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Sunday, 30 November 2014

Don't let life crush you

Daf Yomi Yevamos 57

Thank G-d, Alberta has a booming economy.  Our province boasts the highest levels of immigration in Canada and one of the highest in the world.  People are constantly moving to Edmonton for great-paying jobs both in the oilfields and in the ancillary industries. 

Sol and Marjorie packed up everything in Montreal to move out here for a fantastic job at the university.  They sold their house, moved their family and all their belongings, and started a brand new life in our city.  Sadly, six months into the position, however, research funding ran dry at the university and Sol found himself unemployed.

“I’m crushed,” he said to me, “I’m an unemployed academic with no transferable skills.  I quit my job in Montreal and now I have nothing.”

The Torah states, “One who is crushed or maimed [in his testes] should not enter the congregation of G-d.”

Rabbi Elazar quoted Rabbi Oshiya: May a crushed cohen who betrothed a regular Jewess but has not yet consummated feed her terumah (tithes)?  This question brings us to a debate between Rabbi Meir on one side and Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon on the other.  According to Rabbi Meir, who holds that one who is awaiting a biblically-prohibited cohabitation (such as a divorcee, who may not marry a cohen) may not partake of the terumah, in this case too he would hold that she cannot partake. 

However, according to Rabbi Elazar and Rabbi Shimon who hold that one who is awaiting a biblically-prohibited cohabitation may partake, in this case too, they would hold that she may partake.  Abaye explains: This case is similar to a situation where a cohen and a Jewess were completely married but then he became maimed.  As long as they avoid cohabitation, she may continue to partake of the terumah. 

Why may she continue to eat terumah as his wife if they are forbidden to one another?   The Talmud is teaching us that until he acts on his disability, he is not considered crushed.  Until then, he is a regular cohen.  Physically, he may appear to be crushed, but as far as the Torah is concerned, he only becomes crushed if he chooses to assume that status by acting on it. 

Everyone has their challenges in life, but you have the choice whether to assume the crushed status or to rise above your challenges.   Will you become crushed by the trials and tribulations you face or will you tell them you’re not going to let them dictate who you are?

Let’s say you are dealing with a terrible illness.  You have the choice: Do you assume the crushed status and consider yourself an ill person?  Or are you a healthy person that is fighting off an illness that you won’t allow to take over your life?

 Perhaps you have experienced some relationship setbacks, such as divorce or maybe you haven’t even been married yet.  You have the choice: Do you assume the crushed status and think of yourself as unmarriageable?  Or are you a great marriage partner who is looking to find the right person in life?

Maybe, like Sol, you have lost your job or your business is suffering.  You have the choice: Do you assume the crushed status and think of yourself as a financial failure?  Or are you a financially successful person dealing with a temporary downturn in the market?

The vicissitudes of life can become extremely debilitating if you allow them to dictate who you are.  You are not a crushed person.  You are a healthy, successful, loving person who is overcoming sickness, poorly-performing markets and unappreciative people.  You will rise above.  The forces of evil cannot crush you or hold you back from life!  

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Arguing vs. Communicating

Daf Yomi Yevamos 56

Will and Jada were in my office for marriage counseling but I couldn’t hear a word they were saying.  Every time she spoke, he interrupted to correct her version of the story.  And every time he spoke, she interrupted him.   Instead of talking to one another, they were trying to talk over one another!  Neither could hear anything the other was saying and I too could hardly follow what was going on.

Our Rabbis taught: If a regular Jewess capable of hearing was betrothed to a cohen capable of hearing, who became deaf before he had time to marry her, she may not eat terumah (tithes).  If a son was born to her she may eat.  If the son died, Rabbi Nathan said, she may eat; but the Sages said: She may not eat.

What is R. Nathan's reason?  Rabba replied: Because she was eating before. Said Abaye to him: What now?  Would a Jewess who was married to a cohen who subsequently died be entitled to continue to eat terumah because she was eating it before?  Rather, as soon as he dies his sanctity is withdrawn from her.   So here too, as soon as the son dies, his sanctity is withdrawn from her!

Instead, said Rabbi Joseph, Rabbi Nathan holds that marriage with a deaf cohen does entitle the woman to eat terumah, and that no prohibition is to be made in respect of the marriage of a deaf cohen as a preventive measure against the betrothal of a deaf cohen. Said Abaye to him: If so, what need was there to state ‘If a son was born to her’? — Because of the Rabbis. Then Rabbi Nathan should have expressed his disagreement with the Rabbis in the first clause!

The Gemara explains: He allowed the Rabbis to finish their statement and then expressed his disagreement with them.

The incredible lessons the Talmud teaches us often come almost parenthetically to the subject matter at hand.  Here, the Talmud teaches us derech eretz – good manners.   If you have an opinion that is contrary to the person talking, wait for them to finish and then offer your two cents. 

The first thing I said to Jada and Will is that they should stop talking when the other was trying to talk.  And then the next thing to do before arguing is to try to repeat what the other had said back to them.  Not only does that demonstrate that you are listening to your spouse, but it validates their opinion.  Once you have validated, then you can offer your piece. 

Often you will find that having listened to them you can now much better appreciate where they are coming from.  But of course you can’t do that unless you have properly tuned in to their contention to begin with.  Until you have allowed them to speak and listened to what they have to say, you have no right to argue, because you don’t even know what you are arguing about!

Respect other people’s opinions, especially your spouse’s.  Listen carefully to what they are saying.  And only once they have finished talking, then should you say what you need to.  I promise, you will merit much healthier, deeper and more fruitful relationships with family, friends and colleagues! 

Inject yourself with spiritual coffee

Daf Yomi Yevamos 55

According to Nickelodeon, the following are the proven health benefits of coffee:
1. Enables the ability to speak to others before 11 a.m.
2. Stabilizes standy-uppy functionality.
3. Decreases the chance of your murdering the person who snored in your ear all night.
4. Melts mental cobwebs so you can answer children's relentless questions over breakfast.
5. Increases the chance you'll recognize when autocorrect is messing with you.
6. Makes you less hatey.
7. Lubricates the eye-opening mechanism.
7. Deactivates Zombie Mom mode.
9. Recharges verbal filter, allows for re-entry to the world outside one's home.
10. Gives someone who hasn't slept through the night in a decade something to look forward to.

The Torah states, “And to your fellow’s wife, you shall not give your cohabitation to seed.”

Rava asks: Why does the Torah mention seminal emission regarding a married man, when we already know that such an act is forbidden even without completion? 
He answers: It comes to exclude one who performs dead.
Rashi explains: A dead, i.e. limp member is unable to seed.

Many people go through life desperately in need of a good cup of spiritual coffee.  They perform mitzvos in a manner that is dead, lifeless.  And Rava explains that when you serve G-d without life, you are unable to seed.    You can’t convey positive spirituality to anyone around, let alone your kids.

Is your performance of mitzvos lacking vitality?  Do you put on tefillin each morning just because that’s what you’ve always done?  Do you get to the end of prayers and feel like you’ve driven to work not remembering a thing that you passed along the way?

