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Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Welcome to the Embassy of Heaven

Daf Yomi Nedarim 35

The shul board was afire with debate: nobody could doubt the level of participation at the programs and the number of people in shul each Shabbos.  The concern, however, was: who were these people?  There seemed to be so many non-members in the shul.  The conversation turned to the role of the shul and the rabbi.  Should the rabbi be visiting only members in the hospital?  Should the shul open its doors on High Holy days to non-members?  Should the rabbi be representing the Jewish community at communal and political events, or should he stick to servicing the membership?

When it comes to cohanim (Temple priests), are they agents of us (the people), or agents of Heaven?
What difference does it make?  With regards to one who vows abstinence from such cohanim: if you say they are agents of the people, they would be benefitting the abstainer with their service; but if you say they are agents of Heaven, they would be permitted to serve (since they are not working for the people, but for the Almighty). 

A senior colleague once shared a powerful lesson with me: he has always explained to his shul that while they indeed provide him with his monthly paycheck, he does not work for them.  He works for the Almighty.  When shul members pay his salary, they become partners with him in the service of Heaven.

Synagogues are not country clubs.  Shul events are not for an elite class of Jews.  Children’s programs should not be reserved for those kids whose parents made certain financial choices.  Our mission as a shul is to be an embassy for Heaven.  If you are a member of the shul, you are a partner in the important work of the Divine embassy.  At the embassy, we work together as agents of Heaven to make this world a better, more spiritual place.

Everything you do in this world, you do as agent of Heaven.  You are an ambassador of the Almighty.  You are answerable to Him alone.  But He has great expectations of you.  He expects you to be there for every one of His children, wherever they may be. 

Ambassadors must deal with people in the craziest of situations – they could get called at two o’clock on a Sunday morning about a stolen passport that they need to deal with.   Likewise, people get into spiritual messes that you must be prepared to take on without judging them or setting financial preconditions on your service.  They are citizens of Heaven – hopefully they’ll appreciate the importance of contributing towards the services – but even if they don’t, never hesitate to serve them!

It is an awesome honour and responsibility to be a Divine ambassador.  You have been chosen to administer the services of the Embassy to every one of G-d’s children.  May you merit satisfying every citizen of Heaven’s spiritual needs!  

Monday, 29 June 2015

How to escape giving charity

Daf Yomi Nedarim 34

A couple of years back, a congregant asked me if I could give a shiur (class) on Shabbos morning before davening. 
“In my old shul,” he said, “the rabbi would give a class.”
“In your old shul,” I asked him, “did the rabbi leyn (read the Torah) every week?”
“No,” he replied.  I then explained to him that I’d love to offer an early-Shabbos morning class, but that just wasn’t possible, because I needed that time to prepare the leyning.  He graciously understood and accepted where I was coming from.

Some months ago, we began our daily Daf Yomi class in the shul.  Rabbi White from the Kollel gives the shiur six days a week, but since the Kollel is on the other side of town, he’s unable to give it on Shabbos.  His solution was simply to frontload the Daf on Friday and backload it on Sunday and essentially cover seven days’ worth of learning in six.  While I certainly appreciated his gesture, I maintained that the beauty of Daf Yomi is the discipline of daily learning and so it was vital that we provide a shiur seven days a week.  To that end, I approached some of the local rabbis to create a roster for the Daf on Shabbos, each of us giving the shiur once every three weeks.

But now back to my original conundrum: How could I give a shiur on Shabbos morning when I had leyning to prepare?

Mishnah: One who vows to abstain from deriving any benefit from his friend may pay his half-shekel tax and repay his debt and return his lost item.
Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Asi were debating the particulars of the case.  One said that one may only return a lost item when the possessions of the owner are prohibited to the finder.  We are not concerned for the rare situation of “Rav Yosef’s coin.”
Rashi explains: If one is occupied with the mitzvah of returning the lost item and he encounters a beggar, he is not obligated to give anything, since ‘one who is occupied with a mitzvah is exempt from another mitzvah.’  Rav Yosef explains that there is thus a financial incentive to return a lost item, in that one will be exempt from giving the charity!  Consequently, if the finder has sworn off benefit from the owner of the lost item, he would not be permitted to return it to him, since he is thereby gaining a financial benefit!

Picture the Gemara’s situation: A fellow is running around town sticking up posters with a photo of the poor little puppy he’s found.   A pauper stops him and asks for a dollar to buy a sandwich, because he hasn’t eaten in two days. 
‘Sorry, mate, I can’t help you today,’ he responds, ‘I’m busy returning this puppy and so I am absolved from all other mitzvos.’

Unfortunately, that’s how some people are.  You ask them to help out with something and they tell you how busy they are doing other important things.  It’s just not possible, given their current schedule.
‘Rabbi, I would love to help decorate the shul for Purim, but I’m just so busy with other community commitments.’  The message of the Talmud is that you have the time if you want to have the time.  While the Gemara’s example might sound a little extreme, how often do we make excuses when the truth is all we had to do was to rejig our commitments?

When I was first asked to give a Shabbos morning pre-davening shiur, I thought, ‘no way.’  There was absolutely no way I could fit it into my already-packed Shabbos morning schedule.  But now that I wanted a daily Daf Yomi shiur in the shul, all of a sudden I was able to figure out how to give the shiur on Shabbos morning and still prepare the leyning

How did I do it?  I simply made sure to prepare the leyning and the shiur earlier in the week, so that I could wake up on Shabbos morning, review each of them one final time and head off to shul to give the shiur.  Ultimately, it was all a matter of good scheduling and planning.

It’s time to stop using the excuse that you’re busy doing too many other mitzvos to do another mitzvah.  Most of the time it’s simply a matter of good scheduling and better planning.  May you merit being a source of assistance and volunteerism, somebody that everyone can always count on to be there!  

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Driving for success

Daf Yomi Nedarim 33

Warren Buffett is one the richest men in the world.  He is known as the Oracle for his mastery of the stockmarket.   His company, Berkshire Hathaway, has exhibited the most solid returns of any investment company in history.   Ever wondered what kind of house he lives in?  What car he drives?

Mishnah:  One who vows to abstain from his friend’s food may not borrow a flour sieve, a grain sieve, a mill or an oven.
The Ran explains: These utensils are forbidden since they are used for food preparation.
Rav Papa asks: How about borrowing a horse to ride upon to the banquet or a ring to be seen with at the banquet, are these forbidden food-related items?
The Ran explains: The purpose of the horse and the ring are to give the impression of being a VIP and receive the royal treatment and best portion at the banquet.  Is that considered a direct food benefit or an ancillary benefit?

Hashem has great things in store for you in life.  If you maintain your faith in Heaven, you will achieve incredible success and prosperity in every aspect of your life.   And if you want to be successful, you need to live with a psyche of success.  Hold your head high; know that you are a Heavenly ambassador, here on earth to accomplish great things.  When you are already prosperous in your mind, in no time that will translate into tangible, physical success!

Nevertheless, even though you must live your life with an air of success, that does not mean you should be a charlatan or live beyond your means.  “Who is rich?” asks Ben Zoma in Ethics of the Fathers, “He who is happy with his lot.”   You are already successful.  You are already accomplished.  You are already prosperous.  You don’t need to go borrowing your neighbour’s Ferrari and jewellery to prove it! 

