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Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Why do people of faith engage in social justice?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 9

Avraham and Sarah pitched their tent in the middle of the desert.  It had four entrances – one on each side – so that they would immediately spot travelers and invite them in for a foot-wash and a meal.  Following the three-course spread, the guests would express their heartfelt appreciation to their hosts.
“Don’t thank us,” Sarah and Avraham would respond, “Thank the One Above who has provided this delicious meal.  Here’s a bentcher (Grace after Meal booklet).  You can find the bentching after the Zemiros (Shabbos songs).  We even have the NCSY Arabic transliterated version if you need!”
“Sorry,” would often come the reply, “We’re bentchaphobic.  Had you told us we’d have to bentch, there’ no way we would have washed (our feet).”
“Well if that’s how you want you play this game,” Avraham and Sarah would say, “Here’s your bill.”

The guests would examine the bill in shock horror:
Bread $200
Cheese $170
Meat $450
Salad $80
Foot-wash $700

“What on earth are these crazy prices?” they would yell.
“They’re not crazy,” replied Avraham and Sarah calmly, “Where else in the desert are you going to get a three-course meal?  Now, we’ll ask you one more time: would you like to pay or bentch?”
And inevitably, ten times out of ten, the guests would turn their eyes Heavenward and bless the Almighty.

Rabbi Yitzchak taught: Anyone who gives a coin to a pauper is blessed with six blessings.  But one who appeases him with words, is blessed with eleven blessings!

Rabbi Yitzchak’s teaching is familiar to many of us.  Literally, he is telling us that it’s not enough to give money to a needy person; you need to make every effort to make them feel like a mensch (human being) again.  Just because they’ve fallen on hard times doesn’t mean that they should be treated with any less dignity than an individual that has merited material bounty.  Next time you give tzedakah, instead of awkwardly writing a cheque and looking the other way, ask them about their family and if there’s any other way you can help.

But Rabbi Yitzchak’s teaching runs much deeper than simply making a person feel good.  Every material giving opportunity in life is also a spiritual giving opportunity.  Avraham and Sarah epitomized chesed – lovingkindness.  But it wasn’t chesed in a vacuum; it was chesed with the ultimate goal of bringing people closer to Heaven.  In Rabbi Yitzchak’s words: along with the charity came some words of encouragement, a reminder that the Almighty was watching over them, no matter how challenging the road ahead appeared.

That’s why Avraham’s children have always stood at the forefront of chesed initiatives.  But when we engage in social action programs, it’s important to follow in our forefather Avraham’s footsteps and let people know what’s driving us.  We’re doing this, not just because we’re nice people, but because there’s a G-d that runs the world and sent us on this mission to make His world a better place.  That way we inspire others to start thinking about Hashem and invite Him into their lives, hopefully to inspire yet others in turn.

Avraham and Sarah’s program might sound a little contrived.  After all, weren’t they in essence forcing people to believe in G-d?   But if you think about it, their method was far tamer than most other religions’ attempts to earn adherents.  Tragically, our people know all too well what it’s like to be on the receiving end of religious coercion.

Most people do not take the time to think about G-d and the big questions about life, unless they have a reason to.  The incredible thing about Avraham and Sarah is that what other religious leaders did with the sword, they did with a good Shabbos meal.  That’s what our Sages mean when they say that our patriarch and matriarch were the masters of chesed – not only did they dedicate their lives to chesed, they understood the awesome power of chesed to channel spirituality into people’s lives.

And that’s what programs like Birthright and Maimonides do.  Nobody can be bribed to believe in Hashem, Judaism, the Jewish people, or the State of Israel.  But with a bit of coaxing, people can be convinced to consider ideas they may never have given any thought to in the past.

Chesed, or social justice, is integral to Judaism; it’s one of the pillars upon which the world stands.  But Avraham and Sarah taught us that while it’s an end in itself, it’s also a means to an end and that chesed is the best route to chochmah (wisdom).  May you constantly seek chesed opportunities and be a shining example of the Almighty’s lovingkindness to all!  

Monday, 30 January 2017

You deserve nothing

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 8

Kayin (Cain) and Hevel (Abel) were the first people born naturally into this world.  And so you can imagine the rivalry that existed between them.  Each one thought he was the ruler.  Each one thought he was the true heir to the planet.  One day, they both decided to bring offerings to Hashem.  Hevel, the shepherd, brought sheep.  Kayin, the farmer, brought crops.  But while G-d welcomed Hevel’s offering, He did not accept Kayin’s.  He was absolutely devastated. 
“I deserve better!” he cried out to Heaven.

