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Friday, 31 July 2015

How to get your kids to pull their weight

Daf Yomi Nedarim 68

“Clean up that mess on the floor!”
“But I didn’t make the mess!”
“Please clear the table!”
“But I already cleared my plate!”

Do these exchanges with your kids sound familiar?  How do you get them to understand that it’s not just about taking care of themselves? Inevitably you resort to the response that if we parents had that attitude, we would just be feeding and clothing ourselves.  Why should we cook for anyone else?  Why should we do their laundry?  It’s not our mess!  And we hope that eventually they’ll begin to understand what it means to be part of a family and not just look out for themselves.

Mishnah: If a young girl was betrothed, her father and groom have the power to annul her vows together.  If the father annulled but the groom did not, or the groom annulled but the father did not, the vow is not annulled. 
Gemara: If only the husband annulled, has he cut the vow in half or has he weakened it?  What does that mean?  Let’s say she vowed to abstain from two olives and her groom heard and annulled it.  When she subsequently eats, if we say that it is cut in half, she would be liable for punishment (for consuming the other olive).  But if we say that the vow is weakened, it would only constitute an unpunishable prohibition. 
The Ran explains: Does the husband have power over his half of the vow and not the other half, or does he have half the power over the entire vow, over which they have joint jurisdiction in partnership?

The question of the Gemara is when things are owned in partnership, how do we view that ownership?  Are the partners like individual shareholders, with each owning a specific piece of the company that is exchangeable on its own?  Or are the partners joint owners in the whole entity without the ability to break it down into smaller units? 

We begin life seeing ourselves as individual shareholders.  With time, the hope is that we begin to become more communal and societal creatures.  When we are born, we view our place in the universe as Adam did when he was created.   He looked around at all the beautiful creations and exclaimed, “The world was created for me.”  It was all about himself.  Until, of course, G-d demonstrated to him that if he desired companionship, it would entail giving up a part of himself, literally and figuratively.

Consequently, our natural born tendency is to break down matters of ownership and say ‘what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is yours.’  But like Pirkei Avos explains, that was the attitude in Sodom.  As we mature, the goal is to cease constantly thinking about number one and contribute more and more to others.

How do you do that?   By asking yourself ‘how can I make this company great?’  The best employees are the ones who aren’t thinking about how they can excel in their personal careers and rise through the ranks.  They think of the company in terms of ‘we’ and strive to make the company shine.  When that’s your attitude, you suddenly find yourself getting promoted without ever having sought it! 

And that should be your attitude to family life, to communal life and ultimately to societal life.  It’s not about you.  It’s about ‘how do I make this household awesome?’  Ask your kids: do they want to live in a pig-sty or do they want to live in a home that is outstandingly beautiful?  Are they proud of their family?  Do they want our family to shine? 

When I see a candy wrapper on the floor in shul, I immediately pick it up.  I want to be part of a shul that looks impeccable.  Is that the kind of shul you want to own?  Or do you say to yourself ‘I didn’t make the mess; I don’t have to clean it up’?   It doesn’t matter who made the mess – you are not an individual shareholder, you are a joint owner of the whole entity!  You want your shul to be awesome!

Imagine we lived in a society where everyone picked up the trash from the street because they felt it detracted from who they are.  That may sound utopian, but you can begin at home, you can begin in shul.  May you forever consider yourself a partner in the entire entity and take responsibility and ownership in making your collective incredible!  

Thursday, 30 July 2015

Itemizing the bill for your spouse

Daf Yomi Nedarim 67

Yossi is not religious but his wife and kids are.  That’s the premise of a piece doing the rounds from  When they got married, he was frum, but later dropped it all.  Nevertheless, he’s committed to his wife and family.  So every Shabbos, he makes Kiddush and goes through the motions to make his other half happy and maintain his marriage.

Is that praiseworthy?  Is he acting G-dly or are they just fooling themselves?

Mishnah: If a young girl was betrothed, her father and groom have the power to annul her vows together.  If the father annulled but the groom did not, or the groom annulled but the father did not, the vow is not annulled.  And it goes without saying that if one of them confirmed the vow (and the other annulled) that it remains in force.

Gemara: Why do we require the final clause of the Mishnah?  Once we’ve learned that if either were to annul without the other it would be meaningless, why do we need the additional teaching about one confirming the vow?
It is necessary for the following scenario: For example, one of them annulled and the other confirmed.  And then the confirmer went back and revoked his confirmation.  I might have thought that whatever he established he has uprooted (and therefore his subsequent annulment should take effect).  Therefore the Mishnah clarifies that they must both effect the annulment at once (without an intervening confirmation).

This Kveller couple’s arrangement is certainly admirable.  Here is a man who doesn’t believe in anything and is willing to submit his will and lifestyle to his wife’s choices for the sake of his marriage!

Unfortunately, however, he’s blown it all by writing the article.  Here was an opportunity to serve his wife and family with no personal motive, completely and utterly to make his wife happy.  By publicizing his ‘act of altruism’ to the whole world, “whatever he established, he has uprooted.”  Now, the whole world knows what a “wonderful” husband he is.  Once you’ve told everybody and presented yourself as a martyr, you’ve lost your special status.

In fact, it’s not even about publishing it for the whole world to see.  When you do something special for your spouse but then go ahead and tell them, ‘whatever you established, you have uprooted!’  

Let’s say one day your spouse was out.  And so you decided to spend the day getting the house ready for them – you mopped the floor, did the washing, mowed the lawn.  That’s fabulous!  And no doubt, they will feel incredible when they get home.  But if you were then to start listing for them everything you did - how you martyred your day while they were out enjoying themselves - you’ve just spoiled a beautiful moment.  ‘Whatever you established, you have uprooted!’

Your job in life is to be devoted to your spouse.  You don’t get bonus points for serving them and making them feel wonderful.  That’s what you signed up for when you got married.  Once you start handing them the ‘bill’ for everything you did or worse yet, start kvetching to them, or even worse yet, start bragging or kvetching to the world, you’ve wasted all that hard work and dedication!

And of course it’s true not only of marriage, but any relationship.  Once you start telling your friends, community associates, or colleagues everything you’ve done for them, ‘whatever you established, you have uprooted.’  Nobody wants to hear you kvetch about everything you do for them. Nobody wants to hear what a martyr you are.  Just get on with it and work to build and fortify your relationships without any expectation and without feeling the need to hand in the laundry list at the end of the day!

Look for every possible opportunity to make your spouse feel special.  Strengthen every relationship in your life without diluting your accomplishments with the need for accolades and adulation.  May you merit being the most dedicated partner and associate by maximizing the contributions you make that nobody ever recognizes!

Serve or get served

Daf Yomi Nedarim 66

Divorce is a terrible thing.  The Talmud tells us that when a couple gets divorced, the Holy Altar in the Temple sheds tears.  And nowadays, it’s happening more and more.  Some have suggested that it just wasn’t socially acceptable in the past, but the causes run much deeper than that.   Marriages take a lot of work and effort and although there are certainly those who get divorced for more complicated reasons, most of the time people just aren’t willing to do what it takes to maintain a vibrant marriage.

When a person comes to the Beth Din to have his vow annulled, we initiate an exit based upon his personal honour and the honour of his children.  We say to him: If you had known that tomorrow they would say about you ‘that’s the way of that fellow, he divorces his wives,’ or about your daughters, they’d say, ‘they’re children of divorce – why did their mother ask for a divorce?’ would you have made the vow?  If he says that he would not have made the vow with such knowledge, he is released from the vow.
The Ran explains: This man vowed that his wife should have no benefit from him.  Consequently, they have no choice but to get divorced.