You don’t need to prove anything to anybody.  The truly successful individual is the person who does not need all the trappings of success to show off their success.  Warren Buffett does not own a New York penthouse or a Malibu beach-house.  He lives in a modest house in suburban Omaha, Nebraska and drives a regular car, without a chauffeur.  He is so successful that he’s not out to prove anything to anyone.

As long as you know your self-worth, you don’t have to impress anyone.  If they’re anybody at all, they will perceive who you are due to your innate success.  May you never be tempted to live beyond your means in an effort to prove who you are!  

Friday, 26 June 2015

Why do you care if your kid is Jewish?

Daf Yomi Nedarim 32

Jimmy and Sally had just given birth to a new baby boy, mazaltov!   But they weren’t religious at all and were not excited about the prospect of doing a bris on their newborn child.
Still undecided, they called the mohel and asked, “If we don’t circumcise our son, will he still be Jewish?”
You could hear the deep sigh of the mohel on the other end of the telephone as he conceded that even without a bris, their child would still be a Jew. 
“If you’re born of a Jewish mother, it doesn’t matter what you do or don’t do, you remain a Jew,” replied the mohel.

Rabbanit Batya heard this story and was so upset. 
“That was completely the wrong answer!” she exclaimed, incensed by the foolhardiness of the mohel.

Rebbe taught: The mitzvah of Bris Milah is so great that there was nobody who was as occupied with mitzvos as our forefather Abraham and yet he was not called ‘complete’ until he was circumcised.
Another teaching: The mitzvah of Bris Milah is so great that it is equal to all the other mitzvos combined!
Another teaching: The mitzvah of Bris Milah is so great that if not for Milah, Heaven and Earth would be unsustainable! 

“You know what the mohel should’ve answered?” asked the Rabbanit rhetorically, “His response to their question ‘Will our kid still be considered Jewish if he doesn’t have a bris?’ should have been ‘Why do you care?’”

“Why do you care?”  What is it about being Jewish that is important to you?  It wasn’t a yes or no question.  A question as enormous as the one they posed should have elicited, at the very least, a lengthy conversation about the importance of Judaism in their lives.  If being Jewish was important to them, why was it important to them?  What did being Jewish mean in terms of how they intended to raise their child?

Sadly, the vast majority of Jews today are proud of the fact that they are Jewish but don’t have the foggiest idea why.  Their pintele Yid – the spark of the soul’s flame – burns bright and is reaching out to them to do something with the unbelievable gift they received at birth.  But instead of diving head-first into their Judaism, they sit on the sidelines of the Jewish game, happy just to be a part of something greater.

Your Jewish heritage was the most incredible gift bequeathed to you by your parents and bestowed upon you by the Almighty.  Don’t ever take it for granted.  Ask yourself constantly what your Judaism means to you.  What makes you feel special about being Jewish?  Why is it important to you?  Why do you care?  These are important questions to have with yourself, but they are of the utmost importance to have with your children and grandchildren.

You are one of the blessed few to have been granted the great gift of Judaism.  Is it no more than an elitist club or is it meaningful physically, materially, and spiritually?  May you merit asking yourself constantly, ‘Why do I care?’!  

Thursday, 25 June 2015

Where are the stars and sand promised to Abraham?

Daf Yomi Nedarim 31

Hashem promised Abraham that his children would be “like the sand of the sea” and “like the stars of the sky.”   And yet we are still “the fewest of all nations!”  What happened to His promise?

One prominent contemporary rabbi has suggested that these words are being fulfilled through the adherents of the three “Abrahamic religions.”  Although we Jews may be few in number, between the other two religions, there are an additional two and a half billion devotees!  Could this have been the meaning of the promise made to Abraham?

Mishnah: If one vows to abstain from the children of Noah, he is permitted to derive benefit from Jews, but forbidden to benefit from gentiles.
The Gemara asks: Why are Jews excluded from Noah’s children?
The Gemara answers: Once Abraham was sanctified, Jews are known by his name instead.
Mishnah: If one vows to abstain from Abraham’s children, he is forbidden from Jews, but permitted to derive benefit from gentiles.
The Gemara asks: How about Ishmael? 
The Gemara answers: The Torah states, “For of Isaac, shall be called your offspring.”
The Gemara asks: How about Esau? 
The Gemara answers:  The Torah states “of Isaac,” meaning not all of Isaac.

As far as the Talmud is concerned, the only progeny of Abraham that bears his name is the Jewish people.  We are no longer deemed ‘children of Noah;’ we bear Abraham’s name alone.   And despite the existence of other children and faiths, who technically stem from him, we are the only true descendants of Abraham. 

What happened to the promise of stars and sand?  Certainly throughout the ages, there have been millions upon millions of Jews.  And when Moshiach arrives, all of our brethren will be resurrected.  What’s more, at the End of Days, everything will revert to the way things were meant to be; meaning that all those who died al Kiddush Hashem (sanctifying G-d’s Name) – thereby losing the opportunity to bring children, grandchildren and future generations into the world – will not just rise themselves, but together with all of their unborn generations! 

Indeed, when Cain killed Abel, G-d told him, “the bloods of your brother are crying out to me from the ground.”  Our Sages explain that the usage of the plural ‘bloods’ implies that it was not just Abel that died, but all his future progeny for all time!   And so without a doubt, G-d’s promise to Abraham will be fulfilled very soon when all potential unborn Jews will join in the resurrection.  But in the meantime, Abraham’s children remain few in number, which makes our bond with Heaven all the more extraordinary. 

You are special.  You are unique.  You were chosen as a child of Abraham and Sarah to have a special relationship with the Almighty.  That right was not granted to just anyone.  You have an important mission to fulfill on earth that only a select few were chosen for.  Just like your forefather Abraham, you were handpicked to be a Divine ambassador.  All citizens may travel the world but not everyone works for the “Foreign Service.”  You do.

If everyone had the special relationship with G-d, it wouldn’t be special anymore.  You are a chosen soul that was singled out from billions of souls to serve.  May you forever remember your unique place in this world and your mission as a child of the Almighty!  You were sent here to accomplish great things!

Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Stabilizing your life

Daf Yomi Nedarim 30

Alexander the Great once asked the Sages of Israel, “Is it better to live at sea or upon dry land?”
They responded, “It is better to dwell upon dry land, for seafarers’ minds are unsettled until they disembark upon dry land.”

If one vowed abstinence from seafarers, he is permitted to derive benefit from land-dwellers.  If, however, he vowed to abstain from land-dwellers, he is nonetheless prohibited from deriving benefit from seafarers, for they are included among land-dwellers.

Every day, first thing in the morning, we make the blessing, “Blessed are You, Hashem . . . Who places the dry land over the water.”  What are we thanking G-d for?  If the water would be on top, we would live in houseboats, so what?  In Venice, they get around on gondolas, is that a problem?

The meaning of the blessing is that we are expressing our gratitude to the Almighty for bestowing stability in our lives.   As the Sages told Alexander: every seafarer looks forward to the day he will disembark from his vessel and rest his foot on dry land.   You may be experiencing stormy weather in your life right now, but know that one day soon the storm will subside and the Almighty will bring calm and tranquility into your life as you step back onto dry land.

If you examine the wording of the blessing carefully, you’ll notice that we don’t actually thank G-d for ‘placing’ the dry land over the water.  The word is roka which is a verb related to the word from the creation story rokia, meaning ‘firmament.’  The Torah tells us that Hashem called the rokia ‘heaven.’   In other words, the morning blessing reads, “Blessed are You, Hashem . . . Who heavenizes the dry land over the water.”

