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Sunday, 31 August 2014

Take control and let it go

Daf Yomi Moed Katan 19

Laura was upset.  Her mother had passed away two days before Sukkot and the funeral was the day before Sukkot.   Shivah, the seven-day mourning period, I explained to her, would be observed only briefly before the festival and then cut short due to the festival.
“That’s not fair,” she cried, “I deserve the ritual of shivah to ease me through this transition just like everyone else!”

The Beraisa states:  If the funeral of one’s relative takes place three days before a festival, shivah is cut short.  Eight days before the festival and shloshim (the thirty-day second stage of mourning) is cut short, since one observed the first day of shloshim already prior to the onset of the festival.  Thus, one may cut one’s hair just prior to the festival.  However, if one failed to cut one’s hair before the festival, he may not cut it after the festival. 
Aba Shaul says: One is indeed permitted to cut one’s hair after the festival.  Just like the three days nullifies the shivah, so too do the seven days completely nullify the shloshim.

Asks the Gemara: Aba Shaul said seven days, doesn’t he mean eight?  We need seven days of shivah and then at least one day of shloshim to take effect prior to the festival in order to effect the cancellation!
The Gemara answers: Aba Shaul maintains that a partial day of mourning counts as a whole day.  Thus, day seven of the shivah is also day one of the shloshim.  And so you only need seven days of mourning before a festival to cut short both the shivah and the shloshim.

Rabbi Chisda quotes Ravina bar Shila: The halacha (law) accords with Aba Shaul, as Shmuel taught, “In matters of mourning, the halacha always accords with the lenient opinion.”

How can the halacha determine how long one must grieve?  Is it not a matter of the heart?  And yet, Aba Shaul instructs us to complete the mourning period on the seventh morning, without sitting the entire seventh day.   Who is he to tell me when I’m ready to stop grieving?

Aba Shaul’s teaching is profound.  He is teaching us that we have the ability to control our emotions and not let our emotions get the better of us!  Part and parcel of our mission on earth is self-mastery.  In traditional verbiage, our Sages instruct us that the mind must have dominion over the heart. 

You can control your emotions!  We are to grieve when the Torah instructs us to grieve.  And we are to be comforted and happy when the Torah tells us so.  Nobody says that is easy, but the Torah is our guide-book for how we should live our lives.

And of course, it is not only with regards to mourning the loss of a loved one; the same is true of mourning generally.  Shmuel teaches that we must be lenient when it comes to mourning, which means that given the choice, you should avoid being unhappy.  How do you be lenient concerning your mourning, i.e. avoid grief and unhappiness?

Let’s say you’ve had a fight with your spouse.  You’re simmering with anger at something they’ve said and you walk away.   You could choose to remain angry at them and find something biting to say back to them or you could choose to let it go.  Shmuel says err on the side of leniency concerning the grief you’re feeling and choose to say something nice to your spouse instead. 

You are in control of your emotions.  Don’t let your heart lead you astray and convince your head that there’s only one decision to make and direction to take.  You can choose to be in control of your heart.  Be lenient with matters of grief – let it go and you will feel much better for the choice you’ve made!

Friday, 29 August 2014

Three Men Make a Tiger

Daf Yomi Moed Katan 18

Many, many centuries ago, Pang Cong, a minister of the Chinese King of Wei, asked the king, “If someone told you that a tiger was wandering around in the marketplace, would you believe him?”
The king replied, “No.”
“What if two people reported it?”
“Then I’d have my doubts, I guess,” replied the king.
“How about three?”
“I would probably believe it at that point,” was the king’s response.
Pang Cong, who had many enemies, warned the king not to believe false rumours about him while he was away on official business.  The king understood the parable.  Nevertheless, sure enough, once he was absent, the rumour-mongers began their insidious work and by the time Pang Cong returned the king refused to admit him into the royal chamber.

On Chol Hamoed (the intermediate days of the festival), one may not engage in unnecessary work including laundry.

The Mishnah states, “Only the following people may launder their clothing on Chol Hamoed: One who arrived from overseas, one who was released from captivity or freed from gaol. . .”

In the Gemara, Bar Heidi suggests that there are other instances when one may wash one’s clothes. 
“I personally witnessed the practice at the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee), where the people would take out bowls of linen garments to wash on Chol Hamoed.”
Abaye interjects, “Who says that they were acting spiritually appropriately? Maybe they were out of line!”

Just because everybody is doing something does not make it right.  Just because everybody is saying something does not make it right.  In logical reasoning theory, this approach is called argumentum ad populum – appeal to the masses, or 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can’t be Wrong!

Of course, three men don’t make a tiger, and the fact that everyone might be washing their clothes on Chol Hamoed does not make it right.  The tragic story of the disappearance of the Jewish people is all about doing what everyone else was doing.  It is about our assimilation into the society around us, from our sojourn in Egypt to the Assyrian exile to Greek Hellenism to our modern brothers and sisters who are being swallowed up by Western life.

Doing what everyone else is doing is easy.  Going against the tide is extremely challenging.  But the Jewish people we see today are the children of those who didn’t just follow the pack.  Just like our forefather Abraham ha’Ivry – so called, because he stood on the other side of his contemporary worldview of paganism and idolatry – all our ancestors were prepared to stand up to the world and be different.  And we are still here today because they did. 

As a child of those Jews who stood up to the world, you have it in you to be different.  Don’t be a sheep.  Don’t just do what everyone else is doing.  Stand up to the world!  Be a proud Jew!  Follow the guidance of the Torah and your children and grandchildren will look to you as the forebear they in turn will seek to emulate!

Thursday, 28 August 2014

The Talmud's Formula for Successful Sinning

Daf Yomi Moed Katan 17

Today's Life Yomi has been dedicated by Ram Romanovsky in memory of his brother, Raphael Pinchas ben Mendel z"l.  May the neshama have an aliya and may you be blessed with long life.

One of our wonderful daughters, who shall remain nameless, was an incessant thumb-sucker.  We tried everything – cajoling, bribing, using foul-tasting ointments – to no avail.  Then she entered grade one in school.  She was so excited and proud of being a big girl and wearing her school uniform.
“Do big girls suck their thumbs?” we asked her.  She thought about it for a while and eventually decided that it was indeed inappropriate for a big girl to suck her thumb and that was the last we saw of it (more or less!).

Rabbi Eli teaches: If a person sees that his evil inclination is overpowering him, he should go to a place where no one knows him.   He should wear black clothes and wrap himself in a black shawl.  He will do what his heart desires and he shall not desecrate the name of Heaven publicly. 

Rabbi Hai Gaon explains, “Certainly once he is wearing black, I guarantee that he will no longer desire to sin.”

Judaism’s traditional parenting technique is often coined the ‘es passt nisht’ method.  Es passt nisht means that it is unbefitting you to behave like that.  Instead of negative reinforcement – screaming at your child, getting upset at them – we ask them whether they feel that they are acting appropriately for their age and we strive to impress upon them that es passt nisht – it’s unbefitting you to behave the way you are acting, you can do much better!  And that was how we cured the thumb-sucking. 