Rebbe once opened his storehouse of food in a year of scarcity, proclaiming: Let those enter who have studied the Scripture, or the Mishnah, or the Gemara, or the Halacha, or the Aggada; there is no admission, however, for the ignorant.  Rabbi Yonasan ben Amram snuck in incognito and said, ‘Master, give me food.’ He said to him, ‘My son, have you learned the Scripture?’ He replied, ‘No.’ ‘Have you learnt the Mishnah?’ ‘No.’ ‘If so,’ he said, ‘then how can I give you food?’ He said to him, ‘Feed me as the dog and the raven are fed.’ [Rashi explains: Hashem takes pity on them.] So he gave him some food.  After he went away, Rebbe's conscience smote him and he said: Woe is me that I have given my bread to a man without learning!  Rabbi Shimon the son of Rebbe ventured to say to him: Perhaps it is Yonasan ben Amram your pupil, who all his life has made it a principle not to derive material benefit from the honour paid to the Torah.  Inquiries were made and it was found that it was so; whereupon Rebbe said: All may now enter.

Rabbi Yonasan ben Amram taught Rebbe an important lesson in life.  Yes, we are required to learn Torah.  Yes, we are required to do mitzvos.  But that’s not why Hashem provides for us.  He is our Father and loves us.  No matter what we do, He will always provide for us, just as He provides for all His creatures, even those bereft of good deeds.

The Almighty gave us Torah and mitzvos to allow us to connect with Him.  The more we connect with Him, the greater our merit.  But G-d loves us and cares for us no matter what.  Once Rebbe took this fundamental lesson to heart, he opened the storehouse to all.

Some people feel holier than others, because they’re a little more committed to Torah and mitzvos.  And therefore they must be more deserving.  Rabbi Yonasan teaches us that we are deserving of nothing.  Everything we receive in life is due to the abundant kindnesses of our Father in Heaven.  True, the more we learn Torah and perform mitzvos, the more we will appreciate His bounty, but if you were to stop and think for a moment about everything G-d does for you, you would realize that He has more than recompensed you for a lifetime of service to Him!

That’s what we intone three times a day in the Modim prayer. We thank Hashem, “for our lives which are committed into Your hand, for our souls which are entrusted to You, for Your miracles which are with us daily, and for Your continual wonders and beneficences.”  We could never thank Him enough for everything He does for us.  The little we have done, He has more than paid us back for over and over again.  Everything else is pure graciousness on His part.

The Almighty owes you nothing.  We deserve nothing.  May you forever be grateful for every breath of life and more He gives you constantly! 

Sunday, 29 January 2017

Learning to ride the storm

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 7

King Darius of Persia had a favourite Jewish advisor, called Daniel.  One day, his other ministers suggested that he issue a royal decree declaring that everyone must henceforth worship Darius alone.  Flattered by their suggestion, the king agreed.  Meanwhile, the conspirators ran off to seek evidence that Daniel was disobeying the royal edict. 

Sure enough, they discovered him worshipping the Almighty.  With a call to the royal officers, Daniel was whisked off to court to be executed.  For his crime, he was thrown into a den of hungry lions that had been starved for a number of days prior, in order to ensure they would gobble up the first offering that came their way. 

Three days later, King Darius and the ministers rolled away the rock at the mouth of the den, only to find Daniel sitting there calmly engrossed in prayer. 
‘Clearly the lions weren’t hungry,’ suggested the ministers.
‘Right,’ said the king, ‘we’ll test that theory.’  And with that, he had all twenty two ministers thrown into the den, where they were devoured with gusto by the starving lions.

Rabbi Yehuda Nesiah levied a city wall tax on the rabbis.
Reish Lakish cried, “Rabbis do not need protection!”  For the verse states, “Were I to count them, they would outnumber the sand.”  Were I to count whom?  If you say it refers to the righteous, are they more numerous than the sand?  For if, concerning all of Israel, it states that they are “like the sand upon the seashore,” how could the righteous be more numerous than the sand?  Rather, this is the meaning: Were I to count the deeds of the righteous, they would outnumber the sand.  Now, reason as follows: If the sand, which is fewer in number, is able to protect against the sea, the deeds of the righteous that are more numerous, are they not obviously able to protect them?

How did Daniel survive the lions’ den?  How did Avram survive the fiery furnace of Ur Kasdim?  How did Yosef survive the pit filled with snakes and scorpions?  How did Chanania, Mishael and Azaria survive the burning flames?  They were all protected by their good deeds.

In Pirkei Avot, Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov teaches, “One who performs a mitzvah earns an advocate and one who does a sin earns an accuser.  Repentance and good deeds are like a shield before the turmoil.”

Every good deed you do creates a guardian angel that protects you from the chaos around.  The more good deeds you do, the stronger the force field becomes.  Nobody ever said that bad things won’t happen; this world is a crazy place.  But when you do mitzvos, you are afforded greater protection from the craziness.

We say the same thing in the Unesaneh Tokef prayer on the High Holy days, “And teshuvah, prayer and charity remove the severity of the decree.”  Many machzorim mistranslate this line, implying that we can remove the evil decree.  Most of the time we can’t.  But what we can pray for is that the ‘evilness’ of the decree, its severity, is somewhat blunted.  How do we blunt it?  With good deeds which act as a shield to protect us from the turmoil.