Divorce in Judaism presents a strange dichotomy.  On the one hand, only the man has the power to give the gett (divorce papers).  On the other hand, generally most divorces are initiated by the woman!  Why does the Torah set up a system that is counterintuitive?

Most men who divorce don’t want to get divorced.  They’ll refuse to accept it until the bitter end.  In their minds, divorce equals failure.  So instead, they would prefer to continue their “marriage” but act like the man in our Mishnah who refuses to step up and treat his wife as he should.  This fellow has gone so far as to vow that he won’t do anything for his wife – he won’t provide, he won’t help around the house, he won’t be there for her emotionally.  And yet he still wants the kavod (honour) of being married!  To that we say, ‘Sorry, if you’re not willing to be a decent husband, she has every right to a divorce.’

The problem with many men is that marriage is all about their personal honour.  That is the antithesis of marriage.  It’s not about your honour; it’s about your wife’s honour.  Our Sages say that one must honour one’s wife more than one honours oneself.  That means doing what she likes to do, going where she likes to go, buying what she likes to buy.  It doesn’t mean that you can’t take care of yourself; but that you must honour her more than your own honour, i.e. take care of her needs and wants and then see to yours.

When marriage is about your own honour, like with this fellow in our Mishnah, it is doomed for failure.  Most women understand this principle intuitively.  They dedicate their lives to honouring their husbands.  But for most men, it doesn’t come naturally.  They don’t comprehend that when they got married, they signed on to a lifetime of service to their spouse.   So long as marriage is about you and your honour, it’s not going to survive.  Only once it becomes about the other person will your marriage be sustainable and thriving.

Do you feel honoured to be married to your spouse?  Great!  Now take that honour and invest everything you’ve got into her/him to make them feel like the most honoured, loved and cherished person in the world.  May you merit a life of service to your basherte!  

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Embrace the bully

Daf Yomi Nedarim 65

John C. was the class bully.  One of my first days in high school, John grabbed my yarmulke off my head, ran it under the tap and then rubbed it in the dirt.   I guess I handled it okay, but sadly, I couldn’t say the same for Steven F.  The only Aboriginal kid in our class, he faced taunts and constant bullying from John.  Eventually, he couldn’t take it anymore and complained to the principal.  John was expelled from the school and we all breathed a sigh of relief.

Years later, I bumped into Steven at university.  We began to reminisce about old times and the talk turned to John’s bullying.  He had actually known John since elementary school and as he told it, John was from a broken home, constantly shuttled between his parents who lived on opposite ends of the city, both in low-income housing.  His mother had a drug problem and his father had all sorts of health issues.   In short, John came from a very troubled background.

Concerning King Zedekiah, the Scriptures declare, “And he also rebelled against king Nebuchadnezzar, who had made him swear by God.”
How did he rebel?  Zedekiah once walked in on Nebuchadnezzar eating raw rabbit (an ancient fertility treatment).
Shocked at being discovered, he said to him, “Swear to me you won’t reveal what you saw and let the word get out!”  Zedekiah duly swore.

But with time, Zedekiah was becoming physically ill over the matter and so he went off and had his vow annulled, subsequently spilling the beans.   It didn’t take long for Nebuchadnezzar to hear that people were ridiculing him. 
He summonsed the Sanhedrin (High Court) and Zedekiah and said, “Did you see what Zedekiah did?  Didn’t he swear by G-d of Heaven not to reveal my secret?”
“He had his vow annulled,” they replied.
“You annul vows?” he asked incredulously.
“Yes,” they responded.
“In the presence of the third party or even in their absence?” asked Nebuchadnezzar.
“In their presence,” they replied.
“So what did you do?” fumed Nebuchadnezzar, “Why didn’t you make that demand of Zedekiah?”  With that, he removed their preferential judicial chairs and relegated them to sit directly on the ground.

Nebuchadnezzar was the most powerful man in the world.  And Zedekiah stumbled upon his weakness.   As strong and commanding as he was in his public life, in the privacy of his own personal life, he was deficient.  One almost wonders whether his public persona was not as aggressive as it was, simply as an overcompensation for his private weakness.

Show me a bully and I’ll show you a person with a major inferiority complex who’s overcompensating to hide their personal issues.  Nebuchadnezzar’s aggression was a result of his private shortcomings.  John C.’s menacing was a result of his personal issues.  Never let a bully take out their personal angst on you.  Always keep in mind that if they feel the need to be aggressive, they’re the ones with the problem, not you.

Do you feel bullied at school?  At work?  At shul? Don’t ever take it personally.  When you feel the need to run away (or, sock them one!), choose instead to reach out to your aggressor and embrace them.  Don’t be afraid – they need your love, not your cowardice.  Sometimes aggression is the only way they know how to interact with others.  Just smile and ask them what is bothering them.  They might not respond immediately, but when you shower them with love and kindness, eventually you will melt their tough, aggressive exterior.

Don’t feel threatened by your local bully.  Don’t let your kids feel threatened by the schoolyard bully.  May you merit to shower them with love and help them deal with whatever personal problems they may have!  

Time travel revealed

Daf Yomi Nedarim 64

Our patriarch, Yaakov, is lying on his deathbed.  He calls over his children to bestow his final blessing.  Yosef appears with his two sons, Menashe and Ephraim.  He positions Menashe, the firstborn, to his father’s right and Ephraim to the left.  All of a sudden, he realizes that Yaakov has switched his hands to place his right hand on Ephraim’s head and his left on Menashe’s.  

Yosef attempts to switch the hands back to their correct positions, but Yaakov resists, saying, “I know, my son, I know; he too will beget a tribe, and he too will be great. But his younger brother will be greater than he, and his children's fame will fill the nations.”  Our Sages explain that Yaakov foresaw that from Menashe would come Gideon who would miraculously save the Israelite nation.  But from Ephraim would come Joshua, who would conquer and apportion the Land of Canaan, as well as halting the setting of the sun in Gibeon. 

Rabbi Eliezer taught: When a person comes to the sage to have his vow annulled, we initiate an exit from the vow with the honour of his father and mother.
The Ran explains: We say to him, ‘Had you known that by being quick easy to take vows, you’d be disgracing your father and mother – for the Talmud teaches that a wicked child of a righteous individual receives the appellation of ‘wicked one, child of a wicked one’ – would you have vowed?

Rabbeinu Yonah begins his Shaar Haavodah with this teaching:  How do you ensure success and righteousness in life?  Always consider who you are and who you come from.  You are a princess!  You are a prince!  You come from royalty, and royalty acts a certain way, always maintaining impeccable standards! 

You want your kids to stay on the straight and narrow?  Every night before they go to sleep, don’t read them Dr. Seuss; tell them the stories of their grandparents, and their great-grandparents – how dedicated they were to their Judaism!  Don’t stop there – continue with all your ancestral heroes, all the way back to our national matriarchs and patriarchs!  Engender within them a sense of pride in their royal blood, such that they would never entertain the possibility of disrupting that incredible chain! 

But here’s the most powerful motivation to do the right thing: you are a time traveller.  We naturally believe that our actions today affect the present and the future.  The truth is, they also affect the past!  Remember that for G-d, past/present/future is all the same thing.  And so in our service of the Almighty, they likewise all blend into one.

What do I mean?  When Joshua stepped up to the plate to lead the Israelites into Canaan, at that moment, he caused Yaakov to switch his hand from his great-great-uncle Menashe to his great-grandpa Ephraim!    Had Joshua sat back and been a regular Joe for forty years, Ephraim would not have received the preferential treatment from Yaakov.   That’s the meaning of the Ran’s teaching that your appellation (righteous or wicked) affects your parents’ appellation.  Your actions today affect their power and status yesterday!  In other words, you have the power of time travel – your conduct in the present can change the past! 

