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Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Should marijuana be legalized?

Daf Yomi Nazir 38

Over the last couple of years, cannabis consumption has become more and more acceptable in North America, many states and provinces now having legalized or decriminalized it.  Proponents of cannabis use claim that it is no worse than alcohol consumption and that, on the contrary, it is less addictive than alcohol, and therefore safer.  Are we presently witnessing a period similar to the Prohibition era, which will be followed by a consensus that cannabis is harmless and should be legalized across-the-board?

If one drank a quarter measure of wine, one may not teach (i.e. render a legal opinion).

Week in, week out, we are enjoined to drink wine to fulfill the mitzvos of Kiddush and Havdallah.  Far from being forbidden, in Judaism wine is sanctified.  But of course, the amount of wine we are required to drink on Shabbos is moderate; and obviously, no one is driving or operating heavy machinery after making Kiddush! 

Only once or twice a year are we told to drink more than that, on Purim and according to some opinions, on Simchas Torah.  Otherwise, although not forbidden, one should avoid drinking to excess.  Why?  As the Talmud teaches here, if you drink too much, you may not offer instruction.

You were sent to this world on a Divine mission.  You are here to teach the world about spirituality.  Your job is to spread as much Torah light as possible, utilizing every possible opportunity to infuse the world with spiritual energy.  When you are in an impaired frame of mind due to alcohol consumption, your render your mission ineffective.  Until you recover, you are going MIA on your Divine mission.
And certainly if that is true of alcohol, then think about how Heaven must feel about other drugs that take you away from being your best.  When you’re not 100%, how can you fulfill your Divine mission?  G-d needs you to be on, all the time.  You have an incredible destiny to accomplish; you don’t have time to taint that with substances that keep you from being your best!

You are here to instruct the world how to become an Abode for G-dliness.  Anything that takes you away from your mission is a test you need to ‘just say no’ to, no matter what society or the government feels about any particular substance.  Insofar as it keeps you from your best, it is illicit!  May you merit utilizing every precious moment on earth achieving your magnificent destiny!

How to weave straw into gold

Daf Yomi Nazir 37

Wouldn’t it be nice to have the golden touch?  Sadly, the myths of yore all have tragic endings.   From King Midas whose touch turned everything to gold including his own daughter, to Rumpelstiltskin who could spin straw into gold but ended up falling deep into the earth’s cavities, the wise men of yesteryear have long cautioned man against yearning for otherworldly materialism. 

But what if I could give you a failsafe formula to transform anything into gold with no undesirable consequences or side-effects?  You could be rich beyond your wildest dreams without any downside risk of tragedy or unfortunate ramifications!   What is that magic formula? 

Concerning the nazir who vows to abstain from wine or grape products, the Torah declares, “Nor may he drink anything infused by grapes.”
Beraisa: The word “infused” means that flavour takes the status of the primary item.  For if one soaked grapes in water and the water now tastes like wine, the nazir would be liable for drinking that water. 
From here we rule similarly for all Torah prohibitions: If regarding the law of the nazir – which is not a permanent prohibition nor is he forbidden to derive benefit from grape-products (only to eat them) and the fact is that he could always seek annulment of his vow of prohibition – the Torah deemed flavour to take the status of the primary item, then how much more so in the case of other prohibited substances, such as plant mixtures which are eternally forbidden, which one may not so much as derive benefit from them and there is no way to revoke the prohibition, does infused flavour take the status of the primary item.

Everything the Almighty fashioned in this world He created in equilibrium.  That means that if you have a case of an infused prohibition – in this case, the grape-flavoured water – there must exist cases of infused mitzvos.   If water can become prohibited to the nazir because it touched grapes, then certainly there are mitzvos one could perform due to the process of infusion! 

One such example is rice matzah.  For Sefardim who eat rice on Pesach, let’s say one was baking matzah out of rice.   Strictly speaking matzah may only be made from one of the five grains: wheat, spelt, rye, barley and oats.  Those five species must be baked within eighteen minutes; otherwise they become chametz and forbidden for Passover consumption. 

Rice is fine to bake bread from, but the consistency doesn’t really produce much of a loaf.  The way to improve the consistency is to mix in a little wheat flour.  But now of course you must bake it within eighteen minutes, because it contains one of the five grains.  You pull it out of the oven and voila, you have a beautiful rice bread.  You take a bite and despite only containing a small measure of wheat flour, it has a distinct wheat flavour. The same rule that forbids grape-infused water to a nazir now permits this wheat-infused rice matzah to be utilized for the mitzvah of matzah at the seder!  In other words, you have magically transformed rice into wheat and made it mitzvah-bread!

Ultimately, our ability to effect such a magical transformation exists throughout our interaction with the world.   When you take a piece of parchment and scribble some Hebrew letters upon it, you infuse it with spirituality and transform it from cowhide to Torah scroll.  If that scroll would now drop to the floor, G-d forbid, the entire congregation would have to fast!

Why?  It’s just a piece of cowhide wrapped around a couple of wooden rollers!  No, it’s not.  It has been transformed from a meaningless piece of this physical world to the holiest artifact in the universe!  When you read from that Torah, you are using your Midas’ Touch – you are transforming the cow into spiritual gold! 

And likewise with any physical item in this world that you use to perform a mitzvah – when you do that, you are employing your superhero powers.  You are transforming the physical into the spiritual.  As a child of Heaven, you have the power to transform a palm branch into a lulav!  You have the power to transform a ram’s horn into a shofar!  You have the power to transform tarpaulin into a sukkah!

You are more powerful than the most spectacular superhero!  Your hidden powers can transform the universe.  May you merit learning to master your secret powers and converting everything in this world into spiritual gold!  

Sunday, 27 September 2015

Cure your bentchaphobia!

Daf Yomi Nazir 36

There is an epidemic plaguing the frum community – a couple of mental health conditions unique to our population.  According to Rabbi Dovid Orlofsky, every Orthodox family contains at least one individual haunted by either Fleishiphobia or BentchaphobiaFleishiphobia is the fear of become fleishig.   No matter how cold a winter’s Shabbos may be, many people won’t touch as much as a potato in the cholent, for fear of chas v’shalom being unable to have pizza just as soon as Shabbos is over.

A related condition is Bentchaphobia.  “Is it mezonos?” they ask.  It looks like bread.  It smells like bread.  It feels like bread.  Let’s be brutally honest: it tastes like bread.  But G-d forbid it might actually be bread, because that, of course, would necessitate washing one’s hands and eventually reciting the entire four-and-a-half minute Birkat Hamazon (Grace After Meals).   
“I’ll just have the fruit plate.”

Rabbi Abahu quoted Rabbi Yochanan: Concerning any prohibition in the Torah, a permitted food item does not join a forbidden food item to meet the requisite prohibited total and make one liable, except for the nazirite prohibition.
Tosfos explains: If, for example, one ate half an olive’s worth of regular meat together with half an olive’s worth of prohibited fats, he is not liable.

When it comes to prohibited food, you can’t supplement permissible food to reach the amount that would make you liable.  The good news is that, in contrast, for permissible foods, you can supplement!  Even if you only had a tiny amount of certain permissible foods but, together with those foods, you ate other foods, you could gain the opportunity for a mitzvah!

For example, let’s talk about having a meal.  Ordinarily, in order to qualify to bentch, you would have to eat an egg’s worth of bread (approximately 55 cubic centimetres).  Any less and you would simply walk away.  Says the Magen Avraham: If you have enough other food at the meal to satiate you, those other foods could be combined with the small amount of bread you ate to qualify you to bentch

You see, bentching is not a negative experience; it’s an opportunity to thank the Almighty for His bounty.  Our Sages tell us that bentching with the right kavana (focus) leads to increased bounty from Above!  How does that work?  Well, when you say “Blessed are You, Hashem, our G-d,” you open up the faucet of His blessing.  We don’t actually bless G-d; He doesn’t need our affirmation.  Rather, we are declaring Him as the Source of all Blessing.  The word for blessing, bracha, is related to the word braicha, meaning a pool of water.  When we bless G-d, He showers His pool of blessing upon us. 

