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Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Is Open Orthodoxy Beyond the Pale?

Daf Yomi Chagigah 22

There is a lot of tension in the Modern Orthodox world today.   The Open Orthodoxy movement is gaining traction and many within the mainstream are alarmed at the ideas and behaviour of these more liberal types.  They have pushed the envelope in matters of ritual, women’s ordination, and interdenominational dialogue; even dangerously wading into the waters of biblical criticism.

Why don’t we just call it a day and pronounce them beyond the pale of Orthodoxy, allowing them to take their movement in whatever direction they choose?

Rabbi Yossi teaches: Why is everyone trusted concerning the purity of wine and oil they bring to the Holy Temple year-round, even the unlearned simple folk?  In order that we do not drive them away and end up with them building their own altars and burning their own red heifers.

Here we have ignorant folk coming to the Temple with their offering and we simply take their word for it that it’s completely kosher?  Do they even know the laws of kosher and purity well enough to be able to vouch for their offering?    Let’s take that chance, says Rabbi Yossi.   If we don’t trust them, we run the risk that they will walk away and start their own competition temples. 

Who cares?  They’re ignoramuses anyway!  Who’s going to follow them?  Trust me, says Rabbi Yossi, there’s no shortage of people who will try the competition.  All you need is a charismatic enough leader – he may not be the biggest talmid chacham – and people will flock to see what he has to offer.  For the sake of the unity of our people, let’s assume their goods are kosher.

That must be our attitude when dealing with individuals or groups amongst our people whose goods are of questionable kashrut, even ideologically.  Certainly, we need to call them out on their dubious perspectives and strive to purify our ranks, but we must never drive them away.  We’ve been there, done that, over the last century or two, with disastrous results for our people.  The last thing we want is for them to go off and create their own brand of competition.  Whether meritorious or not, people have a tendency to follow something that is fresh and exciting, especially when it appears quite credible.

Let us continue to debate.  Let us continue to reach out.  And let us make everyone feel as welcome as possible, no matter what they are carrying with them.  Let’s get them into our Holy Temple and keep them there.  We can ask questions later.

Monday, 29 September 2014

Tie an Unbreakable Marriage Knot!

Daf Yomi Chagigah 21

Tying the knot just ain’t what it used to be.  There was a time when marriage meant forever. Sadly, not anymore.  More and more people are just not making it in marriage.   What good is a knot if it can be untied?  Is there any way that we can strengthen the knot?

The Mishnah describes the extra stringency applied to immersion of vessels to eat sacrificial food over that required to eat tithed food:

Sacrificial utensils are more stringent than tithing utensils, in that (a) For tithing utensils, one may immerse one utensil inside another utensil, but not so for sacrificial utensils; and (b) For a sacrificial utensil containing a knot, one must first untie the knot and dry it and then immerse the item and retie it, whereas for tithing utensils, one may immerse the item tied up.

The Gemara explains: Both the first and second cases are dealing with the problem of interposition (that the water will not touch the entire item).  Why do we need both cases?  Had the Mishnah only taught the first case, I might have assumed that the reason one may not immerse sacrificial items one utensil inside another is due to the weight of the utensils pressing against one another.  However, in the case of the knot, where it is merely thread, there would be no problem and it would be permissible to immerse.

And had the Mishnah only taught the second case, I might have assumed that the concern with the knot is that it becomes tight in water, swelling up to impede the flow of the immersion.  However, in the case of the utensils, the water would cause them to float upon each other and pass through and therefore permissible to immerse together.  Thus, the Mishnah had to teach us both cases.

Have you ever tried untying a knot that is soaked in water?  It’s almost impossible!  And that’s the secret to strengthening the bonds of marriage.  It’s not enough just to tie the knot.  You also need to saturate it with water.  But what is the water of marriage?

Marriage in Judaism is called kiddushin – holiness.  And water in the Bible is a metaphor for Torah, as the prophet Isaiah famously declared, “Yo, all who are thirsty, come to the water.”  When you saturate your holy union with Torah values, Torah study and the ways of Torah, the bonds become tighter and tighter.   It’s no longer about ‘me’ and my needs.  It’s about growing together in a spiritual union to seek the Divine as one united soul.

You’ve tied the knot.  Now go and saturate it with ‘water’ so that nothing in the world could ever undo that knot!

Sunday, 28 September 2014

It's a Dangerous World out there!

Daf Yomi Chagigah 20

Back in pre-Emancipation Europe, most Jews lived in the shtetl (Jewish village).  Life was very straightforward; our heritage was passed on from one generation to the next without fear of assimilation.  After all, who was there but your parents and teachers to emulate?  Nobody wanted to be like the drunken peasant in the neighbouring village!

Nowadays, most Jews live in major metropolitan areas.  And even if you don’t, you are connected to the world in ways previously unimaginable.   My friend, Rabbi Jonathan Gross used to say when he lived in Omaha, Nebraska, that he was more connected to life in New York than his grandfather, Rabbi Maza zt”l, who lived in New Jersey!

But with connectivity comes challenges.  And if we assume that the old methods will continue to work given the new circumstances, then we are only fooling ourselves.

There was once a woman who came to Rabbi Ishmael and said to him, “Rebbe, I wove this garment in a state of purity.  However, I did not consciously have in mind to protect its purity.   May I assume it is pure?”
Rabbi Ishmael proceeded to interrogate her about the process.
She admitted, “Rebbe, a menstruant woman indeed helped me draw the rope to the loom.”
Rabbi Ishmael exclaimed, “How great are the words of the Sages, for they said: If one consciously had in mind to protect it from impurity, it is pure.  But if one did not consciously have in mind to protect it from impurity, it is impure!”

The world is an impure place.   Our children today are exposed to such scary imagery and temptations, the likes of which we were never even aware of.  And we need to protect them.  Consciously.  Indeed, we must protect ourselves from the filth and rubbish out there.  Consciously.  If for a moment we cease to guard ourselves and our children from the terrible impurities that abound, we must assume that the impurity has made its mark, G-d forbid.

You know how to put those guards up.  For some, it means internet filtering software.  For others it means monitoring what TV programs are watched in your home.  For others, it means a daily dinner-table discussion about the kinds of foods we eat outside the home and the language used by our family.

