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Monday, 11 July 2016

Standing up for Heaven's Honour

Daf Yomi Bava Kama 40

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Become a mitzvah machine!

Daf Yomi Bava Kama 39

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 8 July 2016

Does Hashem really care if you keep kosher?

Daf Yomi Bava Kama 38

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Should women be called to the Torah?

Daf Yomi Bava Kama 37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

What's the main role of the rabbi?

Daf Yomi Bava Kama 36

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

Blunt the Wicked Son's Teeth!

Daf Yomi Bava Kama 35

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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