Don’t you want a shower of blessing from Heaven as often as possible?  Of course you do!  So why would bentching be something to avoid?  The Magen Avraham makes it possible to bentch whenever you sit down to eat, even if bread isn’t the entire meal!  Because for permissible food items, even the other foods can join in to complete the shiur (requisite amount). And by doing so, we are afforded multiple opportunities a day to open G-d’s blessing faucet!  How awesome is that?

Bentchaphobia is a trick of the yetzer hara (evil inclination) to avoid bringing spiritual blessing into your life.  Don’t fall for his antics.  May you merit getting drenched by Heaven’s rains as you utilize every opportunity to open that faucet full-blast!  

Tame your inner beast

Daf Yomi Nazir 35

Chaim Yankel is down and out.  He’s been scouring the help-wanted classifieds for months, to no avail.  Finally, an ad catches his eye, “Assistant Zookeeper Wanted.”  Figuring it’s bakovadik (honourable) enough and that he’s a quick learner, he applies and gets an interview.

“To tell you the truth, it’s not exactly a management position,” the head zookeeper tells him. “Due to mismanagement, the zoo has spent so much money renovating the grounds and improving the habitat that we can no longer afford to import the ape we needed to replace our recently deceased one. So until we can, we’ve decided to put an actor in an ape suit.” Out of desperation, Chaim Yankel accepts the offer.

At first, his conscience keeps nagging him that he is being dishonest by fooling the visitors to the zoo. And Chaim Yankel feels undignified in the ape-suit, stared at by crowds who watch his every move. But after a few days on the job, he begins to be amused by all the attention, and starts to put on a show for the zoo-goers: hanging upside-down from the branches by his legs, swinging about on the vines, climbing up the cage walls, and roaring with all his might whilst beating his chest. Soon, he's drawing a sizable crowd.

One day, while Chaim Yankel is swinging on the vines showing off to a group of school kids, his hand slips, and he goes flying over the fence into the neighbouring cage, the lion's den. Terrified, he backs up as far from the approaching lion as he can, covers his eyes with his paws, and prays at the top of his lungs, “Shema Yisrael Hashem Elokeinu Hashem echad!”
The lion opens its powerful jaws and roars, “Baruch shem k'vod malchuso l'olam va'ed!”
“Quiet, you fools,” mutters the bear from a third cage. “You'll get us all fired!”

The Torah declares, “If a person shall give his friend a donkey, ox, or sheep, or any animal to guard . . . and it be stolen from him, he shall make restitution unto the owner.”
“Rashi” explains: This verse excludes bears and lions, since they are wild and not guardable.

The Gemara in Tractate Bava Metzia explains that the verse is dealing with a shomer sachar – a custodian that is financially remunerated for his efforts.  The expectation is that in exchange for the compensation, he will be responsible for any foreseeable mishaps such as the item being lost or stolen.  Should they occur, he would have to pay the owner back for losing the item entrusted to him.

The Talmud in Bava Metzia states that the verse excludes servants, documents and land.  And indeed, the Rosh on our Gemara says as much.  But Pseudo-Rashi (we don’t exactly know the authorship of the commentary on Tractate Nazir) suggests a novel interpretation: by specifying donkeys, oxen, and sheep, the verse is coming to exclude wild beasts, such as lions and bears.

Picture the scenario:  Your friend knocks on your door, in his hand is a leash.  At the end of the leash is his pet grizzly bear.  He’s going on vacation and he needs you to bear-sit for a couple of weeks.  You’re his buddy, so you’re not going to say no – as scary as the prospect of having a grizzly bear around the house sounds.  He thanks you profusely and off he goes to Jamaica.

The first couple of days are fine.  The bear sits down to dinner with the family.  He uses his knife and fork and portrays incredible table manners.  But by the third day, he just can’t control himself.  It begins with eating with his bear-hands and refusing to bentch (say grace) at the end of the meal.  After dinner, he’s hogging the TV remote – all he wants to watch is The Berenstains.  While he’s in the restroom, you manage to ‘steal’ the remote.   He gets back and realizing what’s happened, he throws a massive tantrum, storms out the front door, and disappears.

You figure he’ll be home by bedtime, but there’s no sign of him.  Next day, still nothing.  Finally, your friend returns from vacation and you sheepishly tell him you lost the bear.  The halacha, says Pseudo-Rashi, is that you’re not responsible, because ‘you can’t be expected to guard a bear.’  Bears are simply not tame creatures.

When you came down into this world, the Almighty gave you a nefesh habehamis – an animal soul – to guard.  He’s ferocious and will stop at nothing to get his way.  For the most part, he wants the opposite of everything you seek on your Divine mission.  You’re interested in connecting to Heaven; he wants worldly pleasures.  It’s not easy, but you’ve been entrusted with the beast; and as He sent you down into this world, you promised the Almighty that you would do your very best to guard His pet.

The good news is that you are halachically not culpable for failing to curb the ferocity of the bear inside.  Wild beasts are simply not guardable.  All you agreed to do is to make your best effort at taming him and keeping him under lock and key.  But sometimes he will just barge out the front door, leaving you wondering what went wrong.

Don’t give up.  This bear will be back.  You will have further opportunities to watch over his table manners.  All the Almighty expects of you is that you do your very best.  King Solomon declares in Ecclesiastes, “For there is not a righteous man upon earth that does good and sins not.”  Sooner or later, that bear will walk out the front door; for the most part, he’s not tameable.  Your job is simply to do your very best to keep him under lock and key for as long as you can.

When you were sent on your Divine mission, you were given a travelling partner who is going to kvetch every step of the way.  Be nice but firm and don’t let him get the better of you.  May you learn to hide the key to the front door and never give up on your mission to strive to tame the bear inside; so that by the time you return him to his Master, he will be completely transformed!  

Friday, 25 September 2015


Daf Yomi Nazir 34

Yankel had found his dream job.  The local day-school had employed him to ring the bell between periods and before recess and lunch.  The rest of the time, he could sit and shteig (learn) in the little attic by the bell.  Each day, he would get up early and run to school to ring the bell ushering the children into their classes.

But then one day as he is running out the door, he slips and falls, breaking his arms.  Showing up to school with both arms in casts, the principal asks him how he expects to do the job without the use of his arms.
“No problem,” he responds, “I can jump up and head butt the bell with my face.  Here, watch this!”  And sure enough, he jumps up, bangs his face into the bell and it chimes beautifully, like every day previously.
“Okay, Yankel,” replies the principal, “if you’re sure you can do the job, it’s yours to keep.”  And Yankel returns happily to his desk in the attic.

A few days go by and everything is going according to plan.  Every time Yankel needs to ring the school-bell, he jumps up and bangs his head face-first against it and nobody below is any the wiser.  But on the fifth day, he runs up to ring the bill, loses his footing and misses, plummeting down three stories to the ground below.  A crowd of students quickly gathers but no one knows who this man is writhing in pain.  After all, he’s been hidden from sight all this time, keeping to himself up in the attic.

Just then, a senior teacher comes by and looks at Yankel lying there.
“Do you know this man?” a younger teacher asks. 
He takes a good look, scratches his head and replies, “Honestly, I can’t really place him.  But I must say, his face sure rings a bell!”