It’s time to inject some life into your mitzvah performance!  If you want to be a source of spirituality to others, you need to be excited and alive.  That doesn’t come naturally – it comes from a conscious effort to think about the great merit you have to be able to perform mitzvos!  It comes from the understanding that of all the billions of people in the world, the Almighty chose you to serve Him!

Wake up and serve G-d with life!  And you will be a source of spiritual seed to all those around you!  

Thursday, 27 November 2014

How to embarrass your spouse

Daf Yomi Yevamos 54

Over the summer, many people pass through Edmonton en route to the Rockies.  We frequently have guests staying with us for Shabbos from ‘out east’ – Toronto, Montreal, New York.  We once had one such family stay with us after finding us through the website and we were sitting have Shabbos lunch with them.  Also at the table were Justin and Jennifer, lovely members of the congregation who happen to have converted to Judaism many years ago.  It’s been so long, though, that many people in the congregation don’t even know they’re converts.

We were enjoying a lovely Shabbos meal, when our guests began to comment on the number of converts in the congregation.  I was starting to feel uneasy as they recounted how they’d sat at the kiddush in shul and met so many Jews by choice and just couldn’t believe how many we had.
“You know what the Talmud says,” the easterner suddenly quipped, “Converts are like the plague!”

Before I could get the chance to correct his insensitivity and properly explain the meaning of the Talmudic dictum (see Life Yomi Yevamos 47), I realized that Justin and Jennifer had turned white.  I felt absolutely horrible that this had gone on at my own Shabbos table.

Rabba taught: One who fell from the roof and caused injury is liable to pay four types of compensation: for damage, pain, unemployment, and medical costs.  However, he is not liable to pay for the embarrassment caused, for the master taught, ‘One is only liable to pay damages for embarrassment if he had intent.’ 

Why should you only be liable to pay for embarrassing another person if you intended to do so?  Think about the other types of damages.  It takes a lot of effort to injure another human being to the extent that they need to seek medical attention and take time off from work to recover.

Sadly, when it comes to embarrassing others, however, we do it all the time, without intending to.  Imagine you had to pay up every time you embarrassed another individual.  Most of us would be broke by now!   Rabba is not teaching that it’s okay to embarrass people if you don’t intend to do it.  He’s cautioning us to pay more attention to what we say to others without thinking. 

Before you open your mouth, your have to ask yourself whether what you are about to say might be insensitive or embarrassing to anybody.  You might think it’s just a joke and what’s the big deal.  But you never know how it might strike a raw nerve in somebody else.  They have had different experiences to you in life and they are might be going through things right now.

Maybe it’s a joke about ethnicity and you haven’t considered the background of the people in the room.  Maybe you’re talking about having your tenth child and there are people in the room who don’t have any.  Apart from the lack of sensitivity – even if you don’t know the situation, there may be others who do and the affected party will feel extremely embarrassed and uncomfortable. 

Unintentional embarrassment is not limited to strangers, either.  Maybe you’re sitting around at a party and you mention some silly thing your spouse does like leaving the cap off the toothpaste.  You might think it’s funny, but stop and think about whether you’re embarrassing him or her.  Of course s/he is your spouse and will forgive you, but do you really need to put them on the spot like that?

You might not owe monetary damages, but of course you are liable for embarrassing someone else, even unintentionally.   Stop and think about what you’re going to say.  No word should come out of your mouth without intention.  And when you do speak, you should always strive to project positivity.  May you always merit to bring good feeling into the lives of everyone around you!

Tough loving your kids

Daf Yomi Yevamos 53

The Children of Israel were ready to enter the Promised Land.  They had requested free passage via Transjordan to enter Canaan, but instead, the inhabitants of those countries attacked them.  Victorious in the battle, the Israelites now had the additional dominion over the East Bank of the Jordan River.  

The tribes of Reuben and Gad approached Moses with a request: “The land that G-d smote before the assembly of Israel is a land for livestock and your servants have livestock.  If we should find favour in your eyes, let this land be given to your servants to possess.  Let us not pass over the Jordan.”

After discussing the matter with them and realizing that they were not seeking to avoid joining their brethren in the arduous task of conquering the land, Moses replied, “If you indeed arm yourselves before G-d for the battle and every armed man among you will cross the Jordan before G-d until He drives out His enemies before Him . . . this land shall be a heritage for you before G-d.  But if you do not do so, behold, you will have sinned to G-d; know that your sin will encounter you.”

The Beraisa states: If one performed chalitzah (annulment of the levirate marriage) with his brother’s widow and then went back and married her, Rebbe says that if he betrothed her for the sake of matrimony, they would need a gett to divorce, but if he intended to effect a levirate marriage (yibum), they would not need a gett.   But the Sages say, whether he betrothed her for the sake of matrimony or he betrothed her for the sake of yibum, she needs a gett from him.

Ravina teaches: This dispute is founded on the question of condition-making in chalitzah.  Everyone agrees that one may enact stipulations to condition the chalitzah.   For example, Rashi suggests, he annulled the levirate marriage on condition that she would give him two hundred zuz.  However, they are debating whether one needs a doubled condition.  One teacher, Rebbe, holds that we require a doubled condition, while the other teacher, the Sages, hold that we do not need a doubled condition.  

Rashi explains: The prototype of condition-making is found in the Torah in the story of the Gadites and Reubenites.  Moses said to them, “If you indeed arm yourselves . . . but if you do not . . .” which suggests that, in order to be effective, a stipulation must be made in the positive and reinforced in the negative.   In our case, according to Rebbe, the man must say, ‘If you give the money, the chalitzah shall take effect, but if you do not, it shall not.’
It’s not easy disciplining children in the twenty-first century.  As parents, we try all sorts of approaches to positive reinforcement.  But the Torah teaches that if you want the stipulation to be effective, sometimes you also need to balance it out with a potential ‘negative’ reinforcement.

Let’s say, for example, your child has lost focus with their schoolwork.  So you tell them, ‘If you do well this year in school, I will buy you an IPad.’  Great incentive, right?  It’s certainly helpful, but it’s not sufficient.   At the end of the day, as much as the kid wants the IPad, he hasn’t had it until now and so he could live without it. 

Let’s try the following: ‘If you do well this year in school, I will buy you an IPad.  But if you don’t do well, I will take the TV out of your room.’  Now, the child has both an incentive to do well and a disincentive to poor performance.  Instead of promising them something they don’t currently have that they could live without, you are threatening to remove a luxury from their life that they have become accustomed to.  You have both positive and negative stipulations and hence, reinforcement.

Let’s be clear: Good parenting doesn’t mean punishment for punishment’s sake.  The ‘punishment’ must fit the ‘crime.’  In this situation, you are not removing the TV in order to be a mean, strict parent.  Rather, you are suggesting that you might have to remove an impediment to their educational success.  Clearly, poor performance in school indicates the child is being distracted by other stimulants, such as the TV.

When it comes to marrying Jewish, we hope and pray that our children will make the right decisions based on the values with which we have brought them up.  But in today’s day and age, we can’t always count on that as a given.  I know people who have incentivized intra-marriage and dis-incentivized intermarriage for their children.  As they near marrying age, they are told, ‘If you marry Jewish, we will help you with a down-payment on a home.  But if you do not, you will be removed from the will.’ 

