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Friday, 30 October 2015

Shalom Bayis is the status quo, don't destroy it!

Daf Yomi Sotah 3

Tefillah (Jewish prayer) is divided into three parts: First we praise Hashem, then we beseech Him for our needs, and finally we thank Him for providing us with our needs.  The grand structure of the davening follows that pattern and the Shmoneh Esreih, the pinnacle of the service, follows the same pattern.  The first three blessings are praises, the next thirteen are requests, the final three are thanks.

But looking at the final bracha, where is the thanks?  The bracha of Sim Shalom seems to be additional beseeching.  We turn our eyes Heavenward and say, “Place peace, goodness, blessing, life, grace, kindness and mercy upon us and all Israel your people. . . .”  What is this blessing doing in the thanks section?  It should be positioned among the other brachos of request!

Concerning the husband of the sotah (suspected adulteress), the Torah states, “and a spirit of kinah passed over him and he coveted his wife.”
Reish Lakish taught: What does ‘kinah’ mean?  It refers to a matter that has caused anger between her and others.  Rav Yeimar bar Shlemya taught: It refers to a matter that has caused anger between him and her.  We see that both rabbis maintain that it is forbidden for a man to covet his wife with the sotah declaration, since it promotes anger. 
And Rav Chisda taught:  Anger in the home is like a worm in sesame seeds.

When a worm hides in the vat of sesame seeds, you don’t know until much later.  It begins to eat away at the sesame from the inside.  Little by little, the seeds begin to diminish and rot until one day you discover the worm that has spoiled everything from the inside out.

That’s the problem of anger and ill-feeling in a marriage.  To begin with, it’s just a mean comment here, a sour face there, but little by little the marriage is being eaten away from the inside.  To outsiders, the marriage seems wonderful, but you and your spouse know that inside it is rotting away.

Why do we thank G-d for placing peace and blessing in our lives in the form of a request?  We are really aiming at ourselves when we make the final bracha of the Shemoneh Esreih.  G-d has brought peace into your marriage and into your life.  G-d has given you goodness, blessing, life, grace, kindness and mercy.  He has worked hard to bring that awesome person into your life.  But sometimes we upset that balance.  We get angry and begin to destroy the blessing the Almighty has bestowed upon our lives.  In this final bracha, we thank G-d for his blessing and ask him for the strength to sustain what He has given us.

A great example of this understanding of the final bracha is the line where we say, “Bless us, our Father, all of us as one.”  In this phrase, we acknowledge the following: When does G-d bless us?  When we are united as one!  We need to make the effort to sustain the blessing Heaven has already ordained in our lives.

Shalom bayis is the status quo.  If you don’t have peace at home, you are doing something to upset the peace.  You have brought anger into your sanctuary and chased G-d away.  That’s the deeper meaning of Rav Yeimar’s teaching: anger doesn’t only create a separation between us and those around us, it separates Him from her – our Father in Heaven from His beloved people.  Asking G-d to place peace, goodness and blessing is an invitation to come back into your life if you’ve chased him away.  It’s not just a request; it’s a declaration of gratitude that the Almighty will return to your home.  But only if you do your part to expel the idolatry first – the anger and ill-feeling you’ve been sustaining.

Let go of any ill-will you have.  Every comment that comes out of your mouth must be to build your spouse and your marriage.  When every comment and action aims to build and grow, eventually even your thoughts will follow suit and you will feel incredibly drawn to your spouse.  May you merit maintaining the peace, goodness, blessing, life, grace, kindness and mercy that Heaven has placed in your life!

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Every pot has its lid, but are you a pot or a pan?

Daf Yomi Sotah 2

A middle-aged bachelor once came to the Steipler Gaon, Rabbi Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky, and complained, “I thought everybody has a basherte, the other half of their soul.  If that’s true, whatever happened to mine?”
“My dear child,” replied the Steipler, “indeed, even you had a basherte.  You met her many years ago.  She was quite interested in getting married.  But you decided that her nose was just a little too big and you let her go.”
Upon hearing these sage words, the man was devastated.  He went back home but every step he took was painful.  He remembered the young lady well.  He knew that she was the one but he had let his ego get in the way of marrying his basherte

Three months later, he decides that he must find out whatever happened to her.  He tracks her down and lo and behold she’s still living in his old home town.   Sure enough she had moved on after they had parted ways.  She was married to a fine man and had four children.  But tragically, she had been widowed for the past year and a half and was struggling to make ends meet and put food on the table for her little orphans.

The end of the story saw the man marrying his basherte.  They went on to have another three kids and lived the rest of their lives in happiness together.

Rav Shmuel the son of Rav Yitzchak said:  When Reish Lakish would begin Tractate Sotah, he would teach the following:  A man gets the wife he deserves, as the verse states, “For the rod of wickedness will not rest upon the lot of the righteous.”  Rabbah bar bar Chanah added in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: And making matches is as complicated as the splitting of the Red Sea, as the verse states, “G-d places individuals to the home; he releases prisoners at the right time.”
The Gemara asks: Is it true (that you get the spouse you deserve)?  But Rav Yehuda quoted Rav’s teaching: Forty days before the embryo forms, a Heavenly voice declares, “this daughter will marry this boy; this home is for this couple; this field is for this couple,” which implies that your basherte is predestined, and not determined by your actions!
The Gemara answers: No problem.  The Heavenly voice teaching applies to a first spouse.  The original teaching refers to a second spouse.

While the Gemara resolves the apparent contradiction with one approach, the Steipler seems to suggest an alternative resolution.  According to the Steipler, while your basherte is predestined, you still have free choice whether or not to marry them.   Based on your thought, speech and action, you could miss the opportunity to marry your basherte.   That’s what’s meant by getting the spouse you deserve.

How do you miss out on your basherte due to the choices you make with your thought?  Well, maybe you don’t think he’s suave enough or handsome enough.  How about your speech?  Maybe you’re rude to her on the date.  Action?  Maybe you fail to do the gentlemanly things like opening the car door.  Maybe her thought failing is to let him go because he didn’t open the car door every time or walk on the outside of the sidewalk!

The good news is that according to the Gemara, you always get a second chance.   Even if you don’t marry the one that was originally chosen for you, there is a pool of other potential marriage partners.  Half of them are there by no fault of their own – on the contrary, it was their original basherte that made the wrong decision.  Whether you’re there because of your own undoing or someone else’s, never give up!  As the old saying goes, ‘Every pot has a lid!’

Rabbanit Batya likes to say: While it’s true that every pot has a lid, not every pan has a lid.  Why not?  The difference between a pot and a pan is that pots are deep and pans are shallow.  If you want to marry your basherte, you can’t afford to be shallow.  The fellow who met with the Steipler wanted to marry a supermodel and overlooked his basherte in the process.  While you certainly should be physically attracted to your potential spouse, external beauty is definitely not the primary criterion for choosing whom to marry.  

Another thing about pots, says the Rabbanit, is that their depth demonstrates that they have so much more to offer than a pan that hardly contains anything.  When Reish Lakish teaches that you get the spouse you deserve, his point is that you must prepare yourself to be a basherte.  You must be brimming with ingredients to bring into the marriage and give to your spouse, in the way of love, care, and good middos (character traits).  If you’re empty and have nothing to offer, you’re more of a pan than a pot and will have a hard time finding your lid.

(And then there are Tupperware and Pyrex that lose their lids, as they say, “Tupperware’s the stupid lid?”  But alas, that’s for another day. . . .)

Every pot has a lid, but first you need to become a true pot.  Only then will you find your lid and never let them get away.  May you merit finding your basherte and spending the rest of your life in happiness with them!  

