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Sunday, 31 January 2016

How much money should you leave your kids?

Daf Yomi Gittin 47

A friend of mine made Aliyah in his early fifties.  I was talking to him about his wealthy friends back in America.  I asked him why they don’t make Aliyah. 
‘Surely they have more than enough money to live comfortably in Israel, even if they never worked another day in their life!’ I remarked.
‘It’s not about the money,’ my friend replied, ‘it’s about the thrill of the deal.  Every deal they pull off makes them even more driven to succeed at the next, bigger, better deal.  That’s what they live for!’

Reish Lakish would sit and eat and drink.
Rashi explains: He would always consume whatever income he had made that day without putting aside savings for the future.
Reish Lakish’s daughter asked him, “Don’t you desire to have enough money to buy a bed?”
“My daughter,” he replied, “my tummy is my bed.”
When he passed away, he left behind only a portion of saffron, recalling the verse in Psalms, “The foolish and the boorish shall together perish; and they leave their wealth to others.”

Many people spend their lives amassing fortunes that they will never be able to spend during their lifetimes.  They have more than enough and yet they continue to work to score another deal.  And another deal.  And an even bigger deal.

For what?  So that they can pass it on to their children?  Surely they want their children to work just as hard as they did, don’t they?   I highly doubt they want them sitting around doing nothing all day!

We’re not talking about having enough money to pass on to your spouse and minor children so they can survive if you were to pass away early, G-d forbid; Reish Lakish’s message is directed at the people who work with a view to bequeathing a small fortune to their adult children, for no apparent reason, other than their egos.  They won’t even be around to receive thanks!

Reish Lakish’s attitude was that you’re wasting your time leaving your kids a penny.  Let them work for it themselves.  Once you have enough money to live, you should be spending those precious remaining moments you have on earth doing mitzvos and learning Torah. 

That’s how the saintly Chofetz Chaim would explain this Gemara.  Reish Lakish, he expounded, didn’t live day by day because he was a poor planner.  On the contrary, his life was calculated to the minutest detail!  He simply understood what his purpose was in this world and realized that any surplus funds meant that he wasn’t using his time most effectively.

As Pirkei Avos teaches, “One moment of teshuvah and good deeds in this world is greater than all the life in the World to Come.”  Why?  Because once you go to Heaven, it’s game over.  You’ve accomplished all you could accomplish; after that you end up on whatever heavenly level you’ve achieved.  Life on this Earth is precious; you don’t want to waste even a moment engaged in unproductive activity.  And simply earning money that you’re going to leave to your heirs is unproductive.

That doesn’t mean that if someone leaves you or your institution money in their will you shouldn’t accept it.  Of course you should!  The Maharal points out that one’s assets can even achieve an elevation for your soul after you’re dead, if they are used for charitable purposes.  But who’s to say that your heirs will use all the money for such purposes?  They may fritter away your wealth on trivialities, G-d forbid!  And then all your hard work, time and effort will really be down the drain. 

Once you have enough to live, you should be devoting your life to Torah study and mitzvah performance.   There is no end to the depth and breadth of Torah you could and should be engaging in.  There are no shortage of hospitals and old-age homes you could be visiting.  Or institutions you could be volunteering for.

If you are going to leave anything significant, make sure your bequest is being managed properly to maximize the utility and reward for your soul in the next world.  The better your charitable dollars are being managed, the more positive the effect upon your soul.  But certainly, always remember that the greatest utility is the accomplishment you make with your own personal actions while you are alive.

The Torah’s laws of inheritance apply if you happened to have assets left over after your lifetime.  But it is no mitzvah to leave money to your children.  The more you bequeath, the less effective your time on this Earth has been relative to your potential.  May you maximize every moment of your short sojourn on planet Earth!

What path are you going down?

Daf Yomi Gittin 49

Yosef had been sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt.  Finding himself eventually in the home of a nobleman by the name of Potiphar, Yosef served his master faithfully.  But Yosef was handsome, so beautiful in fact, that the Egyptian women would peer over the fences to catch a glimpse of him.  Potiphar’s wife, too, was taken by Yosef’s beauty and was determined to have him as her own.  Day in, day out, she would attempt to seduce him, but alas, his fear of Heaven was too great.

One day, Yosef comes to the house to do his work and finds the place empty, save for his master’s wife.  Without warning, she corners him and insists that he be with her.   He finds himself unable to resist and almost succumbs to her advances when he suddenly experiences a vision of his father, Yaakov.  His father looks at him and asks, ‘Yosef, do you really want to do this?  Do you realize that one day the High Priest will wear his holy breastplate, replete with a precious stone for each tribe for Israel?  Look at the breastplate!  Do you notice that one stone is missing?  If you commit this act, you will be lost to our people forever!’

And with that, Yosef runs out of the house, leaving Potifar’s wife clutching his jacket.

Rabbi Shimon taught: Why did they say, ‘Compensation for damage caused is assessed from the damager’s finest property?’  Due to the thieves and extortionists.  So that a man will say: Why would I want to steal or extort?  Eventually, the court will enter my property and take my most beautiful field!  And they will rely on the Torah’s verse, ‘He shall pay the finest of his field and the finest of his vineyard.’  Therefore, they said: Compensation for damage caused is assessed from the damager’s finest property.

The reason most people sin is that they don’t consider the consequences.  Listen to these holy thieves!  They stop themselves before committing the crime by thinking about the ultimate ramifications of their actions!  Fearing that their best property will be seized by the court, they hold themselves back from stealing.  A regular criminal doesn’t think, ‘What if I get caught?’  They act merely for the temptation before their eyes.  The Gemara’s message is: if you want to stop yourself from doing the wrong thing, just imagine where going down that path could lead to.

That’s how Yosef stopped himself from sinning.  He didn’t think, ‘What if Potiphar catches me with his wife?’  He thought about the long run.  Ultimately, how would this affect his personal spiritual legacy?  The image of the missing stone made his satisfaction of temporary pleasure impossible to enjoy.

Next time you’re tempted to do the wrong thing, think about the potential consequences that the act might result in tomorrow.  And in a year’s time.  And in a decade’s time.  And for your children.  And grandchildren.  Now, is it really worth it? 

Maybe you’re about to speak some lashon hara to Jim.  It feels exciting now.  But what if Jim repeats it to Bob, who tells Samantha, and it eventually gets back to Jane what you’ve said about her.  Not so exciting anymore, is it?

The good news is it goes both ways.  Think about it now the other way around!  How many times each day are you given the opportunity to do a mitzvah?  Sometimes it might feel like a hassle.  But when you consider the potential positive consequences of your actions down the road, you will run to seize the opportunity!

Maybe you’ve been approached to help with a community project.  And you think to yourself, ‘I’m overloaded at work.  I hardly have any time to myself.  Someone else can do it.’  Stop!  Instead, imagine the possible incredible outcomes that may happen from your actions.  Think about how you can bring your special talents to the project.  Think about how inspired your children will be to model themselves after you and dedicate themselves to community.  The wonderful ramifications are endless!

Every day you reach many crossroads.  When the opportunity to do the right thing or the wrong thing presents itself, don’t just think of the here and now.  Imagine where this act might take you.  May you always choose the right path in life and draw down Heaven’s blessing into your life and the lives of your loved ones!

We didn't steal the Land of Israel

Daf Yomi Gittin 46

The Children of Israel had just crossed over the Jordan and were about to embark on their important mission to triumph over the land that was promised to their forefathers.   Suddenly, they received a strange, unexpected delegation. 
‘We have come from a land far away to offer you a peace offering,’ said the visitors.
‘That is very generous of you,’ replied Joshua.
‘Then let us make a treaty and swear an oath not to harm one another,’ requested the visitors.
‘Thus we shall do!’ responded Joshua and the leaders of Israel.
Only once they had vowed not to harm them, did the ‘visitors’ reveal themselves as Gibeonites – local inhabitants of the land of Canaan.   Now they would not be conquered along with the other Canaanites; instead, they would live in peace side-by-side with the Children of Israel.

