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Sunday, 29 May 2016

Apply for Divine NEXUS

Daf Yomi Kiddushin 79

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do people really change?

Daf Yomi Kiddushin 78

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One weird trick to win the Powerball

Daf Yomi Kiddushin 77

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Brush with Royalty

Daf Yomi Kiddushin 76

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Spiritual Inclusion

Daf Yomi Kiddushin 75

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Where was G-d in the Holocaust?

Daf Yomi Kiddushin 74

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 23 May 2016

Stop helping Satan!

Daf Yomi Kiddushin 73

Pharaoh couldn’t sleep.  All night long, he tossed and turned, obsessing over his inexplicable dream about fat cows and skinny cows, fat sheaves and skinny sheaves.  He finally gets up and begins his royal duties, but try as he may, he just cannot shake the crazy images from his mind’s eye.   

What happened?  There were seven fat cows standing by the riverbank.  And then seven skinny cows arose and swallowed them up.  And then there were seven fat sheaves of wheat standing in the field.  But seven lean sheaves came along and swallowed them up.  What could that mean?

He calls every soothsayer in the kingdom, but nobody can explain the dreams.  He calls upon his royal orchestra to shift his thoughts away.  He calls upon his royal bard to divert his attention to tales of faraway lands.  But alas, all to no avail.  All he can think about are those wretched cows and sheaves.  He can’t sleep, he can’t eat, he can’t run the country. 

Suddenly the royal butler recalls, “Your majesty, there’s a Hebrew slave languishing in the dungeon.  He is an expert dream-interpreter.”  Joseph is summoned to the palace and before long, his successful interpretation paves the way to his prime ministerial appointment, making him the second most powerful individual in the entire nation, after the Pharaoh himself. 

Rabbi Zaira preached in Mehuza, “A convert may marry the offspring of an illicit relationship.”
The audience pelted him with their etrogs.
Said Rava, “Who would preach such material in a place with many converts?”

Subsequently, Rava preached in Mehuza, “A convert may marry a priestess.”
The audience adorned him with silk.
He then continued, “A convert may marry the offspring of an illicit relationship.”
They responded, “You ruined your initial success!”
He replied, “I performed a better for service for you.  Now if you want you could marry those people, or if you want you could marry those other people!”

When the citizens of Mehuza heard Rava’s second teaching, they became upset.  Why?  Did it negate the first teaching?  Now that they could marry people who were of tainted lineage, did it mean that they could no longer marry people of superior lineage?  Of course not!  But once they heard the bad news, any prior information in their head became overwhelmed by the new unpleasant piece of knowledge they’d acquired.

Often in life we allow the little challenges to take the spotlight in our minds, overwhelming all the positive energy.  There’s just one miniscule thing that bothers you about your spouse, but you dwell on it and think about it incessantly until it’s eating you up.   Just like Pharaoh, once you let your obsession take control, that’s all you can think about.

But what about all the positive things about your spouse?   Don’t they count for anything?  All the wonderful ways they care for you.  All their positive qualities?

Or maybe you’ve told yourself – like the citizens of Mehuza – that there’s something you can’t do.   Who cares what you can do, that doesn’t count – you’ve allowed yourself to be taken over by what you cannot do.  Suddenly it becomes all-consuming.  You get so obsessed about this hurdle you can’t overcome that you forget and neglect all the blessings and accomplishments the Almighty has bestowed upon you.  Instead of all the positivity in your life, all that’s important now is what you can’t get.

Or perhaps it was an awful experience in your past that’s weighing you down.  Some people simply don’t allow themselves to shake it off and move on.  Instead of focusing on all the good experiences in your life, all you can think about is that one unhappy occasion.   You dwell on it, hashing it and rehashing it in your head until life becomes unlivable.  Suddenly you’re cursing Heaven for giving you a terrible life, when in the big picture, it was just one mishap along the road of your pretty decent life.