What do we mean when we thank G-d for ‘heavenizing the dry land over the water’?  Once again, water represents instability in contrast to the stability of the dry land.  Life is full of trials and tribulations.  From health issues to parnassah (financial) woes to nachas (childrearing) stresses, life can be extremely challenging.   How do you weather the storm?  By heavenizing your life.

When you place your complete faith in the One Above, you know that He is carrying you through the storm of life.  And so even when, to everyone else, you appear to be out on the ocean, inside you know that you are on dry land.  When Hashem created the firmament, He separated the earthly waters from the heavenly waters, meaning that He gave us the opportunity to rise above the storm of life and live a tranquil, heavenly existence.  And so when you bless Him for placing the dry land over the sea, you are acknowledging His presence, providence, and master plan, despite the appearance of rough seas all around.

In life, you get to choose whether to dwell on dry land or at sea.  Even in the stormiest of waters, G-d has given you the ability to heavenize stability into your life by placing your trust in Him.  May you merit a life of stability, faith and Heaven on Earth!

Monday, 22 June 2015

Ancient donation plaques discovered on the Western Wall?

Daf Yomi Nedarim 29
‘When you raise money to build a building, nobody wants to buy the bathroom.’
That was the sage advice I received many years ago from a fundraising mentor.
‘Instead,’ he continued, ‘you sell the sanctuary over and over.  Everyone wants to own a piece of the sanctuary.’

Mishnah: If a person vows, ‘May these plants be an offering until they are chopped down,’ they have no redemption.
The Gemara asks: Never?
Rav Pada answers: You redeem them and they are resanctified.  You redeem them and they are resanctified and so on, until they are chopped down.  Once they are chopped down, you redeem them one final time and that’s it.
Ula says: Once they are chopped down, they no longer require redemption.
Rav Hamnuna said to him: Where did their sanctity disappear to?  It’s like a man who says to a woman, ‘Today you shall be my wife but tomorrow no more.’  Would she be permitted to walk away without a divorce? 
Rava responds: How can you compare material holiness to personal holiness?  Material holiness may disappear, personal holiness does not disappear! 

People like donating money towards buildings.  You see your donation in bricks and mortar.  It’s tangible.  You can see very clearly how your money has been spent.

It’s much more difficult to raise funds for programming and salaries.  As the donor, you have no idea where your money’s gone.  You almost feel as if you have nothing to show for your donation, nothing to point to!

But as Rava says, material holiness eventually disappears.  Buildings don’t last forever.  Even the Western Wall has long since shed its donation plaques.  Personal holiness, however, never disappears.  When you invest your charitable dollars into human capital, your investment has an impact upon generations and generations of real, live human beings.

When you donate towards outreach programs such as NCSY, you earn a share in all the successes of the program.  When young people are impacted and they make a decision to commit themselves and their future families to live a Jewish life, your donation lasts an eternity.  Material holiness may disappear, but personal holiness does not disappear!

It makes a person feel good to see their name on bricks and mortar.  But major investments don’t bear fruit immediately; it takes years of hard work and commitment.  May you merit investing your charitable dollars wisely and bearing fruit for generations upon generations of committed Jews!

Frum murderers

Daf Yomi Nedarim 28

The Yid Hakadosh, Rabbi Yaakov Yitzchak of Peshischa, once called upon his student Reb Simcha Bunim and instructed him to take some of the chasidim on a journey.  No destination was specified but off they went, no questions asked.  On the way, they found lodging at a certain inn and notwithstanding the frum appearance of the innkeepers, they were concerned about kashrus issues, and ordered a dairy meal.
“I’m sorry,” said the innkeeper, “tonight’s menu was fleishig.  I have no dairy to serve you.”  They proceeded to pound him with all manner of question regarding the shechita, salting, and source of the food until they finally acquiesced to the meal.  

Over the course of the meal, their conversation turned to some of the local gossip. 
Overhearing their conversation, the innkeeper’s wife passed by and muttered to herself, “Interesting how some people are so careful about what goes into their mouths but not nearly as careful about what comes out of their mouths.”
When Reb Simcha Bunim heard these words, he jumped up and exclaimed, “What pearls of wisdom!  That is why the Rebbe sent us on this mission!”

One may swear to murderers, plunderers or tax-collectors that his produce is terumah (priestly tithes) or royal estate even if it is not true.  The House of Shamai says that one may utilize any vow except a biblical oath.  The House of Hillel says that one may even employ a biblical oath. 
Rashi explains:  If someone comes to kill you over material goods, you are permitted to swear that the objects they desire are terumah even if they are not, so that the plunderers will not take the goods because they cannot eat the tithes for fear of spiritual retribution. 

Why would a murderer care whether or not the food was kosher to eat?  If he is prepared to murder, plunder and steal, it stands to reason that he is not particularly frum!  How would it help to swear to him that the food is not kosher?!

The answer is that nobody thinks of themselves as a murderer.  When a person commits even the most heinous of crimes, somehow he justifies the act in his own mind.  To his own conscience, he is a good Jew – far be it from him to eat the priestly tithes!  For whatever reason, he needs to commit these acts of violence.  But he somehow compartmentalizes away the acts of murder and theft and convinces himself that he is still committed to his Judaism.

The case of murder is an extreme example of this justification, rationalization and compartmentalization.  But everyone is guilty of it on some level.   Are you careful about the minutiae of the kosher laws but careless with regards to shemiras halashon (guarding your tongue) or shemiras einayim (guarding your eyes)?  Do you have kavana (focus) for each word of davening, but then easily get angry at people?   Are you committed to giving ten percent or more to tzedakah, but less precise when it comes to your taxes and business dealings? 

As a Divine ambassador, you need to be extra careful when it comes to mitzvos bein adam lachavero – the interpersonal commandments.  Don’t get trapped by the misbelief that G-d cares more about the ritualistic mitzvos.  May you merit acting in an exemplary fashion when it comes to all of Hashem’s commandments and never rationalize, justify, or compartmentalize!  

Sunday, 21 June 2015

What's your plan B?

Daf Yomi Nedarim 27
Who is wise?
Ben Zoma says: One who learns from all people.
Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi says: One who sees the future.
Question 1. Let’s be honest, some people have useful information to impart.  But there a lot of fools out there.  Why would you want to learn from just anyone?
Question 2. Which one is it that makes you wise?  Learning from everyone or seeing the future?

A certain fellow deposited his document of credit with the court with the instructions, “If I do not return within thirty days, I hereby relinquish my rights.”  In the end, he was held up due to an emergency.
Rav Huna says: Tough luck.  He has relinquished his rights.
Rava says: Emergencies do not count.  He has not relinquished his rights.

The Gemara asks Rava: How is that case different from the following?
A fellow gave his wife a conditional gett (bill of divorce) and said, “If I don’t return within thirty days, this gett shall take effect.”  On the thirtieth day, he arrived just as the last ferry was departing.  He stood on the other side of the river waving and shouting, “I’m here! I’m here!”  Shmuel ruled: He has failed to arrive as promised and the gett is in force.
Rava answers: Foreseeable emergencies are different.  He should have thought ahead about the ferry schedule and so that is not considered beyond his control.   

Rabbi Dr. Abraham J. Twerski explains how seeing the future and learning from every person are one and the same.  Unless you’re a prophet, you cannot actually look into the future.  But the wise man is one who can foresee the outcomes of his actions.  How?  By looking around at others’ successes and failures and not making the same mistakes they made and thereby failed; rather choosing the path that leads to success.