The main thing to remember is that purity is no longer a given.  The default position today, sadly, is impurity.   Be vigilant and consciously, constantly, guard yourself and your loved ones from the clutches of the forces of impurity that abound!  You can and will remain pure.  Just stay ever on guard! 

Are You Waiting for the Life-Changing Email?

Daf Yomi Chagigah 19

Let me tell you about Jimmy.   Every day he eagerly checks the mail.  He checks his email many, many times a day.  He knows that one day he is going to get an email that will change his life.  His life may be pretty dull today, but very soon that HUGE LIFE-CHANGING EMAIL is going to appear.  He even googles his name every so often to check if he’s been discovered yet!

The Rabbis taught:  Concerning one who washes his hands, if he had intent (to purify them), his hands are purified; if he did not have intent, his hands remain impure.
But we learned in a Beraisa:  Whether or not one had intent, his hands are purified!
Rabbi Nachman answers:  The latter ruling concerns regular bread.  The former ruling concerns agricultural tithed bread. 

How do we know that regular bread does not require intent? 
The Mishnah states: The minimum volume of a mikvah is forty seah (approx. 332 litres).  If a wave detached from the ocean, containing forty seah, and fell upon a person and utensils, they are purified.
From this Mishnah we learn that man is like utensils.  Just like the utensils had no intent, similarly man needs no intent.

‘How do you know that’s the meaning?’ asks the Gemara, ‘Maybe we are dealing with a case where the person is sitting and waiting for when the wave will detach!’   In other words, the man had the intent!

Picture it.  Jimmy is sitting on the beach waiting for G-d to send a massive wave to rain down upon him and purify him.  Otherwise put, he is waiting for a miracle from G-d to turn his life around!   The imagery is so powerful.  If he would only get up and do something to make his life happen, he could achieve unbelievable success.  Actually, if he wants to be purified, all he really has to do is get up and walk ten steps towards the water; take a dip; and he is pure!

But instead, he just sits on the beach, letting life pass him by, waiting for a miracle to happen that will change his life.  Guess what, Jimmy?!  That email doesn’t just arrive; you need to take life by the horns and make it happen.  When you’ve created the vessel for G-d’s blessing, He can send you the email.  Simply sitting on the beach waiting doesn’t work.

Go out and conquer the world today!  You can purify yourself!  You can make waves!  Don’t sit around waiting for life to happen!  You alone hold the key to your life’s miracles!

Is Rosh Hashanah late this year?

Daf Yomi Chagigah 18

‘Chanukah is late this year!’
‘Rosh Hashanah is early this year!’

I always like to remind people that Chanukah is actually happening no earlier than any other year.  It always falls on the 25th Kislev.  Sometimes, however, Xmas is late!  Similarly, Rosh Hashanah always falls on the first of Tishrei.  Labor Day, may indeed be late in comparison! 

When one comes to the Holy Temple for the pilgrimage holidays of Pesach, Shavuos and Sukkos, one must bring festive offerings.  Pesach and Sukkos have weeklong celebrations and thus, weeklong opportunities, to bring one’s offering.  Shavuos, in contrast, is but one day.

Rabbi Elazar quotes Rabbi Oshaya: How do we know that we can offer the Shavuos sacrifice all week long?  The Torah states, “You shall appear on the festival of Pesach, on the festival of Shavuos, and on the festival of Sukkos.”  The festival of Shavuos is juxtaposed to the festival of Pesach.  Just like Pesach has an offering period of seven days so too Shavuos has an offering period of seven days.

Reish Lakish teaches: The Torah calls Shavuos the Harvest Festival.   Now, when does one harvest on Shavuos?   If you say it means on the festival itself, are you permitted to harvest on Yom Tov?  Rather, it teaches us that we have extra days beyond Yom Tov of harvest-time to offer the sacrifice.

Rabbi Yochanan responds: If that is the case, what will you do with the Torah’s reference to Sukkos as the Gathering Festival?  When can we gather the crops on Sukkos?  If you say it means on the festival itself, are you permitted to gather on Yom Tov?  And if you say it refers to the Intermediate Days of the festival, are you permitted to gather on the Intermediate Days?  Rather, it means the festival that occurs during the gathering season (not that one actually gathers on the festival).  And so, here too, Shavuos is referred to as the Harvest Festival, since it falls during the harvest season. 

Like any ancient tradition, in recent years, Judaism has been subjected to historical revisionisms that often involve gross distortions.   Some have opened up the Torah and read that Sukkos is called the Gathering Festival and assumed therefore that our pilgrimage festivals were originally agricultural in nature.   The Talmud here explains categorically that the agricultural terminology is merely a seasonal reference.   Shavuos is called the Harvest Festival because it occurs during the harvest season.  While there were certainly agricultural aspects that took place around the time of the holiday, such as the bringing of the First Fruits, the primary celebration, of course, is the commemoration of the giving of the Torah.   

And so, in all honesty, when I correct people who say that Rosh Hashanah is early or late, I’m not entirely accurate.  While our calendar is lunar, the festivals must occur during certain seasons.  That’s why every so often we add an extra month to the year, to keep us in sync with the solar calendar.   Sometimes, Shavuos may be late in the harvest season, and sometimes, Sukkos may be early in the gathering season. 

Nevertheless, let’s always remember: From the perspective of the Divine, whenever our festivals fall, they are occurring at exactly the right time!

Creating a More Congenial Prayer-Space for the Women

Daf Yomi Chagigah 17

Our synagogue is configured with four seating blocks.  The men sit in the middle two sections and the women in the outer two.   A number of years ago, the Rabbanit and I proposed that instead of the current seating arrangement, we reposition the mechitzah to run straight down the middle and have the women seated in the two sections on one side of the mechitzah and the men in the two sections on the other side.   When we initially proposed this amendment, we were rebuffed by the powers that be, not because they did not agree that it was a good idea; rather, they were not ready to face the headache of dealing with all the people broygez (upset) with being moved from their favourite seats.

After receiving current board approval, this past Rosh Hashanah, I finally mustered up the courage to address the idea from the pulpit.  Thank G-d, the response was overwhelmingly positive. 