That’s the power of the yetzer hara (inner satan).  He knows that if he can shift your focus away from all the positive power in your life to concentrate on the small amount of negative experience, he wins.  If he can get you to obsess over the one bad element in your psyche, then he doesn’t have to work hard at his job.  You’re doing it for him!  You’ve allowed yourself to be trapped by him.  Those thoughts occupy your head not by his doing, but because you’ve decided that you don’t want to stop thinking about them.  And then you automatically stop doing the good, positive acts in your life, without any coaxing on his part! 

It’s time to break free!  Forget the negativity!  Start focusing on all the positive energy in your life!  Start overwhelming your thoughts with all the good aspects of your relationships and your past experiences!  They will drown out the tiny amount of negative energy, if you would only allow them to!

Every person on Earth has abundantly more positive energy and experience than negative energy in their lives and minds.  If they didn’t, they would simply give up and call it quits.  May you overwhelm the microscopic amount of pain in your mind with the wealth of positivity and blessing the Almighty has bestowed upon you!  

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Seeking a Torah leader?

Daf Yomi Kiddushin 72

The students of the holy Baal Shem Tov had just sat down for dinner when he let out a deep sigh.
“What’s the matter, Rebbe?” they asked him.
“The Ohr HaChaim HaKadosh, Rabbi Haim Ibn Attar just passed away,” replied the Besht.
“Rebbe, are you a prophet?  He lived in Jerusalem!  How could you possibly know that here in Russia?”
Explained the Baal Shem Tov, “In every generation there is a special individual who is spiritually imbued with the esoteric kavanos (meanings) of the ritual handwashing before the meal.  Up until now, the Ohr HaChaim was that individual.  Just now, when I washed my hands, I was suddenly Divinely inspired.  At that moment, I realized that Rabbi Haim must have passed on to the World of Truth.

When Rabbi Akiva died, Rebbe was born.  When Rebbe died, Rav Yehuda was born.  When Rav Yehuda died, Rava was born.  When Rava died, Rav Ashi was born, which teaches you that a righteous person does not leave this world until another righteous person is created like him. 
As the verse in Koheles states, “The sun rises and the sun sets.” Before Eli’s sun set, Shmuel the Ramathite’s sun rose. 

How often do we hear the refrain, ‘We don’t have leaders anymore’?  People always look back nostalgically at yesteryear and long for a bygone era when everything was so perfect and rosy.    But of course that’s not true.  Things were never perfect.   It’s just easier to look backwards than forwards.  Our Gemara demonstrates that, in his abundant mercy, the Almighty has provided us with never-ending leadership.  Even before the sun has set, another has already risen!

Our Sages teach that there’s a Moshiach in every generation.  If the generation is worthy, Moshiach will reveal himself to that generation.  If not, a new Moshiach is born to the next generation. Does that mean that when the first Moshiach dies, another then comes into the world?  But how could Moshiach be a baby? 

If you look closely at the words of the Gemara, it doesn’t state that ‘a righteous person does not leave this world until another righteous person is born.’  No, it says, ‘until another righteous person is created.’  Just like in the story of the Ohr HaChaim and the Besht, when the former passed on, the latter then became the holiest man of the generation.  At that moment, he wasn’t born; he was created.

Rabbi Motty Berger offers an analogy concerning the world’s number one cardiologist who dies.  The next day, a reporter asks his editor: Who is the world’s foremost cardiologist?  The editor responds that he just died.  But that wasn’t the question.  Now that he died, whoever was previously the number two in the world, has automatically become the number one.  In other words, when one generation’s Moshiach passes, another immediately takes his place.

Why do people lament the dearth of leadership in ‘our’ generation?  Because it is much easier to pretend that all the leaders are gone.  With no leadership, you can do whatever you want to do.  When the cat’s away, the mice play.  A true individual recognizes that leadership never dies; the baton is simply passed to the next leader.  Sometimes that baton-passing is clear; other times, we must make the effort to seek out the new leaders of the next generation.  Either way, the Gemara assures us that the sun never sets before it rises again. 

