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Sunday, 21 August 2016

Rabbanit's Challah

Daf Yomi Bava Kama 82

Ask anyone who has tasted the Rabbanit’s Challah, and they will tell you that it’s the most delicious they’ve ever savoured.  But it wasn’t always like that.  For years, Batya didn’t have much success.  She tried this recipe and that recipe, but all to no avail.  Eventually she came up with a fabulous bobomayse: the sea level pressure in Edmonton combined with the dryness of the air were simply poor ingredients for bread-making. 

That was her story and she was sticking to it.  Until one day, she decided to give it another shot.  What prompted her renewed effort was the sorry state of affairs at our weekly shul shaleshudos (afternoon Shabbos meal).  You see, the challah was always stale, and the new trend was for people to leave shul and go home for the meal.  Unfortunately, that often meant that they didn’t return for Maariv (evening service).

Rabbanit to the rescue.  Determined to ensure we had a stable Maariv minyan, she set out afresh to bake challah, both for the house and the shul.  Lo and behold – admittedly along with a new and improved recipe – the challah turned out exceptional!  And that is the (okay, maybe a little dramatized!) story of the Rabbanit’s Challah

Ezra the Scribe enacted ten ordinances.  The sixth: He instituted that a woman should get up early to bake bread.
Why?  So that the bread would be ready for the poor.
Rashi explains: On days that she is baking, she should start early enough in the day to ensure the bread is ready in time for the paupers who come to the door.

Most people go through life only thinking about themselves.  I’m hungry, so let me bake some bread.   It doesn’t make you selfish – chances are you’re also baking for your spouse and kids.  Maybe even your parents.  But what about others beyond your personal ‘daled amos’ (private sphere)? 

Ezra’s question to his new countrymen was, how much effort would it take to throw in an extra couple of cups of flour for the needy?  He knew that if he wanted to build a great country, he had to begin by building a great society.  And so his message to the matriarch baking for her family was, how about you get up a couple of hours earlier, throw in those extra cups of flour, and be able to have fresh bread ready when the beggar comes to your door?  Suddenly you are serving society with relatively little additional effort!

Let me tell you about one family I know that excels in this regard.  Rabbi Moshe and Rebbetzin Miriam White of the Edmonton Kollel have (kene hora) a sizable family.  And so each week, the rebbetzin bakes up a storm for Shabbos.  But she doesn’t stop there.  She says to herself: If I’m already baking, let me throw in another bag or two of flour (not just a cup or two!) for people who might not otherwise have Shabbos.  And with that, she bakes another dozen loaves and delivers them to the Israeli kioskniks at West Edmonton Mall! 

You might not have the dedication of a Miriam White, but there are always little ways that you can benefit others once you’re already in the zone.  You’re already out shopping.  Would it break the bank if you threw an extra can of beans into your shopping cart to deposit into the food bank bin at the front of the supermarket?  You’re on the way to a simcha (celebration) – who can you think of that might need a ride?  You’re taking your kid to a birthday party – which of their friends would appreciate a ride?  Don’t wait for them to call you; you’re going anyway, pick up the phone and offer to pick them up!

Most mitzvah opportunities don’t cost a cent.  All it takes is a little thought beyond your immediate daled amos.  May you always think of others and the abundant opportunities you have to build a G-dly society on Earth!  

Stealing from the Poor

Daf Yomi Bava Kama 81

The tzedaka (charity) collectors in Bartosa had a problem.  Whenever they saw Rabbi Elazar they would be forced to run the other way.  Why?  Every last penny that he had on him, he would insist on giving away to the poor!  On one occasion, Rabbi Elazar was off to purchase a bridal dowry for his daughter.  But lo and behold, on the way, he bumped into the collectors.  Before they could stop him, he had thrust the entire amount into their hands and escaped into the distance. 

But now, what of the dowry?  All he could afford to buy was a single stalk of wheat, which he duly placed into his silo, in advance of the upcoming wedding.   When the big day arrived, his daughter went to claim her wheat stalk.  To her great surprise, she was unable to open the door.  A miracle had occurred – the Almighty multiplied that one stalk into hundreds of thousands of pieces of wheat.  So great was the overabundance that the door would not open! 
“See how the Almighty treats His beloved!” she declared incredulously.

King Solomon said: One may take a short-cut through another’s property.  As it was taught: If a person completed the harvesting of his field, and yet blocks entry to others into his field, what do they say about him?  What benefit does he get from denying us access through his property?  In what way is anyone causing him harm?  Concerning him, the verse states, “When you could be good, do not be called bad.”
The Gemara asks: Does Scripture really state, “When you could be good, do not be called bad?”
The Gemara answers: Indeed, it states something similar.  The Proverbs declare, “Do not withhold good from its owners, when you have the power to do it.” 

The Proverbs teach that one may not withhold good “from its owners.”  What does that mean?  In our case, the people who want to take a short-cut through the field don’t own it, it belongs to the farmer!  If he chooses to allow them to cross, isn’t he doing them a favour out of the goodness of his heart?

In Pirkei Avos we learn, “Rabbi Elazar of Bartosa says: Give Him of His, for you and yours are His.”  On a simple level, Rabbi Elazar is teaching that when you give tzedaka, you shouldn’t have the attitude that you are giving away your personal hard-earned cash.  No, it all belongs to G-d.  He gave you the money, He continues to be the true Owner of that money, and He is instructing you to give it away to the poor.  The right attitude to tzedaka is to constantly acknowledge that it’s not your money.

But the Lev Avos deepens our obligation to the poor based on the verse in Proverbs.  He explains: When the Almighty provides sustenance to the world, He creates exactly enough to go around.  The only catch is that He doesn’t initially apportion it to whom it truly belongs.  Some people get more than their fair share, others get less.  It is the responsibility of those who received more to redistribute the funds to their rightful owners.  And so the meaning of the Mishnah is: Give him – the poor person – that which is his!

In other words, when you give tzedaka, you’re not giving away your personal money to the poor.  You’re not even giving away G-d’s money to His children.  You’re redistributing the funds to their rightful owners!  If you were to hang onto it, it would be almost as if you were stealing from the poor.  The Almighty prepared exactly enough to go around; why are you hoarding wealth that is someone else’s due?!  And now we understand the verse, “Do not withhold good from its owners!”

That is the meaning of our Gemara.  Hashem placed exactly the right amount of His chen (favour) into this world to bring joy and blessing to all His children.  This farmer has completed his harvest and stands nothing to lose by allowing others to traverse his property.  That potential benefit is not his; it’s theirs.  And so by denying access, he’s not withholding something that belongs to him; he’s stealing Heavenly bounty from its rightful owners!

When you do good to others, you’re not doing them a favour; you’re giving them what is due to them!  Whether it’s tzedaka that you are giving or other forms of assistance – from a kind word to a helping hand, or even just a smile – the Almighty has already destined them to be the recipients of His bounty.  In fact, if you were to withhold that smile, you would be stealing their joy! 

In every situation in this world, Hashem created givers and receivers.  If you are fortunate enough that He created you a giver, don’t abuse your gift!  You have a duty to redirect Heaven’s bounty to its rightful owners.  The more successful you are at that redistribution, the more the Almighty will entrust you with His bounty.  That’s the meaning of our Sages’ dictum on the verse, “You shall surely tithe” – when you tithe surely, you will prosper! 

Don’t ever take the Almighty’s blessing for granted.  Some of it you were meant to keep.  The excess, however, was only given to you because He knows that you are better at handling money than a lot of other people.  May you handle Heaven’s bounty wisely!  

Friday, 19 August 2016

Open Sesame

Daf Yomi Bava Kama 80

Mar bar Rav Ashi was once standing in the Mechuza market when he heard someone prophesy, “The new Rosh Yeshiva (head of the academy) in Mechasya signs his name: Tavyumi.”
“Hey, that’s me!” he said to himself and off he went to Mechasya. 
Meanwhile, they were about to install Rav Acha of Difti as the Rosh Yeshiva.  When they heard Rav Ashi was in town, they sent a pair of rabbis to confirm their decision.  But he wouldn’t let them leave and so the yeshiva sent another pair.  Once again, he kept them from returning. 
The yeshiva board kept sending pairs of rabbis until they were ten in total.  At that point, Mar began expounding the law.  Sure enough, they were so impressed that they decided to install him as the Rosh Yeshiva, instead of Rav Acha.

