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Monday, 30 November 2015

Taking G-d for a Test Drive

Daf Yomi Sotah 34

Rabbi Immanuel Schochet was a great Canadian rabbi who was an expert in the New Testament and a very effective anti-missionary.   I once heard him give an excellent presentation to a room filled with Jews and Christians.  Quoting flawlessly from the Tanach and the New Testament, he demonstrated the truths of Judaism to the crowd.

Following his presentation he called for questions.  A Christian missionary stood up and began by saying, ‘Before I ask my question, I want to congratulate you on your incredible knowledge of the New Testament.  I find your open-mindedness admirable and if I may say so, it would be great if you could encourage your students to read the New Testament too.  They should know what it teaches and then be able to make their own informed decisions.’   He then proceeded with his query.

Rabbi Schochet listened to the questioner and then responded, ‘Before I answer your question, I want to acknowledge your praise regarding my knowledge of the New Testament.  I am sorry, however, that I cannot accede to your suggestion that I encourage my students to read the New Testament.  If I were to do that – in the interests of having them making an informed decision – I should likewise have them read the Koran, as well as the Book of Mormon and Hindu and Buddhist sacred texts.  If only they would devote more time to learning the Torah, I would be more than sufficiently pleased!’

Before Moshe sent the spies to Canaan, Hashem instructed him, “Send for yourself men.”
Reish Lakish taught: ‘Send for yourself’ means it is your decision.  For how could obeying Heaven lead to a bad outcome?
Rashi explains: Hashem was saying: I am not commanding you to send spies.  The Israelites are asking for it.  I shall not impede your decision.
That is the meaning of Moshe’s declaration, “The matter was good in my eyes.”
Reish Lakish explains: Moshe was saying, ‘in my eyes, but not in Hashem’s eyes.’
Tosfos Shantz elaborates: The Midrash explains that even Moshe thought it was a bad idea to send the spies.  Rather, it may be compared to a fellow who asks to buy his friend’s donkey.  He requests a ‘test drive’ to confirm that it can traverse mountains and valleys.  When his friend agrees to the test drive, he immediately agrees to purchase the donkey even without the test.  The acquiescence to the request is sufficient proof of the quality of the merchandise.   Similarly, Moshe reasoned that Israel would say that since he was prepared to accede to their request for spies, they would not actually need him to send the spies. 

When you trust a merchant, you don’t need to take a test drive.  When the Israelites insisted on taking the test drive of the Holy Land, Moshe was shocked.  He could not believe that after everything the Almighty had done for them, from the Exodus to the Red Sea to the revelation at Sinai, they were still lacking faith.  If you believe in G-d wholeheartedly, there is no need for a test drive.

And that was Rabbi Schochet’s message.  If you believe the Torah is true, there is no reason to test drive any other theological makes or models.   In his case, he had achieved incredible mastery of Torah before he looked at some other doctrines in order to prove their falsehood.  But as for the rest of us, most people don’t learn nearly enough Torah in our short lifetimes to have time to start looking elsewhere.  We haven’t even given ourselves the opportunity to discover the answers in our own religion; why would we go looking for answers elsewhere?

G-d has gotten you this far in history and in your personal life.  Why would you question Him?  May you stay focused on the truth He has blessed you with and never be tempted to test drive any inferior make or model!  

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Substandard Prayer

Daf Yomi Sotah 33

A century and a half ago in Germany, a number of people gathered to introduce some radical changes to Jewish practice and liturgy.  One of the amendments was to change the vernacular of the prayer to German.  Why did they decide to abandon the Hebrew?  The obvious reason, one would think, was so that people could better understand what they were praying.  Most of us don’t understand every word in the original and so praying in our local language would make the prayers more meaningful.

But that is not the explanation of Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan in the Mishnah Berurah, also known as the Chofetz Chaim.  He explains that their motivation was to instill in our people the belief that a German Jew should be a proud German citizen and cease longing to leave for Israel with Moshiach.  And so, they deleted the brachos dealing with the messianic era – such as the ingathering of the exiles and the rebuilding of Jerusalem – from the text of the siddur.  The switch to German language was a further attempt to negate any reference to redemption.

How so?  We know that our nation was redeemed from Egypt on account of our unique ethnic symbols – our clothing, our names, and our language.  Says the Chofetz Chaim, “Just as they wanted the people to forget the memory of Jerusalem, similarly they desired that the Jewish people should forget the Holy Language (Hebrew), lest they be redeemed in the merit of not changing their language!  May the Almighty protect us!”

Mishnah: The following may be recited in any language: The sotah chapter, the tithe confession, the recitation of the Shema, prayer.
Gemara: Prayer is a request for Divine mercy and one may therefore pray in whatever manner.
The Gemara asks: May one indeed pray in any language?  Did Rav Yehuda not teach, ‘A person should never beseech his needs in Aramaic?’ For Rabbi Yochanan taught, ‘Whoever beseeches his needs in Aramaic is not assisted by the angels, because angels do not know Aramaic!’
The Gemara answers: There is no contradiction.  That teaching refers to an individual, whereas our Mishnah refers to a community.
Rashi explains: An individual needs angels to carry his prayers, whereas communal prayers are accepted directly by Hashem.

So what’s the bottom line about praying in a language other than Hebrew?  The Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) states, “One may pray in any language he wants.  That is the case for communal prayer.  An individual, however, should only pray in Hebrew.  Some say that is only the case when one is beseeching one’s needs, such as praying for healing of the ill or distress at home; whereas the regular fixed prayers may be recited in any language even by an individual.  And some say that even an individual beseeching his needs may pray in any language, except Aramaic.”

So, if you’re making a habit of praying at home, you have what to rely upon.  According to the Shulchan Aruch, some say it’s okay to pray as an individual in any language.  If some say it’s okay, then I guess that works.  But I don’t know about you; I know that I’m not leaving my prayers to chance.  I put in way too much time and effort to rely on the fact that ‘some say’ it will work!  (I should note that for women, it’s 100% acceptable to pray as an individual; although if you can, it’s still better to pray with the community.) 

Even davening in English at shul is not so simple.  The Mishnah Berurah stresses that the permission granted to communal prayer in a language other than Hebrew is only on a temporary basis.  To amend the prayer service to permanently abandon the Holy Language is unacceptable.   In other words, bottom line is that you should make every effort to daven with a minyan in Hebrew. 

If your Hebrew reading and comprehension are not quite there yet, then work on it!  Stop using the English translation or transliteration as a crutch.  They’re only there as a temporary fix.  Long term, you should be davening in Hebrew. 

Why?  The Sefer Chasidim writes, “Hebrew has greater power than any other language.  It is the language in which the Almighty speaks to His prophets.  Our Sages teach that the world was created using the Holy Language.  Furthermore, when the Men of the Great Assembly instituted the formula of the prayers, there were 120 elders, many of whom were prophets.  They manifested each blessing’s words and letter formation with esoteric and exalted secrets.  When we recite the words as per their formulation, even if we don’t understand, our prayers rise up to Heaven properly, since the words themselves effect holiness in Heaven; which is not the case for other languages.”

Daven in Hebrew.  Daven with the minyan.  It’s way too risky to take chances on substandard prayer.  May all your prayers be answered by Heaven immediately!  

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Stop gossiping about yourself!

Daf Yomi Sotah 32

The Chofetz Chaim was one of the greatest rabbis of the early twentieth century.  He dedicated his life to explaining the Code of Jewish Law and expounding the laws of lashon hara (gossip).  He was once on a train travelling to Bialystok.  Seated opposite him was another Jewish fellow and so he asked him where he was travelling to.
‘I’m off to Bialystok to see the Chofetz Chaim,’ said the man. ‘He’s coming to town, I’m so excited!  He’s a big tzaddik (righteous man)!’
‘You know, he really isn’t anything special,’ replied the rabbi.
‘How dare you be so chutzpadik (impudent)!’ the man cried. With no idea he was talking to the tzaddik himself, he jumped up and slapped the Chofetz Chaim across the face and stormed off.

