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Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Why Jews love mosquitos

Daf Yomi Sanhedrin 38

Mark Twain famously wrote about the desolation of the Holy Land.  One of the major obstacles faced by the pioneers, who paved the way for the return to Zion, were the perilous swamplands full of malaria-carrying mosquitos.  How did the new returnees to the Land resolve this challenge?  They imported eucalyptus trees from Australia and planted them in the problem areas.  Eucalyptus trees require a considerable amount of moisture to thrive, and so as they grew, they soaked up the water around them, draining the swamps in the process.  With the swamps gone, the mosquitos lost their natural environment.  And in no time at all, they died off, taking their malaria with them to the grave.

ת"ר אדם נברא בערב שבת ומפני מה שאם תזוח דעתו עליו אומר לו יתוש קדמך במעשה בראשית דבר אחר כדי שיכנס לסעודה מיד משל למלך בשר ודם שבנה פלטרין ושיכללן והתקין סעודה ואחר כך הכניס אורחין
The Sages taught: Adam was created on Shabbat eve at the close of the six days of Creation. And for what reason was this so? So that if a person becomes haughty, God can say to him: The mosquito preceded you in the acts of Creation. Alternatively, he was created on Shabbat eve, in order that he enter into a feast immediately, as the whole world was prepared for him. This is comparable to a king of flesh and blood, who first built palaces and improved them, and prepared a feast, and afterward brought in his guests. 

Human beings were created last so that we would be humbled by all that preceded us, even the lowly mosquito.  Or maybe, human beings were created last so that the entire universe could be all ready for us to enter the party without having to stand outside waiting in line!  Aren’t these reasons contradictory?  Was it in tribute to mankind that we were the ultimate act of creation or was G-d teaching us a lesson and putting us in our place by creating us last?

No doubt, this powerful question has perplexed millennia of Talmudists.  But finally, in our time, the meaning of the Gemara has become clear.

One of the ways Hashem promised to prepare the Promised Land prior to the re-entry of the Children of Israel was by sending a bug that the Torah calls ‘tzirah.’  The commentators debate whether this bug was a physical insect or an internal disease ‘bug,’ as the word tzirah appears to be connected to tzaraas (the biblical skin disease).  We know that the narrative of the Torah is not some ancient story; if it’s in the Torah, the lesson is important and applicable for all eternity.

How did the Almighty prepare the Land of Israel for our re-entry in the modern era?  He sent malaria-carrying mosquitos.  So in the end both Rashi and Ibn Ezra were correct: the tzirah was a real insect, but it caused an internal bug!  What did the tzirah do?  It ensured that those who were living in Israel while we were in Exile couldn’t inhabit most of the Land.  Only once we returned, armed with the newly-discovered gift from Heaven – the eucalyptus tree – we could remove the tzirah and the Jewish people could return to live in the entire Land of Israel!

Now when you first read our Gemara about the mosquito preceding human beings, it appears to be a negative, demeaning statement.  Nobody likes mosquitos.  And to think that even that awful bug came to this earth before us makes you feel pretty small.  But to the modern Talmud reader, it is abundantly clear that when the mosquito preceded us, it was the greatest blessing we could ever imagine!  The mosquito protected the earth – and in this case, the Holy Land – so that we could enter with ease!  There’s no contradiction in the Talmud whatsoever – both statements are fantastic!

And that should be our attitude to all challenges in life.  Nobody’s first reaction to mosquitos is, “Awesome!!”  But when you realize that the Almighty has a plan and even mosquitos are part of that plan, then no matter what happens, you find yourself saying, “Wow, thank you Hashem, this is awesome indeed!”

It’s like the story of King David who always wondered why Hashem made spiders.  Until one day he was hiding in a cave from King Shaul who was pursuing him.  A spider came and weaved a web over the mouth of the cave.  When Shaul saw the web, he figured that nobody could be inside.  At that point, David perished all doubts over why G-d created the spider!

Everything Hashem made, everything He does, is all part of one colossal plan.  Things may seem unfair, they may appear bleak, all you might be feeling now are the mosquito bites, but never lose your trust in the One Above.  In time, everything will become clear.  You’ll find out soon enough why the mosquito preceded you.  May you always trust in Hashem knowing that even the most challenging obstacles are all part of His incredible plan!

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

No such thing as a sinner

Daf Yomi Sanhedrin 37

There were these cool cats living in the neighborhood of Rabbi Zeira.  In an effort to help reengage them in their Judaism, he befriended them. But the other Sages disapproved of the friendship. When Rabbi Zeira died, the guys cried out, “Until now, Rabbi Zeira prayed for compassion for us!  Who will pray for us now?”  They gave it some thought and repented. 

Reish Lakish taught from the following verse: “Your temples [rakkatekh] are like a pomegranate split open," which teaches that even the empty people [reikanin] among you are as full of mitzvos as the pomegranate is full of seeds. Rabbi Zeira says that the source is from here: when Yitzchak blessed Yaakov, the verse states: “And he smelled the smell of his garments, and blessed him, and said: See, the smell of my son is as the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed." Do not read “his garments [begadav]”; rather, ‘his traitors [bogedav],’ meaning that even traitors and sinners among the Jewish people have qualities “as the smell of a field that the Lord has blessed.”

Some folks appear to be pretty estranged from religion.  But the truth is, they’re choc-a-bloc full of mitzvos like a pomegranate is full of seeds!  Just think about all the people they’ve probably lent a helping hand to.  Think about the charity they’ve given.  The smiles and good cheer they’ve spread.  The way they honour their parents and care for the earth’s poor and downtrodden.  There’s no telling how many mitzvos they truly have up their sleeve!

Never give up on anyone!  Sure, they might not have looked the part, but Rabbi Zeira knew that deep-down these characters were incredible individuals who wanted a relationship with Heaven.  They might not even have realized themselves that they cared about G-d.  But the second Rabbi Zeira passed, it suddenly hit them that he wasn’t there to pray for them. 

Who knows if they ever thanked Rabbi Zeira while he was alive?  They probably ridiculed him for his religious devotion.  But his friendship was slowly but surely chipping away at the coarseness concealing their neshomo – their inner light.  Until the day finally arrived when they cried out for a relationship with Heaven!

Now, take a moment to go back and reread the story.  After Rabbi Zeira dies, the Gemara relates how, “They gave it some thought and repented.”  Who gave it some thought?  The Gemara doesn’t say.  At first glance we assume it was the OTD’ers (the wayward kids).  But a careful read reveals that maybe it was the Sages who repented.  Throughout Rabbi Zeira’s lifetime they shook their heads disapprovingly when they saw him associating with these ruffians.  But when they heard the kids cry out, “Who will pray for us?” they realized that Rabbi Zeira’s relationship with them had made an incredible impact.  Maybe they still weren’t your typical ‘frum baleibatim,’ but they clearly cared about their connection to the Almighty!  And at that point, the Sages ‘repented’ and decided that Rabbi Zeira had been right all along and that maybe they too should be taking a softer approach and reaching out to their fellow Yidden a little more.

If you find yourself looking down on some of your Jewish brothers and sisters, if you can’t see that they’re full of mitzvos like a pomegranate, then maybe it’s time you looked inside your own soul.  Maybe, just maybe, it’s not them that needs to repent. 

Every individual is overflowing with spirituality!  If you’re not seeing it, you’re not looking hard enough!  And even if they themselves don’t seem to acknowledge it, don’t ever give up on them!  They will come around eventually!  May Hashem open your eyes to see the spiritual beauty in each and every person!

Thursday, 13 April 2017

Hashem hurts the ones He loves the most

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 79

At the college where my father teaches, he has a Jewish colleague, called Fred.  Fred is an atheist.
“Come on, Freddie,” said Aba one day to him, “look at the wonderful world around you!  You can’t seriously believe that it all happened randomly, can you?”
“Look, mate,” Fred replied, “I once had cancer.  I can’t believe in a G-d that would have given me cancer.”
“But, Freddie,” my dad responded bemusedly, “you got better!  Doesn’t that demonstrate the abundant mercies of the Almighty?!”