Listing the prohibited foods of the Nazir, the Torah declares, “Anything that is made from the grape-vine, from chartzanim to zug (of the grape), he should not eat.”
Rabbi Yossi teaches: In order to avoid erring, here’s how to remember the meaning of chartzanim and zug: A grape is just like a cowbell (zug), regarding which the exterior is called the zug while the interior is called a clapper.
Tosfos explains: Just like on a bell, the grape’s outer kelipah (skin) is called the zug. 

The Kabbalists liken the world around us to the kelipah of a fruit.  If you peel it away, you will find the inner beauty.  WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) only when you fail to take the time to discover what lies beneath the surface.   If you take the time to peel away the skin, you will discover the most incredible jewels underneath.

Rabbi Yossi takes the analogy a step further.  Sometimes you see a metal tin and you think nothing of it.  Believe it or not, there’s music underneath.  The outside of the bell on its own is pointless.  But when the clapper hits it, it makes music.  If you take the time to peel away the kelipah of this word, you will merit hearing the music!

Everything you encounter in this world is but a shell.  You wouldn’t eat the husks of the grapes on their own; G-d created them to house the primary element of the grape.  Even though it is the kelipah, it serves an important purpose.  Sometimes in life you need to dig deep to taste the sweetness and hear the music, but it’s worth digging.  The harder you must search, the sweeter the taste and richer the music.

Whether you’re dealing with a challenging situation or a challenging person, have patience and dig deep.  If you can just get past the kelipah, you will discover incredible richness.  Every individual is G-dly; if you haven’t discovered their G-dliness, you haven’t looked hard enough yet.  If G-d has sent this person into your life, He wants you to uncover the goodness within.

Our job in this world is to peel away the kelipah and discover the sweet music in every person and every situation.  WYSINWYG (What You See Is Not What You Get) when you make the effort.  May you make the effort to discover the beauty in everyone and everything!

Thursday, 24 September 2015

Stoke your Real-Aish-On-Ship!

Daf Yomi Nazir 33

I recently heard about a shul in Switzerland that has cancelled Yizkor services.  The bulk of the members were only showing up three or four times a year for Yizkor and the rabbi decided that he couldn’t justify the driving on the holiday for the twenty minutes they would be there.  So he cancelled it. 

When I heard about it, I said to myself, ‘Shouldn’t he be happy that these people are at least showing up to something?!  Now they won’t ever come to shul!’

Concerning the Beis Hamikdash (Holy Temple), the Prophet Jeremiah declared, “They are the Temple of G-d, the Temple of G-d, the Temple of G-d.”
Rav Yosef taught: This verse refers to the First Temple and Second Temple.
Tosfos explains: The verse prophesies that there will be three Temples.  Two will be destroyed, but the third Throne of the Great and Awesome Day will never disappear.   Nevertheless, Rashi interprets the verse in Jeremiah differently.
How does Rashi explain the verse?  Three times a year you appear before Me.
Rashi’s comments are based on the Midrash: The Almighty is saying to Israel, ‘Do not rely upon the three pilgrimage festivals you celebrate each year.  If you do not perform My bidding, your festivals are worthless to Me.  Thus the verse in Amos states, “I despise, I revile your festivals.”

Certainly, it’s not an ideal situation when most shul members only show up for Yizkor.  It’s reminiscent of the days of yore when the people in Jeremiah’s time would show up just for the pilgrimage festivals, but then behave like the pagan nations around them during the rest of the year.  The Almighty wants a year-round relationship.   

But He’s our Father in Heaven.  And like a parent, He will always love His children, no matter how far we stray from His embrace.  Whether you show up once, twice, every week or every day, He loves you far beyond any physical love we could ever imagine!  He loves us, and longs for us to remember Him just a little more regularly. 

As we know, our Heavenly relationship parallels our earthly relationships.  The Prophet Jeremiah is waking us up to our physical relationships just as much as our spiritual relationship.  His message: three times a year just doesn’t cut it.

You think you’re good because you remember your wedding anniversary?  And your spouse’s Hebrew and English birthdays?   Because you take them away on fancy vacations a couple of times a year?  

Your spouse desires and deserves a year-round relationship.  If you’re working eighteen-hour days just to afford the fancy vacations, your spouse would much rather spend the time with you today and every day and make do with a Winnebago getaway.  They can live without another island.

And you don’t need to wait until your anniversary to make them breakfast in bed.  How about you surprise them on a regular Monday or Thursday and ask them out on a lunch date?  If you did something special every single day for your spouse, can you imagine how the relationship would look?

The only way to survive the stormy seas of life to have a fire of constant passion that burns brightly between you.  That’s why it’s called a real-aish-on-ship – if you want to survive the sea of life, you need a real fire on board the ship that you are sailing on together.  And the moment you stop stoking the flame, it peters out.   Trying to get your relationship on the right track again every few months is not going to do it.  It must be kept alive and burning constantly. 

Remembering birthdays is great, but a relationship means being there day-in, day-out for the other person.  (And besides, nowadays Facebook will remind you when it’s a friend’s birthday, so it’s no longer worth any points!)  May you merit a real-aish-on-ship with your loved ones and ultimately, with your Loved One!

Lick your wounds and become a source of strength!

Daf Yomi Nazir 32

After a long battle with lung cancer, Barb Tarbox died at the age of 43.   Having taken her first cigarette at the age of 11, she became a heavy smoker until she was diagnosed with her terminal illness.  At that point, she decided to dedicate the remainder of her life to campaigning against tobacco and convincing young people to quit or never start.  With superhuman effort, she would crisscross the country, lecturing and campaigning.  By the end, she could hardly move on her own, but she would gather every ounce of strength and utilize every last breath to save one more child.  At the end of her life, she agreed to have her sickly face emblazoned upon the nicotine warnings on cigarette packets.

Mishnah: When the nazirs came to Israel from the Diaspora to offer their sacrifices only to find that the Holy Temple had been destroyed, Nachum Hamadi said to them, “Had you known that the Temple was already destroyed, would you have taken the nazirite vow?” 
Gemara: Rav Yosef said: If I had been there, I would have said to them, “The verse in Jeremiah states, ‘They are the Temple of G-d, the Temple of G-d, the Temple of G-d,’ referring to the First Temple and Second Temple (which will be destroyed, versus the Third which is eternal).  And so they should have realized that the Temple would eventually be destroyed.”
The Gemara responds: True, they knew it would be destroyed, but who knew when?
Abaye taught: Did they not know when?  But the verse states, “Seventy sevens have been decreed upon your people and upon your holy city,” and that time had arrived.
The Gemara answers: Still they did not know the exact day it would be destroyed and so they none the less took the nazirite vow.

What incredible souls!  These righteous men and women knew that the Temple was about to be destroyed and yet they still took their nazirite vows!  Most other people would have been moping about, thinking ‘Woe is to us!’  But these awesome individuals were thinking, ‘We don’t have much time left to do this.  Let’s make every last moment count!  If we don’t become nazirs now, we’ll never get the opportunity to do it properly, sacrifices and all!’

Sometimes Heaven sends us challenges that are insurmountable.  We don’t understand why, in real life, the story doesn’t always have a happy ending.   We simply say the blessing, “Blessed is the true Judge,” and accept the Divine decree, knowing that G-d’s way are humanly unknowable.  Those are the situations that are beyond your control.

But what you can control is how you will deal with the time you have remaining.  Will you mope about feeling sorry for yourself?  Or will you pick yourself up and make every last moment count?  Will you become a victim of your circumstances or will you rise above and become the stronger person the Almighty has destined you to become?

Some misfortunes happen in our lives due to poor choices we make; others occur due to circumstances completely beyond our control.  Either way, it’s your choice whether you will make lemonade out of the lemons.    Barb Tarbox didn’t tell herself that it was all her own undoing and that she should just disappear.  She was determined to make amends and do whatever she could to repair her final moments on earth. 