But es passt nisht is not limited to parenting methodology.  As adults, we too have moments of weakness when our hearts get the better of us and we’re tempted to do something or even look at something we shouldn’t.  Rabbi Eli teaches you how to overcome your yetzer hara (evil inclination) employing the es passt nisht technique.

You’ve worked hard to build your reputation.  You are a respectable individual who is highly regarded.  Now picture yourself as a complete unknown.  “The clothes doth oft proclaim the man” – imagine you are donned in all black.   That is what could become of you if you sin.  You will lose every last bit of your dignity and the societal standing you have worked hard to achieve.  Is that what you want? 

Essentially you are telling yourself that es passt nisht for someone of your stature to behave in such a manner.  And that is why Rabbi Hai explains that this is a guaranteed formula for success in combatting the yetzer hara.  With this attitude, you will indeed do what your heart desires, which will be to run far away from sin, because es passt nisht – it’s unbecoming of someone like you to act that way!

You have worked hard to become who you are today.  Don’t let your yetzer hara convince you that it’s no big deal.  You are way better than that!  Imagine yourself as a nobody and your decision to do the right thing will be easy!

Life Yomi dedications don't cost a penny.  To dedicate a day of Life Yomi learning, all you need to do is forward the teaching to 18 (chai) people!  

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Take the Life Yomi Challenge!

Daf Yomi Moed Katan 16

What is the driving force of the Jewish people?  For the last fifty years, we have been led to believe that Jews would stay Jews with the memory of the Holocaust and pride in the State of Israel. 

It’s not working anymore.  A generation of North American Jews has grown up without the terror of anti-Semitism; and the Holocaust, tragically, is fast becoming but a distant memory.   Our youth don’t understand why the Jewish people need our own country.  In many ways, sadly, they feel a greater affinity to their Asian-American or Irish-American neighbours than their coreligionists in Israel. 

That doesn’t mean we should ever, Heaven forbid, cease teaching and reminding our children about the horrors of the Nazis.  We have a duty to the world and to future generations to remind them never to forget.  And anyone who comprehends the existential threat that Israel faces on a daily basis understands that the safety and security of world Jewry – nay, Western civilization – hangs on the safety and security of the State of Israel.

But anti-Semitism and national pride alone do not sustain the Jewish people.  The key to our longevity is, and always has been: Torah.  We are the People of the Book and it is Torah that has driven our survival, beyond all odds.  How do we instill a love of Torah in our people?

King Solomon writes in the Song of Songs, “Your hidden thighs are like jewels.”  Rebbe (Rabbi Judah the Prince) explains:  Just like one’s thigh is concealed, so too should Torah be concealed.  He then proceeded to decree that Torah should not be taught in the marketplace.

Rabbi Chiya went out and taught his nephews, Rav and Rabbah bar bar Chana, in the market.   Rebbe heard and was annoyed.
“Why did the master do this?” he asked Rabbi Chiya.
“For Solomon writes in Proverbs: Wisdom sings outside,” he responded.
“But does King Solomon not say concerning Torah: Your hidden thighs are like jewels?” inquired the rabbis.
“No, that teaching refers to charity and acts of kindness, which should be performed covertly,” explained Rabbi Chiya. 

Every morning we chant “The Torah that Moses commanded us is an inheritance for the congregation of Jacob.”  Torah is for every Jew.  It is not the domain of a private elite class.  Torah should be taught ‘out in the marketplace.’  Everyone has the right to learn Torah.  Everyone has the right to own Torah. Torah belongs to the entire congregation of Jacob (Israel).  It’s your inheritance!

Three times a day, we recite the prayer, “Grant us our portion in Your Torah.”  The meaning of this prayer is that each and every one of us has the ability and obligation to discover his/her unique contribution to Torah wisdom.  The more we publicize Torah learning, the more opportunity we have for every Jew to take ownership of their heritage and become driven by Torah.

Over the last seven months, you have heard me provide my insights from the Talmud for daily living. I am deeply indebted to all of you for joining me on this spiritual journey.  I look forward, with G-d’s help, to continue sharing my ‘portion in Torah’ with you for many years to come.

But now I turn to you.  Torah doesn’t belong to the rabbis.  Torah belongs to every Jew.  I invite you to take the Life Yomi Challenge.  You too have insights for daily living from the Talmud.  All it takes is commitment to study the Daf (page of the Talmud) intently and ask ‘what does this mean to my life?’ 

Maybe you’d like to take the challenge in honour of a yortzeit.  Perhaps for a birthday or anniversary.  I’m not asking you to come up with chiddushim (novel understandings) every day – pick one Daf over the next twelve months and spend some time delving into its meaning.  And when you’re ready to share it with the world, I look forward to sharing it on as a guest post!

You can do it.  The Almighty has granted you a portion in His Torah.  Your challenge is to discover it.  Let the Life Yomi challenge begin!

How to find the Shivah House with the Best Spread

Daf Yomi Moed Katan 15

Today’s Life Yomi has been dedicated by Hal Zalmanowitz in memory of his father, Noach ben Binyamin hakohen z”l, on the occasion of his yortzeit on Rosh Chodesh Elul (30th Av).  May the neshama have an aliya and may you have a long life of healthy years. 

One of the most telling thank-you’s I have ever received was from a congregant who had just completed her seven-day shivah period of mourning. 
“Rabbi, you were the only person I spoke about my deceased mother with,” said Sandy, “Everyone else who came to the shivah sat around striking up the most random conversations.  They seemed almost oblivious to the fact that I had just lost mom.”

When the Almighty informs the prophet Ezekiel is of his wife’s death, He says, “Grieve and be silent.”   From here the Talmud derives that a mourner may not say shalom (greetings) to other people.

Rashi explains that he must be quiet and not ask about their ‘shalom’ – peace.  In other words, a mourner may not inquire about another’s welfare. 

The prophet Ezekiel was the quintessential pastor – he loved people and cared about them deeply.  The Almighty instructs him, however, that during shivah he had to focus on his own loss.  To inquire of others’ welfare would be a distraction from his personal mourning. 

How often do we see mourners who are visited and feel obliged to make everyone feel comfortable, asking them how they are doing, what’s news with their families, et cetera.  Your job as the comforter is to always do your best to bring the conversation back to the deceased.  Ask the mourner to tell you about their lost loved one.  Who were they?  What was their life about?  The shivah is about the deceased and that must be the sole topic of conversation.

Now, if it is inappropriate for the mourner to ask you how you are doing, how much more so is it inappropriate for you to inquire as to the mourner’s shalom – peace and welfare – and ask them how they’re doing.  I’ll tell you the answer: For those who have temporarily forgotten, they’ve just lost their loved one.  They’re not doing well.  Asking them how they are doing is not just the wrong question, it’s completely insensitive and off.   Instead wish them strength, wish them long life and be curious about their departed loved one.

Shivah houses aren’t about the food.  They aren’t about the comradery and social scene.  They aren’t about catching up with people you haven’t seen in ages.  They’re about the mourners working through their grief by telling over the story of their loved ones.   And the comforters helping them as they endure this trying transition period of their life. 