After the battle with the Emorites, the Torah declares, “We laid waste to them (VanAshim) until Nofach, which reaches until Maidva.”
The Gemara explains: “Until Nofach” means until a fire (Aish) comes that needs no nifuach (fanning).  “Until Maidva” means until He has done what He wants (Mai d’vaee).
Rashbam explains: ‘He’ refers to Hashem. In this world, He allows the wicked to prosper, so that He may trouble them in the World to Come.

Some people mistakenly view suffering in this world as a sign that G-d doesn’t care or that there is no G-d.  That could not be further from the truth!  As the Gemara demonstrates, when people suffer in this world, it’s a sign that G-d loves them! 

How so?

Nobody in this world is 100% righteous or wicked.  We all have a string of positive and negative things that we’ve done in this world.  Hopefully, the positive overwhelmingly outweighs the negative in most of us.  When that happens, Hashem says, ‘I like that fellow.  I’d like to give him total reward in Heaven.  So let me bestow a little hardship upon him in this world and thereby wipe the slate clean.  That way, he’ll enter Heaven sin-free.’ 

The opposite is true for people who are not so great.  Hashem says, ‘That fellow really needs to answer for his sins in the World to Come.  But he’s not 100% wicked, so I’m going to let him prosper in this world.  That way, I won’t owe him any reward later.’

In other words, your Father in Heaven wants only the best for you.  He wants you to enjoy life in this world and the next.  But in order to maximize your eternal bliss, sometimes He has to provide you with a little pain in this world.  And so when we experience hardship, we shouldn’t start questioning G-d’s providence or existence; au contraire, we should be thanking Him for His benevolence!

And if you should be lucky enough to have experienced a storm that Hashem carried you through – like surviving cancer – you should be all the more grateful to Him!  That truly demonstrates how much He loves you.  He loves you so much that He wants you to have a perfect life in the next world!

So next time things aren’t going exactly the way you’d hoped, turn your eyes Heavenward and say, ‘Thank you, Aba!  Thank you for loving me so much and having the confidence in me that I’ll maintain my faith in You through it all!’

Your Father in Heaven loves you more than you could ever imagine!  When He gives you challenges in life, it’s only because He loves you and wants the best for you.  May you forever maintain your faith in Heaven and welcome the trials and tribulations Hashem lovingly bestows upon you! 

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Are all religions basically the same?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 78

Rabbanit Batya is the first rebbetzin in history on the payroll of the Church.  As the coordinator for the Edmonton Interfaith Housing Initiative, her job is to bring together clergy from across Edmonton and inspire them to educate their respective flocks about helping to end homelessness in the city.  While the initiative is a joint project of a number of faith groups as well as the City of Edmonton, practically speaking she receives a monthly paycheck from the Anglican Diocese, making her the first rebbetzin ever to be paid by the Church!

Many people see cooperation between religious groups as incredibly beautiful.  After all, aren’t we really all about the same thing?  Faith means being guided by Heaven to make this world a better place, right?  We’re all essentially doing the same thing, just with some minor differences in approach, right?

Following the battle with the Emorites, the Torah states, “Vaniram avad Cheshbon ad Divon (Their sovereignty over Cheshbon was lost until Divon).”
The Gemara interprets this phrase homiletically: “Vaniram” alludes to a wicked person who says “Ain Ram – there is no G-d on High.” “Avad Cheshbon” means that “The demand for a personal accounting of one’s actions is lost. Hashem responds, however, “Ad Divon,” meaning, “Just wait until the day of judgment (din) comes (ba)!”

Ever wonder how rational human beings could worship idols?  How foolish could ancient man have been?  You fashion these statues out of wood and gold and then treat them as a god?  How could they be divine when you created them yourself?  These idols should have been worshipping man as their creator, not the other way around!

Our Sages explain that idolatry went hand in hand with immorality.  Why?  What led a person who was bowing down to idols to become an exemplar of loose morals?  What is the connection between the two?

Imagine you were our patriarch, Avraham, or the prophet, Eliyahu, and you were trying to convince a person to cease their idolatrous practices and immoral ways.  What would they respond to you?  ‘You have your religion, I have mine.  Who gives you the right to judge me and my religion?  My idols have instructed me to practise my life as I do!  How dare you be so intolerant and disrespectful to another’s beliefs?’

That’s why idolatry was so popular.  It was even better than atheism.  When you debate an atheist, you’re not criticizing their beliefs – they claim to have none!  But when you debate an idolater, there’s nothing you can say to them.  The second you begin to critique their religious practices, they accuse you of intolerance.  But what exactly were their religious practices?  Whatever they wanted them to be!  They could be the most immoral people and claim that their gods instructed them to act the way they do.  When you question their morality, their response is that your definition of what is morally appropriate is simply different to their definition.  

Today we have a name for such abstruseness: moral relativism.  That’s what the Gemara means regarding the person who says “There is no G-d on high.” If there’s no Supernal Being, every religion is equal.  Idolatry was the ancient name for today’s moral relativism.  You have no right to question another person’s theology and practices and claim moral superiority, because everyone has the right to their own beliefs.  To judge another’s religious devotions is to be intolerant.  As the Gemara says “the demand for a personal accounting of one’s actions is lost,” because everyone is entitled to believe and practise whatever they want to believe and practise.

The advantage of idolatry was that you could lead your life however you wanted to, and do it all in the name of religion.  Most religions today are not that overtly depraved.  But that doesn’t make them right.  Many faith groups justify all manner of inappropriate behaviour, all in the name of religion.  Some faiths justify violence, particularly against women.  Other faiths justify alternative lifestyles or the right to determine which babies have the right to be born.  One dare not criticize, because it’s considered intolerant.  When morals are no longer determined by Heaven, but by man, that’s modern-day idolatry.

When Rabbanit Batya and I work together with other faith groups to create a better society, we are not declaring that we believe those religions to be true.  Or equal to Judaism.  When we work with other clergy members, we seek common ground to do good.  Care for the less fortunate, alms for the poor – those deeds are common to most religions and when we work together, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. 

Other aspects of our respective theologies, however, are not part of the discussion.  As far as we’re concerned every other religion is absolutely false.  In fact, anybody that doesn’t believe that their religion is the absolute truth and that all other religions are false gods should probably question their faith commitment! 

Anybody can justify anything they want in G-d’s name.  You don’t need to respect opinions and beliefs that are immoral.  On the contrary, we should call out those who use G-d to justify their immoral behaviour.  At the same time, however, we must respect and work with others who are making this world a better place in the name of Heaven.  Doing so does not mean that we agree with every theological statement they are making.  May you never fall into the trap of moral relativism, but always be prepared to cooperate with those who are working to make G-d’s name great in this world!

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Why won't Israelis become synagogue members?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 45

There are close to a million former Israelis living in the Diaspora.  From post-army kiosk workers to Silicon Valley geniuses to top university academics and everything in between, there is nowhere in the world that you won’t find Israelis!  But one of the challenges that established Diaspora communities struggle with is: how do you get them to become synagogue members?  In Israel, religious life is state-driven.  Shuls are provided free of charge and so the concept of paying dues is completely foreign to them.  How do you change that mentality and get them to decide to join? 

Rava, and some say Rav Pappa, declared: Those who are making Aliya and those who are doing Yerida (emigrating from Israel), any child of Israel who sells his chamra (donkey) to Israel his friend (i.e. his Jewish friend): if a gentile should come and attempt to forcibly seize it, by law he must retrieve it for him.
Rashbam explains: If the purchaser is being hounded by a gentile who claims the donkey was stolen from him, the seller is obligated to assist the purchaser in seeking justice and the return of his donkey.

In the literal interpretation of the Gemara, chamra means donkey.  But on a deeper level, chamra also means substance or material.  In Modern Hebrew, the former meaning is the word chamor, the latter sense is the word chomer.   

