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Wednesday, 30 December 2015

How to score the corner office

Daf Yomi Gittin 16

Gidon was threshing wheat on the floor of the winepress when an angel appeared to him. 
“Hashem is with you, mighty warrior!” said the angel.  Gidon didn’t know what he was talking about.  He was the lowliest in his family.  His tribe of Menashe was the weakest of the tribes.  And the Israelites were far from mighty – for years, they had suffered oppression at the hands of the Midianites.  But the angel was adamant.  Hashem had chosen Gidon to lead the Israelites to victory.

‘Give me a sign,’ said Gidon.  ‘Tonight I shall place a wool fleece on the threshing floor.  If You are indeed with me, may the fleece be soaked with dew in the morning while the entire ground remains dry.’  He awoke the next morning to find that, lo and behold, the miracle he requested had occurred.
‘Don’t be angry with me,’ Gidon continued, ‘but tonight let’s try the following: I’ll place a wool fleece; and tomorrow I would like to see the ground moist, but the fleece completely dry.”  And sure enough, the next morning, it was as he had asked.

What was the meaning of these strange tests?

A stream of liquid, a current running down a steep slope, and liquid that moistens do not cause a connection between two pools of water for the sake of ritual impurity or purity.
Nevertheless, if it is so moist that it conveys sufficient moisture to another body allowing it, in turn, to provide moisture, it would create a valid connection.

The angel told Gidon that he would lead the Children of Israel.   Using a mere piece of fleece and a threshing floor, Gidon imparted timeless lessons of leadership.  Do you want to be a leader?  These are the two things you need to know.

In the first test, Gidon arrived in the morning to find the ball dripping with moisture while everything around was completely dry.  If you want to be a leader, you need to be able to drip with moisture, even when everyone around is completely dry.  You need to be the person that always sees the glass completely full!  You need to be the person who provides positive energy and optimism in every situation!  Even when everything seems dire and hopeless to everyone else, the leader is still brimming with passion, energy, and awesomeness!

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks says that a true leader is not someone who builds a strong cadre of followers; rather, one who builds a strong cadre of leaders.  That is the meaning of our Gemara: if you want to create a real connection, it’s not enough to just give off moisture, you need to be so wet and dripping with energy and positivity that it is infectious!  A true leader brings out the best in everyone they encounter, making them into a leader!

But then Gidon proposes a second test of leadership.  This time around, the fleece must be completely dried out but the threshing floor soaking with water.  A true leader is not about themselves.  It’s about taking all you’ve got and giving it to others, till you’re completely dried out, so to speak. 

As children we are takers. A baby cries and mommy comes running.  Little children kvetch and daddy helps.  Teenagers stick out their hands and parents give them what they need and want.  Children are all about themselves.  But then we mature and, as adults, hopefully we transition into a giving role.   We get married and dedicate our lives to someone else.  But that’s still a two-way street.  Until one day, you have kids and it’s all about giving, with no expectation of anything in return!

Marriage and childbearing are symbolic of a mature adult’s role in this world.  You are here to serve others.  The more people you serve, the greater the leader you become.   Western culture would have us believe that leadership means occupying the corner office.  That’s not the Jewish definition.  Gidon was the lowliest in his family from the weakest tribe.  But he was dedicated to serving others and giving it his all, making him the ultimate leader.

Dedicate yourself to serving your spouse, your children, your parents, your friends!  Dedicate your life to serving the community, society, humanity!  And the more you can inspire others to dedicate themselves in like manner, the greater the leader you become.  May you merit a life of service and inspiration!  

Tuesday, 29 December 2015

What's worse than lashon hara?

Daf Yomi Gittin 15

Moshe Rabbeinu can’t take it anymore.  No matter how much he does for the Israelites, they never stop complaining.  He asks the Almighty to provide him with some assistance, and so He instructs Moshe to choose seventy elders.  Our great teacher does so and the spirit of prophecy rests upon the elders.   They begin to prophesy; and two of them, Eldad and Meidad, continue for hours on end, spilling all the deepest, most esoteric secrets of the universe. 

Yehoshua comes running to Moshe to protest the unbelievable, no holds barred revelation.  As soon as he enters, Moshe’s wife mutters under her breath, ‘Good luck to their wives.’  Her sister-in-law Miriam overhears her comment and realizes that Moshe and Tziporah have separated.  She runs off to their brother Aharon and exclaims, ‘Who does he think he is?  We also receive prophecy and yet our marriages are intact!’

The Almighty is not pleased with her behaviour.  For speaking lashon hara (gossip) about her brother, she is smitten with tzaraas (spiritual leprosy).

Concerning a verbal declaration one makes on his deathbed to distribute his possessions, Rabbi Elazar says: whether he is healthy or dangerously ill, real property is acquired by means of money, documentation, or a proprietary act.  Moveable property may only be acquired by means of movement.  But the Sages say: either way, the property may be acquired by means of the verbal declaration alone.
The Sages said to Rabbi Elazar: The mother of Roichel’s children once took ill and said, “Give my brooch to my daughter.” It was worth twelve maneh.   She then died and the sages fulfilled her wishes, demonstrating that a verbal declaration is sufficient.
Rabbi Elazar responded: The children of Roichel?  May their mother bury them!
Rashi explains: Rabbi Elazar was cursing them that they should never be mentioned, let alone brought as a proof in the academy.  According to Rabbi Elazar, they were wicked people who grew thorns in their vineyard, transgressing the prohibition of forbidden grafting.  So why would we derive a lesson from their behaviour?!

There are many different types of lashon hara forbidden by the Torah.   There’s straight up lashon hara, which is gossip.   There’s motzi shem ra, which is slander.  And then there’s rechilus.  Rechilus doesn’t really have a direct translation into English.  It works like this: Let’s say you hear some gossip or slander about your friend; you then go to your friend, and say, ‘Do you know that Bob is saying this and that about you?’

Why is it a separate prohibition?  Why wouldn’t it just be a particular type of lashon hara?  After all, you are simply talking about someone and reporting what they said.  What is unique about rechilus that gives it the status of its own transgression?

A person who talks rechilus is called a roichel, meaning a peddler, since they go around peddling stories between people about other people.  Our Gemara talks about ‘the children of Roichel.’  Who are the children of the roichel? The subject of the lashon hara who is told that people are talking about him.   He is the child of the rechilus.  Who is the mother?  The one who is speaking the rechilus.

What does Rabbi Eliezer declare?  The mother of the rechilus buries the children of the rechilus!   We’re familiar with the dictum of our Sages that lashon hara kills three people – the speaker, the listener, and the subject of the conversation.  All of these people suffer spiritually and sometimes, physically and materially, on account of the lashon hara

I say only sometimes physically and materially, because when the subject of the lashon hara doesn’t know he is being spoken about, ignorance can be bliss.  What you don’t know doesn’t hurt you.  What makes rechilus much more damaging than lashon hara is that now you know what they’re saying about you.  And that knowledge alone can eat away at you and destroy you.  Now you know that people are talking about you; and suddenly, it’s much harder to get anything done, because you’re constantly weighed down by the thought of being the topic of everybody’s gossip.

Some people think that they should tell you when you’re being spoken about.  They believe it’s a mitzvah for you to know!  G-d forbid!  It’s much better not to know and to be able to just get on with your life, blissfully ignorant of all the naysayers and gossipers.  That’s the meaning of the mother burying the children of the roichel.  Knowing that people are talking about you can kill you!

Keep far away from lashon haraRechilus is not only not a mitzvah, it is a killer!  May you merit only pure speech!

Stop being a martyr for others

Daf Yomi Gittin 14

King David’s son, Amnon, was a wicked young man, filled with lust and desire.  One day, he set his eyes upon his half-sister, Tamar and concocts a plan to be with her.  Feigning illness, he tells his father that it would be helpful if Tamar could come over and prepare a meal for him in his presence.   

Being the sweet and good girl she was, she was happy to do whatever she could to help, and readily agreed to Amnon’s strange request.  She gets to his house and begins to knead the dough, when he suddenly orders everyone else to leave the room.   He then takes hold of her, and bars her escape.  Despite her cries for mercy, he proceeds to take advantage of her.  Her brother Avshalom hears about this terrible act, and ultimately wreaks fatal revenge upon his half-brother. 