It sounds pretty harsh, right?  But again, if we think about what they’re saying, it makes sense.    They are not looking to punish their children inordinately.  The message they are trying to convey is this: If you marry Jewish, we want to become your partners in building a Jewish home.  Eventually, we want to bequeath money to help you provide your children and grandchildren with a good Jewish education and to bolster your Jewish lifestyle.  If you choose not to marry Jewish, we will still love you.  However, we are not interested in investing in that.  Even after our lifetime, we want our money to go to spiritual causes. 

It’s not easy to be a parent.  Sometimes it takes tough love.  It takes incentives and dis-incentives.  Figuring out the right conditions that correspond to the choices your child is making isn’t easy.  But when you do, you will find that they will begin to understand what is truly important and valuable to you in life!  

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Honour thy garbageman and thy mailman

Daf Yomi Yevamos 52

When the Holy Ark was recaptured from the Philistines, it was en route back to the Tabernacle on a wagon.  Ahitophel rebuked King David, ‘How could you place the Holy Ark on a wagon, when Moses insisted that it be transported on the shoulders of the Levites?’  Ahitophel’s chutzpah and arrogance culminated later in his joining the revolt of Absalom against David.  Nevertheless, in an incredible display of humility, King David refers to him in Psalms as his rabbi, his mentor, and his friend, for having taught him the proper respect for the Holy Ark. 

Rav would give lashes to any person who was disrespectful to a messenger of the court.

You can imagine how people would disrespect the messenger of the court.  ‘Oh, he’s just the mailman.  He’s the bearer of bad tidings, don’t go anywhere near that guy.’   G-d forbid!  This man is the messenger of the beth din – he represents the rabbis who sent him.  Our Sages teach that the messenger of a person is like the person themselves.  He may be just an unlettered postman, but think about who and what he represents and give him the respect he deserves!

We learn from King David to what lengths we must go to honour people in our lives.  Ahitophel not only spoke with chutzpah to the king; he later rebelled against him!  He was guilty of treason, and yet David still honoured him with a special place in the Book of Psalms.  How much more so must we honour those who bring good fortune to our lives!

Ben Azzai teaches in Ethics of the Fathers, “Do not despise any person and do not dismiss any thing; for there is no man who does not have his day and there is no thing that does not have its place.”  Every human being has a unique and important mission in this world.  Every individual is a messenger of the Almighty to fulfill that mission.  Remember, a messenger is like the sender themselves, and so every human being should be honoured the way you would honour their Sender – the Almighty Himself! 

Don’t disdain or dismiss anyone.  You might think, ‘Oh, he’s just the mailman.  He’s just the garbage-man.  Why should I honour them?’  But imagine they weren’t in your life.  Imagine you had to go and transport your own rubbish to the dump each week!  Boy, do you owe them honour for the important role they play in your life! 

So how do you show them honour?  You might not even know them.  You know they exist, because somehow when you get home each day the mail has magically appeared in your letterbox and your garbage has been removed.  It’s time to show them some honour and thank them for their wonderful service.

Particularly at this time of year, everyone likes to be shown a little honour, love, and gratitude.  This week is American Thanksgiving and we then move on to the Chanukah season.  Traditionally, Chanukah was associated with giving gifts to our children’s Torah teachers, since Chanukah is related to the word chinuch, meaning education.  Somehow it has evolved into a universal gift-giving season and Rabbi Moses Iserles in the sixteenth century Code of Jewish Law rules that one may give gifts to one’s non-Jewish neighbours during this season, as long as it is not on the day of their holiday itself.  

This year, take time to think of all the people in your life, from great to small, who you should be honouring.  Buy them a little something and write them a card to let them know how much you appreciate them being in your life.  If you would sit down and make a list, you would find so many people that you have neglected to honour, from the mailman to the garbage-collectors to your child’s schoolteachers, to the receptionist at work, the list goes on and on!  

Always remember, showing them honour ultimately means giving honour to G-d!

Cutting corners will come back to bite you

Daf Yomi Yevamos 51

With the subprime mortgage housing market crash of 2007, house prices in Las Vegas dropped about seventy percent.  A friend of mine bought an investment property that had been built in 2005 which the owners had simply walked away from, being that the home was worth much less than they owed the bank.   Six months after he bought it, however, he realized it wasn’t the metziah (find) he initially thought it to be.  Seems the builders were going crazy that year to put up as many houses in the shortest time possible and they’d cut corners.  Now they were facing a class-action lawsuit for structural issues that they’d overlooked.

Rabba the son of Rabbi Huna offered the following case in the name of Rav:  There were three sisters married to three of five brothers.  The husbands all died, leaving the three widows to perform the yibum (levirate marriage) with the two surviving brothers.   However, they are unable to marry the women since they are sisters and one may not marry sisters.  Therefore they must perform chalitzah (the annulment of the levirate marriage).  Thus, each brother does chalitzah with one of the widows and the third widow must do chalitzah with both of them.

Why?  Chalitzah is meant to be an option instead of yibum.  In this case, yibum is not an option and so chalitzah is the only choice and therefore considered deficient.  When the chalitzah is deficient, one must run around to all the brothers to take care of the matter (and not just do the service with one of them).

Whenever a matter is deficient – you fail to completely address it and deal with it properly initially – you end up having to run around later to take care of the matter.   The Las Vegas builders were trying to pump out as much product as they could without any concern for the consequences of not doing a proper job and now they have to run around trying to fix their mess.

Don’t do things deficiently; it doesn’t pay in the long run!  Maybe it’s a project at work that you just want to get over and done with and move on to the next thing.   Don’t do it, don’t cut corners!  In the long run, you’ll end up needing to do more work to fix things because you failed to do it right to begin with.

Maybe it’s your relationship with your spouse.  You think you can just keep her happy by buying her nice things and not pulling your weight around the house and not being for there for her emotionally.  In marriage, there’s no cutting corners!  Eventually it will come back to haunt you when the bonds of your marriage aren’t strong enough to withstand a real crisis. 

Maybe it’s your relationship with your teenage children.   You think that you can reward them monetarily for certain behaviours like not drinking or smoking.  But do you really know what they’re doing when you’re not around?   Financial incentives are mere corner-cutters that will eventually blow up in your face.  You need to develop a deep, trusting relationship with you child and resolve the issues in a meaningful way.

When you act in a deficient manner, it never works in the long run.  Make sure that you are doing a wholesome job today and you will never have to come back later to pick up the pieces!  

Sunday, 23 November 2014

G-d has no shortage of messengers

Daf Yomi Yevamos 50

At the behest of wicked Haman, King Ahasuerus was ready to annihilate the entire Jewish nation.  Mordecai appeals to his niece, Queen Esther, who hesitates to act for fear of rocking the boat with her husband, the king, when she has not been called upon.  In one of the most dramatic motivational speeches in the Bible, Mordecai declares, “If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from some other source and you and your father’s house shall perish.  Who knows?  Perhaps it was for a moment like this that you were placed on the throne!”

The Torah states, “I shall fill the number of your days.”  The Beraisa teaches: This verse refers to the years of a person’s life.  If he merits, he gets his complete number of years.   If he does not merit, he gets less.  This is the opinion of Rabbi Akiva.   But the Sages say, if he merits, he gets additional years and if he does not merit, he gets less. 