Be sensitive.  Stop talking about yourself.  Stop asking how the mourners are doing.  Sit down next to the mourner and let them tell you the story of the person you have come to remember. 

Life Yomi dedications don’t cost a penny.  To dedicate a day of Life Yomi, you simply need to forward the teaching to 18 (chai) people!

Monday, 25 August 2014

G-d wants you to be Rich!

Daf Yomi Moed Katan 14

Yankel is a good Jew.  He meticulously keeps kosher and Shabbos.  He begins each morning at shul, davening and learning Daf Yomi, before heading out to work. 

But he works hard.  Ten, twelve hours a day and boy, does he drive a hard bargain.  A clever businessman, he takes his work very seriously.

Honestly, though, does he really need the money?  Thank G-d, he’s very comfortable and could probably work a little less arduously.  Maybe he should be devoting more time to spiritual matters, like Torah and chesed (acts of kindness)?  Is this how a frum Jew spends his life?

One is generally not allowed to cut his hair during Chol Hamoed (the intermediate days of the festival).   The Mishnah teaches that one who arrived from overseas may.  In a Beraisa, Rabbi Judah teaches that one who came from overseas may not cut his hair.  Can you or can’t you?

Rava teaches: If you travelled for pleasure, everyone agrees that it is forbidden.  If you travelled for your sustenance, everyone agrees that it is permitted.  When did they disagree?  If you were travelling to profit above and beyond your livelihood.  Rabbi Judah likens it to travelling for pleasure, and thus forbidden, whereas the Sages of our Mishnah liken it to the pursuit of sustenance, and therefore permissible. 

In Judaism, there is no neutral territory.  Either it’s permissible or forbidden.  Nevertheless, often it is a matter of intent.

The pursuit of riches is not a good thing or a bad thing.  It all depends how you intend to use the money.  If your aim is to increase your pleasure in life, to buy more luxury items, to impress more people, then you’ve drifted off your Divine path.  But if your goal for pursuing profit is in order to increase sustenance, it’s a good thing. 

How do you increase sustenance when you already have enough to eat?  You seek ways to sustain others.   There is no shortage of needy people and institutions in your community that desperately need your sustenance.  If your aim is to feed the hungry and build community organizations, then every moment you spend working is a mitzvah!

And that’s the question you constantly need to ask yourself:  Am I pursuing pleasure or sustenance?  Am I working hard simply to buy more ‘stuff’ or is my goal to increase the sustenance of those around me?   With the right intentions, the Almighty will grant you blessings beyond your wildest dreams!

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Who cares about your cousins? You should.

Daf Yomi Moed Katan 13

When I was in kollel, one of the highlights of the week was the Rosh Kollel’s schmooze (talk).  One day, he gathered us together and told us of a meeting he’d recently attended with his colleagues in the area.  Their conclusion: The number of those leaving the fold of halacha (Jewish practice) was unparalleled since the 1920s. 
“Today,” he said, “like the 1920s, there is hardly a frum (religious) household where one of the children hasn’t forsaken their observance!”

The result, of course, is that even the frumest of families have siblings and cousins who are not observant.  I know many people who don’t even know their cousins because their parents ‘protected’ them from having a relationship with their non-observant family members. 

Is that what G-d wants?

In ancient times, slavery was the norm.  People treated human beings as chattel, almost subhuman.  The Torah was the first legal system that circumscribed slavery with strict laws that served to make slavery an unattractive option in terms of hired labour.

Concerning the Hebrew slave, our Sages tell us “One who acquires a slave, acquires a master,” such was the high standard of respect one had to show one’s servant.  Similarly, a gentile slave had to be respected and offered a decent standard of living.  In order to maintain our respect for our servant, the Torah commands us to immediately circumcise him and invite him into the household where he would be obligated to keep most mitzvos like the other members of our family! In other words, purchasing a gentile servant was a kind of redemption from the harsh barbaric life he had otherwise known and an invitation into our civilized Jewish world, where even slaves had Divine rights and responsibilities.

In fact, if one subsequently sold one’s non-Jewish servant to a non-Jew, our Sages decreed that he was obligated to repurchase him for up to one hundred times the original sale value!  Our Sages were well aware that this individual would no longer receive the same level of treatment to which he had been accustomed in his Jewish home.

The Gemara asks: What if he sold his servant to a gentile and then died, would his son be required to attend to the matter of repurchase?   The Gemara answers in the affirmative, because every day that he remains in the gentile home he is unable to perform mitzvos!

Why does the son need to be concerned about this gentile slave that he may never have known?  He wasn’t the one who sold him to the non-Jewish neighbour, it was his father!  And now you’re asking him to pay up to one hundred times the retail value simply so that this non-Jew can do a few mitzvos?!

Clearly, the son has assumed the responsibility for this man due to the negligence of his father.  He’s not required to redeem the slave for the slave’s sake specifically – if that were the case, he would be required to go around redeeming all slaves, regardless of whether they had originally belonged to his father.  No, the obligation to redeem is in place here in order to complete his father’s unfulfilled mission.

Your parents love every one of their children.  Your grandparents love every one of their children.  Somewhere along the line one or two of those children drifted from their Judaism.  Do you think your parents or grandparents gave up on them?  Absolutely not.  They prayed for them.  They pleaded with them.  Their love and dedication never waned.

Fast forward a generation or two.   You might think that you have very little in common with your non-observant siblings or cousins – after all, you and they lead very different lifestyles.  And their lifestyle choices shouldn’t be your problem, what’s that got to do with you?

Comes the Gemara and teaches us that your parents’ concern is your concern.  If their mission of teaching their children our heritage remained unfulfilled, then you must assume that mission.  Not because they’re your cousins – that’s also important, but not your primary reason – but because you are a continuation of your parents’ and grandparents’ mission on this earth.  If the Gemara is concerned about every moment the poor gentile slave is impeded from mitzvah performance, how much more so must you be concerned for every moment your brother and cousin is missing out on mitzvos!

I have friends that have dedicated their lives to kiruv (outreach) to our brothers and sisters who are less familiar with their Jewish heritage.  But at the same time they have siblings who have drifted away that they haven’t spoken to in years!  The message of the Gemara is that ‘charity begins at home.’

It’s time to reach out to your siblings and cousins – first, second, third, it doesn’t matter – and teach them the beauty of our heritage.  It’s your obligation because it was your parents’ and grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ mission.  Reach out today – who knows?  You might even find that you have a lot more in common with them than you ever imagined!

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Go to a Passover resort and never clean again!

Daf Yomi Moed Katan 12

One of the greatest blessings of our generation is the advent of Passover hotels.  When I ask my colleagues how they feel about Pesach resorts, however, I get mixed responses.  On the one hand, those who get speaking gigs for Pesach seem to love them!   On the other hand, other rabbis talk about them quite disapprovingly.  ‘Pesach should be spent at home!’ ‘Nobody’s cleaning for Pesach anymore.’  ‘Pesach is about family.’

Are Pesach hotels good for Judaism?