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

There's no reason to be jealous of anyone else's success

Daf Yomi Nazir 66

Who invented the light bulb?  Conventional wisdom says that it was Thomas Edison.  That version of the story, however, has been challenged over the years by a competing narrative that claims that one Nikola Tesla, who was working for Edison, was the true inventor of the light bulb and that Edison took all the credit.  So who indeed was the real brains behind one of the greatest inventions of all time?

Rabbi Yossi teaches: One who responds Amen is greater than the one who made the blessing.
Rabbi Nehorai replied: Heavens, that is so true!  The proof is that the foot soldiers first engage with the enemy on the frontlines, but then the special ops come in to seal the victory!

The real story behind the lightbulb, scholars say, is that Tesla was working for Edison’s company and they had a falling out.  Edison was working on one project, Tesla on another.   The light bulb that actually came to fruition was the prototype that Tesla had been working on when he left the company.  Edison then took the new light bulb, patented it, manufactured it, marketed it, and mass-produced it.

You can imagine how Edison must have originally felt when, on a trip to Europe, he found young Tesla, who was nearing completion of the idea he had dedicated his life to figuring out.  His first reaction was probably devastation.  Everything he had been working on had been a waste of time; someone else had beaten him to it!

Rabbi Yossi’s message is: Don’t worry if someone else beats you to the punch.  Responding Amen to a bracha (blessing) is even better than making the bracha

You might have worked hard to come up with a new idea or project.  Suddenly your competitor or co-worker beats you to it.  You feel crushed – all that time and effort for naught!

Don’t give up!  Take what they’ve accomplished and expand the horizons even further.  It’s not about the blessing; it’s how you respond to it!  The foot soldiers must fight the battle on the frontlines.  You are special ops – you get to come in and achieve the true victory after all the slog work has been done by others.

That’s the Torah’s promise to us when we enter the ‘Holy Land.’  G-d promises to give you “great and fine cities you did not build, houses filled with all manner of good you did not fill, wells dug out you did not dig, vineyards and olive-groves you did not plant, and you shall eat and be satisfied.”
Would you be upset if you weren’t the one to plant the vineyards?  Of course not!  You would take the vineyards to the next level by gathering the grapes, pressing them and making wine!  That’s what the Almighty wants you to do when you find that your great idea already exists.  He wants you to take it to the next level! 

Don’t ever be jealous that someone else came up with an idea before you.  Take the concept and make it even better!  G-d invested this finite world with the light of the infinite – there’s no limit to the amount a good idea can be expanded and improved upon.  Imagine Thomas Edison and everyone after him had contented themselves with the light bulb, where would we be today?

You have unlimited creative potential.  The wheels on the skateboard may already be invented but has anyone made that 2015 hoverboard yet?  There’s no end to the great ideas that can be built upon the great ideas.  May you never covet anyone else’s success and may you use all the great ideas to design and create even more incredible concepts!

Monday, 26 October 2015

The Jewish Responsibility to the Refugee Crisis

Daf Yomi Nazir 65

The world is in crisis.  As a result of the wars in Syria and Iraq, we are currently witnessing the greatest number of refugees and displaced persons since WWII.  There are literally millions of people wandering the planet, often with tragic consequences, such as three-year-old Alan Kurdi, who tore at hearts worldwide when images were displayed of his body being washed ashore in Turkey.

Many in the Jewish community have declared that we are not doing enough for these refugees, recalling how the nations of the world turned their backs on us as we tried to escape Nazi Germany, in vain.  Others have blasted the comparison: after all, the Nazis had vowed to exterminate us, whereas most of the current refugees have simply been driven out of their homes, with no clear threat to their lives.

What indeed is our responsibility as Jews? 

Mishnah: One who initially finds a dead body lying in a regular manner may relocate it together with some surrounding earth.
Gemara: What is the Scriptural source for taking some earth along with the body?  Rav Yehuda taught: When Joseph lay on his deathbed, he instructed his family that when the Children of Israel would leave Egypt, they should “carry me from Egypt,” meaning that ‘carried along with me’ should be some earth ‘from Egypt.’

Why would Joseph want our people to take some earth from Egypt along with his body?  Just take him out of galus (exile) and bury him where he belongs, in the Holy Land!  His message was: you can’t separate me from Egypt, that’s part of who I am. 

Some people like to believe that they can turn their backs on their past and ignore it, or psychotherapeutically talk themselves out of it and make it disappear from who they are.  Joseph was teaching us that you are who you are, as a result of all your experiences in life, both personally and nationally.  The earth that will accompany you from Egypt is a reminder that an integral part of your national narrative includes Egypt.

And indeed, Egypt figures frequently throughout the Torah and Jewish practice.  We mention the Exodus throughout our prayers; we remember it when we make Kiddush on Shabbos; it appears in the First Commandment (of the Ten); and we have an entire festival of Pesach to commemorate our slavery and liberation. 

But its impact is even greater than the Exodus alone.  With rights and freedoms come responsibilities.  In the Torah, we are enjoined to “Love the stranger, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt.”  We must be kind to others, because we know what it feels like to be a new immigrant.

Wait a sec, seriously?  The Torah seems to imply we were immigrants in a foreign country and we lovingly recall our experience, which should motivate us to treat foreigners similarly.  But that’s obviously a completely distorted romanticization of the story!  We weren’t mere immigrants trying to make a buck in a new country.  We were slaves who were beaten mercilessly each day!  Our babies were drowned in the Nile!  Or sent to Pharaoh who bathed in their blood or used them to fill ditches!  It was the first genocide of our people!  Not something we remember fondly.  The Torah should have stated, “Don’t butcher foreign workers like they did to you in Egypt!”

But no, the Torah teaches, “Love the stranger.”  You’re right, says the Torah, there’s no parallel between your time as foreigners and the stranger in your land, but you must go above and beyond.  Your experience should have made you so acutely aware of any suffering whatsoever that you will now go and teach the world about kindness and morality.  And that’s the message we must remember during the present refugee crisis.  It’s not a Holocaust.  The Holocaust was genocidal.  But the fact that we experienced it makes us more sensitive to any suffering in the world.

Likewise throughout your life.  Every pain and tragedy the Almighty has sent your way is part of who you are.  We don’t write it off and talk it out of our system.  You are stronger today and more capable of assisting others because of what you have endured. 

Chasidic philosophy contrasts isskafia and isshapcha.  The former is repression of who you truly are; the latter is transformation of who you truly are – for better or for worse – for the perfection of yourself and the world.  Similarly, the ultimate teshuvah involves transforming all your past misdeeds, utilizing them for the good, called “zedonos naasim lo k’zochios” – transgressions become merits!  We don’t wish ourselves away; we transform ourselves using every piece of who we are – every thought, emotion, experience, and memory.

You are the product of your physical and spiritual genetic make-up plus everything that has happened to you from the moment you were born.  May you use your entire self – from your proudest moments to those you wish you could turn the clock back on – to fulfil your Divine mission on Earth!

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Be prepared for that big break

Daf Yomi Nazir 64

A senior colleague took about fifteen years to finish his doctorate.  It wasn’t as though he was lazing around doing nothing all those years.  He is the excellent rabbi of a large shul and has always been a fervently dedicated pastor, counselor and teacher.  He was so busy rabbi-ing that he simply had no time to write his dissertation. 

But he now feels that he missed out on a prestigious university position and had he only finished his degree a couple of years earlier, he would have been able to take his career in a completely different direction.  Instead, he is stuck doing the same thing he’s been doing for years with no end in sight. 