Rav Acha bar Papa taught: A door of success that closes does not quickly reopen.
The Gemara asks: What is the meaning of this dictum?
Rashi explains the query: How hard must one pray for the door to reopen?
Rav Ashi answers: When one experiences challenges to success, it’s not easy to reopen closed doors and reignite the good fortune.
Rav Acha of Difti answers: One never again receives good fortune.
The Gemara responds: That’s not true!  Rav Acha of Difti was talking merely about his personal experience.

Often in life the door to a successful opportunity will close in our faces.  We wish, we hope, we pray that it will reopen and we’ll get another chance.  But, as the Gemara teaches, a closed door doesn’t reopen very easily.  Rav Acha spent his whole life praying that the door to the Rosh Yeshiva position would reopen, but alas, to no avail; causing him to conclude that once the door to success has slammed shut, one’s good fortune in life is over.

But the Almighty has no shortage of doors to open for you.  When He closes one door, it’s because He knows that it’s not the best path for your life.  Sure, you could wish, and hope, and pray for that door to reopen.  But it won’t reopen very easily, and Hashem is effectively telling you that He has better doors to open in your life.  Instead of focusing all your attention on this one opportunity that He knows is not your destiny, start expanding your horizon to see which new doors He is holding open for you! 

How many times do we look back and realize that the doors that closed were the best thing that could have happened to our lives?  Partners that were not for us.  Jobs that were going nowhere.  Investment opportunities that ended up mediocre.  At the time, those closed door seemed like the worst punishment.  You were so disappointed.  You felt like all your efforts were for naught.  And now, looking back and thinking about the alternate doors that opened, you can’t believe you were ever so fixated on that single opportunity!

Unfortunately, Rav Acha of Difti spent the rest of his life trying to pry open a door that the Almighty knew wasn’t the right destination for his personal mission.  Meanwhile, who knows how many other doors to success he failed to notice had opened all around him? 

When one door closes, trust in Hashem to open many more doors.  May the wrong doors in your life close as quickly as possible and may you recognize the right doors to enter!  

Thursday, 18 August 2016

Parking around the corner on Shabbos

Daf Yomi Bava Kama 79

The great Chasidic master, Reb Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev once saw a Jew greasing the wheels of his wagon while wearing tallis and tefillin and mumbling away his morning prayers.  Instead of rebuking him for trying to rush through the prayers and multitask at G-d’s expense, the Barditchever turned his eyes Heavenward and declared, “Master of the universe, look at how holy Your nation is!  They even grease the wheels of their wagons with tallis and tefillin on!”

The Torah states, “If a man steals an ox, or a sheep, and kills it, or sells it, he shall pay five oxen in place of the ox, and four sheep in place of the sheep.”
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai taught: Come see how great is human dignity!  For an ox that walked on its own feet, the thief must pay fivefold.  But for the sheep, which he needed to carry upon his shoulders, he pays but fourfold.
Rashi explains: The thief carried the sheep upon his shoulders thereby embarrassing himself.  Therefore, the Almighty is softer on his punishment.

Often in life we’re quick to judge others.  After all, you’re a good person.  You’re making the effort to serve G-d.  It’s not easy to stay on track.   And most other people don’t bother.   They do whatever they feel like.  Some people have total disregard for Torah!

And so your gut reaction is aversion.  There’s a certain natural disdain you have for people who don’t share your values and make the same effort for G-d as you do.

But look at the way Hashem treats a petty thief!  Yes, he stole.  But in spite of his crime, the Almighty is still concerned for his welfare!  This poor fellow had to actually pick up the sheep and carry it on his shoulders for a quick getaway.  How embarrassing must that have been for him?!?

That’s the attitude we must have toward people who are not quite as spiritually-driven as we are.  Instead of distancing them, we should be feeling for them.   It can be embarrassing to be around those who are more connected to Torah.  Don’t make them feel any more uncomfortable than they already might feel!

You know that guy who parks around the corner instead of driving right up to shul on Shabbos?  He deserves a medal.  How about the lady who reroutes her shopping cart down the alternate aisle in the supermarket so that you don’t see her non-kosher food purchases?  She is a hero.

Well maybe not quite medal-deserving heroes!  But instead of looking at them as hypocrites and thinking, ‘Who are they kidding?’ it’s time to switch your approach to a Divine attitude.  Hashem looks at these people and says, ‘Wow, they’re actually suffering embarrassment on account of their behaviour.  What incredibly holy souls!’

In life, there are always two sides to every coin.  No matter how inappropriately someone appears to be behaving, with the right attitude, you can feel compassion for them.  Reb Levi Yitzchak didn’t see a fellow who was degrading his prayers, he saw a man who was wearing tefillin even though he had to rush off to work!  Can you imagine how that fellow must have felt when the rabbi ‘caught’ him multitasking?  And yet Reb Levi Yitzchak immediately assuaged his embarrassment by finding something positive and encouraging in his actions.

You can always find positivity in every person and every situation.  If you can’t see it, stop judging the other person for their behaviour, and start judging yourself for your inability to be compassionate.  May you always see the overwhelming goodness in every individual!  

Monday, 11 July 2016

Standing up for Heaven's Honour

Daf Yomi Bava Kama 40

Prior to entering the land of Canaan, Moshe sends twelve spies to survey the routes and navigate the most expedient and strategic approach to the takeover.  Unfortunately, however, the spies overstep their authority; instead of returning with a military strategy, they present an entirely negative view of the Israelites’ ability to execute a successful conquest.

They’re in the midst of engendering a revolt against Moshe’s leadership, when suddenly one lone spy speaks up.  Calev declares, “If Hashem has desired us, He has brought us to this land and given it to us, a land flowing with milk and honey!  But do not rebel against Hashem and ye shall not fear the people of the land!”

What a risky move.  Calev, together with Moshe’s assistant Yehoshua, finds himself surrounded by angry Israelites holding rocks, ready to hurl at these optimists.  But at the eleventh hour, sure enough, they are saved, and Calev is promised a special portion in the land that he so courageously stood up for.  The other spies are punished immediately; and those who followed their skepticism are condemned to wandering for forty years, and ultimately perishing, in the wilderness.

The Rabbis taught: If one borrowed an ox assuming it to be tame, but it ended up being wild and causing damage, the owner must pay half the damages and the borrower must pay half the damages.
The Gemara asks: Why should the borrower pay anything?  He should simply say, ‘I borrowed an ox, I didn’t borrow a lion!’

Our Sages tell us, “One must always be like a yoked ox.”   An ox simply accepts the yoke placed upon it, no questions asked.  It goes along the path it is being directed upon, without veering to the right or to the left.

Likewise, we are enjoined to accept the yoke of Heaven upon ourselves and perform the bidding of our Master.  Sometimes we understand what we are doing; other times we put our head down and accept the will of our Creator.  In fact, according to the Kabbalists, the highest level of spiritual achievement is when we perform the ‘rational’ mitzvos with the same subservience to the will of G-d as we perform those mitzvos we don’t comprehend!

At the same time that we must be like an ox, however, Rabbi Yehuda ben Teima, in Pirkei Avos, instructs us that we must “be as mighty as a lion . . . to do the will of your Father in Heaven.”  What does he mean?

Although our general approach should be to put our head down, accept the yoke of Heaven, and get on with the task of serving G-d; sometimes we are called upon to stand up for what is right.  Sometimes when the honour of Torah and the glory of Heaven are under attack, we must be willing to pull our heads out of the yoke of unthinking subservience, and become the king of the spiritual jungle!

And yet, not very many are prepared to do that.  When the going gets tough, most people turn their eyes Heavenward and exclaim, ‘I borrowed an ox, I didn’t borrow a lion.’  It’s much easier to look down and continue ploughing away.  You simply say to yourself, ‘I’m here to do my job.  I’ll place blinders on to the world around me and not get distracted.  It’s really not my problem.’