Now the more good deeds you do the more protected you will be.  And so in the cases of our righteous leaders like Avram, Yosef, Daniel, Chanania, Mishael, and Azaria, their merit was so great that even the beasts and flames could not touch them.  We might not all be able to attain that incredible level, but we can go a long way towards protecting ourselves from the confusion around us, whether they be financial crises, health pandemics, or difficult people.

The world is a chaotic place.  But you can protect yourself and your family from the elements.  May you build a strong force field of good deeds to ride out the storm of life!  

Who are your heroes?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 6

Many years ago, Rav Shmuel Kaminetzky, the Rosh Yeshiva of Philadelphia, visited Edmonton.  He was very gracious and, in addition to his lectures and classes, allowed people to take pictures with him.  It was before I came to the city, but I’m well aware of his time here, because one of the community members proudly displays a picture of Rav Shmuel and their five year old son on their mantelpiece. 

At the time the picture was taken, the family was not yet Shomer Shabbos.  Why did they care?  Why was the photograph important to them?  Why did they prominently feature it all these years so that nobody who comes to the house ever misses it?

Abaye taught: If there were two houses on either side of a public thoroughfare, each one must make a fence on half of his roof; not opposite each other, but overlapping.
Rashi explains: The overlap ensures that neither can see the other’s private activity.
The Gemara asks: Why mention the public thoroughfare?  Even if they were alongside one another in a private area, the law would apply!
The Gemara answers: It is necessary to teach that the law is also true in the case of the intervening public thoroughfare.  Why?  I might have said that one could say to the other that he need not reciprocate the fence construction, since the one who desired privacy would anyway have to conceal his activities from the public.  Therefore, this law teaches that he could respond, ‘The public look up at me during the day, while you see me at night too.’  Or, ‘The public watches me when I’m standing up, but not when I’m sitting down; you watch me whether I’m standing or sitting.’ ‘The public watches me when they’re focused on me; when they’re not focused on me, they don’t see me; you automatically see me.’

In previous generations, people spent much more time working hard to make ends meet.  Baruch Hashem, in the twenty-first century, we have a significantly greater quantity of free time on our hands.  And thus, the entertainment industry today is booming like never before.  We follow more sports, buy more music, and watch more TV and movies than there are hours in the day!

And it doesn’t stop there.  Not only must we watch the entertainers do their thing, we also need to know everything about them.  Where do they live?  Who are they dating?  Are they on the brink of divorce?  Are they having a baby?  Do they like each other in real life?  Which events did they attend?  What clothes and food do they enjoy?  What are their political views? 

Seriously?!  Who cares?  Just because they play a good game of football, why should their political affiliation make a difference to my life?  Just because they make good music, why should their personal relationships matter to me?  It’s utterly irrelevant! 

And yet there’s an entire industry spun off from the entertainment industry that knows that the public looks up to entertainers.  They want to know what they’re doing, day and night.  They want to know the ups and downs of their lives.  They’re focused on them, watching their every move.  

In life, human beings look for heroes.  We seek successful people to look up to and model our own lives after.  We don’t just want to know how they’re entertaining us, but what makes them tick?  What sets them apart?  By knowing every detail of their lives, we feel almost as if we are being swept up in their success.  We feel their highs and lows, we rejoice as they rejoice, weep as they weep.  They are our heroes.

But we must always ask ourselves: are we choosing the right people to look up to?  Yes, they may be great entertainers, but does that truly qualify them as role models for ourselves and our children?  Do our kids really need to be exposed to the tabloid magazines and the crazed efforts of the paparazzi?

When Rav Shmuel came to Edmonton, the five year old boy’s family was not yet observant.  And yet today, they are a shining example in the community.  The young man left town to study in a yeshiva high school and subsequently went off to Israel to yeshiva.  He now works diligently in his non-yeshiva field, but is completely dedicated to Torah and mitzvos – truly a model Jew for all to see. 

How did that happen?  Because his parents made it clear to him who his heroes should be.  At the time, perhaps they weren’t quite ready to take the plunge.  But they always made it abundantly clear to the kids which direction they were heading in.  What true success means.  Whom to look to as models of greatness in life.

Who are your heroes?  Do you revel in stories of people who changed the world?  People who made this world a better place, physically and spiritually?  Whom do you talk about at the dinner table?  True movers and shakers or simple moviemakers?  Good sports or rich sportspeople? Great scientists or confused scientologists?  Spiritually profound leaders or spiritually corrupt fame-seekers?

Great people stand on the shoulders of even greater people.  If you seek true, meaningful greatness for yourself and your children, you need to look to the right heroes.  May you look up to and model your life on heroes who have chosen eternal greatness!  