Rav Hamnuna taught: If a person going to offer his Pesach sacrifice on his seventh day of purification walked by an unknown grave, he remains pure, since the unknown grave is not powerful enough to spoil his purity.
Rava asks:  We have learned that one who is pure retains his presumption of purity but one who is impure retains his presumption of impurity.  In this case, if he did not yet go to the mikvah, how could he be pure?  He was still impure when he unknowingly encountered the grave!
Rava answers: In that case, I would concur with you.  But we are talking about a case when he had already been to the mikvah. Therefore, he would retain his purity, because he is not missing any part of the purification process. 
Abaye asks him: The process of purification requires immersing in the mikvah on the seventh day but then he only actually becomes fully pure when the sun sets that evening.  In this case, he is lacking sunset!
Rava answers: The sun is guaranteed to automatically set.

Most things in life are beyond your control.  If there is a body buried deep in the ground that nobody knows about and you walk over it, you can’t be blamed.  You didn’t put it there, you were just taking a stroll.  More to the point, unless you are Joshua in Gibeon you cannot detain the sun from setting.  That time each day has been predestined since the dawn of creation!

The only thing you can affect in life is what you do before the sun sets.  Or how you prepare yourself in the event you may step into that unplanned situation.   In our case, the fellow had immersed himself and was all ready to offer the Pesach sacrifice.  And then, without any forewarning, he steps over the impurity.  All he was lacking for purification was sunset.  Rava says: Don’t worry, I guarantee the sun will set, you’re fine!  You did what you needed to do, G-d will take care of the rest.

Personally, I believe that my colleague who took his time with his Ph.D. is very lucky to have remained in the rabbinate.  The fellow who took the university position has long since been terminated and my friend continues to devote day and night to doing G-d’s work.  But he, unfortunately, still lives with regret.  ‘If only he’d prepared himself in time.’

Sadly, that line is more common than we’d like to believe.  ‘If only I’d prepared myself in time.’

The sun will set no matter what.  There are certain things that will happen in life whether or not you are ready.  Your challenge is to lay the groundwork and prepare yourself now so that when that big break comes you will be the obvious choice.   Don’t push off doing what you need to do until it’s too late and all that’s left is regret.  Your time is just around the corner!

And if you are living with regret at having missed an opportunity, don’t give up!  The Almighty has limitless opportunities up His sleeve for you.  The sun may have set today, but tomorrow’s another day!  Keep prepping yourself and laying that groundwork because the next big break is almost upon you!

As the scouts say: Be prepared.  Once you have done everything in your capacity to make it happen, G-d will let nothing get in the way of your success.  May you merit accomplishing your dreams because you laid the groundwork to make them all come true!  

How to see Creation Light

Daf Yomi Nazir 63

We just concluded another fabulous Shabbos Project.  The Shabbos Project is the brainchild of Rabbi Warren and Rebbetzin Gina Goldstein, Chief Rabbi of South Africa.  It has been particularly successful in communities with high concentrations of ex-pat South Africans; and Edmonton boasts the second highest number of ex-pats in Canada, after Toronto.   We’re very blessed to have experienced our South African influx as they have really bolstered the Orthodox community in our city.

The Shabbos Project encourages people who wouldn’t normally observe to just give it a try; and for those who already do, it’s an opportunity to celebrate that good fortune.  It’s a wonderful idea.  The only question I have is: What took so long?  Why didn’t anyone come up with the idea sooner?

Mishnah: Concerning a nazir who cuts his hair in celebration of the conclusion of his term of abstinence but then finds out that he had previously come into contact with impurity, the following law applies: If it was a well-known source of impurity, he forfeits his term of nazirism and must start over.  But if it was an impurity of the deep, he does not forfeit.
Gemara: What is impurity of the deep?  Any matter that an individual on the other end of the world would not recognize.  If, however, an individual on the other end of the world would recognize it, it is not considered impurity of the deep.

The nazir would be penalized for coming into contact with impurity that he should have been aware of.  So let’s say, for example, he’s walking along texting on his smartphone, oblivious to his surroundings, and he walks through a cemetery.  He should have realized that and so he forfeits his term of nazirism.   In contrast, he is not penalized for coming into contact with impurity that he could not have known about.  For example, ten years earlier, there had been an avalanche near where he worked and someone was killed and buried there. 

But, says the Gemara, the catch is that not only must he be unaware of the impurity; nobody can no know of it.  To the extent that if someone on the other end of the world is aware that there’s a body there beneath the rubble, that’s not considered too deep to avoid the penalty.  And yet, how can we tell if someone on the other side of the world would know?

The truth is, back in the time of the Gemara, there was no way of really knowing.  It was a bit of guesswork.  Just think for a moment how different it is in the twenty-first century!  Today, if you had to find out whether there was knowledge about an impurity of the deep on the other side of the world, you would simply send out an SMS to the Impurity of the Deep WhatsApp group!  In seconds, you could find out!

We live in an incredibly interconnected world.  They used to ask: If Moshiach came today, how would we find out about it on the other side of the world?  Well, radio certainly helped the situation, but you still needed the radio station to know somehow.  Telephones were also helpful, but you would have to be part of the call chain.  Internet is a game-changer.  In a matter of minutes, it could be posted to the major news sites around the world, it would be shared by billions on Facebook and Twitter, and in no time at all, everyone in the world would know of his arrival!   We are living in the age that the Prophet Habakuk foresaw when he declared, “The world will be filled with the knowledge of G-d as the waters cover the sea!”

The Shabbos Project is the result of this pre-Messianic age.  It was only possible in our era of Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube.  Sure, the Goldsteins or someone else might have thought of the idea twenty years ago; but not until now could they have been so successful at broadcasting it via social media! 

The Torah says light was created on the first day.  But the sun and moon were only created on day four!  Our Sages explain that the original light wasn’t a tangible physical phenomenon.  It was too bright for the day-to-day running of the world and was simply used by G-d to kick-start creation.  But it was reserved for the righteous in the future to see from one end of the world to the other.

The future is now.  You have the ability to see and spread the Divine light to the other end of the world.  When you teach Torah online – either by the creation of new material or by sharing a good D’var Torah via email or Facebook – you are spreading that light across the globe!  Can you begin to imagine your reach?  In one fell swoop, you have the wherewithal to spread Torah to all the continents of the world!

We are living in miraculous times.  The Divine light from the first day of creation is there for the taking.  May you merit infusing your life and the lives of people at the other end of the world with the light of the beginning!  

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Guilt does nothing for G-d

Daf Yomi Nazir 62

When we were teenagers, my friend Shmully would have to sneak out of the house to come out to see a movie with us.  His father was a rabbi and he knew that if his parents ever found out, he’d be in big trouble.  Anyway, one day his dad caught wind of what was going on and called him into his office.  He entered and sat in the little chair normally reserved for congregants.

“Shmully,” his father began, “It’s come to my attention that you’re involved with certain activities that aren’t consonant with our family’s values.  You’ve been sneaking around and coming home all hours of the night.”
“I’ll tell you what,” he continued, “I know that going to the movies and playing arcade games cost money.  I want to start giving you an allowance so that you’re not sponging off your friends.  But on one condition: that we have an open and honest relationship and you tell me how you’re spending your free time and money.”

This interesting arrangement continued for the next year and a half.  Over that period, Shmully became closer with his father than he’d ever been.  At that juncture, however, Shmully’s parents decided to take him out of the Mesivta (Jewish studies only) program and place him in the regular Jewish school.  Their open relationship had brought them to the realization that he wasn’t achieving his full potential with his schooling and that he would be better suited to a full academic curriculum.  Today, Shmully is a successful lawyer, president of his shul, happily married and proud father of six. 