You can’t find success in a vacuum.  You need to rely on others’ experiences to assist you in your decision-making.  You could try driving without wearing a seatbelt, but if you’re smart, you’ll recognize from others’ experiences that that could spell bad news.   You could try crossing a busy street while texting, but if you’re wise, you’ll know that others have tried that with unfortunate consequences. 

You can’t foresee all possibilities.  Some major emergencies and calamities are completely unforeseeable.  Rava says that you’re never liable if an earthquake strikes.  But when it comes to emergencies that you could have foreseen and expected, you must have a contingency plan.  Famed motivational speaker Tony Robbins says that whenever you chart a course of action you need to create three backup plans! 

We often complain that we didn’t do what we needed to because something came up.  It was beyond your control.  But emergencies only count if you couldn’t foresee them and plan for them.  Foreseeable emergencies are not excusable.  May you always have a plan B, a plan C, and a plan D, for when things don’t quite go as you originally planned!  

Is all fat bad for you?

Daf Yomi Nedarim 26

In Minhag Yisrael Torah, Rabbi Daniel Sperber tells the story of a certain community in an Algerian village that would eat chametz (bread) on the last day of Pesach.  A traveller happened upon the community, and was shocked at their practice.  Resolving to get to the bottom of it, he went about interviewing the elders of the town.   Finally, one old man related the following story.

‘Our custom goes back eighty years.  I was not quite bar-mitzvah age and I remember a big rabbi visiting us for Pesach from the Land of Israel.  Everyone gathered around to drink his holy words thirstily.  On the final day of the festival, he was nowhere to be found.  We searched high and low until someone found him on the outskirts of town eating a sandwich.  Ever since then, on the eighth day of Pesach, we have adopted this practice of taking our freshly-baked challah and eating it on the outskirts of town.

If one said, “I hereby vow to abstain from onions because they are bad for the heart,” and then they told him, “But village onions are good for the heart!” not only is he permitted to eat village onions, but he may have any onions, since the vow is now void. 

Sometimes we do things a certain way for many years before we find out that we were acting in error.  Many of us have perspectives that we were brought up with and have held for a lifetime.  But as we mature we begin to realize that these attitudes might not be entirely accurate.   

Clearly in Rabbi Sperber’s tale, an ignorant community had failed to realize that the guest rabbi was from Israel and therefore only needed to observe seven days of Pesach.  And yet, good luck trying to convince these poor souls that they had been desecrating the festival for years and years and they must change their ‘minhag’!

If you had sworn off onions because you were under the impression that they were bad for you, only to later learn that ‘village onions’ are good for you, how quick would you be to change your long established habits?   Science and food technology are constantly reassessing which fats are bad for us and what forms of exercise are best.  But most people are resistant to change, particularly changes that disrupt what they’ve been doing for a lifetime.

This resistance to change is especially prevalent when it comes to religious practice.  How many of us are willing to reconsider what we’ve been doing throughout our lives even when provided with strong evidence as to the veracity of our Torah tradition?  Even when we see that a commitment to Torah and mitzvos is the only way to ensure Jewish continuity?

Are you stuck in your lifelong mindset and unable to break free from the way you’ve always been doing things?  Do you feel that improving your commitment to Torah and mitzvos would cast aspersions on everything you’ve done until now?  Or the practices you were brought up with?

It’s time to escape those captive attitudes!  Emancipate yourself from the mental malady of doing the same thing over and over again, despite the inadequate results that never evince change.  Life is about spiritual growth and transformation.  If you were brought up a certain way and are now beginning to recognize your higher purpose that may be the very reason you were sent down here!  Hashem wants you to overcome your psychological barriers and start down a fresh spiritual path.  That’s your special challenge in life!

It’s never easy to make major changes in life.  But successful people are those who are willing to break out of the mold they’ve always known.  May you merit spiritual success by constantly questioning your direction in life and never being afraid to implement the changes those mental conversations engender! 

Friday, 19 June 2015

Why did the chicken cross the road?

Daf Yomi Nedarim 25

The other day, I crossed the street from Sir Winston Churchill Square to the Stanley Milner Library, and I was booked for jaywalking.  Now, we’re all familiar with the concept; but I must say, I’ve never actually met anyone who was charged with the crime.  And so, while I certainly admit that I was wrong and acted inappropriately, I was shocked when the officer booked me.   The good news was that, as a first-time offender, I was let off with a warning.  But they took down my details, and I was told that next time, it will be a $250 fine.  I regret my actions and I will certainly strive to make sure that there is no next time. 

The Beraisa states: When our teacher Moshe made the people swear at the Plains of Moab, he said to them, “Know ye, I am not making you swear according to how you understand the oath; rather according to my understanding and the Omnipresent’s understanding.”
The Gemara explains: Perhaps you will act contrary to the Torah and you will say that we swore to keep it according to our understanding of its meaning.  Therefore, Moshe specified that they were to swear according to his intended meaning.    For example, when we are told to do ‘whatever G-d commanded’ they might say that when they said ‘god’ they were thinking ‘idol,’ and so it is not dependent upon our interpretation and understanding, rather Moshe’s intention.

Many people treat their Judaism as a dinner menu that they can pick and choose from.  Some items on the menu they like and will do.  Others are not so appetizing or appealing and so they’ll skip them.  

But Judaism is not a bottom-up, grassroots movement.  Torah and mitzvos are, by definition, top-down.  Mitzvah means commandment and you don’t get to pick which commandments you choose to obey.  And likewise, you don’t get to choose your own interpretation of the Law.  When we swore the oath of the covenant at the Plains of Moab, Moshe made it very clear that the system is not up for individual interpretation.

Maybe I should have turned around to the officer and said, ‘I don’t subscribe to the law against jaywalking.’  Of course, that is ludicrous.  I don’t get to choose which laws to subscribe to.  Laws and commandments by their very definition are imposed from above.   I would have been equally out of line had I started trying to offer my own interpretation of what jaywalking means.  Who am I to say?  The lawmakers get to decide that.

You are most fortunate to have either been born into a special covenant with the Almighty or have converted into the chosen covenantal nation.   The terms of the covenant were established thousands of years ago, according to the Omnipresent’s mitzvah – command.  If you desire to remain part of that covenantal relationship, it means accepting the will of G-d and His intention.  That’s the only meaning of mitzvah.

You are one of the lucky few in this world.  You were chosen to serve.  You were chosen to be a child of the Almighty.  May you merit accepting and fulfilling your mission according to the understanding of Hashem and His servant, Moses! 

Red chairs and blue chairs

Daf Yomi Nedarim 24

Our shul is packed for Kol Nidrei.   On the holiest day of the year, the soul shines brightest and tells the holy Jewish body it inhabits to go to shul.  Our members have set seats in the main section of the shul – we call these the red seats.  But we also provide extra seats for non-members at the back of the shul – these we refer to as the blue seats. 

Why won’t blue seaters join the synagogue?  They attend every year without fail, and it’s not as if they’re getting any less benefit from the shul than the bulk of our members who also only attend on High Holy days!  It can’t be the money that’s impeding their joining – we allow ‘adjusted’ memberships for those who cannot afford to pay full board.  So what’s stopping them from becoming members?