Concerning the mitzvah to lean one’s hands upon a sacrifice prior to bringing it as a Temple offering, the Torah states, “Speak to the Children (Sons) of Israel . . . he shall lean.”
Expounding the use of the singular form ‘he shall lean,’ the Beraisa (16b) teaches:  The sons of Israel have an obligation to lean, but the daughters of Israel do not.   Rabbi Yossi and Rabbi Shimon say: The daughters of Israel have the option to lean. 
Rabbi Yossi explains: Abba Elazar told me the following story, “We once had a peace-offering calf which we brought to the Ladies’ Section of the Temple.  And the women leaned upon it, not because they have an obligation to do so; rather, to give them pleasure.”

While women are not obligated to perform many of the mitzvos, our Sages always sought ways to be as inclusive as possible.   No doubt, taking the sacrifice to their section of the Temple would have delayed the service and there were probably zealots who felt that the practice of taking the offering out of the Main Sanctuary and into the Ladies’ Section was immodest and unbecoming.  

Our Sages were not swayed by the naysayers.  They endeavoured to do everything possible to make the women feel as comfortable and included as possible.   True, Judaism has different roles for men and women.  But instead of viewing that distinction as a dichotomy, our Sages viewed it as a challenge: Despite the differences, how do we ensure that everyone feels as connected as possible?    Are they obligated to lean on the sacrifice?  No, they are not.  But will they be excited at the opportunity?  Yes, they will.  So, let’s make sure they get the opportunity. 

Are we taking the challenge of making sure everyone on both sides of the mechitzah feels they are part of the service?  Are we ensuring that our synagogues are designed in such a way as to maximize participation and inclusiveness?   Are we as attuned as our Sages to the needs and sensibilities of all?  

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Start Keeping a G-d Diary

Daf Yomi Chagigah 16

The greatest spiritual turning point of the twentieth century took place following the Six Day War in 1967.  Young Jews around the world witnessed the State of Israel vanquish its enemies against all odds.  The miraculous salvation was apparent to anyone who dared to open their eyes to G-d, and many consequently became ­­baal-teshuvah (returnees to the faith of their heritage).

Most of us, however, don’t get opportunities to see the hand of G-d.   What proof do we have that He exists and cares?

The book of Kings tells how due to his Torah leadership, the prophet Elijah was forced to flee from Queen Jezebel and hid in a cave.

“And He said: Go out and stand on the mountain before G-d.  And behold G-d was passing and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before G-d; but G-d was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake; but G-d was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire; but G-d was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.”

Elijah desired to see G-d and so he looked for Him in the wind, in the earthquake, and in the fire.  Finally he found Him – in a still small voice.

You see G-d all the time.   Was that Divine or was it just a coincidence?  Your call.  And maybe you could put it down to mere coincidence . . . when it happens the first time, that is.  But then G-d gives you another sign that He is right there with you.  Two coincidences?  The problem is that by the time the second Act of G-d occurs, you’ve long since forgotten about the first.  And so once again, it appears random.

How do you find G-d?  Start keeping a diary of all the ‘coincidences’ that happen to you.  Before you know it, you will see that your life is chock full of little miracles.  Put them all together and you have a pretty clear picture of the important role the Almighty plays in your life! 

On most days, He is not to be found in the storm, the earthquake or the fire.  The Almighty speaks to us in a small, still voice.  Listen carefully and you will be moved!

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Don't vilify Reform Jews for Bernie Madoff's atrocity

Daf Yomi Chagigah 15

Bernie Madoff was the greatest swindler in history.  He stole fifty billion dollars from his clients in a massive Ponzi scheme.   He was a Reform Jew.  But strangely, nobody maligned Reform Jews when he was caught.  Had he been an Orthodox Jew, people would have vilified Orthodox Jews the world over.   Why the disparate treatment?  Aren’t Reform Jews also against theft?  This atrocity should have been a massive indictment of all Reform Jews!

For some reason, though, people only attack when an Orthodox Jew acts unethically.  Why is that so?   The difference between the Orthodox Jew and the Reform Jew is that the former keeps Shabbos and kosher.  While Reform Jews may have cast off the yoke of these mitzvos, they still adhere to ethical mitzvos such as honesty in business.  If that’s the case, why aren’t they held to the same standard when they act inappropriately?!

Acher inquired of Rabbi Meir as to the meaning of the verse in Ecclesiastes: “G-d made that one similarly corresponding to that one.”

He replied: Everything that the Almighty created, He created a corresponding item.  When he created mountains, he created hills; when he created seas, he created rivers.
Acher responded: That is not what Rabbi Akiva, your teacher, taught!  Rather the meaning is that when He created the righteous, He created the wicked; when he created heaven, He created hell. 

In order to grant us free choice, G-d created everything in equilibrium.  Every good choice in life has an equal, opposing bad choice.  But free choice demands that each of the choices appear just as luring.  If the good choice was the more attractive choice, then it would no longer be free choice as you would be drawn to the good choice and dismiss the bad one.

What this means is that anytime you get Divinely inspired, Satan arrives at the scene to lure you away and provide an alternative, equally exciting, bad option.  That is the reason for the sin of the Golden Calf: How could the Children of Israel worship idolatry only days after having received the greatest revelation of all time, hearing G-d Himself speak?   The answer is that once they were so inspired by the side of good, G-d had to bring them back to equilibrium in order to reinstate their free choice.  And so he sent Satan to create within them a sudden massive desire to worship the Golden Calf, an egregious sin that sadly so many fell prey to. 

Practically, what this means is that the more religiously observant you are, the greater Satan must work to tempt you to sin.  So when an Orthodox person sins, it should actually be less surprising!  If he is so committed to observance of mitzvos, Satan must find some way to lure him to sin.   He might not be able to get him on the ham sandwich and so he comes in and gets him from a different angle, like lashon hara (gossip). 

I am not suggesting Heaven forbid, that Orthodox Jews should be vindicated for any unethical business practices.   We must be vigilant and act beyond question in all areas of mitzvos, especially those ‘between man and his fellow,’ in order to demonstrate that a life of Torah and mitzvos is the finest, most appropriate way to live – keeping Shabbos should only serve to make one’s life even more pristine and beautiful!

But at the same time, you have to be very careful when judging anyone else.  You never know what their internal struggles look like.  And next time you feel challenged by Satan, remember that G-d has sent him to tempt you because you are so special and committed.  But know that the Almighty always gives you the strength to pass the test, no matter what!

Monday, 22 September 2014

Want to work forever?

