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Monday, 29 February 2016

Religious Individuality

Daf Yomi Gittin 78

After many years apart, Yaakov is about to meet his brother Esav.  Suddenly, he is attacked by an angel who spends the entire night wrestling with him.  Finally, dawn breaks and the angel asks Yaakov to let him go. 
‘Not before you give me a blessing,’ says Yaakov.
The angel blesses him and then adds, ‘Your name shall no longer be called Yaakov, but Yisrael, for you struggled with the divine and overcame.’  And thus, the name Israel came to be.

A man once threw his gett (bill of divorce) to his wife while she was standing in the courtyard.  It fell upon a block of wood.
Rav Yosef ruled: Let us see.  If the block of wood was four amos by four amos (six feet by six feet), it is a separate domain unto itself, and the divorce is ineffective; but if not, it is part of the domain of the courtyard, thereby effecting the divorce.
Nevertheless, we only rule accordingly when the block of wood is no taller than ten tefachim (handbreadths).  And we only rule accordingly when the block does not have an accompanying name.  But if it has an accompanying name, even though it is not taller than ten tefachim and even though it is not bigger than four amos, it is still considered a separate domain.
Rashi explains the meaning of accompanying name: If it has its own name, it is important and not nullified to the courtyard.

Is there place for individualism in traditional Judaism?  Some people mistakenly believe that traditional Jewish observance means robotically following the laws and customs without giving it any thought.  That couldn’t be further from the truth! 

Four times a day, we beseech Hashem, “Grant us our portion in Your Torah.”  Every person has an individual portion of the Torah that they are destined to reveal.  The more we incorporate Torah and mitzvos into our psyche and behaviour, the closer we come to discovering our individual niche.

It is important to remember, however, that all innovation must fit within the structure of the system.  As Rashi says, it is important to develop your own name, your own identity, but that must be an ‘accompanying name.’  It must accompany the traditions that preceded it.  If you introduce new trends into Judaism that create a religion that your great-grandparents wouldn’t recognize, you’ve failed in your mission to find your place in the Torah.  Instead, you’ve moved outside the bounds of our heritage.

That’s why each morning, before we ask Hashem to ‘grant us our portion in Your Torah,’ we recap Rabbi Yishmael’s thirteen methods of interpreting the Torah.  In theory, you could interpret and interpolate and extrapolate however you wanted, but when you do so, it’s no longer Torah.  It’s something else.  It may have roots in Torah, but so do many of the world’s great religions.

Our Sages teach that once Avraham was given his new name, he discarded his former identity, Avram.  That identity was tied to his idolatrous past.  In contrast, Yisrael never lost his former Yaakov identity.  Since Yaakov grew up in a righteous home, when he became Yisrael, it was an extension of who he had been previously.  In other words, it was an accompanying name.  It was a new identity, but it was not formed in a vacuum.  And that’s the approach we must take when we seek to find and make our individual contribution to Judaism.  We want to become Yisrael; but at the same time, we want to maintain our Yaakov-ness.

One of the great challenges of a religious life is finding your own place and voice, but at the same time sustaining an absolute commitment to tradition.  Sadly, many have fallen off the precipice, as they went too far in their self-discovery.  May you strike the right balance between your inner Yaakov and inner Yisrael!

Stay on course

Daf Yomi Gittin 73

Albert Einstein was five years old when his father bought him a special present that would change his life and humankind’s scientific progress forever.  What was it?  A compass.  Young Einstein was determined to trick the needle into pointing in a different direction, but try as he might, the needle always pointed north.  

Later in life, Einstein would explain that it was this incredible phenomenon that stayed with him and motivated him to strive to better understand the world around him.  Like the compass needle itself, Einstein never lost his bearing and direction, always staying on course to explore and investigate the secrets of the universe.

Rav Papa and Rav Huna the son of Rav Yehoshua purchased sesame seeds on the banks of the Kings River.  They then hired seamen to transport the goods, who accepted responsibility for any mishaps.  Eventually, they reached a point where the river had been dammed. 
The rabbis said to the seamen, “Rent donkeys to transport the goods to us, for you accepted full responsibility for any mishaps!”
They came before Rava for adjudication, who said to them, “Old men, you are taking the shirts off these people’s backs!  What happened was a completely unforeseen mishap!”

In life, many people have a plan and a vision to achieve their goals and dreams.  But they fail to plan for unforeseen bumps along the road.  They will hire a ship to transport their goods through the river of life, but when they suddenly reach a point where the river is dammed, what then?

Some people will give up.  Life didn’t go their way.  They will become despondent.  They will drift to try something new.  They will reassess their goals and dreams.  They will try a different river to float down.

But when you keep switching the goalposts, you will never score.  The opposing forces will never cease to rise against you and make sure you cannot reach your goals.  So when the new track and new vision don’t work, then what?  Will you then start all over again with a new goal and vision?!

The way to accomplish your goals and dreams in life is to stay on course.  If the river is dammed and the ship cannot go any further, hire a donkey to transport you by land!  It may take a little longer, but as long as you are heading in the right direction, you will eventually reach your goal!

The problem is that many of us are impatient.  In our original vision, we believed we would reach our goals in no time at all.  We tell ourselves that if the path to our goals has reached an impasse, we should just give up and look for some other goal to work towards.  But when you do that, it might seem that you are taking a new approach and that you will get there faster, but who can tell what obstacles you will encounter on your new journey? 

Instead, you need to stay on track to reach the dream you set out to achieve.   No obstacle is insurmountable.  As long as you are heading in the right direction, you will get there eventually!

How do you make sure you’re heading in the right direction?  Remember Albert Einstein.   He hiked through life with his compass.  Just like a hiker carefully watches his compass knowing that he cannot be heading round and round in circles if he is paying attention to the compass needle, when you stay focused on the destination, you will get there!

The difference between successful and unsuccessful people in this world is the commitment to staying on course.  Never give up on your dreams.  Never be put off by obstacles along the way.  May you merit achieving the vision the Almighty originally planted in your mind very soon!

Thursday, 25 February 2016

So you want to be a cohen?

Daf Yomi Gittin 59

There’s a famous joke about a fellow who comes to the rabbi and asks the rabbi to make him a cohen.  After much begging and pleading – and a significant pledge to the synagogue building fund – the rabbi finally acquiesces.
After sprinkling him with holy cohen water, the rabbi asks him, ‘But why did you want to be a cohen so badly?’
‘Well, it’s like this,’ replies the man, ‘My father was a cohen, my grandfather was a cohen, my great-grandfather was a cohen.  I also wanted to be a cohen!’

And then there’s the lesser known tale told of the fellow who comes to the rabbi with the same request.  This time, the rabbi asks ahead of time and sure enough, the fellow has no priestly blood in his family whatsoever.  But after all said and done, the building fund’s the building fund – a few sprinkles of priestly water later, and voila, the man is a cohen.
‘Let’s be honest,’ says the rabbi after the procedure is finished, ‘who are you kidding?  Everyone in town knows you’re not a cohen.  Suddenly one day you woke up and discovered you were a cohen?!  Nobody’s going to believe you!  Take my advice: Pack up your belongings and move to another city.  That way, no one will know you and when they ask for a cohen, you can raise your hand!’
The man agrees with the rabbi’s sage wisdom, rents a U-Haul, and moves to a city on the other side of the country.