Friday, 27 January 2017

Can Moshiach come on Shabbos?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 5

A friend tells me that he recently overheard two men arguing in shul over whether Moshiach could come on Shabbos or not.
“Of course he can’t come on Shabbos,” shouted the first fellow, “there are legal limits on the distance that one may travel and Moshiach would never dare transgress halacha!”
“That’s nonsense,” replied his interlocutor, “Moshiach is destined to come at a certain time and he can’t be late.  If that day is Shabbos, we’ll ask him then how he got here.  But G-d forbid you should suggest delaying his arrival!”
“That’s a load of hogwash.  How can you call yourself a frum Jew and blatantly disregard halacha like that?” responded the first, rising from his seat.
“Look who’s questioning whose Jewishness!” said the other fellow, “You can barely read Rashi!”  And with that, he slammed his siddur down and stormed out of the shul.

Runya bought a piece of land adjacent to Ravina’s property.  Ravina intended to displace him on the grounds that the neighbouring owner has the first right of refusal. 
Rav Safra the son of Rav Yaiva said to Ravina: People say, ‘Four for the hide, four for the tanner.’
Rashi explains: The scriptural source of the law of Bar Metzra, the neighbour’s first right of refusal, is the verse, ‘And you shall do what is right and good.’  Runya was a poor tanner whose expenses barely covered his costs.  In this case, the spirit of the law implied allowing him to keep the property.

Bar Metzra is a powerful mitzvah that demonstrates the Almighty’s compassion in His Divine code.  Rationally, you would say ‘first come, first served’ – if a stranger wants to buy a piece of property and hears about it first, he has every right to make an offer.  Comes along the Torah, and says no!  Ownership of adjacent properties is better for business, it’s better for growing families – even if a stranger has already purchased the property, the neighbor has the right to buy it back!  Only the Torah could devise such a kind and merciful law.

Now in our Gemara, Ravina wanted to execute his right of Bar Metzra.  After all, he was the adjacent property owner.  And so he comes to the beth din of Rav Safra and requests an official court order supporting his claim to ‘do what is right and good.’  Rav Safra turns around and chastises him: If you’re really interested in doing ‘what is right and good,’ then consider this poor fellow who’s barely able to make ends meet.  The right thing to do, in this particular case, is to allow him to keep the field.

Sometimes, we’re so microscopically focused on the letter of the law that we forget the spirit of the law.  Take our friends arguing about Moshiach arriving on Shabbos, for example.  The dispute got so hot that one stormed out of shul.  And yet, the main prerequisite to Moshiach is that we simply love one another!  That’s the real answer as to when he will arrive – when we’re able to put petty arguments aside to promote shalom. 

Of course we must heed the letter of the law.  But we must never neglect the spirit of the law.  Because without the spirit, you don’t even have the letter.  Put differently, if all you’re seeing are trees, you’ll never find your way through the forest. 

Why do we have all the minutiae of Shabbos laws?  To guide us as to how to rest and devote ourselves one day a week to Hashem, family, and community.  But if your entire Shabbos is spent lecturing your kids about the dos and don’ts of Shabbos, leaving them with a sour taste in their mouths, you’ve missed the whole point.  And so on and so forth.

Any mitzvah you do, always ask yourself what the ultimate underlying rationale is for the mitzvah.  Sometimes it’s discernible, other times it’s beyond our limited psyche.  Either way, may you forever align your will with the true intent of our Father in Heaven!  

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

March for Democracy

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 4

In the opening scene of Fiddler on the Roof, the rabbi’s son asks whether there is a blessing for the czar.  The father ponders the question and then responds, “A blessing for the czar?  Of course. . . May G-d bless and keep the czar . . . far away from us!”

Life in czarist Russia was daily terror for our people.  Apart from the abject poverty in which most of the Jews lived, there were constant spiritual dangers as well.  Over the course of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, military conscription was standard.  Russian officers would show up unannounced and whisk away Jewish lads as young as twelve years old.  Not only would they train them for military service, but they would Christianize them, removing all trace and memory of their Jewish practice and knowledge.  These young men were known as cantonists, and thousands of our kinderlach were lost to our people and G-d through the horrendous program. 

Hence, the unforgettable, yet tragic sentiment of Tevye’s rabbi. . .

Herod was a servant of the Hasmonean house, and had set his eyes on a certain maiden of that house. One day he heard a Heavenly voice say, ‘Every servant that rebels now will succeed.’ So he rose and killed all the members of his master's household, but spared that maiden. When she saw that he wanted to marry her, she went up on to a roof and cried out, ‘Whoever comes and says, I am from the Hasmonean house, is a slave, since I alone am left of it, and I am throwing myself down from this roof.’ ‘Who are the ones,’ he said, ‘who teach, “From the midst of your brethren you shall set up a king over you?” The Rabbis!’ He therefore rose up and killed all the Rabbis, sparing, however, Bava ben Bhutto, that he might take counsel of him. He placed on his head a garland of hedgehog bristles and put out his eyes.