In the literal meaning, Rava is teaching that if you sell your Jewish friend a donkey which is seized by a gentile, you have a duty to help them get it back.  But on an esoteric level, Rava makes a powerful declaration: The greatest contribution a person can make to Israel, his friend is to dedicate his chamra, his substance, material, his entire being.

What does that mean?  Rava makes his declaration both to those who are making Aliya and those who are doing Yerida.  Certainly, the greatest dedication of one’s being to Israel is to make Aliya.  How many of us are prepared to make that ultimate move for the sake of the future of the Jewish people?  There are no words to express our indebtedness to every Israeli citizen and especially those who have voluntarily made Aliya.

But the intriguing declaration is to those who have done Yerida, those who have emigrated from Israel.  Some people’s automatic response to ex-Israelis is one of disdain.  How could anyone choose to leave the Holy Land for life in the Diaspora?  That’s not Rava’s attitude.  Why?  Well, firstly, it’s a little hypocritical to criticize Israelis who have left – after all, did you ever live there?! 

Secondly, most of us could never hold a candle to the average Israeli.  Just think about the three-plus years they dedicated to the safety and security of the Jewish people on the frontlines of the battlefield!  They’ve put their lives on the line for us.  When I see an Israeli, I almost want to reach out and give them a big hug.  There is no way I could ever repay them for everything they’ve done for me and my family!

Now listen to Rava’s declaration: Any child of Israel who sells his chamra to Israel his friend, if a gentile should come and attempt to forcibly seize it, by law he must retrieve it for him.   Nearly every Israeli you meet sold their chamra – gave their entire being – to Israel, by virtue of their time served in the IDF.  For one reason or another, many later end up in the Diaspora, where the gentile world attempts to seize their chamra from them. 

What do I mean?  In Israel, it was easy for them to be Jewish.  Because everyone is Jewish.  Shabbat is a special day; whether or not you keep everything, it’s still called Shabbat!  Pork is hard to find.  Most Israelis fast on Yom Kippur and don’t eat bread on Pesach.  But then they leave Israel and all of a sudden they have to be conscious of their Jewish choices.  Unfortunately, many of them are simply ill-prepared to deal with the religious challenges of the gentile world around them.  And so Rava declares, if they’re losing their chamra, we have an obligation to retrieve it for them.

How? By reaching out to them and inviting them to get involved with Jewish life in our communities.  So why aren’t we doing it?  What’s stopping us reaching out to them?  Often, we get hung up on the fact that they won’t become synagogue members.  Maybe some of them will.  But most of them won’t.  Not today.  Not next year.  Probably never.  They simply have no shul-membership culture – to pay for religion is almost sacrilegious to them! 

So why invite them to take part in synagogue life if we know they’ll never pay synagogue dues?  Because it’s the least we can do.  No money in the world could repay them for the years they put their lives on the line for us.  That’s right: we owe our Jewish safety and security – even in the Diaspora – to the self-sacrifice they made.  They devoted their chamra, their entire being, to the Jewish people.  Now let’s be there for them if Diaspora life is causing their spiritual chamra – their Jewishness – to be stolen from them.  If that means giving them free membership in our shuls, isn’t that the least we could do? 

Every Israeli who put their lives on the line for the Jewish people is as holy as a Temple sacrifice.  We could never repay them for their incredible devotion to the Jewish people.  May we reach out and do what little we can to show our appreciation, by being there for them when they need our spiritual protection! 

Do you own property in Israel?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 44

Jerusalem, The Movie, is a 2013 IMAX documentary that describes the history and contemporary life of the holiest city in the world.  The film begins showing the Jebusites as the original inhabitants of the city.  It was then conquered by the Jews.  Subsequently, the Romans took it.  Then the Muslims.  Then the Christians.  Then the Muslims again.  And finally the Jews reconquered it.  The message of the movie was that everyone really had a part in the city’s history and that we should all ideally share the city.

Only problem is that the first part of the story is absent.  The Torah’s original introduction to Jerusalem happens when our patriarch Avraham returns from his successful mission to rescue his nephew Lot and the other captives.  He is greeted by his great-grandfather, Malkitzedek, King of Shalem.  City name sound familiar?  Of course!  That was Jerusalem!  In fact, our Sages explain that Malkitzedek was Shem, the son of Noach.  Initially, he ruled over the entire area of what would later be called Greater Israel.  But the Canaanites conquered most of the land from him, leaving him with only the city of Shalem, or Jerusalem.  And indeed, after his death, that city too was conquered by a Canaanite people called the Jebusites.

Nevertheless, Hashem promised Avraham that one day, his descendants would return to the Land.  They would be replanted in the country that was once the domain of their forefathers.  It belongs to us and any subsequent conquests are invalid in the eyes of Hashem.

Tosfos: When one creates a power of attorney for monetary matters, one writes, “I hereby transfer four cubits of my yard to my agent” (thereby rooting the transaction in land).  One writes the clause even if he does not own any land, since there is no Jewish person who does not own a portion of land in Israel, for land cannot be stolen.

What is your motivation for Israel advocacy?  Most of us advocate for two primary reasons: first, to help our brothers and sisters in Israel.  Almost half the Jewish people live in Israel and so we want to make sure that Israel is treated fairly and protected by the global society of nations.

The second reason we advocate for Israel is that, following 2000 years of persecution in exile, we all recognize that we need Israel as a safe haven for our people.  G-d forbid should the next Hitler or Queen Isabella rise up, we now have somewhere to escape to.  Unless we fight for Israel’s right to exist and flourish now, it will not be there if and when we should ever need to take shelter under her wings. 

The reality is, though, it’s really hard to motivate young people to advocate on that score.  While many of us grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust, our children have grown up in a world that is so open and accepting to all.  They couldn’t begin to imagine real anti-Semitism, the likes of which existed blatantly in every country until quite recently.  So why should they fight for Israel?

Certainly the first reason – acting for the love of their Israeli brothers and sisters – continues to hold true, but Tosfos here offers an additional, very compelling reason to defend Israel.  You own property there!  Every single Jew, says Tosfos, is an automatic landowner, since we all have a share in the physical land of Israel.  Even if it was stolen by the Jebusites, then the Babylonians, then the Romans, and finally by the Christians and Muslims, it still belongs to us.  You can’t steal land!

If you saw someone trying to steal your car, would you just stand there and let them get away with it?  Of course not!  You would do everything in your power to stop them.  The same is true with any property you own.  So what are you going to do when they try to sweep away your land from under your feet?  You’re going to work your hardest to make sure it doesn’t happen! 

That’s the imagery we need to convey to our children.  Israel advocacy is not about some country on the other side of the world we’re working to support politically.  It’s about our personal ownership rights that are being threatened!

You own a piece of Israel.  Don’t let it slip away.  May you never stop fighting for your rights and the rights of every one of your landowner brothers and sisters!

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Why is the Torah reading so boring?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 43

We had just left Egypt and crossed the Red Sea to freedom at last.  Only to find ourselves trudging through the wilderness.  It had been three long days and we’d encountered no water for our children or ourselves, let alone the animals.  And then we finally reached the water, it was bitter!  Until Moshe threw a special plant into the water and it miraculously became sweet! 

On a mystical level, water represents Torah.  It is our life-force.  It is our basic sustenance.  As Rabbi Akiva would say, a Jew without Torah is like a fish out of water.

This deeper symbolism and its connection to our search for water in the wilderness set the tone for a law that we have until today.  Following the event, Moshe instructed our people that we must publicly read from the Torah at least every three days.  Just like we couldn’t survive without water, and when we finally found it, it was bitter, if we go too long without Torah, it becomes bitter to us. 

How could anyone find water bitter?  And yet we did.  Likewise, if we let Torah be absent from our lives for too long, we stop appreciating its sweetness.  Instead of being invigorating, it becomes a burden.  Hence the obligation to publicly read from the Torah every Shabbos, Monday, and Thursday.  That way we are constantly energized and the Torah is forever fresh and exciting!