The big day comes.  It’s a Monday and he’s sitting in shul.  They’re about to take the Torah out of the Ark and the gabbai approaches him.
‘Shalom Aleichem!  You’re new around here,’ says the gabbai. 
‘Aleichem shalom!’ replies the man, ‘yes, I’ve just moved in to town.’
‘Tell me, sir,’ inquires the gabbai, ‘are you a cohen?’
Beaming, the fellow responds, ‘Absolutely!’
The gabbai looks at him apologetically and asks, ‘Do you mind stepping out of the shul?  We have three yahrzeits that need aliyos today!’

It was taught in the academy of Rabbi Yishmael: Concerning the cohen (priest), the Torah states, “And you shall sanctify him,” which means for every matter of sanctity, he should open first, and bless first, and take the nicest portion first.

Amongst our people, we have a tribal subset called cohanim.  The Talmud teaches that the cohen, as the chosen tribe gets to open first, bless first and take the first and nicest portion.

But among the nations of the world, there exists a similar subset.  The Torah calls the nation of Israel, “a kingdom of priests.”   What does that mean?  As a member of the chosen, priestly nation, you open first, you bless first, and you take the first and nicest portion.

But listen to the words of the Gemara.  Everybody wants the first and nicest portion.  But that privilege only comes subsequent to opening first and blessing first.  How do you go about doing that?

In the times of the Holy Temple, the cohanim dedicated their lives to the service of Hashem and Israel and consequently merited the special priestly gifts.   Likewise, being a member of the priestly nation comes with responsibility.   Opening first means being a leader.  Blessing first means caring about people and bringing blessing into their life.

When the Children of Israel stood at the banks of the Red Sea, nobody knew what to do.  Until Nachshon ben Aminadav led the way right into the water.   Leadership takes risks.  Leadership takes going above and beyond the ordinary.   As a member of the priestly people, you have the power to lead.  It takes strength.  It takes commitment.   But you can do it.  By constantly asking yourself what ordinary people would do; and then surpassing the ordinary and becoming extraordinary!

But leadership is not the only distinguishing feature of the cohen.  He is the source of blessing.  What made Avraham and Sarah stand out as the patriarch and matriarch of our nation?   Sure they spread monotheism and taught the world religious morals and ethics.  But the secret to their magnetism was their selfless dedication to others.  In the middle of the desert they pitched tent and offered free food to travellers passing by.   That’s the meaning of being a source of blessing.

You are a priest of the Almighty.  You deserve the finest portion in life.  You shall be given the finest portion in life.  But you must do your part.  Lead the way; don’t be afraid to be the first.   Be a source of blessing by becoming a wellspring of kindness and generosity.  May you merit serving the Almighty and humankind faithfully and receiving the most incredible portion in this world and the next!

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Bitter tastes from the past

Daf Yomi Gittin 72

Sitting in the living room in his big rocking chair, Grandpa was enjoying his afternoon nap.  Just then, a couple of the grandchildren decided to play a trick on him and painted his moustache with a foul-smelling ointment.  Finally he woke up and encountered the awful smell.
‘Boy, it stinks in here!’ he exclaimed.  He quickly got up from his chair, moved to the dining room, and took a sniff.
‘Oh my, it smells in here as well!’ he said with alarm.  Desperately needing some fresh air and respite from the terrible odour, he stepped outside onto the porch in front of his house.  He took a huge whiff of air.
‘I can’t believe it!’ he cried.  ‘The whole world stinks!’

We learned in a Mishnah: If a man told his wife, ‘I hereby hand you this bill of divorce, if I fail to return from here until twelve months’ time,’ but then died within the twelve months, it is not a valid divorce.  (Therefore, she is required to perform the levirate marriage with her brother-in-law.)
Concerning this teaching, the Beraisa states: Our Rabbis permitted her to remarry (and did not subject her to the levirate marriage requirement).
They asked: Who are ‘Our Rabbis’?
Rav Yehuda quoted Shmuel: It was the court that permitted gentile oil.

What was the famous ruling of the court about gentile oil that our Gemara refers to?  The court of Rabbi Yehuda Nesia permitted using oil from a pot where non-kosher food had previously been cooked.  How does that work?

You would think that oil from non-kosher pots would extract the forbidden substances deep within the recesses of the pot, and therefore be forbidden.  But according to the court of Rabbi Yehuda Nesia, as long as the pot had not been used for non-kosher food in the previous twenty four hours, the oil is permissible for consumption.  Why?  Because any taste that might be ‘awoken’ by the new cooking process has already sat there for so long that it is no good anymore.   If a taste does remain, it is a bad taste and consequently not prohibited.

Nobody’s life is perfect.  We have all had bad experiences at various points in our lives.  And we have all made mistakes.  Some people think they can simply forget what has happened and move on.  But, like the pot that cooked non-kosher, no matter how much you scrub at it, it never really goes away.  It may not be visible, but the taste remains in the deep recesses of your mind and soul.

The good news is that after a while the old taste in the pot is no longer effectual.  It may resurface, but it cannot spoil the kosher food you’re cooking.  Your bad experiences from the distant past have no power over your life today!  That doesn’t mean you’ve forgotten them; they simply have no power to ruin the positive energy you are now enjoying.

And that’s why the same Rabbis that permitted the oil also permitted the wife in our Gemara to move on with her life and remarry.  We’re not pretending she wasn’t married; of course she was.  But we’re not allowing her issues from the past to have a negative impact upon her life today.

Many people in the world today have unhappy lives simply because they insist on dwelling on the negative experiences in their past.  Instead of letting go of the unpleasantness of the past, they magnify it.  Instead of recognizing that the past ‘taste’ is ineffectual at ruining what is currently ‘in the pot’ of their lives, they do their very best to constantly rehash and reboil their old bitter tastes.

What past tastes are you dwelling on?  What experience are you allowing to hold you back from enjoying complete happiness today?  What bitterness are you insisting on maintaining and cultivating?

It’s time to let go and move on!  Anger is self-destructive.  By dwelling on your past misfortune, you’re only ruining the taste of your current food!  Every morning when you wake up and each evening before you retire, count your blessings and thank Heaven for all the good food you have in your pot!  And refuse the coaxing of your yetzer (bad inclination) to bring back the old bitter taste!

When you retain the bitter taste, everything you eat tastes bitter.  It’s like the grandpa who concluded that the whole world stinks.  If your life tastes terrible, you need to ask yourself what bitter taste is sitting on your tongue and negatively impacting everything you’re experiencing in your life.  Once you’ve figured out what the poison is, flush it away forever!

Every person has bitter pills to swallow in life – you often don’t get the choice whether or not to take the pill.  But you do have the choice whether to just swallow it or to suck on the pill and let the taste linger on for years.  May you never permit the bitter tastes of the past destroy the delicious food of the present!

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

What are your fruit?

Daf Yomi Gittin 71

One of the most popular smartphone games of all time is called Fruit Ninja.  The aim of the game is to slice as many fruit as possible in a limited amount of time.  In one version, you get a minute and a half; in another version, you have a mere sixty seconds to get as many fruit as you can. 