The decisions you make today not only determine whether the chain of our history will continue unchanged in the future; your choices have the ability to fortify or disrupt the links in the chain of generations past!   The butterfly effect works forwards and backwards!  How will you choose to impact your descendants and your ancestors? Positively or negatively?  Selflessly or selfishly?  Spiritually or mortally?

The weight of your family line rests on your shoulders.  That is an enormous responsibility.  But you know that you are up for the task.  May you merit making your bloodline proud for all generations, past, present, and future!

Monday, 27 July 2015

True friends don't keep score

Daf Yomi Nedarim 63

Jonathan and David were best of friends.  Pirkei Avos teaches that the bond between the prince and the future king was the epitome of baseless love.  Jonathan knew that his friend would one day take his place as heir to the throne.  But that didn’t stop him going to bat for – nay, saving the life of – David.

On one occasion, David sensed that King Saul had it in for him and expressed his fears to Jonathan. 
‘I’m not going to come to dinner for the next couple of days’ said David. ‘If your father asks where I am, tell him I’ve gone to a family feast in Bethlehem.’
Sure enough, once David had failed to show up for three days, King Saul inquired as to his whereabouts.
‘He’s home with his family in Bethlehem,’ Jonathan replied.
King Saul rose from his throne.  Engulfed by rage, he thrust his sword towards Jonathan.  Dodging the bullet, Jonathan ran from the room.  At that point, he realized David’s suspicions were confirmed and he resolved to do whatever necessary to protect his friend, even at the expense of his own safety and security.

If one said to his friend, ‘I vow that you shall not derive any benefit from me unless you give my child a measure of wheat and two barrels of wine,’ Rabbi Meir maintains that he is prohibited from benefit until he gives it to him.  But the Sages teach that the vow is annulled even without the direction of a sage.

A true friendship rises above all calculations.  It is not dependent on tit-for-tat.  When one ‘friend’ threatens the other in order to get want they want, that’s not a friendship at all.  It’s a business transaction.  If you’re in the realm of menacing statements like this one, who would want that kind of friendship?

Jonathan and David demonstrated true friendship.  The prince was willing to put everything on the line for his friend, with no expectation of anything in return.  It’s that kind of friendship that is worth pursuing.   When you find someone who is dedicated to you in life, and you feel dedicated to them – no strings attached – that’s the kind of friend you want.

True friends don’t keep score.  If you really love them and they really love you, there’s no limit to the amount of goodwill you will show one another, regardless of who has done what for the other in the past. Such friendships are hard to come by but if you make the effort to become a true friend without ever keeping score, you will merit people in your life who are equally dedicated.

And if you shouldn’t be points-scoring with your friends, how much more so with your biological loved ones!   No matter how difficult, you must exert every effort to maintain and build those relationships.  The second you find yourself point-scoring with your siblings, or worse yet, your spouse, you’ve meandered down the wrong path in the relationship.   It’s not about tit-for-tat; it’s about loving them unconditionally and being there for them at all costs, whether or not they reciprocate.

That’s not easy.  It can be a real challenge to consistently contribute to a lopsided relationship.  But if the Almighty has sent you that challenge in life, he knows you can handle it.  Your relatives are there forever, whether or not they’re as devoted as you are to the relationship. 

It’s tough when they didn’t make the effort to attend your kid’s bar-mitzvah and now you’re thinking of ditching their simcha.  It’s tough when you’re the one always calling them to say ‘Good Shabbos’ and they never even remember your birthday.  Rise above the challenge – they will always be related to you and just because they aren’t making the effort doesn’t mean you should start keeping score and reciprocating their insensitivity.

True relationships should never be about point scoring.  May you merit finding real friends that you can always count on and giving it your all in every lifelong relationship – whether those you’ve chosen or you’ve been biologically blessed with – with no expectation in return!  

Display your diplomatic license plate

Daf Yomi Nedarim 62

A lot of people pass through Edmonton during the summer en route to the Canadian Rockies.  A few years ago, a well-known rabbi came through and popped into the shul for Mincha-Maariv (evening prayers).  It was so out of context to see him come in with his polo shirt and ball-cap.  But I was very excited at the opportunity to hear a good vort (piece of Torah) – we’re a little off the beaten track and it’s not often we get to hear from big rabbis.  I asked him to share some Torah between Mincha and Maariv.
“Sorry,” he chuckled, “I’m on vacation!”

It was taught: Once most of the trimming knives have been put away for winter, one may enter a field and freely partake of the fruit.
A farmer once discovered Rabbi Tarfon eating in his field after the time of the trimming knives.  He threw him into a sack, took him, and ran to throw him into the river. 
Rabbi Tarfon began screaming, “Woe is to Tarfon who is about to be killed!”  Hearing him, the farmer dropped the sack and ran away.

Rabbi Abahu quoted Rabbi Chanania ben Gamliel: The rest of that righteous man’s life he regretted the matter, saying, “Woe is me that I utilized the crown of Torah for personal benefit!” 
Indeed, Rabbah bar bar Chanah quoted Rabbi Yochanan, “Whoever utilizes the crown of Torah is uprooted from the world.”

Rava taught: A Torah scholar may, however, reveal his identity in a place where he is unknown, as Ovadiah said to Elijah, “Your servant has feared G-d since his my youth.”
The Gemara asks: Why then did Rabbi Tarfon get upset for having revealed his identity?
The Gemara answers: He was wealthy and he should rather have appeased his kidnapper with money. 

Why may a Torah scholar reveal his identity where he is unknown?  So that people have the opportunity to learn from him and ask him shaylos (halachic queries).  A rabbi is never on vacation.  He must always be available to ‘rabbinate’ wherever he finds himself. 

A friend of mine, when asked where he is a rabbi, responds, ‘Wherever I go!’ That’s the right attitude.  A talmid chacham (Torah scholar) is never on vacation.  One of the things I love to do, personally, is to teach Life Yomi wherever I travel.  Some of the more exotic places I’ve taught include Singapore (at the Maghain Aboth Synagogue), Thailand (Phuket Chabad), Trinidad (Chanukah gathering at the Hilton). 

But of course, you don’t need to be a rabbi or a talmid chacham to teach Torah.  You are here on earth on a Divine mission!  You never get a vacation from your mission.  Every place you go, you have the opportunity to be a Kiddush Hashem – a Heavenly ambassador.  You never know why the Almighty has directed your footsteps to a certain place at a certain time.

Ever been bagel’d?  Take off your ball-cap and proudly display your yarmulke – I guarantee you’ll be bagel’d in no time at all.  Bagel’ing happens when a complete stranger starts whistling Hava Nagila nearby.   They’ve seen your yarmulke and their pintele Yid (soul-spark) is reaching out to engage with you, but they have no idea what to say.  Your job is to pick up on those tiny yearnings and open the conversation with them.  But you can never do it if you’re on vacation and you look just like everyone else.

You are an ambassador of Hashem.  Be proud of who you are and wear your mission on your sleeve.  If they don’t summon up the courage to whistle, know what an impact you’ve made just by proudly displaying your ‘diplomatic license plate.’  May you merit being a Heavenly ambassador wherever you go!  

Friday, 24 July 2015

Risk it all

Daf Yomi Nedarim 61

Our forefather Avraham had a good life in Ur Kasdim.  He came from a prestigious family, and was well-regarded by all.  One day, the Almighty said to him, “Go out from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father’s house, to the land that I shall show you.”  And off he went.