A couple of hours later, they arrive in Bialystok.  There’s a huge crowd waiting to greet the Chofetz Chaim.   Only then does the rabbi’s fellow traveller realize that he had slapped the great tzaddik!  He gets down on his hands and knees and begs the Chofetz Chaim to forgive him.
‘What is there to forgive you for?’ asks the rabbi. ‘I actually really appreciate your gesture.  You taught me an important lesson.  One should never speak lashon hara – not even about oneself!’

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught: A person should praise himself in a soft voice, but disparage himself loudly.  We learn that one should praise himself softly from the “Confession of the Maaser” (where one declares that he has performed the mitzvah properly).  And we learn that one should disparage himself loudly from the “Announcement of the First-Fruits” (where our grandfather, Lavan, is mentioned). 
The Gemara asks: Should one indeed disparage himself out loud?  Rabbi Yochanan quoted Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai’s teaching: Why did the Rabbis institute that one should pray softly?  In order to avoid embarrassing a sinner, just like the Torah did not make different places in the Temple for the sacrifice of a sin-offering and a burnt-offering (so that onlookers would not know why the offering was being brought).
The Gemara answers: Don’t say that one should disparage himself out loud; rather he should express his distress aloud, so that others can pray for him.

The conclusion of the Gemara is that you should not disparage yourself out loud.   Why not?  Well, for starters, the Chofetz Chaim learned the hard way that it’s not a good idea to talk ill of anyone, not even yourself. 

But, of course, the main reason you should avoid disparaging yourself is that it really doesn’t accomplish anything.  When you tell yourself that you’re not that great, it very quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Why should you bother trying to achieve great things when you’re nobody special?  You’ve already convinced yourself that you won’t be successful!

Sure, from time to time, we all have misgivings about ourselves.  But keep those issues to yourself.  When you start verbalizing them, you’re giving substance to the negative energy.  When they’re still only thoughts, you can allow them pass and be overpowered by the positive energy.  Once you’ve spoken them out, you’ve given them power.

When Hashem created the world, He declared each creation and it became a reality.  “And G-d said ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light.”  The Torah’s message is that He didn’t have to do anything beyond speaking.  Once you say something, you’ve already given it life.   And that’s why with everything Hashem created, it says, “And G-d saw that it was good.”  He reinforced it with positive energy. 

Was it perfect?  Not really.  We know that He created an imperfect world with a view to having humankind work at perfecting it.  But it was good.  And that was worth mentioning.

Stop disparaging yourself!  Stop beating yourself up for being less than perfect!  Nobody is perfect.  That’s what you’re here for, to work on improving yourself.  You can give that some thought in your own mind.  But don’t speak it out loud.  It won’t help you achieve the great destiny the Almighty has in store for you!

Only allow positive speech to issue forth from your mouth.  Whether about others or even about yourself.  It is the positive speech and positive energy that bring about great things.  May you speak goodness upon yourself and achieve the great destiny you were sent to Earth to accomplish!  

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Developing Spiritual Maturity

Daf Yomi Sotah 31

A little boy was sitting on a park bench with one hand resting on an open Bible. He was loudly exclaiming his praise to Heaven. "Hallelu-kah! Hallelu-kah! Hashem is great!" he yelled without worrying whether anyone heard him or not.   Shortly after, along came a man who had recently completed some studies at a local university. Feeling himself very enlightened in the ways of truth and very eager to show this enlightenment, he asked the boy about the source of his joy.

“Do you have any idea what Hashem is able to do?  I just read that He opened up the waves of the Red Sea and led the whole nation of Israel right through the middle.”  The enlightened man laughed lightly, sat down next to the boy and began to try to open his eyes to the "realities" of the miracles of the Bible. "That can all be very easily explained. Modern scholarship has shown that the Red Sea in that area was only 10-inches deep at that time. It was no problem for the Israelites to wade across."

The boy appeared to be stumped. His eyes wandered from the man back to the Bible laying open in his lap. The man, content that he had enlightened a poor, naive young person to the finer points of scientific insight, turned to go. Scarcely had he taken two steps when the boy began to rejoice and praise louder than before. The man turned to ask the reason for this resumed jubilation.
"Wow!" Exclaimed the boy happily, "Hashem is greater than I thought! Not only did He lead the whole nation of Israel through the Red Sea, He topped it off by drowning the whole Egyptian army in 10 inches of water!"

Rabbi Yossi Hagelili taught: When Israel rose from the Red Sea, they were inspired to sing a song of gratitude.  How did they sing?  Even the toddler on his mother’s knee and the nursing baby, once they saw the Shechina (Divine revelation), the toddler lifted up his neck and the baby interrupted his feeding to declare, “This is my G-d and I shall glorify Him,” as the verse in Tehillim states, “From the mouths of babes and sucklings, You established strength.”
Rabbi Meir would say: How do we know that even fetuses in the wombs of their mothers sang?  For the verse states, “In assemblies, bless G-d, Hashem from the source of Israel.”
The Gemara asks: But they could not see the revelation!
Rabbi Tanchum answers: Their mothers’ tummies became a shining prism and they saw everything.

Rabbi Yossi is teaching us a powerful lesson about maintaining our faith in Heaven.  When he says that even infants recognized G-d at the Red Sea, the message is that when it comes to Divine revelation, we are all like children.   G-d is revealing Himself all around us, and yet we don’t appreciate it, because we are spiritually immature.

Think about how kids perceive their daily sustenance.  In the morning, they open the pantry and take out the box of cereal.  They open the fridge and take out the milk.  Where does it come from?  How did it get there?  Kids just don’t think of those questions.  They have no appreciation for the hours their parents worked to make the money, the time spent grocery shopping and schlepping to make sure that there is always a full pantry and fridge.

That’s how most people deal with Divine sustenance.  G-d is working hard, so to speak, to provide for our every need.  And yet we just go through life oblivious to the incredible amount of Divine planning and execution that is happening all around us. 

When the Red Sea parted, suddenly everyone was jolted out of their oblivious state and couldn’t help but sing a song of gratitude to G-d.  Even the “children” – people who otherwise had no appreciation of spirituality, no spiritual maturity – stopped what they were doing and praised Heaven. 

Rabbi Yossi is asking us to develop our spiritual maturity.  Instead of going through life expecting the pantry and fridge to be full, stop each day and think about how where your sustenance truly comes from.  Hashem is the true Provider of all. 

Rabbi Meir takes it a step further.  He teaches that even fetuses sang the song of gratitude.   ‘But they couldn’t see!’ exclaims the Gemara.  That’s exactly it.  Most of us go through life not only lacking spiritual maturity, but lacking the vision to even know that there’s life beyond our immediate little world.  Imagine twin fetuses chatting with one another.  Could they begin to describe the real world?  All they know is world of the womb.

But when Hashem parted the Red Sea, He granted them a moment of vision into the world.  That’s what you should really be thinking about.  Not only is Hashem your Provider.  But why is He providing?  Are you stuck inside your little world of planet Earth, or are you contemplating the “palace” of the World to Come?  If we could only get a momentary glimpse of the ‘real world’ our actions on Earth would be vastly different.  Most of the time, we are truly nothing more than fetuses, thinking we know the world, but having no clue about the real world out there.

It’s time to start appreciating, on the one hand, Heaven’s bounty in this world; but, on the other hand, the reason you are being sustained in this world.  This world is the hallway to the great palace on the other side.  May you merit increasing your spiritual maturity and appreciation as you grow through life!