The Book of Joshua states, “And the Children of Israel did not smite them [the Gibeonites], because the princes of the assembly had sworn unto them.”
The Gemara asks: Why should the oath have taken effect at all?  Did they not falsely claim to have journeyed from a distant land?
The Gemara answers: Indeed, the oath did not take effect at all.  The Israelites did not smite the Gibeonites in order to sanctify Hashem’s name.
Tosfos asks: Concerning the Canaanite nations, the Torah states, “You shall not let anyone live.”  How could the Israelites take an oath against the Torah?
Tosfos answers: The Jerusalem Talmud explains that Joshua offered three choices to the inhabitants of the land of Canaan: Flee, make peace, or fight.  The Girgashites fled, the Gibeonites made peace, and thirty-one kings waged war.
Question: So, if peace was an option, why did the Gibeonites need to deceive Joshua? 
Answer: The option of peace was only available prior to the Israelites’ entry into the land.  The Gibeonites had missed their opportunity and therefore resorted to deception.

A simple reading of the text of the Torah often presents us with an incomplete picture.  Without the benefit of the Oral Law, it would appear that Hashem had instructed us to conquer a land that did not belong to us and wipe out its inhabitants indiscriminately.  As the Jerusalem Talmud quoted by Tosfos demonstrates, the truth is far from what meets the eye.  For starters, as the Talmud clarifies, all the nations of Canaan were offered the opportunity to accept the Israelites peacefully.

Secondly, a simple reading of the Torah would lead one to imagine that we stole the land from the indigenous Canaanites.  Such an understanding could not be further from the truth!   As Rashi points out in Parshas Lech Lecha, the land of Canaan was originally the territory of Noach’s son, Shem.  By the time Avraham arrived on the scene, the Canaanites had conquered the land from Shem’s family, leaving him nothing but the small area of Jerusalem. 

Avraham was Shem’s great-grandson and heir to his values, national identity, and territory.  And so Hashem’s promise to Avraham was to restore his family to their rightful land.  When the Israelites entered Canaan, they were returning to their ‘birthright.’  The fact that we offered the local nations the opportunity to remain in our land was incredibly progressive, and unique to the moral code of the Torah. 

Of course, as Nachmanides often notes, the Torah’s narrative is not merely a story; it is a guide for future generations.  Whatever occurred to our forefathers is repeated in some similar fashion in later history.  And so when we returned from Babylonia/Persia to rebuild the Second Temple, we once again found locals inhabiting the land, known as the Samaritans.  Although they did not make our lives easy, we learned to accommodate them and live peacefully alongside them.  And likewise, when we returned to our homeland over the course of the last century, we found new locals.  Once again, we have done our very best to accommodate them and live peacefully with them.

Why have we always gone to such great lengths to accommodate the locals even though the land belongs to the People of Israel?  As the Talmud concludes regarding our oath to the Gibeonites, we hold ourselves to a higher standard.  We act on the basis of ‘Kiddush Hashem’ – sanctifying G-d’s name.  We want the world to recognize that we live according to a higher moral code and that, as Hashem’s chosen nation, we treat all peoples with the utmost respect and decency – even when they do not respond in kind.  Even when the Gibeonites unquestionably deceived us, we responded with peace and kindness.

The Land of Israel is our homeland.   We have always treated the local inhabitants who have arrived in our land over the centuries with the utmost respect and civility.   May we see peace in the Holy Land immediately!

Wednesday, 27 January 2016

Break out of your addiction!

Daf Yomi Gittin 45

The Great Flood was over.  After twelve long months in the ark, Noah steps out to see the world.  Nature appears to be blooming, but the society Noah once knew has long disappeared.   And so he plants a vineyard and partakes of its fruit.  He has a drink.  And another.  And another.  Until before he knows it, he is lying face-down on the ground in a drunken stupor. 

At that point, his youngest son, Cham, sees him and takes advantage of him.   When Noah awakens, he is angry.  He realizes what he has done to himself and how low he has sunk.   He immediately enrols in a local 12-step program.  Indeed, that is the last time the Torah reports of him taking a drink! 

The daughters of Rav Nachman used to stir a cauldron with their hands while it was boiling hot. Rav Ellis was puzzled about it.  It is written, “One man among a thousand have I found, but a woman among all those have I not found,” and here are the daughters of Rav Nachman!  A misfortune happened to them and they were carried away captive, and he also with them.

One day a man was sitting next to him who understood the language of birds. A raven came and called to him, and Rav Ellis said to him, “What does it say?”
“It says,” he replied, “Ellis, run away, Ellis, run away.”
He said, “The raven is a false bird, and I do not trust it.”
Then a dove came and called. He again asked, “What does it say?”
“It says,” the man replied, “Ellis, run away, Ellis run, away.”
Said Ellis, “The community of Israel is likened to a dove; this shows that a miracle will be performed for me.”

He continued, “I will go and see the daughters of Rav Nachman; if they have retained their virtue, I will bring them back.” He continued, “Women talk over their business in the privy. He overheard them saying: These captors are our husbands just as the Nehardeans were our husbands. Let us tell our captors to remove us to a distance from here, so that our original husbands may not come and hear where we are and ransom us.” Rav Ellis then rose and fled, along with the other man. A miracle was performed for him, and he got across the river, but the other man was caught and killed. 
When the daughters of Rav Nachman came back, he said, “They stirred the cauldron by witchcraft.”

In this tale, Rav Ellis is sharing a powerful lesson about the power of the yetzer hara and addiction.  While he tells his story in the first person, it is clear that he is a conveying a message that is relevant to each and every one of us.  He merely employs a first-person narrative to increase the emotive power of the story.   So in explaining the meaning of the parable, let us look at what can happen to any of us in our own lives as we struggle with the dark side.

When you are ensnared by the yetzer hara, it begins with an infatuation.  The person in the story saw the daughters of Rav Nachman and was mesmerized by not just what they cooked, but how they cooked.  It was magical the way they stirred that pot.  It was almost angelic!  So the first message Rav Ellis conveys is that we must be careful where we allow our eyes to wander and become fixated.  When we do find ourselves irrationally being swept off our feet, we should concentrate on other matters and not allow the yetzer hara to implant in our mind all sorts of wondrous imaginations.  Don’t let him convince you that the object of your desire is anything out of the ordinary – bring yourself back to reality! 

Because the yetzer hara has a way of taking us captive along with the object of our desire.   And so in the parable, the man is captured along with the beautiful women.  Whilst in captivity, he encounters a fellow who understands the language of birds.  He first tells him that the raven tells him to escape; but he doesn’t trust the raven.   He then hears the message from a dove and with that, he is convinced, because Israel is compared to a dove.  Not only that, he believes that a miracle will happen to him.

The message of the bird-man is that sometimes when we are trapped by the yetzer hara, we must not be afraid to seek help.  Help might come in the form of your rabbi or a psychologist or counselor, depending on the nature of the addiction.   Addiction sounds like a strong word, a word we associate with substance abuse.  But in reality, every time the yetzer hara captures us, his net takes the form of an addiction.  You might be addicted to the internet.  You might be addicted to TV.  Or you might be addicted to making snide remarks to your spouse.  You’ve been doing it so long that you don’t know how to get out of the yetzer hara’s prison.