But when Hashem’s honour is at stake, looking away is not an option.  The mighty lion roars and proclaims the truth, as unpopular as such a stance may be.   Calev could have just opted to ‘go with the flow.’  But he knew that Heaven was under siege.

And you know what?  When you take that important stance for Heaven, you become a leader and others will follow.  There’s a reason why oxen are not called the kings of the field, but the lion is the undisputed king of the jungle.   Leaders take courageous positions; followers put their heads down and wait to see which way the wind will blow.

Calev took an unpopular stand for the Land of Israel.  In the end he was rewarded with a special portion in the land in his lifetime and for all eternity.  May you put your head down and accept the yoke of Heaven when that is the appropriate for course of action, but may you find the courage to roar like a lion when the glory of Heaven is under attack!

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Become a mitzvah machine!

Daf Yomi Bava Kama 39

The righteous Yosef has been sold into slavery in Egypt.  He finds himself in the home of Potiphar, who appreciates his loyalty and skill, and places him completely in charge of all his affairs.  Unfortunately, however, Potiphar is not the only one taken by Yosef’s charm.  Potiphar’s wife finds herself drawn to the young servant-boy and she begins to proposition him.

Day in, day out, he refuses her advances.  Until one day he’s at home alone, doing his chores when Mrs. P. arrives.  As she would do whenever her husband was not around, she begins to engage Yosef in inappropriate conversation. 
‘Just this once,’ Yosef says to himself, ‘nobody will ever know.’

Suddenly, he is hit with a vision.  It’s a picture of his father, Yaakov, holding up the holy breastplate of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest).  But instead of the twelve stones that would later adorn the plate, there are eleven stones and an empty space.
‘If you give in to temptation,’ the voice chides him, ‘you will cut yourself off from the family of Israel forever.’

At that point, he escapes Mrs. P.’s clutches, leaving his jacket in her hands.  He runs out of the house just as fast as his legs can carry him and waits until the end of the day when his master would return. 

The Torah declares, “If an ox gores a man or a woman and they die, the ox shall surely be stoned.”
Mishnah: A stadium ox is not liable to be put to death, for the verse states, “If an ox gores,” i.e. but not if humans caused it to gore.
Rashi explains: A stadium ox is designed to gore.  They train it for that purpose.

You can’t blame the stadium ox that gores a human being.  Let’s be honest, that’s all it knows!  That’s what it’s been trained to do by the matador!  It seems to be evil, but in fact it’s a ‘killing machine.’  Machines don’t make choices; they do exactly as they’ve been programmed.

Oftentimes we look around and see people acting contrary to the will of Hashem.  Our first reaction is to dismiss them as sinners.  Whether consciously or not, we are judging them and looking down on their actions and behaviour.

But how many of those people are choosing to act as they do?  They’re not acting defiantly!  Most of them were trained from birth to overlook the basics of Jewish observance.  You can’t hold them responsible, they’ve been programmed a certain way.

Sometimes we even encounter people who were born into it and, at some point, chose to reject their faith or practice.  And we’re quick to judge them, viewing their every action as a challenge to the Almighty. 

But that’s likewise absolutely wrong.  Maybe they made a poor choice years ago.  A choice that led them down a certain path to bring them to who they are today. 

You know what our Sages teach us?  G-d doesn’t hold them accountable for every bad decision they make today.  Because the ‘decisions’ they appear to be making are not really decisions at all.  Once they trained themselves to act contrary to the will of Heaven, on a certain level, they removed their decision-making ability.  Now what seems to be a sin is really nothing more than behaviour by rote.  It’s what they’re programmed to do. 

And so Hashem looks at them and says, ‘I’m not going to judge them.  I’m not going to punish them.  They’re not making conscious decisions to abandon Me.  I will only hold them responsible for their original poor decision.  Beyond that, I immediately forgive them.’ 

And if it’s good enough for G-d, it should certainly be good for enough for us.

Here’s the good news.  While you don’t get punished for continued poor behaviour based on pre-programmed decisions, you always get rewarded for good behaviour, even when you’re simply acting the way you’ve been programmed!   And so if you train yourself to do mitzvos, even if years later you’re doing them by rote – because you couldn’t imagine doing anything else – you still get incredible reward for each and every act of obedience to the will of G-d!

That doesn’t mean you should simply go through the motions, without any effort or feeling.  It goes without saying that the more effort you put in, the greater your reward.  But whatever the case, whether you’re feeling it or not, G-d rewards your positive results!

What do our Sages mean when they describe Yosef’s vision of his father and the holy breastplate?  At Yosef’s most challenging moment, he suddenly finds himself unable to cross the line.  Everything that has happened in his life up until that point tells him: don’t do it.  

Utilizing free choice alone, he might not have been able to resist the temptation.  But with the aid of his ‘nature and nurture’ – the pattern of his life that he had conditioned himself to – he can overcome.  All he has to do is picture his father, his family, and his future, and he’s able to withstand the pressure.  And he receives eternal reward for his incredible act of Heavenly sacrifice.

It’s time to become a stadium ox for the good.  My friend, Dr. Nathan Light, calls it an Orthod-ox.  You need to train yourself so that doing G-d’s will is second nature.  May you get into the groove of Torah and mitzvos until you couldn’t imagine doing it any other way!

Friday, 8 July 2016

Does Hashem really care if you keep kosher?

Daf Yomi Bava Kama 38

What is the most boring job in the world?  Classically, this award has gone to toll collectors.  Day in, day out, all they do is sit there collecting people’s small change.   But the truth is, it’s actually only as boring as you make it.  There are some tollbooth enthusiasts who greet each driver with a huge smile, asking them how they’re doing, and brightening up their day!

Really, the most boring job, I think, is the Queen’s Guard.  These folks stand outside Buckingham Palace for hours on end, motionless, expressionless, and forbidden even to ‘stand at ease’!  And yet, believe it or not, every year the Palace receives thousands of applications for the job!  Why would anyone in their right mind want such a boring job?

The prophet Habakkuk declared, “He arose and judged the land.  He saw and released the nations.”
Rav Yosef taught: What did He see?  He saw that the children of Noah were not observing the seven laws that they accepted upon themselves.  He therefore arose and released them from their obligation.
The Gemara asks: But if so, they won!  How could they sin and profit from it?

Some people think they’re doing G-d a favour by serving Him.   They’re really not that excited about being religious, but they do it because they think they’ll upset Heaven if they veer off the tracks.

Guess what.  It makes no difference to G-d whether or not you serve Him.  You want to do mitzvos, do them.  You don’t want to do mitzvos, don’t do them.  Enough people want rid of mitzvos, Rav Yosef teaches, Hashem says, ‘No worries.  Don’t bother.  I hereby release your of all responsibility.  You’re completely off the hook.’

You see, G-d doesn’t need you.  He’s the same G-d now as He was before He created the world.  What happens here does not affect Him one iota.   He gives us mitzvos and then offers us the choice whether or not to observe.  Yes, mitzvah means commandment.  But don’t think you’re doing Hashem any favours by performing his will.  You’re doing yourself the biggest favour.

Do you know why the Queen’s Guard gets thousands of applicants annually?  Not because it’s a thrilling job; but because you get to personally serve Her Majesty.  What an incredible opportunity!

And the same is true of mitzvos.  The Almighty provides us with the opportunity to personally serve Him.  To have a relationship with Him.  To get close to Him.  Who wouldn’t want that? 

When the nations of the world sought release from their obligations, they didn’t win.  They didn’t profit from their poor behaviour.  No, they lost out on an incredible opportunity.  Very sad, indeed.

Here’s the thing about serving in the Queen’s Guard.  Sometimes it can be frustrating and challenging.  Sometimes you stand their expressionless on the outside and filled with inner turmoil about your apparently dull professional choice.   But then you finish your shift, and you get invited to the open bar at the private club in Windsor Castle, where you get to party all night with the Queen and the corgis!  And everything changes.  It was all worth it. 