If a Torah scroll was stolen from a city, local citizens may not judge the case nor testify, for a Torah is there for all to listen to.
Rashbam explains: Every person in the city is an interested party (and therefore disqualified to be a judge or witness to the case of the stolen Torah), because they all enjoy (listening to) the Torah.

Listen to what Rashbam says: everyone enjoys listening to the Torah!  We all benefit from it!  How lucky we are to have the opportunity to hear the Torah Shabbos morning, Shabbos afternoon, Monday, and Thursday!

Okay now, let’s be honest for a minute: do we all really find the Torah reading the highlight of our religious experience?  How many contemporary shuls make the Torah reading an immensely enjoyable experience?  An awesome moment.  Something we just can’t wait for? 

Back in the day, the layning (Torah reading) was a much more stimulating experience: the Baal Koreh (reader) would read a verse and then an interpreter would stand there and bring it to life for the congregation.  Nowadays, we don’t need all that, because we have printed translations right in front of us.  So many of us end up tuning out – either we find something else to read or we end up chatting quietly to our neighbors.

If you find yourself dreading the Torah reading, you need to figure out how to make it more stimulating and exciting.  Speak to the rabbi.  Speak to the gabbai.  Or even better, offer to be part of the solution.

There are lots of different ways to make it more exciting.  In our shul, we’ve used various approaches over the years.  At one point, I would ask a question between each aliya; the answer could be found anywhere in the text and Stone Chumash commentary.  We currently have a couple of 2 minute D’var Torah breaks – not before every aliya, that can get a little tedious; but here and there, and with different presenters.  We have rabbinic and lay-leader presenters – as long as they’re interesting and present succinctly and cogently.

A good service also can’t afford to allow the gabbaus (ritual call-ups) to be boring.  If you have too many long misheberachs (blessings), people tune out and start talking to their neighbor.  Misheberachs should be short and sweet (and generate maximum funds for the shul)!  And of course, the layning itself should be error-free and read at a pretty decent pace – fast enough to keep things moving, just not too fast that the congregation cannot follow along. 

On the odd occasion, the Baal Koreh should make a deliberate mistake.  That serves two purposes: first, you make sure that people are paying attention.  Second, it gives people a chance to shout out the correction which keeps everyone awake.  (I’m kidding, a good Baal Koreh is always letter-perfect and trop-perfect!!  I was just checking to see you’re all still awake!)

The Torah reading should be the pinnacle of our Shabbos experience.  Find ways to keep it fresh, alive, and stimulating for everyone.  May you merit being part of the solution and quenching the thirst of our people with the holy sweet waters of Torah!

Monday, 6 March 2017

What's your spiritual elevator pitch?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 42

What are the most important words in the English language?  What are the most important words in any language?  If you could master one phrase in every language, what would it be?

I used to think my one master phrase would be ‘thank you.’  Imagine knowing how to give gratitude in every language, to any person at any time in any place.  What cross-cultural bridges you could build!  How this world would be a happier, more appreciative place to live!

Rav taught: If one sells a field using witnesses, the purchaser may claim even from encumbered property (i.e. property with a lien against it).
The Gemara asks: Did Rav really say that?  For we learned, ‘One who loans his friend using a contract may collect from encumbered property.  But using witnesses, he may collect only from unencumbered property!’
The Gemara answers: Can you compare loans to sales?  Regarding loans, when a person borrows he does so privately, in order that his property values not depreciate (on account of the perception that he is cash-strapped and eager to sell).  In contrast, one who sells land does so publicly, in order that word of the sale should spread (thereby maximizing the potential sale price)!

The Almighty placed us here on Earth with a special mission: transform the world into a Divine abode.  Put differently, transform the physical into the spiritual.  From the beginning of humankind, we’ve been working at making this world a place for G-d.  That’s what Adam and Eve did.  That’s what Noah and family did.  That’s what Shem and Ever did.

But then along came our patriarch and matriarch, Avraham and Sarah, and revolutionized the job.  They said to themselves, ‘It’s one thing for us to occupy ourselves in the Divine mission.  But imagine if we could motivate others to also devote themselves to the Divine mission!”  And that they did, travelling throughout the region, selling the message of monotheism, and maximizing their effectiveness in transforming this world.

And we, as their children, inherited this important role from Avraham and Sarah.  We are now entrusted with the task of telling the world about the greatness of Hashem!  And encouraging our own brothers and sisters to be part of our national mission!

In essence, our mission is to sell “G-d” to the world; to let everyone know that they are not here randomly.  That G-d needs them to fulfill His ultimate purpose for the universe.  And as far as encouraging our brothers and sisters goes, the goal is to pitch them on the unique role of the Jewish people in making this place a dwelling place for the Divine!

But like our Gemara teaches, when you’re selling something, you want as many people to know as possible.  You don’t want to keep it a secret; otherwise nobody will be on hand to purchase your goods!  If that’s true of material goods, it is certainly true of spiritual sales!  Sometimes we’re tempted to go about our religious business and keep it as private as possible.  But how can you sell a product that nobody knows about?

Baruch Hashem, we live in an era when we no longer need to be embarrassed to order kosher food to an office party.  If we need to pop out in the middle of the day to daven Mincha, our colleagues will respect us for our devotion.  Most employers understand when we need to leave early on a Friday afternoon to be home in time for Shabbos.  Not only are these moments okay to mention, but they’re opportunities to open up the conversation with colleagues and friends about our purpose on Earth.

Now, it goes without saying that Judaism doesn’t proselytize.  We don’t believe G-d wants everyone to be Jewish.  But He does want to have a relationship with all His children – Jews and gentiles alike!  And unless we educate them and ‘sell’ them on the important of G-d in their lives, they’ll miss out!

Anyone in sales will tell you that one of the first things you need is an elevator pitch.  Sometimes you only get a minute or two with a potential client (like when you’re riding an elevator together).  How do you condense your message into a core lesson that you can impart to as many people as possible? 

Let’s return to the question of the most important phrase in the English language, or indeed in any language: I used to think the most important words were ‘thank you.’  However, I now believe the primary message is ‘G-d needs you.’  If I had just one message to convey to everyone and anyone I came into contact with, it’s that G-d needs them.  That’s why He created us.  That’s why He sustains us.  Because He wants you to accomplish great things in this world and partner with Him in making this world a Divine abode!

What’s your spiritual elevator pitch?  How do you get as many people as possible to know about the out-of-this-world message you were sent here to ‘sell?’  May you be a true heir to Avraham and Sarah and make this world a dwelling place for the Almighty!

Sunday, 5 March 2017

How do you know you're not really a robot?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 41

A large gathering of men is assembled outside the gates of Heaven when the Almighty appears.
“I want you all to form two lines,” says G-d, “one line for the men who were true heads of their household, and the other line for those whose wives ruled the roost.”  Soon, there were two lines of men.  The line of men who were led by their wives was 100 miles long, and in the line of men who truly were heads of their household, stood only one man.

G-d looks at the long line and bellows, “You men should be ashamed of yourselves. I created you to be the heads of your household!  Of all of you, only one obeyed?  You blokes need to learn from him!”  And with that, He turns to the single fellow in the other line and asks, “My beloved child, please tell us, how did you manage to make it into this line, thereby fulfilling your holy destiny?”
“I really don’t know,” replies the man sheepishly, “my wife told me to stand here!”

Any chazakah (legal presumption of ownership due to having occupied a property) not accompanied by an officially lodged legal claim is not considered a chazakah.  How so?  Let’s say the original owner says to the occupant, ‘What are you doing in my house?’  And he replies, ‘Because nobody ever told me not to be here,’ that is not considered a chazakah.  If, however, he replies, ‘You sold it to me,’ or ‘you gifted it to me,’ he makes a valid chazakah claim.

How did you get to where you are today?  How did you choose your profession?  How did you choose your place to live?  How did you choose your religious lifestyle?