But what’s the problem with fruit?  Why should we slice and destroy the fruit?  Why don’t we have candy ninja or cigarette ninja or even trans-fat ninja?

Mishnah: If a man became mute, and they asked him, ‘Shall we write a gett (bill of divorce) for your wife?’ and he nodded, we test him three times.  If he responded ‘no’ for a ‘no’ and ‘yes’ for a ‘yes’ they may write the gett and give it to her.
In the academy of Rabbi Yishmael it was taught: We ask him summer questions during winter and winter questions during summer. 
What are these? If you will say it refers to questions dealing with coats or linens, we should be concerned lest a chill gripped him or a fever gripped him.
Rather, we question him about fruit.
Rashi explains: Seasonal fruit that are not around at that time of year.

After 120 years on this Earth, after all the talking, shouting and screaming, we finally become mute and face the Heavenly court.  When that happens, they will ask a number of questions.  But the most important question of all will be about fruit.  Not whether you’d like summer or winter fruits.  The biggest question of the Heavenly tribunal will be: What are the fruits of your labour in this world? 

Just like the fellow in our Mishnah, the question of fruit will be the test that determines the soundness of your judgment.  What will they mean when they ask you about fruit?  They are assessing the consequences of your performance on Earth.  What are the long-term results of everything you did during your lifetime?  Those are the fruits.  

And it’s not just after 120.  It’s the constant question you must ask yourself:  How mentally competent am I?  How focused am I on the fruits I am producing? 

So what exactly are your fruits?  How do you assess those? 

Look around.  How spiritually inspired are your children?  What spiritual institutions are you building or helping maintain?  Whom are you spiritually impacting and influencing for the better?  Throughout our lives we plant.  These are your fruits.

And so that’s how you assess whether a certain pursuit in this world is worthwhile or not.  What will be the fruits of your efforts?  Is this endeavour worth investing in or not?  When that is your litmus test, you find yourself no longer interested in chasing ‘trivial pursuits.’   You find yourself goal-orientated.  Fruit-orientated.

Why are we slicing fruit?  The point of the game is to ‘get’ as much fruit as possible in the limited amount of time you have.  You only have eighty, ninety, a hundred years on this Earth; how much fruit will you score?  And that’s not only the question they will ask you on High; it’s the question you need to ask yourself constantly.  What are my pursuits and what fruit will they produce?

The story is told of a young man who, after learning in yeshiva for a gap-year, returns to America to go to college.  One day, his Rebbe (yeshiva teacher) calls him to see how things are going. 
‘What are you studying?’ the Rebbe inquires.
‘Tractate Berachos!’ he responds.  ‘Well, I mean, at university I’m doing accounting, but what’s my ultimate focus?  What do I live for?  The Gemara shiur that I attend each evening after school!’

Your time in the game is limited.  May you maximize the fruit you get!  

Traditional Jewish discipline

Daf Yomi Gittin 58

The twenty-first century approach to disciplining children eschews not only any form of corporal punishment, but even any manner of criticism whatsoever!   In today’s day and age, we are so concerned of, G-d forbid, damaging our child’s fragile sense of self-esteem, ruining them for life!    

But the truth is, the method of discipline of avoiding negativity has actually always been the Jewish way.  Our approach, however, allows you to criticize your child while at the same time building up their self-esteem!  How do you do that?

Rav Yeudah said in the name of Rav: It is related that the son and the daughter of Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, the High Priest, were carried off and sold into slavery to two different masters. A while later, the two masters met.  
One said, ‘I have a servant, the most beautiful in the world!’
The other said, ‘I have a maidservant, the most beautiful in the world!’
They said, ‘Let us marry them to one another and share the offspring.’

They put them in the same room. The boy sat in one corner and the girl in another.
He said, ‘I am a priest descended from High Priests.  Shall I marry a bondwoman?’
She said, ‘I am a priestess descended from High Priests.  Shall I marry a slave?’
So they each passed the night crying. When the day dawned they recognised one another and fell into one another’s embrace.  They filled themselves with tears until their souls departed.  Concerning them Jeremiah utters the lamentation, ‘For these I am weeping, my eye, my eye sheds a tear.’

Imagine these two youths placed in a room with no holds barred!  Even if they weren’t slaves, who could avoid such temptation?  Let alone given the fact that they were slaves and beholden to the will of their masters!  And yet they withstood the temptation and passed the Heavenly test.

What was the secret to their unbelievable ability to withstand the test of sinning with one another?  They said to themselves, ‘How could I? I am greatness, the child of greatness!  My father was the Kohen Gadol (High Priest)!  I am so much greater than the temptation before my eyes!’

Where did they get such an attitude from?  No doubt, that was the message they heard constantly from their parents.   The first time they were caught smoking behind the Temple walls, Rabbi Yishmael called them over.  He didn’t slap them across the face and admonish them for their actions.  No, he said to them, ‘My beautiful child!  You are a High Priest!  You are an amazing neshomo (soul)!  Es passt nisht – it’s unbecoming – for a child of your stature to act like that!

And that’s the age-old method of Jewish discipline.  The Yiddish aphorism ‘Es passt nisht’ sums up how we have dealt with our children since time immemorial, always building their self-esteem and bringing out the best in them.  Negativity breeds negativity.  Positivity breeds positivity.  And when you tell them how special they are and what a special family they come from, you empower them to make the right choices for themselves – without ever having to chastise, criticise or exercise your parental power.

It’s not only about our children.  It’s about ourselves and the decisions we make in life.  If you would only realize how awesome you truly are, you would always make the right decisions in life!  You are a child of the Almighty!  He is your Father!  He is the King and you are the prince or princess! 

So next time you are faced with a challenge, a fork in the road, the choice of whether or not to follow your temptations, remember: Es passt nisht.  Is such behaviour becoming of a princess?  Would a prince act like that?  You are so much greater than the temptation before your eyes!  It would be silly to give in!

You may look like a regular human being.  But in reality, you are a child of the Almighty!  May you never give in to the temptation of behaviour that es passt nisht for a prince or princess!

The Opportunity of Humble Beginnings

Daf Yomi Gittin 57

There’s a popular social media segment called, ‘Where are they now?’  Years after their five minutes of fame – or in some cases, years of celebrity status – the reporters go looking for these former stars to discover what ever happened to them. 
Why did they stop their famous music or acting career?
Are they still wealthy or did they squander it all?
Do they miss the spotlight or are they happy they’re no longer trailed by the paparazzi?
In what ways, for better or worse, did their period of fame affect their lives?

Did you ever wonder what happened to some of our biblical heroes and villains after their stories in the limelight?  Believe it or not, when Haman was hanged on the gallows, it was not the last we heard of him and his family. . .