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Talmudic Leadership Models

Daf Yomi Sotah 30

A large organization had recently hired several cannibals. After conducting a lengthy new hire orientation the human resource director congratulated the cannibals and said, “You are all part of the team now! You get all of the benefits we have discussed and you can enjoy our company cafe free of charge! But please don’t eat any of the other employees.” Each of the cannibals promised they wouldn’t.
After a few weeks the cannibals’ boss seemed very pleased, but also a little worried. She said, “You’re all working very hard, and I’m satisfied with you. However, one of our secretaries has disappeared. Do any of you know what happened to her?” The cannibals all shook their heads, “No.”
After the boss had left, the leader of the cannibals was a bit angry and said, “Okay, which one of you dummies ate the secretary?”
A hand rose hesitantly in admission. “You fool!” said the leader, “For weeks we’ve been eating managers and no one noticed anything, but nooo, you had to go and eat someone important. . !”

Leadership, today, is a big buzzword.  In the twenty-first century, we have recognized that there’s more to leadership than mere management.   Even in the Jewish world, rabbis and other scholars are examining models from the Torah and finding applications for leadership today.  But the truth is, our tradition has always provided great insight into what makes a great leader.

Rabbi Akiva taught: When Israel arose from the Red Sea, they were inspired to sing a song of gratitude.  How did they sing? Like a leader chanting the Hallel with everyone else repeating certain refrains.  Moshe chanted, “I shall sing to Hashem,” and they responded, “I shall sing to Hashem.”  Moshe chanted, “for He is truly exalted,” and they repeated, “I shall sing to Hashem.”
Rabbi Eliezer the son of Rabbi Yossi Hagelili says: Like a minor chanting the Hallel with everyone else repeating exactly what he recites.   Moshe chanted, “I shall sing to Hashem,” and they responded, “I shall sing to Hashem.”  Moshe chanted, “for He is truly exalted,” and they responded, “for He is truly exalted.”
Rabbi Nechemia says: Like the chazan leading the Shema in shul.  He begins and the congregation continues. 

The rabbis here are describing three approaches to leadership.  The first type of leader directs people and expects them to respond, ‘Yes, sir!’  There is no variation to the response; this leader knows that the most efficient way to run the company is if the underlings follow orders.  When orders are followed, the ship runs the tightest.  That is Rabbi Akiva’s explanation of the order of events: no matter what Moshe chanted, the people responded with the same words.

The second type of leader directs people in such a way that he expects them to model his leadership approach.  He doesn’t want to create robots that just follow orders without thinking.  He strives to teach his followers how to mimic his leadership approach, knowing that the company will be the strongest when he can delegate to lower-level managers.  He can only do so, however, when he can rest assured that the subordinate managers will lead in the same way that he leads.  That is Rabbi Eliezer’s model: whatever Moshe declared, the people echoed.

The third type of leader does not simply shout orders.  Nor does he expect people to become carbon copies of himself.  The third type brings out the best in his followers.  Like a chazan, he demonstrates the right path to his followers, but once they’re heading in the right direction, he lets go of their hand and allows them to develop their own unique ‘song.’  That is Rabbi Nechemia’s approach: bring out the best in people by showing them the right path to blossom in their own right.

These leadership styles are not mutually exclusive.  Different situations call for different measures and approaches.  The key is to know how to act when.  In most situations, we want to strive for model three, but that is not always the most ideal approach.  Sometimes, too many captains sink the ship – if everyone is trying to lead, nothing gets done.  On such occasions, we must humble ourselves and choose one person to direct everyone else.  Other times we need to recognize great leadership and model it precisely.

Nevertheless, most of the time, we want to aim for the third model.   The ultimate leader understands her followers and strives to bring out the best in them.  She appreciates what makes each person unique and acknowledges that what made her great will not work exactly the same way for other individuals.  True leadership means showing the way and then watching your flowers blossom.

We are all leaders in some aspect of our lives.  Some of us lead professionally; others lead communally; and of course, we all must lead intergenerationally.   That means providing direction to your children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

How do you lead them?  You could tell them what to do and hope they respond, ‘Yes, sir!’  You could demonstrate good life skills and hope they follow your example.  Or you could invest the time and effort to figure out how to bring out the best of their spirit to allow them to blossom into leaders in their own right.

Different situations call for different leadership models.  If you want to succeed throughout your life, you must be familiar with each approach and apply it when the situation calls for that model.  May you merit being a leader in every facet of your life and creating leaders all around you!  

Use your intelligence wisely

Daf Yomi Sotah 29

Rabbi Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna, was one of the most erudite Talmudic scholars to walk the face of the Earth.  His learning never ceased for a moment.  At night, he would place his feet in buckets of ice water to stay awake.  He would then hold the candle in his hand, so that the wax would drip onto his skin and keep him alert.  Such was his superhuman dedication to Torah study.

As a result, the works of the Vilna Gaon parallel the level of scholarship of the medieval and gaonic rabbis, a feat otherwise unheard of in the modern historical era.   Also known by his initials, the GR”A, this great mind posed and responded to Talmudic questions that had rabbis puzzled for centuries.

Rav Gidel quoted Rav: Concerning the difference between something that has the intelligence to be questioned versus something that does not have the intelligence to be questioned, we learn the law from the verse, “And the [sacrificial] meat that shall touch anything impure must not be eaten.”  The implication is that if it definitely came into contact with impurity, then it must not be eaten; but if it is possibly impure or possibly pure, it may be eaten.
The next part of the verse, however, suggests the opposite, stating, “Regarding the meat, any pure person may eat the meat.”  The implication is that if a person is definitely pure, then he may eat the meat; but if he is possibly impure or possibly pure, he may not eat.
The resolution is as follows: The latter case deals with a subject that has the intelligence to be questioned (a person), whereas the former case deals with a subject that does not have the intelligence to be questioned (a piece of meat).
Rashi explains: We cannot ask a lifeless piece of meat whether or not it came into contact with impurity and so we give it the benefit of the doubt.   By contrast, an intelligent human being may be questioned as to exactly what occurred and so, in a situation of uncertainty, we err on the side of caution.

A live human being is held to a higher standard of accountability than an inanimate piece of meat.  Why?  Because he has intelligence and may be questioned.

Everybody wants to be smart.  But how many people are willing to take on the responsibilities that accompany intelligence?   When the Almighty bestows intelligence upon an individual, it is in order to be able to answer questions that people have.

Humankind has questions.  If you are bright, you were given your gifts of intelligence to answer people’s theological questions.  If you avoid the questioners, you are shirking your mission on Earth! 

Why do people avoid answering questions?  Because they’re not willing to invest the necessary time and effort to acquire the answers.  Powerful, airtight answers require deep, focused, lengthy Torah study.  If you’re not willing to sit down and learn, you won’t have the answers and you will be caught off-guard as you try to respond to difficult theological queries.

The problem is that in the information age, people aren’t willing to commit the time and focus needed to learn Torah properly.  It’s easier to get your answers from Rabbi Google or Rabbi Wikipedia or even Rabbi or Rabbi  That’s not to say that the latter two websites aren’t incredibly rich sources of Torah wisdom – they are, G-d bless the tzadikim (righteous people) that have poured their hearts and souls into these initiatives! 

But they are no substitute for the real deal: true, unbridled Torah learning.  The kind that you break your back over.  The Vilna Gaon kind.  The GR”A was a clever man; but he didn’t stop there.  He could not go to bed at night until he had the answers to our people’s questions.  He recognized that the reason he was blessed with incredible intellect was in order to respond.

Every gift from above is a test.  Will you utilize it simply in the pursuit of your worldly pleasures?  Or will you employ it for the sake of Heaven?  When you have the intellect to be questioned you become more responsible.  You cannot simply walk away and ignore the great questions of Judaism.  You wouldn’t be dismissive of issues that you excel in professionally; why wouldn’t you grant the same attention to questions that drive your spirit and the souls of those around you?

What are we talking about?  Very few have the dedication to become the Vilna Gaon.  Sadly, in today’s day and age, it doesn’t take that much to become an expert in Judaism and Israel, compared to most of the population.  If you immerse yourself in Jewish learning and Israel advocacy training, diligently seeking the answers to your questions, you will automatically become an incredible resource to those around you.  You will have the answers to dichotomies between Torah and science, to difficult passages in the Torah, and to the critics of the Jewish state.