They asked Rabbi Akiva: The prophet Isaiah said to King Hezekiah, “I shall add fifteen years to your life!”
Rabbi Akiva replied: They were added from the years that were originally allotted to him.  The proof is that the prophet stood up and prophesied, “Behold a son shall be born to the House of David, his name will be Josiah.”  But Manasseh, Josiah’s grandfather, had not yet been born to Hezekiah and so clearly he had more time still to live! 
The Rabbis respond: Does it say that Josiah must come from Hezekiah?  No!  Isaiah said that he “shall be born to the House of David,” which means either from Hezekiah or someone else. 

Many times in life you are called upon to fulfill an important mission.  And you think to yourself: It’s too hard. I’m not sure I can do it.  What will the impact be on my life?

Rest assured, the Almighty has many messengers.  If you don’t do it, He’ll find someone else to take care of it.  Your loss.  He already has the plan all mapped out.   If you choose, you can be part of that game plan.  If you choose not to, it won’t mess up G-d’s plans; he’ll just find someone else who is willing to take on the challenge.  And “you and your father’s house shall perish” into historical irrelevancy.

Maybe it’s a communal leadership position, like serving your shul or school board.  Maybe it’s inviting a widow to your Shabbos table.  Maybe it’s reaching out to someone who has been through a difficult ordeal, like a divorce.  Maybe it’s writing a letter to the newspaper to protest anti-Israel journalism.  And you think to yourself, ‘I really can’t be bothered.  My life is busy enough as it is.’  Do you really think G-d needs you?  He doesn’t need you.  He can find many other willing people to offer the mitzvah to.  But if He has revealed this opportunity to you, it means that you are His first pick.  Are you up for the challenge or will you pass up your chance for spiritual greatness?

You have been given an awesome task in this world.  Will you take it on or will you go through life passing for mediocrity?

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Stop wasting your breath

Daf Yomi Yevamos 49

I was once invited to sit on a panel with a Conservative rabbi and discuss prayer from our different perspectives.  Figuring it would be a good opportunity to provide non-Orthodox Jews with an Orthodox viewpoint and reach out to them, I obliged.   I prepared the subject thoroughly and explained the traditional meaning and incredible power of power.  The other rabbi, by contrast, spoke off the cuff and described prayer as little more than an opportunity to gather as a community.   I was patting myself on the back and thinking, ‘Wow, I’ve wiped the floor today!’  You can imagine my surprise when, following the debate, my colleague’s congregants all came up to him congratulating him on a job well done!

The following week, as Divine providence would have it, I was invited to debate a Palestinian professor on Middle East peace.  Again I obliged and found myself in a lecture theatre packed with people covering the spectrum – from Jews to Arabs to curious Canadians.  While I did a decent job, I thought that my interlocutor, who was an expert in the field, really gave me a run for my money with his uncanny ability to quote statistics and UN resolutions verbatim.   Exhausted by the end of the evening, I was suddenly mobbed by members of the Jewish community who congratulated me on clearly winning the debate!

Shimon ben Azzai says: I found a scroll in Jerusalem wherein it was written, ‘Manasseh killed Isaiah.’  Rava explains: First he judged him, then he killed him, based on the following incriminating evidence.

Said Manasseh to Isaiah: Your teacher Moses stated in the Torah, “For no man shall see Me and live.”  And yet you declared, “I saw G- sitting on the high and mighty throne!”   Your teacher Moses stated, “Who is like Hashem our G-d, whosoever may call unto Him.”  And yet you say, “Seek out G-d where He may be found!”  Moses your teacher stated, “I shall complete the days of your life.”  And yet you said to Hezekiah, “I shall add fifteen years to your life!”

Isaiah said to himself, “I know that he will not accept whatever response I offer him.  And so if I say anything, I will only cause him to be culpable.”  He therefore uttered the Divine name and was miraculously hidden inside a cedar tree.

Sometimes there’s nothing you can say to change people’s minds.  They’ve already arrived at their own conclusions and you can debate and convince till the cows go home to no avail.  Their minds are already made up.  Isaiah realized that Manasseh was merely seeking an excuse to have him executed and the ‘evidence’ against him was nothing more than a kangaroo court.

In fact, Isaiah decided not to respond to Manasseh for fear of incriminating him in the Heavenly court.  Better to avoid debate than have Manasseh lose the debate and still proceed with his vilification of Isaiah, because some people are just not willing to listen to what you have to say, no matter how right you may be.

Nowadays I am much more cautious before accepting an invitation to serve on a debate panel.   I first debate in my own mind who the audience will be and what I am aiming to accomplish.  And the same is true for any debate challenge even if it’s just over Kiddush at shul on Shabbos.  If somebody forcefully offers their opinion on current affairs and the like, most of the time you’re better off just agreeing with them and validating their points.   There’s no use arguing because they’ve already made up their minds.  Especially when it comes to matters of belief, you can't convince someone to believe something they don't believe.  

Anytime you debate someone, you need to ask yourself what ultimate outcome you’re hoping to achieve.  If you probably won’t change their mind and it appears they’ve already decided how they feel about the issue, the best option is to simply smile, nod in agreement and be their friend.  Most fights and arguments people have over differences in opinion on issues cause more strife than it’s worth.  If you feel they’re open to listening, then fair game.  But if not, why bother getting your stress levels up for nothing?

When you’re talking to opinionated, atheistic, or antagonistic people, most of the time they’ve already made up their minds.  You’ll do a lot better for your own sanity and stress levels if you simply offer them a smile and a hug!

Friday, 21 November 2014

Would you like the red pill or the blue pill?

Daf Yomi Yevamos 48

In a classic scene in The Matrix, Morpheus hands Neo two pills, one blue, one red, and says to him, “After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill, the story ends.   You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe.  You take the red pill, you stay in Wonderland.  And I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.  Remember, all I'm offering is the truth, nothing more.”

The Beraisa states: Rabbi Hanania the son of Chief Rabbi Gamliel taught:  Why are converts nowadays afflicted with hardship?  Since they failed to observe the seven noahide laws prior to their conversion.   Others say: Because they took their time and did not convert straight away, as soon as they realized the truth, as Boaz said to Ruth, “May G-d pay your reward and may your compensation be complete from Hashem, G-d of Israel, for the fact that you came quickly to shelter [under His wings].”

If converts are held to task for not choosing to observe the mitzvos sooner, then how much more so people who were born Jewish!   Once you know the truth, you can’t run away.   Every moment that one fails to serve the Almighty is a missed opportunity!

The problem is that most of us prefer to live our lives chewing on the blue pill.  Ignorance is bliss.  The less you know, the less duty-bound you feel.  Most people will go through life keeping far away from the red pill for fear of what knowledge entails with respect to lifestyle choices.

But deep down, if you know that there’s a world outside the ‘matrix,’ you’ve already swallowed the red pill.   When ‘you wake up in your bed’ each morning, you can ‘believe whatever you want to believe,’ but when you lie in bed at night, the little voice inside your head will not allow you to be dishonest with yourself.  The only way to quash the little voice will be to swallow another blue pill.  And another.  Until you are so dependent upon the blue pills that you’ve become addicted to drowning out the little voice.