Hashem is totally cool with whatever choices you make in life.  He’ll love you either way.  He’s your Father.  But when you choose to buy into the relationship, the reward is out of this world – both in this world and the next!  May you recognize and capitalize on the incredible opportunity the Almighty offers us in life!  

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Should women be called to the Torah?

Daf Yomi Bava Kama 37

Boxing is not a pretty sport.  Sometimes it can get pretty ugly.  In 1997, Mike Tyson infamously bit off a piece of Evander Holyfield’s left ear.  And yet, unbelievably, the fight continued.  And then, not wanting to appear unfair or unjust, Tyson later bit into Holyfield’s right ear, making them both equal! 

Nevertheless, Holyfield became an inspiration and lesson in faith to us all.  He later forgave Mike Tyson, declaring that he believed in G-d and Divine destiny!  May we all aspire to such faith in Heaven!

Conan the Wicked once smote the ear of his fellow.  The case came before Rav Huna’s court.
He said to him, “Go and pay him half a zuz compensation.”  Conan had a worn-out zuz, from which he wanted to give his victim half a zuz.  But no money-changer would take it from him.  And so he smote the fellow’s other ear and gave him the entire zuz. 

This Talmudic story is the source of the classic lesson we’re taught as kids.  Stop complaining about your sore ear, or else the playground bully will come back over and punch the other one and make them both equal.

Unfortunately, in our efforts to promote equality, this attitude has taken hold throughout our twenty-first century lives.  Instead of building up and creating new and exciting opportunities for the party that feels hurt and unequal, we ‘smite the other ear’ and make them equally wounded. 

The Almighty created women and men equal.  But to our small minds, equality means homogeneity.  Men and women must be exactly the same.  And so in some segments of the Jewish world, efforts have been made to ensure that women and men serve Heaven in precisely the same manner.  When that happens, both women and men suffer.

For example, promoting women’s prayer should have resulted in an all-round increase in devotion to Heavenly service and daily communal prayer attendance.  You would think that there would now be double as many people at services!  Sadly, that’s not the case. 

Instead of promoting women’s religious opportunities, the ‘equal opportunity’ activists have essentially ‘smitten the other ear’ and conveyed the message to the young men that they’re no longer needed.  Why go to services? Let the women have their space!  Why learn how to daven or read from the Torah?  Let’s hand those duties over to the women who are eager to step up to the plate!

Unfortunately, this approach derives from unhealthy societal attitudes.  Nowadays, we are told that men and women are no different.  Even biologically, we are cautioned to avoid binaries of male and female.  Instead, we should understand gender as occupying a spectrum.  Where one finds oneself along the continuum is a matter of personal choice and inner freedom.

Traditional Judaism believes that such a perspective lowers the bar for everyone.  If G-d says that a girl reaches adulthood at age twelve, what gives mortals the right to change that?  You can’t simply wish away biology!   It is nonsense to suggest that gender is irrelevant and we can pretend that everyone reaches adulthood at exactly the same time!

All it does is send a message to the young men that they are no longer needed.   Sadly, they’re the ones who end up feeling marginalized from Judaism.  Instead of working to heal and create opportunities for the one ear, we’ve smitten the other ear to promote equality.

At our shul, we like to say that women are ‘called to the Torah.’  No, it doesn’t mean that they get shlishi (the third aliya); it means that we take pride in the number of young women who choose to take a year after high school and learn Torah in seminary in Israel! 

While Jewish women have always learned Torah, greater formal learning opportunities have been created over the last century.  These forums for Jewish enrichment have not come at the expense of men’s learning.  Rather, special seminaries were built in order to focus on the unique aspects of women’s learning. 

And traditional Jewish women have excelled.  And traditional Jewish men have excelled.  So that today we have traditional communities with Torah-educated men and women, the likes of which have not existed in the history of our people and do not exist today in any non-traditional community setting.  Because women’s and men’s Torah advancement were never designed to compete with one another.   They were created in such a way as to complement one another.

Equality does not mean homogeneity.  Traditional Judaism doesn’t believe in biting off one ear to make it equal to the other.  May your sons and daughters all be called to the Torah!  

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

What's the main role of the rabbi?

Daf Yomi Bava Kama 36

Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik, fondly known as ‘Reb Chaim of Brisk,’ was one of the greatest Talmudic minds of the twentieth century.  He developed an approach to Talmud study called the ‘Brisker’ method, which analyzes Talmud in light of Maimonides’s code.  He was a Rosh Yeshiva in the famous Volozhin yeshiva and his students became founders and leaders of some of the greatest yeshivas in Israel and America today.

In Halakhic Man, the great Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik recounts that his grandfather Reb Chaim was once asked what the primary function of a rabbi is.  You would think that such an incredible scholar would have answered ‘to teach Talmud to the people,’ or ‘to provide clear and concise halachic rulings,’ or maybe even ‘to give a sermon that keeps people awake!’  But that’s not what he said.

One who hits his friend’s ear must pay him the monetary amount of one sela.
A fellow once hit his friend’s ear.  Rabbi Tuvia bar Masna sent him to stand trial before Rav Yosef, with the following enquiry: Did the Mishnah mean a Tyrian sela or a provincial sela? 
Rashi explains: A Tyrian sela was worth four zuz.  A provincial sela was worth one eighth of that value, half a zuz.
The Gemara asks: What was the end of the story?
They resolved the query based upon the dictum of Rav Yehuda, quoting Rav: Any time the word money is used in the Torah, it refers to Tyrian money.  But any rabbinic injunction refers to provincial money.
Rashi explains: For example this case, which is an amount set by the Rabbis.
The story continues: The injured man then said to Rav Yosef, “Since it’s only half a zuz, I don’t want it.  Give it to the poor!”
Afterwards, he changed his mind and said, “Actually, give it to me, and I’ll refresh myself with it!”
Rav Yosef replied, “The poor have already acquired it.  For even though there may be no poor people present, our hand is like their hand, as Rav Yehuda said, quoting Shmuel ‘Orphans do not need to sign a document requesting the court to collect their sabbatical-year loans.’  Rami bar Chama similarly taught, ‘Orphans need not sign documentation requesting the court to collect their loan, for Rabban Gamliel and his court are their father’.”

How did Reb Chaim respond when asked about the role of the rabbi? “To redress the grievances of those who are abandoned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of his oppressor.”  Adds Rav Soloveitchik, “No religious cult is of any worth if the laws and principles of righteousness are violated and trampled upon by the foot of pride” (Halakhic Man, p.91).

The greatest kavod (honour) we can give to the Almighty is when we honour and care for His children.  No amount of Torah study outweighs the provision of goods and services for those in need.  The Baal Shem Tov would say, “Oftentimes a soul comes down into this world for the sole purpose of assisting a fellow Jew!”

And it goes without saying that helping the poor is not just the rabbi’s job.  It’s everyone’s primary function.  The rabbis are there to be our role models and guides in fulfilling our earthly mission.  

The beth din (court) of Rabban Gamliel acted like a father to these orphaned children.  That’s the model of social activism that we should all strive to emulate.  It’s not about picketing Wall Street; it’s not about grandstanding about the rights of the underdog; it’s simply about reaching out with lovingkindness to those in need.

And it goes without saying that helping the poor is not just the rabbi’s job.  It’s everyone’s primary function.  The rabbis are there to be our role models and guides in fulfilling our earthly mission.  

The more you can help those in need, the more you have accomplished your mission on Earth.  Sadly, most people think that life is about maximizing their own pleasure.  It’s not.  It’s about helping as many people as possible in the short lifetime you are granted.  Everything else is gravy.

Reach out and become a big sister or a father figure to someone who is missing that in their life!  See to it that widows are not alone on Yom Tov!  Treat the children of the poor as your own and do whatever you can to ensure they have a good education and a fruitful summer experience!

Ritual mitzvos are important.  But if they don’t culminate in acts of person-to-person righteousness, you’ve missed the point.  May you always remember why Hashem sent you here – to fill the world with lovingkindness and good deeds!

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Blunt the Wicked Son's Teeth!