Barb found redemption from within her self-inflicted wounds.  If she could pick herself up from her self-inflicted wounds, then certainly if the misfortune is completely Heaven-sent, such storms in life should inspire you to grab your surfboard and ride the mighty wave.   Just like those inspirational individuals who knew the end was nigh for the Jewish people and yet were not deterred to become nazirs at the eleventh hour, we must never give up on our mission even when the hour is darkest!

Sometimes in life the writing is on the wall.  Heaven has decreed and there’s nothing we can do.  May you merit picking yourself up with superhuman strength when life is at it bleakest!

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Secrets to becoming a Ten

Daf Yomi Nazir 31

The Torah states that a kosher animal chews its cud and has split hooves.  The Rogatchover Gaon famously asks: Does cud-chewing and split hooves make the animal kosher?  Or is the animal spiritually kosher and the cud and hooves are merely external signs for us to recognize the kosher animals and distinguish them from the non-kosher beasts?

Rav Chisda taught: A black cow has the best hide.  A red cow has the best meat.  A white cow is best for plowing.

Why would a red cow have better meat?  The cow’s skin colour has nothing to do with the quality of the meat!  The flesh is the flesh, no matter what colour the hair on the outside may be!

The answer, like the Rogatchover suggests, is that the exterior skin itself has nothing to do with the qualities of the animal.  Rather, Heaven has given us certain signs to distinguish one animal’s interior from another.  Just like kosher animals are in essence kosher – but the Almighty endows them with external signs so that we can recognize them as such – so too, G-d placed certain distinguishing signs upon His creations so that we can more easily discern their inner nature.  Red skin on a cow is a sign that the meat is better, white skin is a sign from Heaven that this particular cow plows better. 

That’s why beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  Hopefully, you think your spouse is the most beautiful person in the world.  Other people might disagree.  How does that work? 

You and your spouse are spiritually connected – two halves of the one soul.  When you find your other half, you immediately recognize them and are attracted to them.  You find them incredibly physically beautiful, because G-d has given you the external sign in order to recognize their soul from amongst the billions of other people in the world.

When it comes to looks, some people like to offer a ten-point rating.  But if beauty is in the eye of the beholder, it’s rather meaningless.  What’s more important is a ten-point rating of middos (character traits).  If you’re single, instead of asking whether someone is a nine or ten in terms of looks, you should be asking if they’re a nine or ten in terms of middos.  That’s what truly counts. 

And if Heaven has blessed you with universally-attractive external appeal, then our Sages tell us that the goal is to become tocho k’baro – that the interior must match the exterior.  If G-d has made you a ten on the outside, He expects that you will strive to become a ten on the inside.  And the fact is that no matter how Vogue magazine understands beauty, to the person that counts the most in this world you are the most beautiful person on the planet.  In other words, it’s time to realize that you are exceedingly pretty/handsome!  You are magnificently gorgeous!   You are a Ten!  If that’s the case on the outside, then you should definitely be striving to make yourself a ten on the inside, as well! 

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  The Almighty has given us certain external signs to recognize inner beauty.  May you work on developing your inner beauty and dazzle all who meet you!

Monday, 21 September 2015

No such thing as mistaken identity

Daf Yomi Nazir 30

A friend told me about the time he was driving through South Dakota when he was bagel’d.  Bagel’ing is when someone randomly throws a Hebrew or Yiddish word your way in the hope that you’ll engage them in conversation.  It’s their soul reaching out for a spiritual hug. 

So he’s in South Dakota and he starts chatting with this fellow who’s Jewish and, lo and behold, his wife is also Jewish.  And also from South Dakota! 
My friend says to them, ‘That’s incredible.  I mean, it couldn’t have been easy to find the only other Jew, practically, in the state to marry!’
‘Actually,’ they responded, ‘it was a bit of a fluke.  Neither of us were looking to meet someone Jewish.  It’s weird, isn’t it, how things turned out that way?!’

Beis Shamai say: Sanctification in error is none the less sanctification.  For example, if one declared, ‘The barrel of wine that I will pick up first will be dedicated to the Temple, but then he lifted up a barrel of oil,’ Beis Shamai say it is none the less sanctified.

There is no such thing as sanctification in error.  You might think that you had no intention to sanctify a piece of this world, but your essence – your neshama (soul) – most certainly desired the sanctification.   Your neshama is pure; it knows its mission on earth – your mission on earth.  And it will strive to utilize every possible opportunity to sanctify the world and make it an abode for the Divine Presence.

Your default position is to do the Heavenly thing.  When you behave in an unHeavenly manner, you have momentarily acted out of character.  Sanctifying this world could never be in error; that’s your natural modus operandi!  You come from a spiritual source higher than the highest angels.  Could you imagine an angel doing the wrong thing?  Of course not!  And so too you.  Your performance of mitzvos is entirely expected.  There is no such thing as sanctification in error! 

Our friends in South Dakota didn’t meet one another in error or haphazardly.  It was not a mistake.  It was their identity.  It was not a case of mistaken identity.  Their souls were drawn to one another in an effort to fulfil their Divine mission.  

When Divine magic happens, it is never a mistake.  It happens because that’s how Heaven operates.  When you do Heaven’s bidding, whether or not you consciously opted to do so, you have acted in concert with the natural flow of Divine energy in the world.

Next time you feel drawn to shul or doing a mitzvah, don’t fight it.  That’s your soul’s natural gravitational pull calling!  You might not think you want it, but your soul knows what you truly desire.  It’s not a mistake.  The only mistake is to resist.  Just let your spirit direct you to do what it is naturally drawn to do.

You can’t do a mitzvah by accident.  When you do Heaven’s bidding, it’s because the deepest recesses of your soul have shone forth and taken you on your spiritual journey.  May you merit going with the flow and never resisting your natural spiritual instinct!  

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Should you meddle in your siblings' parenting decisions?

Daf Yomi Nazir 29

Shayna was in a quandary over her sister’s decision.  Rachel and Max had decided to pull their kids out of Jewish day-school and put them in public school.   Shayna was totally distraught at the thought of her niece and nephew missing out on a good Jewish education and being exposed at such a tender age to the crazy, big wide world out there.  But was it her place to say anything?  Maybe she should just mind her own business!  To mix in or not to mix in? 

Mishna: A father may initiate his son into nazirism, but a mother cannot initiate her son into nazirism.  If the boy cut his hair or his relatives cut his hair, or he protested the nazirism or his relatives protested, he is not a nazir.
The Gemara asks: The father can, but the mother cannot, why? 
Rabbi Yossi the son of Rabbi Chanina answers in the name of Reish Lakish: Since the father has a duty to educate his son in mitzvos.
The Gemara asks: But the Mishna stated, ‘If he protested the nazirism or his relatives protested.’  Do the relatives then have the power to say to the father, ‘Do not teach him mitzvos?’
The Gemara answers: An educational decision that the relatives do not approve of is a bad idea. 

Aunts and uncles share the responsibility for their nieces’ and nephews’ education.  If you feel that your sibling is making a poor choice concerning their children’s education, you have every right to interfere.  It’s not a matter of minding your own business; the Gemara makes it very clear that their education is your business.

Why is it your business?  Why do you get an opinion when it comes to the education of your nieces and nephews?  It’s not because they’re your siblings’ children.  For that relationship alone, you would have no say.  No, it’s because they are the grandchildren of your parents.

Every parent wants the best for their offspring, physically, materially, emotionally, and spiritually.  When you work to ensure the spiritual and educational success of your nieces and nephews you are honouring your parents.   And so your involvement in their educational choices is every bit your business.  You have an obligation to honour your parents; part of that honour is achieving the best for their grandchildren.