Rabbi Achi the son of Rabbi Yoshiya had a silver goblet in Nehardea.  He said to Rabbi Dosethai the son of Rabbi Yannai and to Rabbi Yossi bar Kifar who were going there: When you come back from there, bring it with you. They went and got it from the people who had it.
They said to them, ‘Give us a release from liability for damages that may occur during your journey.’
They said, ‘No.’
‘Then give it back,’ they said. Rabbi Dosethai the son of Rabbi Yannai was willing, but Rabbi Yossi bar Kifar refused.
They gave him a thrashing and said to Rabbi Dosethai, ‘See what your friend is doing.’
He replied: ‘Thrash him well.’

When they returned to Rabbi Achi, Rabbi Yossi said, ‘Look, sir, not only did he not assist me, but he said to them:  Thrash him well!’
He said to Rabbi Dosethai, ‘Why did you do so?’
He replied, ‘Those people were like posts, and their hats as tall as themselves. Their voices come from the deep, and their names are outlandish — Arda and Arta and Pili at their head. If they give the order to arrest, you are arrested; to kill, you are killed. If they had killed Dosethai, who would have given Yannai my father a son like me?’
‘Have these men,’ he asked, ‘influence with the government?’
‘Yes,’ he replied.
‘Have they a retinue mounted on horses and mules?’
‘If that is so,’ he said, ‘you acted correctly.’

Rabbi Achi asked his friends, Rabbi Dosethai and Rabbi Yossi, to do him a favour and bring back his silver goblet.  The people handed it over but then wanted the rabbis to personally guarantee its safe passage, which they were not prepared to do.  What if something happened along the way, such as a robbery or storm?  They did not want to be held personally responsible.  And so the people told them to give it back.  Rabbi Dosethai agreed, but Rabbi Yossi refused.  And so they proceeded to beat him up.

Why didn’t he just give it back?  Because he wanted to do Rabbi Achi the favour he had promised him of bringing it home.  And so even when they were beating him up, he obstinately refused to hand it over.   Finally, they arrive at Rabbi Achi and what does he tell them?  ‘Rabbi Dosethai, you did the right thing!’  Imagine how crushed Rabbi Yossi must have felt.  He had suffered blows at the hands of ruffians for the sake of doing a favour for his friend; and now he didn’t even appreciate it?!

Rabbi Achi is teaching us that while we must strive to help other people, everything has a limit.  Nobody expects you to be a martyr.  If assisting others means you will end up suffering abuse, don’t do it!

Certainly, the story of Amnon and Tamar is an extreme instance of a person who has gone out of their own way to help another, only to suffer terrible abuse at their wicked hands.  But on a simpler level, many people think that they are helping others, only to be abused by them. 

You might have a ‘friend’ that you are always there for, but never reciprocates; or even worse, fails to show appreciation for all your efforts.  That’s abuse.  And sometimes you just have to know when to close that door in your life and find relationships that are two-way streets or at least friendships where the other person demonstrates gratitude for all you do.

Or perhaps it’s a family member.  We have a duty to honour our parents; but let’s say you have an elderly parent you are caring for who is acting abusively.  According to Shulchan Aruch, you don’t have to suffer the abuse.  You can hire someone to take care of your parent or delegate it to a friend whom they will not treat with disrespect.

Maybe it’s your child who is abusing you.  Sometimes as parents we believe that we have a lifelong duty to our children, despite whatever disrespect or ingratitude we are receiving in return.  But that’s not true; nowhere does it say you must suffer abuse at the hands of your children just because you brought them into the world. 

Or maybe it’s a spouse who is taking advantage of the marriage relationship.  When you uttered your ‘wedding vows’ – in Judaism, we don’t actually say anything like that, but certainly we make a commitment to one another – you never signed up for psychological or emotional abuse at the hands of an ungrateful or disrespectful spouse.

There are only three mitzvos in Judaism that call for martyrdom; helping people isn’t one of them.  If you are bending over backwards for others and receiving abuse in return, it’s time to voice your concerns and repair the relationship.  May you merit loving two-way street relationships throughout your life!

Monday, 28 December 2015

Is your life controlled by I, Robot?

Daf Yomi Gittin 13

Every young adult in the western world is familiar with the heart-wrenching tale of the British schoolchildren stranded on a desert island in Lord of the Flies.  When the boys initially land, Ralph takes the lead and maintains order and a semblance of civilization.  But in no time at all, Jack manages to lure the other kids over to his tribe. 

Why do they follow Jack?  Because instead of rules, he offers them freedom.  Instead of rationed supplies, he offers them fresh, tasty meat.  Instead of work building huts, he offers them a life of fun and play. 

Which life would you choose?

Mishnah:  If a person instructed, ‘Give this bill of divorce to my wife,’ or ‘Give this bill of emancipation to my servant,’ and then wished to retract his instruction in either case, he may do so, according to Rabbi Meir.  And the Sages say: He may retract his divorce, but not the emancipation, since one may benefit a person in their absence, but one may only disadvantage them in their presence.
Rabbi Meir said to them: But if the master is a cohen, emancipation of the servant would impede him from eating tithes (and thus emancipation is not always an advantage)!
Gemara: Rabbi Meir’s reasoning works with regards to the servant of a cohen.  But what would he say about the servant of an Israelite?
Rabbi Shmuel bar Rav Yitzchak answers: Emancipation impedes his ability to consort with a Canaanite maidservant.
The Gemara ask: On the contrary, he is now permitted to marry a freewoman!
The Gemara answers: The servant would rather the loose life.  It is cheap.  It is available. And it is unbarred.

In Pirkei Avos, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi teaches, “The only free man is one who occupies himself in Torah.”  How does Torah make you free?

Let’s take Shabbos, for example.  Throughout the week, we are slaves to our work, to our emails, to our Facebook and Twitter feeds.  Did you know, the average person checks their smartphone more than a hundred times a day?!

And then the moment of Shabbos arrives.  We light the candles and life instantly transforms.  We are freed from all the worries of the week.   Everyone else is still bound by their instruments and machines.   The world around us has been overtaken by I, Robot even without realizing!   But we are free!

So why don’t more people break free from their enslavement and enter the oasis in time of Shabbos?  Because Shabbos has rules and regulations.  If you want to reap the benefits of Shabbos, it requires adherence to a certain code of conduct.  And our nature human nature is to avoid rules and restrictions.    Instead of recognizing that these regulations are freeing, most people view them as restrictive. 

Imagine for a moment what life in general would be like without the rule of law.  People would steal one another’s property.  And so there’d be no point owning anything, because it could always be taken from you by someone bigger and stronger.  People would drive their cars at crazy speeds.  And so it would be unsafe to attempt to cross the road.  There would be havoc and chaos everywhere.  Why do we have the rule of law?  Because laws are emancipating.  True freedom comes from a system of rules and regulations.

So too with the freedom of Shabbos.  The rules are not restrictions; they are tools of emancipation.  These tools protect the sanctity and freedom of the Shabbos, so that we can truly enjoy the holy day.  Imagine there was no restriction on cell phones on Shabbos – would you truly be able to relish our beloved oasis in time?

And similarly with every facet of Torah observance: “The only free man is one who occupies himself in Torah.”  Why?  Because the Torah provides a set of guidelines that free you from the constraints of this world.  When you place your life in the Almighty’s hand, you are no longer subject to the challenges and difficulties of this world.  You don’t need to worry about parnassah (livelihood), because you know that G-d is in control.  You don’t need to worry about health issues, because you know that G-d is in control.   

So why don’t more people emancipate themselves?  Because they are just like the servant in our Gemara or the boys on the island.  They prefer a life that is “loose, available, and unbarred.”

But such a life is “cheap.”   And you get to a point when you ask yourself, ‘Okay, so I can do anything I want, no holds barred.  But what’s the point of it all?  Is there any meaning to life?’

The Anglo world (yes, even America!) loves the British royal family.  What is it about royalty that impresses us?   We realize that somehow they are in a completely different league to everyone else.  They are regular people, but they are royals!   There’s a certain je ne sais quoi mystique about them.