We learned in a Mishnah: If one says to his friend, ‘I vow abstinence from you, unless you take this gift from me,’ he can annul his vow without the help of a sage.
The Gemara elucidates: The one who made the vow is telling his friend, ‘I am not a dog that you need to feed without taking anything in return.’
Rabbeinu Nissim explains: The point of this person’s vow swearing off anything from his friend is to say that unless their relationship is a two-way street and the other fellow will accept his gift, he is likewise not interested in deriving any benefit from the other person.

Most people don’t like to be takers.  We would much rather be on the giving side than the receiving side.   In fact, that’s why we are here in this world – to contribute.  The more we contribute, the more we have achieved our earthly goals and mission. 

But the Almighty does not always provide us with the wherewithal to give.  We are all takers in some form or fashion.  Whether it is a public good, or a piece of advice, there is no shortage of situations that life calls upon us to be takers.  If you are on the giving end of that relationship, you should always try to find some way to allow the recipient to give back, so that they do not feel uncomfortable.

When you give to someone in need, try to find a way for them to ‘do you a favour’ in return.  If they seek financial assistance, ask them to help you move some boxes the next week.  Or ask them their opinion on an important matter.  That way, they feel valid and worthy and not like ‘a dog’ being fed. 

One of the reasons people don’t come to shul is that they feel awkward if they’re not a member.  It’s not that they don’t feel welcome.  It’s that they don’t feel comfortable being takers.  And so, if they are not in a position to pay their dues, they simply opt out altogether.  Of course, that’s very sad.  We have a responsibility to make everyone feel a part of the shul and Jewish life, no matter their situation.  And the way to do that is not just to smile and offer them a bowl of cholent.   We need to get them volunteering in some capacity, so that they feel they are contributing and giving back and no longer feeling awkward about attending for free. 

If you see someone new in shul, don’t pounce on them for membership.  Instead, engage with them and see how they can get involved volunteering for the shul.  Once they’re invested, you can have the membership conversation.  Otherwise, you run the risk of completely scaring them off if they can’t afford to pay full membership and don’t want to be perceived as takers.

Nobody wants to be a charity case.  When you help somebody out, always try to find a way to make them feel it’s a two-way street.  May you merit forever being a contributor and finding ways to maximize others’ contributions, financial and otherwise!  

Tuesday, 16 June 2015

Donuts that make you lose weight

Daf Yomi Nedarim 23

Thursday mornings at shul is Breakfast at Bernie’s.  Dr. Bernie Adler brings a delicious array of pastries and cookies from his daughter’s store, Bliss Baked Goods.  We were sitting around one day at breakfast and I offered a donut to Slava.  Slava is a fine young man who comes to minyan every morning and very much maintains his physical health and fitness. 
“Are you kidding me, Rabbi?” responded Slava, “I’d love to have a donut, but I look at that piece and I see hundreds of calories.  That little donut is about an hour and a half of cardio to work off!”

Rabbi Yishmael the son of Rabbi Yossi was seeking to have a vow annulled.
He appeared before the Rabbis, who said, “Were you aware of all the facts when you made the vow?”
“Yes,” he replied.
“Were you aware of all the facts when you made the vow?” they asked again.
“Yes,” he repeated.   This exchange took place multiple times until a certain launderer realized that the Rabbis were bothered and so he got up and whacked Rabbi Yishmael with his laundry sprinkler.
Reeling from the blow, Rabbi Yishmael exclaimed, “Had I known I’d be whacked by the launderer, I would not have acted so rashly when I made the vow!”  And thus, he released himself from the vow.

What happens after we die?  Everyone knows: either you go to heaven or you go to hell, right?  In Judaism, of course, the dichotomy is not as stark.   There’s no actual place called hell; it’s a process we all go through until the soul is cleansed of its sins and one can enter heaven. 

During the soul’s sojourn in this physical world, it does a lot of good things, for which it earns eternal reward.  But along the way, it also does engages in worldly, non-spiritual activities, which cause physicality to attach to the soul.  That physical coarseness (a.k.a. sin) is like a stain on the soul.  The soul needs to be clean to enter heaven and so just like a soiled garment that must be put through the wringer in order to be cleansed of all the dirt, the soul needs to be cleansed.

In other words, just like Rabbi Yishmael, there will come a time when you will say ‘had I known I’d be whacked by the launderer, I would not have acted so rashly when I followed my heart’s physical desires whilst on earth!’  The problem is that we don’t see the consequences of our actions.  Imagine we could all picture the consequences of our actions with the same vividness as Slava pictures the consequences of eating a donut!   When donut equals an hour and a half of cardio, it is no longer as tempting!  Likewise if a ham sandwich conjures up images of a heavenly washing machine, it’s no longer as tantalizing! 

The good news, of course, is if you can utilize the imagery of the washing machine to deter yourself from the desires of the flesh, then how much more so you can utilize your vision of heaven to motivate your performance of mitzvos!  Just think of the spiritual bliss and eternal reward each mitzvah brings – it’s like being told that donuts actually make you lose weight!  Wouldn’t you be running to eat as many donuts as possible?!

This world is but an illusion, a hallway to the ultimate palace.  May you merit maintaining the vision of the palace in its all glory with all the donuts you can eat with every choice in life you make!

Monday, 15 June 2015

Anger causes hemorrhoids

Daf Yomi Nedarim 22

Poor Shloima and Shprintza.  They barely had enough food to feed their twelve children let alone money for clothing and other expenses.  But Sukkos was around the corner, and how could Shloima go through the festival without a lulav and esrog?  Letting nothing deter him, he grabbed the only item of value in the house – a pair of tefillin that were a family heirloom.  They had been in the family for hundreds of years; his grandfather believed they may have been written by Ezra the Scribe!

Shloima took the tefillin, sold them, and bought the most beautiful esrog you have ever laid eyes on.  He carried it home exuberantly, almost flying with each step. 
But as soon as he stepped foot in the house, Shprintza glared at him, “Where did you get that esrog?  We have no gelt!”
“I sold the tefillin,” he whispered timidly.
“You what?!?” she screamed as she snatched the esrog from his hands and threw it to the floor.  Shloima looked down and sadly, the pitom (top) had broken off, invalidating its use for the mitzvah.

In a valiant demonstration of his simple faith, Shloima raised his eyes to Heaven and prayed, “Hashem, I no longer have my tefillin.  Hashem, I no longer have my esrog.  Hashem, please grant me the fortitude to stay calm right now and at least keep my shalom bayis (domestic peace).”

Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmeini taught: Whoever gets angry becomes controlled by all forms of Gehinnom. Moreover, he becomes prone to hemorrhoids.
Rabbah bar Rav Huna taught: Whoever gets angry indicates that the Shechina (Divine presence) is unimportant to him.
Rabbi Yirmiya of Difti says: He forgets his Torah learning and becomes foolish.
Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak says: He demonstrates that his sins are more numerous than his merits.

Rabbi Paysach Krohn maintains that the esrog story never happened.  In his opinion, there’s nobody in this world who exemplifies such self-restraint.   Nevertheless, the story is an important lesson on the lengths we must strive to go to maintain our composure and manage our anger.

If you were to stop for a moment and remember that getting angry is a form of Gehinnom boiling over or that you are demonstrating that G-d’s presence is unimportant to you, you would immediately back off.   Suddenly, you acknowledge that whatever has happened that has made you upset has emanated from the Divine.  If you get angry, you might as well be angry at G-d for causing whatever it is that you are upset about.

What’s more, if you’re not accepting the Divine will, what’s all your Torah learning worth?  And so Rabbi Yirmiya cautions you to keep your Torah learning in mind and not to overreact foolishly.  And ultimately, if you can’t control yourself, says Rav Nachman, clearly you’re more sinful than meritorious, because people with merit have self-control and discipline.  Sin is an indication of a lack of control.