Mishnah: Servants may take a vow of nazirism; however their masters may override the vow.  If the servant ran away, Rabbi Meir says: he may not drink wine (i.e. the vow then takes effect), but Rabbi Yossi says: he may drink wine (i.e. the override is still in effect).
Gemara:  Shall we say that they are arguing about Shmuel’s principle?  Shmuel taught:  If one declared his servant ownerless, he is free and does not require a document of emancipation.  Rabbi Meir appears to agree with Shmuel (and allows the servant complete independence due to his newfound freedom), whereas Rabbi Yossi does not agree with Shmuel.
The Gemara answers: No.  They both agree with Shmuel’s principle.   Rather, the one who says he may drink wine believes the servant will eventually return home, and he should drink wine so that he will not become weak in the meantime.  And the one who says he may not drink is of the opinion that the master would want to cause distress to the servant in order that he return home sooner.

Much as we would like children who are created ‘in our own image,’ it doesn’t always work out like that.  Every child has their own free will to make their personal life choices.  Ultimately, after you’ve done your best as a parent and your child makes their own decisions that do not align with yours, you have two ways you could react: either you could cause them distress, in the hope that you will guilt them into ‘returning home.’  Chances are you only going to create ill-feeling between you.

Or you could allow them to drink the proverbial wine in an effort to strengthen them, to boost their confidence and self-esteem.   Had Shmully’s father taken a hard line with him, he probably wouldn’t be the stable, well-functioning, frum, happily-married father and lawyer he is today.  Today he is a pillar of his community, because his father chose to embrace him rather than reject him.

If mortal parents have the power to treat their ‘rebellious’ children with love, how much more so does our Father in Heaven.  He knows that even when His servants run away, they will eventually return home.  He’s not a vengeful G-d, out to destroy you.  No, he loves you!  The escapee that spends the rest of his life walking around burdened by the guilt of fleeing from before the Master will never return.  Instead, he will wallow in self-pity. 

Your Father in Heaven wants you to be happy.  He wants you to be joyous, whether or not you have made the right decisions.  He knows that the best path home is a strong, healthy self-esteem.  Stop beating yourself up – be happy in the knowledge that G-d loves you no matter what!  May you merit joy and happiness throughout your life, knowing that the door is always open, the cookies are hot and G-d’s milk is Heavensomely refreshing!  

Thursday, 22 October 2015

Reclaim your soul

Daf Yomi Nazir 61

The service on the morning of Hoshana Rabba (the seventh day of Sukkot) is long.  It’s the final day of judgment, and so we utter prayers of penitence.  We are happy in the knowledge that G-d will forgive us, so we include verses of praise from the festival prayers.  And it is the final day of circling the bimah with our lulav and etrog, which we perform a full seven times.  Most people just want to get the service over and done with, their minds preoccupied with the work they need to do before they are absent from professional life for another two days.

The most inspiring Hoshana Rabba service I ever saw took place in the Carlebach Shul with Reb Shlomo.  They sang each word with joy and soul.  No part of the prayer was too burdensome for them.  They understood that the day and each phrase was incredibly precious.  That is how Hoshana Rabba should be celebrated!

Mishnah: A gentile cannot become a nazir.  A servant may become a nazir.
Gemara: How do we know this?  The Torah states, “Speak to the Children of Israel,” implying not to gentiles.  “And say to them,” comes to include servants.
Why do we need a scriptural source?  We know that servants are able to perform any mitzvah that is not time-bound!
Rava answers: The Torah states, “When a person utters a vow to place a bond upon his soul,” implying that vows are only effective when uttered by one who owns his soul, which excludes servants for their souls do not belong to them.  I might assume that since his soul is not his own, the same exclusion would apply to nazirism; therefore the verse teaches otherwise.

There was a time when we all had soul.  Sadly, today many people have lost control of their soul.  We have become robots, programmed to just get through the day.  Even our religious life is affected.  We go through the motions, eager to move on to the next activity.  But where are we running to?

Does your soul belong to you?  Or can you not recall the last time you really felt passionate about spirituality?  Reclaiming your soul doesn’t happen automatically – it takes a commitment to living in the here and now.  To focusing on your present activity and enjoying it with all your heart and soul.

The second your mind starts drifting to ‘what’s next on my agenda today?’ you’ve lost your soul.  You’re no longer living in the moment; you might physically be present but your spirit has departed.  You’ve abandoned control over your soul.  That’s the wonder of meditation – removing any distractions from your mind and investing your entire being in the present.  It takes enormous effort and most people don’t allow themselves the patience or willpower to focus on nothing but the moment.  But if you can master the here and now, you are in control of your soul.

Especially during prayer, you must learn to take control of your soul.  You need to train yourself to remove every extraneous thought from your mind and only then can your soul flourish.  As long as there’s other rubbish in the way, your soul has no room to breathe.  For just a few minutes a day, clear out all the junk and let your soul soar!

It’s time to regain control of your soul.  Break out of the control that the world has over you; you are a Divine being, not a robot.  May you merit the self-control needed to master your soul!  

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

No two chickens are alike

Daf Yomi Nazir 60

An integral part of rabbinic education is called shimush – on-the-job practical training.  Typically, a junior rabbi will follow a senior rabbi around for a couple of years, similar to an internship.   These mentoring years are vital to our system of Oral Law transmission.  No matter how many books of the Oral Law have been committed to writing, there are certain elements that can only be transmitted from teacher to student.

The story is told of a junior rabbi who is seated in the senior rabbi’s office when a balabusta (homemaker) comes in with a chicken, inquiring as to its kosher status.
“Kosher!” the senior rabbi rules.

The next day, another lady arrives with her chicken that looks exactly the same as the case from the day before.
“I’m sorry, it’s not kosher,” says the elderly rabbi.  She thanks him for his time and guidance and leaves.
 The young rabbi turns to his mentor, incredulous. “With all due respect, Rebbe, I don’t understand!  What was the difference between those two chickens?”

“There was no difference between the two chickens,” replies the senior rabbi.  “There was a difference, however, between the two women.  You see, the first lady that arrived is a widow eking out a meagre living by selling eggs early each morning in the marketplace to feed her seven orphaned children.  For her, I utilized a lenient opinion in the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law).  The other lady, Baruch Hashem, is married to a wealthy parnas (community benefactor) and so I gave her the standard ruling of the Shulchan Aruch.”

Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai’s students asked him: What is the law concerning a purifying nazir who is also a metzora (leper)?  May he simply cut his hair once and cover both haircut requirements?
He replied to them: He cannot cut just once.
They said to him: Why?
He answered them: If the haircutting in both instances was for the purposes of further hair growth, or alternatively for the purposes of hair removal, you would be correct in your reasoning.  In these cases, however, the purpose of the nazir’s haircut is to remove his hair (in celebration of his heretofore abstinence); whereas the purpose of the metzora’s haircut is to grow his hair (in anticipation of his final purification seven days later).

From Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai’s students’ perspective, a haircut is a haircut.  What difference does it make why he’s doing it?  Rashbi responds to them that that is not the case.  They both may appear to be doing the same thing, but their motivation comes from very different places.

No two individuals are the same.  Even when people appear to be performing the same mitzvah, you cannot judge, because you have no idea what is driving them.  Every individual has their own challenges and natural temperaments and only G-d knows what is in their heart.

For example, two people give a thousand dollars to the capital campaign.  For the first, who is making half a million dollars a year, the donation is chump change.   The second is barely making ends meet and has quietly struggled to pull together their donation by means of careful budgeting at twenty dollars a week over the course of a year.  Then again, the first donor may be dealing with a major illness in the family that they must pay for and every penny is equally rationed.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask for more when you’re hitting the ‘campaign trail’; it simply means that when they say they cannot afford to give any more, you don’t judge them.