Some of us are here simply because we went with the flow and ended up in a certain place without ever giving much thought to it.  It was always pretty obvious that you would end up doing what you do, living where you do, hanging out with the people you do, practicing your Judaism as you do.  That’s what everyone you’ve ever know ever did!

But that’s not reason enough to live life.  That’s not human, it’s robotic!  If you’re here simply because someone told you to be here and nobody ever told you not to be here, that’s by no means a chazakah – it’s not a strong, powerful way to live your life.  Maybe that someone was a parent, a rebbe (schoolteacher), a rabbi in your yeshiva year in Israel.  You might think that you made a conscious-life decision, but the real test is what happens to your commitment when life happens?

What happens when a career upset forces you out of your hometown?  What happens when your child isn’t doing well in the school that everyone you know sends their kids to?  What happens when the community isn’t there for you when you need them the most?

Real chazakah requires relentless reassessment – constantly asking yourself: Who am I?  How did I get here?  Am I in the best place possible in life?  Am I maximizing my potential here on Earth?  Am I pulling my weight in the community or just occupying a seat and letting everyone else take care of things for me?  Am I contributing as much as I could to being the most awesome spouse, parent, child, sibling, neighbor, colleague, community member, Jew, citizen, and human being?

You are not a robot.  The Almighty placed you here to make this world the best place possible.  You have a unique mission to fulfil and it’s impossible to get there if you simply go with the flow.  Every morning when you wake up, ask yourself: How can I maximize my potential today?  Every evening when you go to sleep, ask yourself: How did I maximize my potential today?  If the answer is ever: I’m here because I just happened to be born into this life, it’s an automatic sign that you’re nowhere near reaching your potential.  And it’s time to make serious changes in your life and serious commitments to your mission.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that you’re constantly looking over your shoulder to see where the grass is greener in life.  When you’re never happy with where the Almighty has placed you, you will never fulfil your potential.  Rather, it means maximizing your current potential – becoming the best person possible in the circumstances in which you find yourself – and then asking yourself what more Heaven might be asking of you.

Don’t go with the flow, lead the flow!  You have a unique mission to fulfil and your current place in life is merely a springboard to achieving your incredible destiny.  May you constantly work to maximize your potential!

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Hashem loves surprises!

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 40

One of the most famous and successful ad campaigns of all time was produced by Mastercard.  Each video segment presents an incredible scene that culminates in a moment that is ‘priceless.’  The tag line then follows: ‘For all other things in life, there’s Mastercard.’

One video, for example, shows a zookeeper feeding an elephant and sneezing all along.  The fellow then goes home, forgetting to lock the cage.  Out walks the elephant who proceeds to the deli to buy some soup with a Mastercard.  Next, it’s on to the department store for a blanket.   And finally, the drugstore for some cold and flu medicine.  All of these purchases are made with the Mastercard.  The elephant then makes his way to the zookeeper’s home and delivers the goods.  The segment concludes, “Making someone feel better: Priceless.  For all other things in life, there’s Mastercard!”

Rav Yehuda taught: One cannot collect money based upon a gift made in secret.
What is the meaning of a secret gift?  Rav Yosef taught: It means that one instructs witnesses, ‘Go and hide and write out a gift document to so-and-so.’
Rashbam explains: We are concerned that he may have already signed the property over to someone else.

I want to paraphrase Rav Yehuda’s teaching: You can’t put a price on a secret present.  Put differently, surprises are priceless! 

Everybody likes (good!) surprises. Surprises keep things fresh and add spice to your relationships. Maybe you call your grandmother each week before Shabbos.  Surprise her and call on an ordinary Tuesday!  Maybe it’s been years since you sent your sister Mishloach Manot.  How about you surprise her this year and order her a gift out of the blue!  Maybe you always stop at Starbucks on the way to work.  How about one day you surprise your colleagues with a bulk coffee for the entire office!

And, of course, you always want to find ways to keep your marriage fresh and exciting!  Maybe it’s been a while since you took your wife flowers.  You don’t need to wait until her birthday or your anniversary.  Surprise her with flowers on a regular day!  Or when was the last time you wrote your spouse an affectionate note or letter?  Yes, with a pen and paper! Or better yet, nice stationery!  When was the last surprise birthday party you planned for them?

I was speaking to a fellow in his sixties and he mentioned an upcoming significant wedding anniversary.
 ‘So do you plan to surprise your wife with a party or something special?’ I asked.
‘Oh, we’re too old for surprises,’ he replied. ‘At our age, we risk having a heart attack!’

How ridiculous!  Everyone, at every age, loves a nice surprise.  For my mom’s sixtieth, I took twenty-month old Jamie-Anna to Australia.  Now, before going any further, I want you to imagine this rabbi getting on a plane with his baby daughter.  The first leg of the trip was a small plane from Edmonton to San Francisco.  I’m about to descend down the jetway, baby in one arm, bag in another and they call for volunteers to check their carry-ons.  I think, ‘Great, that’ll save me some hassle,’ and I gladly hand it over as I always do, taking just my laptop bag with me.  I’m then making my way onto the plane, when I suddenly realize that I have no diapers or wipes or changes of clothing for the baby. . . .

Anyway, suffice it to say, along with a few other adventures along the way, we finally made it to Australia.  Can you imagine the look on my mother’s face, as she hears the pitter-patter of little feet wandering up the hallway in my parents’ home?  She was flabbergasted, speechless, and once she’d recomposed herself, overjoyed!  You see, everyone loves a good surprise!

And if it’s true of our personal relationships, it’s also true of our spiritual relationship.  Okay, let’s be honest – given the whole Divine foreknowledge thing, it takes a lot to surprise the Almighty!  But even if He’s not exactly shocked, He still sheps nachas when you suddenly do something unexpected for Him.  Maybe you don’t always come on time to shul and you decide to surprise G-d by showing up early one day!  Maybe you don’t always focus on your bentching and one day you decide to surprise G-d by reading every word from the bentcher and thinking about the meaning!  Believe it or not, even the Almighty loves surprises!

Surprises are the secret gifts in life that are priceless.  May you constantly seek ways to enrich your personal and spiritual relationships to keep them fresh and exciting!

Friday, 3 March 2017

Do celebrities care if we speak about them?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 39

A confidential matter was once discussed in the academy of Rabbi Ami.  Twenty two years later, one of the young men (who was now one of the middle-aged men!) was at a Sunday picnic, and in passing happened to mention the incident to a friend.  Word got back to Rabbi Ami, who was less than pleased.  He called the man into his office and expelled him from the academy effective immediately (Sanhedrin 31a).

Rabbah bar Rav Huna taught: Any matter that is disclosed before three people demonstrates the speaker is not worried about bad talk.
Rambam explains: If any of these three then proceed to repeat the information, it is not lashon hara, as long as he does not intend to spread or amplify a rumor (Deos 7:5)
Hagahos Maimonios clarifies: If, however, the individual warns his audience not to repeat the information, even if there were many people present, it is still lashon hara.

If you want people to trust you, you need to earn their confidence.  How do you earn it?  By not being known as a talker.  If people know you as the best source of ‘community news’ – otherwise known as the town yenta (and that’s a gender-neutral term!) – they will never want to confide in you.  But if you are known as a person who doesn’t talk – even when something is public knowledge – they will entrust you with their deepest secrets.

Now you might be thinking, ‘I really don’t want to be everybody’s confidant.  I want to keep my secrets to myself!’  Here’s the thing: Being a confidant for others doesn’t mean you have to tell them everything about yourself.  Rather, it means that you become a trusted mentor to others.  Someone that others can turn to for advice and direction at their time of need.  When people know you to be trustworthy, you become known as a source of guidance and a person that can be spoken to in complete and utter confidence.

And that’s what you’re here for.  To make this world a better place and help others fulfill their mission on Earth.  According to the Kli Yakar, any time you give tzedakah, you earn a portion in the pauper’s subsequent service of Hashem.  For example, if you buy a needy person a sandwich, and with that koach (strength), he puts on tefillin, you have a share in his mitzvah (Par. Mishpatim).   Likewise, if you advise someone and guide them through life, you become a spiritual partner in their success.  So the more guidance and positive energy you can provide to others, the greater your merit in this world!