It’s time to break the dependency.  It’s time to make a bracha (blessing) over that red pill and savour it!  Every moment you hesitate is a missed opportunity.  Don’t be afraid of what’s down the rabbit hole.  The truth may be challenging and scary but ultimately it’s the most fulfilling and rewarding way to live!

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Converts are like a Plague

Daf Yomi Yevamos 47

At the National Jewish Outreach Program dinner one year, Hilly Gross offered the following observations:
“I come to shul Friday night and invariably Rabbi Buchwald approaches and says: would I mind taking three or four of his beginners home for Shabbat dinner?  Since Rabbi Buchwald insists on posing this question in front of the people involved, it makes it very difficult to say no!  Fine, I’ll take them.

Introductions are made and we begin to make our way home. Invariably, one of you will screech, “Wait!! Don’t go on Broadway–that’s the goyish way, go through Lincoln Towers, that’s the Shabbos way.”  Fine, Lincoln Towers.

We get home, and again one of you is screeching, “Stop!! Don’t go in the elevator. Take the stairs, like Effie does.”  Effie lives on the third floor! . . . Ten flights later, we arrive home… breathlessly, introductions are made and we take our places around the Shabbat table. You want to sing Shalom Aleichem–each verse three times, because it says so in the siddur. Fine, Shalom Aleichem three times. Then, you want Ayshes Chayil read in English–because it’s more meaningful. Fine. Then one of you has a question — “We just made kiddush in shul, why are we making kiddush a second time?” Well, to paraphrase Renee Leicht, “How ‘on earth’ do I know why we’re making kiddush a second time?” After kiddush, one of you decides you’d like to make your own kiddush, because you forgot to ask me before my kiddush if I had you in mind. Fine, make your own kiddush–at the rate of three Hebrew words a minute!

Then, after washing, we sit down, and during the course of conversation, usually mine, one of you will interrupt with undeniable sincerity and politeness and say: “Excuse me, but isn’t what you’re saying Loshon Hara?” Yeah, I suppose you could say it’s Loshon Hara. Fine, no more Loshon Hara! Then you want to sing Zmiros, the ones with eight verses–all of them! Fine. Then you want to do D’var Torahs; every D’var Torah you ever heard up there you want to do. Fine. Then you want to bentch, singing each verse, “cause that’s the way Effie does it.”

Fine. At this point, I bleary-eyed excuse myself and again, with unfailing politeness you say, “Thank you for having us, we’d love to come back next Shabbos!!” You’ll be back next Shabbos all right, over . . . .”

The prophet Isaiah declared, “The convert shall accompany them and they shall cling to the congregation of Jacob.”  Rabbi Helbo taught: Converts are as harsh to Israel as the plague (which clings to the skin).

Tosfos Yeshanim explains:  When converts behave righteously, the Almighty punishes us due to the contrast their good behaviour and our poor behaviour present.  He reckons that we are not being as careful in mitzvos as they are, despite their humble origins.

Hilly Gross continued: “But you see, it’s not that we dislike you, Chas V’shalom (G-d forbid), it’s that you make us uncomfortable. We’re uncomfortable because after 20-30-40 years of saying Shemoneh Esrei three times a day, when we’re with you we sense that perhaps our Shemoneh Esrei has become flat, routine, mechanical, while yours is vital and exuberant. We’re uncomfortable because in the solitude of our souls we ask ourselves (and don’t believe for a second that we don’t ask ourselves), we ask ourselves if we could do in our 20′s and 30′s and 40′s what you’ve done. Could we uproot the habits of a lifetime, the occupations, change our jobs if necessary, confuse our friends, antagonize our families, just to commit ourselves to our Judaism? And if we articulate this question, few of us dare to answer it.

So, I suppose in the last analysis, we’re uncomfortable because you practice what we preach. By your enthusiasm, by your embrace of everything that’s Jewish, you challenge us. By your insatiable thirst for knowledge, you provoke us. And by your open-hearted love affair with Judaism and everything about it, you ultimately shame us.”

Many people feel uncomfortable around converts or baalei teshuvah (born-again Jews).  Suddenly our own dedication to Judaism leaves a lot to be desired in comparison to their faith and commitment.    We feel ashamed but instead of taking the initiative and becoming inspired by their enthusiasm, many of us choose to denigrate and mock them. 

It’s time to look at these incredible individuals and draw inspiration from their spiritual high!  Instead of thinking that they need mentoring, maybe we should be asking them to mentor us.   Find a convert or a baal teshuvah and ask them to bless you that you begin to view Torah and mitzvos with the same fresh, excited eyes through which they are viewing their Judaism.

Find a mentor today!  It’s not easy keeping up with the Jonesbergs.  Sometimes it feels like the plague, that’s how uncomfortable they make you feel.  But instead of disdaining them, view it is a challenge.  G-d has brought them into your life and He is asking you to reassess your own commitment and see if you can a second look at your heritage with a fresh perspective!  

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Habit or Addiction?

Daf Yomi Yevamos 46

One evening during Sukkos, we held a successful event called SUC (Scotch un Cigars) in the SUCCAH.  It was well-attended (adults-only, of course) and we heard a fantastic shiur (Torah talk) from Rabbi Yonatan Ghermezian.   During the event, I noticed that one of our regulars, Freddie, was missing.  I later inquired as to his absence.
“Rabbi,” he tells me, “after forty years of chain-smoking, I finally quit.  I can’t go anywhere near that stuff.”

Rabbi Hiya bar Aba was visiting Gabla.  He saw wine belonging to Jews that was being mixed with water by non-Jews and then drunk by the Jews.  He came and reported the matter to Rabbi Yochanan, who said to him, “Go out and proclaim that their wine is forbidden as idolatrous libation wine.”  Rashi asks: Why should we forbid this wine?  The gentiles did not handle it directly.  It was merely the force of the water they were pouring that mixed the wine up! 

The Gemara explains: Just like we tell the nazir (one who has vowed to abstain from wine), “Go away, go away!  Go around, go around!  Do not come close to the vineyard!” similarly, these Gablans who were lax in their observance required additional protection from potential sin.  Therefore, even such a practice was condemned.

If you suffer from an addiction, it’s not enough to just avoid that matter itself.  You need to set up safeguards so that it’s not possible to get anywhere near your object of desire.   We tell the nazir, don’t even enter a vineyard, and Freddie was right for avoiding a gathering of smokers.   To everyone else, it was an innocent puff, but to Freddie it was the devil himself wrapping his fingers around his throat.

Addictions come in many forms.  If you have a junk food addiction, stop bringing the rubbish into your home.  That way it won’t be there when you go looking at eleven o’clock at night.  If you have an internet addiction, you need to literally pull the plug at certain hours of the day, so that it’s way too much effort to turn that computer back on.  If you are a compulsive shopper, avoid the mall completely.