Daf Yomi Chagigah 14

An academic friend of mine, Fred, was telling me recently how much he envies me.
“You know,” he says, “you’re very lucky that, as a rabbi, you don’t have an expiry date.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, “There is no forced retirement in the academy!”
“That’s true,” he replied, “but you get to my age and you start to become irrelevant.  Despite all the wisdom one acquires over the years, the attention all seems to go to the young folks with the new theories.  It’s different being a rabbi – the older and wiser you will get, you the more you will be useful!”

The Book of Daniel declares, “His garment is like white snow and the head of His hair is like clean wool,” whilst the Song of Songs states, “His locks are curly, black as a raven.”

Rabbenu (our teacher) Chananel clarifies that the reason we have many opposing descriptions of the Almighty is to remind us that He has no form whatsoever.   So what is the meaning of these two anthropomorphisms, one that compares Him to an old person and the other that compares Him to a young person?

The Gemara explains: The first refers to when G-d is sitting (yeshiva) in judgment, and the second refers to when He is at war.  This is as the master has taught: There is no one better in the yeshiva than the elder and there is no one better in the battlefield than the young man.

If you’re a doctor, most people can only practice medicine for so long.  Many a lawyer too eventually gets rusty.  After years of practice, one begins to slow down as an accountant.  Hey, even your golf-swing gets a little tired after a while! 

But Torah is forever!  Torah is the only eternal, lifelong tool.  As long as your mind is intact, your Torah holds its value.  Actually, even beyond that point: our Sages instruct us that one must continue to honour a Torah scholar who has begun to rust due to age, just like the broken Tablets that were housed alongside the second Tablets in the Holy Ark!

Where Fred fell short in his assessment, of course, is that he failed to acknowledge that Torah is for everyone!  Nobody has the monopoly.  True, some of us have the great merit to be able to devote more of our time each day to the pursuit of the Almighty’s wisdom.  But no matter what profession you’re in, you have the ability and responsibility of Torah mastery.  And that’s a skill that will never become obsolete!

Dedicate yourself to Torah!  Whether it’s a few minutes on the commute to work, a podcast while you’re on the treadmill, or for twenty minutes after Shacharis (morning prayers), it is time well spent – not only in terms of Other-Worldly reward, but the greatest, most enduring skill you can acquire here in this world!

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Stop boring your kids with Judaism!

Daf Yomi Chagigah 13

Imagine you’ve grown up deep in the heart of the Amazon jungle.  One day, you find yourself transported to Canada.  Everything is simply amazing.  You stare at the way people are dressed.  You watch as the cars zip down the street.  You sit at the laundromat watching the clothes go round and round in the machine.  You marvel at the skyscrapers, the aeroplanes, the traffic lights and the smartphones.

You’ve got to tell somebody about these wonders.  You stop someone in the street and start talking about everything you’ve seen. 
“Big whoop,” he responds and hurries off down the street.

The prophet Ezekiel expends much detail in his description of the revelation he received of the Divine Chariot.  Isaiah had a similar experience but his description is far more succinct.  Did he receive a lesser revelation?

Isaiah declared, “I saw Hashem sitting upon a high and lofty throne and its legs filled the Temple.  Seraphim were standing above at His service.   Each had six wings: with two it would cover its face, with two it would cover its legs and with two it would fly…”

Rava taught: Everything that Ezekiel saw in his vision, Isaiah likewise saw.  But to what may Ezekiel be compared?  To a villager who sees the king.  And to what may Isaiah be compared?  To an urbanite who sees the king.

Rashi explains: When Isaiah received his Divine inspiration, he did not detail his experience, because he was a member of the royal family who grew up in the palace.  An urbanite that sees the king is not as impressed and surprised and thus he did not feel compelled to elaborate.

Nowadays, our kids have seen it all.  If we think we can still impress them with the same old teaching methods we’ve always used, we’re living in la-la land.   We have to beat them at their own game, using the latest technology, our wildest imaginations and the most awesome entertainment!

They live in the proverbial city!  They are exposed to so much that we were never exposed to growing up.  And Torah is just one option amongst infinite choices that they can make. 

But Torah is eternal and our job is to figure out how to keep it fresh, how to keep it relevant and how to show people, young and old, why Torah is the guidebook for eternity!  That’s a real challenge.  Don’t expect to come to the Shabbos table or to the Pesach seder with the same old nothing-changed rigmarole.   The message each week and each year needs to be inspiring, different and motivating.

The good news is that Torah is from the Infinite realm and there is no shortage of creative and innovative ways to teach Torah.  No urbanite, no matter how cosmopolitan he may think he is, will ever find Torah boring.  Your holy task, however, is to figure out how to impart the message in a way that is exciting, fresh and inspirational!

What's the perfect temperature for Torah?

Daf Yomi Chagigah 12

A colleague was bemoaning the fact that he lives in LA and it’s so hard to get people to come out to a shiur (Torah class) at night. 
“People here have such a laidback attitude, they just can’t be bothered to come out,” he tells me, “the weather’s gorgeous and they’d rather be hanging out on the boardwalk or barbecuing in their backyard!”
“You’ve got to be kidding!” I replied, “You can’t get people out to an evening shiur because the weather’s too nice?  Try getting them to come out in minus forty!”

King David declares in Psalms, “By day, G-d will command his kindness, and at night His song is with me.”

Raish Lakish expounded: Wherefore does G-d command his kindness by day?  To he who sings G-d’s song at night. Anyone who toils in Torah at night, the Almighty shines a ray of kindness upon him during the day. 

It’s not easy to learn Torah, let alone ‘toil in Torah’ at the end of a long hard day’s work.  You finally make it home, help with homework, tuck the kids in and you’re wiped.  At that point, most of us would prefer to just kick back and switch on the telly. 

No matter where you live, there’s always going to be some excuse as to why you can’t learn Torah!  Maybe it’s too hot, maybe it’s too cold, or maybe it’s just the yetzer hara (evil inclination)! 

But it’s worth it to go the extra mile.  G-d knows that nobody wants to learn Torah at the end of a long day and that’s why He promises to shine His kindness upon you tomorrow if you do make the effort.  What is kindness?  It’s synonymous with the abundant non-stop flow of Divine energy into your business dealings, your relationships, your health.  Who wouldn’t want that?

Toil in Torah at night!  It’s well worth the effort!  The Almighty will shine His kindness upon you!

Become a Mystery Man!