It takes great humility to find a Torah teacher to guide you through life.  But it is a tenet of our faith that the Oral transmission is only viable with the aid of the Rabbis.  May you find your Torah leader and be guided through the travails of our generation!

Do men avoid smart women?

Daf Yomi Kiddushin 71
Avram and Sarai, together with their nephew Lot, finally arrive in the Promised Land.   Along their travels, Hashem has blessed them with material prosperity and they are living the good life.   One day, however, a quarrel breaks out between their shepherds.
“We can graze our sheep anywhere we like!” exclaim the shepherds of Lot.
“What do you mean?” reply Avram’s shepherds, “You can’t just go into private property and let the sheep pasture!”
“Why not?  G-d promised this land to Avram and Sarai’s family.  Since they have no children, Lot is their heir.  Therefore, the entire land essentially belongs to him.  So it’s not stealing!”

Avram hears about the altercation and decides that the time has come for him to part company with Lot.   After all, the way of Avram was to avoid conflict and quarrels and strive for peace.

Ulla came to Pumbedisa to the house of Rav Yehuda.  He noticed that Rav Yitzchak the son of Rav Yehuda had grown up but was still not married.
He said to him, “Why, sir, have you not sought a wife for you son?”
He replied, “Nowadays, who knows where to find a (genealogically) kosher girl?”
Ulla responded, “And how about us, do we know where we came from?”
He replied, “If so, what should we do?”
Said Ulla, “Go look for the virtue of silence, just as they look for in the west (Israel).  When two people are quarreling, look to see who is the first to be quiet.  As they say, he is the purer individual.”
Rav taught: In Babylonia, silence is the marker of good yichus (stock).

People get married for a host of reasons.  Some choose their spouses based solely on their physical appearance.  Others marry for money.  Others are swept off their feet by some je ne sais quoi.

What, according to the Gemara, is the most important virtue to seek in a marriage partner?  Silence.  Civility.  An aversion to conflict. 

Many people constantly seek to pick fights or argue an irrelevant point.  That’s bad news in a marriage.  The last thing you want is a spouse who always needs to be right.   You want a spouse who will quickly change the subject when they sense an argument is looming.  You need someone who understands that most things in life aren’t worth the time and effort to argue over. 

I’m very blessed to be married to a brilliant wife.  When the Rabbanit began dating, a friend of hers advised that she not come across as too intelligent, because “men don’t like smart women.”  What a ridiculous idea!  It’s not that men don’t like ‘smart’ women; they don’t like ‘smarty-pants’ women.  And guess what?  Women don’t like smarty-pants men, either!  If you’re the kind of person who always has to be right and won’t stand down from an argument until the other person concedes, who in their right mind would want to marry you?

I recently read an article in a prominent psychology journal that ‘proved’ that men don’t like smart women.  I turned to Rabbanit Batya and lamented, “This article was clearly written by an intelligent single woman who is convinced that the reason she’s not married is that she’s too smart for all the men she dates.  Sadly, maybe she just needs to be a little nicer to them. . .”  And thus the silly myth is perpetuated by people who simply need to learn that ‘being right’ is not the most important virtue that potential marriage partners are looking for.

Smart men and women seek marriage partners with whom they can get through life with the least amount of conflict.  May you merit a smooth-sailing marriage!  

Friday, 20 May 2016

Why Europe Hates Israel

Daf Yomi Kiddushin 70

After being liberated from Auschwitz, my grandfather, Eli Friedman – or “Poppa” as we called him – returned home to Kosice, Czechoslovakia.  Arriving at his house, he noticed noise coming from inside.  He rang the bell and a burly Slovak fellow answered.

“Uh, thank you for house-sitting for me while I was away, but I’m back now,” says Poppa.
“I’m sorry, there must be some mistake,” replies the Slovak, “you look confused.  Those years in the camp must have shaken you up quite a bit.  This is our house.  We’ve always lived here.  I hope you find your home.”