Rav Ellis warns that you need to be selective regarding whom you turn to.  There are ravens who appear to show you an escape route, but they are false.  You should only turn to and listen to someone who is truly trustworthy – as symbolized by the dove.  When you tune in to and learn from the right guides, miracles will happen in your life.  That’s how you can tell that you’re getting good advice – when the Almighty steps in and lends His helping hand to pull you out of your challenges.

At that point, the man must deal with his addiction.  Until now, he had objectified these women, idolizing them until he imagined that they were flawless.  Once he was able to step away and view his desires in a less than perfect light, he was able to run away from the prison of the yetzer hara.   Sure enough, a miracle happens and he makes it across the proverbial river.  At that point, he can take leave of his bird-man – even when you turn to a professional for help, eventually you should be able to continue on your own, if he has been successful in helping you escape your demons.

Finally, he is home and he realizes that he had been infatuated with forbidden fruit.  Once he could see that for himself, he recognized that it was nothing more than the witchcraft of the yetzer hara that had trapped him.  Sometimes when you’re in the moment, you can’t see it.  But when you get help and release yourself from your addictions, you wonder how you were ever trapped in the first place!

At various times in life, we all suffer from addictions.  The problem is that when we’re in the yetzer hara’s prison, we don’t realize that we’re addicted.  It may be an addiction to lashon hara, to jealousy, to looking at immodest images, to infatuation with forbidden fruit.  The key to escaping is to find someone you can trust to help you find an escape route.  The right person will teach you how to escape without forever needing to rely upon their guidance.  May you merit the strength to acknowledge your addictions and break out of the yetzer hara’s prison!

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

How much is a mitzvah worth?

Daf Yomi Gittin 44

Yankel was a poor tailor who lived in Pinsk.  He sewed day and night but could never seem to make enough money to feed his family of ten.  One day, he learns of an island far away, where instead of sand, the seashore was full of diamonds.  And so he sets off to find his El Dorado.

After months at sea, he finally arrives.  Sure enough, the place is full of diamonds.  He fills his pockets, his knapsack, his hat.  He can’t believe how rich he has become.  He then sets off to the nearest restaurant and orders the finest cuisine.  At the end of the meal, he pulls a huge diamond out of his pocket, and tells the waiter to keep the change.
‘Are you kidding me?’ says the waiter.  ‘Diamonds are worth nothing on this island!  The currency here is fish!’

Crestfallen, he empties his pockets and sets out to learn how to fish.   He’s a quick learner and in no time manages to become quite wealthy as a fisherman.  After amassing a small fortune, he sends word home to his wife to put a down payment on a mansion, because he is on his way home with money galore.

He arrives home with three boatloads of fish.  By now, they’re pretty smelly, having been in the hold for months.  Undeterred, he goes to the bank and offers to complete payment on the house with his spoiled fish.
‘Seriously?!’ the bank manager screams at him incredulously.  ‘Why would I want your smelly fish?’ 

The poor tailor walks away downtrodden.  He gets home, takes off his clothing; is getting ready to go to bed, when he hears a clunk.  Out of his pocket has fallen one lone diamond that remained from his original gathering!  His wife has never seen anything so beautiful.  She picks it up, runs to the bank; and with that single diamond, she pays off the entire new house!

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught: If one sold his servant to a gentile, we penalize him and make him buy the person back for even up to one hundred times the amount.
The Gemara asks: Is one hundred a precise figure or an exaggeration?
Listen to the following proof: Reish Lakish taught: If one sold a large animal to a gentile, we penalize him and make him buy it back for even up to ten times the amount.
The Gemara responds: Perhaps a servant is different though.  For every day he is in the hands of the gentile, he is removed from mitzvos.
Rashi explains: In the gentile home, he cannot observe Shabbat and other commandments.

In days of yore, human beings were sometimes sold as servants.  How did that happen?  One example provided by the Torah regarding Jewish servants occurred when someone lacked the means to feed his family.  He would sell himself and use the funds to provide for his loved ones.   Jewish servants, of course, continued to be bound by all 613 commandments of the Torah.

Sometimes, Jews also purchased the services of gentiles.  Gentile servants loved joining Jewish families, because they were treated as human beings, with the utmost respect and honour.  In fact, they were such an accepted part of the family that the Torah expected them to take part in mitzvah observance, such as Shabbos and kosher.   Not all 613 mitzvos, but most of them.

Our Gemara discusses a Jewish family that sold their servant to a gentile family.  The Sages decreed that if that ever happened, we would force the Jewish family to buy him back.  Why?  Because he would no longer be able to observe the mitzvos.  In fact, they went so far as to say that one is obligated to pay literally a hundred times the original sale price to get him back!

Let’s give that scenario some perspective.  Today, if I would want to hire domestic help, it would cost me about twenty thousand dollars a year, at least.  Now, back in the day, you didn’t just purchase for a year; the sale was forever.  And so it would have cost substantially more.  But for argument’s sake, let’s stick with the figure of twenty thousand.   Listen to what our Sages demanded of a person who sold his gentile servant: you would have to pay a hundred times the amount to get him back.  That’s two million dollars! 

Why would you have to pay so much?  You could get a new servant for a hundredth of the price!  The reason you have to pay that exorbitant amount is that you have now deprived him of the ability to perform mitzvos.  A gentile no less, and yet our Sages are concerned to the tune of two million dollars!  If that’s how much non-Jewish mitzvah performance is worth, can you imagine how much the Jewish performance of a mitzvah must be worth?  Millions!!  After all, Hashem gave Torah and mitzvos to the People of Israel to observe! 

So if mitzvos are so valuable, why are people negligent in their performance?  The problem is that we live on an island full of diamonds.  Mitzvos are so easy to come by that we don’t appreciate their true value.   When we get home – after 120 years on this Earth – our loved ones will ask to see the diamonds we’ve brought with us.  And we’ll begin to cry, realizing that we could have been Heavenly multi-billionaires, if only we had appreciated the value of a mitzvah.

Next time you’re lying in bed, hitting that snooze button and debating whether or not to get up for minyan, ask yourself if you would go for a million bucks.   And next time you’re debating whether to eat a product that’s probably not kosher, ask yourself if it’s worth the risk for a million dollars.  Once you’ve had that conversation with yourself, the results will speak for themselves!

Mitzvos are priceless.   We don’t realize their value simply because they are found in such abundance here.  May you merit filling up your pockets, bags and U-Hauls with mitzvos in preparation for your journey to the Real World!  

Tripping over Torah

Daf Yomi Gittin 43

The Prophet Isaiah tells of how, in the late First Temple period, Jewish learning had reached an all-time low.   People didn’t know where to turn to for guidance and leadership.  The Torah was so confusing to them that instead of seeing it as a ray of light that would provide blessing and goodness in their lives, they viewed it as a “stumbling-block,” a noose around their collective necks that would ensnare them if they messed up in their understanding and application of the Word of Hashem.  And so, when they would encounter anyone with a basic foundation in Torah knowledge they would grab him and implore him to teach them.

Rabbah bar Rav Huna appointed a spokesman and taught: The meaning of Isaiah’s description, “This stumbling-block is under your hand,” is as follows: A person cannot comprehend the true meaning of the words of Torah unless he is prepared to initially stumble over them.

Sadly, the Jewish world of the twenty-first century is not dissimilar to Isaiah’s days.  The number of people with a solid foundation in Torah compared to our total population is woeful.   While Torah has blossomed in certain segments of our community, the chasm between the learned and the unlettered has grown to levels unheard of in our history.

The only difference between the days of Isaiah and today is that back in the day, the Jewish people appreciated what they were lacking.  Today, sadly, the average Jew is like the child at the Pesach seder who doesn’t even know how to ask.  