The Rabbis taught in a Beraisa: One may not enter animals into a field in order to fertilize it on Shabbos, Yom Tov or Chol Hamoed (the intermediate days of the festival).   If the animals came or if non-Jews brought their animals into the field of their own accord, we allow them to fertilize.   But we may not assist them in the task.

How should they be remunerated?  Rebbe (Rabbi Judah the Prince) teaches: On Shabbos, with good (i.e. we can repay the favour).  On Yom Tov, with sustenance (i.e. we can compensate them with food).  On Chol Hamoed, with reward (i.e. real payment). 

When you first start keeping Shabbos, it’s not easy.  It’s a whole lifestyle change.  No more TV, no more internet, no more cellphone.  For the first little while, you still feel like your phone is buzzing in your pocket – that’s how attached you are!

And then you begin to appreciate the beauty of Shabbos.  You start enjoying the tranquility of no TV, no internet and no cellphone.  It’s the one night a week that all the family is gathered around the table with no interruptions and you realized ‘what a blessing!’  In the words of Rabbi Judah, on Shabbos, you are remunerated with “good.”  Shabbos isn’t just some vague ‘World to Come’ reward – it’s here and now!   Anyone who has kept Shabbos for a period of time will tell you how good it is in this world!

Yom Tov, however, is a little more challenging. Most people only get a couple of weeks of holidays a year.  How do you fit thirteen days of Yom Tov into ten days?  And so you tell your boss you’ll do overtime.  You’ll work Sundays.  And after all you’ve used up all your holiday time on Yom Tov, there’s no time to go away on vacation!   And so Rabbi Judah teaches us that the Almighty will recompense your efforts with increased “sustenance” if you keep Yom Tov.  The reward for your efforts in arranging your work schedule around Yom Tov is that you will receive even greater parnassah (livelihood)!

But the greatest challenge of all is Chol Hamoed.  You’re allowed to drive, you’re allowed to use the telephone.   So it can’t be that terrible if you go to work, right?  Well, if it’s work that would save you from significant financial loss, it’s permitted.  Losing your job would certainly fit the bill!  And so most people go to work on Chol Hamoed.   Says Rabbi Judah: If you would make the sacrifice and figure out how to avoid working on Chol Hamoed, that’s when you would receive the ultimate “reward.”  Taking off work for Chol Hamoed is one of the greatest challenges of Judaism.   More challenging than Shabbos.  More challenging than kosher.

Now, imagine you could plan your family vacation around Yom Tov and Chol Hamoed so that you would get away and at the same time be able to practice the festival in the most ideal way?  That’s the awesomeness of the Pesach resort experience.  Once you’re away, you’re away and there’s no temptation to go to work.  We have people in our community who struggle with staying home from work on 2nd day Yom Tov – it totally brightens up my day when I hear they’re going away for Pesach!

Now, it goes without saying that the average family probably can’t afford to go away for Pesach and I’m not saying that this is the new normal.  Certainly people need to prioritize and make sure they are paying school tuition fees and synagogue membership before they start paying for luxuries like Pesach hotels.  But for those who can afford it, it’s a blessing indeed.  And before you knock the Passover resort, ask yourself if you are desisting from work on Chol Hamoed.  Because your friends who went away are not working on Chol Hamoed and that’s the way it’s supposed to be!

Ultimately, you need to make sure that you’re not judging anyone else for the decisions they’ve made in their lives.  You don’t know how vital it is for your neighbour to work during Chol Hamoed – that’s between him and G-d.  You don’t know what sacrifices your friend has made throughout the year – such as not eating out at restaurants – in order to afford to be away for Pesach and avoid the temptation of working on Chol Hamoed.  You need to figure out what works for your family and may the Almighty bless us all with “good,” “sustenance,” and “reward!”

Your Judaism is making me uncomfortable

Daf Yomi Moed Katan 11

When we first arrived in Edmonton, we had to have our chalav yisrael (rabbinically-supervised) milk shipped in frozen from Montreal.  At the time, there were just a couple of families in town who kept chalav yisrael.  Over the years, more and more families adopted the practice despite Rabbi Feinstein’s heter (allowance) for drinking regular American milk where chalav yisrael is hard to come by.  Today, thank G-d, there are three supermarkets in Edmonton that stock chalav yisrael milk, cheese and yogurt!

Recently, Blake and Miranda came to see me.  She’s moving a little faster than him in her spiritual quest and wants to convert their kitchen to all-chalav yisrael.  He’s not a happy camper – after all, it’s Edmonton and kosher availability generally is slim pickings, let alone chalav yisrael!   

“Rabbi, please tell Blake that this is the right thing to do!”

Marion the son of Ravin and Mar the son of Rabbi Acha (Rava’s son) shared a yoke of two oxen.  Mar had a death in the family and removed his ox from the yoke, so that he wouldn’t be working during shivah (the seven-day period of mourning when all work is forbidden).

Rabbi Ashi exclaimed, “How could a learned man like Mar the son of Rabbi Acha act like that?  Granted, he was not concerned about his own loss, but what about the loss of others?   We have learned: If one’s animals were hired out to others before one began mourning, they may continue to do their work!” 

In this case, by removing his ox from the yoke, he was making it impossible for Marion’s ox to plough, thereby causing him a loss.  Marion was not sitting shivah so Mar should have been considerate of his loss when he detached his ox.

If you’ve got something to do for G-d, just make sure that you’re not unnecessarily imposing upon anyone else in the process.  Yes, Mar had to abstain from work during shivah, but not at Marion’s expense.  He wasn’t sitting shivah!

Likewise, if Miranda wants to keep chalav yisrael, then she needs to figure out how to do it without imposing her religious zealousness on the rest of her family.  Your Judaism isn’t meant to cause machlokes (arguments) between you and your spouse.  Taking on an extra religious commitment should increase your shalom bayis (peace at home), not impede it.  If you’re serious about chalav yisrael or whatever the extra commitment is, then you’ll figure out how to do without causing discomfort to anyone else.

The Almighty wants you to constantly find ways to improve your relationship with him.   And challenging yourself should take you out of your comfort zone.  But if you find yourself making others uncomfortable in the process, then you’re doing something wrong.  Reassess and figure out whether this is the path that He truly wants you to take!

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Getting invited to all the right parties

Moed Katan 10

The more we become enmeshed in social media the more widespread the epidemic of ‘status anxiety’ becomes.  Everyone wants to be someone and it’s no longer about how many friends you have but who they are.

Our friends, Kerry and Sheldon, suffer from status anxiety.  They are never satisfied with their social circle and are constantly working at getting invited to the ‘right’ parties.  Sadly, over the years many people who thought they were their friends have realized that they were just being used as a stepping stone to reach the next level of status.

How do you know if a friendship is real or you are just being used?

Rava taught: Concerning one who clears branches from his yard on Chol Hamoed (the intermediate days of the festival, when work in the field is forbidden) – if his intention is to use the wood (for burning), he may do so.  But if his intention is to prepare the earth (for cultivation), he may not. 