Controlling your temper and all of your emotions isn’t easy.  Ultimately, it’s why you’re here on earth – to master your heart’s desires and temerity.  May you merit constant control of your emotions and management of your temper and never fall prey to the impulsivities of your heart! 

Misinterpreting the tone of an email

Daf Yomi Nedarim 21

Have you ever been burned by an email or a text message?  You write something quickly only to realize that the recipient has completely misunderstood your tone.  It’s very important to read and reread any message before you send it, just to make sure there’s no misunderstanding, as the famous story of Trotsky’s telegram demonstrates:

Stalin gets up one day and gathers everyone together.
“Comrades, I have a major announcement.  I’ve just received a telegram from Trotsky that you all need to hear. Listen to this: Joseph Stalin.  The Kremlin. Moscow.  You were right.  I was wrong.  You are the true heir to Lenin.  I should apologize.  Leon Trotsky.
The crowd is ecstatic.   But then an old Jewish tailor beckons to Stalin.
“Your Eminence, I think such an important telegram deserves to be read with more enthusiasm and expression.  May I?”  Stalin nods and hands him the piece of paper.
He reads, “Joseph Stalin.  The Kremlin.  Moscow.  You were right?!  I was wrong?!  You are the true heir to Lenin?!  I should apologize?!  Leon Trotsky.

A fellow once came to Rabbi Assi seeking annulment of a vow.
He said to him, “Did you ever regret making the vow?”
The fellow replied, “No,” and Rabbi Assi released him from the vow.
Rabbeinu Nissim explains: The fellow actually responded, “No?!” as if to say, “Of course!”

Rabbi Mordechai Becher uses the story of Trotsky’s telegram to point out that there’s no way anyone could understand the meaning of the Written Torah without an Oral tradition of punctuation.   Indeed, as we see from this piece of Gemara, even the Oral Law needs an Oral tradition of punctuation to explain it!   If you look into the Torah, there are no verse breaks or chapter breaks and without the vowels, a word may be read ten different ways.  Obviously, the Oral tradition was always there to explain the meaning.

So when ignorant people claim that the Torah only prohibited cooking a goat in its mother’s milk (chalav), ask them how they know that.  Maybe the Torah actually doesn’t want the goat cooked in its mother’s fat (cheilev)!   Without the Oral tradition, the letters are absolutely meaningless.

You see in your own day-to-day dealings how easy it is to miscommunicate a message if the recipient misreads your tone.  I knew two sisters who didn’t talk to one another for months, simply because one didn’t understand that her sister’s email message was tongue-in-cheek.   How much more so should we not assume that it is possible to understand the Torah’s meaning without the correct tradition.

Tone and context are vitally meaningful.  Always check over your emails and text messages before sending and ask yourself if you might be misinterpreted.  And remember that if that’s the case for a simple text message, how much more careful must we be with our interpretation and understanding of the Torah.  May you merit revering the Oral Law and true meaning of the Torah and never giving people the wrong impression concerning anything you say or write!  

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Just don't make a habit of it

Daf Yomi Nedarim 20
Recently, I was asked the following shayla (halachic query): Firstly, Rabbi, I’ve just booked a vacation with a timeshare company.  You know the drill, you agree to take a tour of the property in exchange for the free vacation.  We have absolutely no intention of buying, no matter what they say.  Are we guilty of geneivas daas (deception, a form of theft)?   Secondly, Rabbi, I just want to get your opinion on how hard the sell is.  They won’t trick us into buying, will they?

The answer to the first part of the question is straightforward, I told the inquirer.  It’s not geneivas daas, because nobody ever intends to purchase a timeshare.  The salespeople are fully aware of that and are still willing to take that chance because they know that statistically it will be worth their time and effort – somebody will buy that day.   The answer to the second question, however, was more complicated.

You should never make a habit of taking vows of abstinence because you will eventually come to break your word.   And you should not make a habit of visiting an unlearned home because they will eventually come to serve you untithed foods.   And you should not make a habit of visiting the home of an unlearned cohen because he will eventually come to accidentally serve you priestly tithes.  And you should not converse too much with the woman, because you will eventually come to infidelity.

In all these cases, the Gemara does not say that one may never engage in the activities.  Rather, one should not make a habit of the activities, because of where they eventually lead.   If you feel the need to take a vow of abstinence, Ethics of the Fathers encourages you to do so, because it will protect you from misbehaviour.  But don’t make a habit of it, because eventually you won’t be able to keep to all the vows you’ve made and you will inevitably break your word.

Likewise, the Gemara doesn’t say: don’t ever accept a Shabbos lunch invitation from someone less learned or pious than yourself.  Of course you should.  When you do, you will see that they will be honoured and put out their finest Chinette, knowing that you have stricter standards than they.  But if you start to make a habit of it, after a while you will both let down your guard and they may begin serving you food that is not quite to your standard of kashrut.

Similarly, when it comes to chatting with members of the opposite sex, the Gemara does not say that you must not do so.   It certainly doesn’t say that when you chat with them, you mustn’t look them straight in the eye!   You must treat every human being with the utmost respect and give every person the time of day, regardless of their gender.  But don’t make a habit of conversing with ‘the’ woman – in other words, if it’s the same person that you’re chatting with regularly, that may lead down the wrong path, G-d forbid.

Many activities are okay – nay, proper – when you do them on occasion.  But some things you must not make a habit of.  Regarding the timeshare, I informed the questioner that it’s a little like gambling:  nobody becomes an addict the first time they play.  Not even the second or third time.  But once you start going on a regular basis, you can ‘bet your bottom dollar’ you’ll be hooked in no time.  Gambling is not halachically problematic, but someone who makes a habit of it is disqualified from serving as a witness.  Timeshare presentations do not pose any halachic issues whatsoever, but go enough times and eventually you’ll let your guard down, I told him. 

You shouldn’t get into the habit of engaging in activities that could lead down the wrong path in life.  But that doesn’t mean you should ‘swear’ off them completely.  May you grant every situation in life due consideration, act with measure and never get so caught up in your behaviour that you’ve lost control and gone too far!  

Are frum Jews better than secular Jews?

Daf Yomi Nedarim 19

What separates the average observant Jew from the non-observant Jew?  Nothing more than accident of birth.  One was born into a more religious family while the other was born into a less religious family.  As a result, the former ended up with a good Jewish education; the latter is lucky if he can read Hebrew, let alone translate a verse of the Chumash.

The Mishnah states: Concerning unclear vows, one must err on the side of stringency. 
The Gemara asks: Elsewhere we learned that we treat unclear vows of nazirism with leniency.  How do we reconcile these two contradictory teachings?
Rabbi Zaira answers: The nazirism ruling was made by Rabbi Eliezer, whereas our Mishnah was a ruling of the Rabbis.
Abaye challenges him: But Rabbi Eliezer teaches that in the case of questionable firstborns, the burden of proof rests upon the cohen seeking to claim the firstborn.  But they are nonetheless forbidden for work or to benefit from their wool.  Thus, we see that Rabbi Eliezer errs on the side of stringency!
Rabbi Zaira responds: How can you compare naturally occurring holiness to man-made holiness?  Firstborns become sanctified at birth by natural occurrences, whereas vows are a form of holiness induced by human beings.