So what’s stopping you?  If you know an aleph and a beis, and you know someone who only knows an aleph, you have a duty to teach them that beis!  Believe it or not, most Jews in the world today do not even know an aleph!  We are probably witnessing the highest levels of illiteracy in the history of the Jewish people!  We were always known as the People of the Book because of our unparalleled levels of literacy compared to everyone around us.  Sadly, that moniker is but a distant memory that may have once defined us, but has long since eluded our people.

I’ll tell you what’s stopping you.  You think that you need to be a rabbi or big talmid chacham (scholar) to teach Torah.  You’re afraid of making mistakes.  Of being asked questions that you can’t answer on the spot. Of telling people the wrong things.

Says Rabbah bar Rav Huna: Never let that stop you!  The classic aphorism about success says that in order to be successful, you must be prepared to make mistakes.  If you’ve experienced any amount of success in your material life, you know that it wasn’t a straight line to get there.  You hit bumps and snags along the way, but they didn’t stop you.  You learned from them.  So why are you applying an unreachable standard to your duty to teach Torah?   Yes, you’ll make mistakes, but as long as you’re willing to humbly learn from your mistakes and correct them, you’re on the right track!

Everyone makes mistakes.  But that shouldn’t stop you teaching Torah.  A number of years ago, I was asked about the permissibility of placing a coffeemaker on a timer for Shabbat morning.  I thought about it, looked into the Hilchos Shabbos (Laws of Shabbos) seforim and concluded that it was forbidden.  Some years later, I learned that Rabbi Heinemann permits such a coffeemaker.  I immediately called up the fellow that had asked me the shayla years earlier.
“Jack, this is a little awkward, but I’m calling about the coffeemaker.”
“Coffeemaker?  I’m sorry, Rabbi, you must have the wrong person.”
“No, no.  A while back you asked me about putting a coffeemaker on a timer for Shabbos morning.  I told you one thing, but now it’s come to my attention that some permit it.”
“That is awesome news, Rabbi, thank you so much for calling me back.  I don’t know whether I should mention this, but we actually gave up coffee years ago!”

Nobody ever said that mastering the Word of Hashem would be easy.  Whether you’re learning Torah or teaching, don’t let the fact that it is a “stumbling block” stop you from becoming the best you can be.  May you devote your life to learning and teaching, and growing from your mistakes as you go along!

Monday, 25 January 2016

Maintaining your Freedom

Daf Yomi Gittin 42

Yosef was languishing in prison in Egypt.  Each morning he would pray, ‘Hashem, please release me from this dungeon.  If only I could be a freeman once again!’
But while Yosef was davening for simple freedom, Hashem had much greater plans for him.  When he was finally let out of jail, he didn’t become a regular Joe; he was elevated to the status of royalty!  Yosef became the viceroy of Egypt, second only in command and stature to the Pharaoh himself!

The Torah states, “If an ox gores a servant or a maid, its owner shall give unto their master a fine of thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.”
They asked: If a servant was emancipated but did not receive his bill of emancipation, must the fine be paid or not?  Do we say that the Torah states, “its owner shall give unto their master a fine of thirty shekels of silver,” and this man is no longer the master; or perhaps, since the servant did not yet receive his bill of emancipation, he is still called the master?

On Pesach, we celebrate our emancipation from slavery in Egypt.   It may have been the first time in history that we experienced emancipation.  But it was not the final time.  In the modern era, the emancipation of the Jewish people took place across Western Europe throughout the nineteenth century.  No longer would we be confined to ghettos.  The world was opening up to us.  Jews were being admitted to universities.  We were gaining exposure to the culture of Europe.  Finally, we were free.

But there was something fundamentally different between our first emancipation from Egypt and our more recent emancipation from the European ghetto.  While we were celebrating and enjoying our newfound freedoms a hundred and fifty years ago, something tragically was lost in transmission.  Somehow, many of the children of the generation of emancipation ended up converting to Christianity or otherwise assimilating.  The supposed freedom of religion that was meant to be the consequence of emancipation quickly evolved into freedom from religion.  And the emancipated Jew became the lost Jew.

In other words, instead of freeing us and allowing Jewish culture and heritage to flourish, emancipation had a devastating effect on Jewish life.  How did that happen?  What went wrong?  What was different about the European emancipation, as opposed to the Egyptian emancipation?

The punchline of the Exodus story was, of course, the Giving of the Torah.  Until we received the Torah, we were like slaves lacking our bill of emancipation.   The Torah was our liberty document, teaching and guiding us how to act as free men.  Slaves and free men walk differently, speak differently, eat differently, hold themselves differently, and most of all, act differently.   It’s one thing to be physically free Israelites; it’s another thing entirely to know how to maintain that position of privilege.  The Torah provides us with the path of maintaining our special status.

And that was what the Western European and early American Jews lacked.  Yes, they were free, emancipated from the shtetl and the ghetto.  But now what?  How do you maintain your freedom and at the same time, your Judaism?  It’s not enough just to be free, you need the guidebook of freedom.  The emancipation document is the Torah, our guidebook for life.

When the Almighty freed us from Egypt, He transported us to a completely different dimension.  As His chosen nation, we transcend the limitations of this world.  That is the meaning of freedom.  We operate on a plane that is above the destiny of this physical world.   When you place your trust in Hashem, all your needs are taken care of.  Miracles happen in your life – from the big ones like the business deals that you need to break to the little ones like the parking spot that appears in the crowded lot just when you’re running late for an important meeting.   You’re not limited by this world.  You are free.

But it’s impossible to know how to act like a freeman and maintain your special status unless you have the Liberty Document.  That’s the guide to flying above the limitations of this world.  It spells out how spiritual beings conduct themselves.  It provides the guide for walking, talking, and acting like royalty.  Because that’s what you are – not just no longer a slave, but now a child of the King of Kings, which makes you a Prince or Princess of Princes and Princesses!

Yosef may have davened for simple freedom, but the Almighty had much greater plans for him. You are not just free.  Your bill of emancipation – our holy Torah – makes you royalty.   May you follow the Guide to princely behaviour and soar even higher than the highest angels!  

Sunday, 24 January 2016

Kiddush Clubs

Daf Yomi Gittin 38

Some years ago, the OU, the largest Orthodox synagogue network, decided to ban Kiddush clubs.  A Kiddush club is typically made up of a group of men that gathers sometime in the middle of the Shabbos morning service, and makes Kiddush over a shot of scotch. It’s a forum for schmoozing and catching up on the past week.   

Why did the OU issue the ban?  Because strictly speaking, everyone should be in shul, completely enveloped in the davening and layning.   Wandering out of shul for a Kiddush club has no place in our tradition.

But that would be the ideal in a perfect world.  The fact is, shul communities are made up of real people.  Real people don’t necessarily sit quietly for three hours.  Real people don’t necessarily wait until noon to have a glass of water or cup of coffee.   What’s better: to sit in shul and chat or go outside to the Kiddush club and chat?  What’s better: to go and have a cup of coffee without making Kiddush or to make Kiddush first? 

So what’s the big deal with Kiddush clubs?

Rabbah taught: There are three activities that cause a person’s assets to diminish: Freeing servants (thereby transgressing the verse, “They shall work for you always”); Inspecting property on Shabbat; Arranging Shabbat meals during the time of study.
Rashi explains: When the rabbi is giving the sermon, they are feasting. 

Apparently, Kiddush clubs are not a new phenomenon.  Some people have always walked out on the drosha to enjoy a bissele shnaps!  Now, I must say, different people in different shuls walk out at different points in the service.  Some walk out during their rabbi’s sermon.  Others don’t want to be disrespectful and so they hold their Kiddush club during the Haftara.  Still others feel bad about ditching the ‘Prophet’s sermon’ and so they wait until after kedusha of Musaf to meander out of the sanctuary.