The problem, of course, is that most people with addictions won’t admit it.  The first and biggest step of the 12-step program is to admit you have a problem.  Only then can you start making fences to avoid coming into contact with temptation.  How do you know if you have a problem?  Look around and see if your life and the lives of your loved ones are being adversely affected by your behaviour.  Realize that we all have shortcomings that we need to work on and start avoiding the temptation that is leading you down the path to your habit.

Addiction sounds way bigger than most people would admit to.  Many, however, will admit to having a bad habit.  It’s time to mend your bad habits.  Take it one day at a time and most importantly, set up fences so that you don’t come anywhere near temptation!  

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

G-d is colour-blind

Daf Yomi Yevamos 45

Racial harmony activist Raleigh Washington says the following:
When I was born, I was black.  As I grew up I was still black.  When I go out into the freezing cold, I’m black.  When I go out into the hot sun, I get blacker.  When I’m sick, I’m black and when I die, I’ll be black.   White folks, when they’re born, they’re pink.  And only as they grow do they become white.  When they go out into the freezing cold, they go blue.  When they go out into the hot sun, they go red.  When they get sick, they go green and when they die, they go purple.

Why then do they call us coloreds?

Once a man appeared before Rav and asked him, ‘What is the legal position of the child where an idolater or a slave had intercourse with a Jewess?
 ‘The child is legitimate,’ the master replied.
‘Give me then your daughter,’ said the man.
‘I will not give her to you,’ he replied.
Said Shimi bar Hiyya to Rav, ‘People say that in Media a camel can dance on a kab.  Here is the kab, here is the camel and here is Media, but there is no dancing!’
‘Had he been equal to Joshua the son of Nun, I would not have given him my daughter’, the master replied.
‘Had he been like Joshua the son of Nun,’ the other retorted, ‘others would have given him their daughters, if the master had not given him his.  But with this man, if the master will not give him, others also will not give him.’

Why does Rav offer the example of Joshua as a potential suitor, to whom despite his greatness, he would not have given his daughter’s hand in marriage?  After all, Joshua, was only our second greatest leader, the successor to Moses!   He should have mentioned our great teacher, Moses, himself!

Who did Moses marry?  Tziporah, the Cushite.  Moses wouldn’t have been a good example, because the truth is that Moses saw beyond the pettiness of skin-deep differences.  If this person was legitimate, he would have considered them.  He looked at the person themselves and judged them on their own merits.  While Rav was prepared to accept the child of a non-Jew as legitimate, it was a classic case of ‘he’s kosher, but not kosher enough for my family!’  Moses was willing to look beyond prejudices and love every person for who they were, even when it came to his own marriage choices.   Even if it meant that his own family looked askance at the skin-color of his wife. 

The irony, of course, is that Joshua too married a woman of tainted lineage.  Following the conquest of Canaan, he married Rahab.  She was the harlot that had provided cover to the two spies Joshua had originally sent.   But how many know that?  Some people have an attitude that you’ll accept others who are different as long as nobody else knows about it and it doesn’t affect your own social status. 

Did you know that even differences in skin-colour are only one-sixteenth of an inch deep?  Basically, we are all the same.  You need to get past your prejudices and learn to love everyone the same G-d loves all His children equally.   The same way that Moses loved every human being.  The same way that Joshua was prepared to forgive even the most heinous sinner and accept her into his family.

The Almighty loves all his children equally.  He has no preference for colour or family.  And he certainly knows that nobody gets to choose their parents.  It’s time to start loving and accepting everybody just like Moses and just like Joshua!

Looking for the perfect match?

Daf Yomi Yevamos 44

Back in college, I was schmoozing one day with some friends about dating and marriage.  I told them that I planned to go the shidduch route – I would meet with a professional matchmaker to find the right girl. 
“Are you crazy?!” exclaimed Avi.  “How could you leave such a major life decision to a stranger?”
“Why, how do you plan to meet your wife?” I asked.
Avi replied, “I’m not planning anything.  I’ll just meet her however I meet her.”

Concerning a man who is faced with the duty to perform the levirate marriage with his brother’s widow who is of disparate age to him, the Torah states, “The elders of the city shall call to him and say . . .”
The Gemara teaches: This means that he is given suitable advice. If, for instance, he was young and she old, or if he was old and she was young, he is told, ‘What would you do with a young woman?’ or ‘What would you do with an old woman?  Go to one who is the same as yourself and create no strife in your house!’

What are the chances of meeting a fitting marriage partner by chance?  Most of the people you meet in life have very different values to you.  And let’s face it, the first thing about attraction has nothing to do with values.  It has a lot more to do with external attributes.  That’s not to say that physical attraction is not important.  But why risk becoming attracted to the exterior of someone who is an internally poor match?

When you meet with a shadchan (matchmaker), they only set you up on dates with likeminded, suitable individuals who share your values.  Before you’ve even met the person, you’ve already done all your homework to establish that this date is the kind of person you might like to share your life with.  You can then go out and see if there’s any chemistry, knowing that most of the big values questions are already taken care of.  That’s the meaning of the Talmud’s advice: If you want to avoid strife in your marriage, find someone who is compatible!

You’d be amazed at the basic questions that come up with couples I counsel prior to and during marriage: whether or not to have kids; whether or not to keep a kosher home; whether or not they need to be home on Friday night  for Shabbat dinner; whether or not to give their children a Jewish education.  I think to myself, ‘These are huge questions!  Didn’t you discuss such important matters when you were dating?’  But sadly, in many cases, the answer is no.  Dating was about having fun and avoiding the big questions of values.

If you’re single, make sure you’re looking for the right things in a marriage partner.  Make sure you’re asking the right questions.  And don’t leave things to chance.  Even if you’re not up for meeting with a shadchan, ask your friends to set you up on dates with individuals who share your values.  And if you are married, it’s not too late to start having serious, deep conversations with your spouse.  You may not agree on everything, but if you’re committed to discussing the big questions, you will discover a whole new level in your relationship!

Sunday, 16 November 2014

You can utilize the healing of time today!

Daf Yomi Yevamos 43

When the brothers sold Joseph into slavery, they informed their father Jacob that they had discovered his blood-soaked coat.  Assuming the worst, Jacob descended into a state of mourning that endured throughout the twenty-two years of Joseph’s absence.   Ordinarily, one mourns for a month or a year, and then the Almighty sends an incredible blessing called the healing of time.  The problem in Jacob’s case, however, was that Joseph was still alive and so he did not merit G-d’s healing miracle, since there was no real loss to be healed of! 

The Mishnah states:  All women who were previously married must wait three months prior to remarry including both betrothal and consummation.   Rabbi Yossi says all women may betroth immediately, except for a widow, due to her state of mourning.

Rabbi Hisda taught: If during the week of Tisha B’Av when one is forbidden to do laundry, one may still betroth, a widow during shloshim (the thirty-day mourning period) who is permitted to do laundry, shouldn’t she certainly be permitted to betroth?
Rabbi Ashi answers: Fresh mourning (for a loved one) is different to ancient mourning (for the Holy Temple).  The latter, explains Rashi, is less severe and therefore not as strict.