Rabbi Chiya bar Avin said in the name of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korchah: An old man from the inhabitants of Jerusalem told me that in this valley Nevuzaradan the captain of the guard killed two hundred and eleven myriads, and in Jerusalem he killed ninety-four myriads on one stone, until their blood went and joined that of Zechariah, to fulfil the words, “Blood touches blood.” He noticed the blood of Zechariah bubbling up warm, and asked what it was.
They said, “It is the blood of the sacrifices which has been poured there.” He had some blood brought, but it was different from the other.
He then said to them, “If you tell me the truth, well and good, but if not, I will tear your flesh with combs of iron.”
They said, “What can we say to you? There was a prophet among us who used to reprove us for our irreligion, and we rose up against him and killed him, and for many years his blood has not rested.”
He said to them, “I will appease him.”
He brought the great Sanhedrin and the small Sanhedrin and killed them over him, but the blood did not cease. He then slaughtered young men and women, but the blood did not cease. He brought school-children and slaughtered them over it, but the blood did not cease.
So he said, “Zechariah, Zechariah. I have slain the best of them; do you want me to destroy them all?” When he said this to him, it stopped. Immediately, Nevuzaradan felt remorse.
He said to himself, “If such is the penalty for slaying one soul, what will happen to me who have slain such multitudes?” So he fled away, and sent a deed to his house disposing of his effects and became a convert.
A Tanna taught: Naaman was a resident; Nevuzaradan was a righteous convert; descendants of Haman learned Torah in Bnei Brak; descendants of Sisera taught children in Jerusalem; descendants of Sennacherib gave public expositions of the Torah.

On Purim, we conclude the Megillah with the hanging of Haman and his ten wicked sons.  Most people assume that’s the end of the story.  From our Gemara, it’s clear that at least some of his grandchildren survived.  Not only did they survive, but they looked at the miraculous events around them and resolved to be counted among those who were swept up in the fervor to join the Jewish people.   Not only did they join the Jewish people, but years later when the Jews eventually returned to Israel, they became Torah scholars in Bnei Brak!

You can imagine the attitude displayed by most Jews towards those first grandchildren of Haman who converted to Judaism.   Or to Nevuzaradan who slaughtered hundreds of thousands of our brothers and sisters.
‘Feh, who do you think you are?  How dare you try to associate with our community!  If you think that overnight we’re going to simply forgive and forget, you can dream on!’  That’s the kind of thing they would hear as they walked down the street, trying to avoid the mean stares and rude comments.

With all that abuse, any regular person would absolutely have been forgiven for saying, ‘I really don’t need this in my life.  I made the effort.  They rejected me.  It’s on their head now.  G-d will take it up with them.’  They could have given up and walked away.  And who could have blamed them?

But that wasn’t their reaction.  They persevered.  They weathered the storm of abuse.  And consequently, they were recorded in the Talmud as eternal symbols of righteousness, despite all the odds!

Sometimes in life, we know what the right path is, but we feel we’re too far gone to return.  There’s just too much water under the bridge.  Even if we did manage to turn our lives around, what would people say?  What would they think?  How would they talk about us behind our backs?

When that feeling sets in, remember the grandchildren of Haman.  They never gave up!  Just like Nevuzaradan, history will be the ultimate determinant of what’s truly in your heart.  There is no shortage of people in history who have given up.  If you give up, you become just another number.  But if you persevere, you will be recorded in this world and in the Heavenly register as one of the greats of history!  The greater the challenge and struggle, the greater the victory and record! 

We don’t know much about Mordechai’s grandchildren.  They may have been wonderful, righteous people.  But considering their lineage, it was no big deal.  If you stem from humble origins – whether you’re from an unremarkable family or whether your own personal background leaves much to be desired – you have so much more opportunity for greatness than individuals with an ordinary everyday story!  Your efforts will not go unrewarded! 

If you think your life and family history are pointing to a life of mediocrity, think again.  Your humble beginnings are an incredible blessing – the Almighty has offered you the chance to become so much greater than the average Yossel!  You have been handed the opportunity on a silver platter!  May you take up His challenge and be recorded as one of the greatest ‘rags to riches’ stories of all time!

Sunday, 21 February 2016

After a while, you get used to it

Daf Yomi Gittin 56

Lot was Avraham and Sarah’s nephew.  Having spent years in their home and on the road with them, he had become a paragon of ethics, morals and spiritual living.  But one day a conflict between his shepherds and Avraham’s caused them to part ways.   Lot headed south to Sodom, a land where his sheep would have abundant land to pasture.

When he first arrived, he was shocked.  The people of Sodom were wicked. They weren’t welcoming to strangers.  They weren’t charitable.  They didn’t share property.  He couldn’t imagine he would ever be able to last in such an awful place.  But his wife liked it and so they decided to give it a try.

The first couple of months were very uncomfortable.  Instead of the wonderful ‘Good morning’ greetings he was used to hearing, all he would get as he walked down the street were mean stares.   Instead of the guests he was used to receiving in Avraham and Sarah’s tent, everyone in Sodom kept to themselves.

But after a while, he got used to it.  It wasn’t so crazy anymore.  Who has time for guests when you’re so busy with your own life?  Greeting is only for people who have nothing more important to do than engage in small-talk.   What was originally strange behaviour for Lot and his family had now become everyday activity.  And in no time at all, Lot had learned to thrive in Sodom, so much so that they appointed him mayor of the city! 

Rabbi Tzadok observed fasts for forty years in order that Jerusalem might not be destroyed.  He became so thin that when he ate anything the food could be seen as it passed through his throat. When he wanted to restore himself, they used to bring him a fig, and he would suck the juice and throw the rest away.  How did the physicians heal Rabbi Tzadok? The first day they let him drink water in which bran had been soaked; on the next day water in which there had been coarse meal; on the next day water in which there had been flour, so that his stomach expanded little by little.
After Titus destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, he took the curtain and shaped it like a basket and brought all the vessels of the Sanctuary and put them in it, and then put them on board ship to go and triumph with them in his city.  A gale sprang up at sea which threatened to wreck him. He said: Apparently the power of the God of these people is only over water. When Pharaoh came He drowned him in water, when Sisera came He drowned him in water. He is also trying to drown me in water. If he is really mighty, let him come up on the dry land and fight with me. A voice went forth from Heaven saying; Sinner, son of sinner, descendant of Esau the sinner, I have a tiny creature in my world called a gnat. Go up on the dry land and make war with it. When he landed the gnat came and entered his nose, and it knocked against his brain for seven years. One day as he was passing a blacksmith's it heard the noise of the hammer and stopped. He said; I see there is a remedy. So every day they brought a blacksmith who hammered before him. This went on for thirty days, but then the creature got used to it.

Often in life, when we are first introduced to an inappropriate situation, we find ourselves uncomfortable.  The little voice inside tells us that the new environment or set of behaviours is unbecoming.  But unfortunately, with time, we allow ourselves to get used to the circumstances.

Lot could never have pictured himself living among the wicked.  And yet, before long he was their leader!  Rabbi Tzadok spent forty years singlehandedly spiritually resisting the Roman invasion.  And yet, once it became an inevitability, they managed to slowly but surely wean him off his conviction – a morsel of food at a time.  The gnat inside Titus’s head was initially silenced by the noise of the blacksmith’s hammer.  But with time, he got used to it.

Maybe you moved to a new community and found a synagogue that’s not quite as traditional as what you came from.  Remember how strange it felt in the beginning?  But with time, it began to grow on you.  It’s time to wake up from your inertia and restore your soul to its source!