Poppa wasn’t deterred.  Shortly prior to the Germans’ arrival into town, his father who was murdered by the Nazis, saw the writing on the wall.  He took all their gold, silver, jewellery, and important documents, and buried them in the backyard.
“I have proof that this is my house,” Poppa responds to the Slovak, “I’m just going to the backyard, and you’ll see!” 
Prior to the war, Poppa had been a strong young man.  He was originally chosen to represent Czechoslovakia in the 1936 Olympics in shotput and discus, until Hitler prohibited all Jews from participating.  But after three years in and out of concentration camps, he was no match for the big Slovak. 

Chased out of his own childhood home, he went to the police.  He told them the story and, to his surprise, they were responsive.  They agreed to have an officer accompany him home to assist him with entry into the backyard.  But alas, by the time they arrived, all that was left was some freshly dug dirt.  While Poppa was filing his claim at the station, the evil Slovak was removing all the evidence.

Poppa was completely devastated.  Not only had he lost everyone he loved in the war, now he had also lost everything his family had ever owned.  He was all alone and penniless on the streets in a hostile environment.  From his upper-middle class childhood, he now found himself washing dishes and scrubbing floors in a local restaurant.

Tragically, Poppa’s story was not unique.  Many Jews returned home from the camps to find they’d been dispossessed.  That while they were being tortured and killed, the peasant locals had been enjoying everything they’d worked hard to achieve and gather for generations.  While most of them managed to pick themselves up and eventually begin their lives anew, until today we are living the consequences of the aftermath of the Jews’ return to their homes in cities and villages across Europe.  How so?

It was taught: Whoever questions others’ lineage, he himself is tainted and never praises others people.   
Rashi explains:  Tainted people never have anything nice to say about anyone else.
Shmuel says: He accuses others with his own blemish.

Carl Jung introduced the concept of Transference to the world of psychology.  According to Jung, people with psychological issues will often transfer their personal misgivings onto others and accuse them of the same shortcomings.   It’s clear from the Gemara that Jung didn’t invent the concept.  Shmuel taught it fifteen hundred years earlier! 

As the Gemara explains, some people never have anything nice to say about anyone else.  They’re forever criticizing others and some go so far as to try to completely undermine and invalidate them!   I’m always shocked when someone approaches me and tries to tell me that a community member who converted isn’t a real Jew because their observance level wasn’t up to snuff.  Who do they think they are: G-d’s policeman? 

Actually, the Gemara tells us who they are: someone who goes around trying to disqualify others means that they themselves are tainted.   Why are they so intent on ruining other people’s lives and reputations?  Shmuel explains: it’s about transference.  They take their own blemish and project it onto the other person.

Who are the worst enemies of the State of Israel today?  Not the Arabs.  Believe it or not, many Arab nations have pretty good behind-the-scenes relationships with the Jewish state.  With ISIS, Al-Qaeda and Iran to deal with, the Jews are the least of their concerns.

You know who the biggest anti-Semites in the world are?  The Europeans.  They are leading the way in Israel-bashing, from the campuses to the parliaments.  They’re the ones leading the charge that Israel is an occupier, that Israel has stolen Palestinian land and property.  Why would that be?  Europe that is so enlightened!  Europe that is so progressive and universally-minded!?!

The answer is transference.  When the Jews were carted off to the concentration camps, instead of standing up to the Nazis, Europeans ran as fast as they could to occupy our homes and businesses.  Their financial institutions stole our bank accounts and seized our assets.  When we came back they denied us entry into our own homes, slamming the door in our faces.

And for the last seventy years, they’ve lived with this guilt.  They’ve passed on these blemishes to their children and grandchildren who know that their wealth was achieved by ill-gotten means.  It’s not easy to live with yourself knowing that your grandparents were murderers and thieves.  And that you continue to benefit from their illicit behaviour.