Don’t ever say that the job of answering questions is for someone else to do.  Unless of course, you don’t think particularly highly of your level of intelligence.  The Almighty gave you brains; may you dedicate the time and effort required to utilize those brains to answer the pressing questions of today!  

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

What to do before criticizing others

Daf Yomi Sotah 28

It was shortly before Pesach when Fraidy and Shloimy were married in Boro Park.  A lovely young Chasidic couple, they were each so enamoured by their basherte, wondering how they were so blessed to have found such an incredible life-partner.

The sheva brachos were over and the young couple quickly transformed their home for the festival.  The seders, of course, were celebrated at each of their parents’ tables, but they finally had a chance to sit down and eat together, just the two of them, on the second day of Yom Tov.  Fraidy had prepared a delicious chicken soup and lovingly placed a steaming hot bowl before her husband.

The soup was indeed delicious.  Shloimy couldn’t stop thinking how lucky he was to have met Fraidy.  With each spoonful of soup, his love for her grew stronger and stronger.  Suddenly, he lifts the spoon to his mouth, lo and behold, he sees a piece of wheat!

He can’t control himself.  He jumps up from the table in a fit of rage.  He thought he had married a frum girl, dedicated in the most scrupulous manner to Torah and mitzvos.  How could she serve him wheat on Pesach?!  Outraged, the next day, Chol Hamoed, he takes her to the rabbi for a divorce.  The rabbi listens intently to his rant and calmly suggests that they give it a few days and come back to him on the last day of Yom Tov.  Shloimy insists that there’s really nothing to think about, but reluctantly agrees.

A few days later they are back.  On Chol Hamoed, Shloimy had been wearing his regular Chasidic garb; now it is Yom Tov again and his head is covered by his beautiful new fur shtreimel.  The rabbi welcomes them in and asks Shloimy whether he has changed his mind. 
‘Absolutely not!’ declares the young groom. ‘This marriage was arranged under false pretenses.  I demand a divorce!’
‘Do you mind showing me your shtreimel?’ asks the rabbi.  Shloimy is a little taken aback and slowly lifts off his fur hat and hands it to the rabbi.  The rabbi gives it a shake and out fall a number of wheat kernels!  You see, in Chasidic circles, as the bride and groom walk to the chuppah, they are showered with ‘blessing’ from their family and friends!

Shloimy, of course, did not know where to put himself.  He had accused his wife of the most awful behaviour while meanwhile he was the culprit all along.  Shokeling back and forth at the table, the kernel must have come loose and fallen into his soup! 

The moral of the story?  Before criticizing anyone else, you should check your own shtreimel first!

Concerning the test of the bitter waters administered to the allegedly disloyal wife, the Torah declares, “And the husband shall be innocent of sin and that woman shall bear her iniquity.”
Beraisa: When the husband is indeed completely free of sin, the waters are effective in testing the wife.  If the husband is not guilt-free, the waters are ineffective in testing his wife.

Here we have a husband that has taken his wife to the beth din, accusing her of the most terrible of behaviours, but really he is no more innocent himself!  The bitter waters are ineffective.  He has no right to be taking his wife to task when he himself is equally wanting. 

Too many people point fingers at others without ‘checking their own shtreimel first.’  They judge, they criticize, they accuse.  We’re not only talking about the spousal relationship; it happens in every sort of relationship.  Before you go accusing others of acting a certain way, you need to ask yourself whether you are completely innocent.  Otherwise, not only is your criticism unfair, but chances are it’s polluted with your own ‘wheat kernels.’  In an effort to deflect attention from your own deficiencies, you end up projecting them onto the other person.

Maybe it’s a colleague that you feel is undermining your work to the boss.  Before pointing fingers, ask yourself if you are doing your very best to always present them in a positive light.  Maybe it’s a sibling that you feel isn’t acting with the best intentions.  Ask yourself if you are being there for them and their family as a brother or sister should.

When you perceive a flaw in someone else, don’t rush to point fingers.  Instead, take a good look inside your own ‘shtreimel.’  May you merit to always see the good in everyone and only ever build them up with positive energy!  

Sunday, 22 November 2015

The Currency of Marriage

Daf Yomi Sotah 27

Avraham is getting on in years and he realizes that the time has come for his son Yitzchak to get married.  He calls over his butler, Eliezer, and entrusts him with the mission of a finding a bride for Yitzchak.
‘Seriously?’ thinks Eliezer. ‘He wants me to travel all the way to Haran to seek a wife for his son?   I have a wonderful daughter who would make a great match for Yitzchak.  I am a G-d-fearing individual and I have always been there for Avraham and his family!  But instead of recognizing my devotion to Avraham and monotheism, he wants me to go to his cousins who are idolaters!  It makes no sense!’

Shmuel taught: A person should rather marry an individual with a wanting reputation than the child of an individual with a wanting reputation.  For the former comes from good seed, while the latter comes from questionable seed.
Rabbi Yochanan disagrees: A person should rather marry the child of an individual with a wanting reputation, rather marry an individual with a wanting reputation.  For the former has a presumption of goodness, while the latter has a presumption of impropriety.
The Gemara concludes: The law is a person should rather marry the child of an individual with a wanting reputation, rather marry an individual with a wanting reputation. 

Obviously, a person is never faced with the choice of marrying someone or their mother.  The point of the Gemara is, let’s say you’re presented with two shidduchim – blind date prospects.  One is an average individual from a prestigious family; the other is an incredible individual from an average family.  Which one should you go out with?  Answer is: The boy or girl who is the incredible individual, despite their upbringing.

That’s what Eliezer failed to appreciate.  He figured that his family was so prestigious – after all, he was the personal assistant to the great Avraham!  There was no better shidduch in the world, as far as family was concerned!  Why would Avraham look anywhere else?

But that is not what is important in seeking a marriage partner.  You are not marrying the parents; you are marrying the individual.  Rivka, despite having grown up in an idolatrous home, was ‘like a rose amongst the thorns.’  She herself was an incredible individual and far outweighed the shidduch prospect from a good family.

Sadly, too many people look for the wrong things when it comes to seeking a marriage partner for themselves or their children.  Certainly, family is important.  So is job.  So are looks, et cetera, et cetera.  But the most important attribute to look for, above all else, is that the individual is a mensch.   Not how wonderful their parents are.  Not how philanthropic their grandparents are.  The primary question is: What kind of character is the individual themselves?   Remember: the individual is the one you need to be able to get along with and live a joyous, peaceful life; not their parents!

Once the question of the individual’s character is answered satisfactorily, then you can consider other matters.  But if the answer to the first question is unclear, don’t proceed!  The key to a successful marriage and happy life is good middos (character traits).  The better your own middos and the middos of your chosen marriage prospect, the happier your life will be.  That’s the simple formula.  It’s not about parents, it’s not about money, it’s not about looks, it’s not about intelligence. 

Everything has a currency.  To buy a car, you need money.  The more money you have, the better car you can afford.  To get into college, you need brains.  The more brains you have, the better the college you can get into.  To have a happy marriage, you need good middos.  The better the middos, the happier the marriage.  It’s that simple. 

When seeking a marriage partner, remember it’s for life.  Sure, all the fanfare surrounding the prestigious family you’ve gained entry into is exciting.  But once the dust settles, you have to live with this person for the rest of your life.  May you merit the wisdom to choose a spouse who has incredible middos, and if you act in kind, you will be happily married till 120!   

How to achieve guaranteed success

Daf Yomi Sotah 26

Before coming to Edmonton and rejoining the pulpit rabbinate, I spent some time in New York City working for a financial firm, selling all manner of retirement-planning product.  It’s a tough business with a low retention rate.  I personally left, not because I wasn’t doing well; I simply wanted to return to my life’s calling that was on hold.  I did, however, watch many a colleague fall by the wayside.