To maintain their positions of mystique and privilege, princes and princesses need to watch their every move.  You can’t act like a regular person on the street when you are royalty!  If you want to be a child of the King of kings, free from the world, and stand head and shoulders above the lives of the bondsmen around you, you must be prepared to live a life of royalty.  Spiritual royalty means rising above a life that is cheap and easy.

Free yourself from this world.  Don’t be seduced by the lures of a quick fix.  May you merit living a life of spiritual royalty!

Sunday, 27 December 2015

Are you too poor to tithe?

Daf Yomi Gittin 12

Our patriarch Yaakov has just escaped his brother Esav’s wrath and he is on the way to Uncle Lavan.  It’s getting dark and so he lays his head down for the night in Bethel and has a dream.  Dozens of angels are ascending and descending a ladder that reaches to the heavens.  He suddenly wakes up and exclaims, “How awesome is this place.  It is none other than the house of Hashem and it is the gate of heaven!”  Recognizing the intense holiness of the place, he offers a special prayer, asking the Almighty to protect him on his travels to Charan.  And he concludes with a pledge to tithe one tenth of any earnings Heaven bestows on him.

Concerning the corner of the field that must be left for the poor, the Torah states, “You shall not gather it – for the pauper and for the stranger you shall leave them.”
If a farmer gathered the corner of the field and declared, ‘These sheaves are hereby the property of so-and-so the pauper,’ Rabbi Eliezer says that he has indeed acquired it unto him.  But the Sages say that he must give them to whichever pauper he encounters first.
Why do the Sages maintain that one may not collect on behalf of a specific pauper?  For the Torah states, “You shall not gather it for the pauper.”
But how would Rabbi Eliezer interpret the verse?
The Torah is teaching that a poor man may not gather the corner of his own field and keep it for himself. 

If a person is rich enough to own a field, why would he think that he would be able to keep the corner of the field, which belongs to the poor?  Actually, why does the Gemara itself even call this person a poor man – how could he afford to own a field if he his poor?

Some people, no matter how much they have, they always think of themselves as poor.  Not only are they dissatisfied with their lot – ungrateful for everything that Heaven has blessed them with – but they manage to justify to themselves not giving tzedakah, since they can’t really afford it!  This individual owns an entire field and he still thinks he’s too poor to give away the tithes.

How do you increase wealth?  Not by avoiding your tithing duties, but by tithing meticulously.   When Yaakov pledged to tithe, he declared, “Aser a’asrenu lach.”  The double expression is normally translated into English as “I shall surely tithe to You.”  But our Sages tell us that whenever the Torah employs the double expression regarding tithing, the message is that proper tithing leads to an increase in wealth – “Aser, bishvil shetisasher” – “Tithe in order to become wealthy!”

Withholding your tithes on account of a misplaced belief that you are too poor to give away a tenth of your earnings is not helping the situation.   When you tithe appropriately, not only do you not lose money, the Torah promises that you will be blessed abundantly in return!

You can always justify not giving tzedakah.  One financial advisor friend told me of an individual that everyone thought was extremely wealthy, due to his successful law practice.  In truth, said the advisor, this man was struggling to make ends meet, because no matter how much you have, you can still live above your means.  And so in this individual’s mind, he decided that he couldn’t afford to tithe properly. 

Mind you, at that lawyer’s income level, tithing was indeed a real spiritual challenge.  He was making half a million dollars a year and so his obligation was to separate fifty thousand dollars to charity.  He couldn't imagine where that money would come from.  Fifty thousand dollars is a fortune to give away!  But what’s the alternative?  If he only would make a hundred thousand, he would only be obligated to give ten thousand a year – would he rather that?

You are not poor.   You are way richer than the vast majority of people on this planet.  May you always tithe with the same meticulousness and attention that you give to your business income and expenditure, and in that merit may you be blessed with the means to tithe more and more each year!

Friday, 25 December 2015

Is it okay to use my gentile name?

Daf Yomi Gittin 11

We were redeemed from Egypt on account of our commitment to three practices: We maintained our Hebrew clothing, we spoke the Hebrew language, and we kept our Jewish names.  The great American halachic decisor, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, was once asked the following question: ‘My mother passed away and we want to name our newborn daughter after her.  However, her name was Gittel Draizel.  Is that a Jewish name?  It certainly doesn’t appear in the Tanach.  On the one hand, we want to name after mother, of blessed memory.  On the other hand, we don’t want to delay the final redemption by using a gentile name!

Divorce documents that come to Israel from the Diaspora with signatures of witnesses, even though their names are gentile names, they are kosher.  Why?  Because most Jews in the Diaspora have gentile names. 

You hear that?  Most Diaspora Jews have gentile names!  Even those of us who have Jewish names, how many of them are biblical?  Many are Yiddish and really don’t have Jewish sources, either.  Even back in Talmudic times, when the leading Jewish community was in Babylonia, many great rabbis had Aramaic names!

Rabbi Feinstein explains that the aphorism about keeping our Jewish clothing, language and names in Egypt was specific to that exile.  As soon as our forefathers descended to Egypt, they went to live in Goshen.  Why?  So that they would not assimilate into Egyptian culture and life.  Each Motzei Shabbos (Saturday night), we bless Hashem, “Who separates between Israel and the nations.”  The three Hebraic characteristics of clothing, language, and names ensured our distinctiveness in the land of Egypt, thereby avoiding assimilation.

However, explains Rabbi Feinstein, that was all prior to the Giving of the Torah.   When we lacked six hundred and thirteen mitzvos to distinguish us from the nations around, we needed concrete symbols of our ethnicity, and those were our three Hebrew cultural signs.  Once we received the Law and all the commandments, the observance of Torah and mitzvos is what sets us apart from everyone else.  And so, back in Egypt we maintained our Hebrew names, because that’s all we had and that’s what made you Jewish. 

Nowadays, maintaining your Judaism requires so much more than cultural symbols.  Sure, you can wear a Chai necklace to demonstrate your Jewish pride.  Certainly, you can give your kids very Yiddish sounding names and send them off to Israel to immerse in Hebrew language and Israeli culture.  But that’s not what is going to protect them from the onslaught of assimilation that is ploughing down our beloved nation.  What keeps us unique and distinctive today is our commitment to Torah and mitzvos.

Rabbanit used to work for a boutique financial firm in Boro Park, New York, preparing reports for Merrill Lynch.  You and I may know Boro Park as the Hasidic centre of America.  But non-Jews aren’t necessarily familiar with the place and the clients they dealt with probably didn’t even know they weren’t located in Manhattan.  And so when she was first hired by the firm, the bosses told her that she would need a more “goyish” sounding name.  She looked around her and sure enough, Feivish was Freddie, Gittel was Gertrude, Yankele was Jack, and Zlata was Sally.  Thus, Batya reluctantly became Bonnie. 

But then she would get on the phone and deal with all sorts of people from all sorts of backgrounds and all sorts of weird and wonderful names.  And she thought, ‘This is ridiculous!  Why do they get to use their real names while I need this silly alter ego (speaking of which, Alter was Alan!)?  And so she put her foot down.  Batya would be Batya.  Lo and behold, she felt completely vindicated when the forty-fourth president of the United States of America was elected – Barack Hussein Obama! (Incidentally, he also finds it difficult to find his name on a mug or decal in the souvenir store!)

I tell this story, because it just goes to show that while using our Jewish names is very important, it is not what makes us culturally distinctive.   In the western world today, it’s no longer strange to use an ethnic-sounding name.  Actually, it’s kinda cool!  If you want to assimilation-proof your kids, there’s only one way.  Not Chai or Star of David necklaces, not Yiddishisms, not kugel and kishka; but an honest commitment to mitzvos.  When you teach your children that they will have to leave work early on a Friday afternoon in winter, or that even at a high-level business lunch, they’ll have to order special kosher food; that will guarantee they remain committed Jews.

Jewish culture is wonderful.  It’s what makes your kids excited and proud of their heritage.  But if you want to keep them in the fold, you need more than just pride, you need commitment.  May you instill in your children the joy of devotion to our holy Torah!