Or let’s consider Torah study.  One fellow comes to shul every evening and sits and learns for two hours solid.  The other fellow attends a shiur two nights a week.  You might be tempted to think of the second as a slacker compared to the first.  But maybe the first simply has more of a penchant for learning?  Or maybe the second has an ADHD kid at home that he learns with every night so that they can keep up in school?

That’s why you can’t compare yourself to anyone else in your service of Heaven.  It doesn’t matter how much anyone else is giving to tzedakah.  It doesn’t matter how many minyanim anyone else attends.  It doesn’t matter how many hours your friend spends learning or doesn’t.  No two people who appear to be tackling the same task are indeed doing the same thing; each one has a completely different set of internal and external challenges. 

That is also why you can’t simply adopt a heter (permissive ruling) that a rabbi has given your friend.  Every situation is different and every individual is different.  A good rabbi will know when to pasken (rule) more leniently and when to apply the Halacha more strictly.  There are certainly basic guidelines for psak (decision-making) in the four sections of the Shulchan Aruch, but as the saying goes, ‘Most importantly, the rabbi must be expert in the fifth section’ – common sense, sensitivity and empathy with the particular questioner.

No two haircuts are alike.  No two people are the same.  Every individual has their own natural proclivities, strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and challenges.  May you never judge anyone and may you never compare yourself to anyone else as you strive to be your best in your Divine mission!

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

It all falls out eventually

Daf Yomi Nazir 59

As the Children of Israel neared the Holy Land, Balak, King of Moav, called upon the wicked sorcerer, Bilam, to cast an evil spell upon the people.  From the get-go, however, the Almighty warned him that his incantations would be powerless against His chosen people.  Nevertheless, lured by Balak’s magnificent offer of wealth, he ignored G-d’s warning and set off to curse the Israelites.  But try as he may, every time he attempted to utter a curse, all that came forth from his mouth was blessing.  Our people had the protection of Heaven’s blessing; there was nothing anyone could say or do to change that. 

Rav inquired of Rabbi Chiya, “What is the law regarding a man shaving his body with a razor?”
“Forbidden,” he replied.
But if it grows too long it will cause him distress!” responded Rav.
“Son of great ones!” exclaimed Rabbi Chiya, “It has a limited time to grow.  Once it has reached its time, it falls out on its own.”

The world is divided between two kinds of people – achievers and naysayers.  The achievers carry the light of life; the naysayers belong to the dark side.  The achievers strive to build; the naysayers strive to destroy.  Rabbi Chiya reminds us never to be concerned about the naysayers.

You might be doing your very best to achieve great things.  And then one of the naysayers appears out of the darkness and tries to destroy what you’re trying to build.  It’s very tempting to lose your focus and bite back at them.  You’re worried because they appear to be growing in strength and influence, causing you distress.

Resist their attempts to pull you into the wrestling cage.  Even if it looks like their power is growing, realize that they have a limited time to grow.  Once they have reached their time limit, they will fall out and disappear on their own.  The Almighty has merely sent them your way in order to challenge your patience and ability to focus.  You must stick to your holy task and ignore the forces of the dark side!

Maybe they’re gossiping.  Maybe they’re making off-colour comments on their Facebook page.  Maybe they’re utilizing social media in their attempts to eat away at your success.  Ignore their taunts!  They will never be victorious!

When Bilam attempted to curse the Children of Israel, there was nothing he could say that would have any effect on them.  Eventually, he quit trying to curse them and decided to go with the flow and bless them.  That’s what will happen when you ignore the naysayers – they will ultimately recognize that they are powerless and will quit trying to break you.  Their curses will turn to blessings!

In the beginning, the more you ignore them, the more frustrated they will get.  They may appear to grow as they double and redouble their efforts to bring you down.  But eventually they will wither away and fall out, because without your acknowledgement they lose all their power.

You are an achiever.  You carry the light.  Always stay focused on your mission.  Never be distracted by the naysayers from the dark side.  May you merit accomplishing incredible things in life and never paying attention to the destructive forces around you!  

Monday, 19 October 2015

Mingle at the Kiddush

Daf Yomi Nazir 58

Of our patriarch Yaakov’s twelve sons, two stood out as the leaders: Yehuda and Yosef.  What made them special?

Let’s begin by comparing them to Yaakov’s least favourite children.  Even as he lay on his deathbed, he criticized Shimon and Levi for their behaviour in Shechem.  When Shechem, the prince of the city, desired to marry their sister Dina, they destroyed the city and all its inhabitants.  They thought of the Hivites as way too different to themselves – they were uncircumcised, unworthy of their sister.

In contrast, Yehuda and Yosef both managed to maintain their strong Israelite identity even amongst the nations.  Yosef went down to Egypt and never forgot who he was, despite his constant interaction with the Egyptians.  Yehuda went down to intermingle with the Canaanites, none the less maintaining his identity – to the extent that he became the forebear of the Davidic dynasty, which will culminate in Moshiach!

Rava inquires: The Torah states, “They shall place on the tzitzis of the corner a cord of blue,” meaning that the cord should be the same material as the corner.  But it also states, “Wool and linen together.  You shall make for yourself fringes,” meaning that the garment may be wool and the tzitzis linen or vice versa.  How are we to reconcile these two teachings?
He answers: Wool and linen may be used (as tzitzis) whether on garments of their type (i.e. the same material) or a different type.  Any other type (of material), if it is their type they are acceptable for use; if it is not their type, they are not acceptable.

Some people will only mix with people of their ‘type.’  If others are ‘their type, they are acceptable.  If not, they are not acceptable.’  They have no time for people who do not share their social status, background, and skin colour.  What a shame!  They are missing out on so much of what life has to offer!

The law of tzitzis teaches us that it is healthy sometimes to ‘hang around’ (pun intended) people who do not share your political views, social or professional status.  You’ll grow as a human being as you widen your horizon to interact with all different types of people. 

Wool and linen are special – they can hang around any type. Why?  Because they are comfortable in (on?) their own skin.  Wool is the best garment to wear during winter – it is natural and warm.  Linen is the best garment to wear during the summer – it is natural and cool.  Wool and linen don’t have anything to prove to anyone, they have no ‘hang-ups’ (here we go again!).  You need to be more like wool and linen – be comfortable with you who you are and able to mix freely amongst different characters.

Is there a Sefardic synagogue in your neighbourhood you’ve never ventured into?  Maybe you sit with the same people at Kiddush each week in shul?   It’s time you expanded your horizons, met new people.   Just like Yosef and Yehuda, if you are strong in your own identity, you never need to be wary of mingling with others.  You can learn something from everyone.  As Herman Wouk would respond to those who say we should keep to ourselves and learn only from Jews, ‘Have you ever taken an aeroplane?  The Wright brothers weren’t Jewish, you know?!’

Federations of North America has a wonderful program called P2G – Partnership Together.  Israeli students twin with North American students and they each spend a week in the other’s home town and school.  The initiative forges strong bonds between the students, and ultimately between Israeli and Diaspora communities, bonds that last a lifetime.  The kids stay in touch and will, please G-d, forever carry the responsibility of the Diaspora to our brothers and sisters in Israel and vice versa.  No longer do Diaspora kids think of Israelis as culturally different; they grow to realize how similar they truly are.