I feel a little uncomfortable writing today’s message from the Daf.  On most days, when I write, I am just as much writing to encourage myself as anyone else.  We could all do with improving our positive attitudes, being kinder to people, helping those in need, the list goes on.  But when it comes to the Kiddush club, let’s be honest: here I am sitting next to the Aron Kodesh – what do you think, I’m going to leave the shul with everyone watching to go have a l’chaim?! 

So, in that regard, despite my full view of who’s in and who’s out of the sanctuary, far be it from me to judge anyone.  As I mentioned earlier, it’s certainly better to chat outside the shul than to disturb the people around you who are trying to concentrate on their davening.  And certainly, if you are going to have a cup of coffee or glass of water, you most certainly should be making Kiddush first!

I guess the point of today’s message is that you need to weigh up and assess where you personally are at in terms of your own service of Heaven.  On the one hand, the Gemara’s consequences for stepping out during the rabbi’s sermon are pretty heavy.  But on the other hand, I’d rather someone stepped out during my sermon than the words of the Prophet or the davening.  And it goes without saying that it’s always preferable to take your conversation outside rather than disturb anyone else.

I think that probably the greatest challenge of the Kiddush club is that you don’t want to look like the frummie guy who’s ‘holier than thou’ – better than all your buddies.   So, it’s much easier to go with the flow and follow the crowd out the door.  After all, they’re your mates and you don’t want to snub them and you don’t want them snubbing you for not being one of the guys.  So it’s complicated.  

At the end of the day, knowledge is power.  Sometimes, we’re davening for parnassah (livelihood) and we’re simply unaware of the keys and strategies our Sages have already taught.  You might not be ready to completely quit your Kiddush club, but Hashem loves every little effort we make.   Just beginning with placing the smallest limits on your participation and not going all out will bring incredible blessing into your life!  As time goes on, you can reassess what makes the most sense for your personal relationship with Heaven. 

Your buddies don’t know what’s going on in your heart.  It doesn’t matter what they think.  It doesn’t even matter what your rabbi thinks.  All that matters is what Hashem knows.  He doesn’t judge.  He just wants you to do your best.  May you always make your own decisions and never feel obligated to follow the crowd, and may you be forever blessed with abundant parnassah!  

Never stop growing!

Daf Yomi Gittin 39

In 2011, Indian-British Fauja Singh became the first centenarian to ever run a marathon.  The week he turned 100, he broke the world records for the 100m, 200m, 400m, and 3000m – all in the space of ninety four minutes!   Three days later, he ran his marathon, the crowning glory of his record-breaking streak.  You’d think that such an accomplished athlete was probably running his whole life.  Actually, he took up marathon running after his wife passed away, when he was eighty seven years old.  After his loss, he needed something to keep him going, he says! 

If one consecrated his servant to the Temple, the owner is not liable if he subsequently made personal use of him.  Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel says: He is liable if he uses his hair.
The Gemara explains: One maintains that hair has the status of being already cut, while the other maintains that uncut hair still has the status of the servant.
The Gemara asks: Shall we say that the debate is the same as the following?
For we learned: Rabbi Meir says some produce is like the land, but they are not land; but the Sages disagree.  How so?  Rabbi Yossi the son of Rabbi Chanina says they disagree over grapes that are ripe and ready to be harvested.  Rabbi Meir maintains it is as if they are already picked; but the Sages maintain that they are not considered severed from the ground.
The Gemara responds: No, the debate is not similar.  Rabbi Meir might aver that uncut hair is not like uncut fruit.  In the case of the grapes, once they are ripe, the longer they remain on the vine the more they spoil; whereas in the case of the hair, the longer it remains on the head the more it improves.

Often in life, we believe that the longer we stick around, the greater the accomplishment.  But most activities are like grapes – once they are ripe, it’s time to pick them.  Any longer on the vine, they will simply spoil.  If you’re still around, don’t ever become like grapes.  You want to always be like that hair, growing stronger and stronger! 

Maybe you’re the longest serving employee in your company.  While everyone else has not lasted, you have stayed, dedicated to the company, holding the fort, a committed employee!  Every morning you wake up, look in the mirror, and pat yourself on the back for your incredible, unparalleled dedication!  ‘What a model employee!’ you tell yourself!

Here’s the thing: In life, there’s no prize for the last man standing.  Simply sticking around is not laudable.  What’s important is what you are doing while you are sticking around.  You don’t get points for being the most dedicated conveyor belt worker when all your friends have long since moved on to better-paying, more lucrative positions. 

Whatever you are doing in life, you must always be growing.  If you’re stuck on the conveyor belt, find ways to pick up new skills so that you have what to show for the time you spent on the factory floor.  It’s not always easy to move onwards and upwards in your career – the right opportunity must present itself and become available – but that’s no excuse to remain in a state of inertia.  Every year that you can’t look back upon and clearly see how you’ve improved over the last twelve months is a wasted year! 

And if that’s true of your professional life, how much more so when it comes to your actual life.  As long as the Almighty has kept you here on Earth, it means you have more to accomplish.  Some people think that the golden years are when you’re meant to gradually slow things down in your life until you’re eventually ready to pass on.  Isn’t that ridiculous?  They’re called the golden years because they’re the most precious years of your life.  You’ve reached a level of maturity and self-sufficiency when you can reach your greatest goals!

Next time you’re lying in bed because it’s three o’clock in the morning and it’s not time to get up yet, but you can’t fall back to sleep, think about Fauja Singh, the centenarian marathon runner.  I promise you, when he wakes up, it doesn’t matter what time it is, he jumps out of bed!  He has a mission in life and nothing’s going to stop him.  Age is not a barrier; on the contrary, age is his driving motivator!  After all, it’s because he is over a hundred that he is winning medals!

They recently announced that the oldest man in the world is a frum Holocaust survivor living in Israel.  He has been an observant Jew his entire life.  I know what you’re thinking, but no, he’s not a rabbi – he’s a candy-maker, the son of a candy-maker.  When I heard about this hero, I said to myself: I am sure this man is breaking world records, every day.  He probably goes to minyan three times a day and sticks around for Daf Yomi.  If he does, then he is the oldest ever Daf Yomi learner!   For all we know, he’s been learning the Daf since its inception in 1923!  Do the Guinness people have a Daf Yomi category?!

If you are at some point in your life where you feel that you’ve plateaued, it’s time to figure out what the next growth phase should be.  It might be learning something new, writing something new, teaching others.  The key to remember always is that the Almighty never intended you to be static in life.  May you constantly grow throughout your short, precious time on this Earth!  

The Myth of Overpopulation

Daf Yomi Gittin 41

After downgrading Pluto a couple of years ago, scientist announced this week that they may have found a replacement ninth planet.  Nothing is certain yet in terms of the exact nature of their discovery.  But one thing’s for sure: in no time, the government will announce investments of billions of dollars into equipment and spacecraft that will investigate this exciting find!

Why are we so obsessed with exploring and understanding the far reaches of outer space?

One who is part servant and partly emancipated works for his master one day and works for himself the next day, according to Beis Hillel. 
Beis Shamai says: You have remedied the needs of his master, but not his own needs.  He may not marry a maidservant, since he is partly emancipated.  He may not marry a freewoman, since he is part servant.  Should he not get married?  But was the world not created so that we should be fruitful and multiply?  As the verse states, “It was not created to be desolate; it was made to be inhabited!”  And so, for the sake of tikkun olam, we force the master to emancipate him.  He should write a bill of emancipation for to release his other half.
Beis Hillel conceded to the opinion of Beis Shamai. 