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Trusting Someone who Keeps Kosher but not Shabbos

Daf Yomi Gittin 10

King Sancheriv was the Assyrian ruler responsible for exiling the ten tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, that ultimately became lost from our people.  In order to promote Assyrian culture universally, the king’s tactic of conquest was to exile the inhabitants of a country to another region under his rule and to bring in foreigners into the newly-conquered territory.  And so when he removed the Israelites from our homeland, he brought in a hodgepodge of peoples that collectively became known as Cutheans or Samaritans.

The Samaritans felt as bewildered as any immigrants to a new country would.  Not only were they struggling in their attempts to adjust socially, they now found themselves at the physical peril of lions that had surrounded their dwellings, attacking and killing a number of them.   The Judeans informed Assyria that the reason for the attacks was the Samaritans’ idolatrous practices.  And so the Assyrians instructed the Judeans to send priests to teach the new immigrants the ways of G-d.  While they accepted and adopted many Jewish practices, they were never absorbed into the Jewish community, because their ulteriorly-motivated conversion was always viewed with suspicion.

Matzah baked by a Samaritan is permissible and one can fulfill one’s Pesach obligations thereby. 
Rashi explains: We are not concerned that they allowed the dough to rise; and furthermore, they are familiar with the law that the matzah eaten at the seder must be guarded.
Rabbi Elazar forbids it since they are not expert in the details of mitzvos. 
Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: Any mitzvah that the Samaritans committed to, they are even more careful to observe than the Jews!
Rashi explains: This commitment extends even to Rabbinic laws that they adopted.

Some people are quick to judge and exclude others who aren’t as ‘frum’ as them.  In their minds, it’s all or nothing.  If you don’t keep Shabbos in its entirety, or kosher to the same level as them, you’re not a good enough Jew.  And so they keep their distance.

But clearly, the Samaritans were trusted in certain areas, even though they might generally have been considered suspect.  We trusted them so much that we were willing to buy Samaritan-brand matzah for Pesach!  It didn’t need to have an OU or an OK on the label; we simply trusted them!

I know many people who are merely traditional when it comes to Shabbos, but meticulously observant with regards to kashrus.  Or mikvah.  Or mezuzah.  The truth is, I’m often amazed at some of the shailos (halachic queries) I get from people, regarding the acceptability of certain hechsherim (kosher symbols) or mix-up issues from their kitchens.  These are people who may be a long way from absolute observance of Torah and mitzvos; but when it comes to the kashrus of their kitchens, there are no ifs, ands, or buts for them! 

People often ask me whether so-and-so keeps kosher or not.  My response is always the same.  I’m not G-d’s policeman.  I’m not going around inspecting anyone’s kitchen.  All I can tell you is whether or not they toivel (immerse) their dishes – since they need to get the key to the mikvah to do so; and whether they ask me shailos about kashrus.  If they do both of those, you’re pretty safe eating in their home.  They might not yet be completely Shabbos-observant, but if their kashrus is meticulous and their kitchen is Shabbos-observant (in terms of cooking/reheating), then that’s a pretty good sign of how they feel about what goes into their mouths.

In Judaism, it’s not all or nothing.   Sure, we must all strive to grow in our level of commitment.  But if you know someone is on the right path and absolutely dedicated to a particular mitzvah, the Talmud says they may be trusted.  May you always embrace people in their commitment to our heritage, rather than discouraging them with automatic distrust!  

Wednesday, 23 December 2015

How to get people to value your opinion

Daf Yomi Gittin 9

Among his many voluntary and philanthropic activities, Professor Ron Bercov z”l was a long-serving member of the shul board at Beth Israel.   He was a man of few words who would sit back and mostly listen to the conversation at the meetings.  But after everyone had said their piece, inevitably the board chair would turn to Ron and ask his opinion.  The elder statesman would offer a flash of brilliance and suddenly everyone would wonder what had taken them so long to seek the professor’s advice.

If one deeds all his possessions to his servant, the latter is thereby freed. If, however, he left over any amount of land whatsoever, he is not freed.  Rabbi Shimon says: He is always freed, unless the owner says, ‘All my possessions are hereby given to so-and-so, my servant, except for one ten-thousandth of them.
Rashi explains: When he specifies that he is not releasing all his land, the servant goes free.  But when he does not specify what he is retaining, he might be referring to this individual, and therefore he is not freed.
When this halachic discussion was mentioned before Rabbi Yossi, he declared over Rabbi Shimon the verse in Proverbs, “The lips are pursed to one who responds sensibly.”
Tosfos explains: When a person says something sensible, those around him purse their lips tightly together, meaning that they are silenced, having nothing further to respond.

 Some people have an opinion on everything.  They talk and talk.  Occasionally, they might be offering sensible ideas, but since they’re always talking, they end up drowning themselves out.  It becomes nothing more than background noise.  It’s like the little boy who cried wolf – after a while, people stop listening.

And then there are people who seldom talk.  So when they do, people pay attention.  To such people, the words of King Solomon in Proverbs apply.  They merit the final say, because they only speak when they have a concrete solution. 

The truth is, what really sets such people apart is not their ability to speak, but their listening skills.  You can only offer a cogent opinion if you have truly heard what others have to say.  Armed with all the information, you can weigh both sides of an argument and determine what is missing from the conversation and bring it all together with words of wisdom. 

On the balance of things, are you a talker or a listener?  Do you pay attention when others are speaking and truly weigh their words carefully?  Or do you feel the need to immediately show how knowledgeable and thoughtful you are on every matter being discussed?

It’s not easy to be a listener.  We are trained to believe that the more we speak, the more we demonstrate our worldliness and breadth of knowledge.  But, as Rabbi Akiva teaches in Pirkei Avot, “The fence protecting wisdom is silence.”   

Does Rabbi Akiva mean that you should stand around saying nothing at a party, while everyone else is chit-chatting?  That’s not what he means; people would drift away from you pretty quickly if they found you difficult to make conversation with!

What Rabbi Akiva means is that you don’t need to feel rushed to offer your thoughts and opinions – being a good listener means being a good questioner.   When you ask the right questions of the other person, they feel needed and appreciated.  You get the opportunity to learn something new that you might not have known before, or at least a new way of looking at things.  And as long as you are engaging the other person, the conversation will continue for as long as you choose.

The problem is that we don’t like to sound like fools.  You think to yourself, ‘If I don’t offer an opinion, they’ll think less of me.’  That’s just not true.  Nobody knows everything about everything and unless you ask the right questions, you will continue to wallow in your mediocre wisdom.  You sound more foolish when you offer half-baked opinions than when you ask good questions with the serious desire to listen and learn.

The lips are pursed to one who responds sensibly.  It’s better to say nothing at all than to offer an opinion that is thoughtless and faulty.  Instead of rushing to weigh in on a topic you might have limited knowledge about, learn to ask the right questions.  May your opinion always be well thought out and may the lips of all around become pursed with wonder and appreciation when you speak!  

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Are you Earth, Fire, Wind, or Water?

Daf Yomi Gittin 8

As our patriarch Yaakov lay on his deathbed, he called over his sons to bestow his final blessings upon them.  A father knows his children and it is clear from Yaakov’s blessings how different each of his children were.  The key to an effective blessing is to harness the Divine flow of energy towards the specific strengths of the individual who is being blessed.  In our forefather’s blessings, we discover the unique nature of each of his sons.

According to Kabbalah, everything in this world consists of the four basic elements of earth, wind, fire, and water.  These elements are not like those found on the periodic table, the elements of which may of course be broken down much further into molecules, atoms, protons, and neutrons.  These ‘elements’ are the most basic building blocks of matter in this universe, whether tangible or intangible.  Intangibles are things like character traits.

When Yaakov blesses his children, he singles out their primary elements and blesses them accordingly.  Reuven, he says, had “water-like impetuousness.”  The deeper meaning of the blessing was that he channel his natural desire to make things right for the good.  Shimon and Levi had “rage that was intense.”  That’s the element of fire.  Yaakov’s blessing here too was that they channel it for the good.  Zebulun should “settle by seashores” utilizing his element of water to practice international commerce and support Torah scholars; while Yissachar saw that “the earth was pleasant.”