So you certainly have the right to an opinion regarding your siblings’ decisions.  But with rights come responsibilities.  It’s all well and good to criticize their decision to pull their kids’ out of Jewish school and place them in public school.  But if their response to your criticism is that the decision was financial, are you prepared to step up and do your best to assist monetarily?   Doing so is not tzedakah to your sibling – they might not even care.  Rather you are helping your nieces and nephews in an effort to honour your parents.  In other words, this expenditure is part and parcel of the mitzvah of kibud av v’em, the Fifth Commandment.

Are your nieces and nephews getting a good Jewish education?  How about your great-nieces and great-nephews?  If not, you have a duty to help their parents make the right decisions.  May your parents merit children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who are committed Jews and may you do your part to help them succeed in that accomplishment!  

Nobody likes to drink alone

Daf Yomi Nazir 28

A riddle: Every afternoon after work, Jimmy and Frankie get together at the local watering hole.  It’s a tradition they’ve had for years, and rain or shine they’ll meet for a drink after work.   In a similar scene, just down the road, Joe also stops into his favourite pub on his way home from work.  The bartender knows his drink and knows that Joe arrives like clockwork each day. 

What is the difference between Jimmy and Frankie’s beer and Joey’s?

Following the term of nazirism, one must offer sacrifices in the Temple.  Until what point may a husband revoke his wife’s vow of nazirism? 
Mishna: If the blood of the sacrifice has already been sprinkled upon the altar, the husband can no longer annul his wife’s vow.  Rabbi Akiva says: Even if one of the animals has merely been slaughtered, he may no longer annul.  When are we talking about?  With regards to sacrifices offered for the ‘conclusion’ of her term of nazirism.  But if she were bringing sacrifices to atone for becoming impure ‘during’ her nazirism – in which case she would have to begin all over again – the husband may indeed annul her vow.  For he can say, ‘I don’t want my wife to abstain from wine.’

What’s wrong with his wife abstaining from wine?  Clearly, the answer is that nobody likes to drink alone.  When you picture Jimmy and Frankie versus Joey, what imagery comes to mind?  In the first scene, they are happy.  In the second, he is probably sad and stressed out.  Drinking alone is a sign of loneliness and sadness.  And nobody likes to be alone.  That’s why the husband may revoke his wife’s decision to abstain from drinking; so that his alcohol consumption can be not just responsible, but enjoyable.

Some people in this world are blessed to have constant company.  The company of a spouse, the company of children, grandchildren, siblings, friends.  Others are not as blessed.  There are many lonely people in this world, despite our human need to ‘drink together’ and enjoy the company of others.

Your job in this world is to reach out to those who might not enjoy the company that you do.  No matter your situation, there is someone who is lonelier and could do with some company, now and again.   Before Shabbos, pick up the telephone and wish them a Good Shabbos.  Invite them for a Yom Tov meal.  Nobody likes to drink or eat alone.  Especially on Yom Tov when we should all be celebrating together. 

Did you know that our Sages encouraged the relaxation of Pesach stringencies on the eighth day so that people would share a meal?  For seven days, some people make sure not to touch anyone else’s food, lest they aren’t as strict as them.  But then on the eighth day, we’re reminded that Yom Tov is about ‘breaking matzah’ together!

We’re never meant to be alone.  But at certain times of the year, we really need to do our utmost to think about who might be lonely.  May you merit never being alone in life by always thinking about and being there for others who may be even lonelier!  

G-d desires human sacrifice

Daf Yomi Nazir 27

I was once visiting with an elderly Jewish man when he showed me the family pictures on his wall.
“These were my paternal grandparents.  They made aliya on their own from Russia at the turn of the century and went to drain the swamps and plough the fields in the Land of Israel.  They left their families behind to return to Zion!” he told me proudly.

“And on this side here,” he continued, “are my maternal grandparents.  “They came to America and worked in the sweatshops on the Lower East Side.  But they refused to work on Shabbos.  So every week they would get fired for not showing up on Saturday and had to find themselves a new job on Sunday morning!  Can you believe the sacrifices my grandparents made, back in the day?”

Mishnah: If a man and his father were both nazirs and his father separated undesignated funds to purchase the offerings upon completion of the term but then died, the son may use those funds for his offerings.
The Torah declares, “If an individual from among the people shall sin unintentionally by committing one of the commandments of G-d that shall not be done and he becomes guilty; if his sin that he has committed becomes known to him, he shall bring as his sacrifice an unblemished she-goat for the sin he has committed.”
The Beraisa states: “His sacrifice” teaches that one only fulfills one’s obligation with his own sacrifice, and not that of his father (as opposed to the case of the Mishna where the funds were not yet designated for a particular animal).

Your parents and grandparents made sacrifices for Heaven and the Jewish people.  That merit accrues for all generations and certainly you are who you are today due to their sacrifices.  But the Almighty wants you to make personal sacrifices for Him.  You are here on earth to fulfil your personal mission.

Each generation has its own challenges and sacrifices that need to be made.   Your grandparents’ sacrifice may have been making the desert bloom in Israel or bringing unadulterated Judaism to America.  Your call to sacrifice is entirely different.  When it’s not as clear and apparent, it can be even more challenging, but one day your children and grandchildren will proudly point to the sacrifices you made for Heaven.

Perhaps the sacrifice of the early twenty-first century is sending your children to a Jewish day-school at twenty grand plus per kid.   Especially given G-d’s call to us to be fruitful!  That wasn’t the challenge a generation ago, but it is today. 

Maybe the challenge today is to dedicate time to Torah study.  Back in the shtetl, it was par for the course to begin your day with a couple of hours of learning and end your day similarly.  Today, with ever-increasing work and family demands, committing to fixed times for Torah study is no mean feat.  It means sacrificing whatever personal time you have remaining in the week.

Every generation has its own tests and challenges.  Stop riding on the coattails of your parents’ and grandparents’ sacrifices.  May you merit truly giving of yourself to Heaven and one day having your children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces point to their forebear on the wall who sacrificed himself for Heaven and the Jewish people!

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Build and beautify the world!

Daf Yomi Nazir 26

When King Herod set about expanding and refurbishing the Second Temple, there was a fellow by the name of Nikanor who stepped forward to donate the gates of the Temple.  Originally from Egypt, he travelled back to Alexandria and commissioned the finest craftsmen to design the Temple gates.  Once completed, he loaded them onto a boat and set sail for Israel.  En route, however, a storm broke out and they decided to throw the first of the heavy gates overboard, to avoid the capsizing of the ship.

They were about to throw the second gate overboard when Nikanor cried out, ‘If you discard my gate, I go with it!’  At that point the storm subsided, but Nikanor was devastated that he would be coming home with only half the project.  Can you imagine his shock when, just as they were disembarking in Acco, he noticed his gate miraculously floating into the port?!  The gates were fastened to the Temple entrance and when the various Temple accoutrements were later upgraded to gold, they kept Nikanor’s gates in remembrance of the awesome miracle that brought them to Zion! 

Mishna: If a woman took a nazirite vow and designated her animal for the sacrifice, and subsequently her husband annulled the vow, her chatas sacrifice is left to die, but the olah sacrifice may still be offered as an olah, and the shelamim may be offered as a shlamim.  If she designated money to purchase the animals, they fall to charity.  But if she specified which monies were to be used to purchase which sacrifices, the money for the chatas must be thrown into the Dead Sea.