Can you imagine?  Land, birthplace, father’s house.  Essentially, G-d is telling him to leave all of his comfort zones – the material, the physical, the cultural, and of course, the spiritual, and take that leap of faith into the unknown.  As we know, Avraham took that leap and the rest is history: he was blessed with unbounded prosperity in every area of his life, far greater than he had achieved or could have ever dreamed of achieving back in Ur.

Mishnah: If a person declared, ‘I vow to abstain from wine until the face of Pesach,’ Rabbi Meir says he is forbidden until Pesach arrives.  Rabbi Yossi says he is forbidden from wine until Pesach concludes.
The Rosh explains: “Face of Pesach” could imply one of three things.  Either it means the face of the first days, meaning until Pesach begins.  Or it means the face of the last days, meaning that he is permitted on the final days of Pesach.  Or it means the face of the entire Pesach, meaning until its conclusion.  Rabbi Meir avers that it means until the arrival, since the clearest expression of the face of Pesach is its arrival.  But Rabbi Yossi suggests that a person would allow himself to be forbidden by any potential meaning.
The Gemara proposes: Rabbi Meir maintains that a person would not place himself into a situation of uncertainty.  Rabbi Yossi believes that one would place himself into a situation of uncertainty.

At first blush, Rabbi Meir appears to make more sense.  Who wants doubt in their life?  We all seek and yearn for certainty.  Why would anyone intentionally place themselves into a situation of uncertainty, as Rabbi Yossi suggests?

The answer is that ‘commensurate with the risk is the reward.’  Sometimes in life, if you desire abundant reward, you need to take a leap into the abyss.  That was G-d’s message to Avraham.  ‘Get out of your comfort zone!  Take a risk.  Take a leap of faith.  And you will see that it was all worth it.’

Success comes from taking risks.  People who stay in their comfort zones remain mediocre.  A lot of people have good ideas, but the ones who become successful are those who are willing to give it their all to make it happen.  You may have built an empire in your mind, but unless you’re willing to take that leap and risk it all tangibly in the real world, it will never become a reality.

What’s holding you back from mega-success?  Are you just too comfortable in your current situation to take that leap into uncertainty?   Do you know what it would take to fulfill your dreams, but are hesitating to take the plunge? 

Maybe you dream of escaping your nine-to-five inertia and becoming your own boss.  Maybe you’re going from one relationship to another, never willing to take that leap into marriage.  Maybe the little voice inside is telling you to take the leap of religious faith to start keeping Shabbos.  Whether you’re yearning for material success, relationship success, or spiritual success, very often in life you must be willing to leap into the abyss and give it all you’ve got.

It’s time to leap out of mediocrity!  You can be everything Hashem destined you to be.  May you find the courage to risk it all and become the material, spiritual, and physical success you know you were meant to be! 

Thursday, 23 July 2015

What's your positivity transformation score?

Daf Yomi Nedarim 60

When he was in college, a friend of mine had a daily competition with himself.  He would greet everyone he passed with a ‘Good morning!’ or ‘Good afternoon!’  Some would respond, some wouldn’t.  After a while, you start seeing the same people on a regular basis and you categorize people into responders and non-responders.  But he was vigilant.   Every so often, a non-responder would awake from their daze, smile and respond.  And each night, in his dorm room, before he would go to sleep, he would place a chalk mark on the wall for every new responder he had transformed that day! 

Rabbi Chanina Tirtaah quoted Rabbi Yannai: If one planted an onion that was terumah (priestly tithe), but the amount of the growth exceeded the amount of the root, the entire onion is permissible for Israelite consumption.
The Ran explains: The leaves which have grown around the root nullify the status of the root, making it no longer terumah.
The Gemara exclaims: You mean to say that positive growths have the power to elevate the negative?!

They say ‘a little bit of light dispels a lot of darkness.’  When you introduce positive energy into a situation, you have the power to elevate the negative.  There is no shortage of opportunities throughout your day that you can take negative situations and transform them into positive energy.

Let’s say you’re having a conversation and the topic of discussion turns to some potential lashon hara (gossip).  You have three choices:
Choice #1 – relish in the conversation.  Bad decision.  You’ve now been engulfed by the negative energy.
Choice #2 – walk away.  Not bad.  The conversation probably ends there but it’s at best a neutral position, because the others will revile you as a goody two-shoes.   
Choice #3 – casually redirect the topic of conversation.  You’ve now taken the negative energy and transformed it into positivity!

Another example.  How many unhappy people do you encounter each day?  Some of them have real reasons to be feeling the way they do.  Others choose to have a sad, negative countenance, no matter how much good they experience in life.  But either way, you have the ability to elevate that negativity by bringing a smile to their face.  How do you do that?  Either say something nice or tell them a joke to lighten their mood.   Think about it: how many times a day does the Almighty give you such wonderful opportunities to elevate the negative energy and transform it into positive energy?

One more example: there is no limit to the amount of positivity you can evoke with this one.  Just saying hello to people.  The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Yochanan would strive to be the first one to say hi to everyone in the shopping centre, Jewish or not.   You have no idea how good you could make a person feel just by acknowledging them.  Some people don’t get much recognition in this world.   And so, whether it not it makes everyone feel awesome to be greeted, it certainly doesn’t hurt!  Once more, you’ve now found a way to potentially elevate the negative to the positive so many times each day!

Just like my friend in college, you too can have a daily competition with yourself.  As you lie in bed at night, think of all the negativity you transformed that day into positivity.  May you merit improving your score each day as you elevate more and more negative energy into positivity!  

Wednesday, 22 July 2015

Some people have too many electrons

Daf Yomi Nedarim 59

As the prophet Elisha watched his mentor, Elijah, disappear into the clouds on a heavenly chariot, he said to himself, ‘One day, I hope I can have a mentee to whom I can impart all the teachings my rebbe taught me.’  But search as he may, Elisha never managed to find the right student that he could click with.

Until one day, he met Gehazi.  He was wise beyond his years.  He was charismatic.  He was adorable. 
‘This man will be my disciple,’ Elisha declared, relieved that G-d had sent the young man his way.  But it was not long before Elisha began to realize that Gehazi wasn’t all he was cracked up to be.  Yes, he was charming; yes he was intelligent; but he didn’t seem to be in it for G-d.  He was bringing a bad name to Elisha’s house.

One day, an Assyrian general, Naaman, came to Elisha to be cured of his leprosy.  The man of G-d healed him and Naaman asked him how much he wanted.   Refusing payment, he explained that cures were in the Almighty’s hands alone.  With that, Naaman departed, but no sooner had he left than Gehazi followed and quickly caught up to him.
‘There was a misunderstanding,’ he fibbed. ‘My teacher, Elisha, asked me to tell you that he could really use the money to support some poor yeshiva boys in the area.’
‘Of course!’ responded Naaman, pulling out his chequebook and writing a hefty sum over to the lad.

Upon his return, Elisha called him out on his behaviour and determined that the time had come to cut him loose from his entourage.  The prophet had wanted this relationship to work so badly, but he finally understood that Gehazi was simply having a negative impact on his Divine mission. 

The Torah declares, “Tithe you shall tithe all the produce of your seed.”
Ran: The meaning of the double expression is that with regards to your produce that has already been tithed, when you replant the root it becomes nullified in the totality of the new growth and the entire amount must be reckoned for tithing purposes.  In other words, the root, which already once fulfilled its tithing obligations, is now subject to tithing once again.
Beraisa: If a litre of maaser tevel (untithed levite-owned produce) was planted in the ground and blossomed into ten litres, one must calculate how much to tithe on account of the original litre and separate it from elsewhere.
The Gemara asks: Why doesn’t the original litre become nullified in the totality brought about by the new nine growth litres?
The Gemara answers: People sow permissible items.  People do not sow prohibited items.
Ran: The ruling that the growth nullifies the root only applies in the case of permissible plantings.