A plant that grew on soil from outside of Israel but sprouted whilst on a boat in Israeli waters is subject to the laws of maaser (tithes) and sheviis (the sabbatical year).   Rabbi Yehuda says: When is this so?  Only when the boat is touching the riverbed, but if it is not touching, it is exempt from the laws.
Rabbi Zaira suggests: Concerning a perforated pot sitting atop a tripod, we could apply the debate of Rabbi Yehuda and the Rabbis.
Rashi explains: According to the Rabbis, if it is in the air, it is just like it is resting on the ground; whereas according to Rabbi Yehuda, it is not biblically subject to maaser and sheviis unless it is actually resting on the ground.
Rava responds: Perhaps the comparison is not accurate.  Over there, the Rabbis stated their position regarding a plant that is directly on top of the ship with no air intervening, for the water is like thick earth (and so it is as if the plant were directly on the earth of the seabed).  But concerning a perforated pot on a tripod where the air intervenes between the plant and the ground, they would not maintain their position.

Interestingly, one of the earliest books of Kabbalah, the Sefer Yetzirah (Book of Creation), which was penned by our patriarch, Avraham, does not mention the element of earth.  The great Kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, explains in the Pardes Rimonim that, on a certain level, water and earth originate from the same spiritual source, ultimately manifesting that union in the physical.  He offers the example of the limescale one finds on a tea kettle after a period of time boiling water.  ‘Earth’ appears to be deposited by the ‘water,’ demonstrating that they emanate from the same source.  Essentially, we could say that “water is like thick earth!”

Just like every physical creation consists of the four elements, every human being’s character is made up of these four elements.  However, every individual has some elements more pronounced than others.  Before getting into the elements of character, let me just say that a good way of determining which element you are is to think about where you would most prefer to live, if the choice were completely up to you.  That’s how Yaakov described it to his children.

If you’re a mountains kind of person, your element is air.  If you prefer the beach or lake, your element is water.  Like living in the country or on a farm?  Your element is earth.  And if you must have the fast pace of city-life, you’re a fire-man (or woman!) 

How do the elements play out in character?   The key is to first realize that every element has both positive and negative aspects.  No element is better than another; it all depends on how you channel your primary element.

Fire people are very passionate, eager, enthusiastic, zealous.   Those attributes may be positive or negative.  If you’re passionate and eager to do mitzvos, you’ve channelled your fire for the good.  But if you’re passionate about running out to party on a Friday night, then obviously your fire has taken the wrong direction.

Water people are easy-going and go with the flow.  That could be a good thing, especially when you’re dealing with difficult people or challenging situations.  But it could also be a bad thing.  Sometimes when everyone around you is on the wrong path, you shouldn’t just go with the flow and participate.  Or it might even be your own temptations that you don’t stand up to – when anything goes, water is not the ideal attribute.

Earth people are obstinate and unchanging.  That too may be good or bad.  On the one hand, when everyone around you is adopting the latest trends in defiance of tradition, you stand up for what is right.  On the other hand, when you’re not right, you may be stubborn and unwilling to bend to the will of others.  The element of earth also manifests itself in terms of laziness, sitting around lacking the passion and drive to do anything positive.

Wind or air people are creative.  They might be artistic or musical or great orators.  Those are certainly great attributes to possess.  But, at the same time, sometimes if you lack groundedness, your head might be ‘in the clouds’ and nothing is ever achieved.  And so you see how each of these elements may be found in different people’s character types.

It is important to note that every individual is combination of all four elements.  Nobody has just one single element at the exclusion of the other three.  But most people have a dominant element or two that tend to outshine the other elements of their character.  So while you certainly consist of all four, you need to figure out what your primary element is, so that you can make sure you’re channeling it to its positive side.

We mentioned earlier than, in a certain way, water is like thick earth.  How so?  Originally, in the Creation story, Hashem separated the upper waters from the lower waters.  In other words, all there was in the beginning of the world was water.  Each morning, we make the bracha, “Blessed are You, Hashem, Who places the earth above the water.”  In this sense, water and earth are working at odds, but at the same time in conjunction, with one another.  Water creates life; earth limits that flow.

And so while it may feel like earth and water are opposites, you really need both in this world.  Too much life – too much flow – would mean there would be no dry land, i.e. nowhere to walk and live.  But if it would all be dry, there would be no life at all!  That’s the meaning of earth and water being from the same original element-source and the Gemara’s teaching that water is like thick earth.  Water represents life, but without the limits placed by earth, the water would be overly abundant and ultimately, ineffective.

What that means character-wise is that if you are a water person or an earth person, the best way to achieve success is to strive to embody that opposite element.  Earth people are stubborn; water people go with the flow.  Each of these attributes may be good, but may also impede your success.  How do you overcome the negative aspects?  If you’re earthy, try to be watery.  If you’re watery, try to be earthy.  Don’t worry that you’ll go overboard and adopt the negative aspects of the alternate element, because you can never lose your primary element.  Simply work on the opposite attribute, and everything will fall into place.

Just like no two individuals have the same face, no two individuals have the same character.  We are all complex combinations of earth, fire, wind, and water.  May you discover your primary element and work to bring out only the positive aspects of your complex character!  

Monday, 21 December 2015

The woman is not the neck

Daf Yomi Gittin 7

Rabbanit Batya was once giving a class on gender roles in Judaism.  A young lady raises her hand and tells her, "Before I got married, my kallah teacher taught me that the husband is the head of the household but the wife is the neck that ultimately controls the direction the head will take.  My wife chuckled to herself and thought, “I guess her kallah teacher has also seen My Big Fat Greek Wedding!”

Rav Yehuda quoted Rav: Whoever instills excessive fear in his family members, will eventually end up transgressing the three sins of immorality, murder, and Shabbos desecration. 
Rabbah bar bar Chanah said: That which the Rabbis taught, “A person must say three things in his house Erev Shabbos (Friday afternoon) as it gets dark: Have you tithed the food?  Have you prepared the eruv?  Have you lit the candles?” one must say them gently so that they are accepted from him.
Rabbi Abahu taught: A person should never instill excessive fear in his family members, for a great man instilled excessive fear in his family and they fed him something major.  Who was that?  Rabbi Chanina ben Gamliel.
The Gemara asks: Do you really think they fed it to him?  No, they almost fed it to him.
What was it?  A limb from a living animal.
Rashi explains:  They misplaced the slaughtered meat and they were so afraid of how he would react that they simply cut off a limb from a living animal and prepared it for him.

Rabbi Abahu warns against instilling excessive fear in the house.  But what’s interesting is that he does not say that one should never instill any fear in his family members; he says one should not instill excessive fear.  Why would Rabbi Abahu want a man to instill fear in his home?

According to Kabbalah, mitzvos need wings to fly up to Heaven.  What are the wings for mitzvos?  Love and fear.   

How do you do your mitzvos?  Some people do the mitzvah perfunctorily, and that’s that – I’ve done my duty, now leave me alone.  But that’s by far not the ideal way to do a mitzvah!  The way to shoot your mitzvah all the way up is to attach the wings of love and fear to the mitzvah.

It’s like little Johnny who comes home from school one day and tells his mother they had a substitute teacher.  ‘How was she?’ asks the mother.  ‘Not as good on piano as Mrs. Brown.  She needed two hands to play the piano.  Mrs. Brown can play with just one!’

Obviously, playing piano with one hand only gets the melody. It’s a nice tune, but once you add the left hand, you capture the whole song in all its vibrancy.  That’s what love and fear of G-d are about – taking the mitzvah from its dry, monotone state; and making it come alive!

And so Rav and Rabbi Abahu remind the head of the household that his job is to instill fear into his family members.  His role is to teach them how to serve Hashem with discipline, rigor, and seriousness.  He must be like the captain who makes sure on Erev Shabbos that everything is ready on time.  Shabbos is fun and exciting; but if it’s not ready at the right time, it is no longer a mitzvah.  Lighting Shabbos candles a minute after sunset isn’t a mitzvah; it’s a sin.