Rav Nachman taught: That which an animal is like specified funds (in that it must be left to die, just like the funds must be thrown into the sea) is only concerning a complete animal.  A blemished animal, however, is like unspecified funds (and is redeemed for cash).  But bars of silver are not considered like cash. 
Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak taught: Even bars of silver are considered like cash.  But not a stack of building blocks.

What is it about bars of silver and building blocks that make them unlike cash?  Cash on its own is meaningless.  How much money a person has in their bank account is really irrelevant.  What matters is what they do with that money.

Judaism doesn’t shun material wealth.  Our patriarchs and matriarchs were incredibly prosperous.  Our Sages tell us that the poorest person who left Egypt had no less than ninety donkeys laden with gold, silver, and precious jewels!  But what could you do with all that money in the desert?  They had all the money in the world but it was worthless – there were no shops to buy anything!  In fact, they didn’t even need to buy anything – their bread came from heaven and their clothes grew and remained ever-fresh upon them!

That means that money alone is a useless judge of self-worth.  It’s what you do with the money that counts.  You were placed on this earth to make the world a better place.  You are here to build the world and enhance it.  That twofold mission is symbolized by the bars of silver and the building blocks.  They’re not money.  You can’t cash those in.  They’re worth so much more than money. 

Building blocks represent the task of building the world.  We are enjoined to build strong families, institutions and societies.  Bars of silver represent the beautification of the world that we are tasked with.  The Almighty doesn’t just want big institutions; He desires beautiful families, institutions and societies.  You can’t buy that.  It takes dedication and hard work.

We have no idea how much Nikanor was worth.  That information has long since disappeared into the annals of history.  What do we know about him?  That he was a builder.  That he was a beautifier.  That a piece of the Temple was named for him, such was his generous, beautiful contribution.

Your net worth is not determined by the size of your bank account.  Money comes and goes.  You are worth as much as you have invested in building and beautifying the world around you.  Nobody can ever take that away from you.  The investment is forever.   May you merit being forever remembered as a builder and a beautifier!  

Should cellphones be banned in shul?

Daf Yomi Nazir 25

Lately, more and more shuls have been instituting cellphone bans.  We’re not talking about Shabbos and Yom Tov; that goes without saying.  No, during the week.  After all, you’ve come to talk to G-d, not sit there playing Candy Crush or Angry Birds, right?  Every text and tweet that buzzes in your pocket is a distraction from your conversation with the One Above.

One shul I know of has a rule that if your phone rings during services, you are immediately suspended for twenty four hours!  A friend of mine’s family are members there.  He decided not to schedule his aufroof at the shul, for fear of having his cell go off on Friday morning and being unable to attend his own simcha the next day!

Should shuls ban cellphone use during services?

The Torah declares, “Only your sanctified animals that you shall have and your vows shall you raise up, and come to the place that Hashem shall choose.”
It was taught in the Yeshiva of Rabbi Yishmael: The verse is dealing with offspring of sanctified animals and their substitutes.  What should be done with them?
One might assume they should be brought to the Holy Temple and then he should withhold food and water from them so that they will die.  Therefore the verse continues, “You shall make your offerings, the flesh and the blood.”
Tosfos explains: The Torah already discussed the sanctified animals themselves in the Book of Vayikra.  Therefore, the Talmud concludes that this verse in Devarim must be talking about different animals, i.e. the offspring and substitutes, instructing that they too – although mere by-products of sacrifices – must be offered upon the altar.

The Yeshiva of Rabbi Yishmael suggests one might assume one should bring certain animals to the Temple and then withhold food and drink from them.  What would be the point of bringing the offerings, only to have them starve there?   If you don’t end up sacrificing them upon the holy altar, would it be worth all the shlep?!

And yet many people come to shul and do just that.  They’ll drag themselves out of bed.  They’ll get themselves and their kids all ready for shul.  And after making all the effort to get there, they spend the entire time chatting to their neighbour! 

Of course there’s a place for socializing in shul.  It’s not called a beit tefillah (house of prayer); it’s a beit haknesset – a place of gathering, which includes so much more than prayer alone.   But prayer must still be the primary component.  If it’s only about socializing, you could do that at Starbucks.  And the coffee is much better there than the instant stuff most shuls serve!   Yes, socializing in shul is important; but the main reason you’re there is to talk to G-d. 

Sometimes you’re not chatting with the person seated next to you.  It’s a weekday and you’re taking care of important business matters via text.  But what could be more important than beseeching the Almighty for His blessing?  Would you interrupt an important business meeting to talk to G-d?  So why do you interrupt your conversation with G-d to respond to your client?

Personally, I’m not in favour of complete cellphone bans in shul.  Technology has been very helpful in making our lives more convenient and peaceful.  Doctors on call, who otherwise would have had to stay at the hospital, can now go to minyan and watch for any emergencies that might call them back. 

As a father, I might shoot my wife a text and let her know the minyan has gathered on time and I can take the kids to school.  But otherwise, unless one is dealing with a truly timely matter, one should try to avoid checking the phone during services.  Every individual should be the judge of their own urgencies and determine whether they really need to keep their phone on or not. 

You made the effort to come to shul.  Now give the Almighty your undivided attention.  May you merit building an intimate relationship with your Father in Heaven and resisting the urge to get distracted by man or machine!  

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Sin with passion!

Daf Yomi Nazir 24

I met Samuel while I was learning in yeshiva in Israel.  We happened to be sitting next to one another at a Shabbos table, when the conversation took an interesting turn.  Samuel had been learning in a Baal Teshuvah (newly religious) yeshiva for the previous eight months but had not yet ever put on tefillin
“Why not?” I asked in shock.
“I don’t feel ready,” he replied. “You know, tefillin are so holy.  I wouldn’t want to mess up and put them on wrong, or to think improper thoughts whilst wearing them.  One day soon I hope to be on the level to start putting them on.  Meanwhile, I’m just not there yet.”

The prophet Hoshea declared, “For straight are the ways of Hashem, and the righteous walk in them but sinners stumble in them.”
This verse may be understood in light of the story of Lot and his two daughters.  Following the destruction of Sodom, they believed that they were only the survivors left in the world and it was incumbent upon them to repopulate the world by illicitly engaging with their father.
The daughters who acted with the intent to do a mitzvah are in the category of “the righteous walk in them.”  Lot who acted with the intent to sin is in the category of “sinners stumble in them.”
Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak taught: Doing a sin for the sake of Heaven (as in the case of Lot’s daughters) is greater than the performance of a mitzvah for the wrong reasons!
Rav Chiya bar Avin quoted Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha: A person should always strive to be the first to do a mitzvah, for in the merit of the one night that the elder daughter of Lot preceded her younger sister, she merited to precede her with four generations of Jewish kings.
Tosfos explains: The elder daughter gave birth to Moab, from whom descended Ruth the mother of Oved, Yishai, David and Shlomo.  The younger daughter gave birth to Amon, from whom descended Naama the Amonite, mother of Rechavam the son of Shlomo. 

G-d desires passion!  You might not be doing everything right, but if you’re doing it passionately for the sake of Heaven, the Almighty rejoices!  Lot’s daughters acted improperly but they sincerely believed they were serving G-d.  And so they were rewarded with Kings of Israel.  What’s more, the daughter who rushed to do the ‘mitzvah’ first was rewarded four-fold! 

When it comes to doing a mitzvah, you might not be 100% sure of yourself.  Maybe you haven’t quite mastered all the kavanos ha’Ari – the esoteric meaning – behind tefillin.  That mustn’t stop you doing the mitzvah.  The Almighty wants your alacrity.  He wants your enthusiasm.  He desires your passion.  That’s the most important thing to Him.  Hopefully, you’ll also get the performance right – if not, you’ll get it perfect with time – but the main thing is to engage and give it your all today!