One day he came and sat before him and said, ‘See, sir, what this wicked slave is doing.’
‘What do you want me to do to him?’ replied Bava ben Bhutto.
He said, ‘I want you to curse him.’
He replied with the verse, ‘Even in your thoughts you should not curse a king.’
Said Herod to him, ‘But this is no king.’
He replied, ‘Even though he be only a rich man, it is written, “And in your bedchamber do not curse the rich,” and even if he be no more than a leader, it is written, “A leader among your people you shall not curse.”’

Herod was one of the worst tyrants our people has ever known, and yet Bava ben Bhutto would not utter an inappropriate word against him.  Whether because he was a king, or simply wealthy, or just lucky to have the leadership.  The truth is, he was really none of the above.  He slaughtered his way to the top and was more than worthy of the most terrible epithets.  But Bava ben Bhutto refused to cave. 
Contrast, for a moment, the times of Herod or the czars with our governmental structure today.  We are so fortunate to live in such unbelievable times!  For most of history, we haven’t had the merit of being able to choose our leaders.  And now we all get to vote for them.  What a blessing!

It’s true, democracy means that some people will get their leaders of preference and others won’t.  But no matter who the leader is, Bava ben Bhutto reminds us of the message found in Koheles (Ecclesiastes): even in the innermost chambers, do not speak inappropriately.  For better or for worse, they are our leaders, and we must show respect to the office.

Does that mean that we may not let our opinions be heard?  Of course not.  Just as long as we express our minds in a respectful, deferential manner.  That’s the important Jewish value that we bring to the table.  Otherwise, what makes us any different to anyone else with their political and social opinions?  Our Sages explain that the hallmarks of the Jewish people is that we are baishanim, rachmanim, gomlei chasadim – sweet, gentle, and kind.  If we want to be a light unto the nations, those qualities must be evident in our every interaction with society.

In a democracy, sometimes you get the leaders you voted for, sometimes you don’t.  But no matter what the outcome, we must never take the Heavenly blessings of the system of government in which we find ourselves today for granted.  May we constantly demonstrate to the world how Jews appreciate, respect, and revere that awesome blessing!

Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Did the Temple go out of business due to competition?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 3
There’s an old story about Irving who gets stranded on a desert island.  Twenty years later, they finally find him.  His beard’s a little longer, but for the most part, he appears to be doing just fine.  He proudly points to the house he’s built for himself.  It’s a gorgeous structure with all the fancy trimmings.  Next, he shows them the two shuls he’s constructed on the island.
“TWO shuls?” they ask incredulously.  “Why do you need two shuls for one person?”
“Oh, one’s the shul I daven in; the other’s the shul I would never step foot in!”

Rav Chisda said: People should never demolish a shul until they have built a new shul.  There are those who say that the concern is negligence.  And there are others who say that the concern is prayer.  What is the practical difference?  The difference is whether there is an alternative place to pray.
Rashi explains: Negligence means perhaps an unavoidable mishap will arise impeding the rebuilding.  Praying refers to their ability to daven during the construction period.

Why wouldn’t they be able to daven while the new shul is under construction?  Surely, they could make a minyan – or two, or three – in people’s homes!  A lot of people make minyanim in their living rooms – for some, it’s just a Friday night thing; for others, it’s more permanent.  But it’s pretty clear from the Gemara here that house-minyanim don’t quite make the cut. 

There’s nothing like davening in a shul.  Our Sages tell us that ideally one should strive to daven in the biggest shul in town, because “the King is glorified with a mass of people.”  It might be more convenient to make a house-minyan on your block rather than schlep seven minutes to get to shul, but the Almighty takes great pleasure when He sees us all davening together under one great roof.

That was the beauty of the Beis Hamikdash (Holy Temple).  It was the one place on Earth that we could come together as a nation and pray in unison.  Do you think it was easy for everyone to get along?  Do you think there were no ‘shul politics’ in the biggest shul in the world?  Of course there were issues.

Sadly, that’s ultimately why the Temple was destroyed.  Our Sages tell us that the underlying cause was sinas chinam – unjustified animosity.  What is sinas chinam?  It doesn’t mean that people disdain one another for no reason at all – that would be very strange, and we’re talking about regular, good Yiden!  No, it means a certain lack of tolerance and respect for others’ opinions and approaches. 

During the time of the Second Temple, there were a lot of different factions in Jerusalem, not unlike the world in which we find ourselves today; or for that matter, throughout most of our history.  For much of the Temple period, somehow the Beis Hamikdash administrators managed to keep it all together.  But after a while, people started making breakaway shuls.  At one point, our Sages tell us there were four hundred eighty shuls in Jerusalem! (Eicha Rabba Intro)

Can you imagine, the Beis Hamikdash was around the corner – the Holy Temple that we’ve pined over for two thousand years – and people were making house-minyanim because they couldn’t figure out how to tolerate the people who davened a few feet away from them in the Temple courtyard?!  Maybe they wore a different yarmulke.  Maybe they held different political views.  Maybe they were of a different social class.  At the end of the day, they just weren’t people they wanted to sit in shul with.