Daf Yomi Chagigah 11

Back in the good ole days, if you wanted to know the secrets of freemasonry, it took many years of initiation.  First, you needed someone to recommend and invite you into the secret society.  Then with each level of service, you proceeded from one inner chamber to another.  Until one day you found yourself in the deepest chamber where the Grandmaster would give you the secret signs and pass on the tradition to you.

Not anymore.  Today, if you want the secret handshake, it’s easy.  Just go to amazon and purchase Freemasonry for Dummies and you can find out everything you ever wanted to know.  No more secrets.  No more mystery.

The Mishnah states: We may not discuss the laws of forbidden relationships in the presence of three people; nor the creation story with two people; nor Ezekiel’s Chariot with one, unless he is a wise person who understands on his own.  Whoever contemplates four things, it would have been better for him had he never entered the world: that which is above, that which is below, that which is in front and that which is behind. 

There are certain subjects that were meant to be hidden and mysterious.  The greater the mystery, the greater the desire.  Once the secrets are out, nobody cares anymore.  It’s too easy and no longer worth making any effort for.

The Mishnah begins with the subject of relationships.  When sexuality was not discussed publicly, it was mysterious, it was exciting.  And so people got married and stayed married.  Nowadays, it’s everywhere.  It’s no big deal.    And so it’s no longer exciting.  People have heard everything and may G-d have mercy, seen everything.  In Judaism, sexuality is so private, that at certain times of the month, husband and wife may not even discuss it, or see one another uncovered!  That maintains the mystery, excitement and desire!

Likewise with the mysteries of creation and other esoteric parts of the Torah such as Ezekiel’s chariot.  There was a time when Kabbalah was the domain of a select elite who handed the tradition down through the generations from one master to his finest student.  If you wanted to be that student, you had to master the entire Torah, including the Talmud and the Codes, in addition to mastering your character.

Nowadays, it’s easy.  Just wander into the Kabbalah Center and they’ll tell you all about the mysteries of the universe.  If you’re lucky, you might bump into Madonna or Ashton Kutcher!  Gone is the mystery, gone is the desirability, gone is the impetus for effort.

It goes without saying that you don’t really get Kabbalah without making the effort.  All you’ll get is some watered-down Kabbalah for dummies.  It’s’ time to put it all back in the bag and bring back that element of mystery into your life!

If the world is doing its best to remove the excitement of life, you can still live with mystery!   Take the Mishnah’s advice: Be very selective what you discuss publicly.  Keep the fire alive in your life by keeping certain subjects taboo.  You will see that life will never be boring!  

Thursday, 18 September 2014

Access the Divine Matrix!

Daf Yomi Chagigah 10

Imagine you are a computer programmer who is an expert in multiple computer languages for a large multinational corporation.  One day, your boss comes and tells you that henceforth you should just use Windows.  
‘It’s so simple and easy-to-use,’ he says, ‘you can search for stuff.  You can have different wallpapers.  You can switch between multiple screens.  How cool is that?
You laugh in his face.   ‘With all due respect, sir, that’s utterly ridiculous,’ you say, ‘those functions are way too basic for the needs of our company.  In order to keep our system up and running, there are detailed codes that happen beyond the sightlines of the average computer user!’
‘Fine,’ he says, continue to do your coding, but I’m concerned about our security.  So henceforth, we’ll be completely internally-operating. I’m shutting down the wifi and internet connection.’
‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’ you exclaim, ‘I need access to codes and languages that others are developing.  You think that I have all the answers at my fingertips?  There are trillions of pieces of information flowing through this room that we could access anytime, but we need the right connection!’

The prophet Zachariah declared, “As for he who departs and comes, there is no peace.”
Rav explains: When one departs from learning Halacha (Jewish law) and heads off to learn Scripture, he finds no peace.  Rashi explains: This is due to the fact that you cannot understand how to practice from reading Scripture; you need the Mishnah to fill in the silence of the Torah text.

The Mishnah states: The laws of annulling vows are flying in the air and have no textual basis in Scripture.  The laws of Shabbos, festival offerings and de-consecration are like mountains hanging by a thread in that there is little basis in the text but an abundance of laws.

Learning Chumash (Pentateuch) is like using Windows.  It’s simple, easy to use and accessible.  But once you’ve entered the world of real computer language, Windows just doesn’t cut it.   It may be useful to a certain extent, but you’re lacking the richness, complexity, and beauty of Torah!

You can’t see the internet information with your physical eyes, but as soon as you pull out your smartphone, all the knowledge of the world is available to you.  Is that new information that appeared?  No, it was there all along ‘flying in the air.’  You just needed a transmitter to access it.

How much more is that true of Torah!  The entire world is one great flow of Divine energy, we just don’t see it.  When you learn Talmud, you begin to comprehend the letters, words, sentences and laws that are flying in the air.  To then deprive yourself of that experience by turning back to Scripture alone would be extremely unpleasant and of course nobody would ever do that.  The message of the Gemara is that if you think you’re learning Torah by coming to shul on Shabbos and picking up a Chumash, you have no idea what you’re missing out on!

The Chumash is just the beginning.  The Torah reading is meant to serve as a tool to inspire us to learn Torah.  If you walk away thinking that was the main thing, then you’ve missed the point.  And you’ve walked away from the richness, the beauty and the opportunity to wrap yourself in the flow of Divine energy!

Learn Torah today!  Don’t sell yourself short!  You will never turn back!

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Just Righteous or a Servant of Heaven?

Daf Yomi Chagigah 9

Bill and Ted are brothers.  But any similarity between them ends there.  Bill loves to learn, he could sit in front of a sefer (holy book) all day long.  Ted hates learning – although not officially diagnosed as such he’s decided that he has some sort of attention deficit disorder.  He’d rather play video games all day.   Conversely, Ted loves people; he’s always there to lend a helping hand.  By contrast, Bill would rather dig his head deeper into the books than offer his assistance.

Which brother is serving G-d better?

The prophet Malachi writes, “You shall return and distinguish between the righteous and wicked, between he who serves G-d and he who does not serve Him.”
Bar Hay-Hay asked Hillel: Why does the verse repeat itself?  A righteous man is the same as one who serves G-d and a wicked man is the same as one who does not serve Him!
He replied: In the verse, both the one who serves G-d and the one who does not serve Him refer to a person who is completely righteous.  Nevertheless, you cannot compare one who reviews his learning one hundred times (the regular righteous individual) to one who reviews one hundred and one times (the righteous person who actually serves G-d). 
Bar Hay-Hay responded:  Seriously, for one time less, he is called one who does not serve Him?
Hillel said: Yes. Go and learn from the donkey-rental.  The cost is one zuz for ten miles, but two zuz for eleven! 