Back in the seventies, theories of earth’s overpopulation began to abound.  Having too many children was touted as a selfish drain on Earth’s limited resources.  Birth rates dropped dramatically, with most western countries seeing the average not even reaching replacement levels – in other words, nowadays most families have less than two kids.  Does the world have limited resources?

Not according to our tradition.  As the prophet Isaiah declares, “It was not created to be desolate; it was made to be inhabited!”  You know what causes a depletion of resources?  A depletion of people!  When human beings disappear, the earth dries up.

Our greatest example, of course, is the Land of Israel, which lay desolate for over a dozen centuries.   In the nineteenth century, Mark Twain visited Israel and famously described it as “a desolate country . . . given over wholly to weeds . . . a silent mournful expanse . . .  we never saw a human being on the whole route . . . hardly a tree or shrub anywhere.  Even the olive tree and the cactus, those fast friends of a worthless soil, had almost deserted the country.”

And then the aliyot (immigration) to Israel began, and slowly but surely, the desert began to bloom.   Israel is a modern-day ‘miracle’ – a country transformed from an uninhabitable wasteland to one of the most beautiful places in the world!  You see, resources are not depleted due to human inhabitation; resources shrivel up and are depleted to the absence of human inhabitation! 

The thing is, we have no idea about the potential this Earth has to offer.  We used to joke that Hashem promised us the only country in the region without natural resources – every other country has billions of barrels of oil just waiting to be extracted.  Poor Israel – we had to rely on our human capital.  Until one day, we suddenly discovered massive natural gas reserves off the coast of Haifa!

Our world isn’t disappearing anytime soon.  There is more than enough to go around for millions and billions of years to come.  We haven’t begun to scratch the surface of understanding our world.  How many kilometres into the Earth’s core have we dug?  What do we know about the great sea-beds of the world?  We are so tragically clueless that we failed to find MH-370, the Malaysian airliner that disappeared just a couple of years ago!  That’s how far we still have yet to go in terms of exploring our planet.  It doesn’t mean we should abuse our resources, G-d forbid; but we mustn’t question the Almighty’s ability to feed the planet, as long as we treat it properly.

The problem is that we don’t bother trying to understand what Earth has to offer.  We’re more interested in exploring the vast expanses of the universe.  We invest billions into space research when we have no idea about our own planet!  Why do we care whether or not a ninth planet exists?

The answer was provided a century and a half ago by the great Rebbe of Kotzk.  He would say, “When I was young, I thought I could change the world.  As I got older, I thought at least I could change my country.  A little older yet, and I would have been happy to change my city, or my community.  Now, I realize that I will be lucky if I am able to change myself!”

Exploring outer space is a wonderful distraction from the here and now.   You don’t need to worry about making this world a better place when you’re occupied with the lofty goals of expanding our knowledge of the universe!  Unfortunately, such escapist attitudes aren’t helpful.  We need investment in this world, financial and emotional.  Let’s figure out our own planet before we try to solve the mysteries of the rest of the galaxy!

There’s more than enough to feed billions upon billions of earthlings.   As we do our part to inhabit our planet, the Almighty will do His part to provide.  Meanwhile, we must strive to understand and work on ourselves, our communities, our cities and our countries.  May you merit a lifetime of real impact on the people and places that are close to you and truly matter!

Friday, 22 January 2016

Taking a Bribe to do Jewish

Daf Yomi Gittin 40

A number of years ago, a kiruv (outreach) organization on campuses across North America started the Maimonides Fellowship.  The Maimonides initiative invites students to learn Torah and offers them a stipend to do so.   Initially, the program came under fire with critics saying: how dare they bribe these young men and women to learn!   But the program gathered steam and eventually extended to a high school program!

Meanwhile, before long, a similar program was born that received widespread support across the Jewish community.  ‘Birthright’ offers college students the opportunity to visit Israel for ten days on an all-expenses paid trip.  The goal of Birthright is to inculcate young Jewish men and women with values of love for the State of Israel and Am Yisrael.   Baruch Hashem, the program has been very successful, and no longer is anyone questioning the wisdom of offering these ‘bribes’! 

There was once a servant that was shared by two partners.  One decided to release his share.  The other partner said to himself, ‘Now the rabbis will hear and force me to release my share!’  And so he went and transferred ownership to his child.
Rav Yosef the son of Rava sent the case to Rav Papa.  He sent back, “As he has done, so shall be done to him.  Let his dealings come back upon his head!  We know that children love shiny coins.  We will appoint a guardian for the child and then jingle some coins before him (and thereby entice him to release the servant).  Then the guardian writes the emancipation document in the child’s name.”

The right thing to do in this case was to free the servant.  Rav Papa’s solution to the problem was to bribe the child to do the right thing.  In other words, sometimes – especially when we’re dealing with children – we have to offer incentives so that they do the right thing.

We live in a generation full of spiritual children.  A parent or schoolteacher wouldn’t hesitate to incentivize good behaviour and dedication to learning with candy and prize.  Likewise, we shouldn’t be reluctant to incentivize greater commitment to our heritage among our spiritual children.  If a young adult doesn’t appreciate our heritage –Torah, mitzvos, Israel, or our people – we have a duty to do whatever we can to cultivate these values within them.  Yes, it might look like a ‘bribe’ but eventually they will come to truly appreciate all the investment that has been made in them; and hopefully reinvest back into the Jewish people!

Our Sages teach us that “From performance for the wrong reasons comes performance for the right reasons.”  That doesn’t just mean that we want people to do the right thing for the wrong reason until they eventually do it for the right reason.  According to Kabbalah, it means that when they ultimately do it for the right reasons, they will transform all the mitzvos they did for the wrong reasons and they too will be considered as if they were performed for the right reasons!

What does it mean for you practically?  Firstly, you can get involved by helping to sponsor a program like Maimonides or Birthright.  Don’t think of it as a bribe; think of it as an investment in this young person’s soul.  Sure, not everyone will decide to transform their life; but G-d willing, the program will ignite a spark in at least some of the participants.  When that happens, and they become beacons of light for others, your ‘investment’ has multiplied hundreds of percent!

And even on a personal level, there’s nothing wrong with incentivizing your own religious practice.  Let’s say you’re struggling with getting up in the morning for minyan.  At the same time, you’ve been eyeing a beautiful watch, but not sure if you should spend the money.  Make a deal with yourself: If you get up on time for minyan for a month, you’ve earned the watch.  And don’t worry, if you do the right thing by Hashem, as Rav Papa declared, “As he has done, so shall be done to him;” He will bless with you with the parnassah you seek!  Last time I checked, the Torah doesn’t have a problem with bribing yourself!

We are all spiritual children.  Sometimes we need incentives to stay on track.  May you find ways to encourage your own spiritual growth and the growth of those around you!  

Tuesday, 19 January 2016

Your best investment

Daf Yomi Gittin 37

The Canadian dollar is in free-fall, having dropped over 25% in the last year and a half, the fastest decline in history.  Our strongest resource, oil, has fallen from a high of $120 to less than $30 also in less than two years.  The TSX Canadian stock-market, once on par with the Dow, now trails by thousands of points.  Tomorrow, the Bank of Canada will decide whether to cut interest rates to zero.  That means that your money in the bank is losing value at an alarming rate, once inflation is factored in!

Is there anywhere safe and secure to place your money that will still reap some return?