Any parent will tell you that each one of their children is different.  But what do they want more than anything?  That despite the differences they all get along.  And that’s what our Father in Heaven wants.  May you always rise to the challenge of uniting with every one of your spiritual brothers and sisters, even those who might have different opinions!  

Monday, 23 January 2017

Who are you looking at?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 2

Rabbi Yisroel Salanter was once walking along the street on Erev Yom Kippur when he passed a fellow from shul.  The man had a terrible look of consternation upon his face.
“Good Yom Tov, Reb Yid!” said the rabbi.  There was no reply.
A little louder this time, Rabbi Salanter exclaimed, “Good Yom Tov!”  Still nothing.
“What’s the matter, my friend?” asked the rabbi.
“Why, it’s Yom Kippur tonight!  I’m in a state of introspection and atonement!” said the man.
“I see,” replied the rabbi, “that may be so, but just because you’re doing teshuvah, why must everyone else suffer?”

Rabbi Aba quoted Rav Huna who quoted Rav: A person is forbidden to stand in his friend’s field while the crops are standing. 
Rashi explains: So that he does not do it damage with an evil eye.

It can be very stressful to raise the perfect crop, to get it cut at just the right moment, to collect it all without ruining any of the pieces.  To have someone standing there watching while the farmer does all that isn’t helpful.  He’s thinking to himself, ‘What does this guy want?  Why is he standing there, watching me?  Is he plotting something?  Are there people out there jealous of my success?’

Now the truth is you might be standing near the field and admiring your neighbour’s farming prowess and getting some good ideas about how to grow your own crop.  But it doesn’t matter what’s going on inside your head; the issue is what the other fellow might be thinking.  And so Rav says, don’t even let him suspect that you have untoward motives.  If he’s there working hard to make a living, he’s under enough stress as it is, without his mind going wild about what other people might be thinking.

You see, it’s not just about saying the right thing or doing the right thing for people; it’s about thinking to yourself whether you might be stressing them out without even saying or doing anything at all!  Simply by being in their presence when they need their alone time, or passing them in the street with an expressionless face, what effect are you having?  You need to make sure that whatever you’re doing – as harmless as your intentions – you’re not causing anyone else any unnecessary stress.

You too might be dealing with stresses in your life, whether self-imposed or beyond your control.  Rabbi Salanter’s point to the fellow engrossed in teshuvah on Erev Yom Kippur was that just because Hashem gave you a measure of discomfort in your life, it’s no mitzvah to share it with everyone else around you!  Rabbi Yitz Wyne adds the following wonderful aphorism from Rav Noach Weinberg: No matter how you feel on the inside, your face is public property!

Before you show up, think about whether your friends wants you there at the moment.  When you’re in the company of others, ask yourself whether you’re brightening up the room or casting a shadow.  May your presence always be a source of comfort, joy, and pleasure to all around you! 

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Does your Judaism feel inconsistent?

Daf Yomi Bava Metzia 119

Mar Yehuda and Beau-T bar Tuvy were sitting with King Shapur, and they were brought an etrog.  King Shapur sliced off a piece and ate it, and then sliced off another piece and gave it to Beau-T to eat.  He then thrust the knife ten times into the ground to kasher it before cutting a piece for Mar Yehuda.
Beau-T then asked the king, “What, am I not Jewish enough?”
Shapur responded, “Well, I know that Mar Yehuda is pretty religious.  You, on the other hand, we both know where you were last night!”

Mishna: If two gardens are situated one above the other and vegetables grow between them, Rabbi Meir says: they belong to the upper garden; Rabbi Yehuda maintains: to the lower garden. Rabbi Shimon says: as far as the owner of the upper garden can stretch out his hand and take belongs to him, and the rest belongs to the owner of the lower garden.
Gemara: They related this matter before King Shapur.  He said to them, “We extend our grace to Rabbi Shimon.”
Rashi elucidates: King Shapur was the king of Persia.  He was an expert in Jewish law and hence praised Rabbi Shimon for his position.
Tosfos further explains: We know that King Shapur was an expert from the story at the end of Tractate Avoda Zara, where he plunged the knife ten times into hard earth before cutting the etrog for Rav Yehuda. 

At the end of the day, even the wisest of kings are still mere mortals.  King Shapur may have been an expert in halacha, but that didn’t stop him judging Beau-T.  From his perspective, he knew that Beau-T wasn’t exactly Moshe Rabbeinu, and so he assumed that he was pretty lax all round.  Beau-T took offense to such judgment; he might not have been a perfect Jew, but that didn’t mean he didn’t care about his kashrus!

The good news is that the King of Kings doesn’t pass sweeping generalizations on people.  The Almighty knows what’s in your heart and He knows that nobody’s perfect.  We all have areas in our spiritual lives that we need to work on.  Hashem is well aware of our strengths and weaknesses.  Just because you’re not perfect in one area of your life, that doesn’t mean you can’t be perfect in another.