Daf Yomi Bava Kama 35

The world recently lost one of the greatest sportspersons of the twentieth century.  Muhammad Ali will most famously be remembered for his 1965 punch that knocked out Sonny Liston in the first minute of the first round.  

It kind of makes you think.  Remember the good old days when spectators would gather in the Coliseum and watch gladiators fight to the death?  Nowadays that sounds so ancient and barbaric, doesn’t it?  One can only wonder how our great-grandchildren will look back at our present-day spectator sports!

The truth is boxing didn’t begin in the modern-day ring.  It already appears in the Hagadah!  When we read about the four sons at the Pesach seder, we are told to blunt the wicked son’s teeth.  What does that mean?  Is that like an uppercut to the jaw?  Is there any other way to blunt his teeth without completely knocking them out? 

There was once an ox in Rav Papa’s home that had a toothache.  It entered the house, pushed the cover off a beer barrel, drank beer and was healed.

The wicked son within each and every person has many names.  Sometimes, he’s the yetzer hara.  Other times, the Satan.  According to the Kabbalists, he is called the ‘animal soul.’  It’s the ox within us fighting to fulfil its animalistic desires.

And sometimes, as animals are wont to do, the inner animal will use its teeth and bite those it feels threatened by.  ‘Beware of the dog’ is not just a sign on one’s gate; it’s often a sign on one’s heart.

And so the Hagadah tells us that we need to blunt the teeth of the wicked son.  When you encounter an individual who is angry and biting away at Torah and mitzvos, you need to take the edge off the bite of their inner ox.  But how do you do that?  With an uppercut to the jaw?

Rav Papa’s ox was brilliant.  It could have kicked and screamed until Rav Papa knocked out its hurting teeth.  But instead, it found the beer barrel and discovered a way to numb the pain, thereby healing itself.  No need to knock out the teeth; a bit of alcohol did the trick.

The Hagadah doesn’t say to knock out the contrary child’s teeth; we are instructed to blunt his teeth.  You could blunt his teeth in so many ways.  But when you’re in tune with what’s really going on, you realize that most ‘wicked’ children are simply in pain.  Don’t go for the punch.  Reach for the numbing alcohol.  Give them something to ease the pain.

Most people who rebel against their Judaism don’t do so for rational reasons.  They give it all up for emotional reasons.  They’re often in pain.  Something’s happened in their lives that has so upset them that they’re lashing out at the community and G-d for the pain they’re enduring.

Blunt their toothache.  Ease their pain.  Take the edge of their bite.  How?  By reaching out with love.  Don’t try to argue with them.  Simply shower them with lovingkindness.  Know that it’s not them; it’s their inner animal compounding the pain of whatever tragic circumstances they’ve dealt with in their life.

The Vilna Gaon famously explains that the numerical value of the ‘wicked’ son (rasha) is 570.  When you blunt ‘his teeth’ (shinav) – which equals 366 – you are left with 204, the numerical equivalent of the word tzadik – righteous.  In other words, once you numb the pain of the seemingly wicked child, you will be left with the true essence of the person – a purely righteous individual.

Some people today claim that the Jewish world is facing a crisis, with the numbers of OTD (Off The Derech) – people who have forsaken their Jewish practice – on the rise.  Sadly, however, it’s no different to any other time in our history.  We have always had any number of our brothers and sisters who have drifted away from traditional practice. 

At times, these ‘contrary children’ were individuals, who simply assimilated and disappeared.   Other times, they formed enough of a critical mass to create a new movement within the framework of the Jewish people.  But even such movements were, for the most part, short-lived; as they did not have Torah as the foundation and power of their activities.

The only real answer to the contrary child is love.  Because the only real question they have is why the Almighty could allow them to suffer.  May you reach out and help numb the pain so that you may discover the hidden tzadik within each and every one of our Jewish brothers and sisters!

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Apply for Divine NEXUS

Daf Yomi Kiddushin 79

Whenever Batya and I travel between Canada and the US, if one of us is not travelling we must provide a notarized letter giving permission to the other to cross the border with the kids.  Most of the time we’re pretty good about remembering well in advance, but sometimes we forget.  On one such occasion, Batya arrived at customs with baby Jamie-Anna in the stroller and five-year-old Joey (Sarah Joar) tagging along beside her.  Just as she reaches the front of the line, she realizes she’s forgotten to prepare the letter.
“Oh no!” she thinks to herself, “Gam zu l’tovah, this too is for the good.  I’m sure things will be fine.”

The customs officer asks her for the letter and she sheepishly replies that she doesn’t have one. He takes Joey’s passport, looks at her and asks, “Sarah?”
Now, here’s the problem.  We don’t call her Sarah.  We call her by her nickname, Joey.  And even on the odd occasion she’s been addressed by her real name, all she’s ever heard is ‘Suh-ruh,’ as opposed to the officer’s southern-sounding ‘Sehh-ra!’ 

Batya begins to panic.  She knows Joey won’t respond; she doesn’t even turn to look at the officer!  It doesn’t help that Batya’s passport still has her maiden name, either.  So here she is, Batya Ivry, travelling with some kids called Friedman, who don’t know their own names!
“I told him not to give them nicknames!” she mutters under her breath.

Meanwhile, Joey still hasn’t turned around.  Instead, she goes all shy and starts clinging to Batya’s leg.
“Clearly this is your mommy,” says the officer, “Does your daddy know you’re going on an airplane today?”
Joey looks up and proudly answers, “Yeah!  He’s coming on Sunday!”
And Batya gives a big smile.

Mishnah: If a man went overseas with his wife and then returned with his wife and children, and says, ‘This is the same wife that I left for overseas with and these are her children,’ he is not required to provide proof, neither for the wife nor for the children.
Raba bar Rav Huna taught: As long as we see that the children are attached to her.
Rashi explains: They are clinging to her.

When a child clings to a mother, that’s all the proof you need of maternity.  You don’t need notarized letters.  You don’t need overseas witnesses.  You don’t even need a DNA test.  It’s clear who the mother is, because the bond between mother and child is deeper than any physical, tangible connection.  The bond is emotional, psychological, spiritual, biological. 

If that’s the bond between a parent and a child, imagine the depth and strength of the bond between our Father in Heaven and His children.  He loves each and every one of us with His infinite love.  But what’s most striking about the bond between a parent and a child is that it’s most apparent when the child automatically clings to the parent.  When that happens, there are no questions as to the nature of their relationship.

It goes without saying that the Almighty loves us, but what’s our default position?  When we need to fall into the comfort zone, do we fall into our Father’s embrace?  Do we cling to Him when we don’t know where else to turn? 

The way to make it your default position is to cleave to our Father in Heaven through the good times and the bad.  To invite Him into every facet of your life.  Talk to Him constantly, not only during set prayer times.  Talk to your kids and grandchildren, nephews and nieces, about Him.  Let them know that Hashem cares for them and loves them deeply no matter where their religious observance may be at. 

A parent never forsakes a child.  A parent never stops loving a child.  Mortal parents may sometimes appear to reject a child; but they’re simply trying to hide their own misgivings.  G-d has no misgivings.  He loves you no matter what.  He loves every one of His children equally.  He has no favourites.  He needs no notarized letter.  He will always be there for you, through thick and thin.

When you know that you can always fall into your Father’s warm embrace, nothing deters you.  Nothing stops you from achieving your dreams.  You’ll never hesitate to look the skeptics in the eye and declare, “Of course my Parent knows about this trip.  He’s right along with me every step of the way!  Even if the plane hits some turbulence along the way, I know that Father is sitting right beside me holding my hand through the storm.”

Minhag Yisrael Torah Hi – "The Jewish people's customs are like the Torah."  When we pass through ‘customs,’ we get to flash our Divine NEXUS card that says we are the Almighty’s children.  Every one of His children is beloved like a Sefer Torah to Him.  Dad loves you more than you could ever imagine.  Cling to him, don’t be shy.  May you build a two-way relationship, one in which you forever appreciate and warm yourself in the embrace of His incredible love!

Do people really change?