As we go through life we develop relationships and friendships.  Some of those are healthier than others.   You wouldn’t knowingly invest in bad business and stock portfolios; why would you invest in unhealthy relationships?  Wise people sow and invest in the permissible – those relationships that help them fulfill their mission on earth.  They don’t sow and invest in the prohibited – in unhealthy relationships that simply drag you down and keep you from your mission.

You should never be mean to anyone, especially not to those with whom you’ve enjoyed a lengthy relationship.  But permissible, healthy, positive relationships should be sown; and the negative relationships need not be sown.  Those people that are keeping you from being your best in life – due to their negativity and cynicism and pessimistic outlook – you shouldn’t feel the need to sow and invest in such relationships.  The Almighty placed certain people into your life to fill a particular role at a specific juncture and phase of your time on earth; once that time has passed, you need to determine whether or not to continue sowing and investing. 

Of course, if the other person needs your support and assistance, you must never forsake them.  But establish boundaries and make it clear to them that you are there to help but you won’t put up with negativity and toxicity in your life.  Sometimes it’s as simple as teaching them the 80/20 rule – that for every complaint or negative comment that issues forth from their mouths, there must be four positive comments.  In no time at all, they will find themselves becoming transformed into sources of positive energy! 

And certainly, we’re not talking about those close familial relationships that the Torah obligates us to maintain.  A cohen generally may not attend a funeral.  And yet for his seven closest relatives – spouse, mother, father, daughter, son, sister, brother – he must be there.  If that’s true of death, then how much more so, during life – you must never turn your back on those closest to you, no matter how difficult they might be.  But other than those seven, you need to assess and constantly reassess if the people in your life are dragging you down or bringing you up.  Are they holding you back or are they igniting the fire of your destiny?

Some people just have too many electrons.  As a positively charged individual, you might be attracted to such negativity.  But don’t let them stymie your positive growth.  There’s only so long you can be around negativity before it starts affecting you.  May you merit only positive energy in everything you do and from all those G-d sends into your life!

Tuesday, 21 July 2015

Is one little olive holding you back from success?

Daf Yomi Nedarim 58

A number of years ago, I watched a senior colleague conduct himself in formidable fashion as he debated a Palestinian activist.  I marvelled at the facts and figures he quoted; how he knew every anti-Israel resolution ever presented by the United Nations General Assembly; how he could explain the motives behind every military move Israel had ever made; how he remembered every month and year that negotiations had taken place. 

After the debate, I asked this senior rabbi what his secret was.  He asked me if I’d read Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel and Mitchell Bard’s Myths and Facts.  
I told him, ‘Of course.’ 
‘How many times?’ he inquired gently.
‘Just once,’ I responded.
‘Once?!’ he exclaimed incredulously, ‘If you want to be an effective Israel advocate, you need to know those books by heart!’

Rabbi Shimon taught: Our Sages provided no nullification measure for any item that has a release mechanism, like tevel (untithed produce), maaser sheini (second tithe), hekdesh (sanctified goods), and chodosh (new grains).  But our Sages did provide a nullification measure to any item that has no release mechanism, like terumah (priestly tithes), and terumas maaser (levite priestly tithes), challah (priestly dough), orlah (non-matured fruit), and kilei hakerem (forbidden vine mixtures).

The Ran explains: If these substances got mixed up in regular produce, the first category have a release-mechanism which would permit their consumption.   For example, if the tevel fruit got mixed up in a barrel of tithed produce, the solution would be to take tithes from the barrel, thus making the entire barrel tithed.  Therefore, the Sages saw no need to nullify a mixture even if only a minute amount of untithed produce were mixed up in the tithed barrel, since there is a simple solution to the problem.  In the second case, however, there is no way to untithe the priestly gifts, for example, and so the only solution is nullification. 

Most people in this world fail to succeed not because they don’t have the talent; not because they don’t have the skills; not because they don’t have the connections; not because they’re not smart enough, good looking enough, put-together enough.   The greatest cause of failure is that most people simply can’t be bothered.

Let’s examine the Gemara’s second example: maaser sheini.  What is it and how does it work?  Maaser sheini (second tithe) is separated from your crops in the first, second, fourth, and fifth years of the seven year agricultural cycle.  After you’ve given away the priestly and levite offerings, you separate a further ten percent and take the produce to Jerusalem to eat.   In our situation, somehow an olive from the maaser sheini pile rolled into the vat of regular olives. 

Imagine what’s going through your mind when that happens.   It’s one little olive’l in a vat of over a thousand!  Couldn’t we just apply the concept of nullification?   When a drop of milk splashes into my cholent pot, I simply estimate whether it’s less than a sixtieth overall; and if it is, I can ignore it.  Why can’t I just ignore the silly little olive and wish the problem away?

Nope, sorry, no can do, say the Sages.  In the case of the cholent, without the concept of nullification, you would have to throw out the entire pot of food.  And so we offer the remedy of nullification.  But in the case of maaser sheini, there’s a solution – simply take the entire vat of olives (or its monetary equivalent) to Jerusalem and eat it there! 

You want to know why most people aren’t successful in life?  They just can’t be bothered to make the effort.  They’d rather just nullify the olive and get on with their leisurely pursuits.  It’s too much work to pack up and make the trek to Jerusalem.  And so they tell themselves that they can just ignore the problem and it will go away.

Successful people will tackle a concern head-on.  They won’t ignore it, hoping that with time it will resolve itself.  They face up to their issues.  They gird their loins and deal with the issue, whether it’s big or small.  Only those who are willing to make the effort and trek to Jerusalem in life make it.  That’s the secret of success.

Anybody could be an effective Israel advocate, but most people aren’t willing to take the time to memorize the facts and figures.  Anybody could get a Ph.D., but most people aren’t willing to make the effort to do the readings and hand in a gazillion proposals until the committee accepts their idea.  Anybody could build a successful business, but most people aren’t willing to pound the pavement and bring their ideas to the next level.

What’s keeping you from your best?  Have you been ignoring that little olive because it’s just too much effort to deal with?  
Is it easier to just flick on the telly than read a good non-fiction book? 
Is it easier to play around on the internet rather than answer those important emails? 
Is it easier to show up to work nine to five rather than work a couple more hours and become the winner you know you can be?
Is it easier to hang around at the water cooler and coffee machine rather than sit at your desk and become the company’s star employee?

You are destined for greatness.  Most people aren’t willing to make the effort but you know you have it in you.  May you merit success beyond your wildest dreams – success that comes from hard work, tenacity, and never ignoring the little olive’l! 

Monday, 20 July 2015

Gasping for air

Daf Yomi Nedarim 57

Yehuda’s life was in tatters.  Realizing he’d messed up by selling Yosef into slavery, he leaves his family and finds a Canaanite wife.  Bearing him three sons, she then passes away.  Subsequently, the first two sons die; who knew what might happen to the third if he too were to marry his brothers’ ‘black widow?’ 

One day, he is out and about and spots a harlot by the roadside.  He consorts with her and promises to compensate her for her services; but alas, later he cannot find her and becomes gripped with fear that he would be made a further mockery of.  Three months later, he finds out his daughter-in-law is pregnant and commits her to death by burning.  She then presents his staff and signet ring and asks if he recognizes them.

If a person says: ‘I vow to abstain from these fruits;’ ‘they are off-limits for my mouth;’ or ‘they are off limits to my mouth,’ he is forbidden to partake of their substitutes or their outgrowths.
If he says, ‘I shall not eat;’ or ‘I shall not taste,’ he is permitted the substitutes or outgrowths of a fruit whose seed is destroyed (decomposes).  But regarding a fruit whose seed is not destroyed, he is forbidden to partake of even the outgrowths of the outgrowths.