Unfortunately, many people who struggle with their imperfections tell themselves, “Why should I try to be a good Jew in this area of observance; I do all these other things wrong.  Who am I kidding?”  And so in their zeal to avoid coming across as inconsistent, they don’t do anything.  “Everybody knows how I get to shul on Shabbos; I would look like a hypocrite if I told them I can’t go to the treif restaurant with them!”

But that’s not how Hashem works.  He can see past the apparent inconsistencies.  He knows what’s in your heart.  In His eyes, each mitzvah is a separate opportunity for you to connect with Him and He knows that when the time is right, you’ll be ready to work on those other areas.  Meanwhile, just keep doing as many mitzvos as you can! 

You have a special, unique, personal relationship with the Almighty.  It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks about it, your Father knows exactly what’s in your heart.  May you always focus on the positive aspects of your relationship with Heaven and with time, may you add more and more to your portfolio!  

Don't settle for bran!

Daf Yomi Bava Metzia 118

Zemira, the daughter of Yonadav, was a righteous maiden, who would go each day to pray at the grave of her mother.  One day, she hears footsteps and suddenly a man with long hair appears before her.
“Quickly, hide me, for the wicked King Herod seeks to kill all the nazirites!” She dutifully assists him. 

A few months later, Zemira’s father hears that the righteous Avinadav ben Uziel has sought her hand in marriage.  What a surprise she receives when she finds out that the young man she had rescued was none other than Avinadav!  But alas, exactly one year later, as they are sitting having supper, the door comes crashing down and the king’s men are there to arrest the groom.  They cart him off in chains.

Zemira is determined to do whatever she can to find her husband.  And so off she travels to Jerusalem.  After endless dead-ends, she finally discovers his prison cell and immediately tells him she will do whatever she can to have his poor, innocent soul released.  Unable to control his weeping, however, he tells her the truth. 

“I am not Avinadav, I am an impostor who deserves to be here.  I have brought everlasting disgrace upon you and your family.  Now leave me here to die alone.”
“Never!” says Zemira. “You might have been bad in the past.  But the past is the past.  I know you are a righteous man.  I watched you use your resources to help many people and free many slaves!  But pray tell, how did you get into this mess?”

Utterly distraught, the man begins to tell his story.  His mother died when he was a young boy.  As she lay on her deathbed, she made her husband swear that his foremost priority in life would be their child.  But sadly, within weeks of her passing, he remarried and began to neglect his son.  It didn’t help that the step-mother didn’t want the child around and managed to convince her husband to reject him from the house.  Soon, he found friendships in the wrong part of town.  As he mixed with bad people, slowly he became like them, until he was finally one of the most-wanted highwaymen in the region.
“When I heard that Avinadav was en route to marry you, I ambushed him and sold him into slavery,” concluded the imprisoned man, “I then substituted myself, Raamiah, in his stead.” 

Zemira turns her eyes to Hashem and lets out a huge shriek.  Suddenly, Heavens and Earth shake together, causing a great earthquake.  Zemira grabs Raamiah by the hand and they run far away.  They search day and night for Avinadav and his father Uziel, to no avail. 

One day, they chance upon a landowner who welcomes them with open arms.  Explaining to their bewilderment that he was formerly a slave who had been freed by them, he offers to do anything to help.  They tell him of their mission to find Avinadav and Uziel.  Lo and behold, the landowner has some farm-help that knows where they are to be found. 

Wasting no time, they locate the father and son and offer to redeem them from captivity.  With insufficient funds to do so, Raamiah immediately sells himself into twelve months of slavery to complete the payment.  When he finally goes free, he finds that he has inherited a small fortune which he hands over to the real Avinadav.  Raamiah and Zemira go on to live a life of righteousness together.  (Goldin: The Book of Legends 3:112)

Mishnah: One who hires a worker to gather processed or raw straw, who then says, “Give me my wages,” and he responds, “Take some of the straw you gathered as payment,” we do not allow this.
Gemara: Why is it necessary for the Mishnah to teach this law?  Since the worker has payment due him, we might assume he would accept anything, as they say, “From one who owes you a debt, accept even bran as payment!”

Often in life we are so desperate for something that we are willing to settle for whatever comes along.  We know we deserve more but we just need to have our needs fulfilled right now.  And so we make choices out of desperation that are not good for our true physical, spiritual, and emotional needs.

Maybe it’s a relationship.  You’re so desperate to climb out of singlehood that you’re willing to pair up with the first person that expresses an interest in you, even though you know that person is not a great fit.  After losing his wife, Raamiah’s father wanted so much to remarry that he found someone that refused to accept his son.   Had he waited for a righteous woman, his son would have lived a complete life of righteousness.

Maybe it’s a job.  You’re so desperate to get out of your current situation that you’ll take anything that comes along.  Perhaps you can’t stand your current boss.  Perhaps the bills are getting out of hand.  And so you settle on a position way below your qualifications and expertise. 