Maybe over time your friends started acting in ways you weren’t comfortable with.  Perhaps it was the places they began to frequent.  Maybe it was the food they started eating.  In the beginning, the little voice inside nagged and nudged, telling you that it wasn’t right.  But after a while, you learned to ignore the ‘little voice of prophecy.’  It’s time to reawaken and heed your voice of conscience and reason!  It’s time to transport your soul back to its true spiritual place that it yearns to be!

Often the litmus test of right and wrong is simply asking yourself how you would have felt ten years ago about your current behaviour.  May you never allow your body to become comfortable doing things that your soul is uncomfortable with!  

Talmudic Weight-Loss Advice

Daf Yomi Gittin 70

Every night, the holy Reb Itchele would sit down to a delicious meal, prepared for him by his loving wife, Raizel.  He would never finish his meal, always making sure to leave a little over on his plate, as an act of self-control.  After a while, Raizel noticed that he wasn’t eating everything she served him and so she began to give him a little less.  But as before, in a demonstration of self-mastery, Reb Itchele continued to leave over a portion of his food.  After all, who was in control, his food or himself? 

A couple of weeks passed, and Raizel noticed that she was still giving too much and Reb Itchele was not finishing his plate.  And so, again she lessened his portion.  But sure enough, the holy man that Reb Itchele was, he continued his practice of self-control and left a little over on his plate.  Raizel, for her part, noticed again, that apparently she was still overfeeding her husband and continued to ration his portion.  This back-and-forth went on for a number of months until poor Reb Itchele was surviving on a morsel of bread and a half-mouthful of water. . .

The Prophet Eliyahu said to Rabbi Nasan: Eat to a third of your stomach’s fill, drink a third and leave one third empty.  When you get upset stand up to your fullness.

Many people won’t get up from the table until they are completely full and cannot eat anymore.  However, the Talmud’s formula for maintaining healthy weight levels is to eat and drink in equal parts and to leave just as much empty space in your stomach. 

In fact, the Torah clearly states, “You shall eat and be satisfied and bless Hashem.”  It does not say ‘you shall eat and be full!’  Just eat enough to satisfy your hunger and then leave some room and let your body fulfill the wonderful mission Hashem has miraculously endowed it with!

Some people complain of their inability to lose weight.  ‘If I don’t fill up my plate, I’ll get hungry later.’  Is that a bad thing?  Hunger is the way your stomach shrinks itself and asks for less food next time around!  The problem is the other way around: when you fill yourself up, how can you ever expect to lose weight?  On the contrary, by constantly insisting on being full, you’re constantly pushing the outer limits of your stomach’s capacity!   Actually, you can never eat exactly the right amount to feel full, so when that’s your aim, unfortunately you end up overeating and stretching your stomach, so that next time you need even more to feel full.

And that’s the meaning of Eliyahu’s admonition to Rabbi Nasan: When you step on the scales and get upset at your weight, start standing up to your ‘need’ to feel full all the time!  The secret to maintaining healthy weight levels is to overcome your desire to be full.  It won’t kill you to feel a little hungry!  That’s your body regulating itself and keeping things on an even keel!

When the Talmud discusses filling one’s stomach, it is in fact a metaphor for of all desires of this world.  As long as your aim to fulfill your every ‘need,’ those ‘needs’ will continue to stretch further and further.  Yesterday, all you ‘needed’ was a decent car that would get you from point A to B without breaking down every other week.  But once you got that, you then ‘needed’ a car that looked nice and was pretty new-looking, reflecting how you wanted the world to perceive you.  Once you scored that ‘need,’ you suddenly ‘needed’ two cars between you and your spouse.  And before you knew it, you both ‘needed’ to drive luxury cars!

The trick to avoiding the onward bulge is to always aim to consume a little less than you think you need.  Leave a little room of your ‘needs’ unfulfilled.  And then you won’t suffer the upset of turning around to find that your consumption has spiralled out of control!  When you keep your needs and wants in check and unfulfilled, you will find yourself needing and wanting for very little!

Always remember Eliyahu’s advice: Stand up to your desire to feel full.  Your car doesn’t need a full tank to run, neither do your ‘needs.’  May you merit the happiness that comes from never feeling the need to run to fulfill all your desires!  

Monday, 8 February 2016

Israel's Human Rights NGOs

Daf Yomi Gittin 55

Human rights activists love spending time along Israel’s border, at checkpoints that divide the main portion of the country with the disputed areas.  They stand there, video-cameras in hand, ready to document any activity that might be deemed a human-rights violation.  What might constitute such a violation?  Well, let’s say someone is detained for an extended amount of time for failing to respond to border police questioning as to the nature of their visit.  Now they’re late for work.  And they can’t afford to feed their families.  Whose fault is that?  The border policeman’s?  Israel’s?  Every Jewish person’s?

A certain man had a friend Kamtza and an enemy Bar Kamtza. He once made a party and said to his servant, Go and bring Kamtza. The man went and brought Bar Kamtza. When the man who gave the party found him there he said, “See, you tell tales about me; what are you doing here? Get out!”
Said the other, “Since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink.”
He said, “I won't.”
“Then let me give you half the cost of the party.”
“No,” said the other.
“Then let me pay for the whole party.”
He still said, “No,” and he took him by the hand and put him out.
Said the other, “Since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and inform against then, to the government.”

He went and said to the Emperor, “The Jews are rebelling against you.”
He said, “How can I tell?”
He said to him, “Send them an offering and see whether they will offer it on the altar.” So he sent with him a fine calf. 

While on the way he made a blemish on its upper lip, or as some say on the white of its eye, in a place where we count it a blemish but they do not. The Rabbis were inclined to offer it in order not to offend the government. Said Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas to them, “People will say that blemished animals are offered on the altar.”

They then proposed to kill Bar Kamtza so that he should not go and inform against them, but Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas said to them, “Is one who makes a blemish on consecrated animals to be put to death?”
Rabbi Yochanan thereupon remarked, “Due to the virtuousness of Rabbi Zechariah ben Avkulas, our House has been destroyed, our Temple burnt and we ourselves exiled from our land.”

Whose fault was the destruction of the Temple?  The Romans’?  Bar Kamtza’s?  How about the man who threw the party and ejected Bar Kamtza?  According to Rabbi Yochanan, the answer is none of the above.  The one who ultimately opened the door to the Temple’s destruction was a rabbi by the name of Zechariah ben Avkulas.

Was Rabbi Zechariah a bad man?  No, he was actually a very kind-hearted, virtuous man, who couldn’t bear to see someone executed that wasn’t quite legally deserving.  So much so, that he protested against the decision to prosecute Bar Kamtza.  But according to Rabbi Yochanan, Rabbi Zechariah’s piety led to the destruction of the Temple.

In other words, Rabbi Yochanan is suggesting that sometimes much as we would like to be pious for the sake of the individual’s rights and liberties, what truly counts are the safety and security of the people as a whole.   Had Rabbi Zechariah considered the bigger picture, he would have realized that Bar Kamtza had brought this situation upon himself and he had no right to endanger the people by his recklessness.

That’s the problem with many of the narrow-minded human rights activists who spend their time documenting Israel’s checkpoints.  It’s not that they’re bad people.  While there certainly exist many anti-Semites in their ranks, there are also many well-meaning individuals.  Such people honestly believe that Israel should be treating every person with the highest degree of respect and that any less than that standard is unbecoming of the Jewish state.