Each week our sales manager demanded a report – not of how many deals we had closed, but of how many phone-calls we had made each day.
‘Let me tell you how success in this business is GUARANTEED,’ he would bellow. ‘If you make fifty calls a day, you will be successful.  I promise you.  It’s purely a numbers game.  Fifty calls will give you three to five business meetings.  Of those meetings, one prospect will buy something from you.  It’s that simple.’

Following the drinking of the bitter waters by the allegedly disloyal wife, the Torah declares, “If she is innocent, she shall bear seed.”
Rabbi Akiva says: The verse teaches that if she were barren, she would conceive.
Rabbi Yishmael responds: If so, any barren woman would seclude herself and undergo the sotah test in order to conceive! 

Rabbi Yishmael makes a good point.  If it were true that a barren sotah would conceive if proven innocent, everyone would jump at the opportunity!  How could Rabbi Akiva make it sound so straightforward? 

The answer is that even when we know what to do, most people won’t do it.  Most people enter the financial sales business wanting to make a lot of money.  The formula to get there is clear.  Fifty calls a day.  That’s all you need to know and you will achieve guaranteed results.  And yet most who enter the field drop out. 

Let’s take another example.  One of the hardest areas to get into is a doctoral program.  University graduate departments accept only the brightest candidates into their Ph.D. programs.  And yet, less than forty percent of students actually complete their Ph.D.  Why is that?  We’re talking about some of the smartest people on the planet!  They’re in the program; all they need to do now is research and write their dissertation!  Why would anyone fail to complete?

Simply put, even if you know the secret to success, it doesn’t mean you’re going to do what it takes.  Fifty calls a day only guarantees success if you make the effort and pick up the phone.  Graduating from a doctoral program is straightforward just as long as you make time each day to write the dissertation.  Most people know exactly what it takes to be successful in their field; they are simply not willing to do it.

And that’s why Rabbi Akiva’s formula is not a fait accompli.  Maybe there is a trick to getting pregnant but how many will actually take that route?   The way the route appears to work is that you must undergo the embarrassing ordeal of being paraded around the Temple accused of infidelity, and finally demonstrate that nothing happened.  How many barren couples would go to all that emotionally-torturous effort?

The truth is, to imagine anyone would want to submit themselves voluntarily to such torment is ridiculous.  What Rabbi Akiva is really saying is as follows: If you believe that a barren woman could magically become pregnant, then you believe in miracles.  And if you believe in miracles, then the way to conceive is to unceasingly cry out to G-d in earnest prayer, to dedicate and rededicate yourself to His service, and to have the unwavering faith that He will answer you. 

The problem is most people aren’t willing to make the effort that would change nature.  You want a supernatural response?  It takes superhuman effort.  And very few are up for the task. 

Of course, nowadays, we don’t live in the Temple times of clear and open miracles.  Miracles certainly still occur on a daily basis, but the switching of the natural order doesn’t necessarily happen.  And so, much as we must never stop hoping and praying, you must never think that G-d forbid if someone is suffering it means they haven’t prayed hard enough.  We cannot fathom Heaven’s ways.

Nevertheless, the lesson in terms of our own physical efforts is always true.  When it comes to natural pursuits, if you make the effort you will be successful.  Guaranteed.  While everyone wants to be successful, and almost everyone knows what it takes to be successful, unfortunately the vast majority of people are not willing to do what it takes and will not become successful.  May you recognize the necessary steps to achieve success in all your endeavours and take them!  

A parent always forgives

Daf Yomi Sotah 25

King David loved his son Avshalom.  But he was a wicked, rebellious son.  It all began when his half-brother, Amnon, violated his sister, Tamar.  Avshalom was tormented by the attack on his dear sister, and finally decided that her desecration could not go unpunished.  In the midst of feasting and merrymaking, he had Amnon slain.  When King David heard about the death of his son at the hands of another son, he was devastated.  He banished Avshalom, refusing him entry into the city of Jerusalem.

Nevertheless, with the intercession of David’s close advisor, Yoav, Avshalom was finally permitted to re-enter the city, but without access to the king’s presence.  Finally, three years later, David had pity on his son and decided to forgive him completely.  Overwhelmed with the love a father has for his son no matter what crimes he has perpetrated, he agreed to meet with him.  Sadly, the feelings were not mutual and thus began Avshalom’s famous revolt. . .

Rabbi Yoshiya taught: Zaeera, a resident of Jerusalem, told me three things: A husband who regrets his accusations against his wife may take them back.  A rebellious sage may be forgiven by the beth din.  And a ben sorer umoreh (rebellious child) whose parents wish to pardon is pardoned.
Rashi explains: The parents warned their child not to misbehave and he disobeyed and was punished by the court.  He then repeat the offense.  At that point, the parents may either bring him to the court to be executed or pardon him.  The Torah’s words, “and they shall grab him” grants them the ultimate authority.

The Torah’s account of the ben sorer umoreh is powerful and scary.  Here is a child who was gluttonous and guzzled wine and was clearly headed down the wrong path.  The Torah declares that it is better to execute him now rather than watch him grow up to become a wicked adult.  Even though his current misdemeanours are minor, we see where it’s going and put a stop to it before it gets out of hand. 

But is that fair?  He really hasn’t done anything yet that would warrant capital punishment!  How many innocent children were executed on the basis of what might have occurred down the road?  The answer, our Sages tell us, is zero.   It never happened.  Not once in the entire history of the Sanhedrin.  

Why not?  Presumably there were many kids who discovered their parents’ liquor stash and started down the wrong path!  Why was there not a single execution ever reported? 

The answer is in our Gemara.  No matter how bad your kid is, are you seriously going to choose to have them executed?  Which parent does that?  The fact that the parents gets to determine the fate of their rebellious child means that the entire focus of this Torah law has nothing to do with the kid.  It’s about the parent’s responsibility.  The Torah is essentially saying: if your kid is acting like this, you’d better wake up and start doing a bit of better parenting; otherwise he’s going to end up in a pretty bad place as an adult.

So, of course every single parent who ever had a rebellious child pardoned their kid.  Even King David, whose son was not just a murderer, but a perpetrator of fratricide, forgave his son!  And if every human parent found it in their heart to forgive, how much more so, does our Father in Heaven always forgive and pardon us for our misdeeds. 

You might think you’ve strayed way too far from your relationship with Him and there’s no point trying to reconnect anymore.  Says the Talmud: Your Father not only has the power to forgive, but every single parent throughout history has always forgiven!  And so, certainly our Father will most definitely forgive whatever it is you have done.

Your Father in Heaven loves you more than you could ever imagine.  He will always forgive, no matter how far you’ve strayed from His presence.  The execution of the rebellious child never happened and wil never happen.  May you have the courage to fall into your Father’s arms and accept His all-forgiving embrace!  

Friday, 20 November 2015

Are your demons king over you?

Daf Yomi Sotah 24

Ever read Koheles (Ecclesiastes)?  “Vanity and nothingness; everything is empty. . . “ Pretty depressing, right?  There’s got to be some background story to it all!  Our Sage explain that Shlomo Hamelech composed the Megillah when he was at his lowest point.  After a few bad spiritual moves in his life, the arch-demon, Ashmedai, deposed him from the throne and took his place, impersonating the king.   And so, for a period of time, Shlomo was exiled and spent his days begging door-to-door, with nothing but his cloak and his staff.

The Maharal explains that he wasn’t literally dethroned.  A demon did not literally stand in for him as an impostor king.  Rather, our Sages are explaining King Shlomo’s state of mind at that point.  He was so down that he might as well have been out on the street begging.  Only with the guidance of the Sanhedrin was he able to pull himself out of his depression and regain his lofty spiritual stature.  But the episode taught him an important lesson that he conveyed to us for all time: all the money and prestige in the world is meaningless unless one has the right spiritual frame of mind.