In the days before the printing press, if you wanted to remember study material, you would have to review it and review it.  Standard practice was to review the material one hundred times.  Hillel teaches that one who goes the extra mile and reviews it one hundred and one times is truly serving the Almighty, because he has broken the mold.

You can be perfectly righteous and still not actively serving G-d.  Some people are naturally studious.  Others are natural volunteers.  Serving Heaven means breaking yourself and going beyond your natural tendencies and proclivities.   Bill’s one act of crossing a senior across the road may be more of an effort than Ted’s constant volunteerism.  And if Ted were to sit and learn for half an hour, that might be considered a greater service of G-d than Bill’s entire day of learning!

Nobody knows your natural inclination other than you; it’s between you and G-d.  Righteousness is the baseline that you must strive for, but beyond that you need to constantly ask yourself, ‘Am I truly serving the Almighty or am I just finding the path of least resistance and staying within my comfort zone?’  And it goes without saying that you can’t judge someone else’s effort – his ten minutes of service may be greater than your whole day’s contribution!

G-d desires your righteousness.  But he also wants your service.  Only you know the effort required to promote yourself from being a mere Tzaddik (righteous person) to becoming an Oved Elokim - a servant of Heaven!

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Can I use my tithes to pay shul membership?

Daf Yomi Chagigah 8

Today's Life Yomi has been dedicated by Chuck Feinstein in memory of Debra A. Feinstein,  Shendel Yehudis bas Edel z"l.  May the neshama have an aliya.  

Kenny recently started coming to minyan (services) every day and he was initially wearing the tefillin his grandfather bequeathed him.   They looked a little worn and so I suggested to him that they should probably be checked to see if they’re still kosher.  Off we sent them to Toronto, and unfortunately they were indeed passul (invalid). 

“I’d like to purchase a top-of-the-line new pair,” Kenny tells me, “but can I use my maaser (ten percent tithe) money?  After all, it’s for G-d, right?”

Throughout the pilgrimage festival, one would bring peace offerings of joy. The House of Hillel taught: One may use one’s tithes for these offerings.
The Gemara asks: Why is that so, is it not an obligatory matter?  Any obligatory matter must come from unconsecrated funds, as the Torah states, “You shall give of the ‘tribute’ of your hand, as Hashem your G-d has blessed you.”
How do we know that tribute refers to unconsecrated property?  It is written in the Book of Esther, “King Ahasuerus placed a tribute on the land.”

What can you use your maaser money for?  You may apportion your tithe money for any charitable giving, i.e. not for religious items that you must otherwise purchase.  Any obligatory payments cannot come out of maaser funds.   Do you need tefillin?  Yes, you do.  So you can’t use your maaser to buy them.  Do you need a lulav and esrog?  Certainly.  So once again, that must come from your other ninety percent.

The Gemara distinguishes unconsecrated from consecrated funds.  Maaser is consecrated.  It is a pre-existing tax that must come off your income and immediately dedicated to G-d.  Would you consider using your tax money to make a beautiful garden in front of your house?  After all, it’s beautifying the neighbourhood!  Of course not.  It’s not yours to spend as you please.  Similarly, maaser is consecrated and you need to view it as G-d’s.  He has merely given you the honour of distribution.

Our Sages tell us that one who is generous gives one fifth of his earnings to charity.  That’s not easy for most of us – we have mouths to feed and bills to pay.  But what you can try and do is to apportion ten percent to charity and the next ten percent to your other religious needs, such as the beautiful tefillin, gorgeous esrog and a home full of seforim (holy books)!  And remember, G-d promises that when you tithe properly, He will bless you with abundant prosperity in return!

Monday, 15 September 2014

Are you an atheist in the trench?

Daf Yomi Chagigah 7

Shlomo and Itzik were best of buddies.  They served side by side in their elite sniper unit of the Israeli Defense Force.    They could talk about anything with one another – politics, sports, family life.  But one subject was taboo – religion. 

The two young men had grown up on different ends of the religious spectrum.  Shlomo’s parents were devout Religious Zionists who had made aliyah from Canada when he was a child.  Itzik grew up on a staunchly secular kibbutz.   No matter how hard Shlomo tried to discuss Judaism with his friend, Itzik always changed the subject.

One day, they were together on a mission in Gaza when they suddenly found themselves surrounded by the enemy.  Fearing that this was their final moment, Shlomo crouched down, picked his right hand up to his eyes and cried out, “Shema Yisrael – Hear O Israel, Hashem is our G-d, Hashem is one!”  

All of a sudden, a shiver runs down his spine as he hears his best friend chanting the verse along with him! 
“Itzik!” he cries, “what are you doing?  I thought you don’t believe in G-d!”
With tears streaming down his face, Itzik responds, “Well my friend, just in case…”

The Mishnah in tractate Peah states: The following mitzvos have no limit: Leaving the corner of the field to the poor, the first fruits, being seen in the Temple for the pilgrimage festival, acts of kindness, and Torah study.

What is the mitzvah of ‘being seen in the Temple’?  Rabbi Yochanan understands the mitzvah as referring simply to appearing in the Temple, whereas Reish Lakish teaches that it refers to showing up with a sacrifice in hand to offer.  

Rabbi Yochanan challenged Reish Lakish: The obligation to appear in the Temple reads ‘he shall be seen,’ but in fact it is written ‘he shall see.’  The meaning of this dual implication is that just like G-d sees us freely, with no strings attached (i.e. without offering a sacrifice to us), so too may we show up and see Him freely with no strings attached.   

Many people refuse to believe in G-d because of the implications such belief has.  If I believe, then there are consequences to my actions and my lifestyle.  If I believe in G-d, then I must heed His Word.  If I don’t, then I can simply go on living my life how I’d like to live my life, guilt-free.  And so we ignore the big, tough questions of life along with its meaning and purpose.

But the Almighty says: I come with no strings attached.  Let’s start a conversation.  Invite me into your life.  Don’t feel that you can’t talk to me without making a commitment.  I want to have a relationship with you, regardless of your commitment to religious observance.