How does a fruit tree grow?  You place a tiny little seed into the ground.  The seed then rots.  And then, lo and behold, a tree begins to grow in the place of the rotted, destroyed seed.

Imagine how that little seedling feels right before it transforms into a beautiful fruit-filled, life-giving tree.  It feels rotten.  It feels worthless.  It feels that this is the end.  I’m under the earth, I don’t remember the last time I saw the sun.  I’m rotting away.  I feel as if I’ve been buried alive.  There’s no hope.

That’s how Yehuda felt.  He had lost everything.  His brothers despised him for leading them down the ill-advised path of Yosef’s sale.  He had caused a state of life-long grief to his father.  His children had died one after another.  He was in such a terrible place in life that he was willing to commit impulsive acts of immorality.  And then to top it all off, his daughter-in-law had apparently acted unfaithfully to his remaining son and she too would have to die. 

At that point he was faced with a tough decision.  Do I give up and follow my sons and daughter-in-law?  Or do I turn my life around?   And with unbridled courage, he rises up and declares that he is ready to lead the children of Israel once more.  He restores his position as prince among his brothers, paving the way to the kings of Israel that would sprout forth from his descendants, from Kings David and Solomon until the ultimate King Moshiach, may he come speedily in our days.

Often in life, you feel like you’re under the earth, you can’t even reach the surface.  You’re feeling tiny, worthless.  You’re feeling absolutely rotten and destroyed, like there’s no hope in sight.

It is precisely that moment that the Almighty has been preparing you for to enter your incredible growth phase.  Sometimes you cannot reach the next level until that decomposition has taken place.  Yehuda became the king of his brothers after experiencing the near-complete devastation of his entire life.   His seed had rotted and he was left gasping for air beneath the earth’s surface.  But he held on and his life bloomed into the most magnificent tree.

Do you feel helpless?  Hopeless?  That your life has not gone the way you planned?  Don’t give up!  That’s G-d preparing you for the incredible blossoming that is about to take place.  They say that the night is darkest before the dawn.  Sometimes you need to hit rock bottom and witness destruction before your life can shift into a new phase and the great things you were destined for can occur.

Don’t ever give up!  Maintain your faith in Heaven.  The Almighty is merely testing your tenacity.  May your hope be emboldened by the challenge and may you merit becoming that awesome tree you were destined to be very soon!  

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Want to borrow our car?

Daf Yomi Nedarim 56

The TV reporter was interviewing new olim (immigrants) to Israel.
“What would you say was the biggest cultural leap you made in making aliyah?” she asked.
“The white room,” one lady responded.
“The white room?” asked the reporter, a little puzzled.
“Yes,” when we lived in America we had this room at the front of the house that nobody was ever allowed to enter.  It had plush white carpet.  It housed an antique baby grand.  And in the room was this gorgeous white suede and satin couch that nobody ever sat on.  The entire room was there just for show.  Now, every time I walk into our comfortable, livable five room apartment in Jerusalem, I look back and ask myself what was I thinking?”

Mishnah: One who vows to abstain from a sofa may still utilize a ‘dargash,’ according to Rabbi Meir.  But the Sages maintain that a ‘dargash’ is included in the category of sofa.
Gemara: What is a ‘dargash’?
Ulla taught:  It is a good-luck sofa.
Tosfos explains: It is a sofa made for kavod (honour) and mazal (good luck) that nobody sits upon.

Hashem gave us material goods to utilize for His service.  Anything material that serves no purpose is wasteful.  Our forefather Yaakov crossed back over the river, after he had taken his family across, because he had forgotten some small jugs.  Our Sages explain that no material possession of his was superfluous – if he owned it, he needed it.  And so it was worth going back for.

This material world was not given to us to behold for kavod and mazal; there is no purpose in amassing material wealth and possessions if you can’t use them.  As a famous country adage goes, “I ain’t never seen a hearse with a trailer hitch” – there’s no taking it to the grave!

What’s more, not only must your possessions be utilizable for yourself; but as Ethics of the Fathers teaches, you must strive to achieve the attitude of “what’s mine is yours.”  A sofa that nobody can sit upon is like a piece of steak that is cooked so perfectly that you won’t let anyone eat it, lest they spoil its beauty!

When we first got married, the Rabbanit conveyed to me what her mother taught her, “What’s mine is yours.  You should share everything in this world.  There are just three things that you don’t share: your car, your toothbrush, and your spouse!”   While I agreed with the latter two, it took some time to convince her that our car didn’t belong solely to us. 
“Our car belongs to Hashem,” I said, “we are mere guardians; stewards that direct its course.”  Thank G-d, The Rabbanit agreed and today we proudly share ‘our’ material possessions to the best of our ability, including the car.  (Our Honda we’ve already given to the assistant rabbi, and as I publish this, I anticipate the phone starting to ring off the hook for the Audi . . . !)

Don’t get stressed over material possessions.  The Almighty wants you to enjoy this physical world and utilize it in His service.  The two markers of misuse are amassing wealth for kavod and being so possessive of your materialism that you refuse to share it with others.   May you be blessed with abundant parnassah to enjoy the Borei Olam (Creator)’s bounty, never going overboard and always sharing with all!  

Steps to Success

Daf Yomi Nedarim 55
A friend of mine is the vice president of a prestigious university.  I once marvelled at his incredible achievement given his tender age and asked him how he did it.
“It wasn’t as if I ran around campaigning for the position,” he said to me, “I guess I was just always there.  Whenever anyone needed anything done, I was the one to raise my hand and offer to do it.”

Concerning the travels of the Children of Israel through the wilderness, the Torah declares, “And from the Wilderness to Matana (gift), and from Matana to Nachaliel (G-d’s inheritance), and from Nachaliel to Bamos (heights), and from Bamos to the Valley . . . which overlooks the desert.”
The prophet Isaiah similarly declares, “Every valley shall be raised.”

Rav Yosef said to Rava: You may not sit down until you explain the meaning of these verses to me.
Rava replied: Once a person makes himself like a wilderness, in that he is open and available to everyone, the Torah is given to him as a gift, as it says, “from the Wilderness to Matana.”  And once it is given to him as a gift, G-d bequeaths it to him, as it says, “and from Matana to Nachaliel.”  And once G-d has bequeathed it to him, he rises to greatness, as it says, “and from Nachaliel to Bamos.”  But if he raises himself up in haughtiness, G-d lowers him, as it says, “and from Bamos to the Valley,” and furthermore, He sinks him into the earth, as it says, “overlooks the desert.”  But if he repents, the Almighty raises him up, as it says, “Every valley shall be raised.”

Everyone wants to be successful.  But most people aren’t willing to take the important steps to get there.  You want to achieve success?  According to Rava, the secret formula may be found in these innocent verses about the Israelites’ travels through the wilderness.

Step one.  You need to make yourself open and available to everyone.  Just like my friend the VP, the first stage of greatness is simply to raise your hand and step forward whenever anyone needs a hand.  Some people think that they can waltz into greatness.  It doesn’t work like that.  Nobody is handed greatness on a silver platter.  But if you make yourself available to all who need you, you will be amazed at how much you will be appreciated by a broad spectrum of people.  And you never know which volunteer job you take on will lead you down your ultimate path to success.