How do we determine his intent?  If he takes the large branches and leaves the twigs, his intention is the wood (to warm himself).  If he takes both the large and small pieces, his intention is the earth.

How do you tell whether a person is sincere or insincere in their friendship?  If they only take the large branches and ignore the little ones – if they’re only interested in befriending the ‘important’ people – they’re insincere, and you must recognize their ‘friendship’ for what it is.  They’re only doing it to ‘warm themselves.’ 

But if they take both the large and small pieces – their friendship and kindness extends to all people great and small – their intention is for the earth, i.e. to make this world a better place, loving all people as created in the image of G-d.  It’s those kinds of people that offer sincere friendship and it is well worth investing in a relationship with them.

On the flipside, sometimes you need to look inside and ask yourself whether you are in any way guilty of being that large branch gatherer.   Are your offers of friendship sincere or just to stay warm?  Do you strive to be a friend to all?

When was the last time you reached out to someone less fortunate in the community and offered them your friendship?   Do you ever use your social connections to help others who may be lacking employment and other opportunities?  Do you talk to the same people at the synagogue kiddush (repast) each week or do you endeavour to invite a stranger to your table to join your crowd?

It’s time to gather all the branches, great and small.  Life isn’t about keeping yourself warm.  It’s about working the earth – making this world a better place.  Pick up a small branch today!

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Are you maximizing your impact?

Moed Katan 9

Personally I believe that rabbis are extremely well-positioned for political influence.  And it’s important that our voices are heard when it comes to both domestic and foreign policy. 

But not all my colleagues agree.  I have one friend, Reb Shloime, who refuses to have anything to do with politics.  He contends that, as a man of G-d, his job is to teach Torah and pastor to the flock.  Any other activities are a distraction from his sacred task and should be left to others to take care of.  Because only he possesses the skills and expertise to best excel at his primary task.

King Solomon writes in Proverbs, “Weigh the path of your feet and all your journeys will be directed.”
Rashi explains:  When faced with two mitzvos, weigh them up and calculate which is greater in order to perform the greater one.

Solomon further writes, “Lest you weigh the path of life.”
Rashi explains: This verse implies that you should perform every mitzvah that comes your way, great or small, and do not forsake the small for the big!

Rabbi Jonathan ben Asmay and Rabbi Judah ben Gerim resolve the apparent contradiction: The former refers to a mitzvah that may be performed by others.  In that case, you may choose the greater mitzvah and your fellow can perform the smaller one.  The latter refers to a mitzvah for which there is no other to perform it.  In that case you must do the mitzvah, whether great or small.

It is impossible to do everything in life.  Every time you choose to do something, you are at the same time choosing not to do other things.   If you choose to study architecture at university, then you are simultaneously choosing not to study law or engineering.  Every decision is a choice in favour of one thing over the competing options.

The goal of life is to figure out how you can maximize your potential on earth.  Every positive decision you make will have a positive impact.  Hopefully those are the choices that you are already making.  But that’s not the ultimate.  The ultimate is to ask yourself whether you are accomplishing the maximum possible positive impact with the choices you are making.

And so King Solomon’s advice is to constantly ask yourself two questions.  The first is, ‘Could anyone else do what I am doing?’  If the answer is no, then you must take care of it, no matter how trivial it may feel.  If the answer is yes, then you need to ask yourself the second question, ‘What else could I be doing in this world that might be a better use of my talents, skills and expertise?’

The answer to these two questions is not static.  It will change throughout your life, just as you change and the circumstances around you change.  As you grow, your environment must grow.  As you thrive, so should those you are impacting.  If not, you must ask yourself why not?

Our time on this earth is short.  You need to maximize every day, every hour, every minute.  The way to accomplish your mission is to constantly check in with yourself and determine that you are achieving the most ideal, effective life of positive influence that you possibly could. 

The world needs you – make sure you are maximizing your potential today!

Monday, 18 August 2014

How to enjoy a funeral

Moed Katan 8

The great Chasidic master, Rabbi Nachman of Breslov taught, “It is a great mitzvah to be joyous.” 
He would tell the story of a poor man whose work was to dig clay and sell it.  Once while digging, he chanced upon a stunning, large diamond.  Showing it to a number of people, they suggested he go to London to sell it.  He sold all his possessions and made his way to the seaport with the little money he had.

Lacking the necessary funds for the sea journey, he showed the diamond to the captain and promised to pay him in London.  The captain gave him a beautiful cabin, overlooking the ocean and each day he would admire his diamond and beam with joy.

One day, after eating, he dozed off.  In the meantime, the kitchen crew came and removed the contents of his table – meal, diamond and all – throwing everything overboard.  He woke up and his immediate reaction was devastation.  But then he thought to himself, ‘If the captain finds out I no longer have the diamond, he will not hesitate to similarly throw me overboard.’ And so he maintained his countenance of joy.

A couple of days later, the captain came to him and said that he was about to buy a huge quantity of wheat to sell in London but was concerned lest he be accused of using funds that were not his own.  Therefore, he would purchase the wheat in the name of the poor man. The poor man just smiled and agreed.

Upon arriving at the shores of England, suddenly the captain took ill and died.  Suddenly, the poor man had wealth way above and beyond the value of his diamond!

Explained Rabbi Nachman: The diamond did not belong to the poor man.  The proof is that he did not keep it.  The wheat did belong to him.  The proof is that he kept it.  Why?  Because he chose to maintain his joy in the face of adversity.

If we have challenges in our lives, how do we fulfill Rabbi Nachman’s dictum, “It is a great mitzvah to be joyous?”  Is happiness no more than a fa├žade?  You can’t manufacture happiness, can you?  Either you’re happy or you’re not!  How could Rabbi Nachman posit it as a commandment to be happy?

The Mishnah states:  Rabbi Meir teaches, “A person may gather the bones of his father or mother for reinterment on Chol Hamoed (the intermediate days of the festival), since it is joyous.”  Rabbi Yossi says, “No, it is a source of mourning [and forbidden during the festival].”

The Gemara asks: Rabbi Meir’s opinion appears to contradict the Beraisa that states, “One who gathers his father’s or mother’s bones must mourn for them all day!”

Abaye explains: We should say that Rabbi Meir means that (one may gather the bones during the festival) since the joy of the festival is upon him.

Rabbi Nachman’s teaching “Mitzvah gedolah lihyos b’simcha” is often understood as “It is a great mitzvah (commandment) to be joyous.”  But you can’t command someone to be joyous!  The real meaning of his sage advice is that “A mitzvah can grow to enable you to be happy.”  In other words, the joy you get from doing a mitzvah must grow and grow until it spills over into every aspect of your life!

The two extremes on the joy-scale of life are the joy of the Jewish festival and the grief of death.  As we’ve learned previously, “He who never saw the joy of the Temple water-drawing festival, never experienced joy in his life.”  And it goes without saying that the sadness of the death of a loved one is the greatest pain one can experience in this world.