Are you afraid of having a relationship with the Almighty?  Don’t be!  G-d is in no rush; He has all the time in the world.  He wants to be part of your life now and He can wait until you are ready to make any lifestyle commitment.  Let Him in today, even if it’s only just in case…

Sunday, 14 September 2014

Cross-Dressing with your Spouse is Confusing your Kids!

Daf Yomi Chagigah 6

The Goldzweigs were always there in shul on Shabbos morning.  Through sleet and snow, you could always count on them – shul on Shabbos was an important part of their weekly routine. 

But then something happened.  Samantha decided that she should be there at the start of the service – after all, she loved davening and didn’t want to miss a thing – and that Dave would get the kids ready and come a little later. 

Well, it worked the first couple of weeks.  But then Dave and the children started coming later and later until after a month, they simply stopped coming.

Rabbi Zaira asks: Who is required to bring a child to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festival?
Abaye responds: His mother is required to bring him to Jerusalem, for she is obligated in the mitzvah of ‘festive joy.’  From Jerusalem to the Temple, if he (is weaned and) can ascend holding his father’s hand, he is obligated to ascend.  If not, he is exempt. 

In traditional Judaism, men and women have different roles.  Both are vital to sustaining Judaism and so when women want to do the men’s roles or vice versa, the system breaks down.

To achieve any goal in life, you need two elements: passion and discipline.  You need to be excited to get up in the morning and work towards your goal, but you also need to be disciplined to ensure that you get there in a systematic fashion.  In Judaism, these two notions are called: love and fear.   If your relationship with the Almighty is only a ‘love’ relationship, then you will inevitably become lax in your spiritual service.  Along with the passion, you need the fear or discipline to make sure that you are always on target for your spiritual goals.

The role of the mother, says the Talmud, is to instill in her children the joy and love of Judaism.   She has the responsibility of the long and arduous journey of ‘bringing them to Jerusalem,’ by infusing their lives with passion for our heritage.  The father then takes the child by the hand to the Temple – bringing him to synagogue, a place of awe and reverence, where he disciplines his child to serve G-d faithfully and fearfully.

When these roles are confused, the tradition gets confounded and many children are abandoned from tradition.  The woman who insists on leaving the house at 8:45am on a Shabbos morning to get to shul for the start of the service will be very lucky if she sees hubby and kids any time that morning.   Men simply lack the necessary love and passion for our heritage that women innately have and often just can’t be bothered. 

Only once the mother has spiritually ‘weaned’ her child – she has inculcated the child with an all-embracing love for Judaism – is she ready to hand him over to the father who can discipline the child in the service of the Almighty.  Unless we imbue our children with both elements – the love and fear of G-d – we have failed to impart our heritage and it is small wonder so many of our dear kinderlach are tragically drifting away.

You and your spouse are partners in the transmission of our heritage!  Each partner brings an important element to the family and you can’t afford to ignore either aspect.  Your kids must love their Judaism!  But they must also be taught that, just like anything of value in life, spirituality requires discipline and awe.  You must both strive to imbue your kids with both love and fear.  But they need the unique ingredients that each of you brings to the family dynamic!

They burned us at the stake. Now they love Israel?

Daf Yomi Chagigah 5

I am very involved with Christians United for Israel (CUFI).  I go to the annual convention in Washington DC and I work with CUFI Alberta on an annual Night to Honor Israel.  In my mind, they are indefatigable friends of our people and in a world that contains so much anti-Semitism, we are lucky to have the support of so many Christians.

But many Jews are suspicious of these people.  After all, how could they be our friends?  For thousands of years, they exiled us from land to land, burnt us at the stake, converted us by the sword and burned our books.  Why the sudden change of heart?

As Rabbi Joshua ben Chanania lay on his death bed, the rabbis who had gathered around beseeched him, “What will be our fate with the Christians?”
He replied, “The prophet Jeremiah declared, ‘Counsel has been lost from the children, their wisdom has spoiled.’  The meaning of this verse is that once counsel has been lost from your (Jewish) children, the wisdom of the nations will spoil.”

When Emperor Constantine converted to Christianity in the fourth century, things turned bad for the Jews.  The time of the Talmud was rife with Christian harassment and of all the things they could have asked Rabbi Joshua on his deathbed, all they could muster was, ‘When will the persecution end?’

Rabbi Joshua’s response was a powerful prophecy to our generation.  Throughout the millennia of Jewish history, we were the most literate people on the planet.  We were literate in the arts and sciences of the cultures in which we lived, not to mention our Jewish literacy. 

Understandably, our Christian hosts felt threatened by our Bible mastery and commitment and we were regularly challenged to public theological debates.   These debacles were utterly futile exercises in Christian tyranny – we were losers whatever the outcome and they inevitably culminated in mass exile or genocide.

But then something happened when we came to the New World.  In an effort to establish ourselves financially in our new countries, we began to neglect our Jewish literacy.  Fast forward a century or two and we find ourselves in a spiritually terrible place.  There has never been a time in the history of the Jewish people that we have been so woefully illiterate.  Most Jews cannot read Hebrew, let alone translate a verse of the Torah. 

Prophesies Rabbi Joshua: When your children lose their counsel – when they become illiterate, the wisdom of the nations will spoil – they will cease challenging us theologically and the persecution will disappear.  Only then will your fate with the Christians ease up, he tells his students on his deathbed.

What does that mean?  Is Jewish illiteracy then a positive thing?  Now that most Jews are clueless about the Bible, the Christians are our friends!  Shouldn’t that be celebrated?  We could have abandoned our commitment to literacy a long time ago and we would have saved ourselves much pain and suffering!

G-d forbid!!  Sadly, the reason why Christians have stopped persecuting us now that we are illiterate is that they no longer need to harass us in order to Christianize us.  Jewish illiteracy automatically leads to assimilation!  They don’t need to work hard to convince us to become like them anymore, we are doing it to ourselves by default.   Tragically, within a generation or two, we will lose large swaths of our people to the Christian society around us.  And all this without them ever needing to lift a finger against us!

You can buck that trend.  Become literate!  Make sure that you and your children can read and understand fluently.  There are some basic levels of Jewish literacy that must be achieved if you want your kids to stay Jewish.    You should be able to daven three times a day fluently. You should be able to read and comprehend Rashi.  You should be able to at least pick up a volume of the Talmud in English and know what they’re talking about. 