Imagine we could reproduce such a program between Israeli and Palestinian kids, where each spend a week in the other’s school.  I can imagine my Israeli readers saying, ‘Totally, how about you send your kids to Jenin or Ramallah for a week?’  It’s probably a pipe dream that will not happen in the foreseeable future.  But we do need to seek ways to mingle a little more so that they stop dehumanizing us.   At the moment, we have no choice but to place concrete barriers around them to protect our brothers and sisters from their terror; but please G-d, the day will come when we can live in peace and security with our neighbours.  The only way to do that is if we are in some sort of neighbourly dialogue.

May we have peace in the Holy Land immediately!

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Keeping up with the Moseses

Daf Yomi Nazir 57

A fashion-conscious friend related the following episode to me:  A couple of years ago, he read that the must-have piece of the season was a corduroy suit.  He immediately set out to his favourite menswear stores on the hunt for his must-have.  Alas, none of the stores had a corduroy suit.  So of course, he then went online in search for the season’s must-have.  But none of the decent places seemed to stock it.  Feeling a little exasperated, he almost went out to buy material to take to his tailor to have one made.  And then it occurred to him: if none of the stores are stocking it, it can hardly be a must-have, right?

Concerning the prohibition against shaving and removing payos, the Torah declares, “You shall not round the corners of your face.”
Rav Huna taught: A man who shaves the head of a child is guilty.
Rav Ada bar Ahava said to him, “Who then shaves your children?” ‘Rashi’ notes: Shaving the whole head was the contemporary practice.  
“Chovah,” he answered.  Tosfos explains: Chovah was Rav Huna’s wife and he maintained that women are not bound by the prohibition.
“Chovah is burying her children!” came the reply.  Tosfos explains: For she is committing a transgression.
Tragically, throughout Rav Ada bar Ahava’s lifetime, Rav Huna’s children all perished, on account of his admonition.

Every Jewish name has deep spiritual significance.   The name your parents give you has great impact on your life.  Nevertheless, you still have free choice and so with any name, it could go either way.  For example, if your name is Shimon, you’re probably a good listener, from the root word shema.  You might, however, choose to misuse your gift and be a good listener to lashon hara (gossip).  If your name is Chaya, you’re probably the life of the party, from the root word chai.  You just need to make sure you’re hanging out at the right parties, where good, spiritual pursuits are being celebrated. 

Rav Huna’s wife’s name was Chovah, meaning obligation.   Ideally, she should have channelled her nature to excel in her Heavenly obligations.  Unfortunately, instead she felt obligated to make sure that her kids were up-to-date with the latest fashion trends, even if that meant hairstyles that ran counter to the Torah’s guidelines.

In This is My God, Herman Wouk compares Americanism to the days of Hellenism.  During Greek and Roman rule, Jewish rituals were banned and Jews were compelled to adopt the local culture.   In contrast, nowadays, we live in a free, democratic society.  But as Alexander de Tocqueville declared, ‘Democracy is the tyranny of the majority.’  In this case, says Wouk, the tyranny in America is that you feel obligated to follow the trends of the majority.  Or, in today’s parlance: we feel we must keep up with the Joneses.

He talks about a teenage girl who came to see him with her parents.  She felt distant from a Judaism that encourages such uniform practice.  He chuckled inside as he looked at this young lady, dressed and talking like every other suburban teenager at the time.  We’re always following a trend; the question is do you feel more obligated to conform to the must-haves that you see around you or to Heaven’s must-haves?

Sometimes it is spiritually unhealthy to ‘go with the flow.’  If you find yourself going crazy over a physical ‘must-have,’ it’s time to remind yourself that your mission and obligation transcend the fleeting desires of the day.  May you always remember where your true obligations lie and never feel compelled to keep pace with the Joneses of this world!  

Without you the transmission would fail

Daf Yomi Nazir 56

In 1969, Neil Armstrong walked on the surface of the moon.  His famous line, “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind,” will be forever etched in our minds.  Did you know that at the time, the Apollo program employed over 400,000 people?  It took that many people working behind the scenes – from rocket engineers to tech support to scientists to office workers and everyone between – to put a man on the moon!

Let me tell you about Sally Jones.  Sally graduated from Houston Community College in 1968 and after a few months of searching finally landed a job at NASA.  She wasn’t thrilled with her job, but at least she had something.  It was really nothing more than an entry level bottom-of-the-ladder position.  Most of the time she found herself filing; some days she thought of herself as a glorified coffee barista, such was the extent of her daily tasks.  She would go to work each morning dreading her day – after three years of college, she was making coffee?  Was this all her life had amounted to? 

Any teaching transmitted via a triple chain, we mention the first and last, but need not mention the middleman.
‘Rashi’ explains: Let’s say you have a tradition whereby a third rabbi heard a teaching from a second rabbi, who heard it from the first rabbi.  It is meritorious to mention a teaching in the name of the one who gave it.  In such a case, one need only mention the first and last and skip the middle rabbi.  For example, if Rabbi Eliezer quoted Rabbi Yehoshua bar Mamal quoting Rabbi Yehoshua, one may offer the teaching in the name of Rabbi Eliezer quoting Rabbi Yehoshua, skipping Rabbi Yehoshua bar Mamal.

Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak said: We have similarly learned in a Mishna.  Nachum the Scribe said:  I received the following teaching from Rabbi Miyasha, who received it from Aba, who received it from the Pairs of Rabbis, who received it from the Prophets, who received it as Oral Law from Moshe at Sinai.  If one sowed dill or mustard in two or three different places, he is required to leave a corner of each area for the poor.   Note that Joshua and Caleb are not mentioned, despite obviously being part of this chain of teaching, which clearly demonstrates that one may leave out the middleman.

The Torah came into your life via a chain of teachers that links all the way back to Sinai.  But, if every time you repeated a lesson, you had to mention every single one of those teachers and give them credit, you’d be here all day.  And so Rav Nachman avers that you only need mention the teacher from whom you learned the lesson and the original person who gave it over.  You may omit all the people in between.

Does that make them unimportant?  G-d forbid!  As Rav Nachman points out, Joshua and Caleb were integral to the transmission; without them we would not have the Torah!  All the middlemen are of the utmost importance, even if they don’t always get a mention. 

The success of any operation is dependent upon many people in the middle who often don’t get a mention.  Without Sally Jones and the other 400,000 individuals working on the Apollo project, Neil Armstrong could not have made his virgin voyage to the moon.  Sally’s work was not meaningless; if she would only have viewed herself as integral to the moonwalk, she would have run to work each day, knowing how vital a role she was playing in history!  Without her and her colleagues, Neil Armstrong would never have set foot upon our lunar satellite.

Sometimes we find ourselves in roles that are unfulfilling.  We wonder why we are filing documents, filling out forms, entering data, making coffee.  Life seems so dull and we feel so unimportant.  The secret to fulfilment is to start to see the big picture.  Take a step back and recognize that you are one small cog in a much larger machine that is accomplishing great things.  Without you, that machine would cease to function!

Do you change the sheets at the hospital?  Without you, lives would not be saved!  Do you sweep floors at a hotel?  Without you, major executive meetings would not be able to take place, maintaining a thriving economy!  Are you a supermarket check-out professional?  That’s right, I just called you a professional, because without your incredible speed, accuracy and friendliness, we wouldn’t have food to put on the table and we would be standing in line dreading the check-out operator who scowls and moves at a snail’s pace. 

The same is true of your community roles.  It really isn’t fair when the tenth man finally waltzes in for the minyan, twenty minutes late, and we place him on our shoulders and dance around the room for making the minyan.  You’re sitting there thinking, ‘I was the sixth man and I came on time.  What am I, chopped liver?’  Exactly!  Without you and the other eight, there would have be no tenth man!  As the middleman you might get no mention or credit, but you are vital to the minyan’s success!