Rabbi Meir takes these two extremes and teaches us how to bring joy into even the most trying ordeals of life.  “Mitzvah gedolah lihyos b’simcha – a mitzvah can grow to enable you to be happy!”  The deeper you are able to experience the joy of the mitzvah of the festival, the more you will be able to cope with the grief of reinterring your loved one.  For he who truly masters the joy of the festival, even the act of interment becomes a joy.  That doesn’t mean that serious acts become light, G-d forbid; rather, one achieves a level of inner-fulfilment whereby he appreciates the joy and vitality of every part of life, even those that would otherwise be impossible. 

If Rabbi Meir’s teaching is true at the extremes, how much more so is it achievable with the lesser challenges we face in life.  How do you get through the stresses and vicissitudes of daily life?  You take your strength and joy from your performance of mitzvos. 

When you get nachas (joy) from givng tzedakah (charity), take that joy and think about it when life becomes stressful!  When you experience the oneg (pleasure) of the Shabbos table, let that carry you through the craziness of the week!  The excitement of putting on tefillin in the morning should stay with you throughout the trials and tribulations you encounter at work the rest of the day!

My uncle David Wolff says, “Don’t let the 10% of life that is challenging envelop the 90% of life that is invigorating and awesome.  Instead, take the 90% of your life that is joyous and inspiring and let that swallow up the 10% so that your life is full of extreme happiness!”  Mitzvos grant us the opportunity to fill our lives with joy so that the balance is way higher than just 90-10.  Do a mitzvah today and carry that joy with you throughout your life!

No pain no gain

Moed Katan 7

Chasidim tell the story of the Jew who is working up in the Northwest Territories.  It’s quite lonely doing Shabbos and festivals by himself, never having a minyan (community) to pray with.

One day his daughter calls him from Toronto to let him know she’s engaged to a nice Jewish boy.  He can’t control his joy and decides that he must celebrate.  He goes to the local pub and that night all the drinks are on him.  Everyone is as merry as can be.  He’s joyous on account of his mazaltov; they, on account of the booze.  But for once, he’s happy just to be able to celebrate in the company of others.

The Mishnah states: One may mend a hole in the fence on Chol Hamoed (the intermediate days of the festival, when only certain types of urgent work are permissible).  And during the sabbatical year, one may even build a new fence.
The Beraisa further teaches: A wall that is leaning treacherously into the public thoroughfare, one may destroy and build in the regular way, due to the danger.

The Gemara asks: One should indeed be permitted to demolish a dangerous fence.  But why is it permissible to rebuild the fence on Chol Hamoed?
The Gemara answers: If we would not permit one to rebuild the fence, he would refrain from demolishing it, preferring to protect his field rather than attend to the public danger. 

Torah and mitzvos are designed to refine us spiritually, emotionally and mentally.  But not everyone is ready for the requisite hard work and dedication.  To the uninitiated, the work seems discomforting and almost a negative experience.  People come to religion expecting comfort and positivity, not hard work and challenge. 

And so, in an effort to motivate people to one day demolish their precarious fences, we stimulate them today by offering them a Judaism that is completely positive – it’s all about building the fence.  We encourage the building of the fence in order that people will eventually be inspired to demolish their damaged structures.  If we would not allow the building of the fence, people would refrain from demolishing them.

But sometimes you can get caught up in all the fun of building and positivity and forget the ultimate goal of Judaism of becoming a better person, spiritually and emotionally.  Are you drinking because you truly have a mazaltov to celebrate or just because the alcohol is on the house?  Is your Judaism deep and meaningful or shallow and superficial?

We have lavish synagogue kiddushes (repasts), but if you’re a JFK – you come Just For Kiddush – you’ve missed the critical purpose of the exercise.  Sure, the kiddush is important in terms of community-building and congregational comradery, but its main aim is to increase attendance at the service.   The service, at least to begin with, seems daunting and tiresome.  But the more you apply yourself, the more refined you will become and the more you will get out of it.

Anything of value in this world demands hard work and effort.  Your Judaism is no different.  Sometimes we allow building which will lead to demolition.  Don’t let the fun, comfortable aspects of your Judaism get in the way of the character-changing and soul-building elements!  They’re hard work but well worth the effort!

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Blindly loving your spouse

Moed Katan 6

Dave and Margaret wanted a gett – a Jewish bill of divorce.
“Why do you want to get divorced?” I asked.  “Let’s talk about it.  Maybe we can save your marriage if we work at it together.”
“There’s nothing to talk about,” replied Margaret.
Dave agreed. “We find each another so annoying that we just don’t want to stay married.”
“What do you mean by annoying?” I inquired.
“Well,” said Margaret, “he thinks I have a twitch when I speak and I get so embarrassed by some of the things he says when we’re around other people.”
“That’s kind of strange,” I said, “why didn’t you realize those things before you got married?”
“I guess you could say,” replied Dave, “that we were blinded by love.”

The Mishnah states: One may trap ‘ishus’ and mice in the orchard or grain-field in the usual manner during Chol Hamoed (the intermediate days of the festival) or shemitah (the sabbatical year).
Rashi explains that we may get rid of these vermin even when field work is forbidden, since they cause damage and loss to the field.

The Gemara asks: What is ishus?  Rabbi Judah responds: It is a creature that has no eyes.   
The Talmudic commentary Tosfos quotes the Jerusalem Talmud that an ‘ishus’ is a mole.

If an ‘ishus’ is a mole, why does the Gemara not just say so?  It would have been much simpler and more accurate than identifying it as a creature that has no eyes!

Ishus in Hebrew also means marriage and the Talmud here is teaching us a very important lesson about married life.   Ishus – marriage – must be a creature that has no eyes.   If you are constantly looking for faults in your spouse, you will have a terrible marriage indeed.

Strangely, many people go into marriage blind.  And only open their eyes once married.   That makes no sense.  When you date, you need to do so with eyes wide open and not be blinded by lust.   Because of course, you don’t love someone you’ve just met – any feelings for them are feelings of lust.  The wise approach to dating is to overcome your lust and open your eyes as wide as possible to everything the other person has to bring to the marriage, for better and for worse.

Once you are married, however, then ishus must take over.  At that point, you should be blinded by love and overlook any faults in your spouse.  We all have our shortcomings.  As I said to Dave and Margaret: If you were introduced to your spouse today, would you consider marrying them?  The only reason you have issues with them is that you know them too well and have chosen to look at their shortcomings instead of overlooking their shortcomings.

Nobody’s perfect.  You can live with your own imperfections.  Marriage is about learning to love and live with someone else with all their perfections and imperfections.  And the more you allow yourself to see their perfections shine forth the more the true bonds of love will grow in your marriage and you will become blinded to any shortcomings!

Weil Rome Burned

Moed Katan 5

My friend Bentzy was learning in yeshiva in Israel for a number of years and continued into kollel after he was married.  After a year learning in kollel, he spoke to his Rosh Yeshiva (chancellor) and told him that he was ready to go out and serve Klal Yisrael (our people).   As a teenager, he had been inspired by (youth group) NCSY and he in turn wanted to become an NCSY director to inspire other kids.

The Rosh Yeshiva was adamant, “The best thing you can do for Klal Yisrael is stay here and continue to learn Torah!”