Join the ranks of your forebears.  They could read and write Hebrew fluently.  They could read the Chumash (Bible) in the original and understand.  They could read a Mishnah and explain it.  You can too!  Make the effort.  Your children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will be eternally grateful!

Where is Hell?

Daf Yomi Chagigah 4

Where is hell?

Is hell somewhere beneath the earth’s surface?   There are references to hell being beneath the earth, particularly in the Christian Bible and some even point to the extreme temperatures at the earth’s core as evidence of hell’s location.

But how can it be a physical place?  If your soul goes there after you die, then it must be situated in the spiritual realm.  So where is it then, up or down? 

When Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers who had sold him into slavery in Egypt, the Torah states, “They could not respond to him for they were confounded by his presence.”

Rabbi Elazar would cry whenever he read the verse, saying: If this was the response to the censure of a mortal, how much more will one be shaken up by the censure of the Holy One, blessed be He! 

Did Joseph really censure them for their actions?  He did not.  But the mere mention of their behaviour made them feel so ashamed that they were speechless.  The mental anguish of the shame they felt at that moment was itself a powerful punishment.

Similarly, explains Rabbi Elazar, hell is not a destination in any physical space.  Rather, it is the anguish the soul endures in the presence of the Almighty, burdened with all its impurities.  Imagine having to face a king’s court in your undergarments.  Now imagine your body was scarred with an awful skin disease and everyone could see it.   You would be so embarrassed.  That was how the brothers felt knowing that they stood in the presence of the viceroy of Egypt and their sins were hanging out for all to see.

When you sin in this world, your soul is stained.  Every transgression, even inadvertent, scars the soul with impurity.  That’s why we are instructed to bring an offering to the Holy Temple even for inadvertent sins – in order to cleanse our souls.   (And of course today, we achieve that cleansing simply through teshuvah – sincere repentance.)   But when we fail to cleanse our souls, we arrive at our ‘final destination’ looking pretty dirty.  And appearing in heaven with a dirty soul is outright shameful.  That is Judaism’s conception of hell – the shame one endures in heaven when your soul bares all.

And it’s not only true of mitzvos; the shame of Torah-neglect is even more pronounced.   Imagine the world’s top rocket scientist came to town to give a lecture.   Two people are sitting side-by-side in the lecture hall at the university.  One of them is the local rocket scientist who is enthralled by his hero’s words and could listen to him for hours on end.  The other is illiterate and went because he always wanted to hear what rocket science is about.  But he’s bored silly because he does not understand a word.

That’s the feeling many will feel at the World to Come’s Torah lecture.  The Almighty will be teaching Torah to a packed house!  Sadly, many good people who had a lifetime of good deeds will be bored out of their minds because they did not learn much Torah and now they simply don’t understand what’s going on.  Imagine being stuck clueless in that class for an eternity!  Hell is not a place; it’s a state of mind.

Now’s the time to clean up our act!  Detox your soul!  Learn Torah!  And your time in the World to Come will be eternally blissful!

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Take the Pepsi Challenge of Life!

Daf Yomi Chagigah 3

Have you ever taken the Pepsi challenge?  They place two unmarked cups in front of you and ask you to choose which is better.  When you do that, are you exercising free choice?

Of course not!  You are making a decision based on your preprogrammed taste buds that are attuned to certain tastes that you have grown up to enjoy.  In other words, most decisions you make in life come down simply to nature and nurture.

What then is free choice and when do you get to exercise it?

King Solomon writes in Song of Songs, “How beautiful are your sandaled footsteps, O daughter of the noble one!”

Rava expounds the verse: How beautiful are the feet of Israel when they go up to Jerusalem for the pilgrimage festivals!  We are called “daughter of the noble one,” which refers to our forefather Abraham, as the Psalmist declares, “The nobles of the nations gathered, people of the G-d of Abraham.”  The nobles gathered to the G-d of Abraham, not the G-d of Isaac or Jacob.  Why?  He was the first convert. 

Rashi explains:  ‘The nobles of the nations’ refer to the converts who nobly volunteered to accept the yoke of mitzvos upon themselves.  Tosfos adds: Abraham was the first to circumcise himself.

Certainly, Isaac fulfilled the mitzvah of bris milah (circumcision), as did Jacob and all our forebears!  But what made Abraham the noble one?  He was the first.  Our other patriarchs did not really choose to do the mitzvos; they did it because that is how they grew up.  Abraham, by contrast, made a conscious decision to accept the yoke of mitzvos.  Therefore he was deemed noble.  Likewise, any individual in history until today who chooses the path of Torah and mitzvos is similarly deemed noble.

When I go to minyan (synagogue) each day, do I exercise free choice in doing so?  Not really.  After all, I’m the rabbi.  I’m almost expected contractually to be there!  But the congregant who wrestles with the snooze button and pulls himself out of bed to minyan – now that’s a choice consciously made! 

Later that day, that same person might be invited to a business lunch and just have a drink.  Did he choose not to have the ham sandwich?   Maybe, maybe not.  If he’d been brought up kosher and never touched treyf (non-kosher) in his life, then his ‘choice’ not to eat wasn’t really his.  It would be deplorable in his mind to go near the stuff!  However, somebody who has eaten treyf their whole life and makes the incredible decision to give it up, now that’s an exercise of her free choice! 

Does that mean Isaac and Jacob never had free choice?  Of course they did!  But not when it came to their bris milah or keeping kosher.  The choices they made were above and beyond the system their parents had put in place for them.  They might have struggled with being nice to their wayward brothers.  They might have struggled with not raising their voices at their difficult children.  They might even have struggled with allocating time to learn Torah.  But the basics of Torah and mitzvos were given to them.

Free choice is an unbelievable gift from Above.  Don’t take it for granted.  Don’t assume that since you’re doing the right thing you must be making the right decisions.  Often the path you’ve taken is the gift your parents have bestowed upon you.  You need to figure out where in your performance of mitzvos your true struggle lies.  And then you will be able to truly exercise your right to choose.

Maybe you struggle with going to minyan.  Maybe you struggle with not getting angry with your kids.   Maybe you struggle with making time to learn Torah each day.  Whatever your challenge is, that’s where you get your gift of free choice.

The Almighty declares in the Torah: Behold, I have placed before you today, life and good versus death and evil.  Choose life!