Nevertheless, he is warned that it must be said gently.  If you come in like a tyrant, that defeats the purpose.  That is called excessive fear.  You’ve taken all the fun out of Shabbos; you’ve made it into the time of the week that everyone in the home dreads. 

That’s what happened with Rabbi Chanina ben Gamliel.  Instead of gently instilling fear of Heaven into his family members, they had become scared of him.  And so when they misplaced the meat, they were so terrified of his reaction that they served him treyf meat, rather than facing his wrath.  

As the head of the household, your job is instill fear of Hashem into your family.  If your family members are doing mitzvos because they fear you, you have failed in your mission.  Inevitably what happens next is the kids grow up, move out, and leave Yiddishkeit altogether.  Why?  Because they were only keeping it because they feared their father; not because they feared Heaven.

As an aside, it’s worth noting what fear of Heaven truly means.  It doesn’t mean that you feel the Almighty is a vengeful G-d who is out to get you.  It means that you fear detaching yourself from your Heavenly connection.  Every mitzvah you do strengthens your bond with Heaven.  Every transgression you commit loosens the bond, weakening the Divine flow of energy.  That’s pretty scary.  Who would want to detach themselves from the Divine energy flow?  That’s the meaning of fear of Heaven and it’s the role of the patriarch to instill that ‘fear’ into his household.

How about the other wing – love of Heaven?  That’s the role of the matriarch of the home.  That fun, exciting feeling that the children have as Shabbos is approaching?  That’s the love of the mitzvah that mother must instill in her family members.  And that’s why the aishes chayil, the woman of valour, has always been the mainstay of Judaism.  It is she who fills her family with the love of Heaven that makes them want to embrace our tradition and carry on the baton to the next generation!

So if the man is the head of the Jewish household, the woman is the heart.  The heart is the true source of life.   As long as the heart is beating, the body remains alive.  The love for Heaven a mother instills in her family is the ultimate determinant of their dedication and commitment to Judaism.

For mitzvos to fly up to Heaven, they require love and fear.   Both aspects are vital for ideal service of Hashem.  May you instill the right amount of love and fear in your loved ones to have all their mitzvos fly directly to the Almighty’s glorious throne!  

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Is a pea ruining your beauty sleep?

Daf Yomi Gittin 6

The Book of Judges tells the story of the Levite who married a concubine.  Their relationship was more than a little rocky and she ends up going back to her parents’ home.  After four months, he sets out to bring her back.  He is welcomed in by his in-laws with open arms, so much so that they are reticent to let the couple leave.  But finally, he puts his foot down, and although it is late in the day, they set off back home.

They have barely been on the road for an hour when it starts to get dark.  They decide not to spend the night in Jebusite country and continue on to a town called Givah, in the tribal area of Benjamin.  There, they begin knocking on doors, but nobody will have them for the night.  Settling down on a park bench, an elderly man notices them and hurriedly invites them to his place, knowing that the townsfolk are dangerous.   But word gets out of the visitors and they come banging on his door, insisting that he release his guests to be ‘known’ by the ruffians.

They send out the Levite’s wife who is violated and treated so horribly that by the end of the night, she keels over and dies.  The Levite takes her body home and proceeds to send packages to the leaders of all the tribes of Israel telling them what occurred and seeking justice.  They are mortified and demand that the Benjaminites hand over the perpetrators.  Refusing to do so, the eleven other tribes declare war on Benjamin.  Hundreds of thousands die in the civil war and Benjamin is decimated.

A few years pass and there are hardly any Benjaminites remaining amongst the nation of Israel.  Tu B’Av (15th Av) rolls around – the festival of shidduchim – and the elders of the people are in a quandary.  On the one hand, Benjamin has been excommunicated from the nation and no other tribe is intermarrying with them.  On the other hand, if they continue along that path, there will no longer be a tribe called Benjamin.  They decide that while that cannot officially change the decree against intermarriage with Benjamin, they will turn a blind eye if any Benjaminites decide to join the Tu B’Av celebration.  And Baruch Hashem, the tribe of Benjamin is spared from extinction. 

Concerning the concubine who left her Levite husband and returned to her parents’ home, it is written, “And his concubine strayed from him.” 
Rabbi Evyasar taught: He found a fly in his soup.
Rabbi Yonasan taught: He found a piece of hair.
Rabbi Evyasar found Elijah the Prophet and asked him, “What is the Almighty occupied with?”
“He is busy with the subject of the Concubine in Givah,” he replied.
“And what is He saying?” he asked.
“Evyasar, my son, says this.  Yonasan, my son, says this.”
“G-d forbid,” responded Evyasar.  “Could there be any doubt before Heaven?”
Eliyahu replied, “This opinion and that opinion are the words of the Living G-d.”

The Levite gets upset at his wife and as a result, hundreds of thousands of people die.  What was the cause of all the mayhem?  Why was the Levite upset at his wife?   According to one opinion, he found a piece of hair in his food.  According to another opinion, he found a fly.  But, in the eyes of Heaven, both views are correct.  What does that mean?

According to one opinion, she left him when he found a piece of hair.  The meaning is that sometimes we get all upset over nothing, allowing ourselves to be separated from our loved ones.  A tiny little piece of hair, and thousands dead!  But sadly, many relationships break down over the silliest, most meaningless reasons.   I knew these brothers who didn’t speak to one another for years, because one forgot to invite the other one to a birthday party! 

According to the other opinion, it was a fly.  How is a fly different from a piece of hair?  As tiny as a hair might be, you still could feel that the other person was careless.  But a fly?  That’s not even their fault!  The Levite got upset at his wife over something completely outside of her control!  For all we know, the soup was fine until she served him; she walks away, the fly lands in his soup; and now it’s her fault?!

The meaning of the fly is that sometimes we bring external issues into our relationships and they end up being the cause of our issues.  You might have had a terrible day at work.  You spent the whole day as calm as a summer sea – your coworkers were amazed at the way you maintained your cool.  But then the second you get home, it all boils over.  You begin to lash out at your spouse and kids.  Why?  What did they do to deserve your wrath?  Answer is they did nothing; they’re just the beanbag for all your pent-up frustration.

That’s the fly that destroys thousands.  The fly wasn’t your wife’s fault; it flew in externally.  But now you are allowing that external circumstance to wreak havoc on your relationship with your loved ones.

And we could flip it the other way around as well.  The Levite gets angry over the fly and his wife storms out.  Why?  She should have realized that the fly had nothing to do with her, so whatever he’s upset about is his problem, not hers.  All too often, our loved ones get upset and we take it personally.  If your spouse gets angry, ask yourself: Did I do anything to deserve that reaction?  If not, chances are they had a tough day at work or something.  They don’t need you to walk away; they need your shoulder to lean on!

Life is too short to allow the little things to ruin our relationships.  Only princesses get upset about a little pea.  Don’t get upset over tiny nothings.  And don’t allow external issues to get between you and your loved ones.  May you grow in your love and peace with those dearest to you by focusing on the big, important things that keep you together!  

Holier than G-d

Daf Yomi Gittin 5

There was once a very pious man who always made sure to keep himself as far away from sin as he could imagine.  So every Shabbos, he would tie himself to a chair.  And so, tied to his ‘Shabbos chair,’ there was absolutely no way that he could come to transgress the holy Shabbos.

The Chofetz Chaim heard about this individual and bemusedly commented, “That man sounds like he has it all under control.  But sadly, he has forgotten the mitzvah to enjoy Shabbos, which he transgresses week in week out!”

Bar Hedya wanted to learn the right way to be a messenger for a gett (divorce papers).   He came before Rabbi Achi who was in charge of divorce proceedings.  He said to him, “You must watch over the writing of every single letter.”
He then appeared before Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Assi.  They said to him, “That is unnecessary.  And if you say, ‘Let me act stringently,’ you are effectively questioning the validity of every previously written gett!”

Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Assi told Bar Hedya that he could validate a gett simply by watching the first line being written.  Anything beyond that was not only unnecessary, but inappropriate.  Why?  Because if he were to adopt the ‘stringency’ of watching the entire document being prepared, he would be implying that previous documents that were not watched over in their entirety were not as kosher.  And so Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Assi told him to stick to the accepted, usual practice.