The Mishnah states:  During Chol Hamoed (the intermediate days of the festival), we may repair public water cisterns and clean them out.  And we may repair the highways, roads and mikvahs.  Indeed, we may take care of all public needs.

The Beraisa teaches further: We go out to clear the roads of thorns and to repair the streets and marketplaces and to test the temperature of the mikvahs.  
How do we know that if the community leaders did not go out to take care of these matters that any blood that is spilled there (on account of failing to repair the public infrastructure) is considered by the Torah to be on their hands?  The Gemara answers: Concerning a Beth Din (court) that shirks its responsibility to try capital cases, the verse states “the blood shall be upon you.”

Tragically, today we are bearing witness to the most catastrophic disappearance of the Jewish people since the exile of the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel thousands of years ago.  Rabbi Steven Weil compares the attitude of many in the Orthodox community today to Emperor Nero, who played the violin “while Roman burned.” 

If, for physical danger, our Sages insisted that we “go out” even during the festival to repair the sidewalks, how much more so must we be prepared to “go out” and combat spiritual danger throughout the year!  Our brothers and sisters are stumbling on the broken pavements of life – what are we doing?

In the days of the Talmud, the Beth Din (court) could suffice with sending public servants to take care of the public needs.  But there are certain times when we need all hands on deck.  When the ship is sinking, we need everyone to do their part!

What are you doing for Klal Yisrael?  Are you going out of your comfort zone to save our people?  We all know someone who needs our help.  Failure to assist is akin to spilling their blood, says the Talmud!  You can and must do everything you can to help your brothers and sisters.  You can repair the cisterns of Torah!

Change takes time

Moed Katan 4

The Jewish National Fund has performed miracles in the State of Israel, making the desert bloom.  They have literally planted hundreds of millions of trees!  A number of years ago, on a mission to Israel, a friend went to visit a JNF project and was introduced to Shimon and Avi, two JNF volunteers.  He watched as Shimon dug the hole and Avi took his shovel and gently pushed the dirt back into the hole.  One hole after another, this strange activity continued. 

My buddy couldn’t control himself any longer and blurted out, “What are you guys doing?”
“What do you mean?” asked Shimon, “we’re doing volunteer work for JNF.”
“Seriously?” he asked incredulously, “It seems like you’re digging the hole and Avi’s filling it in again.  What are you accomplishing?”
“Oh, you don’t understand,” Shimon replied, “normally Koby is here with us.  My job is to dig the hole, Koby places the sapling in the hole and then Avi refills the dirt into the hole.  Koby’s off sick today, but rest assured we’re soldiering on with our sacred tasks!”

The Mishnah states:  Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah teaches that one may not dig an irrigation canal on Chol Hamoed (the intermediate days of the festival) and during the sabbatical year.

The Gemara asks: It makes sense that it should be forbidden during the festival, because it involves toil, but for what reason should it be forbidden during the sabbatical (when only work in the field is proscribed)? 
Rabbi Zaira and Rabbi Abba bar Mamal disagree as to the reason for the prohibition.  One says that it appears as if he is hoeing, which is fieldwork.  The other says that the mere act of digging prepares the banks for sowing vegetation.

The Gemara further asks: Why is the latter opinion not concerned lest it appear as though he is hoeing, which is the first opinion and arguably a more likely assumption?
The Gemara answers: It does not look like hoeing, since when one digs a canal, one removes the dirt to another area.  In contrast, when one hoes, one digs up the soil and leaves it in the same place. 

Hoeing or its more contemporary form, tilling the soil, involves digging into the soil and turning it over in its place in order to aerate it and warm it up so that when you plant the seeds, they will grow better.   As the Talmud demonstrates, hoeing is certainly considered work (and therefore forbidden during the festival or sabbatical). 

Imagine for a moment, however, that someone was new to farming and was told to begin by hoeing.  He goes up and down the field digging holes and putting the dirt back in.  At the end of the day, he looks out at the field and thinks, ‘What did I accomplish today?  I simply dug up the earth and put it back!’  He then figures that he is wasting his time and decides to quit farming.

Of course you and I realize that he has given up too soon.  The hoeing may appear not to achieve anything, but it is important in terms of preparing the earth for the future planting.

Sometimes we toil in our service of G-d and man and we get disappointed with the lack of results.  You’ve worked so hard and apparently have nothing to show for all your efforts.   Don’t give up!  Hoeing is hard work and it may look like you’ve achieved nothing, but in fact you’ve softened the earth to prepare it for the planting!

Maybe you’ve poured over the Talmud and can’t seem to get it.  Don’t quit!   Every word that you’ve toiled over has laid the groundwork for your success as a Talmud scholar!

Maybe you’ve been on the board of a community institution such as the synagogue or school and you feel you’ve wasted your time because nothing has changed.  Don’t give up!  Sometimes change takes years but every act of hoeing softens the earth for those seedlings of change!

Hoeing is hard work and you don’t always see immediate results.  But never give up!  The seeds will be planted and will eventually grow into strong plants and trees.   Hang tight, every effort has incredible positive consequences!  

Saturday, 16 August 2014

BAND-AID your relationship

Moed Katan 3

Richard and Rachel are a lovely young couple who have been married a couple of years now.   I always thought, ‘what a lucky girl!’ since every time I saw her she would be wearing a new piece of jewellery! 

One day, however, they came to see me for relationship advice.  It seems that whenever they got into a fight, he went out and bought her a new adornment.  Sure enough, she was thrilled with the gifts, but they had finally realized that the issues in their marriage ran deeper than a new bracelet or two.

Regarding the sabbatical year when the fields must lay fallow, the Torah states, “Your field shall you not sow and your vine shall you not prune.” 
The Beraisa asks: The verse only teaches me about sowing and pruning.  How do I know that weeding, uprooting, hoeing and cutting are forbidden? 
Answers the Beraisa: “Your field shall you not... your vine shall you not…” teaches that no work may be done in the field and no work may be done in the vineyard.
The Beraisa continues:  I might think that one may not hoe beneath the olive tree nor hoe under the grapevine.  Therefore the verse states, “Your field shall you not sow,” which teaches that only work such as sowing that is performed in both a field and vineyard is forbidden.  This excludes hoeing under an olive tree.

The Gemara asks: Is hoeing indeed permitted?  The Torah states, “And in the sabbatical year, you shall leave it and forsake it,” which means refraining from hoeing and clearing the field!
Rabbi Ukva bar Chama explains: There are two kinds of hoeing.   One strengthens the tree and one just closes the cracks in the earth around the tree.  Strengthening the tree is forbidden while closing the cracks is permissible.  In other words, filling in the cracks is not considered real work.

There are two approaches to resolving conflict in our relationships.  We can merely fill in the cracks or we can truly ‘strengthen the tree.’  When you have a fight with your spouse and you patch it up with a piece of jewellery, the Talmud doesn’t consider that work.   Real work means getting to the root of the issue and strengthening the tree of your marriage.  Marriage takes hard work.  Simply filling in the cracks is not work and accomplishes very little.