Bad talk isn’t only speaking ill of someone else.  It means repeating something that the other person would not want you to repeat.  And it doesn’t matter whether three people know or the entire community or world knows.  May you only speak positively and may you gain a reputation as a trustworthy confidant and a mentor to all!

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Should Israel give back Tel Aviv?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 38

When the Tribes of Israel first entered the Land of Israel, for a number of centuries the nation’s capital was Shiloh.  It was there that the Mishkan (Tabernacle) stood.  It was there that people would offer their sacrifices.  It was there that pilgrims would appear three times a year.  It was there that Eli, the Kohen Gadol, served.  It was there that Shmuel began his illustrious prophetic career.  And following the Mishkan’s sojourn in Shiloh, its resting place was Givon.

Where are these ancient sites today?  In Judea and Samaria.  Areas that today the world calls the West Bank, which of course means the western bank of the Jordan River.  How did the heart of Jewish life of yore turn into areas that we now need to make excuses for living there?  Even those people who live there are termed ‘settlers.’  Back in the day, those hills were the center of Jewish life!

What’s more, life didn’t end at the banks of Jordan.  A quarter of the population lived on the East Bank of the Jordan, known as Transjordan!  In ancient times, nobody heard of Tel Aviv or Herzliya.  If anybody lived there, they were far removed from where all the national action was taking place.  So what happened?

Mishnah: With regards to the legal status of land ownership, there are three areas of Israel: Judea, Transjordan, and the Galilee.
Rashi explains: These three areas are considered separate provinces in terms of the presumption of legal ownership.  Meaning, if you were in one province and someone laid claim to your property in a different province, it would not be effective due to your absence and inability to protest the invalid claim.

For the first nineteen years of the modern State of Israel, the security of its citizens was tenuous.  Israel was physically small and geographically weak.  Attacks, albeit on a small, sometimes individual basis, were part and parcel of normal everyday life in the fledgling country.

Until 1967.  All of a sudden, Israel’s neighbors massed their troops at its borders and Israel had no choice but to defend its people.  Against all numeric odds, Israel not only prevailed but miraculously extended its territory in every direction.  Going forward, Israel would have a serious buffer zone to protect its citizens from external threats. 

To the north, Israel gained the Golan Heights.  To the south, Israel gained Gaza and the Sinai Desert.  And to the east, Israel reunited Jerusalem and gained the biblical lands of Judea and Samaria.

And then the global condemnation began.  Most world nations refused to recognize the new borders of Israel and insisted on Israel’s retreat to its tiny former space.  Israel was willing to talk about it, but only if the Arab nations would be part of the conversation by recognizing Israel’s existence.  But no such recognition was forthcoming.  So Israel stood its ground and held on to the territories.  And till today, Israel stands by its commitment to peace, so long as the other side acknowledges Israel’s status as a Jewish country. 

Many of us listen to these discussions about land for peace and we think, ‘What’s all the fuss about?  Why are we so stubborn about hanging on to the territories?  There’s loads of empty space in pre-1967 Israel for all Israelis!  What’s the big deal?  Can’t we just give it to them already and we’ll keep the main part of Israel!’

When I hear flippant comments like that, I want to cry.  Listen to the words of the Mishnah: Judea and Transjordan are essential parts of the Land of Israel!  And of course, back in the day, not only were they not ‘territories;’ they were the center of national life!  The Mishkan was there, from its centuries-long period in Shiloh to its sojourn in Givon.  The prophets were there.  The kings were there.  That was the Israel our people knew!

Part of the reason for our laissez-faire attitude is that many of us have no serious emotional attachment to Judea and Samaria.  Why not?  Because we have no clue about the centrality of the so-called ‘West Bank’ to our national history.  Instead of discussing the idea of disengaging from Judea and Samaria, we should sooner be talking about surrendering Ashdod, Akko, or Eilat – all cities with questionable historical significance to our nation!

Why are we lacking the awareness and attachment?  Frankly, because most Jews don’t read the Bible.  We don’t know the stories of the Mishkan.  We’ve never heard of half the prophets.  We couldn’t name the good kings, let alone the bad kings.  If we would simply read through Tanach on a regular basis, we would find ourselves living in the world of our ancestors.  And the mere thought of retreating from those sacred parts of the Land of Israel would be unbearably painful.

Of course, at the end of the day the Government of Israel will decide what is in the best interests of the physical security of our people.  And that may mean painful choices.  But if those choices are not painful in the slightest to you, you need to reflect and ask yourself why you are not feeling the pain.  A good place to start in terms of remedying that nonchalance is the Bible. 

Read Tanach regularly.  You will start to see the entire Land of Israel in a whole different light.  May we never have to compromise on the land of our forefathers!

Is there life on other planets?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 37

Is there life on other planets?  NASA is constantly discovering new stars and planetary systems.  They recently discovered a whole new galaxy with a number of planets similar to ours.  And all of a sudden, we’re wondering once again what life might be like out there?  And if there is life, how do we get in contact with them?  Do they know about us?  Would they be surprised to learn of life on our planet?

But while they’re off spending billions of dollars checking out other solar systems, do you ever wonder how much of our own planet we’ve discovered?  The answer is not very much.  There are literally thousands of miles below us.  And yet all we’ve really touched so far is the small area a few miles deeper than our Earth’s surface. 

The Nehardeans say: One who sells a date-palm to his friend, transfers to him from the bottom of the tree to the depths of the earth (tehom).
Rashbam explains: The original owner has sold his rights to dig beneath the tree, even one thousand cubits below!

You know why nobody cares about what lies beneath?  Because it seems so irrelevant.  There’s nothing important down there.  So the real question becomes: why does our planet require all the extra depth when we have no need for it? 

The Nehardeans in our Gemara make a powerful statement about the inner-workings of our world.  We all know that a tree doesn’t grow on top of the field.  Its roots run deep into the ground, from where it derives its nourishment.  But listen to the words of the Nehardeans: A tree is connected not just to the area of the soil occupied by the roots, but all the way down to the depths of the Earth!  In other words, the entire depth of our planet is essential to life above the surface!  

When Hashem created the world, the Torah states, “the darkness was upon the deep (tehom).”  The Ralbag explains that the tehom is synonymous with the element of earth.  In those deepest recesses of the Earth, everything is dark and unknown.  And yet, without that deep, dark, unknown, the tree on top couldn’t grow.

Sometimes in life, we feel overwhelmed by the deep, dark, unknown.  We struggle with health issues, relationship problems, financial difficulties.  And it seems almost claustrophobic, so dark, so buried alive.  We feel like there’s nowhere out, nowhere to turn.  Trapped beneath the thickness of the earth.

At those times, you need to remember that the entire ‘deep’ is an essential part of the tree on top of the surface.  How do you grow in life?  How do you become strong and bear fruit? When you harness life’s challenges to grow and become stronger.

Nobody chooses the challenges the Almighty sends their way.  But if you had no challenges, no hurdles in life, there would be no point living.  You might as well have stayed up there in Heaven with Dad.  He sent you down here to Earth for you to be challenged and overcome the challenges.  When you do so, your soul reaches an even greater spiritual height than it ever previously enjoyed!  That’s why it’s the deep, dark, unknown that creates the strong, powerful tree above the surface.  Without the trials and tribulations, there can be no successes.

I don’t know about you, but I think life is challenging enough as it is on this planet, without worrying about what other difficulties we might have to encounter elsewhere!   May you harness all the energy of the deep to become the strong, powerful, fruit-bearing individual Hashem has destined you to be!