When you pick up the candy wrapper on the shul floor, you are playing an incredible role in life – you have made the shul great!  But it’s just a little piece of paper – yes, but all those pieces of trash add up.  Without every individual doing their part, the shul would be unimpressive indeed – from the program volunteers, to the board members, to the fundraisers, to the candy-wrapper-picker-uppers!  Without all you middlemen, we would have no shul.  There would be no rabbi.  No president. 

It’s not easy being the middleman.  You don’t get the glory of walking on the moon.  But always remember that you are an integral part of the transmission.  Without you, the entire operation would fall apart.  May you merit taking pride in the vital role you play in life and giving it your all!  

Friday, 16 October 2015

How to kiss the ground at the new Ben Gurion

Daf Yomi Nazir 55

If you get into a cab in Israel and ask them to take you to the airport in Tel Aviv, they’ll look at you funny.
“There’s no airport in Tel Aviv!” says the cabbie.
“Oh, my ticket here says Tel Aviv International Airport.”
“Oh, that’s in Lod.”

The international community thinks the airport is in Tel Aviv, Israelis say that their airport is in Lod.  But there’s now a movement of Kfar Truman residents (about five minutes outside the airport) who are contesting the Lod association.  You see, the airport is nowhere near Lod!  The nearest town is their tiny little Kfar Truman.  They want the airport renamed from Ben Gurion to Truman airport!

Like most airports, TLV has undergone major renovations and improvements over the last number of years.  Back in the day, you would deplane onto the runway and walk to the terminal.  Nowadays, the airport has fully modernized and you walk straight off the plane into the terminal.  It’s wonderful!

The only problem that people complain about, however, is our inability to do the age-old custom of kissing the ground of the Holy Land.  Back in the day, you would get off the plane, walk down the stairs and immediately bend down and give the ground a huge kiss to demonstrate your love for the Holy Land.  But nowadays, when do you do it?  In the terminal?  Looks a little weird, right?

One who enters the diaspora in a box, trunk, or closet, Rebbe says he is impure and Rabbi Yossi the son of Rabbi Yehuda says he is pure.   Let us suggest the following reason: Rebbe maintains that the airspace determines the purity while Rabbi Yossi the son of Rabbi Yehuda maintains that the land determines the purity.
Tosfos explains: If the earth is the determinant and one is in a box not touching the ground, he would remain pure.

For thousands of years, people learned this law about crossing the border between Israel and the diaspora in a box and thought, ‘That’s ridiculous, who travels in a trunk that doesn’t touch the ground?  What is this, some kind of illegal immigrant smuggling operation?’  And there were those who scoffed at the rabbis of the Talmud for making such preposterous suggestions, so out of touch with reality.

But just like the Tanach that prophesied that we would return to Israel ‘on eagles’ wings,’ our Sages were Divinely inspired with the apparition of a tube that could carry a person to the Holy Land through the air, without ever crossing the earth as it entered!   Rebbe saw this possibility and declared that ‘airspace determines purity.’   As soon as you enter the airspace of the Holy Land, you enter an elevated state of purity.  In fact, elsewhere our Sages teach that ‘the air of the Land of Israel makes one smart!’  Clearly, it’s not just the Holy Land, it’s even the Holy Air!

And so the question of kissing the ground in Israel is a moot point.  In olden times, when they arrived via the ground, that’s what they kissed.  Today, as soon as your plane flies into Israeli airspace, you can blow a kiss, because the air around you is holy! 

Sadly, we find ourselves in trying times in the Holy Land.  Now, more than ever, Israel needs not only our prayers, but our visits and demonstrations of support, not just in the air, but on the ground.  If you’ve been putting off visiting Israel, book your ticket today.  Kisses come from love, love means dedication and dedication means being there for your loved ones. 

Every time you enter the Holy Air, you become purified and elevated.  May you merit being there regularly, especially during times of need until you are blessed to spend every moment in Israel!  

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Does the Mikvah make you clean?

Daf Yomi Nazir 54

When a young couple comes to me to get married, as an Orthodox rabbi, there are certain prerequisites.  One of those is that they agree to learn the Laws of Family Purity with Rabbanit and me, hopefully culminating in the bridal visit to the mikvah.  Thank G-d, throughout our time in the rabbinate, only once ever has a young lady refused to have an Orthodox chuppah on account of our requirement.

“I don’t believe in the mikvah,” said Sally, “I’m not dirty.  I don’t need some synagogue bath to cleanse me.”  We did our best to explain to Sally that the biblical notions of taharah and tumah are mistranslated as purity and impurity and that while the words denote cleanliness in English, the Hebrew terms have nothing to do with anything physical.  But sadly, to no avail. 

Concerning the purification process, the Torah declares that water mixed with the ashes of a sin-offering shall be sprinkled “upon him who touched the bone, or the slain, or the dead, or the grave.”
Resh Lakish taught: “Or the grave” refers to the grave of those buried before the revelation at Sinai. 
The Rosh explains: Graves of gentiles do not cause impurity (requiring full purification from the ashes of the red heifer), and prior to Sinai, the Israelites had the same status.

Gentile graves do not cause impurity, but Jewish graves do?!  Prior to the giving of the Torah, our bodies did not cause impurity, but now that we have the Torah, we are more impure?  What is the meaning of this law?

Tumah, which is very loosely translated as ‘impurity,’ is always caused by the vacuum created when a powerful dose of spiritual energy disappears.  For example, each month a woman has the ability to produce life, just like the Almighty Who creates life.  But then, she suddenly loses this immense power.  Her life-producing ability disappears and she is left with a vacuum inside.  Once that void begins to refill itself, she goes to the mikvah to purify herself of whatever negative spiritual forces occupied the vacuum during the period of her absence of Divine capability.  The ritual of mikvah has nothing to do with cleanliness, it’s a celebration of her restored elevated spiritual state. 

Likewise, when we stood at Sinai, we were endowed with a neshama – a special soul, a slice of Heaven, which made us Divine creatures.  When that neshama departs the body, it creates an enormous void, which is called tumah.  We didn’t have that prior to Matan Torah (the giving of the Torah) and it’s what sets us apart post-Sinai.  In other words, gentile graves and Jewish graves may be the same after death; what’s different is the metamorphosis that took place between life and death.

You are a Divine being!  You have incredible power!  Your neshama enables you to transform this world from physicality to spirituality.  It’s a powerful gift from Above!  May you merit utilizing your Divine powers to make this world a Heavenly place!  

Defy gravity!

Daf Yomi Nazir 53

Rabbi Meir of Premishlan would get up early each morning and make his way up the mountain next to his village to use the pool of water at the summit as a mikvah prior to davening.  The townsfolk marvelled at their elderly rabbi’s unbelievable ability to climb that mountain even through the winter’s low temperatures and icy terrain.
‘Our rabbi is most certainly a miracle-man,’ they would say.

A couple of young men from a neighbouring town heard about Rabbi Meir’s daily feat and scoffed at the attitude of the Premishlaners.  Determined to demonstrate that Rabbi Meir’s walk up the mountain was not that big a deal, they decided to follow him up one morning.  They set out with the rabbi, but could not seem to keep pace with him; they just kept slipping back down the mountain while the eighty five year old appeared to sprint up!

Exasperated, they turned to him, demanding to know his secret.
“When one is connected with above,” the rabbi responded, “one does not fall below.”