Sometimes people take extra stringencies upon themselves that are not only unnecessary, but may be improper.  Their implication is that doing it the regular way, everyone else does it, would not be kosher enough.  Chumros – stringencies – are defined by the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law); not by what we think we should do to be ‘extra frum.’

I recently overheard someone say that they do not eat broccoli and cauliflower.  Why not?  They were being extra stringent about the possibility of insects.  I’m sorry to break it to them, but there’s no such stringency in Halacha.  Halacha says that broccoli and cauliflower require careful washing and checking; not avoidance of the vegetable altogether.  You can’t blame Halacha on your lack of patience for washing and checking your vegetables.  If you want to, take the time; if you don’t, that’s fine too, but it’s certainly not a stringency.  Claiming it is a stringency invalidates everyone else who does eat broccoli and cauliflower!

Or the classic one of the fellow who wouldn’t walk on grass on Shabbos, lest he step on an ant and kill it, which is forbidden.  Sorry to say, that’s not a stringency.  If it were, you would be implying everyone who does walk on grass on Shabbos is acting inappropriately.    And of course the same thing is true of the fellow with the Shabbos chair – what he figured was a stringency not only cast aspersions on everyone else, but ultimately ruined his own Shabbos observance!

Or the married couple who decided that they would always keep an extra day of Hilchot Niddah (Laws of Family Purity).  Instead of just five initial days of separation, which everyone else observes and is mandated by Shulchan Aruch, they kept a sixth day to be strict.  Sorry to say, once again that’s not a stringency; it’s a meaningless practice that implies everyone else is being lenient; and it is therefore improper behaviour.  What’s more, the couple ends up transgressing the holy time husband and wife are meant to be together by automatically deducting a day each month!

We don’t need to be holier than Hashem.  Sometimes we think we are being strict in our mitzvah observance, but we have to think of the consequences of our stringencies on ourselves and everyone around us.  May you excel at every mitzvah and take on only those stringencies that our Divinely-inspired Rabbis have instructed, without feeling the need to invent your own!

Friday, 18 December 2015

Date Night with G-d

Daf Yomi Gittin 4

Birthright is a fabulous way to introduce American kids to Israel.  They spend ten days on an all-expense-paid vacation in the Holy Land where their souls connect with their roots.  Many young women and men return as strong advocates for the Jewish state and the Jewish people, and filled with inspiration to learn more about Judaism.

Let me tell you about my friend, Nimrod.  When he moved out to Edmonton as the shliach (emissary) of the Jewish Agency and began participating in the Jewish community, he was embarrassed to admit that it was his first time inside a synagogue.  Having grown up on a completely secular kibbutz, it wasn’t until he lived in the Diaspora that he was fully able to appreciate Jewish life.  Following his experience, he began advocating for an Inverse Birthright program where young Israeli women and men would similarly come out and spend ten days in a Diaspora Jewish community, so that they could bring back some of that Yiddishkeit into their Israeli lives!

Mishnah: A messenger who brings a gett (divorce papers) from overseas must declare, ‘It was written and signed in my presence.’  Rabban Gamliel says: even one who brings it from Rekem and Cheger. Rabbi Eliezer says: Even from Kfar Ludim to Lud.
Gemara: Abaye taught: We are discussing cities close to the Land of Israel and surrounded by the border.
And Rabba bar bar Chanah said: I personally saw that place and it was as short as the distance between Bay Cuba and Pumpeditha.

Kfar Ludim was outside the Land of Israel, but it was so close that it was nearer than many Israeli cities.  While you could rely upon the authenticity of a gett from the other end of the country, you needed testimony to authenticate a gett from Kfar Ludim.   Why?  Because despite its physical proximity to Israel, that border made it worlds apart.

Sometimes a person may be physically close, but in reality very distant.  Nimrod’s experience is sadly far from unique.  Many Israelis go through life with zero connection to tradition. They are living in the Jewish state, isn’t that sufficient?  They feel that the daily national newspaper is their equivalent of a shul bulletin, so they see no need to be actively Jewish.  They are so close and yet so far.

Unfortunately, it can happen even in the frummest of communities.  There’s a new genre in Brooklyn Chasidic communities called ILO, In Levush Only, which means that they are only frum as far as their garb goes.  They dress the part and look the part – any outsider would think they’re as frum as can be – but really, some of them are going so far as no longer caring what they eat.  They are so close and yet so far.

Are you feeling a little detached from Heaven in your life?  Sometimes we can get so used to our surroundings that our Judaism begins to grow stale.  We start to drift away emotionally and psychologically.  You are there but not there.

It’s time to reignite the fire.  Just like a marriage where two people might physically be living under the same roof, but living completely separate lives; it’s not enough to physically be there for G-d, you need to be emotionally and mentally invested as well. 

When was the last time you had a date night with Hashem?  That means turning off your cell phone, clearing your agenda; and just spending time investing in your spirituality.  Some people best date G-d over a Book of Tehillim (Psalms); others date G-d over Maimonides’s Guide to the Perplexed; others date G-d by going out and visiting sick people in the hospital.

Everything in this world grows stale unless we constantly press the refresh button.   To the world around, you might appear to be close to Heaven, but deep inside you know that you are getting further and further away.  May you take time out of your busy schedule to have a regular date night with the Almighty!  

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Knowing when to let go

Daf Yomi Gittin 3

Moshe Rabbeinu was exhausted.  He had led the Children of Israel through the wilderness for months; and time after time, they had tested his patience with their complaints against Heaven.  In desperation, he turns to Hashem and asks him to share the burden.  The Almighty tells him to separate seventy elders, upon whom the Divine spirit will rest.  Moshe does so and all of a sudden, prophecy abounds. 

Two of the elders, Eldad and Meidad begin to prophesy and prophesy, revealing many secrets.  Most of the people are spellbound, but Yehoshua says ‘Enough!’ when he hears their deepest revelation: Moshe will die and Yehoshua will take over the leadership of the people.  Running to his teacher, Moshe, Yehoshua knows that they must put a stop to it all.  But Moshe calms him down. “If only the entire Israel were prophets!” he exclaims.

One may not write a gett (divorce) on material attached to the ground.  If, however, he wrote it, and then detached it from the ground, signed it, and gave it to the wife, it is kosher.

So a fellow comes along and writes out the gett on a branch that is still attached to the tree.  Granted, some people want to get away as cheap as possible when it comes to divorce, but why would he write the gett on a branch and leave it there?  If he would simply detach it, it would be kosher; so why would anyone contemplate leaving the gett-branch attached?

We are obviously dealing with a person who has issues with letting go and giving up control.   After years of emotional abuse, the wife finally musters up the courage to ask for a divorce.  What does he respond?  ‘Sure, you can have a divorce.  But I’m writing it here on this branch and so you can be divorced, but you’re not going anywhere.’  That’s the ultimate ‘chained’ woman.   Such an attitude is completely unacceptable and therefore the gett is not kosher.

Sometimes in life, people know that they must move on, but they are unable to let go.  It may be a case of divorce.  Divorce is never pretty; the Talmud tells us that the Holy Altar sheds tears when a couple divorces.  But if it must happen, the Torah sanctions divorce.  Once the man and woman have made the decision to go their separate ways, they should indeed go their separate ways.  Neither should hold the other hostage with negotiations over finances, children or the gett. 

And certainly they should not attempt to control the other person’s life – I knew this couple once who got divorced and she insisted on approving whom he dated!  That’s a case of writing the gett on material connected to the ground.  A divorce must be a clean break you can walk away from and get on with your life.

It’s not only about literal divorce; some people have issues letting go in other areas of their life.  If you are a successful professional or business owner, you know how to delegate work to various departments without feeling the need to look over everyone’s shoulders.  In other words, success often means letting go.  You understand that their success is your success.  And you are genuinely happy to watch them thrive with their new responsibilities.

I know rabbis who left their pulpits but maintained close relationships with many ‘important’ people in their shuls.  Keeping good relationships is wonderful, but it mustn’t infringe on the new rabbi’s position.  When they ask you to officiate at their wedding or funeral, you must politely remind them that there’s a new rabbi on the block.  That was the incredible humility demonstrated by Moshe Rabbeinu.  He was genuinely happy to see his students prophesying and ultimately taking over.  He was able to let go of the ‘gett’ and move on.