Daf Yomi Kiddushin 78

Kayin was angry.  Hashem had accepted his brother’s offering and spurned his.  In a fit of rage, he jumps up and murders Hevel.  Suddenly, the Almighty appears and inquires as to his dead brother’s whereabouts.
“Am I brother’s keeper?” he famously responds.  At that point, Hashem pours out His wrath upon Kayin for his heinous crime.   Realizing the horror of his actions, he appeals to G-d to forgive him and effect atonement upon his soul.  Sure enough, his Father in Heaven forgives him.

But that’s not sufficient for Kayin. 
“I need protection!” he exclaims, “Anyone who sees me will attempt to avenge my brother’s death!”
Our Sages tell us that G-d agreed and provided a watchdog to accompany Kayin everywhere he would go for his safety and security. 

But why did Kayin need protection after he had done teshuva?  Who would attempt to kill him after he had repented?

Concerning the cohen, the Torah states, “A woman who is a harlot or a chalal, they may not marry.”
Rabbi Yehuda says: The daughter of a male convert is forbidden to marry a cohen, just like the daughter of a male chalal.  And it stands to reason: If a chalal – born of a chalal father and Israelite mother, which is a permissible relationship – came from kosher (Jewish) seed and yet his daughter may not marry a cohen; then, a convert who derived from non-Jewish seed, does it not follow that his daughter should be similarly forbidden to marry a cohen?
The Gemara responds: As opposed to a convert, a chalal was formed in sin (since a cohen may not cohabit with a divorcee). 

Not to be confused with Muslim meat, a chalal is the offspring of a cohen’s improper relationship, (such as with a divorcee).  While a chalal loses his father’s priestly status, he may still marry a regular Israelite woman.  However, chalal status is passed on from one generation to the next, and his daughter likewise carries the chalal gene and may not marry a cohen.  Or, let’s say he had a son; that son is a chalal and his daughter may not marry a cohen. 

Despite Rabbi Yehuda’s thoughts on the matter, the Gemara points out that a convert may not be compared to a chalal.  The daughter of a convert may indeed marry a cohen.  A chalal was formed in sin, since his parents were not allowed to be together.  By contrast, a convert’s parents might not have been Jewish, but they were certainly allowed to be together.  And therefore, his formation was in a permissible setting.

On a spiritual level, of course, the true formation of the convert doesn’t take place at physical conception, it takes place at the moment of conversion.  At that point, our Sages tell us, he is like a newborn!  That’s the deeper meaning of the Gemara’s insistence that unlike the chalal, the convert is formed, not just in a permissible setting, but in a purer than pure setting!   He is not simply formed; he is transformed!  Following the conversion, he is an entirely new entity!

The truth is, even if you were born Jewish, all is not lost!  The convert’s experience is instructive to every sincere penitent.  You too could experience transformation.  The Talmud tells us that when one undergoes genuine teshuva (repentance), he actually transforms all his sins into merits.  That’s how powerful teshuva can be!  In other words, the pork that he ate yesterday is now no longer a sin; it’s a mitzvah!

That is the meaning of our Sages’ dictum, “In the place that baalei teshuvah (penitents) stand, even the utterly righteous do not stand.”  Why?  Because the person who never sinned can never get the mitzvah of eating pork!  Of course, it is absolutely forbidden to sin in the first place, but if you did, you have immense potential for achieving spiritual greatness!   You could become an entirely new being!

The bigger problem lies with the rest of us.  When you transform yourself, will we continue to judge you as if you were the same person as yesterday?  Or will we accept the new you and treat you with the reverence and respect you deserve?  It’s forbidden to bring up their past to a convert or a baal teshuva.  Why? It’s not a lesson about them and their sensitivity; it’s a lesson about us and our inability to accept this new incarnation that stands before us.

Sadly, over the last couple of years, there’s been a spate of Jewish leaders found guilty of minor wrongdoings, and, in some cases, major crimes.  Let’s say one of these individuals does their time in jail and uses the period wisely, reflecting on their criminal activity, doing teshuva, and making restitution to their victims.  When they are set free, how will we treat them?  Will we continue to judge them by their past actions or will we pass the test of our faith and believe that a person can do a complete teshuva and transform themselves into an entirely new being?

That’s what Kayin was afraid of.  He knew that Hashem could accept his teshuva, but he was worried that his fellow human beings would never judge him favourably.  Yes, he had been a murderer.  But he had done teshuva.  And Hashem had forgiven him.   If you were to have met him, would you have been able to leave the past in the past and judge him as a transformed entity?

In fact, the most powerful example of genuine transformation offered in the Talmud is the case of a wicked individual who hands a ring to a woman and says, “Behold you are married to me on condition that I am completely righteous.”  What’s the law in such a situation?  Our Sages rule that they are married, because we assume that at that moment, in his heart of hearts, he transformed his life and decided to start fresh! 

Did such a case ever exist?  Probably not.  But the message is clear: No matter what you know about a person’s behaviour, you must deal with them believing that yesterday – or even five minutes ago – they made the decision to transform themselves for the better! 

People can change.  People do change.  When that happens – and even when that doesn’t happen – may you merit judging every individual in the most favourable light imaginable!  

One weird trick to win the Powerball

Daf Yomi Kiddushin 77

In December 1973, following the Yom Kippur War, the United Nations arranged a peace conference in Geneva.  While Israel, Egypt, and Jordan were present, along with the United States and Soviet Union, Syria refused to attend.  Representing Israel was prominent statesman and spokesman, Abba Eban.  Eban was fluent not only in Hebrew and English, but at the conference displayed his impeccable Arabic linguistic credentials.

The efforts and compromises presented by Israel and the major world powers were, alas, for naught.  Israel attempted to offer the Arab nations “peace with honour,” but the time was not yet ripe and they would not budge.  Abba Eban departed the conference morosely quipping that “the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.”

Concerning the priestly restrictions, the Torah states, “A woman who is a harlot, or desecrated, they shall not marry.”
The Rabbis taught: What is the definition of desecrated? Anyone born of an improper union (such as between a cohen and a divorcee).
The Gemara asks: Does that mean only if one was born desecrated?  Why, a widow, divorcee, or harlot – who were not born that way – also become desecrated by cohabiting with a cohen!
Rabba answers: This is the meaning.  What is the biblical definition of desecrated?  One who never had an opportunity, since she was born of an improper union.

Ever dreamed of winning the lottery?  The New York Times recently ran a piece asserting that most of its readers already had won the lottery.   The mere fact that you were born in a certain country to certain parents and sent to certain schools has ‘won’ you hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars over the course of your lifetime!  Imagine you’d be born to poor parents in a third-world country, or never been given the chance to immigrate to an industrialized country, or even been born a hundred years earlier, what opportunities you’d have missed out on!

The article went on to argue that if you look at most successful people, they very often got where they are today, because they were lucky to happen to be in the right time and place when the big break came along.   And so success, claimed the author, is pretty random – just as random as winning the lottery!

While it’s true that we are very blessed to be living in the twenty-first century (especially as Jews with a State of Israel) and most of us have wealth that our great-grandparents could only have dreamed of, success in life is never random.  Throughout our lifetimes we are presented with multiple opportunities for success.  Some of us capitalize on these successes; others squander them away.

Because mazal – good fortune – is not just about receiving good breaks; it’s about acting upon those good breaks.  Rabbi Paysach Krohn likes to say that mazal is an acronym for makom (place), zman (time), and lashon (language).  Simply being in the right place at the right time is not enough; success means being in the right place at the right time and saying, or doing, the right thing. 

Sadly, many people go through life, burdened with regret.  ‘If only I had done this, if only I had said that.’  That’s the mark of missed opportunities.  It’s not as if the good fortune never came; they simply failed to cash in their ticket when the Almighty sent them the winning Powerball numbers.

The good news is Hashem’s power is infinite.  He has no shortage of opportunities to send your way.  If you just keep your eyes pierced for His blessing, you will discover the mazal raining down!  All you need to do is jump up and seize the opportunity, next time it comes knocking! 