What they fail to understand is that sometimes Bar Kamtza’s rights must be waived for the safety and security of our people.   We don’t relish removing any person’s rights.  But we understand that the general population comes first. 

Most intelligent, reasonable people get it.  We don’t kick up a fuss when we must stand in line at airport security – it’s a small price to pay for the peace of mind of knowing the aeroplane will safely fly me from point A to B.   Unfortunately, we live in a world where the threat of terrorism and political violence is real; that means that sometimes individual rights and liberties must be waived for the sake of national and international security.

Every human being was created in the image of G-d.  We are all sincerely troubled when any individual’s rights are impinged upon.  But we realize that sometimes personal liberties must be sacrificed for the sake of the safety and security of the general population.  May we have peace, security and rights for all the inhabitants of Israel very soon!

Sunday, 7 February 2016

Stop resisting

Daf Yomi Gittin 54

Back in my younger years, I was once serving as a camp counsellor.  We had taken the kids to an amusement park, and at one point, we took a break from the rides to watch a hypnosis show.  The hypnotist asked for volunteers and my co-counsellor raised his hand.  As he got up to approach the stage, he whispered to me, ‘Watch this, he’ll never get me!’
Sure enough, the hypnotist failed to hypnotize him and he returned to the audience.

If a scribe was writing a Sefer Torah and had to write the four letter name of Hashem, but intended instead to write Yehudah, and then forgot to insert the letter dalet, he may pass a quill over the name and sanctify it.  These are the words of Rabbi Yehuda.
Rashi explains: Although the scribe wrote the correct name of Hashem, he initially lacked the requisite intent.  Therefore he must retrace it with the correct intent.

Look at the power of the scribe’s magic wand!  Until now, this piece of parchment was nothing but physical cowhide with ink on it.  And then with the wave of his quill, the cowhide is magically transformed into a Sefer Torah.  Nothing visibly changed.  And yet a transformation from the mundane to the spiritual took place!

Every Jew is likened to a living Sefer Torah.  The difference is that human beings are even holier than a Torah scroll.  Consider the honour you give to the Torah – you rise when it passes, you would fast if it fell.  How much greater must the honour be that you accord your fellow Jew!

If we are Torah scrolls, who is the scribe?  Our Scribe is none other than the Holy One, blessed be He!  Rabbi Yehuda’s message is that with one simple wave of the Almighty’s quill, we can become completely transformed.  How does that work?

Let’s say you’ve had a terrible day at work.  A big deal failed to go through.  Or your stock portfolio tanked.  And you are a complete wreck.  Judging by your current state of mind, you almost feel like you could never be happy again.  But here’s the secret: with one wave of the Almighty’s wand, your entire mindset could be transformed.

Or let’s say you’ve had a fight with your spouse.  You are so angry and upset.  It might not have been anything major, but you still don’t see how to climb out of your feeling of hurt.  Yet again, the secret is that with one wave of the Almighty’s wand, you could be transformed.

How does it work?  We communicate with Heaven when we pray.  Some people mistakenly believe that we pray to change G-d’s mind.  Don’t be silly!  We can’t change Hashem’s mind.  The purpose of prayer is to change ourselves.  Prayer is our opportunity to become completely transformed.

In other words, when you pray, you have the chance to develop an entirely new mindset.  With each word of the prayer service, you learn more and more to appreciate the providential hand of the Almighty throughout your life.  And once you have that understanding, it is impossible to retain your anger and upset.  Once you recognize that G-d is in control, how could you be upset? 

For example, it is impossible to recite the blessing Barech Aleinu . . . Mevarech Hashanim, where we beseech Heaven for our livelihood, and still be angry that things didn’t go your way.  If you truly believe that the Almighty is the ultimate Provider, how could you be upset?  With the proper kavanah (focus), you are bound to acknowledge that He knows exactly what He is doing!

It is impossible to recite Sim shalom and retain your anger towards your spouse.  On the one hand, you are asking for G-d to grant you peace in your life; but on the other hand, you’re working to stave off His blessing?!  That makes absolutely no sense!  So, if you really think about your prayers, you are bound to walk away utterly transformed for the better.

So why do some people conclude their prayers unaffected?  It is just like hypnosis.  If you walk into the game determined that you are not going to allow yourself to come under the magician’s spell, then indeed you will not come under his spell.  If you walk into prayer determined not to be transformed by the quill of the Scribe, then guess what?  Nothing will happen!  You will remain the same mundane, physical piece of cowhide you were before you began your prayers.

Many people recite their prayers but are so resolved not to get out of their bad mood, that there is nothing that could be done to change their minds.  Only when you stop resisting will you be transformed.  May you approach prayer with an open heart, ready to be transformed by the quill of the Scribe!

Friday, 5 February 2016

Living a life ON purpose

Daf Yomi Gittin 53

After his father’s passing, Randall inherited his tefillin.  He cherished his precious black boxes, donning them daily.  However, they were starting to look their age, and one day Randall decides to have them checked.  Off he goes and deposits them with the sofer.  Lo and behold, sure enough they are not kosher.  By the looks of the worn parchment, they probably haven’t been kosher for years.  Randall is beside himself.  All these years, essentially has he been neglecting the mitzvah of tefillin?

Chizkiyah taught: According to the Torah, whether one committed an act of damage inadvertently or deliberately, he has a liability.  What is the reason?  Even unrecognizable damage is called damage.
Rashi explains: The Torah declares, “A wound for a wound,” which implies liability whether the damage was committed deliberately or inadvertently.

Let’s say you’re pulling out of a tight parking spot and you accidentally hit the car parked alongside you.  It was an accident, right?  But that doesn’t mean you’re off the hook.  You still have to pay for your damages, even though you caused them inadvertently.  Actually, I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘I got into a car deliberate.’  The vast majority of times damage is caused, it was by accident, not deliberately caused!  And yet, you still have to pay.  Because accident or no accident, the damage was done.

That’s what Rashi means when he explains that “a wound for a wound” implies liability whatever the cause.  A wound is a wound; and no matter how it happened, it needs healing.  And that’s true whether we’re talking about a physical wound or a spiritual wound.  When you commit a sin, even if it was inadvertent, you cause a wound to your soul, which must be healed.

That healing is the teshuvah process.  Back in Holy Temple times, that meant bringing an offering.  Such offerings were brought primarily for inadvertent sins, not for intentional misbehaviour.  Because a wound on your soul requires healing.  Likewise, nowadays, even if the sin wasn’t your fault, you still need to cleanse your soul and heal the wound.  It’s certainly easier to heal an inadvertent spiritual wound; but that wound requires healing nonetheless.

And so poor Randall who discovered that his father’s tefillin hadn’t been kosher is not completely off the hook.  It is not a major transgression.  In fact, Rabbi Avraham Wahrman of Buchach declares that it is considered as if he has fulfilled the mitzvah, since he believed wholeheartedly that he was doing so!   But there’s still a gap in his spirit that needs mending.  Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach suggests that he should keep his tefillin on for a little longer each day and say an additional prayer or learn some Torah as an atonement.  Doing that for a period of time will repair his soul. 