Working at your marriage entails giving of your very essence for your spouse.  It means constantly striving to fulfill your spouse’s needs, wants, aspirations and dreams.  When you married your spouse, you chose to dedicate your life to serving this individual and helping them achieve greatness.  You should never aim merely to placate them – that’s a quick fix.  Your eternal goal should be to make them feel like the most special person on the planet.

And the same is true of your relationship with the Almighty.  Some of us go for quick fixes.  We’re feeling a little spiritual and so we do a mitzvah or two.  Maybe you’ll pop into shul this Shabbos.  But He wants so much more from you.  He doesn’t need your spiritual fix; He wants a deep and meaningful relationship with you and that takes work!

Stop filling in the cracks – that’s not work!  Start strengthening the tree with your spouse, with your children, with all your loved ones and above all, with the Holy One, blessed be He with behaviour that is deep, permanent and effortful!  

Did your spouse settle for you?

Moed Katan 2

A friend of ours, Yitz, always possessed an average build.  During his college years, however, he stopped playing sports and was eating terribly and managed to gain quite a bit of weight.  Nevertheless, when it came time to get married, he worked hard on his diet and exercise regimen and returned to his old fit and slim self.  He married Shaindy, a lovely girl from the Bronx. 

Unfortunately for Shaindy, however, it was downhill all the way from there.  Shaindy thought she’d married someone who looked after his health and physical fitness.  Yitz figured he’d accomplished what he’d set out to achieve.  He got the girl and now he could let himself go.  In no time at all, he’d returned to his old bad habits – he stopped exercising and eating right and gained fifty kilos.

Pesach and Sukkot are weeklong festivals consisting of days at the beginning and end when all types of work are forbidden similar to Shabbat, and days in between when certain activities are permissible while others are proscribed.  Generally, activities that are necessary in order to avoid significant financial loss are permissible on the intermediate days of the festival.

The Mishnah states: One may irrigate a thirsty field on the intermediate days of the festival.  Rashi explains that the Mishnah refers to a field that is, for example, on the side of a mountain.  Due to the slope, it does not retain water and must be watered regularly, otherwise it would dry up. 

The Gemara expounds: No matter whether we are dealing with a newly emerged spring or one that is not newly emerged, one may irrigate a thirsty field, whereas one may not irrigate a ‘bais habaal’ – settled field.  Rashi explains that a settled field is one that is in a valley and does not need watering.  As such, there will be no loss if one does not irrigate it during the festival.

The Gemara asks: How do we know that this terms ‘bais habaal’ refers to being settled?  The Gemara answers with the verse in Isaiah, which states, “As a young man shall ‘yibaal’ a young lady…” The Targum (Aramaic translation) interprets this verse, “As a man settles down with a young lady…”

We all look forward to the day we can find our basherte (Divinely intended partner) and settle down.  Of course we strive to maximize our chances at finding that person by being on our best behaviour, looking our best and being the very best we can.

Sadly, however, many people get married and ‘settle’ into patterns of behaviour that are unhealthy.  They’ve worked hard to get the guy/girl and now, with the chase over, they feel that they can settle back into their bad habits.

But marriage is about a lifetime of chasing one’s spouse.  You must endeavour to always look the best for him/her. You must never stop courting them!  Settling down doesn’t mean settling back into poor behaviour.  It means becoming settled in your mind because you have finally found the right person.

But the person you have chosen to spend your life with is the person you have chosen to dedicate yourself to being your best for.  That means acting your best, it means looking your best, and it means aspiring to be the best you can for them.

Your spouse deserves the very best!  Why should s/he settle for any less?

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Don't Settle for Gelilah!

Megillah 32

In the early days of the Lakewood yeshiva, one of the major benefactors once made a bold comment to Rabbi Aharon Kotler, the founding Rosh Yeshiva (head of the academy):
“Rebbe, I’m supporting your yeshiva and so I have an equal merit in the reward for the learning, right?”
“That’s correct,” replied Rabbi Kotler, “we have a partnership just like the one that existed between Issachar and Zebulun.  You provide the material needs, I provide the spiritual needs and we share the reward in Olam Haba (the World to Come).”
“So how are you and I any different, Rebbe?” the man smirked, “We’ll both end up in the same place!”
“The difference between us,” responded the Rosh Yeshiva, “is that while we may both have a wonderful Olam Haba in store for us, I also have an Olam Hazeh (this world)!”

Rabbi Shefatiah quoted Rabbi Yochanan: If a minyan reads from the Torah, the greatest among them gets gelilah (rolls up the Torah scroll). Moreover, the person who gets gelilah receives the reward of all of them, as Rabbi Joshua ben Levi taught: If a minyan reads from the Torah, the one who gets gelilah receives the reward of all of them. Asks the Gemara: Really, the reward of all of them?  Rather, he receives a reward equal to that of all the others.

The Talmud here teaches that the most important part of the Torah service is wrapping up the Torah once we are finished reading.  Seriously?!?  Gelilah is the prize aliyah (call-up)?  Everyone knows that gelilah is given to the fellow who can’t read the blessings over the Torah – hey, we’d even give it to a kid!  Since when is gelilah the special aliyah reserved for the greatest of the bunch?

It almost sounds as though our Sages heaped reward on gelilah just because nobody would take it otherwise.  ‘Don’t feel like a loser for getting gelilah, we’ll give you as much reward as everyone else put together!’  Ah, feels much better now, right?

Actually, it was probably one of the smartest kiruv (outreach) moves.  The dude that walks into shul and can’t read Hebrew – instead of embarrassing him with the transliteration, we can now give him gelilah and let him know that he got the best aliyah in the house!   Remember, back in the day, when you were called to the Torah, it wasn’t a matter of merely reciting the blessings, you had to read the entire portion out loud! 
And so gelilah became the great equalizer.  It didn’t matter how knowledgeable you are or aren’t, we could call you up.   And once the Talmud decided that gelilah should be the prize call-up, it has the binding effect of Halacha for all time!

But let’s be honest for a moment.  If you’ve been getting gelilah for some time now, it’s time to ask yourself why.  Sure, you’ll be rewarded for coming to shul and being part of the service.  In Olam Haba, you might even have a special reward in store for getting gelilah, but how does your Olam Hazeh look? 

Are you settling for spiritual mediocrity, satisfying yourself with tying the Torah up after everyone else has finished reading it?  No doubt, someone’s got to do it, but if it’s always you, maybe it’s time to move on and expect more from yourself!

Doing gelilah may get you to the same final destination, but imagine how rich and fulfilling your life would be if you were prepared to invest the time and effort into mastering real Torah knowledge in this world!  In the World to Come, you don’t want to just be in Heaven, you want to appreciate Heaven.  The way to accomplish that goal is to achieve mastery of G-d’s wisdom in this world.  All good people go to Heaven, but only those who have mastered the Torah are truly able to appreciate the World to Come.

Don’t settle for mediocrity.  It’s not only about the reward.  It’s about realizing spiritual greatness.  You can do it, apply yourself to Torah study today and you will achieve greatness in this world and the next!