The conclusion of the Gemara is that sinning for the sake of Heaven is actually not better than doing a mitzvah for the wrong reasons – in fact, they’re equal.  But still, can you imagine that?!  If you’re just going through the motions of the mitzvah without putting any energy into it, our Sages say you might as well be sinning with excitement!  That’s how powerful passion for Heaven is.

Infuse your spiritual life with passion.  If you’re not passionate about the way you’re serving G-d right now, find another route to get to him.  Hopefully you’ll choose one of the ‘seventy faces of the Torah’ – there’s no shortage of traditionally-acceptable ways to serve Heaven.  May you merit serving G-d faithfully with passion and ultimately doing the right things for the right reasons!

Intentional and accidental sin are the same in G-d's eyes

Daf Yomi Nazir 23

Little Timmy loved to play up in his parents’ attic.  His father had made a small playroom for him and he would disappear up there for hours on end.  One day his friend Buzz gave him a pocket knife.  They would have fun carving pieces of wood together and were careful to handle the knife properly.  

He loved that knife.  And would never dream of hurting anyone or anything.  He was sitting up in his playroom one day when a piece of rope caught his eye.  His father had warned him not to play near the rope but somehow his knife gravitated towards it.  What harm could there be in cutting a little snippet of rope?  He flicked open the knife and began to cut away.

Suddenly, crash, boom, bang.  He realized he had just done something terrible.  His father ran up the stairs and glared at him, “Do you realize what you just did?  You smashed our beautiful chandelier!  What were you thinking cutting that rope?  I told you not to go anywhere near it!”

The little boy began sobbing uncontrollably.  Sure, he had acted out of line.  But he had no idea of the impact of his little misbehaviour!

Concerning a woman who vowed and then broke her vow, but in the interim her husband annulled the vow, the Torah declares, “Her husband annuls them and G-d will forgive her.”
When Rabbi Akiva would arrive at this verse, he would cry. ‘If a person who intends to eat pork and unknowingly instead eats lamb nonetheless requires atonement and forgiveness, certainly one who intends to eat pork and indeed eats pork, how much more so!’

Rabbi Akiva was the eternal optimist.  When his friends wept upon seeing a fox running through the ruins of the Holy Temple, he expressed his joy at the fulfilment of the prophet’s words, pointing out that while the first part of the prophecy foretold the Temple’s ruinous state, the final prophecy promises the rebuilding of the Temple.  And so when Rabbi Akiva cried at the verse discussing G-d’s forgiveness, no doubt these too were tears of joy.

Why was he happy?  Rabbi Akiva realized that just as G-d forgives unintentional sin, so too G-d forgives intentional sin.   All you need to do is to turn to Him and regret your behaviour and He will forgive you!  Rabbi Akiva understood that it’s all the same in G-d’s eyes – unintentional sin or intentional sin, it really doesn’t matter.  Both need atonement; in Temple times, you would have to bring a sacrifice either way. 

When you act contrary to the Will of Heaven, your soul is muddied and needs to be cleansed.  The good news is it’s that simple – regret your actions, confess to G-d and promise to do better going forward.  And presto, G-d forgives you!  Unburden yourself, don’t be weighed down by a sin that’s no longer there in G-d’s eyes.  He’s already wiped the slate clean as if it never happened.

Why are intentional and unintentional sins the same thing?  Our Sages teach that a person only sins if a ‘spirit of folly’ enters his mind.  In other words, if you knew the spiritual ramifications of consuming that piece of pork, you would never do it.  But you don’t know.  And so you eat it.  If so, that consumption was really unintentional, because you didn’t really understand what you were doing, right?

That’s why G-d is so quick to forgive.  And that’s why Rabbi Akiva cried.  The Almighty forgives us because He knows that we are blind to the effects of our misbehaviour.   Just like the little boy who had no intention to smash the chandelier to smithereens, we have no concept of the impact of our deeds.  And just like the father who ultimately forgave his innocent young child, the Almighty is quick to forgive us even for sins we commit intentionally!

Your Father in Heaven loves you beyond your imagination.  Even those sins that you have committed knowingly, He views them as unintentional mistakes.  May you merit turning to Him and accepting His unjudging embrace as He forgives you for everything unquestioningly!  

Acquiring a taste

Daf Yomi Nazir 22

It was an occasion for celebration.  The Brooklyn company had just gone public and the IPO was a huge success.  CEO and founder, Chaim Goldstein, took all the key employees out to dinner that night in Manhattan, ordering the finest offerings on the menu, topped off by a $250 bottle of Italian Cabernet Sauvignon.   He was about to pour Isaac a glass of wine, but he politely declined.
“I’m sorry, I don’t really like dry wine,” said Isaac.

Concerning the sacrifices offered upon completion of the term of nazirism, the Torah states, “And he shall atone for his having sinned against his soul.”
Rabbi Elazar Hakapar Beribi taught: Against which soul did this nazir sin?  Indeed, the Torah is teaching that he sinned by oppressing himself – he abstained from wine and is therefore called a sinner.  Would we not then conclude as follows?  If this fellow who only oppressed himself with regards to wine is deemed a sinner, would not a person who abstains from all physical pleasures all the more so?! 

Listen to the way Rabbi Elazar describes an individual who doesn’t drink wine – he oppressed himself!  What does Rabbi Elazar mean?  Maybe the fellow just doesn’t like wine!   

The answer is that if you decline a $250 glass of wine, it’s not that you don’t like wine; it’s that you don’t appreciate wine.   Nobody is born with a natural appreciation for an expensive wine; wine is an acquired taste.  And even if you’ve learned to appreciate the taste of decent wine, it takes a discerning palate to distinguish between a $25 bottle and a $250 bottle.

If that’s true of physical pleasure, then how much more so when it comes to spiritual pleasure.  Many people complain that they just don’t enjoy learning Torah.  They’ll read a little here, learn a little there, but they couldn’t imagine sitting for hours on end grappling with a piece of the Talmud.  They scratch their heads and wonder why anyone would want to devote years of full-time study to Torah when they could be ‘getting on with their lives.’

That’s a really good question if you’ve never really developed a taste for Torah.  Appreciation for Torah takes a very discerning intellectual palate.  The Psalmist declares, “Taste and you will see that G-d is good.”  Some people wet their lips and wonder why Torah tastes so dry.  You simply can’t stop there.  You have to hold it in your mouth.  You have to savour the flavour.  You have to swirl it, sip it slowly and then try to discern all the hints of spiritual berries and fruit found deep within the recesses of the magical potion. 

When someone declines a fancy bottle of wine because they don’t like the taste, you know they’ve never made the effort to acquire the taste.   Likewise, if someone says they don’t enjoy Torah, it means they’ve never made an effort to acquire a taste for Torah.   May you invest the time and intellectual rigor to acquire a taste for the most incredible pleasure this world has to offer!  

Sunday, 13 September 2015

How to love annoying people

Daf Yomi Nazir 21

The great Chasidic master, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, was thrown into jail on trumped-up charges of treason.  But he had gained a reputation as a saintly, scholarly individual and news of his captivity reached the ears of the Czar.  The Czar was a learned man and an avid reader of the Bible.  He had been perplexed by a certain passage in the Torah for some time and so he decided to visit the rabbi and address his query to him.  Not wanting to arouse suspicion and questions from the prison guards, he dressed himself in simple garments, hiding his true identity.

As he entered, Rabbi Shneur Zalman stood up and greeted him as the Czar.
“But how did you know who I was?” inquired the startled ruler.
“Everything in this world is an emanation of the supernal worlds – the Heavenly sphere,” the rabbi responded.  “When you entered, I sensed a very faint emanation from the supernal realm of malchus – kingship – and realized that you must be an earthly king.”