So what do you do to alleviate your guilt?  You transfer it back to the object of your scorn and resentment.  And so the Jews become the occupiers.  The Jews become the thieves and murderers.  Instead of being eternally contrite and remorseful, the Europeans have become emboldened, as the world has slowly but surely forgotten their monstrous crimes. 

Our communal memory is not that short.  We will not be bullied into submission once more.  By the grace of Heaven, we are now in control of our national destiny.  And Baruch Hashem, we have nations like Canada, the US, and Australia that won’t fall for European hypocrisy.   May we merit the prevailing of the truth, and peace in the Holy Land and on Earth speedily in our days!  

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Will Moshiach decide who is a Jew?

Daf Yomi Kiddushin 69

When Moshiach comes, what will the world be like?  Will the sea split?  Will wolves and sheep live together?  Will we be living in a miraculous never-before-seen world?

According to Maimonides, the world will continue as is.  All the biblical prophecies we find regarding supernatural events are to be understood allegorically.  And so when Isaiah prophesied that wolves and sheep will live together, he was alluding to the fact that Israel will be at peace with its neighbours.  

Indeed, Maimonides continues to explain that Moshiach “will not come to declare the pure, impure; or to declare the impure, pure. He will not dispute the lineage of those presumed to be of proper pedigree, nor will he validate the pedigree of those whose lineage is presumed blemished.”

So will there be no miracles to look forward to at all when Moshiach comes?  Will nothing change whatsoever?

Mishnah: Ten lineages went up to Israel from Babylonia: Cohanim (priests), Levites, Israelites, Chalalim (ex-Cohanim due to inappropriate marriages) . . .
Gemara: Rabbi Yossi says: Great is the power of chazakah for the verse states, “And of the priestly children of Hovia, the children of Hakotz, the children of Barzilai, who took a wife from the daughters of Barzilai the Gileadite and became known by their name; they searched for their papers to prove their priestly lineage but could not find them; and thus, they were rejected from the priesthood.  And Tirshasa (Nehemiah) told them that they could not eat of the holy of holies (sacrifices) until a cohen would arise to the Urim v’Tumim.
Rashi explains: The Urim v’Tumim, the special Divinator worn by the Kohen Gadol, did not exist during the Second Temple period.  And so, it is like saying, “We’ll know (who the real cohanim are) when Moshiach comes!”

Maimonides asserts that Moshiach will not come and start choosing whose lineage is good and whose is tainted.  And yet Rabbi Yossi teaches that when Moshiach comes we will know who the real cohanim are and who are not!  How are we to understand Maimonides’ words in light of the Gemara?

Prior to the twenty first century, explains Rabbi Motty Berger, the Biblical prophesies regarding the messianic era appeared to be supernatural.  That didn’t gel with Maimonides’ view.  But in the last few decades, we have begun to realize that the prophets’ descriptions weren’t miraculous after all – they were just technological progress at work! 

When the prophets declared that we would return to Israel “on eagles’ wings,” we now know that means aeroplanes!  And when they declared that the entire world would be filled with Divine knowledge and the immediate awareness of Moshiach’s arrival, we now know that’s entirely possible via the internet!

And the same is true of the priestly lineage.  Moshiach won’t come and start disqualifying people from their previous cohanic status.  He won’t need to.  Nowadays, we have DNA testing that can tell us exactly who is a true child of Aharon and who isn’t!  That’s what Rashi means when he writes, “we’ll know when Moshiach comes.”  Not because Moshiach is in the business of tainting lineage, but because we already have the technology to know who the real cohanim are! 

When Moshe came to Pharaoh to warn him of the impending plague of hail, he cautioned the Egyptians to bring their animals indoors in order to avoid being struck by the falling ice.  Believe it or not, even after six previous plagues, there were skeptical Egyptians who ignored the signs, and ignored Moshe’s warning!  We live in miraculous times, when all the signs of the Bible are being fulfilled before our very eyes – from the return of our nation to the Land of Israel to the incredible technological advances we are witnessing.  May you merit opening your eyes and recognizing the messianic era that is fast upon us!