Concerning the contraction of impurity, the Torah declares, “And whoever in the open field touches one that is slain with a sword, or one that died, or a bone of a man, or a grave, shall be impure seven days.”
Beraisa: “Or a grave” teaches that one becomes defiled for passing over a sealed tomb.  For the master said: Impurity breaks through and ascends, breaks through and descends.
Rashi explains: If a corpse is buried with no space between it and the tomb above, the impurity rises through the earth and continues all the way to the sky.

In the world around us, sometimes we see impurity breaking through and ascending.  We see undeserving people rise to success.  We scratch our heads at Heaven’s grand plan.  But the Talmud tells us a secret: what goes up must come down.  Even when we see ‘impurity break through and ascend,’ rest assured that it will eventually come crashing down to ‘break through and descend.’

In contrast, purity defies gravity.   Goodness can rise and rise without any fear of ever falling.   When you are ‘connected to above’, you can rise to success knowing that you are not bound by this world, realizing that the laws of gravity do not apply to you.  You can climb any mountain, rise above any challenge of life, because you are not weighed down by this world.

How do you connect to above?  By aligning your will with the Almighty’s will.  By constantly asking yourself how your actions fit with your Divine mission.  By placing your faith in G-d’s hand and trusting that no matter what mountain he sends your way, He has already given you the strength to rise above.

 You are a Divine being.  You are not bound by the laws of nature.  May you merit connecting with above and defying the gravity that weighs and wears everyone else down in life!  

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Who's your mentor?

Daf Yomi Nazir 52

Rabbi Mordechai Becher has a great challenge he puts to audiences around the world.
“Who here taught themselves to swim?” he asks, and then continues, “Believe it or not, I’ve asked this question to thousands of people in hundreds of cities and not one person has ever raised their hand!  Do you want to know why?  Because the ones that attempted to teach themselves to swim are (Hashem yerachem) no longer with us. . .”

They once brought a box full of bones into the Kupferschmidt Shul and left it out in the open air, in a roofless area, so as to not cause contamination.  Dr. Todus and his team of physicians entered and declared, “Here there is no spine from a single corpse.”
Clearly, the reason the bones did not contaminate was due to the fact that there was no spine from a single corpse, which implies that had there in fact been an entire spine or skull from a single individual, it would contaminate a nazir, necessitating him to shave his head.

What did the Rabbis do when they had a question about human remains?  They called in the medical examiner.  That’s the first interesting point of this story – our Sages of yore knew that they weren’t experts in everything under the sun and they were not embarrassed to ask a technical question of the experts, in this case the pathologist.

The second interesting point is that when the doctor arrives, he does not enter alone, but with his whole medical team.  Why?  Because before you become a doctor, you start out as an intern and resident.  These younger doctors follow the experienced physician around learning practically how to do the job, gradually assuming more and more responsibilities themselves.

While the mentorship model has survived in the medical profession, sadly it has become less popular in other fields.  Contemporary young professionals believe they know how to practice because they’ve passed all their certifications.  But the truth is, you can’t compare what you learn from a book to what’s actually going on out there in the real world.  If you want to succeed at whatever you aspire to be, you should find yourself a mentor.

Why reinvent the wheel?  Why make the same mistakes that a senior colleague already made and learned how to rectify twenty years ago?  Finding an expert to mentor you will shave years, perhaps even decades, off your learning curve.  You will learn how to skip the steps that your peers are still struggling with. 

And if you’re successful in your field, it’s time you gave back.  Find a mentee or two and show them the ropes of your area of expertise.  Help them achieve their goals faster.  The Talmud tells us that there are two people that we are never jealous of: our children and our students.   The joy you will receive watching a young person whom you have mentored grow is immeasurable!

If in the material world we require mentorship, how much more so when it comes to spirituality, which is intangible.  How could you ever master something you can’t see all on your own?  Sure, you have the Book.  But in Judaism, the Written Book was always accompanied by an Oral Tradition.  Why?  Because if nobody ever successfully taught themselves how to swim, then certainly nobody ever successfully taught themselves how to fly!

The Torah teaches you how to fly.  When you master Torah, you grow wings that allow you to soar higher than any physical bird.  You can soar to the Heavens.  But to learn how, you need a mentor, you need a rebbe (Torah teacher).  You need someone who can guide you beyond the written text.

Mentorship allows you to fly.  Mentorship in your field allows you to fly past your peers and past the steps you would ordinarily be required to take in order to achieve success.  Mentorship in spirituality allows you to fly to the Heavens.  May you find the right mentor for your every aspiration in life and beyond!

Monday, 12 October 2015

Pure unadulterated motives

Daf Yomi Nazir 51

Moshe Rabbeinu didn’t have an easy time leading the Children of Israel.  They were constantly complaining; forever questioning Heaven; and frequently threatening to turn around and go back to Egypt.  But his greatest challenge came from his cousin, Korach, who initiated a rebellion against him.
‘You have declared that we are all holy!’ cried Korach.  ‘If that is the case, why do you exalt yourself over the rest of us?’

Moshe and Aharon fell on their faces and took a moment to think about the accusation.  Did Korach have a point?  Did his call for complete equality of all individuals make sense?  After giving it serious thought, they concluded: Korach’s call for equality was not rooted in purity.  His words and actions made it clear that once he had deposed Moshe and Aharon, he would seek the top spot for himself.

After initiating a test to demonstrate whom indeed G-d had chosen to serve Him as High Priest, Moshe called upon the Almighty to provide a fitting punishment to the rebels.  The earth opened up beneath Korach and his followers, swallowing them and all their worldly possessions alive.

Mishnah: For coming into contact with the following impurities, the nazir must shave (i.e. atone and restart his nazirite term): for a corpse and for a ladleful of corpse-dust.
The Rabbis taught:  What kind of corpse is liable to the rule of corpse-dust?  A corpse that was buried naked.   But if he was buried in his clothing, he has no rule of dust.
Tosfos explains: The dust is not impure since it is mixed with another substance, namely the dust of the decayed clothing.  And in order to be able to cause impurity, it must be pure corpse-dust.

What an interesting law!  For corpse-dust to cause impurity, it must be pure corpse-dust.  In other words, even for impurity to be effective, it must be completely focused on its mission!  If there are any substances mixed in, it can’t do its job.  It becomes diluted and ineffective.

How much more so for purity to be effective – it must be pure and unadulterated!   Sometimes we believe we are doing the right thing but a little self-introspection leads to the realization that we’re being driven by motivations that are not completely pure.   Korach probably believed his own story that he was pitching, but had he been honest with himself he would have seen right through himself.

What motivated Korach to challenge Moshe?  It was a feeling of inadequacy in his life.  Our Sages teach that he felt slighted when his younger cousin Eltzaphan was appointed as the prince of their tribal family. 

Can you imagine?  Korach is stuck out in the Wilderness, knowing he would be there for the next forty years with no hope of career or social advancement!  It wasn’t as if he could say, ‘Well Jewish communal work didn’t pan out for me, so I’ll go to law school!’ Such feelings of inadequacy are generally what motivate people to rebel.  They feel insecure in their present station in life and seek to improve their social standing and recognition.

Service of Am Yisrael must be approached with the utmost humility.  Moshe was our most effective leader because he exhibited not so much as a hint of self-aggrandizement.  If you want to be effective in serving G-d’s people, you need to make sure that your purity is indeed completely pure.  You need to constantly question the role of your own personal identity in your quest to serve.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t serve, but you must, at the very least, have the self-awareness that is driving your zealousness.   Otherwise you risk destroying more than you are creating, G-d forbid. 

You were placed on this earth to serve G-d and man.  We are all human, however, and often driven by motivations that are not entirely pure.  May you master your self-awareness and be able to judge the most effective and pure way to serve Heaven!