The Torah states, “A man, a man, whose wife shall stray.”
Beraisa: Why does the Torah repeat ‘a man’? It comes to include the wife of a deaf-mute, the wife of a madman, and the wife of a confused man.
Rashi explains the meaning of confused: He is stricken with confounding of the heart.

Confounding of the heart is one of the terrible afflictions mentioned in the curses of the Book of Devarim.  What exactly is it?  Rabbeinu Meyuchas describes the condition as the inability to move due to heaviness of the heart.  Today, we have a name for the condition: depression.  

If the Beraisa has already mentioned the madman, why the need to mention the depressed man?  Because, in a certain way, depression is much worse than insanity.   You can be a little meshuga, but still accomplish a great deal.   But when you’re depressed, you end up doing nothing and achieving nothing.

Those were the ‘exiled’ years of Shlomo Hamelech.  He may not have been literally, physically exiled.  But he was going through such a spiritual and emotional low that he might as well not have been there physically.  Sure, his body was present, but his depressed mind was trapped, wallowing in its own sorrow.

There is a Chasidic aphorism that teaches that there is one thing that is not a mitzvah, but is more powerful than any mitzvah; and there is one thing that is not a sin, but is worse than any sin.  What is greater than any mitzvah?  Joy.  What is worse than any sin?  Depression.   Why?  Because when you are in a joyous state, you can conquer the world; you can accomplish anything you put your mind to.  But when you are sad and depressed, even the simplest of tasks, like getting dressed in the morning, feels like you’re carrying a ton of bricks.

Some forms of clinical depression are beyond the ability of a person to cure on their own and one must seek professional help; we’re not talking about those chemical imbalances.  In most other cases of general day-to-day depression, the mood is often self-inflicted. Something’s gone awry in your life, it didn’t quite go the way you planned or expected – and all of a sudden, you shut down.

That initial reaction sometimes can’t be helped.  After all, you’re human.  It’s what you do after that that determines how much of a gibor (hero) you are.  Pirkei Avot teaches, “Who is a hero?  One who conquers his inclination.”  Your inclination at that point is to wallow in your defeat, getting more and more depressed about the conversation that didn’t go your way, the business that fell through, the grades you didn’t get.

The gibor beats his inclination and says: I refuse to be defeated.  I am not going to have my heart confounded with self-pity.  I am strong.  I am powerful.  I will not spiral down headfirst into depression.  The power to rise again is in my hands alone.

You are a gibor!  You have so much to accomplish in this world!  You can’t afford to waste a day or a week feeling sorry for yourself; there’s just too much to do in your short mission on Earth!  Like Shlomo Hamelech, you will conquer your demons and restore yourself to the throne: if you know it will happen eventually, why wait?  Let it be now!  You have way too much potential to hold back your success for even a moment of ‘feeling down’-time!

Depression is worse than insanity.  The more you feel sorry for yourself, the deeper you are allowing your inclination to push you down into the pit of failure.  May you merit being a gibor and never wasting a moment of your mission in this world!

Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Never follow your nose

Daf Yomi Sotah 23

Imagine you’ve just been swept into a fast-running river.  You’re crashing downstream, barely able to keep your head above water.  Suddenly you see a large tree protruding from the riverbank.  You reach out and miraculously are able to grab onto it.  You’re holding on with all your might, knowing that should you lose your grip for just a moment, you will be pulled into the rapids and won’t make it out alive.  But it’s hard to keep holding on.  You’re crying out for help, struggling to hold on, feeling your fingers loosening . . .

Rabbi Eliezer taught: (If you got confused) you should not raise it up for a pleasant aroma, but you may raise it up for trees. 
Rashi explains: If one confused animal parts from a chatas offering (which should be eaten by the donor) with an olah offering (which must be completely burned on the altar), Rabbi Eliezer says you may burn the mixture on the altar; and we consider the chatas parts, not as sacrificial (G-d’s “pleasant aroma”), but as equivalent to tree-wood that is present to fuel the fire.

The world we live in is very confusing.  The Zohar calls it an alma d’shikra – a world of falsehood and illusion.  It is very easy to lose one’s way as we try to navigate our path.

When faced with the confusion of this world, Rabbi Eliezer gives us a simple piece of advice: don’t follow your nose.   Aromas are deceiving.  You can have the vilest of person who sprays on a little cologne and suddenly smells like the Garden of Eden.   Smells are even less of an indicator of internal quality than looks.  Sadly, most people seek to satisfy themselves with the pleasant aroma – with the sweet-smelling artificialities this world has to offer.  But, as our Sages teach us “raicha lav milsa hi” – smells are meaningless.  

How do you raise up your life?  With the trees, says Rabbi Eliezer.  The key to a meaningful sojourn on Earth is to seek out the Tree of Life.  We are all familiar with the famous dictum of King Solomon.  The Torah, “she is a tree of life for those who hold on to it and those who support it are happy;” we recite the verse when we return the Torah to the Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark). 

How do we grasp the Tree of Life?  In the Nefesh Hachaim, Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin offers the analogy of being swept into the rushing river.  He teaches that the secret to success in this world is to constantly keep this parable in mind.  If a person would only imagine that letting go of the tree would mean instant death by drowning, he would never relax his grip for even a moment! 

Why is it called the Tree of Life?  The Tiferes Yisrael explains the verse in Bereishis where Hashem notes that eating from the tree would enable Adam and Eve to “live forever.”  Torah provides eternal life.  Life in this world.  Life in Heaven.  And life in the World to Come.  It is the ultimate elixir of immortality.

It’s not easy to keep hanging on when the forces of this world are pulling you away from that life-saving branch.  May you merit a grip that gets stronger and stronger as you make your way through life!

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

Who gets to decide if climate change is real?

Daf Yomi Sotah 22

This evening, I gave a shiur on climate change.  It was a response to Pope Francis’s Laudato Si encyclical.  I examined each argument he made, pointing out the relevant sources in the Talmud.   Strikingly, whereas the Pope offered his feelings on the issues, in Judaism we can produce hard texts and sources for everything.  It’s not up to our thoughts and opinions; every issue has Talmudic precedent to rely upon, from which we derive our contemporary responses.  Some sources agreed with the Pope’s positions, others did not.  The main thing, however, is that we have source-material for every issue and we can determine contemporary halachic ruling based on the text.

Beraisa: Mishnah reciters destroy the world.
The Gemara asks:  Could you think they actually destroy the world?
Ravina explains: They make halachic rulings based on the simple text of the Mishnah.
Rabbi Abahu quoted Rav Huna in the name of Rav: What is the meaning of the verse in Proverbs, “For she has cast down many victims and great are the ones she has slain?”   “For she has cast down many victims” refers to a Torah scholar who has not reached the level to issue halachic rulings and he nonetheless issues such rulings.  “And great are the ones she has slain” refers to a Torah scholar who has reached the level required to issue halachic rulings and fails to step up and give halachic rulings.

Despite my wonderful shiur on climate change, in reality it has no bearing on halacha whatsoever.  I picked a few precedents that looked similar to the questions at hand.  But the truth is, who am I to determine that I am drawing the correct parallels and issuing the right halachic decisions?

Our halachic system is complex.   Very few individuals in each generation have the halachic mastery and wisdom to issue halachic rulings.  We might all be able to ‘recite the Mishnah,’ but most of us do not have the knowledge, experience, or insight to make a precise determination.  Just because something in the classic texts looks similar to a contemporary issue does not guarantee that the linear connection may be drawn.  There are often ‘meta-halachic’ issues at play that are way beyond the average rabbi’s paygrade.

Unfortunately, the attitudes of many today are worse than ever.  Every little person who has learned a bit of Talmud and Shulchan Aruch believes that they can innovate in halacha based on the parallels they have drawn.  It really is not that simple.  On the contrary, it is hubris to believe that you can issue irregular halachic rulings based on limited information. 