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Is Anybody Truly Off the Derech?

Daf Yomi Kiddushin 68

When our forefather, Yitzchak, was nearing the end of his life, he realized that the time had come to bless his children.  He called over his son, Esav, to offer him the primary blessing.  His wife, Rivkah, was flabbergasted!  Didn’t he realize the wayward path Esav had taken in life?  Didn’t he see that Yaakov was the good one, the child worthy of the blessing?

The Torah states, “If a man has two wives, one favoured, and the other unloved, and they bear him children, both the favoured and the unloved; but the first-born son be hers that was unloved.  Then it shall be, in the day that he causes his sons to inherit that which he has, that he may not make the son of the favoured the first-born before the son of the unloved, who is the first-born.  But he shall acknowledge the first-born, the son of the unloved, by giving him a double portion of all that he has; for he is the first-fruits of his strength, the right of the first-born is his.”
Rav Papa asks: Could we possibly suggest that one person is unloved in G-d’s eyes and another is favoured in G-d’s eyes?!?

When a child misbehaves, does the parent love them any less?  Of course not!  Yitzchak was no fool; he was well aware of who Esav truly was.  But a good parent recognizes that some children need more attention than others.  He figured that if Esav would receive the extra attention and blessing, he would eventually come around.  Fortunately, for us, the descendants of Yaakov, Rivkah thought otherwise! 

Does that mean that Rivkah loved Esav any less?  G-d forbid!  Our Sages tell us that Esav and Rivkah had a special relationship and that he would entrust her with his most treasured possessions for safekeeping!  But even so, the Torah still suggests that Yitzchak had a soft spot for Esav while Rivkah was closer with Yaakov.  After all, even our patriarchs and matriarchs were human.

Not so Hashem.  The Almighty loves each and every one of His children equally!   As Rav Papa points out, before G-d there are no favourites.  It doesn’t matter how distant you might be from the Source, for G-d it’s all the same.  We are all His children and he loves each and every one of his dear kinderlach, as if you were an only child! 

Why?  Because G-d is infinite.  Here’s the difference between infinite and finite:  Let’s say you’re a pretty good Jew.  You’re so committed to your Judaism that compared to your neighbour you do ten times as many mitzvos.  So if he is worth a ‘ten’ in terms of observance level, you’d be worth a ‘hundred.’  Now, in your eyes, you are ninety notches ahead of him!  Pretty good edge, right?

Now let’s think about it from G-d’s perspective.  Which is closer to infinity, ten or a hundred?  Answer: neither, they are equidistant.  And so, no matter which of his children is more committed, in G-d’s infinite eyes, we are all the same.  Of course that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t strive to do more and more mitzvos – we still need to excel from our vantage point.  But we should never think that G-d has favourites.  He loves every single one of His children. 

Rav Noach Weinberg zt”l expressed it as follows: In Hashem’s eyes, there’s no such thing as different types of Jews.  All He wants to know is: Are you moving in the right direction?  Are you on the track heading towards Me?  Or are you heading away from Me?  Nobody in life is static.  And nobody can ever reach G-d.  The only question is: Which direction are you moving in?

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about young adults who are OTD – Off The Derech (road).  These are people, who ostensibly began as committed Jews and then abandoned their religious practice.  Sadly, however, the truth is that most of these young folks were never really on the derech to begin with!  They may have appeared to be religious Jews, with all the trappings from kippah to hat to payos to stockings; but many kids really just go with the flow without ever internalizing or taking ownership of their spirituality.  Rav Noach taught that you’re either on the train going towards G-d or on the train away from G-d.  But what about those people who never even got on the train to begin with?

Let’s not take any of Hashem’s kinderlach for granted.  Hashem loves every one of His children.  And so should we.  He loves you more than the love any mortal parent has for their child.  And He loves your neighbour just as much.