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Hashem is the Ultimate Helicopter Parent

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 36

Ask any teacher, or even university professor, about the changed roles of twenty-first century moms and dads.  Things have really gotten out of hand.  Parents want to be there every step of the way.  Often referred to as helicopter parents, some of them just don’t know how to let go.  They’re so convinced that for their kids to succeed, they need to guide them, advocate for them, and sometimes even fight their battles.  So they’ll argue with teachers when their kids fail exams.  Or they’ll even make life difficult for professors when their children get bad university grades!

But the craziest story I once heard was the one about the parent who attended their child’s job interview.  The parent explained that their child was humble and would not effectively communicate their strengths to the prospective employer.  The interviewer sat there calmly trying to convince the parent that nobody would ever employ their kid unless they could make their own case.  But all to no avail. . . .

Rava taught: If a servant-child was resting in a cradle, the cradle-owner has an automatic presumption of ownership.
The Gemara asks: Isn’t it obvious?  A baby could not get there on its own!
The Gemara answers: We’re talking about a case where the mother is present in the house.  We might have thought his mother forgot him there.  Therefore, Rava teaches that a mother does not forget her child.

Life is full of challenges.  Health challenges.  Parenting challenges.  Financial challenges.  Sometimes life can really get us down.  And yes, we all have bad days.  But some of us have bad weeks, months, or even years!  During those tough times, always remember that a mother does not forget her child.  And if a mortal mother does not forget her baby, certainly our Divine Parent never forgets His children. 

You might look at the successes of everyone around you and start thinking He’s forgotten you somewhere along the way.  Your neighbour’s business is flourishing.  Your friend’s kids all seem to be perfect.  Everyone else seems to have incredible health.

A mother does not forget her child.  Your Father in Heaven has not forgotten you.  He’s watching you.  He’s caring for you.  What’s more, Hashem is the ultimate Helicopter Parent!  He’s there struggling with you.  He’s there advocating for you.  He’s there fighting for you.  He’s walking with you every step of the way.  Through the good times and the difficult times.

It’s tempting to focus on all the challenges in your life, but if you take a moment to consider all the blessings in your life, you’d realize how much He loves you and how involved He is in your life.  All the little things He does to help you ride the storm.  All the love.  All the mercy. 

But more than that, even when things don’t seem to go the way you had hoped and wished for, even then you need to remember that a mother does not forget her child.  Never.  Not even for a moment.

That job you didn’t get?  Our Father in Heaven closed that door so that He can direct you to an even more incredible opportunity!  That relationship that didn’t work out?  Just a warm-up until He brings you to the right person!  That house you were outbid on?  Just Hashem walking you through the steps of buying a house so that you are well-positioned when your dream-home comes along!

Hashem loves you more than anything.  He never forgets His children.  May you hold on tightly to His hand as He carries you to great things! 

G-d can get over it, people can't

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 35

A fellow once came to the Chofetz Chaim and asked the great rabbi for advice.  “All my life I’ve enjoyed a good, juicy piece of gossip.  People know that I’m the go-to guy if you want to know anything about anybody.  But after reading your holy books, I realize the error of my ways.  Rebbe, please tell me how I can do teshuvah!”
“Do you have a feather pillow at home?” asked the Chofetz Chaim.  The fellow nodded.  “Go and take that pillow to Bondi Beach and cut it open.  That act of tearing the pillow open will tear open your heart and may your teshuvah be accepted, my child.” 

Excited at the prospect of turning his life around with this simple, yet profound act, the man ran home, grabbed a pillow and raced to the beach.  He ripped open the pillow and watched with glee as the wind swept the feathers into the air.  He then skipped his way back to the Chofetz Chaim and thanked the sage profusely for showing him the way.
“Whoa, slow down,” said the elderly rabbi, “your task is not yet complete.  Now I need you to go back to the beach and collect all those feathers and bring them back to me.  Then your teshuvah will be complete.”
“But, but, Rebbe,” the fellow stammered, “that’s impossible.  How can I retrieve all those feathers?  They have long since been swept far, far away by the wind and sea!”
“And that, my dear friend,” responded the Chofetz Chaim, “is the problem of lashon hara.  Could you ever possibly take back all the rumors you spread about each and every person over the years?”  Hearing these words, the man began sobbing uncontrollably. 
Picking him up off the floor, the Chofetz Chaim instructed him, “Think about the feathers every day.  Do whatever you can to bring light and joy into people’s lives.  And may Hashem show you the way to teshuvah.”

They taught in the yeshiva of Rabbi Chiya: One who steals property over which two people are disputing ownership is not called a thief.  Rav Ashi teaches: Of course he is called a thief.  What is the meaning of his not being called a thief?  That he has no way to return the property to its rightful owner (since it is unclear who the owner is).
Rashbam explains: This matter is akin to the teaching of Rabbi Levi: The punishment for maintaining inaccurate weights and measures is greater than that of illicit relations.  For the sin of illicit relations, one can repent.  But for the sin of inaccurate measures, one cannot repent.  One who does business with inaccurate measures steals from the public and is unable to determine to whom to return his theft.

In a typical survey, if asked to name the key elements of a ‘frum’ (religious) person how do you think most people would respond?  Frum means you keep Shabbos, Kosher, Family Purity, you put on tefillin every day.  Right?  

How about interpersonal behavior?  Love thy neighbor.  Feed the hungry.  Well, yeah, those are also important.  But they’re not the main thing.  You don’t need to be frum to do those things.  Everybody cares about visiting the sick and being nice to strangers.

Listen to what Rabbi Levi teaches: Cheating in business is worse than illicit relations.  Why?  Because when you engage in intimate physical activity that the Torah doesn’t approve of, it’s terrible.  But you can always do teshuvah (repent).  If you express your sincere regret to Hashem, He will forgive you and wipe the slate completely clean.  But if you engage in improper business practices and you start making a habit of shortchanging people, when you finally decide to mend your ways, how can you find all the people you cheated along the way to pay them back?  In other words, no matter how remorseful you are, you can never truly do teshuvah!

The same is true of all our G-d-mitzvos versus our interpersonal mitzvos.  So you broke Shabbos.  Or you ate something you shouldn’t have.  The moment you turn to Hashem and regret your actions, our Father in Heaven forgives you and you’re able to move on, blemish-free.  But if you make a habit of acting improperly towards your fellow human beings, are you ever able to find all the broken pieces and pick them up?

That beggar at the traffic light you ignored, where is he today?  That neighbor who needed your help mowing the lawn because his wife was sick, where did he say he was moving to? That receptionist you never had time to say hello to each morning, do you think you could you ever find her and apologize?  And all the times you just had to share the latest ‘goss’ about people in your community, that bag of feathers, could you ever retrieve?

What makes a frum person?  Someone who understands that ALL mitzvos are important.  As Rabbi Levi demonstrates, the big ones are not the G-d-mitzvos.  Why?  Because G-d can get over it when you mess up.  The big ones are the people-mitzvos.  Because unfortunately most people can’t get over it as easily.  Especially the people that are long gone from your life and impossible to make amends with.

So pay close attention to the people-mitzvos.  Those mitvos are the gems that are irreplaceable.  Think about everyone you come into contact with in your life.  The big people.  The little people.  The nice people.  The challenging people.  And make every effort to go above and beyond to care for them and make them feel special.  

In the eyes of Hashem, all mitzvos are vital.  He wants a solid relationship with you.  But even more, He wants you to have a wonderful relationship with His other children.  May you cherish every mitzvah and love every human being!

Sunday, 26 February 2017

Why does everyone else get all the big breaks?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 34

King Shaul was devastated.  After failing to heed the word of Hashem to destroy Amalek, the prophet Shmuel informed him that the kingdom would be taken away from his family and granted to someone more worthy.  After a time, it became clear that his successor would be David the son of Yishai.

From that day on, King Shaul would stop at nothing to get rid of David.  He spent years in hot pursuit of the young king-to-be.  But every time he drew near, David somehow eluded Shaul.  Many a night, David would lie awake thinking, ‘Why does he despise me so?  What did I ever do to him?’ 

Why indeed was Shaul so intent on eradicating his son-in-law, David?