Of course, the forces of light are always more powerful than the forces of darkness.  And so if committing an inadvertent transgression causes a spiritual wound, then how much more so does performing an inadvertent mitzvah cause a spiritual shield for your soul!  How many times a day are we doing mitzvos without even intending to do so? 

Maybe you’ve walked away from a conversation just before the lashon hara began.  Maybe you chanced upon a web-site and read some Torah, with no intention to sit down and learn.  Maybe you helped someone unwittingly.  All of these and more are gifts from Above to provide you with abundant merit!

Life in general is like trying to get out of a tight parking spot.  It’s not easy to avoid accidents, but when your life is measured, you can bring abundant light into the world.  May you live a life of purpose and may your deeds be all on purpose!  

Thursday, 4 February 2016

Packaging our product

Daf Yomi Gittin 52

Reb Itchele was one of the major fundraisers for Yeshivas Chachmei Lublin in Poland.   He would spend months on the road at a time, going from city to city, town to town, and shtetl to shtetl collecting for the yeshiva.  He had been doing the rounds for years and he was well known in all the major Jewish communities.
In Bialystok, each year he would visit a certain Reb Feivel.  Reb Feivel was well-to-do and would always write out a significant check to the yeshiva.  On one such occasion, Reb Itchele showed up at the home of Reb Feivel, but this year was different.  Reb Feivel opened the door and was shocked by what he saw.

“Clearly I’ve been giving too much to the yeshiva!” cried Reb Feivel.  “Look at you!  A brand new Chaim Boss suit!  A beautiful new Ferrarische wagon!  And look at those ferden!  Such gorgeous horses I haven’t seen in my life!  Be gone from here, you obviously don’t need my donation; look at where my money’s going!”
Reb Itchele held the door back from being slammed in his face. “Reb Feivel, you misunderstand.  Let me explain.  Your money didn’t pay for any of this.  Your money went straight to pay for the poor yeshiva bochurim.  Why?  Because you appreciate the pnimiyus – the real reason to give for the support of Torah!  Unfortunately there are many others out there who don’t appreciate the importance of Torah learning.  They won’t give to a poor, nebbish looking meshulach (collector).  It’s their money that goes to paying for these silly accoutrements! 

Amram Tzava was the administrator for an estate belonging to orphans.  Their relatives came before Rav Nachman and said to him, “He is clothing and adorning himself from the property of the orphans!”
Rav Nachman responded, “He is doing so, in order that his words be heeded.”
Rashi explains: By dressing finely, he is doing a service to the orphans, in that he presents himself as a person of importance, and therefore able to conduct their business affairs more effectively.

Sometimes we feel that we should avoid spending on ‘extras’ that are not part of the core services of our non-profit institutions.  The purpose of a shul is to be a place to daven.  The purpose of a school or yeshiva is to be a place to learn.  Why waste money on fancy flyers and web-sites?  If people have donated money to our cause, are we not abusing their donations when we spend it on tchotchkes?

Rav Nachman explains that some people are a little shallow.  Unfortunately, if we want them to hear the message, we need to package it with bells and whistles.  They’re not interested in paying attention to what we have to offer until they sense that it meets their exterior standards.  In our case, they associate tradition with backwardness.  And so unless we can present the Torah in the best light possible, they’ll simply ignore the important message we have to offer.

That’s why our brochures must look awesome!  Our websites must look spectacular!  Our services must be exciting!  Our classes must be innovative and creative!  Our kids programs must be cutting edge! 

All of these accoutrements may seem like the institution is wasting your hard-earned tzedakah dollars.  But rest assured, your money ends up in the right place.  Because you are giving with the right intention.   Those who give for external reasons – their money ends up on externalities.  The Almighty makes sure that all funds are apportioned appropriately, depending upon the motivations of the various givers.

It would be nice if people simply flocked to hear the wisest talmid chacham.  But they don’t.  They come to hear the most entertaining speaker who had the best marketing.   Unless we’re willing to play that game, we’re going to miss out on all those people who don’t appreciate pnimiyus – inner spiritual beauty.  May we merit attracting as many souls as possible to hear the truth of the Message!  

Trifold Davening

Daf Yomi Gittin 51

There’s a classic tale of the fellow who is driving round and round the carpark looking for a spot.  In desperation, he turns his eyes heavenward and prays, “G-d, I’m running late.  If you give me a parking spot, I promise to start going to shul more often.” 
Suddenly, a spot opens up right up ahead.  He races over before any other car can get there first.  As he’s pulling in, he looks up again, “Don’t worry about it, G-d.  I’ve just found one!”

Rabbah taught: Why did the Torah obligate a debtor who admits to owing part of a loan to take an oath to the creditor that he owes no more?  Since we assume that a person would not act with chutzpah to the face of his creditor. Perhaps this fellow would have wanted to completely deny the claim, but did not do so, since a person would not act with chutzpah and lie straight to the face of his creditor.  The truth is, he really wants to acknowledge owing the entire loan amount, and the reason he does not do so is merely to push off his creditor until he has the money to return.  Therefore, the Torah requires him to swear so that he will admit to owing the entire amount.
Tosfos quotes Rashi: A person would not act with chutzpah towards someone who did him a kindness.

If a person would not act with chutzpah towards another who did him the kindness of lending him money, then how much more so, if he gave him the money or performed some other benevolent act of kindness for him.   That’s what the Almighty does for us, day in day out.  If we stopped for a moment and thought about all the kindnesses He does for us throughout the day, we would be unable to stop thanking Him for His benevolence!

And yet, so many people, instead of being grateful to Heaven, act with chutzpah.  They expect Hashem to provide His bounty, but when He does, they are ungrateful.  When things don’t go their way, they get angry with G-d; but when things do go their way, they attribute their success to their own efforts!  Just like our friend driving round and round the carpark, many people turn to G-d when they are desperate, but forget Him and deny His guiding hand moments later.

What’s more, even those who turn to Hashem regularly often forget the three aspects of the davening formula.  Every one of our prayers begins with praise of Hashem.  We then turn to our request of Heaven.  And finally, we conclude by thanking Him for providing. 

We find this pattern in the general outline of our morning prayers – we start with Brachos (Blessings) and Pesukei D’Zimra (Verses of Praise) and further Brachos; we follow the praise with the Amidah, where we make our requests; and conclude with the Aleinu and Song of the Day prayers of gratitude.   And even within the Amidah itself, we find the same formula of praise, request, and thanks.   If you look at Mincha and Maariv, you’ll find the same formula.

And that’s the formula you need to follow even for spontaneous prayer.  The fellow looking for the parking spot should have started by praising Hashem.  And only then making his request.  And finally when Hashem answered his prayers, he should have concluded by thanking Him.  Of course when we are engaged in formal prayer, we thank Hashem immediately, expressing our faith that He has already answered our prayers!

How do you praise Hashem?  Probably the easiest, most familiar prayer of praise for most people is Ashrei, chapter 145 of Tehillim.  Throughout your day, each time you are about to ask Hashem for assistance, remember that the initial step is to praise Him.  That means taking a minute or two to recite Ashrei.  It’s not that He needs your praise.  The point of our recitation of praise is to put ourselves in the right frame of mind to talk to Hashem and beseech Him for our needs. 