In life, we all receive abundant opportunities for success.  Whether it’s a creative idea that pops into our heads, or a new person that enters our lives.  May you never miss an opportunity to capitalize on your opportunities!  

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Brush with Royalty

Daf Yomi Kiddushin 76

A couple of years ago, my friend Rabbi M. was invited to the grand opening of the British Jewish museum.  In attendance were prominent members of the Jewish community as well as VIPs from political and cultural circles.  When Rabbi M. spotted Prince Harry enter the event, his mind turned to some of the poor press the prince has received over the years.  A quick glance at the tabloids suggests Harry is quite a flawed character.  He has been photographed in a number of compromising situations, including one Halloween when he immaturely dressed up as a Nazi officer.

Rabbi M. was mulling over his distaste in his mind, when suddenly the Chief Rabbi comes over and introduces Prince Harry to him.  A little taken aback, he begins chatting with him and the discussion goes spectacularly well.   At the end of the conversation, the prince says to Rabbi M., “You know, Rabbi, I’ve really enjoyed chatting with you.  We should get together again some time.  If I invited you over to Buckingham and arranged everything kosher, would you consider joining me for dinner?”

If you were Rabbi M., how would you have responded?  After all, is Prince Harry really the kind of person you would like to befriend?

When investigating the lineage of bride and groom seeking to get married, one need not look into cohanim (priests) serving at the altar, nor Levites serving in the Temple, nor members of the Sanhedrin (high court).  Likewise, we may marry off any person whose forebears served as communal officials or charity collectors to priestly families and we need not investigate their lineage.

When a couple asks me to officiate at their wedding, one of my first responsibilities to the Jewish people is to ascertain that both bride and groom are indeed ‘members of the tribe.’  I will ask them for proof, such as their parents’ ketubahs.  But the Mishnah here teaches that certain classes of families do not require investigation.  Simply by virtue of the office they hold, we assume they have been ‘pre-screened.’

Two such groups are the community officials and charity collectors.  Why would we grant a free pass to the shul board members and the fundraisers?  Obviously, the Mishnah does not mean that we grant them a pass; rather, in days of yore, they would have to be pre-screened in order to enter such leadership positions.  But on a deeper level, the Mishnah is imparting a profound lesson about communal service.

How do you know if someone is truly Jewish?  If they are utterly dedicated to the welfare of the Jewish people.  The individuals who are prepared to sit on the shul and school boards and put up with all the harassment at the hands and mouths of unthinking constituents, they are the true Jews.  The people who are prepared to go door-to-door collecting for the poor and for community institutions – and be subjected to all manner of excuse and rejection – they are the true Jews.

When you ask regular people why they won’t volunteer on a community board, the answer is pretty much the same: “I don’t need the heartache and headache in my life.  I have enough of my own problems to deal with, thank you very much.”  But somehow there are a handful of tzaddikim (righteous souls) who will suffer the abuse and bend over backwards to help their brethren.  What makes them tick?

Let’s return to the British Jewish museum and our conversation between Prince Harry and Rabbi M.  How do you think Rabbi M. responded?  Let me tell you: When the prince asks if you’d like to hang out with him, suddenly all your misgivings fall by the wayside!  Who cares if he’s flawed?  Nobody’s perfect!  Why?  Because he’s the Prince of England.  He’s royalty.  And everybody wants to be close to royalty.

When you realize that every single Jew, warts and all, is a prince or princess of Heaven, you jump at the opportunity to serve them.  Their character flaws and faults pale into insignificance next to the knowledge that they are royalty!  That they are children of the Holy One, blessed be He!  People who serve the community faithfully do so with the knowledge and appreciation that they are personally attending to the Almighty’s kinderlach, to princes and princesses!

Only true Jews have the love and appreciation of Heaven to serve their brothers and sisters and only see the G-dliness shining through.  And so when their children come to get married, you needn’t investigate them – the parents’ actions have already proven that they are genealogically pure.  May you merit serving princes and princesses with endless love and devotion!  

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Spiritual Inclusion

Daf Yomi Kiddushin 75

In an effort to assimilate all nations and ethnic groups into Assyrian culture, the seventh century BCE King Sennacherib would displace peoples, uprooting them from their lands and supplanting them in other countries.  The Cutheans, also known as the Samaritans, were originally non-Jewish tribes that were inserted into Israel after he exiled the ten tribes from the Northern Kingdom of Israel. 

While the Cutheans initially maintained their non-Jewish practices, one day they found themselves at the mercy of a pack of lions that had massed in the area.  Turning to the Jews for assistance, the southerners suggested they turn to G-d.  They agreed and converted en masse to Judaism.  Nevertheless, their sincerity was forever a topic of contention amongst the rabbis.  After all, did they convert because they really felt close to G-d or simply to get rid of the lions?

Rabbi Yishmael maintains: The Cutheans are invalid lion converts and the Cohanim who mixed with them were unfit Cohanim.  As the verse states, “And they made for themselves, of some of them (miktzosam), altar priests.”
And Rabba bar bar Chana quoted Rabbi Yochanan: [Miktzosam means] from the “kotzim” of the people. 
Rashi explains: These people were “muktzeh” (set apart) from the people as invalid.

Why did these Cohanim join the Cutheans?  Because they were rejected from the Jews.  The Jewish community had concerns about their priestly status and so avoided employing them as local priests.  And so they headed up north to the Cutheans to find work.  They ended up mixing with them and becoming part of their nation.  That’s why you find the ‘cohen gene’ amongst the Samaritans in Israel today.

Unfortunately, the Samaritans were not the best friends of the Jewish people.  When we returned from Persia to build the Second Temple, they caused us much grief and managed to have the construction halted.  They were constantly instigating against our nation, all the while being served by these tainted Cohanim that we had rejected.

Today, we are considerably more sensitive around issues of inclusion than in the past.  If someone has a physical or mental disability, we do our best to accommodate them.  All our institutions must be specially equipped for every individual, and we provide special services for the deaf and blind.  Indeed, affirmative action and equal opportunity policies call for us to take measures above and beyond those we take for non-handicapped persons, so that no individual should ever feel excluded or rejected.

How about spiritual inclusion?  Sadly, the quasi-Cohanim of yore felt there was no place for them with the Jewish people.   That was not only bad news for them, but when they went and joined the ‘spiritual competition,’ it was bad news for us as well.

Our Jewish community must strive for spiritual inclusion.  All too often, we assume that everyone is on the same religious page us as, because spiritual handicaps are not as visible as physical disabilities.   But they’re not.  Every shul is made up of a wide range of backgrounds and abilities.  Some of us grew up with tradition, others didn’t.  Some of us did well in yeshiva, others didn’t.  Some of us are spiritually inspired, others aren’t. 

What are we doing to promote spiritual inclusion?   Does your shul have a kippah box, or do you assume everyone who comes has one with them?  Does your shul have page announcements, or do you assume everyone there knows which page the chazan is up to?  Does your shul offer a beginners’ service, or do you assume everyone can keep pace with the main service? 

When we lack inclusion policies, what happens?  Those who are excluded feel a sense of rejection and end up seeking spiritual solace and inspiration elsewhere.  That's not good for their souls, nor is it good for our people.  May you strive to make your shul and community completely spiritually inclusive!

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Where was G-d in the Holocaust?

Daf Yomi Kiddushin 74

We always have interesting guests at our Shabbos table.  Last week, Jay was sitting at our table and mentioned in passing that he is a direct descendant of the great Chasidic master, the Chozeh of Lublin.   My ears suddenly perked up.  “Why, just last night in shul, I gave over a d’var Torah from your great-grandfather!” I told him, “That’s a miracle!”
“From our side,” his mother added, “did you know that we’re descended from the Maggid of Mezritch?”
“That’s crazy!” I replied, “Just this morning I offered a vort (teaching) from the Maggid!  What are the chances that on the one Shabbos that you guys are here I would teach some Torah from both great-grandfathers?!”