So who gets to issue new halachic rulings?  Who should we rely on?  A good rule of thumb is if a rabbi is expert in every area of halacha, he can probably be relied upon in specific areas.  The rabbi whose sole area of expertise is the issue that he has built his life’s activism around is really not a good source of halachic authority.  Unless one is expert in the entire halachic system, one does not have the capability of issuing psak (halachic rulings), other than what is clear in the Mishnah Berurah (commentary on the Shulchan Aruch).

We can all offer ideas, the likes of the shiur that I gave today.  But to draw conclusions and act upon them, it takes the true halachic giants of each generation.  They understand how halacha works and they are expert in all areas of halacha, not just the parts they choose to be passionate about.

Maintaining the integrity of the halachic system is not a simple task.  We are blessed to have the likes of a “Shmuel” or two in each generation whose advice we are tasked to heed.  May you merit the humility to address your halachic queries to those who are true halachic masters! 

Monday, 16 November 2015

Do we have guardian angels?

Daf Yomi Sotah 21

A fellow is walking along the street and he hears a voice. “Stop, or you will be injured!” He stops and sure enough a brick comes hurtling down from the top of a construction site nearby.   He walks a little further, is about to cross the street, and the voice booms again, “Stop, or you will be run over.”  He halts in his tracks and sure enough, a car comes speeding around the corner; had he crossed, that would have been the end of him.

The fellow looks up and says, “Who are you?”
The voice replies, “I am your guardian angel.”
“Oh yeah?” responds the fellow, “Where were you before I got married?”

The following did Rabbi Menachem son of Yossi expound: “For the mitzvah is a lamp and Torah is light.”  The verse identifies mitzvos with a lamp and Torah with light; mitzvos are compared to a lamp to tell you that just as a lamp only protects temporarily, so the fulfilment of a mitzvah only protects temporarily; Torah is compared to light to tell you that just as light protects permanently, so Torah protects permanently; and it states: “When you walk it shall lead you . . .” “When you walk it shall lead you” means in this world; “when you sleep it shall watch over you” means in death; and “when you awake it shall talk with you” means in the Messianic era.   
It may be compared to a man who is walking in the middle of the night and darkness, and is afraid of thorns, pits, thistles, wild beasts and robbers, and also does not know which path he is taking.  If a lighted torch is prepared for him, he is saved from the thorns, pits and thistles; but he is still afraid of wild beasts and robbers, and does not know which path he is taking. When dawn breaks, he is saved from the danger of wild beasts and robbers, but still does not know which path he is taking. When, however, he reaches the crossroads, he is saved from everything.
Rashi explains: Mitzvos provide a torch in the darkness, but only protect the person from specific dangers.  Torah is like the light of day which protects a person from sin and pain.  One still does not know which path he is taking, since throughout one’s lifetime, he runs the risk of the yetzer hara (bad inclination) overpowering him and removing him from Torah study.  Only once he reaches the crossroads of death can he know that he is out of danger.

Do we believe that a human being may be guided by a guardian angel?  In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov teaches that each of us has not just one guardian angel, but many!  Every time you do a mitzvah, you create an angel that protects you from harm.  Here the Talmud teaches us that, your guardian angel is so powerful that it is like a torch that lights up the night!

Nevertheless, as powerful as mitzvah angels are, they can only provide so much protection.  True, they light up the night; but the night is still a dangerous time to travel.  The ultimate protection from danger is provided by the Torah.

Torah study is like a shield, a force-field that surrounds you making you impenetrable!  You don’t need to hold on to a torch, you are surrounded by light all around you.  Certain dangers only lurk at night; during the day they simply disappear!

Why is Torah so powerful?  Because Torah gives you the tools to navigate life.  While everyone else is groping in the darkness of uncertainty, when you learn Torah and live by its principles, everything becomes crystal clear.  You know where you are going.  You know the purpose and meaning of life.  There is never a dull moment – a moment that you do not know what you should be doing – every spare second is directed towards gaining greater spiritual wisdom.

You can never go wrong when you are constantly immersed in Torah.   Life is as bright as day.  The only challenge is to maintain that level of certainty until you reach the crossroads between this world and the next.  As our Sages teach us, this world is but a hallway where we are to prepare ourselves for the palace in the World to Come!

This world is a dangerous place, physically and spiritually.  At times, it seems so dark and uncertain.  May you surround yourself with the force-field of Torah and forever perceive life as bright as the midday sun!  

Sunday, 15 November 2015

Why the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper

Daf Yomi Sotah 20

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi’s greatest wish was to meet Eliyahu Hanavi.  One day, his prayers were answered and so he asked the prophet if he could accompany him on his earthly missions.  “On one condition,” replied Eliyahu, “that you ask no questions.”  The rabbi agreed and they set out together.

Their first stop was a run-down shack by the side of the road, home to an elderly couple who eked out a meager living from an old cow that would give them milk.  They knocked on the door and asked if they could spend the night.  The elderly couple welcomed them with open arms.  In the middle of the night, Eliyahu arose and killed the cow.  The prophet and the rabbi then departed.   Rabbi Yehoshua was stunned but knew that he was forbidden to utter a word.

The next stop was a huge mansion.  Here they too knocked on the door and were brought to the wealthy owner.  They asked to spend the night and he begrudgingly allowed them to sleep on a stone bench in the backyard.   His servants had been working on repairing a broken wall.  Lo and behold, in the middle of the night, Eliyahu arose and repaired the wall singlehandedly.  “This is preposterous,” thought Rabbi Yehoshua, but he knew he could say not a word to the prophet.

They next arrived at a town of inhospitable, mean people.  As they left, Eliyahu blessed them that they should have many great leaders.  The final stop was a friendly town, where everyone offered them food and lodging.  Eliyahu blessed them that they have one leader.  At this point, Rabbi Yehoshua could contain himself no longer.   “I realize that I cannot journey on with you,” he said to Eliyahu, “but seeing all these injustices is too much to bear.  Praytell the meaning and we shall part company.”

Eliyahu replied, “The first home we visited, the wife was destined to die the next day.  That would have in turn killed the husband.  I beseeched the Heavenly court to take the cow instead.  In due course, they will recover from their temporary loss of income and spend their final years in peace and tranquility together.  The second home we visited, I repaired the wall, because had the servants continued to dig into the foundations, they would have found a large treasure that the miser did not deserve to find. 

We then visited two villages that exhibited opposite demeanors; and I, in turn, offered them opposite blessings.  The first were cruel people and so I blessed them with multiple leaders, because ‘many captains sink the ship.’  The nice people of the second town I blessed with a single leader who would lead them united to success and happiness!”  And with that, Eliyahu disappeared and Rabbi Yehoshua walked home knowing that he had learned the greatest lesson of all: the Almighty is righteous in all His ways.

When the sotah drinks the bitter waters, and she has some external merit, her punishment is suspended.   Some merits suspend for a year, other merits suspend for two years, still others suspend for three years.
Ben Azai says: A father is obligated to teach his daughter Torah, so that if she should ever drink the bitter waters, she will know that sometimes an external merit will suspend her punishment.

Why do the wicked prosper?  That question has been asked by philosophers and laymen for thousands of years.  It is the classic question of theodicy: if G-d is righteous, why would he allow bad people to have success and reward? 

There are many unfathomable answers to the question, as Rabbi Yehoshua discovered on his journey with Eliyahu Hanavi.  But the answer offered implicitly by the sotah narrative is that nobody is completely meritless.  Even the wickedest individuals have positive aspects and some good deeds.  Mitzvos (good deeds) and aveiros (sins) do not cancel one another out.  If you have earned merit, you will be rewarded, despite whatever bad you have committed.  And conversely, if you have sinned, you will be punished, despite whatever merit you have accrued.

And so when the disloyal woman drinks the bitter waters, they do not activate immediately, since she still no doubt has many merits for which she is deserving of Heavenly reward.   Ben Azai insists that we teach all our children this powerful lesson, lest they see people who appear to be wicked prospering and conclude that the Torah’s promises of reward and punishment are inaccurate.   Only once you understand that Heaven may delay reward or punishment while other factors are taken into account, can you begin to accept that G-d is truly in control and His ways are perfect.