Step two.  The difference between a gift and an inheritance is that a gift has no apparent connection to you.  Someone gives you something but you don’t really become one with it – it’s a bonus.  An inheritance, however, is utterly yours.  The biggest cases that come before Beth Din (Jewish court) are matters of inheritance.  You can’t challenge a gift in a court of law, but you can challenge a bequest.  Once it is your inheritance, you become one with it.  And that’s the meaning of the verse’s transition ‘from gift to inheritance.’  At first, people may look at you with envy: how did you achieve your incredible success?  They figure, ‘Oh, he was just lucky.’  But then they begin to realize that there’s no such thing as luck.  You’ve worked hard to get where you are.  That ‘gift’ is really an ‘inheritance.’  You truly deserve to be in your place of success.

Step three.  You rise to greatness.  A colleague tells how he remembers the time he would always be available for speaking engagements across the country.  Back in those days, whenever anyone would ask him to teach, he was there.  Nowadays, his organization is so massive that he finds it hard to get away and so he must limit his appearances.  He feels awful when he declines his friends’ invitations to speak, but he honestly doesn’t have the time.   That’s the meaning of the next stage of ‘rising to greatness.’  At the outset, you’ll need to raise your hand at every opportunity to achieve success but one day you’ll reach that pinnacle of success and be forced to pick and choose which engagements to attend.

Step four.  You didn’t really deserve to pick and choose.  Instead, you decide prematurely to ‘raise yourself up in haughtiness.’  If you decide to start ignoring people who need your help, you’ll get demoted to the ‘valley.’   Truly great people don’t intentionally ignore anyone.  They do whatever they can to assist.  If their schedule doesn’t permit them to be there, they will do everything in their capacity to make sure that someone else can be there.  The path to success doesn’t include a ‘nose in the air’ attitude.  You want to be successful?  Always find a way to be there for others, whether in person or by proxy.

Step five.  The good news is you can always pick yourself up even if you’ve gotten knocked down.   Note the words of the prophet: “Every valley shall be raised.”  It doesn’t say that you’ll rise up out of the valley.  No, the valley itself will be raised.  When you maintain your valley-ant attitude – your humility in the face of success – you will be raised up even without trying!  Be there for others, be humble about your ability to be a resource for all, and the Almighty will raise you to success!

Success begins with raising your hand.  Be there for others and G-d will be there for you.  May you achieve incredible success whilst maintaining your humility and being a resource for the world!  

Friday, 17 July 2015

Are mitzvos fathomable?

Daf Yomi Nedarim 54

Why do we do what we do?  The debate over taamei hamitzvos – the quest to figure out the reasons behind the commandments – has raged for millennia.  While there are many mitzvos in the Torah that are self-understood, a host of others are quite perplexing.  Why do we eat kosher?  Why do we circumcise?  Are there fathomable explanations for these strange rituals or are they beyond human comprehension?  

Some of our Rabbis have plumbed the depths of the human condition to discover the rationale and meaning of the mitzvos, while others have declared that “the hidden matters are for Hashem, our G-d,” alone.  Which is the more appropriate perspective?

Mishnah: One who vows to abstain from greens may eat squash.  Rabbi Akiva prohibits.
The Rabbis asked Rabbi Akiva, “But what if a person said to his messenger ‘Buy me greens’ and he came back and said ‘I only found squash’?”
Rabbi Akiva replied, “Exactly!  Do you think he would return and say ‘I only found beans’?  Obviously then, squash is included in the category of greens, but beans are not called greens!”

Gemara: What is the substance of their debate?
The Rabbis are of the opinion that any item concerning which the messenger would have to consult, is clearly not in the named category.  But Rabbi Akiva maintains that any item concerning which the messenger would consult demonstrates that it is indeed in the named category! 

We are here on earth as Divine ambassadors.  We are here as messengers of the Almighty to make this world a better place.  We generally know what the mission entails but our tradition has shown that there are really two approaches to the mission.

Either you could take the Rabbis’ approach and say, ‘Onward march.’  You don’t need to understand the nature of the mission; you don’t need to question the Commander-in-Chief; if you start questioning, you’ve stepped beyond the bounds of your mission.  You are a foot-soldier – just get on with the mission you’ve been with tasked with achieving! 

That’s the approach we call kabolas ol – accepting the yoke of Heaven, no questions asked.  According to one school of thought, that’s the ultimate way to serve G-d, and indeed you should strive to serve Him that way even when it comes to those mitzvos we ostensibly do comprehend.  You don’t do them because they make sense; you do them for no other reason other than the fact that G-d said so.

Or there’s Rabbi Akiva’s approach.  He teaches that it’s okay for the messenger to consult.  Sure, you must fulfill the mission – don’t wait until you have all the answers to start marching!  But that doesn’t mean you don’t have a right to continue to question.  If it helps you in your avodas Hashem – Divine service – to work on understanding the reasons for the mitzvos, then go ahead and figure out the meaning!  That’s the approach of taamei hamitzvos, a valid perspective attempted by great rabbis from King Solomon to the Sefer HaChinuch to Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. 

If you think you’ll get all the answers, think again.  But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t begin the conversation.  Of course, you must always remember our “acceptance speech” for the Torah – we said naaseh v’nishma, which means that comprehension is never a precondition for action.  But once you’re doing, you have every right to discuss and analyze.

In the Divine mission, there are multiple valid approaches.  First and foremost, we commit to the performance of our Heavenly task.  But then you get to choose whether to analyze the task or accept G-d’s mission unquestioningly.  May you merit finding your ideal path in your fulfilment of the Divine mission!  

Thursday, 16 July 2015

They kept their Jewish names

Daf Yomi Nedarim 53

Today's Life Yomi is dedicated in memory of HaRav Yitzchak ben HaRav Chaim Yaakov z"l by his granddaughter, on the occasion of his yahrzeit.

Americans who make aliyah will often retain their Anglo identity for years.  One of the classic ways to spot an American immigrant is how he buys his milk.  Israelis drink their milk out of a bag.  Not literally out of the bag.  But you buy the milk bag and then place it in a special milk jug called a chalavator.  If you don’t have a chalavator handy, you make do with a negel vasser kvort (handwashing cup).

But after a while, even the toughest Yankee will become absorbed into Israeli life.  Not so the other way around.  An Israeli who moves to America or anywhere else in the world will forever remain an Israeli.   Ask any of them about their plans for the future and they’ll assure you that they’re just visiting and plan to return to Israel very soon.  My father-in-law, bless him, left Israel as a young child.  He’s pushing eighty ka"h and still claims he’s Israeli and only a tourist in New York. . .  (I know what you’re thinking: yes, he does keep two days Yom Tov!)

If one vowed to abstain from dates, he is allowed date-honey; from winter grapes, he is allowed winter-grape vinegar. 
Rabbi Yehuda ben Beseira says: Any item that bears the name of origin that one vowed to abstain from, one is forbidden from that derivative item.  But the Sages permit.
The Rosh explains: As long as it bears the original name, even though it has dramatically changed in its consistency, like date-honey from dates.

The fact that an Israeli insists on being known as an Israeli decades after their emigration is incredibly heartwarming and promising.  According to Rabbi Yehuda ben Beseira, as long as you bear your original name, it doesn’t matter how far you’ve strayed from the source, you maintain your original status.  If an Israeli has lived abroad for many years and still insists on their Israeli identity, it means that they feel their essence has not changed.  These are pure souls who live by the dictum of Rabbi Yehuda Halevy, “My heart is in the east!”

Similarly, of the five million Jews in America, how many of them are practising?  And yet they continue to call themselves Jews!  They don’t have to; on the contrary, given the rise of global anti-Semitism, why would they?  But they choose to.  That means they still identify.  And that means that we must never give up on their return to Jewish life. 

