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Sunday, 13 July 2014

Finding G-d in a Half-Empty Glass


Taanis 31

Aimee Mullins has twelve pairs of legs.

Born with fibular hemimelia, she had her biological legs removed when she was just a year old.  But with the use of prosthetics, she has had a successful career as an athlete and motivational speaker, amongst other incredible achievements.  Depending on the occasion, she stands between 5’8” and 6’1”! 

Where others would have accepted their lot in life with a feeling of defeatist submission, Aimee has managed to transform her disability into success.  How do we achieve such perspective in our lives? 

The Mishnah states: Chief Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said: There never were in Israel greater days of joy than the fifteenth of Av and Yom Kippur. On those days the daughters of Jerusalem came out dancing in the vineyards exclaiming, “Young man, lift up your eyes and see what you choose for yourself.”

Asks the Gemara:  I understand why Yom Kippur is joyous, since it is a day of forgiveness and pardon and on it the second Tablets of the Law were given, but what happened on the fifteenth of Av?

Rabbah and Rabbi Joseph both said: It is the day each year on which they ceased to chop wood for the altar, as we learned: Rabbi Eliezer the elder says, “From the fifteenth of Av onwards the strength of the sun weakens and they no longer cut wood for the altar, because it would not dry properly.”  Rabbi Menashya said, “They called it the Day of the Breaking of the Axe.”  From this day onwards, one who increases his Torah knowledge through study will have his life prolonged, but he who does not increase his knowledge will decrease.  What is meant by decrease? — Rabbi Joseph taught: His mother will bury him.

Our Rabbis taught: The beautiful girls dancing in the field called out, “Set your eyes on beauty for the quality most to be prized in woman is beauty.”  Those of them who came from noble families called out, “Look for a good family for woman has been created to bring up a good family.”  The homely ones amongst them called out “Take what you acquire for the sake of Heaven, as long as you crown us with gold.”

Ulla Biraah quoted Rabbi Elazar: In the future, the Holy One, blessed be He, will make a circle of the righteous and He will sit in the middle in the Garden of Eden.  Every one of them will point with his finger towards Him, as it is said, ‘And he shall say on that day, behold, this is our G-d.  We hoped for Him that He would save us.  This is the L-rd for Whom we waited, we will be glad and rejoice in His salvation.’

These three disparate teachings conclude the Talmudic tractate of Taanis.  Let’s try and understand what each one means and their connection to one another.

The first teaching is the Talmud’s sixth explanation for the joy of the 15th Av.  It was the day, say Rabbah and Rabbi Joseph, that they stopped cutting wood for the altar.  The wood wouldn’t dry properly and so they had to stop cutting.  What’s so joyous about not being able to cut the wood?    

The second part of the teaching sheds light on the issue.  Practically speaking, Rabbi Joseph instructs us to increase our knowledge from the 15th Av onwards.  Why?  Rashi explains that around this time of year of the summer solstice, the nights start getting longer.  Back in the days of agrarian society, if it got dark early, your day was over.  You went home and you had two choices: either you could waste your time away, or you could spend the longer nights devoted to Torah study.  Says Rabbi Joseph: If you spend your longer evenings increasing your Torah knowledge, you will thereby increase your life.  If you waste your time, then every day that you’ve failed to progress in your Torah knowledge you’ve inevitably regressed. 

Why is that so?  Think about it.  Do you remember what you learned a year ago with the same clarity as something you learned yesterday?  Of course not.  And so every day you are not learning new material, you are not remaining static – you are unavoidably losing information due to the passage of time.  And so you are regressing in your Torah knowledge.  Instead of heading forward in life, you are heading in the wrong direction – back to your mother who gave birth to you, hence the Talmud’s expression, “His mother will bury him.”

So it’s important to learn new Torah every day so that you’re always going forward in life and not backwards.  But think about the source of this teaching: the longer nights.  At first blush, the summer solstice and longer nights means that we are on our way to winter.  But the Talmud repackages that concern and sees the glass as half full.  ‘Look on the bright side, longer nights mean more time to learn Torah!’

Hence, the analogy to the cessation of the wood chopping: You could think of it as a downer – we can’t chop any more wood, because we have less sunlight to dry the wood.  Or you could think of it positively – as the culmination of a wonderful season of performing the mitzvah of wood chopping!   And like Rabbi Menashye calls it “The Day of the Breaking of the Axe,” it’s a day that we celebrate that we have completed our mitzvah and we no longer even need the axe!

This thread of seeing the glass as half full versus half empty continues with the description of the young maidens dancing in the field.  Some were physically attractive, others had good lineage.  As for those who had neither of these attributes going for them, they point out to the young men that if they are truly seeking to get married in order to fulfill the Almighty’s will, then they will ‘crown them with gold.’ 

Everyone has beauty.  Every person is created in the image of G-d.  You could find fault with anybody – from the most physically attractive to the person with the noblest of lineage – if you choose to.  Or, you could choose to crown even the most unattractive person with gold – to view them as half full, to look at all the wonderful attributes they do possess – to see the image of G-d shining forth. 

The Talmud concludes by describing the future circle of the righteous.  The righteous always see G-d in the middle of the circle.  One who is righteous looks beneath the surface and points to the G-dliness in every person and every encounter in life.  Where others would see the 15th Av as an end to the ability to chop wood, they view it as the completion and culmination of the mitzvah!  Where others would see the 15th Av as the beginning of the descent into winter, they view it as an opportunity to learn more Torah!  Where others see homeliness, they see G-dliness.

How do you see the world?  Do you see the glass as half empty or half full?  Are you able to recognize the Almighty in the centre of every circle?  Are you able to see the image of G-d shining forth from every individual?  Are you able to transform weaknesses and threats into strengths and opportunities?  That’s the hallmark of a righteous person!


Ultimately, this world is a world of falsehood.  The sparks of holiness are concealed under layers of physicality.  Your mission on earth is to strive be superhuman – to have the x-ray vision – to see past the falsehoods and recognize the G-dliness in every person, object and occasion!