly character transformation.   Once you appreciate that, you will be on the path to your true performance of all the mitzvos!  

Monday, 14 July 2014

Why we feel holy at the Western Wall

Megillah 3

Everyone who visits the Western Wall in Jerusalem for the first time has the same two reactions.  Their first reaction is physical, “Wow, it’s much smaller than I imagined it!”  The second reaction is spiritual – one experiences an inexplicable, deep feeling of belonging and yearning. 

What is this strange sensation and where does it come from?

Daniel writes, “And I, Daniel, alone saw the vision; for the men that were with me saw not the vision; but a great quaking fell upon them, and they fled to hide themselves.”

Who were these men?  Rabbi Jeremiah (or some say, Rabbi Hiyya bar Abba) said: These were Haggai, Zachariah, and Malachi.  They were superior to him in one way, and he was superior to them in another. They were superior to him, because they were prophets and he was not a prophet.  He was superior to them, because he saw the vision and they did not see.  If they did not see, why were they frightened? Although they themselves did not see, their mazal saw.

Rashi explains the meaning of their mazal:  Every person has a ministering angel above watching over him and guiding him.

We perceive most things around us through our physical eyes.  That’s reality as we know it.  But the actual reality is that there is much more going on in the spiritual realm around us that we simply do not see.  Nowadays, in the age of radio-waves and wifi signals, we all understand that there are things in the atmosphere around us beyond our physical eyes.  So it’s not a huge jump to comprehend that there is an abundance of spiritual activity also taking place in the environment around us.

‘Although we ourselves do not see, our mazal sees,’ says the Talmud.   Our guardian angel is completely aware of the spiritual activity that our eyes fail to perceive.  That’s why you get this intense overwhelming feeling when you visit the Western Wall for the first time – it’s your mazal experiencing spiritual ecstasy due to the holiness of the environs and melancholy due to the destruction of the Holy Temple. 

Sometimes you feel you’re wasting your time sitting in shul if you don’t understand everything that’s happening.  Or why bother going to a Torah class that’s beyond you?  The answer is that you may not yet understand and appreciate what’s going on, but your mazal does.  Your mazal is reveling in every moment of the spiritual high and you are becoming more spiritually stronger for it.  So it’s well worth the time and effort of just being there and taking it all in!

Get involved in spiritual activities – prayer, Torah.  Your mazal will thank you for it!  And you will be spiritually richer for it.  And next time you have that sense of yearning or belonging, know that it is your mazal calling out to you asking for more!