Don’t ever stop reaching out to your Jewish brothers and sisters!  Don’t ever cease praying for their physical and spiritual welfare!  They maintain their original names, which means they care!  And so should we!

Names mean a lot.  How we identify ourselves is reflective of how we think of ourselves.  As long as people maintain their original names, they still feel a part of where they’ve come from.  May you merit reaching out to our brothers and sisters who may be so far from Jewish life that they are Jews in name alone!

Wednesday, 15 July 2015

You are an egghead

Daf Yomi Nedarim 52

Prior to coming to Edmonton, I worked for a financial firm in New York.  As you can imagine, many of my colleagues were Jewish, of varying levels of commitment to religious observance.  I was once out for a lunch meeting with a client, accompanied by a colleague who purported to keep kosher.  The restaurant wasn’t kosher, so I just ordered a glass of Coke.  My colleague, however, ordered an egg sandwich. 

After lunch, I decided to bring it up with him. 
“What’s the problem with an egg sandwich?” he responded incredulously, “bread is flour and water and eggs don’t need a hechsher.  They’re pareve.  All eggs are kosher.”
“Well apart from whatever issues there are with the bread,” I replied, “how do you know what the eggs were cooked with?  Maybe they were cooked with pig-fat and you just had a bacon and egg sandwich for lunch!”
“What are you talking about?” he said, “They were cooked in the shell; hard-boiled.  The shell keeps out any pork or anything else.  Eggs are eggs.  They’re kosher, period.”

One who vows to abstain from meat may still eat the gravy and the tiny meat shreds.  Rabbi Yossi prohibits it.
Rabbi Yehuda taught: We once cooked meat in the same pot as eggs and Rabbi Tarfon prohibited us from eating the eggs.

Eggshells are porous.  They most certainly absorb any substances they are cooked together with.  That’s the process of osmosis.  Yes, they were pareve when they were raw, but just like vegetables, they assume the status of whatever they are cooked with.  If you cook potatoes with chicken, they become fleishig.  Likewise, if you boil eggs in a non-kosher pot, they become non-kosher by osmosis.

On Pesach, we say that the Jewish people are like eggs: just like eggs (unlike vegetables) get harder the longer you cook them, similarly the more they persecute us, the tougher we get.  But we are like eggs in so many other ways.  Just like eggs appear to have a hard shell and yet absorb by osmosis, we too may appear to put our guard up so as not to be influenced by the assimilationist culture around us, but with time, we run the risk of becoming affected by osmosis.

Many people start out with a thick shell – committed to Torah and mitzvos – but with the passage of time, weaken in their devotion.  Initially we believe that our shell is thick enough to withstand the tests of the environment, but when we place ourselves into boiling water, osmosis is inevitable.
Think back and be honest with yourself.  Was there a time you were more into your spirituality but somehow the influence of those around you has seeped through the shell?  Have you unwittingly absorbed the flavour of your environment?

What’s the solution?  How do you avoid osmosis?  The secret is to constantly be illuminating spirituality.  When you are dishing out spirituality, when you are a spiritual giver, you are less prone to absorbing the spiritual malaise of those around you. 

After my all-boys high school and gap year in yeshiva, I attended a coed university.   It didn’t take long to realize that it wasn’t the healthiest environment for sustained spiritual growth.  And so I made a point of setting up weekly chavrusas (study sessions) with my university friends.  That way, I was ensuring that any relationship contained an element of spiritual giving – because the only way to avoid osmosis is to be that spiritual light.

Spread the light of Torah to your friends!  Don’t be shy to invite them over for a Shabbos meal.  Unabashedly sing zemiros and talk about the parsha at the table!  Set up a chavrusa with a colleague at work!   Start a lunch ‘n’ learn at the office!  Invite your next door neighbour over to your sukka!

But you say: that sounds very nice in theory, Rabbi, but I don’t know want to sound like I’m preaching to my friends.  They won’t want to be my friends anymore!  I want you to know this: you’ll be surprised at how interested in Torah and spirituality they actually are.  If they’re truly your friends, they’ll appreciate everything about you.  Maybe they’ll just humour you.  Or maybe they’ll take you seriously.  But whatever the case, if they’re real friends, they won’t rue you for your convictions.  They’ll respect you all the more. 

Of course you shouldn’t be pushy.  Nobody wants to have religion rammed down their throats.  But don’t be afraid to gently suggest that you’d love to be spiritual partners and grow together – or at the very least, investigate together – with those whom you consider to be your close friends.  Once again, if they’re real friends, they’ll appreciate the whole you.  You shouldn’t have to put on a show for them and pretend to be something different to make them like you.

We are all eggheads, by default.  We absorb from our environment by osmosis.  But always remember that you are in control of the flow of energy.  May you never be ashamed of being a spiritual luminary so that the energy flows out from your source and others absorb all the positive spiritual energy you have to offer!  

Tuesday, 14 July 2015

Don't ever let them see you smile

Daf Yomi Nedarim 51

The president of the United States of America carries the weight of the world on his shoulders.  The incredible responsibility of the office is enough to give the most spritely person grey hair.  And so it comes as no surprise that most of the time we see the president, he appears stressed out and worried. 

Once a year, all that changes.  The annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner is an opportunity to see the president in a different light.  Instead of the sombre everyday picture, we get to hear a little self-deprecating humour and watch the leader of the free world kick back and laugh at the comedic performances.  It’s a wonderful minhag that should give us all a moment of pause to consider how we carry ourselves through life.

Any day Rebbe would smile, calamity would strike the world.   He said to Bar Kapara, “Just don’t do anything funny and I promise to give you forty measures of wheat.”
“Just know,” Bar Kapara replied, “I plan to take whatever size measure I choose.”  He then went and found a large basket, lined it with pitch and put it upside-down on his head.  He appeared before Rebbe and said, “Time to give me my forty measures of wheat!”
Rebbe smiled and said, “Didn’t I warn you not to be funny?”
“I’m just here,” replied Bar Kapara, “to claim the wheat you owe me!”

Bar Kapara was invited to the wedding of Rabbi Shimon, the son of Rebbe. 
At the feast, Bar Kapara asked Rebbe, “What is the meaning of the word toeivah?”
Any suggestion Rebbe made, Bar Kapara refuted, until he finally said, “Okay, so what’s the meaning?”
Bar Kapara replied, “Get up and do a dance for me and then I’ll tell you.”

Many people take themselves far too seriously.  They believe that if they so much as smile, the world will cave in.  They obsess over sobriety, eschewing any manner of lightheartedness and revealed joy.  Bar Kapara made it his mission to make people laugh.  When he noticed how serious the Chief Rabbi, Rebbe, was acting, he took it upon himself to lighten the mood.  Not only would he make him laugh, he was determined to keep on with his quest until he had Rebbe dancing in front of him!

Maintaining a stressful countenance doesn’t help the situation.  On the contrary, it just tells your mind that you should worry even more!  The more you smile, the easier and breezier life will feel.  Did you know that when you smile, you release endorphins in your brain, making you experience feelings of jubilation?  In other words, smiling is not the result of being happy, smiling and laughing make you happy!

I get so embarrassed when someone comments, ‘Rabbi, you look exhausted!’  Even if I am dealing with a stressful situation, I certainly don’t want to project that image.  I want the world to know that everything is under control and I have placed my complete faith in the Almighty Who knows exactly what He is doing.  And so when I hear someone question my countenance, I realize I need to instantly correct my visage.  I immediately beam, ‘Baruch Hashem, life is awesome!’

It’s time to lighten up.  Stop taking yourself so seriously.  If you’re feeling stressed out, get up and do a jig.  May you merit the brightest smile in the room and the ability to bring out the mightiest grin in everyone else!