When tragedy is fresh in our minds it is very painful.  But with time, G-d sends healing to the deepest wounds of life.  Despite the fact that the destruction of the First and Second Temples decimated our people, most of us need to make a real effort to focus on the mourning of Tisha B’Av.  It’s just way too distant a memory.   The death of a loved one, by contrast, is much more painful.  But even then, the Almighty sends us the blessing of time to heal so that the pain is less severe after the shivah, then a little less severe after the shloshim, and then further again after the twelve months of mourning.

On a much lesser scale, the same is true of most challenges you face in life.  What seems like a major issue today, with G-d’s help, will fade with time.  Today it seems so big but if you would just allow yourself to project two years into the future, you would see that ‘this too shall pass.’

Maybe you’ve made a terrible business decision.   Maybe you’re at odds with a loved one – a parent, child, sibling.  Maybe you’ve had a fight with your boss or a colleague.  In your current state of mind, you don’t know how you can go on.  You feel like your world is caving in.

Now picture yourself two years down the road.  Do you think you will still be upset about your current problems?  Or will they somehow resolve themselves with the passage of time?   If time will inevitably heal, then jump ahead and take solace in the fact that one day soon this will no longer be an issue.  That’s how you assess whether a problem is really a problem or not.   If it won’t be a problem in two years’ time, then stop fretting about it today. 

One of the greatest blessings the Almighty has bestowed upon us is the healing blessing of time.  Today your problems may seem insurmountable.  But one day very soon they will seem like a distant memory.  Project yourself into the future and your problems will feel much lighter and easier to deal with today!

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Why converts sometimes slip back

Daf Yomi Yevamos 42

When Ruth was going through the conversion process, she was super-committed.  She was always the first in shul on Shabbos morning.  She attended every shiur (Torah class) possible in town.  She was praying three times a day and had a Torah partner over the phone twice a week.

Now she’s Jewish and she feels she’s lost all motivation.  It’s an effort to get out of bed on Shabbos morning.  She has no time for shiurim.  Keeping kosher feels like a burden.  
“What’s happened to me, Rabbi?” she asked me one day, full of frustration. 

The Mishnah states: All women who remarry may not do so until they wait three months following their previous relationship.
Rabbi Nachman provides an explanation offered by Shmuel:  G-d promises Abraham, “to be G-d for you and your offspring after you,” which means that we must be able to distinguish between the offspring of the first man and the offspring of the second.

Rava asks: The Beraisa teaches that a married couple who converted to Judaism must likewise wait three months.  In this case, what need is there to distinguish whose offspring, since it is the same man?
The Gemara answers: Here too, we must distinguish between offspring that was conceived in holiness (i.e. post-conversion) to offspring that was conceived pre-conversion. 

Tosfos teaches: From here it is clear that a male convert may marry a female convert, unlike the opinion that forbids them to get married so that they do not run the risk of reverting to their original behaviour together.

While Tosfos makes it clear that there is no problem of converts marrying one another, the point they make about ‘reverting to original behaviour’ is telling.  Converts run a great risk of slipping back after their conversions and despite all the best efforts of the converting rabbis, no beth din (court) has 100% success rate of maintaining converts’ commitment to observance.   That’s why some communities, like the Syrian Jews, have simply said it’s not worth it and avoid conversions completely.

Nevertheless, despite the fact that the Talmud and the Tosfos were clearly aware of the risks of converts slipping back, the Talmud still teaches that ‘Israel was only exiled amongst the nations in order to receive converts.’   The implication is that if we are here in exile to find converts, evading our duty will only delay the ultimate redemption!

Ruth’s issues are not uncommon among converts.  They’re all fired up while they’re going through the process and then once they’re in, they suddenly lose interest.  Why?  The reason, as I explained to her, is that until you’re Jewish, you have no yetzer hara (tempter) striving to keep you from your performance of mitzvos.   Since you’re not obligated to perform the commandments, there’s no reason for the yetzer to dissuade you from your activities.  He doesn’t bother with you.

Once you’ve converted, however, you’ve now joined the ranks of all other Jews who are faced with Satan’s temptations.   Now you face the real challenges of being a Jew.   But commensurate with the effort is the reward – now that you have to struggle to do mitzvos, rest assured that G-d will reward you handsomely! 

In fact, as Tosfos points out, your challenge is even greater than the average observant Jew who has never tasted sin.   Despite being spiritually ‘born again,’ you come to your new life with all the emotional and psychological baggage of your former life.  Every time you overcome the seduction of the yetzer, you get doubly rewarded, since you are consciously choosing not to ‘revert to your original behaviour.’

It’s not easy to be an observant Jew.  It’s especially challenging when one has tasted alternatives in life.  If it feels like a burden, don’t give up!  That’s a sign that the yetzer hara (bad inclination) is trying his hardest to make you slip back.  But you can and will overcome!  Your yetzer tov (good inclination) is on your team and will fight back to make you victorious in the service of the Almighty!  And we all are rooting for you – after all, you’ve brought us all one step closer to the final redemption!

Friday, 14 November 2014

Satan is your best friend

Daf Yomi Yevamos 41

One of the major differences between Christianity and Judaism is the status of Satan.  In the former, Satan is a ‘fallen angel,’ who rebelled against G-d and is always trying to entice man to similarly work against Him.  In Judaism, by contrast, Satan is actually G-d’s favourite, most important angel!

We learned the following case in a Beraisa:  There were three brothers, two were married to two sisters and one was single.  One of the married brothers died and the single brother performed the levirate betrothal with his widow (but they did not consummate).  Then the other brother died, followed by his wife.  The surviving brother must annul his betrothal, since he had at one point been required to marry two sisters which is forbidden (since he had not consummated with the first). 

The Gemara asks: Why?  We should consider this widow as one who was permitted to him and then became forbidden (since he had a simultaneous obligation to marry her sister) and subsequently was re-permitted to him (when the sister died).  Thus she should return to her original status of permissibility!

Rav explains:  This teaching follows the ruling of Rabbi Elazar who maintains that once she has become forbidden to him for a moment, she is forever forbidden.
Rav then questioned this position: I would suggest that Rabbi Elazar’s opinion was stated in a case where the widow was not fit at the time she fell to him for marriage.  But in a situation where she was fit at the time of falling, would he say so?  Rav then answered: Yes!

Some people mistakenly look at others who are suffering and assume that they must be bad and therefore G-d punished them.  Heaven forfend!  That couldn’t be further from the truth!  Abraham and Sarah suffered famine, barrenness, family conflict and more.  Were they sinners?  Of course not!

Rather, G-d sent Satan to challenge them in order to bring out the best in them.  If life were one big party, you might have well remained in Heaven.  Your soul came down to earth to become better and stronger.  The more you overcome life’s trials and tribulations, the greater your success in your life’s mission.

Rav tells us that Rabbi Elazar’s ruling applies even when one is fit at the time they fell.  When you see someone that has fallen, whether physically/materially or spiritually, don’t assume that they were not fit for G-d’s blessing; on the contrary, Satan comes especially to those who are fit and causes them to stumble and fall!

Challenges and tests in life are what make us great.  Whether you are challenged with health issues, with children who have taken a bad turn, with employment issues, don’t throw your hands in the air and start questioning G-d’s providence!  The right response is to say, ‘Thank you, G-d, for sending Satan to test my faith!  I’ll show him!’