Concerning the release of loans in the sabbatical year, the Torah declares, “Every creditor shall release that which he has lent unto his neighbour; he shall not exact it of his neighbour and his brother; because Hashem’s release has been proclaimed. . . Take care, lest there become a wayward matter with your heart, saying: the sabbatical year is approaching, the year of the release.  And your eye will become wicked concerning your poor brother and you will not give him.”
Mishnah: Hillel instituted the Pruzbul for the benefit of society.
Gemara: Hillel noticed that, with the approach of the sabbatical year, people would stop lending money to one another, thereby transgressing the Torah’s admonition, “Take care, lest there become a wayward matter with your heart . . .” And so he arose and instituted the Pruzbul.  This is the text of the Pruzbul, “I hereby convey to you judges, in this place, that any debt I have owed to me from this person, I shall be able to collect it whenever I desire.” The judges then sign at the bottom.
What is the meaning of the word Pruzbul?  Rav Chisda taught: An enactment for the rich and poor.
Rashi explains: It is an enactment for the rich so that they do not lose their money.  And it is an enactment for the poor so that the door of credit will not be shut before them.

Hillel noticed that the people of his generation were becoming less and less eager to lend money in the sixth year, as the sabbatical year approached.  They were worried that their loans would be cancelled.  Being that only private loans are cancelled and not institutional loans, Hillel enacted a system for individuals to transfer their debts to the court.

But think about how Hillel would have felt had he lived today.   Forget about people’s hesitation to lend money in the sixth year – how many people offer interest-free loans, as the Torah asks us to do, even during the first through fifth years?!   We’re not talking about lending to your children or siblings; the Torah instructs us to give to “your poor brother,” meaning our Jewish brothers and sisters who are truly lacking!

Our Sages tell us that the mitzvah of lending money interest-free is, in many respects, greater than giving tzedakah!  Why?  Firstly, tzedakah is an obligation, we are required to tithe ten percent of our earnings.  In other words, it’s not your choice because it’s not really your money.  You are simply a custodian of the money to choose how best to allocate it.  But secondly, and more importantly, charity doesn’t really help people get back on their feet.  Lending money gives them the opportunity to start a business or make an investment that will empower them to become self-sufficient.  That’s the ultimate.

But what if you don’t know any poor people to lend money to?  Unfortunately, every community has poor people – those who have lost their jobs and fallen on hard times.  Fortunately though, most major Jewish communities – including ours in Edmonton – have public free-loan societies.   They’re not charities, they don’t give away your money.  The trustees assess every application and lend money on behalf of the participants according to need and their plan for repayment.

When you give money to the free-loan society (known as a Gemach), it’s not a donation.   You don’t get a tax receipt.  You can’t allocate it from your tithes.  It’s like a bank – you make a deposit and someone else borrows the money you’ve deposited.  Only difference is, the return is far greater than any interest rate offered by the banks today!  Your return is unlimited spiritual reward in this world and the next!  Now that’s what I call a great investment!

Our Edmonton Gemach is still only in its early days.  It offers emergency loans, but they are capped quite low, because the coffers are still only beginning to fill up.  With time, we will get to a point where we can afford to offer serious business loans to help people get on their feet.  But to make that happen, you need to be a part of that and take a sum of money and apportion it as loan money.  Not charity.  But a loan.  You can ask for it back whenever you choose.  But in the meantime, know that it is earning a better return than any other investment out there by far!

Hillel was upset that once every seven years people stopped lending money and so he took a radical halachic step and created the Pruzbul.  Today, the problem is not that people have stopped lending; most haven’t even started!  May you invest in the mitzvah that is even greater than tzedakah and may you merit receiving incredible returns on your investment! 

I end this Life Yomi today with a heavy heart.  We have now reached the milestone of two years of Life Yomi together.  I want to take this opportunity to thank you all for your support and for taking time each day to learn the Daf with me and make it relevant to our lives.  But for now, Life Yomi is taking a break.  I have looming Ph.D. deadlines that will wait no longer.  I look forward to joining you all once more on this journey, G-d willing, in the not too distant future.  Thank you, b’hatzlacha, and l’hitraot! 

The Sun Factor

Daf Yomi Gittin 36

At this time of year in Edmonton, temperatures can reach minus forty.  Now, at that point, it doesn’t make a difference whether you’re talking Celsius or Fahrenheit.  It’s so cold that the scales converge!  The coldest I’ve experienced was one year when it reached minus forty, but it felt like minus forty seven with the wind chill factor.  That day, we were the second coldest place in the world, after Siberia!

But honestly, who are we kidding with this wind chill factor thing?  Minus forty seven is minus forty seven!  The temperature is how it feels outside, right?  And if it feels like minus forty seven, don’t tell me it’s really only minus forty!  I mean, they don’t tell you on a beautiful day in the middle of July that it’s actually zero degrees Celsius, but with the sun factor, it’s going to feel like thirty!   Right?! 

The Rabbis taught: Those who are insulted and do not offer insult in return, who hear their scorn and do not respond, who serve out of love and are happy with affliction, concerning them the verse states, “And those who love Him are like the sun which comes out in its strength.”

What a powerful reminder of how to stay on track and focused on your mission, even when people around are trying to cut your down!  When you know that you are doing the right thing, it doesn’t matter what anyone else is saying about you.   There will always be naysayers.   The better the job you are doing, the more they will shoot their venomous arrows.  The key is to avoid becoming ensnared by their insults. 

The moment you lower yourself to their level and shoot back at them, you’ve lost your momentum.   Let them say what they will; you know that you are on the right track, the track of productive work, optimism, positivity!  They are the ones who have chosen antagonism, cynicism, pessimism, negativity.  Never allow yourself to be dragged down to their level.  As soon as you insult them back, you’ve lost your edge; you’ve become just like them fuelled by the power of the yetzer hara, the forces of the dark side.

When Korach first began his uprising against Moshe in the Wilderness, Moshe’s response was strange.  The Torah says that he fell on his face.  Why didn’t he simply stand tall?  Our Sages explain that he needed a few moments to introspect and decide whether he was indeed guilty of the egotism Korach had ascribed to him.  Once he had determined that Korach’s claims were unfounded, he then arose, stood tall and proceeded to serve Hashem and lead the Children of Israel.   He didn’t stoop to the level of Korah or Dasan and Aviram who were hurling their insults at him.  He simply got on with the job Hashem had assigned him to do.

You know what you need to do.  Any abuse you receive from the naysayers who are fighting to cut you down, just ignore it.  They will wither away.  Accept the suffering and affliction with joy, knowing that the Almighty is merely challenging your patience and endurance.   And if, G-d forbid, you ever do get momentarily dragged down into the mire, be the first to apologize to your antagonists, and then move on.  They will be left scratching their heads, wondering how you have the strength to stay positive and focused on your mission, not even holding a grudge.

You see, it’s never worth bearing a grudge.  Grudges take a person toll on you.  They weigh you down and keep you from being your best.  They’re a strategy of the yetzer hara to remove your focus.  Instead of concentrating on your important mission on earth, you’ve allowed yourself to get bogged down by negative feelings.  You need to simply let it go and get on with your mission in full force!  If the naysayers want to ruin their happiness by hanging on to ill-feeling, that’s their prerogative; you don’t need to spoil your joy just because they choose to spoil theirs! 

The Gemara compares “those who are insulted and do not offer insult in return” to “the sun which comes out in its strength.”  When you rise above the derision, why are you likened to the sun?

Ever stood outside on a hot summer’s day and listened to the way people are cursing?  Do you think the sun gets offended?  Of course not!  He knows that he provides heat and light to the world and that the service he renders is essential to life on earth.  He’s not going to get upset when foolish people curse him out, he’s completely above such lowly insults!    He is so much greater than the silly fools that are deriding his work due to none other than their nearsightedness and focus on themselves and their immediate comfort and mood.

When you ignore the naysayers and critics, you are like the sun.  You know that your mission is so much greater than they will ever appreciate as they remain mired in their mediocrity.  May you always rise above and stay focused on your vital mission! 