Next time you’re feeling down, think about how much your Father loves you.  Tell those who are on the train and off the train how much their Father loves them.  Let them know that there is nothing in this world they could do to diminish that love.  May you merit joining the train and inspiring others to hop aboard the train heading in the right direction!

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Canaanites never existed

Daf Yomi Kiddushin 67

Rabbi Jonathan Gross, author of Values Investing, is known as Warren Buffett's rabbi.  But like with every great band, there's always an opening act.  Rabbi Myer Kripke was the opening act, Warren Buffett's first introduction to the rabbinic world. Kripke was beloved in Omaha as a great rabbi and a witty speaker.  And so when the Blumkin seniors’ home opened in Omaha, Kripke, was asked to say a few words.
“Friends, over the last number of years, sadly, many of us have lost our better halves,” began Rabbi Kripke, “but we have gathered here today to celebrate.  Baruch Hashem, we have now been blessed with better quarters!” 

How do we know that if a Gentile man had a child with a Canaanite woman that he may be purchased as a servant?  For the verse states, “Moreover of the children of the strangers that sojourn among you, of them may you acquire.”
Rashi explains: We are talking about a Gentile not of the nations of the Land of Israel, concerning whom it states, “You shall not sustain any person.” 

According to Torah law, there are two types of servants: a Hebrew servant and a Canaanite servant.   Our Sages tell us that “One who acquires a servant acquires a master over himself.”  Why?  Because the obligations towards a servant are so detailed and demanding that it’s almost not worth the hassle!  A Hebrew servant had to have good food and living quarters and became an adopted member of the family.   In fact, it was so good that he often chose to stay on after his six-year term!

The Canaanite servant didn’t fare too bad either.  In exchange for signing on to perform the mitzvos, they were treated with the utmost respect and dignity.  But here’s the kicker: it’s clear from our Gemara that really, there’s no such thing as a Canaanite servant!  Because we weren’t permitted to maintain inhabitants of the Land of Israel with their previous Canaanite status.  Either they had to leave or make peace with us, paying taxes and becoming quasi-citizens.  At that point, we weren’t allowed to acquire them as servants.  And so the only people who could become gentile servants were Gentiles from abroad.  In other words, the “Canaanite” servant never existed!    But if the Canaanite servant never happened, why does the Torah devote so much space to those laws? 

Our Sages tell us that many of the laws of the Torah – such as the procedures surrounding the rebellious child – never came to pass.  Nevertheless, everything in the Torah is eternal and has a message for every Jew for all time.   What are we to learn from the laws of servants in the Torah?  The Torah states explicitly, “For the Children of Israel are servants unto me.”  Any time in the Torah we learn about servants, it’s a lesson for each and every one of us in how to serve Heaven.

There are two ways to be a servant: either you can be a Hebrew servant or a Canaanite servant.  What’s the difference?   When you’re acting as a Hebrew servant, you’re a member of the family.   You’re serving Hashem because you want to be there.  When they tell you your work is done and it’s time to go, you plead for the opportunity to stay and do another mitzvah.  In the Torah’s words, the Hebrew servant says, “I love my master . . . I don’t want to go!”

Or you could be acting as a Canaanite servant.  You do the job, but it’s only half-hearted.  You accept half the commandments upon yourself.  The negative ones.  ‘Don’t do this.  Don’t do that.’  You’re doing it because you have to do it.  But you don’t show any positive initiative.

Which kind of servant are you?  Do you serve Heaven with love and vigor?  Do you complete one mitzvah and run to find another mitzvah to do?  Or do you do just what you have to do to ‘make G-d happy’ and then get back to your own life?

Take a moment to think about how your Master treats you – the wonderful food He provides, the living quarters He shelters you in, the blessings of health and good relationships!  Doesn’t that stir up feelings of intense gratitude and love for Heaven?  Don’t you feel the urge to run out and do a mitzvah?  To serve Him non-stop for all eternity?!  To become an everlasting Hebrew servant?!