The fact that you may be a frum Jew doesn’t make you any better than a secular Jew.  If you are who you are because of the family you were lucky enough to be born into, that is called ‘naturally-occurring holiness.’ It’s not a bad place to be, you are indeed blessed.  While you may not be any better than a non-observant Jew, you are certainly better off. 

But if you actually want to become a better Jew, you have to start making conscious choices.  You didn’t make any choices to get here.  Your parents made a choice and you went with the flow.   You can’t compare naturally occurring holiness to man-made holiness!

What efforts are you making for your spirituality?  Are you simply treading water?  Or are you determined to take ownership of the incredible heritage bequeathed you by your parents?

Maybe your parents taught you to keep Shabbos.  But their Shabbos table was dry and lacking spirit.  You can make a choice to imbue the atmosphere with divrei (words of) Torah and zemiros (songs of praise)!  Maybe your parents taught you how to daven.  It’s your choice whether you will daven with a thrice daily minyan and focus on each word of the prayers! 

Are you continuing along the path set you by your parents, without having accomplished anything on your own?  It’s time to create some man-made holiness in your life.  May you merit taking the blessed lot you were granted in life to a whole new spiritual level through your own incredible efforts!

Thursday, 11 June 2015

Beyond all reproach

Daf Yomi Nedarim 18

Lately, the Orthodox community has been bombarded with one piece of bad press after another.   Some of the subjects of the controversies have indeed been found guilty beyond a doubt; others have seen supporters and detractors go to battle over lives and reputations.   But in addition to all the pain and suffering experienced by those involved, one thing is clear: G-d Himself is suffering.   When rabbis get bad press, G-d gets bad press.  When Orthodoxy gets bad press, G-d gets bad press.

Beraisa: If in the case of an oath, the law is that it cannot take effect when another oath is already in place, should we not say that regarding vows of nazirism, which are less strict, a vow should not take effect when another vow is already in place? 
The Gemara asks: From where do we derive that an oath is stricter than a vow?
The Gemara answers: Regarding oaths, the Torah declares, “You shall not take the name of Hashem your God in vain; for Hashem will not absolve anyone that takes His name in vain.”

Chilul Hashem – desecration of G-d’s Name – is worse than any other sin.  In fact, one must rather accept death than a public desecration of Heaven, that’s how terrible it is.   It doesn’t matter whether the person’s right or wrong; sometimes the question is simply ‘am I giving G-d a good name or not?’

Strictly speaking, you really only need to die rather than commit the three cardinal sins of murder, idolatry or immorality; but there’s one further category that fits the bill.  If you feel that doing something is going to cause a public desecration of Heaven, even though it might seem innocuous to you, you may not do it under any circumstances.

You are an ambassador of G-d on earth!  You don’t have to be a clergyman to be a G-dly person – once you accept the mission, you represent the Almighty!  And so it’s no longer just about whether something is legally okay; your actions now need to be above suspicion or question in anyone’s eyes!  Otherwise, people lose their respect for the G-d that you speak and act on behalf of.  You are His ambassador on earth, people look to you to see the Divine presence in this world – don’t ever do anything that might give anyone the wrong impression whatsoever!

It’s a huge responsibility to represent the Almighty in this world.  But you know that you’ve been chosen for this tremendous mission.  May you merit being an awesome Divine ambassador, forever beyond reproach; righteous in G-d’s eyes and equally righteous in the eyes of man!

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Is fasting spiritually healthy?

Daf Yomi Nedarim 17

The Chozeh of Lublin was a great Chasidic Rebbe in late eighteenth century Poland.  They once told him about a certain righteous man who would fast all week long and only eat on Shabbos.
“Rebbe, what do you think?  This fellow is like an angel who doesn’t need to eat! How incredibly spiritual!”

The Torah declares, “If a person swears by uttering with his lips to do bad or do good . . . he shall bring a sacrifice to G-d.”
Beraisa: One might think that if one made an oath to transgress a mitzvah and failed to do so that he is guilty of breaking his word and must bring a sacrifice.  Therefore the verse states, “to do bad or do good,” which implies that just like doing good refers to engaging in permissible activities, similarly doing bad refers not to transgressing, but to abstaining from permissible activities.   Thus, one who swears to transgress a mitzvah is excluded from this dictum, since mitzvos are obligatory, not permissible activities.
Rashi explains: An example of swearing to do good would be where one promised to eat something permissible; an example of swearing to do bad would be where one promised not to eat something permissible.  In each of these cases, if one were to break one’s promise, he would have to bring an atonement sacrifice to G-d.

The Chozeh of Lublin responded to his Chasidim: There are two ways to serve G-d, abstinence and consumption.   While one could certainly become more spiritual by fasting, one could become even more spiritual by eating and elevating the food.  That is what is meant when the Torah teaches that one may take an oath “to do bad or do good.”   You’re not transgressing any mitzvah by abstaining from the pleasures of this world, but it’s still considered bad. 

The Almighty created an incredible world and He wants you to enjoy it.  He wants you to elevate it, not escape it.  When you eat for the right reasons – in order to have the strength to serve Him – and make the right blessings before and after, you become a partner in creation.  G-d created an imperfect world with a view to having us join Him in perfecting it.  When you utilize the wonders of this world – the inanimate, vegetable, and animal kingdoms – for His service, you transform the physical into the spiritual!

The Almighty created an amazingly good world.  Don’t shy away from it; don’t take it for granted.  May you merit a life of elevation, transforming this physical world into a spiritual abode for G-d!  

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Have you sworn off religion?

Daf Yomi Nedarim 16

In today’s day and age, religion is for kooks.  There was an earlier era of history when religious commitment was widely respected and expected.  Not anymore.  Nowadays, nobody wants the stigma of being “religious.”  It’s much more in vogue to be atheist or agnostic – let’s just believe in what we can rationally explain without all the fanatical mumbo jumbo!

Rav Gidel quoted Rav or Shmuel: How do we know that one may not make a vow to transgress the mitzvos?
Concerning one who makes a vow, the Torah declares, “He shall not desecrate his word,” which implies that ‘his word,’ i.e. matters pertaining to himself, he may not desecrate, but he may desecrate it for Heavenly matters.

Some people swear that they would never become “religious.”  They view observant Jews as extremists and don’t even give themselves the chance to get their spiritual feet wet.  They live in fear of, G-d forbid, ever becoming more observant.  And so they’ve sworn to themselves that it’ll never happen.

The good news from Rav Gidel is that the oath is meaningless.  You can’t swear off the Torah.  We stood as a nation at the foot of Sinai and made a promise to keep the mitzvos.  Anything uttered after that has no legitimacy.  You can’t go back on your original commitment.

Are you stopping yourself from spiritual growth because you’ve promised yourself that you could never become ‘religious’?  Are you hesitating to let the Divine flow of energy into your life for fear of what it might make you do?  Are you afraid to internalize the Torah’s teachings for fear that it might lead to serious lifestyle decisions?

It’s time to let your guard down.  Just allow the Divine energy to flow naturally and que sera sera.  If there are decisions to be made down the road, cross that bridge when you get there.  Stop fretting over where this path may lead you.  It might not be that bad after all!

Too many people fail to reach their spiritual destiny because they just won’t let their defenses down for the time needed for G-d to enter.   Next time He knocks, let him in, at the very least for curiosity’s sake.  May you merit annulling any vows that are inhibiting you from become the best you could be!  