Later, I was curious to see the odds of that occurring randomly.  There are over a hundred famous Chasidic Rebbes on Wikipedia.  The chances that I would teach both of those Rebbes on the same Shabbos is one in a hundred, times one in a hundred, which equals one in ten thousand.  Now, I don’t remember the last time (if ever) that I taught some Torah of the Chozeh or the Maggid.  And so, what was the chances that I would teach both of them on the Shabbos that their grandson happened to be sitting at my Shabbos table?  I’ve been a rabbi for close to twenty years.  Each year contains about fifty Shabboses.  In other words, I’ve preached about a thousand times.  And so the probability that I would teach both the Chozeh and the Maggid on the Shabbos that Jay was there is approximately one in ten million!  If that’s not the hand of Hashem, I don’t know what is!

A judge is trusted to say, ‘I ruled in favour of this litigant, and against that one.’
When are we talking about?  When the litigants are still standing before him.  But if the litigants are not standing before him, he is not trusted.
The Gemara asks: Why don’t we just check who is holding the merit slip?
Rashi explains: That is, who is holding the certificate of favourable ruling?
The Gemara answers: We’re dealing with a case where their merits were torn up.

Our Gemara deals with the case of an unclear judgment.  The litigants are still standing in the courthouse, but the winner has already ripped up his favourable ruling.  Why, on earth, would a litigant tear up the merit note, when he has not yet even left the room and is still standing in front of the judge?!

Every day, many of us stand before the Judge of the universe and tear up our merit notes.  Day in, day out, He shows us that He is present, playing an active role in the world.  Miracles happen before our very eyes!  But sadly, either we choose to ignore them – putting it down to mere luck and chance – or else we accept that G-d is playing a role, but then forget about it five minutes later. 

Some things are just impossible to attribute to mere coincidence.  There was more chance that I would win the lottery than offer the divrei Torah I gave last Shabbos!   Miracles like that happen to each and every one of us, every single day.  When they happen, how do you respond?  Do you acknowledge the Almighty’s presence and activity and rededicate yourself to His service, or do you just shrug it off?  The more you recognize Hashem’s hand, the more He will reveal His hand to you with further open miracles in your life!

But some people simply cannot accept the fact that G-d plays an active role in their life.  Why not?  Because recognition demands reciprocity.  If you acknowledge that Hashem cares about your life, then you in turn must care about His mission for you in this world.  People who aren’t interested in fulfilling their mission prefer to look away when Hashem sends them miracles.

Once, on the way back from Israel, I was chatting with the fellow sitting next to me, when we got to talking about Divine Providence.  I explained to him that the Almighty plays an active role in every little thing that happens in this world.  He responded that that was not possible, because “Where was G-d during the Holocaust?”  He went on to argue vociferously that G-d is clearly not in control of what goes on in the world; otherwise He would not have let such a terrible thing happen. 
“Therefore,” he concluded, “I don’t think it makes a difference if I perform mitzvos.  G-d doesn’t care what happens in this world.”

This is called “holocausting” and is totally off-limits in polite conversation.  Generally speaking, the Holocaust is a highly inappropriate example to harness in support of your position.  If you get upset at someone, call them whatever you like; but the second you refer to them as a Nazi, you’ve holocausted and crossed the line.  Likewise, this fellow and I were talking about G-d when he holocausted.  For most Jews, the Holocaust is an off-limits, ‘sacred’ subject, treated with the utmost reverence.  The Nazis murdered six million Jews.  No situation may be compared to such an atrocity.  It’s extremely poor taste to simply holocaust when you’ve run out of rational arguments, because most people assume that means ‘Game Over,’ and there’s nothing more to say.   

When it comes to the question of faith in G-d, why is holocausting so vile and inappropriate?

Rabbanit Batya and I are third generation survivors.  After enduring the horrors of Auschwitz and Mauthausen, but losing almost every one of their loved ones, my grandparents forsook their Judaism.  They were so angry at G-d – undecided as to whether He existed but didn’t care, or simply didn’t exist at all.  Determined to make sure their offspring would never be carted off by the next Hitler, they moved out to rural Australia – far away from Judaism, the Jewish community, and G-d.   After everything they’d been through, who could blame them? 

The Rabbanit’s grandparents were scarcely different.   After losing everyone in the Holocaust, they stopped observing the mitzvos.  Curiously, however, they sent my father-in-law to Yeshiva University high school (MTA).  Why?  They said to themselves, ‘Just because we’ve chosen to reject G-d doesn’t mean we should impose our decision upon our son.  We’ll provide the traditional education and let him make his own choices!’

In both cases – my grandparents and wife’s grandparents – I admire them for their emes, their commitment to the utter truth.  If you really don’t believe in something, don’t do it.  Alternatively, if you choose to reject it, make sure that you’re only impacting yourself with your decision.  Our grandparents were ‘all or nothing’ kind of people.  They didn’t believe in half-hearted Judaism.  Hashem had rejected them, they felt; now they were rejecting Him.

Far be it from us to ever judge someone who experienced the horrors of the Holocaust.  However they responded after leaving the camps, we can never fathom their sense of Heavenly betrayal.  What made no sense to me, however, was how could my fellow air traveller use the Holocaust as an excuse for his religiosity, or lack thereof?  It was a chutzpah of him to hijack my grandparents’ suffering for his own purposes!  Let me illustrate what I mean with a couple of examples.

Let’s say your neighbour, Dovid, got laid off.  He’s pretty upset at G-d and has stopped coming to minyan every day.  You hear about what happened and you say, ‘He’s right!  How could a good G-d allow him to lose his job?  That’s it, I’m also on strike from minyan until Hashem gives Dovid another job!’

Would anyone do that?  Does it make any sense?  Certainly, you cannot judge Dovid for choosing to stay in bed.  But that doesn’t give you the right to defy G-d in sympathy with him!

‘Seriously?’ you say, ‘That’s a little extreme!  How could you compare someone losing their job to the murder of six million innocent Jews?’  So let’s take the analogy a step further. 

Your friends, Sally and Bob, have just given birth.  Sadly, however, the baby was born with a heart defect.  They spend months and months in the hospital and tragically, the baby dies.   Understandably, Bob and Sally are devastated.  They’re angry at G-d and don’t even show up to shul on Yom Kippur!  ‘They’re right,’ you think to yourself, ‘what kind of kind G-d would take the life of an innocent baby?  That’s it, I’m eating on Yom Kippur.  Clearly, G-d doesn’t care!’

Once again, does that make any sense?  Sure, you absolutely cannot judge Sally and Bob.  Whatever religious reaction they have to their pain and suffering, we totally can’t fathom.  But that doesn’t give you the right to drop everything in sympathy with them!

‘But,’ you say, ‘there’s a big difference between one child who dies and six million!  How could you compare?’  So my question to you is: At what point does G-d lose control?  According to Harold Kushner, if one child dies, it means G-d is not in control.  We can’t judge Kusher, because sadly he lost a child.  For those of us who did not, does the death of one innocent child lead us to believe G-d has no power in the world?

And if it’s not the death of one, how many is it?  When three thousand innocent people were killed on 9/11, did you conclude that G-d has no control?  When millions are slaughtered in Rwanda, does that demonstrate G-d doesn’t care?  Or are you only concerned when Jews are murdered? 

What is it about the Holocaust that makes people think they can harness it to justify their behaviour?  If they themselves experienced the horrors of Auschwitz, then absolutely: we can never understand or question their subsequent decisions.  But if you weren’t there, who do you think you are to appropriate my grandparents’ pain and suffering? 

The question is not, ‘Where was G-d in the Holocaust?’  The real question for most people is, ‘Where were you in the Holocaust?’  If you weren’t there, stop using it as an excuse. 

My grandparents ultimately decided to make peace with G-d.  Once they did so, being emes (true) meant recommitting to Torah and mitzvos.  And so by the time he died, my grandfather had donated two Sifrei Torah and attended minyan and put on tefillin every day.  For them, the Holocaust wasn’t an excuse.  It was a reality.  And when they were finally ready, they chose to take control of that reality.

Hashem cares about you.  He plays an active role in your life.  Open up your eyes to the little miracles around you, you will be amazed.  May you let the Almighty into your life and experience revealed miracles every day!