The truth is Canaanite servants don’t exist.  Deep down we all want to serve the Almighty with the passion of a Hebrew servant.  May you run to do His will and never tire of serving Him with love!  

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Stealing an Opportunity

Daf Yomi Kiddushin 59

My friend Yitzy is an excellent baal koreh (Torah reader).  When we were in yeshiva in Melbourne, he used to layn (read) at a shul called Elsternwick Synagogue.  They loved him there; his layning was the highlight of the service!  But for years following Yitzy’s year in yeshiva in Melbourne he was bothered.  Were his gains ill-gotten?

You see, Yitzy got the layning job when the previous baal koreh, Levi, took ill.  Levi had been the baal koreh at the shul for six months prior, when he was suddenly hit with mono.  For three months he was out of commission.  When he was finally ready to return, the shul decided that they wanted to keep Yitzy.  And Yitzy, needing the money, happily obliged. 

Should Yitzy have refused the job and given it back to Levi?  Certainly he wasn’t physically stealing anything from Levi, but what was his ethical responsibility?

One time, Rav Giddal was negotiating over a field, when Rabbi Abba went and bought it. Thereupon Rav Giddal went and complained about him to Rabbi Zera, who went in turn and complained to Rabbi Yitzchak Nafcha.
“Wait until he comes up to us for the Festival,” said he to him.  
When he came up he met and asked him, “If a poor man is examining a cake and another comes and takes it away from him, what then?”
“He is called a wicked man,” was his answer.
“Then why did you, Sir, act so?” he questioned him.
“I did not know that he was negotiating over it,” he rejoined.
“Then let him have it now,” he suggested.
“I will not sell it to him,” he replied, “because it is the first field which I have ever bought, and it is not a good omen to sell one’s first field.  But if he wants it as a gift, let him take it.”
 Now, Rav Giddal would not take possession, because it is written, “He that hates gifts shall live.”  Nor would Rabbi Abba keep it, because Rav Giddal had been negotiating over it.  And so neither took possession, and it was henceforth called ‘The Rabbis’ field’.

Often in our dealings in life we take action without thinking about the consequences to other potential parties to the deal.  We convince ourselves that since we didn’t actually physically steal anything from anyone, we are completely innocent.  There might have been other players; but you snooze, you lose, right?

Listen to the high ethical standards of our Sages!   Once Rabbi Abba realized that he had swooped in and purchased a piece of property that Rav Giddal had his eye on, he withdrew his hand from the property, effectively leaving it ownerless!  He couldn’t imagine benefitting from an item that in any way, shape or form smacked of an improper acquisition! 

Stealing isn’t merely about taking something tangible away from somebody else.  It’s about the feeling of loss we cause them even by taking away something they felt due to them.  If you realize that Hashem is the ultimate provider, you never feel the need to take anything that someone else already feels is theirs.  Hashem will find another source to bless you!

Whenever I am asked to perform a wedding, one of the first questions I ask the kallah and chatan (bride and groom) is whether perhaps there’s another rabbi that they are close to who might be expecting the request to officiate.  If yes, I gladly pass on the honour.   Because although technically I might not be stealing anything, if the other rabbi would feel he deserves the honour, why would I want to even take that away from him?

The good news with my friend Yitzy, the baal koreh, was that twenty years later he bumped into Levi at a wedding and told him how awful he had been feeling for the previous two decades.
“I’m so sorry.  I don’t know how I could have accepted the job.  I should have given it back to you.  You must be really upset at me.”
“Don’t be silly!” Levi told him.  “Honestly, I was bothered at first, but I immediately forgave you!”

In life, not everyone is going to be as forgiving as Levi.  Whenever you grab an opportunity, make sure you’re not grabbing it away from someone else.  May the Almighty bless you with an abundance of opportunities without ever needing to take them away from any other person!