Don’t let Satan lead you astray.  When you realize that the tests he sends your way are there to make you better, you’ll start to understand that instead of being your enemy, he’s actually your best friend.  He’s your ticket into Heaven!

Thursday, 13 November 2014

G-d wants you to enjoy life

Daf Yomi Yevamos 40
Brandeis professor Sylvia Barack Fishman recently described Modern Orthodoxy as the “Great American Jewish Dream.”   She argues that “observant Jews can have it all and still remain within the fold.”

But isn’t ‘having it all’ antithetical to religious life?  Shouldn’t we be focusing on our spirituality instead of indulging in the world around us?

Concerning Yom Kippur, the Torah states: For anyone who does not afflict himself, that soul shall be cut off from its people.
Reish Lakish taught: Basically, this refers to eating on Yom Kippur.  However, even one who eats gluttonously on Yom Kippur is likewise exempt from punishment.
Rashi explains: Because this too is affliction since he is harming himself by over-eating.

Judaism does not believe in asceticism.  The Almighty gave us the world to enjoy.  He takes pride in his creations and gets nachas when we derive benefit from the pleasures of this world.

But, everything in moderation.   When you overindulge in material and physical pleasures, that becomes harmful to body and soul.   It’s okay to eat good food, but don’t become a glutton.  It’s okay to wear nice clothes, but don’t become a fashion junkie.  It’s okay to live in a nice home, but you don’t need a king’s palace. 

The same is true of the intellectual and cultural pleasures of this world.  G-d wants us to embrace and appreciate academic scholarship, literature and the arts.   Just as long you don’t take it to extremes and forget what your main source of pleasure must be – the joy of the spirit. 

Rabbanit and I used to live in Boro Park, New York, the centre of American Hasidic life.  You walk into these homes and kene hora they have the most exquisite chandeliers, the most beautiful furniture and they spare no expense on their silverware and Shabbos couture.   

But then they shun the culture of the world around them – museums, art galleries, university.  Why?  It makes no sense!  G-d wants us to enjoy his world – not only material pleasures, but cultural pleasures too – just as long as we don’t go overboard. 

You can have it all!  You can be an observant Jew and still enjoy the world.  In fact, that’s exactly what G-d wants of you.  He gave you this world to enjoy.  When you enjoy the world, He gets nachas.  And when you turn to Him and thank Him for the pleasure He has given you, there is no greater nachas than that!

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

G-d never goes broke

Daf Yomi Yevamos 39

Aubrey and Zoe were getting more and more into their Judaism.  They’d started keeping kosher and Shabbos and I was ready to broach the subject of Jewish schooling for their children.
“Twenty thousand dollars each kid per year?  Are you out of your mind?” they bellowed at me, “That’s sixty thousand dollars between them.  How on earth do you think we could afford that?”

The Mishnah states: Once the levirate marriage takes place (between a man and his brother’ widow), she is like a regular wife in all respects.  The only exception is the financial obligation of the ketubah, which remains incumbent upon the estate of her first husband.

The Gemara explains why: This woman was granted to him from Heaven, i.e. he did not choose to marry her, rather he simply fulfilled the mitzvah of marrying his brother’s widow and therefore it comes without financial onus.

When Heaven bestows a responsibility upon us, it comes with sufficient resources to cover our obligations.  If the Almighty has given you financial commitments, He has already blessed you with the wherewithal to cover those commitments! 

If He has blessed you with children, then rest assured, He will grant you the means to provide them with food, clothing, shelter and a good Jewish education.   G-d has abundant bounty.  There is no limit to the amount of blessing He has in His storehouse.  He is simply waiting for you to just ask!

Maybe He finally blessed you with your dream car.  And then it breaks down and you think, ‘What do I do now?  How am I going to afford the repairs?’  Stop fretting!  The same G-d that provided you with the car can provide you with the money to fix it.  G-d has no shortage.  You need to believe in His infinite bounty. 

Unlike human beings, G-d doesn’t go broke.  He doesn’t file for bankruptcy protection.  He has an unlimited supply of blessing.  All you need to do is to tap into His flow of blessing and receive it.

Whatever blessing G-d has bestowed upon you has come with abundant resources to maintain the blessing.  G-d is not limited.  And His resources are likewise unlimited.  All you have to do is ask!

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Travel the most direct route to Heaven!

Daf Yomi Yevamos 38

Uncle Bernard Wolff worked for most of his career for Philips International.  As chief sales executive, he and Aunty Susan, along with my cousins Michael and Debbie, moved from country to country every few years to establish new regional offices and relationships for the company. 

In 2013, he published a collection of his incredible memoirs – encounters they’d had, people they’d met on their exciting journey around the world.  The most striking feature of the book is that with each story of newly arriving in a strange city – from London to Stockholm to Amsterdam to Toronto to Hong Kong to Dallas to Boston – their first port of call was never to the real estate agent or the bank or the tourist sites. 

It was to the local synagogue.   In fact, none of the stories deal with business issues, cultural anomalies or culinary variances.   It’s all about the journey of Jewish life in different lands and languages. 

We learned in a Mishnah: If one travelled overseas and came back to find that the path to his field from the main road had been obscured by the surrounding properties, Adamon teaches that he may construct a new path that is most direct.  The Sages teach that he is forced to purchase a new path for a hundred monies (an exorbitant sum) or else fly through the air to reach his field.

The Gemara explains: In what situation do they disagree?  Where there is one current owner who purchased the surrounding fields from four previous owners.   Adamon holds that the pathfinder, let’s call him Nisan, can say to the surrounding field owner, ‘Whatever the case (no matter which of the four was the original landowner), my path is with you (since you now own all the surrounding fields).’  But the Rabbis hold that the owner may say to him, ‘You’re better off just being quiet and I will sell you a path of my choosing at a decent price.  For if not, I will return the documents to the original four owners and you will be unable to construct a case against them, since each will argue that the path was in the other’s field.’

Rabbi Aba would say to you: I would agree with Adamon, since he says to him ‘My path is one towards you.’

Adamon’s teaching, ‘My path is one towards You,’ should be your mantra in life.   We are here on earth to serve the Almighty and we must strive to find the most direct path to get to our final destination.  Any time you veer off course, you are being distracted from your mission on earth.  Every place that life takes you is external to and a mere fa├žade for the true spiritual path that you are on. 

That’s why it didn’t matter where Susan and Bernard found themselves geographically.  What was important to them was their spiritual journey: where they prayed, how they could get kosher food, how to keep Shabbos and so on.  And sure enough, after travelling the world for over twenty years, they reached the ultimate earthly destination: Auntie and Uncle finally came home to Israel.  Today they live in Netanya, where Susan is a doctor of naturopathic medicine and Bernard works in the hi-tech industry, helping Israeli start-ups to connect with the world.   

Never veer off your path to Heaven.  Strive to find the most direct route through the fields of physicality.  Always ask yourself whether whatever you are engaged in is part of the journey to your final destination or if you’ve become distracted from your mission. 

Our Sages advise us, ‘Know Him in all your ways.’  If you take that advice to heart and seek to align all your movements with the Divine, you will indeed find yourself constantly on the most direct route to the Almighty!