There is a competing opinion in the Mishnah to Ben Azai’s position.  According to Rabbi Eliezer, one should not teach this idea to our children.  Because it is dangerous.  If you know that G-d will reward you for your merits and the reward is not cancelled out by bad behaviour, you might tell yourself that it’s okay to sin – just as long as you have a lot of merit to counterbalance and carry you through life.  In other words, the knowledge that G-d always rewards you for merits may lead to sinful behaviour, if you abuse that information.

The belief in reward and punishment is fundamental to Judaism.  But there’s no way of knowing how G-d works and metes out to the deserving and undeserving.  May you merit serving Heaven wholeheartedly, without any expectation of reward; and may you never question G-d’s justice and righteousness, for His ways are perfect!

Transform your warts into flowers!

Daf Yomi Sotah 19

Ehud ben Gera had a short right hand that appeared so crippled that it was unusable.  In the time of the early Judges, Israel was under the rule of Moav and life was very difficult.  King Eglon would tax them something terrible and senselessly oppress them.  In an effort to stay in his good favour, one day the leaders decided to send him a special tribute.  They chose Ehud, for he was a righteous, yet humble man.

Ehud set off on his mission, but secretly hid a sword by his right thigh, knowing that he would pass without suspicion and inspection.  Arriving at the king, he asked that everyone in the court be sent out so that he could deliver a special message from the Children of Israel.  Once alone with the king, Ehud pulled out his sword and thrust it into Eglon’s fleshy body, hastily leaving with no one the wiser.  After that incredible incident, Israel lived in peace for eighty years.

Concerning the bitter sotah waters, the Torah states, “He shall inscribe these curses on parchment and then scratch them off into the bitter waters. . . The cohen shall scoop out the meal-offering . . . and afterwards he shall give the woman the water to drink.  And he shall give her the water to drink . . .”
Rabbi Shimon asks:  Why does the Torah repeat that the cohen must give her to drink?
He answers: ‘Afterwards’ comes to teach that it must take place after all the other rituals, which means that the non-performance of three rituals impedes the drinking.  He must first scoop out the meal-offering; he must first scratch off the letters from the scroll; and she must first accept the oath.
The Gemara asks: If he has not yet scratched off the letters, what would he give her to drink?
Rav Ashi answers: We mean that the mark of the writing is still visible.
Rashi explains: He must continue scratching until there is no mark of the letters left.

Imagine this piece of parchment.  The cohen has scratched off the letters into the bitter waters.  But now Rabbi Shimon teaches that it is not sufficient to merely scratch of the ink; there can be no mark remaining on the parchment.  The indentation that was caused when the cohen pressed down as he wrote must also be erased.  So he continues to scratch off more parchment until you cannot tell that there was ever a letter aleph there at all.

But what are you left with on the parchment?  A major blotch of scratch mark.  Sure, on the one hand you cannot tell what letter was originally present; but on the other hand, you are not left with a clean slate of parchment.  Instead, you now have a scratchy blotch on the parchment.

Life if full of ups and downs.  Some bad experiences in life we would rather not remember.  And so we turn to all different methods to rid ourselves of our demons – from psychotherapy to medication to meditation.  With the right treatment and advice, you may be able to erase those letters from your parchment.  You may be able to exorcise the demons from within.

But you cannot change your past.  If you keep scratching away until the mark of the letters is no longer visible, you will be left instead with a great big blotch mark.  You see, the Almighty gives us certain experiences in life to enable us to grow and become stronger.  If life had no challenges, there would be no purpose in being here in this world.  We could remain in Heaven as bodiless souls.

Ehud ben Gera could have spent his life feeling sorry for himself, thinking of himself as a cripple, unable to live life to the max.  But he never thought of himself that way.  He wasn’t disabled; he was a healthy person with a challenge to his physique.  The question he always would ponder was why G-d had created him different – what special mission did He have in store for him?  And one day, he discovered why he was fashioned ‘special’ by the Creator.  Only he could save Israel from Moav.

You are here to survive what life throws at you and become more powerful for it.  You are who you are today because of all the trials and tribulations you have undergone.  Some of them served simply to build your character; others were given to you to learn from and be able to help others deal with similar issues. 

Maybe you had a difficult upbringing: parents who died young or were, G-d forbid, abusive.  Don’t try to erase the past; the mark will always be there.  Instead, realize that the Almighty has given you special insights to help children in need. 

Maybe you’re getting over a difficult divorce.  You want to forget everything that happened and erase that chapter from your life.  But perhaps Heaven has given you that challenge to gain greater insight into human nature and be able to help bring shalom to your community and society.

Nothing in life happens for naught.  Your mission is to take the mark that is left from your ordeals and figure out how to transform it into positive energy.  May you embrace your mission and transform your warts into flowers to make this world a better place!

Saturday, 14 November 2015

First impressions may be deceiving

Daf Yomi Sotah 18

We all know the power of first impressions.  Studies have shown that most people will judge new acquaintances they meet in the first twenty-seven seconds.  Looks, of course, are a major determinant, as is strength of handshake, tone of voice and the shape of your mouth when you smile.  Unfortunately, as the adage goes, ‘You don’t get a second chance to make a first impression.’ 

But the more important piece of advice, our Sages teach, is ‘Do not look at the flask; rather what is inside,’ the Talmudic equivalent of ‘Don’t just a book by its cover.’  This advice is becoming more and more challenging to follow, as we live in a world where we are bombarded with imagery of the perfect human being.  It’s no wonder that fewer people are finding their basherte (intended) in this world – we are taught to seek instantly perfect people!

Concerning the procedure for the preparation of the sotah’s bitter waters, the Torah declares, “And he (the cohen) shall inscribe these curses upon parchment and then erase them into the bitter waters.”
Gemara: If he wrote one letter and then erased one letter, and wrote another letter and erased it, it is invalid, for the verse states, “And the cohen shall do to her all of this Torah.” 

Some people approach our Jewish tradition with a narrow-minded, first-impression tactic.  They’ll examine Torah and mitzvos, letter by letter and erase and discard whatever they don’t find conducive to their lives and attitudes.

That is a completely invalid approach, says the Talmud!  You can’t look at our holy heritage letter by letter.  If you want to appreciate Judaism, you must look at “all of this Torah.”  Singling out one mitzvah here or one teaching there, and deciding that you don’t like it is a meaningless exercise.  Only once you’ve taken a good look at the entire corpus of Judaism can you make an honest and sincere decision about your relationship with Heaven.

The same goes for learning Torah.  When you first start learning Gemara, it seems so irrelevant and pedantic.  Only once you’ve started to get a grip on more material do you begin to see the whole picture.  And it’s even true for more accessible parts of Torah like Chumash or Mishnah.  When you take individual “letters” out of context and scrutinize them under a microscope, they don’t make a lot of sense.  You’re liable to give up on your Torah study.  But when you work hard and persevere, eventually everything falls into place.

And of course, it’s the case with the people we encounter in life.  Pirkei Avot teaches that we should not be dismissive of anyone, “for there is no man who does not have his hour.”  Oftentimes, we don’t appreciate people immediately.  We judge them on first appearances.  If we would just take a little time to get to know them and discover the full picture, we would welcome them with open arms!

Especially if you’re at the stage of your life when you are looking for your basherte, don’t fall into the trap of ‘writing a letter and erasing a letter,’ that is, picking people apart trait by trait.  You should be looking at the entire package.  First impressions are important; but if you’re basing your opinion only on the first twenty-seven seconds, you are almost guaranteed to miss your basherte, G-d forbid!

For every encounter in life, make sure you’re seeing the whole picture.  Don’t let first impressions lead you to miss out on important people and matters.  May you appreciate every person you meet, and our holy heritage, by taking a really good look!