Crazy frum

Daf Yomi Nedarim 15

Pesach was fast approaching.  I was in yeshiva in Israel and my roommate and I would be spending the festival in the dormitory.  I thought we’d cleaned our room pretty well until to my surprise, I walked into the room two days before Pesach to find Levi throwing boiling water up onto the ceiling.
‘What on earth are you doing?’ I asked incredulously.
‘I’m kashering the room,’ he replied.
‘Seriously?’ I said, ‘I don’t know about you but I’ve never eaten any bread on the ceiling!’
‘Well,’ he responded, ‘that’s my family’s custom.’  

If there are permissible behaviours that certain people are stringent in and avoid doing, you may not do those things in their presence, for the Torah states, “He shall not desecrate his word.”  Since he has pledged to act more stringently, he may be tempted by your actions to break his pledge.

When it comes to matters of mitzvah stringency, you always need to be careful not to denigrate anyone else’s practices.  Often, we look at someone else’s devotion and we think they’re going overboard and so we poke fun.  That’s not cool, says the Talmud.  It is one thing not to do it yourself, but don’t go jeopardizing others’ dedication.

Now certainly not all practices are valid stringencies.  I’m still not sure that Levi’s boiling water on the ceiling was religiously meaningful in any way.  (My guess is, he’d seen his parents clean for Pesach above the stovetop for fear of food evaporation; but I’m sure they didn’t do likewise in their bedroom!)  But valid traditional stringencies that others adhere to must be treated with the utmost respect even if you are not accustomed to practice them yourself.

Whether it is cholov yisroel (supervised milk), pas yisroel (Jewish-baked bread), avoiding carrying in an eruv, or a host of other stringencies, you should never put down those who go the extra mile.   It’s easy to find the simplest way to do mitzvos; it takes a lot of commitment to choose to practice Halacha beyond the letter of the law.

Chumros (stringencies) may not be for everyone.  But their performance should be respected and admired and certainly never denigrated.  May you merit respect for everyone, regardless of whether their adherence to mitzvos and chumros is greater or lesser than your own!

Stay awake at the wheel of life!

Daf Yomi Nedarim 14

Irv and Yenty had saved their entire lives for the golden years.  They had dreams of travelling the world, moving to warm Mexico, and finally spending quality time with the grandchildren.   But then one day they were walking the dog, when Irv slipped and fell, breaking his hip.  Things were never the same.  Sure, retirement was nice but the dreams they had of seeing the world just weren’t meant to be.

A person declared, ‘I vow to keep my eyes from sleeping today if I shall sleep tomorrow,’
Rav Yehuda quoted Rav’s ruling: This person should not sleep today, for perhaps he will fall asleep tomorrow.

We often tell ourselves that we will be able to achieve our dreams tomorrow, when we have more time.  Once you get a little more established, you’ll be able to start your own business.  Once the kids grow up, you’ll be able to spend more quality time with your spouse.  But you never know if you will be sleeping tomorrow, so don’t fall asleep today.  Today you’re definitely in the driver’s seat, tomorrow they might take away your license.  So make the most of it today, don’t fall asleep at the wheel of life!

Stop putting off the tremendous things you were destined to accomplish in life!  You never know what challenges tomorrow may bring.  May you merit achieving your dreams today!

Marrying your mother

Daf Yomi Nedarim 13

Cherry was distraught.  She and Ben had barely been married two months and she was certain the marriage was over.  Ben couldn’t figure out what all the fuss was about.  Sure, they’d had a couple of arguments, but doesn’t everyone have some disagreement here and there, in their married lives?  But poor Cherry – she’d never seen her parents argue ever; why wasn’t her marriage to Ben as perfect as her parents’ union?

The following declarations do not bind one with the force of an oath: If one says to his friend, ‘May this food be like ordinary food or like pork, or like idolatry, or like paganism, or like non-kosher and treif, or like insects and vermin, or like priestly bread and tithes,’ in all these cases, they are still permitted to dine together.
If one said to his wife, ‘You are like my mother to me,’ we seek to annul the declaration, lest he become lightheaded in such utterances.

Everybody enters into marriage with certain expectations of their spouse and the marriage.  Many of our preconceived notions of how our spouse should be are founded in our parents’ relationships.   Whether or not we realize it, we’re sizing up our relationship compared to what we’ve experienced in the past.

Does he work as hard as my father?  Does she bake as well as my mother?  Is he as good a father as my dad?  Is she as calm as my mother?

Even when it comes to disagreements, which is indeed normal in any relationship, we expect to deal with conflict in marriage the way we saw our parents deal with it.  If one of the couple comes from an argumentative home while the other comes from a more peaceful home, that can be very confusing.  What might be normal conflict resolution for one, may feel like World War Three for the other.

Your marriage is a completely new relationship!  Your spouse has qualities that your mother/father doesn’t have.  And your spouse is exactly the right person for you!  You have inherited certain character traits from your parents, and s/he from theirs, but together you will accomplish great things!

Your spouse is the other half of your soul.  S/he is an exact fit; the other piece of the jigsaw puzzle.  She’s not your mother; he’s not your father – s/he’s the right other half for you.  May you merit constantly appreciating the miracle of your combined soul!  

Friday, 5 June 2015

Sitting Shivah vs. Celebrating LIfe

Daf Yomi Nedarim 12

Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz has spoken and written extensively about the contemporary anti-mourning movement called ‘celebration of life.’  Very often, families decide that they will not sit shivah
‘Rabbi,’ they say, ‘our father lived a good, long life.  We don’t feel the need to mourn his loss.  Instead, we are choosing to celebrate his life.’

Truth be told, if we believe that the neshama (soul) is in a better place, why should we mourn at all for anyone?  Shouldn’t we be celebrating every passing as a joyous occasion as we take comfort in the fact that they are smiling down upon us from Heaven?

What is the meaning of the ‘issar’ vow mentioned in the Torah?
If one said, ‘I hereby commit to not eating meat or drinking wine, like the day father died or like the day teacher died, like the day Gedalia ben Achikam was killed or like the day I saw Jerusalem in ruins.’
Rabbeinu Asher explains: It is proper to afflict oneself on the yahrzeit of one’s father or teacher.

In earlier generations, it was common custom to fast on the day of a yahrzeit.  Why?  It’s an annual reminder of the temporary, fragile nature of life on this earth.  It’s a mini Yom Kippur, a day of introspection, self-reckoning, and repentance.  Your loved one is no longer here, their time is up, how are you going to spend your short time in this world?

Yes, you should ‘celebrate’ the life of your loved one, remembering their achievements, taking comfort in the wonderful years you had with them.  But the shivah, shloshim and yud-beis chodesh (twelve months) of mourning are so much more than that.  It’s a time for you to think about your own life and reckon with the fragility and temporariness of life.   Choosing to shift your attention to mere ‘celebration’ is missing the point of aveilus (the Jewish rites of mourning).

Indeed, the rigid impositions of aveilus are not comfortable for anyone.  The devoted Torah scholar is prohibited from learning, the prodigious musician may not touch her instrument, married mourners must restrain themselves from their spouses, the friendliest mourner may no longer greet people as they enter the room.  You can’t shave, you can’t even floss your teeth in front of the mirror.  It’s not fun, it’s not a celebration.  It’s a reminder of the intense focus on life and death one must engage in constantly during this period.

Mature people know how to enjoy life and have fun when life calls for celebration.  But they also know how to focus and be serious when life calls for introspection and self-reckoning.  May you merit abundant occasions of simcha and celebration, and yet never avoid facing the more painful moments in life.