Two people were once quarreling over a boat. This one said: It is mine, and the other one said: It is mine. One of them came to court and said: Seize it until I am able to bring witnesses that it is mine. 
Do we seize it or do we not seize it? Rav Huna says: We seize it. Rav Yehuda says: We do not seize it.
Rashbam explains: Rav Yehuda says we do not seize it, for perhaps the claimant requesting the impounding of the boat really has no witnesses and is a liar.  All he truly wants is to make his friend lose out, because he calculates that once the boat is seized, subsequently they will not release it to either party.

Why does this scoundrel want the court to impound the boat?  For only one reason: once the court seizes the boat, it will be much more difficult for his disputant to get it released.  In other words, if he can’t have a boat, nobody should have a boat. 

And that’s why King Shaul couldn’t stand David.  It wasn’t as if Hashem removed the kingdom from him and the entire nation of Israel.  He could have lived with that.  No, Hashem took it away from him and gave it to someone else.  That was unbearable for Shaul.  Consequently, he spent the remainder of his life trying to make sure that if he couldn’t be king, nobody should be king.

If Hashem hasn’t opened up His treasure house of blessing to you in a certain area of life, don’t take it out on someone else!  Everyone has their share of blessing and Hashem apportions His bounty in different ways to different people.  If you see someone enjoying blessing that has been denied thus far to you, don’t be jealous. Rejoice in their good fortune!

Maybe you were seeking a promotion at work which you didn’t get.  You then hear that the fellow in the next cubicle is being considered.  Don’t start going around the office talking about why your neighbor isn’t worthy.  Take pride in his achievements!  That may be challenging, but the more you accept the will of Heaven, the more you unlock the Divine blessing and allow it to shower down upon everyone, including yourself!

Maybe you haven’t merited to find your bashert (intended) yet.  Every time you hear someone else announce their engagement your heart sinks deeper and deeper.  Until it gets to the point that you’re no longer interested in attending engagement parties and weddings.  You need to rise above!  It’s time to wholeheartedly rejoice in others’ simcha!  Their good fortune does not preclude Heaven’s blessing to you.  On the contrary, the more you bless Heaven, the more you will receive!

Maybe you’ve been trying to have children.  You have friends who are up to their fourth and fifth children.  Why should you bother going to the bris?  You’re only going to feel uncomfortable.  As it is, you’ve grown apart from them, as they celebrate kids’ birthday parties and play-dates.  It’s time to rejoice with Heaven!  As challenging as that may be, the more you bless Hashem, the closer you will get to the great bounty He has in store for you!

Your friend’s gain is not your loss.  The Almighty has an unlimited storehouse of bounty.  May you rejoice in the good fortune of others and may Heaven open up wide and shower you with blessing!

Are you pro-G-d?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 33

Avraham and Sarah were the first Jews.  They are the patriarch and matriarch of our people.  But of course, their influence has spread far beyond our people.  We are certainly not the only ones to call ourselves heirs to the Abrahamic tradition, billions of others join us as followers of Abraham and Sarah.

How did that happen?  It came about because our patriarch and matriarch kept their tent open to all.  Not just their own family and tribe.  Their message affected the entire region and has since spread throughout the world.  What was their message?  Monotheism. 

They could have been good believers, serving Hashem devoutly but keeping to themselves.  But they understood that Heaven demanded more from them.  They dedicated their lives to convincing others about the One G-d and as a result of their untiring efforts, monotheism today is not only acceptable, but thriving!

A relative of Rav Idi bar Avin died and left a date palm. Rav Idi bar Avin said: I am the closest relative. But then another fellow claimed: I am the closest relative. Ultimately, the other fellow admitted that Rav Idi was the closest.  Rav Chisda established the date tree in the possession of Rav Idi bar Avin. 

Rav Idi bar Avin said to Rav Chisda: The produce that the fellow consumed from that day when he took possession of the tree until now should be returned to me. 
Rav Chisda said: Are you the one about whom people say: He is a great man? On whom are you basing your claim? On this fellow. But until now he was saying: I am the closest!
Abaye and Rava did not agree with Rav Chisda – once the fellow admitted his guilt, it was an admission of guilt over the entire claim.

Despite the fact that they grew up together and were best friends, Abaye and Rava are often on opposite sides of Talmudic debates.  Not in this case.  They heard Rav Chisda’s ruling and realized that he was acting ultra vires – beyond his legal authority.  How were they so sure?

Because Rav Chisda based his ruling on Rav Idi’s status as a great man. Instead of judging the case on its merits, he looked at Rav Idi and said, ‘Stop squabbling in court and get over it.  You didn’t own the date palm to begin with – it was a windfall you received as an inheritance.  A leader of the community like you shouldn’t bother himself with petty claims in court.  You’re bigger than that.  Just be happy with what you have and walk away!’

But that’s simply not right.  When you judge a case or make an argument, you need to look at the facts and only the facts.  Once you start name-calling, it becomes clear that your case isn’t very strong.  If Rav Chisda had to resort to calling Rav Idi ‘a great man’ as the basis for his determination against him, he was no longer looking at the facts before him.  That move undermined his legal argument and decision.

The same goes for our own arguments in the court of public opinion.  It’s okay to have different views.  But it’s not okay to make ad hominem attacks – attacks on your opponents themselves.  Once you’re no longer addressing the simple facts of the issue, you’ve automatically lost the debate.  The fact that you’ve resorted to name-calling makes it clear to all that your argument is not strong enough to stand on its own merits.

At times, it can also border on Chilul Hashem – a desecration of Heaven’s name.  If you strive to be an adherent of the Torah and you’re talking in a condescending and unbecoming manner to those who disagree with you, it doesn’t only reflect on you personally.  You represent Heaven and therefore run the risk that anyone listening to your rhetoric will attribute such behavior to everyone like you.  It’s not right of them; nevertheless, you must take extra care to be wary of your language!

What kind of arguments are we talking about?  Many of us are great Israel advocates.  But you must never forget that you are also a Judaism advocate.  As fluent as you are in pro-Israel advocacy, you need to be equally fluent in pro-Judaism advocacy.  It’s tempting to close yourself off from the world and satisfy yourself with your own devout service of Heaven.  But that’s only running away from your heritage as a child of Avraham and Sarah.

To fellow Jews, you need to ensure you have the right tools to make a strong case for traditional Judaism.  And to non-Jews, you need to ensure you have the right tools to make a strong case for monotheism.  As we all know, Judaism is unique in that we don’t believe that everyone should become Jewish.  But we do believe that everyone should believe in monotheism. 

For hundreds, if not thousands, of years, Avraham and Sarah’s message was so strong that we could take it for granted.  Not anymore.  Atheism is on the rise.  Traditional Judaism is on the decline.  And we need to know how to make the case for G-d effectively.   It may be tempting to avoid religious conversations with your neighbors and colleagues, but your patriarch and matriarch would never have resorted to running away.

Many of us have no problem talking politics and debating issues of current affairs.  We don’t avoid conversations simply because we’re worried that the other person will think less of us because we have different opinions.  How much more so then when it comes to the important matters of the spirit!  That’s why you’re here on Earth – to bring down Heaven’s message to every human being.  Every child of G-d!

But when you make those arguments, first and foremost you need to make sure that you are presenting as respectfully as possible.  Not dismissive of the other person.  No personal attacks.  No name-calling or unbecoming references.  Just the lovingkindness of Avraham and Sarah.  They were successful because they always managed to kill their opponents with kindness. 

What’s the first word that comes to mind when you think about Avraham?  Kindness.  And yet his greatest historic achievement was the spreading of monotheism!  When you convey your message with deep, profound respect and kindness, it penetrates.  Our Sages say, “Words that come from the heart enter the heart.”

You are a child of Avraham and Sarah.  You have an incredible mission in this world.  May you equip yourself and become an expert in the tools of Judaism-advocacy and always remember that the Torah’s “ways are ways of pleasantness”!

(Thanks to Mike Sadovnick for sharing your thoughts on this topic!)