Letting go of your adult children is similarly an important attribute.  Some parents find it challenging to let go when their children grow up.  Once your kids are married and out of the house, their business is not your business!  As difficult as it is to let go, you need to take that branch and let it go.  In this case, if you’ve nurtured the branch well, rest assured that they will always be there for you.  But from your end, you must give them the space to grow with their spouse.

You can’t say goodbye when the gett is still attached.  When it’s time to move on, you must have the courage to let go and move on.  May you always give the people in your life room to be and grow!  

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

From Despair to Hope

Daf Yomi Gittin 2

Avraham and Sarah had been childless for many years.   In a selfless move, Sarah suggests to Avraham to have a child with her maidservant, Hagar.  But no sooner does Hagar conceive than she begins to mock Sarah for her inability to bear children.   Hagar is sent away and finds herself wandering in the wilderness.  

Suddenly, as she sits by a well, she encounters an angel who comforts her and tells her to return to the home of Sarah and Avraham, despite the challenging family dynamics.  The angel blesses her and she responds by naming the place “The Well of the Living One Appearing to Me.”  The Torah concludes the account by stating, “Behold, it is between Kadesh and Bered.” 

If a messenger brings a gett (bill of divorce) from overseas, he must testify, ‘In my presence it was written and signed.’  Rabban Gamliel says: Even if he brings the gett from Rekem or Cheger.
Rashi explains: Rekem and Cheger are the Aramaic translations of Kadesh and Bered.

So one day, an Israeli woman gets a knock on the door.  It’s a telegram from her husband who’s been away on business overseas.  She’s so excited to hear from him!  What could it be?  But, lo and behold, it’s a gett!  Poor woman can’t believe it.  That’s how he divorces her – in the mail?  She’s totally shattered.   Will she ever be able to get her life back on track?

That’s the meaning of Rekem and Cheger.  They are cities that sit on the border between Israel and the Diaspora.  Are they in Israel or are they in the Diaspora?  In a certain sense, they are neither here nor there.  And that’s the feeling of this unfortunate woman who has just received a gett in the mail.  She thought everything was on track when suddenly her life went off the rails.  Now she feels neither here nor there.  She is filled with fear, uncertainty, and desperation.  What does the future hold?

Rashi, however, chimes in and reminds us that Rekem and Cheger are not biblical locations of uncertainty; they are places of hope.  What happened in the Torah’s account of Rekem and Cheger?  Hagar had been ‘divorced’ by Avraham, sent away from her comfortable life and the family she had grown to love.  You can imagine how she must have felt – forlorn, confused, and scared for her future and the future of her unborn child. 

But then the angel appears to her and comforts her.  He tells her to return to Avraham.  He tells her that her child will become a father of multitudes.   And that place becomes so manifest with sanctity and meaning that following Sarah’s passing, the Torah tells of how Yitzchak returns there seeking to reunite Hagar with Avraham!  In other words, Rekem and Cheger represent the transformation of uncertainty into hope for the future.

Sometimes, life hits us with challenges that come out of left field.  We think we have everything planned out so perfectly, only to be thrown a curve-ball that changes everything.  Whether it’s a relationship curve-ball or a stockmarket curve-ball or a health curve-ball, suddenly it feels like your world is caving in.

When that happens, just remember Rekem and Cheger.  Just like the poor Israeli woman who is sent the gett in the mail or poor Hagar who is left to wander pregnant in the wilderness, Hashem will carry you too through the storm of life.  Life may appear uncertain and full of despair today, but the Almighty has already prepared the salvation for you! 

Rekem and Cheger sit on the fine line between despair and hope. You get to decide on which side of the border the dreidel will land.  May you transform your uncertainty and despair into hope and faith, and may you trust in the One Above as He carries you through the storm in the palm of His hand!

Living in the Good Old Days is a Cop-Out

Daf Yomi Sotah 49

Today we conclude Tractate Sotah.  The tractate closes with a strange exchange about humility and fear of sin.  The Mishnah teaches that when Rebbe died, humility and fear of sin disappeared.  Rav Yosef replies to the teacher, “Don’t teach that humility is gone, for I am here,” and Rav Nachman says to the teacher, “Don’t teach that fear of sin is gone, for I am here.”

And with that the tractate ends, leaving us completely baffled.  Did Rebbe’s passing see the end of these traits or not?  And how could these rabbis have the arrogance to boast that they embodied humility and fear of sin?  Isn’t it contradictory to publicly declare one’s humility?!  And  if you do fear sin, shouldn’t you keep that to yourself?! 

In the curses of the Book of Devarim, the Torah warns, “In the morning, you shall say, ‘if only it were night,’ and in the night, you shall say, ‘if only it were morning;’ from the fear of your hearts.”
Mishnah: Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: Rabbi Yehoshua testified that from the day the Holy Temple was destroyed, there was no day that was not cursed.
Rava said: The meaning of the verse in Devarim is that every day’s curse is worse than the previous day’s.  Which morning does the verse refer to?  If you say it refers to tomorrow morning, who knows what will be?  Rather, the verse refers to this morning that already was.
Rashi explains: The verse means that we will yearn for the previous day’s woes which paled in comparison to those of today. 

Many people look nostalgically to the past, reminiscing about how good things were ‘back in the day.’   They long for the days when life was so pure, simple, and straightforward.   But was life really that simple in the past?  The past had its own set of problems, issues, and challenges!

Rava teaches that even if life wasn’t really that simple way back when, the reason we yearn for those days is that we now realize how good we had it in days gone past.  Back then life seemed tough, but compared to nowadays, it was a walk in the park.  That’s the meaning of the ‘good old days.’  Nobody really believes that life was ever perfect in the past, but compared to the problems we see today, life was, in many ways, much simpler.

Let me share a little secret with you.  We are living in the good old days.  There will come a day in the future when we will look back to the times we are living in today and yearn for the goodness of our present-day lives.  The secret to life is, instead of looking backwards, nostalgically longing for times in the past that are long gone, we should be very grateful for the times we live in today, for as the Gemara says, “tomorrow morning, who knows what will be?”  Today is awesome compared to what tomorrow might bring!  These are the good old days, so best enjoy them while they are here!

The problem with dwelling on ‘the good old days’ of yesteryear is not so much the joy you get from reminiscing about the way life once was – there’s nothing wrong with sustaining fond memories.  The problem is the shirking of responsibility that accompanies living in the past.  All too often today we hear people complain about the lack of leadership in our community.  ‘All of our gedolim (great leaders) are gone!’ they wail.

When Rav Yosef and Rav Nachman heard the teacher moaning over the lack of leadership in their time, they stood up and responded:  ‘Don’t say humility is dead.  I am here.  Don’t say fear of sin is dead.  I am here.’  They weren’t saying it out of arrogance; they were stepping up to the plate of leadership. 

Looking to the past and deciding that there’s no leadership today is a cop-out.  Are we on the same level as our gedolim of yesteryear?  Perhaps not.  But that’s no excuse to sit around in despair.  On the contrary, if we don’t step up, it becomes a free-for-all where anything goes – if there’s no leadership today, then can we blame the average person for their behaviour?  After all, there was no one to show the way!  Rav Yosef and Rav Nachman wouldn’t accept that.  Their message was: if people believe humility is dead, then they will be arrogant, if people believe fear of sin is dead, they will sin.  We’re not going to let that happen in our times.

Today might not be the same as yesterday, but that is no excuse to shirk your responsibility to step up and lead.   Whether the Almighty is calling you to lead your community or your family, you are the gadol of today!  How many times have I walked into someone’s home and proudly shown the beautiful picture of their zayda (grandfather) on the wall – an ehrliche yid mit a lange bord (a sincere Jew with a long beard)?  Beard or no beard, will your einiklach (grandchildren) be able to point with the same pride to your picture on the wall? 

Living in the past is a cop-out.  Today, we are living in the good old days of the future.  May you accept the mantle of leadership that today’s generation needs!