If a person declared, ‘May my hand be a nazir’ or ‘May my foot be a nazir,’ he has not declared anything real.  If, however, he declared, ‘May my head be a nazir,’ or ‘May my liver be a nazir,’ he becomes a nazir.  The general rule is if his declaration evokes a limb that is essential to life, he becomes a nazir.

When our Sages offered examples of limbs that are essential to life, it makes sense that they chose the head.  Clearly, decapitation is not the healthiest lifestyle choice.   But why choose the liver as an example?  Wouldn’t it have been more logical to choose the heart or the lungs as limbs that are essential to life?

A nazir vows to abstain from cutting his hair and drinking wine.  Which two limbs symbolize these aspects of abstinence?  The hair grows from the head.  And alcoholism leads to poor liver function.   So these two limbs were the perfect choices to describe vows of nazirism as they relate to life-essential limbs.

Did our Sages know that alcohol affects the liver?  Were they doctors or scientists ahead of their time?  Not necessarily.  But they did perceive the spiritual source of everything physical in this world.  Just like Rabbi Shneur Zalman who sensed the supernal emanation of kingship in the Czar, our Sages understood that in the supernal realms wine was related to the liver.

This world is a reflection of Heaven.  The more you focus on the supernal source, the less you will be weighed down by the physical constraints of this world.  And that’s important, because when you only see things the way they appear in this world, it can be extremely challenging to fulfill G-d’s will.

Take, for example, the mitzvah of loving your fellow as yourself.  Now some people are pretty annoying and irritating.  How are you meant to put up with them, let alone love them?

The way to love them is to stop being distracted by their external physical shell.  It’s their body and animalistic soul that are annoying.  Their soul is pristine.  They were created in the image of G-d.  What’s not to love about that?  That is who they really are.  They are a piece of G-dliness!  Once you view people as they are at their source, you will be brimming with love!

Stop viewing the world at face value.  One of your secret powers as a Divine ambassador is x-ray vision – if you hone your skills, you can see people and the world around as they are at their spiritual source.  May you learn to perceive every individual’s true identity and love them wholeheartedly!

Are you a spiritual sheep?

Daf Yomi Nazir 20

The Mikvah campaign was underway.  Plans had been drawn up and the committee was hard at work raising the requisite funds.  Moshe, the campaign chairman, knocked on the door of Jimmy Goldberg, one of the wealthiest members of the community, an individual who had the means to singlehandedly underwrite the entire project, if he would so choose. 
Jimmy listened to Moshe’s spiel and then shot back, “What did Freddie give?”

Mishnah: If a person declared, ‘I am hereby a nazir,’ and his friend responded, ‘Me too!’ and the next guy chimed in ‘And me!’ they are all nazirs.
Gemara: Reish Lakish was sitting before Rabbi Yehuda Nesiah and said, ‘As long as they all got their response in within the time of an utterance. How long is an utterance? The amount of time it takes to offer a greeting. How long does it take to offer a greeting? The length of time required for a student to greet his teacher.’
Rabbi Yehuda replied, ‘You have not granted any opportunity for a student to become a nazir!’
Tosfos explains: If a student hears his friend declare a vow of nazirism and wants to respond ‘Me too’ but suddenly his teacher passes by and he must greet him, he will miss the opportunity to join the nazirite vow.

Why would he miss the opportunity to become a nazir?  If he wants to be a nazir, let him simply declare a vow on his own; he doesn’t need his friend to initiate the vow!  Once he has greeted his teacher, he may then proceed to take his own nazirite vow! 

The answer is that many people will only take on a religious commitment when other people are likewise dedicating themselves.  In the heat of the moment, he may follow his friend’s lead; but once he has been distracted by his teacher’s appearance, he is likely to cool down and choose not to become more religiously committed.

What difference should it make to Jimmy what Freddie gave to the mikvah campaign?  Would he inquire whether Freddie invests in certain stocks before he buys them?  Would he investigate how much Freddie is spending on PR and advertising for his company before determining his own outlay?   Of course not!  In matters of business, Jimmy wants to lead the pack not follow his competitor!  So why when it comes to giving must he make his decisions based on Freddie’s?

It doesn’t matter what anyone else is doing for G-d.  You’re not running their race.  The only person in your spiritual race is you.  For all you know, the Freddie’s of the world don’t even exist; they were simply placed there as actors in your ‘Truman Show’ of life to test your response when the Almighty calls.  You don’t need to wait for your friend to take that ‘vow of nazirism’ to choose to become more spiritually committed.  You should be leading the pack, not following.

In business, you wouldn’t be happy being a follower.  So why would you choose to be a sheep when it comes to your spiritual service?  May you merit being a leader in every aspect of your life, from the material to the spiritual! 

Thursday, 10 September 2015

The cost of raising a child

Daf Yomi Nazir 19

According to Moneysense, it costs on average close to $250,000 to raise a child.  Between food, clothing and everything else, parents invest a fortune in their children.  And that’s not even counting Jewish day-school tuition!

But any parent will tell you that there’s no better investment.  Apart from the spiritual reward you receive for partnering with G-d in creation, the reward of nachas in this world is unparalleled!

Queen Helena’s son once went out to war and she declared, “If my son returns in peace from the battlefield, I pledge to be a nazir for seven years.  Sure enough, her son returned from the battle and she became a nazir for the next seven years.  At the conclusion of the seven years, she made aliya and Beis Hillel – who maintains that nazirism observed outside of Israel does not count – instructed her to adopt a further seven years of nazirism.  At the end of those seven years, she came into contact with impurity, thus requiring her to start all over again.  Consequently, she was a nazir for a total of twenty-one years.

What wouldn’t you do for your kids?  Any parent will tell you that the investment it takes to raise a child is so much greater than the financial.  The emotional, psychological, mental and physical outlay is absolutely astounding.

But of course, we believe that there’s more to life than meets the eye.  The most important ingredient for success in this world is the Divine blessing.  All our efforts merely provide the vessel for G-d’s blessing.  “My power and the strength of my hand” do not engender prosperity; Heaven’s blessing is the key to success.

Queen Helena understood this secret of success and was willing to sacrifice her personal comfort for the sake of her son’s safety and security.  What wouldn’t you give to guarantee that your child traversed the battlefield of life peacefully?  Helena – a queen who had access to all her heart’s desires – was willing to abstain from certain worldly pleasures and conveniences for twenty-one years for her child!

 What are you doing to draw down G-d’s blessing into your family?  What sacrifices are you making to open the storehouse of Heaven for your children and yourself?  

Sometimes you make all the spiritual effort, only to wonder whether your efforts were in vain.  Don’t quit!  That’s what happened to Queen Helena.  After seven years, she finally felt relieved at having kept her promise to Heaven, only to be told by Beis Hillel that she had to start all over again. 

Imagine your rabbi told you that for the last seven years you were doing something ritually wrong and that all your hard work was for naught.  How would you respond?  Maybe you’re told that the kitchen you thought was kosher was not quite right.  Or the tefillin you were putting on each day were invalid.  Would you throw your hands in the air and say, ‘Forget it!’  or would you persevere? 

Now, it goes without saying that the Almighty rewards your efforts if your heart was in the right place, even if you didn’t quite achieve what you set out to accomplish.  But it can feel really defeating to find out you’ve been doing things wrong all along.   Queen Helena would not give up – she was willing to start all over again and do another seven years of nazirism!  And then when G-d threw her a curveball by placing her in the vicinity of impurity, she still didn’t give up!

Success emanates from the One Above. Whether it’s your children’s success or your own, make sure you’re connected to your Heavenly source to draw down the blessing.  May you merit unbounded prosperity and success in every area of your life and never giving up even when things don’t go quite as you planned!