Monday, 18 January 2016

Remove your faith blindfold!

Daf Yomi Gittin 35

Our patriarch Avraham discovered Hashem when he was just three years old.  Back in his day, they would worship the sun.  But young Avram realized that each night the sun would disappear.  The moon couldn’t be god either, because it would disappear each morning.  And so, after eliminating the possibility of every worshipped entity of his day, Avraham concluded that there must be a G-d that is greater than everything else.

Does that mean that Avraham stopped questioning?  Not at all.  When Hashem sought to destroy Sodom, Avraham stood there debating G-d’s decision with Him.  And when Avraham was getting on in years and had not been blessed with a child, and Hashem finally promised that he would have offspring of his own, the Torah says, “And he believed in Hashem.”   Does that mean that until now he had been harboring doubts?
Mishnah: Originally, a widow could only collect her ketubah money from the orphans with an oath (that she had not yet received payment).  However, in later years, the courts were wary of making her swear.
Gemara: What was the reason for the reason for the court’s reluctance?
Rav Kahane related (some say it was Rav Yehuda quoting Rav): There was once a fellow who in a year of drought deposited a gold coin with a certain widow.  She placed it in the flour jar and ended up baking it into a loaf of bread.   She then unwittingly gave the loaf to a poor man. 

The coin owner subsequently returned and said, ‘Please give me back my coin.’
She responded, ‘May one of my children be poisoned if I derived any benefit from your coin!’
They say that a short while later, sure enough one of her children died.  

When the Sages heard, they said, ‘If such is the case when a person swears truthfully, can you imagine when one swears falsely?!’
The Gemara asks: If she swore truthfully, why was she punished?
The Gemara answers:  Because she actually did receive benefit, from the space taken up by the coin in the loaf for which she didn’t use her own flour, thus leaving more flour in her jar for future use.
The Gemara asks: If so, why did the Sages say that she swore truthfully?
The Gemara answers: It was as if she swore truthfully because she believed she did.

Sometimes we are so sure of something that nothing anyone can tell us will deter us from our thinking.   But like this widow who believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that she was right, from time to time we need to reassess and re-examine our beliefs.

Maybe you think you’re politically liberal or a dyed-in-the-wool conservative.  And there’s nothing in the world that could change that.  The problem with that line of thinking is that once you’ve boxed yourself into certain party-line biases, you’ve limited your ability to truly make intelligent decisions.  Never stop asking yourself if you truly agree with every position that deems itself right or left.  And you will find your views and perspectives on life richer for it. 

And yes, even with your religious beliefs.  You should go through life constantly asking yourself the big questions.  And making sure you are satisfied with the answers.    Otherwise you run the risk of being hit over the head with a major life challenge and lacking the adequate religious tools to deal with it.  Only those who continually ponder spirituality and theology are able to withstand the great tests when they arrive.  

That’s what the verse means when it says that Avraham believed in Hashem.  It wasn’t that until now he didn’t believe; rather, Hashem’s promise to him strengthened his faith even more.  Belief isn’t binary: meaning either you have it or you don’t.  No, belief is a continuum.  We spend our lifetime working on improving our faith, striving to get to the point where we are so given over to Heaven that we wouldn’t dream of doubting the Almighty’s ways.

And of course, life is not only about yourself.   If you don’t ponder, examine and re-examine the big questions, how will you be able to answer your children?  Your nephews and nieces?  Your colleagues at work?  You have so many people in your life who look to you as a spiritual beacon.  Don’t be dismissive of their queries – you may very well be their spiritual anchor. 

But to do so, you need to ask yourself why before they ask you.  And make sure you’re satisfied with the answers.  Once you are, ask yourself again from a different angle!  Until you have all the angles covered.  That constant questioning and reassessing lasts a lifetime!  But unless you’re on that journey, you’re not truly serving Hashem, you’re just going through the motions.  True service means doing it consciously and with purpose.

King Shlomo writes in Mishlei (Proverbs), “An unthinking person believes everything.”  It’s time to remove the blindfold.  Belief that is synonymous with foolish blind faith is not laudable.  May you merit a life of constant re-examination of your beliefs and improved faith so that you may build a solid foundation for your religious commitment!  

Calm down and act rationally

Daf Yomi Gittin 34

When our matriarch Rachel died, the family generally expected that her maidservant, Bilha, would assume her role.  And so, naturally, Rachel’s special place in Yaakov’s tent became Bilha’s special place. 

‘You’ve got to be kidding me!’ Reuven thought to himself.  As the oldest son and the offspring of Leah, it didn’t make any sense to him to see Bilha become the favoured wife.  After all, his mother was the free woman, an original full wife of Yaakov.  If anyone was to take Rachel’s place, it should be Leah!  And so he sneaked into Yaakov’s tent, removed Bilha’s bed and replaced it with his mother’s.

When Yaakov heard, he was not pleased.  ‘Who gave you the right to control my marriage?’  Reuven realized the error of his ways and spent the remainder of his life in contrite repentance for his impetuousness.

Giddel O’Reilly sent divorce papers to his wife. The messenger went and found her knitting.  
He said to her, ‘Here is your gett.’
She said to him, ‘Go away now and come back tomorrow.’  
He went back to Giddel and informed him, whereupon he exclaimed, ‘Blessed be He who is good and does good!’
Rashi explains: Giddel was happy that the agent had not successfully delivered the gett.

The yetzer hara, our inner bad angel, has a way of leading us astray in the heat of the moment.  Suddenly, there’s a trigger situation in our lives and we feel that we must respond immediately.  We know that we’re probably acting impetuously, but we just have to do it right now.

In Giddel’s case, no doubt, he’d had some kind of dust up with Mrs. O’Reilly.  He was so angry that he decided to sit down immediately and write the gett.  But by the time the messenger came back to him, he’d gotten it off his chest, calmed down, and was abundantly pleased that his wife had refused to go along with his impetuous gesture.  Maybe she realized he was acting irrationally.  Or maybe she had worked on herself and developed a personal policy of never taking a bold step in life without first sleeping on it.   

At any rate, Mrs. O’Reilly’s deliberation saved their marriage.  After all, did Giddel really want to get divorced?  Nobody wants to get divorced.  Sometimes divorce cannot be helped, you simply have no choice.  But in Giddel’s case, he chose divorce.  He chose to listen to his yetzer hara, instead of acting rationally and reasonably.

Often when you’re caught up in the moment, you know that you’re acting irresponsibly.  But the yetzer hara is so powerful that he convinces you to continue down the path of self-destruction.  You could sleep on it.  You could pray it away.  But you’re angry.  Or you’re full of improper desire.  And you don’t want that feeling to dissipate.  Why should you? 

That’s the trick of the yetzer hara.  He keeps you caught up in the moment of irrationality, even when you know you’re going to regret your actions later.  When you find yourself at his mercy, what you need to do is stop dead in your tracks and focus on something else altogether.  The more you think about what the yetzer hara wants you to dwell on, the more power he has.  He is so good at his job that he manages to convince you that you really want to hang on to this terrible feeling and you would be doing yourself an injustice if you were to let it go! 

That’s why Mrs. O’Reilly picked up her yarn and began to knit.  For a brief instant, she could take herself out of the clutches of the yetzer hara and concentrate on a completely different activity.  All you need is a little time away from his wicked influence and he gives up.  You’ve cooled down and he’s lost the battle.

Whether it’s a conflict situation or an improper sinful activity, the yetzer hara is at the top of his game when you are acting impetuously.  The best way to beat him is to find some other activity to occupy your mind until you cool down.  May you merit making all your decisions in life completely rationally and never impetuously!