You wouldn’t walk into the prime minister or president’s office without preparation.  How much more so, when you’re about to talk to the King, King of all kings, the Holy One, blessed be He!  You need to prepare yourself and make sure you appreciate the gravity of the moment!  And once again, once you’ve offered your prayer-request, don’t forget to thank Him.  A good quick Psalm for that purpose is chapter 100, Mizmor L’Todah (A Psalm of Thanks).  It’s quick and easy to learn by heart.

Proper prayer consists of three parts.  Think of it as “Trifold Davening.”  May you merit having all your prayers answered even before you have completed uttering them!

Monday, 1 February 2016

Become a shadchan!

Daf Yomi Gittin 50

A Roman noblewoman once asked Rabbi Yossi bar Chalafta, ‘What does your G-d do since He created the world thousands of years ago?
‘He is busy making marriage matches,’ replied the sage.
‘Seriously?’ she responded mockingly.  ‘You don’t need to be G-d to make matches.  Why, I have a thousand manservants and a thousand maidservants.  Tonight I shall pair them up myself!’
The next morning she arrived to find them all battered and bruised.  Not one of the matches had worked.  She immediately called Rabbi Yossi and exclaimed, ‘How great is your G-d!’

If one acts as a guarantor for the kesubah monies, all authorities agree that he is not legally bound by his guarantee.  What is the reason?  He acted for the purpose of a mitzvah, and she did not lose anything.
Rashbam explains: He is merely striving to make a shidduch and does not intend to pay the guarantee.  He simply knows that by offering a guarantee on the kesubah, it will motivate them to get married.  And after all, she does not lose anything thereby, for a woman desires to be married; and thus his intentions were for her benefit.

Helping people get married is an enormous mitzvah.  Anytime you assist another person in the fulfilment of a mitzvah, you are credited with the mitzvah.  How much more so, when we are talking about the very first mitzvah of the Torah!  How much more so, when we are talking about a mitzvah that enables people to bring life into the world!

Rabbeinu Nissim explains that the word shidduch means tranquility.  In other words, when you help someone find a marriage partner, you are tranquilizing them!  As anyone in a good marriage can attest to, there is no greater joy and tranquility than a life spent in married bliss.  Someone who is single doesn’t always have a loved one to lean on, to talk to, to endure the vicissitudes of life alongside.   What’s more, their soul is constantly yearning to join its other half.  And so they are never truly at peace.  Helping them meet the right person offers the gift of tranquility to their souls. 

What are you doing towards the mitzvah of helping people find their spouse?  Remember how lonely you felt when you were single?  You are very fortunate if you have merited to meet your basherte; now you need to do whatever you can to help others find theirs!

Do you know a single person whose status doesn’t keep you awake at night?   Do you have a list of single people you know?  Everyone should have a list.   Not just single people.  Not just shadchanim (matchmakers).  Every person who wants to be involved in G-d’s work should have a list of all the singles they know.  And periodically you should call the people on your list to see where they’re up to.   Or make a Shabbat dinner just for singles at your home.

I recently attended a wedding of a couple who met at a BBQ.  It wasn’t just any Sunday afternoon BBQ.  They were invited by their university professor who teaches at Touro College, in both the men’s and women’s divisions.  One day, he invited each of his classes (the men and the women) over to his home for a BBQ, without letting them know that he had invited the other class.  You can imagine their shock when they showed up expecting an all-male or all-female event!  But sure enough, at least one shidduch came out of that afternoon!

Forty days before conception, marriage soulmates are handpicked by Hashem.  What are you doing to assist half-souls find their predestined other halves?  May you merit joining the Almighty in His great task of reuniting those souls!

How do you treat others' property?

Daf Yomi Gittin 48

Some time ago, I got back two books I had lent out to different people.  The contrast was astounding.  In the morning, Freya returned the book I had lent her a couple of weeks earlier in a sealed Ziploc bag!  It was in pristine condition.  It almost seemed as if it was in better condition than I had lent it out in!  Later that day, Jim returned the book I had lent him. 
‘I’m sorry, I spilled a little coffee on it,’ he explained sheepishly. ‘If you want, I could replace it for you.’
‘It’s okay,’ I fibbed.  What was really going through my mind was, ‘Seriously?!  Either you just give it back and apologize or you buy a new one to replace your damage.  Honestly, who’s going to respond affirmatively when asked whether you want them to buy them a new copy?!’

A couple of days later, Freya asked to borrow the book I had lent Jim.
‘No problem,’ I replied, handing it to her, ‘but I apologize for the coffee stains.’   

A week later, Freya returned my book, once again in the Ziploc bag.  I opened it up and miraculously, the coffee stains had disappeared!  I don’t know her secret but all I could do was marvel at the fact that she always somehow managed to mysteriously return items in better shape than she borrowed them! 

I was recounting Freya's story to her son, who remarked, ‘I always tell people: What’s the best way to get a stain out of a piece of clothing?  Give it to my mom!’

Mishnah: Compensation for damages is assessed from superior property, for the sake of good society.
The Gemara asks: For the sake of good society?  But it is mandated by the Torah!  As the verse states, “The best of his field and the best of his vineyard he shall pay.”
Abaye answers: We are addressing the position of Rabbi Yishmael, who taught: Biblically, we would assess the property of the damaged party.  And so the Mishnah comes to teach us that rabbinically, we assess according the value of the damager’s property.
Rashi explains: Biblically, if the damager’s inferior property was like the damaged party’s superior property, we would take the damager’s inferior property as compensation for damages.  However, for the sake of good society, the Rabbis instituted that we assess compensation from the damager’s superior property, so that people are more careful not to cause damage to others.

How do we treat other people’s property?  Some people are very careful when it comes to their own property, but a little careless when dealing with items that don’t belong to them.  Rabbi Yishmael’s message is that you should always treat others’ property as if it were your own.

I once knew a fellow who was given a company car to use.  It wasn’t his and so he really drove it into the ground.  He treated it very poorly.  In fact, after a heavy snowstorm, he even allowed his kids to clean up the car using an iron snow shovel, instead of gentling brushing off the snow.  You can imagine how dented and bruised the car looked after that beating!  Anyway, one day he finds out that he had misunderstood the terms of his employment contract and that the car did not belong to the company after all.  Once he had completed a year with them, the car was his to keep.  All of a sudden, he was devastated at the way he had treated his car!

Maybe you’re renting your property.  You say to yourself, ‘I can treat this place however I like.  Who cares?  I paid a damage deposit!’  But honestly, ask yourself if that’s the attitude you would maintain if you owned the apartment yourself.  With that thought in mind, are you being fair to your landlord when you bang your furniture into the wall and chip the paint? 

Ever borrowed a book from the library and found yourself needing to unfold the corners of pages because some thoughtless patron before you treated the book carelessly?  Unfortunately, it’s a habit many of us are guilty of.   Next time you’re tempted to fold down the corner, ask yourself if that’s the way you would treat your own books.  Next time you’re about to eat breakfast over a library book, ask yourself how you would feel opening up a library book to find it full of crumbs!

What goes around comes around. Treat other people’s property as you would your own.   May you always return items to their owners in at least as good condition as you received them!