You are awesome!  The Almighty has an incredible destiny lined up for you!  With a little patience, you will receive unbelievable relationship blessings, unbelievable career blessings!  His bounty is just around the corner.  Don’t accept the bran as payment!

That doesn’t mean, of course, that you need to have unreasonable expectations.  If we wait for absolute perfection, whether the perfect job or the perfect relationship, we’ll be waiting forever.  Because nothing and nobody in this universe is perfect. Only the Rock, Hashem, is perfect in all His ways.  Our mission is to make this world a better place and help it towards perfection.  But we’re not there yet.  Find someone or something that is a pretty good fit and then work on yourself to make it a perfect fit!

Don’t settle for bran.  You are a child of the King of Kings, which makes you a prince or a princess.  May you discover the near-perfect bounty the Almighty has prepared for you very quickly!

Are binary options legal?

Daf Yomi Bava Metzia 117

With no sign of rain in the Land of Israel, the people are willing to do anything.  Whether that means praying to Hashem or any other god, who cares?  As long as something works.
The prophet Eliyahu is pretty disappointed with their attitude and decides to demonstrate once and for all that the Baal is a false god.  He challenges the Baal prophets to a dual atop Mt. Carmel.  Each will prepare a sacrifice and pray for their respective powers to accept the offering.
All day long, the wicked prophets raise their voices to their deity, but all for naught.  Having failed in their efforts, Eliyahu approaches his altar, pours water upon the offering and then utters the Mincha prayer.  A fire descends from Heaven and consumes the sacrifice.
And in unison, the people cry out, “Hashem is the G-d!”
Nevertheless, they can’t get Eliyahu’s original challenge to them out of their heads: “How long will you waver between two options?”

Mishnah: A house with an upper story, if the upstairs was ruined and the owner (living downstairs) does not want to repair it, the upstairs tenant may go and reside downstairs.
Gemara: If there were two upper stories, one above the other (i.e. three stories) and the uppermost was ruined, the tenant descends and resides in the story beneath.  But if the lower (i.e. middle apartment) got ruined, must the tenant ascend to reside in the uppermost apartment?
Do we say that the owner may tell the tenant, ‘You assumed a name of ascent upon yourself?’ Or perhaps he only accepted one level of ascension; he did not accept two flights upon himself.

Many of us are prepared to take baby steps along our spiritual journeys.  We do a little bit for Hashem here, a little bit there.  Nothing major, just enough to feel we’ve made Him happy.  We seek spiritual growth, but we’ll only accept one level of ascension upon ourselves at a time, and no more. 

The Prophet Yeshayahu speaks about this attitude (28:9-10). “To whom shall they teach wisdom, to whom shall they impart knowledge?  For instruction by instruction, instruction by instruction, measure by measure, measure by measure, a bit here, a bit there.”  Yes, we’re willing to learn Torah; yes, we’re willing to do mitzvos – but bit by bit, we wouldn’t want to overdo things, would we?!

What’s holding us back?

Very often our impediment to spiritual progress is simply, like the Jewish people on Mt. Carmel, we’re still hanging on to our options.  Sure, I’ll do the Hashem-thing, but I’m not sure I’m ready to give up on Baal-life quite yet.  We’re okay with doing Jewish, but we’re not up for completely embracing it, hook, line and sinker.  We want to keep all our options open, and so our spiritual growth consists of only tiny ascensions. 

Eliyahu’s message and Yeshayahu’s prophecy are that you can and will do more than baby steps!  It’s time to assume a name of ascent upon yourself!  That means throwing yourself into the Almighty’s lap!  Embrace your neshama, no strings attached!  It’s no longer about the odd time you do something for Heaven; it’s time to make Heaven your middle name!

Does that mean radically switching everything you do from one day to the next?  Of course not; people who do that are serving Hashem irrationally.  Very often, it’s easy come, easy go.  One day, they appear to be completely committed; the next day, they’ve thrown it all out the window, G-d forbid.  That’s not the meaning of a name of ascent.

Embracing your name of ascent means committing to a life of spiritual growth.  That each day you wake up and ask yourself how you plan to develop your spiritual bonds today.  That each night before your close your eyes, you ask yourself how you grew spiritually today.  Not radical spiritual growth, but constant spiritual growth!

It’s time to stop plodding along.  You are destined to achieve spiritual greatness.  May you let go of the mediocre earthly options and utterly embrace your spiritual destiny!

Friday, 20 January 2017

Become half-man, half-angel!

Daf Yomi Bava Metzia 116

Moshe goes up to Heaven to take the Torah down to Earth, and is challenged by the locals. 
The holy angels turn to Hashem and cry, “What is a mortal man doing up here?”
The Almighty, so to speak, nods and says, “Nu, Moshe, answer them!”
Turning to the angels, Moshe replies, “Let’s see, the Torah says: You shall have no other gods.  Are there are any other gods around here that you angels might be tempted to serve?  No, I didn’t think so.  How about this one?  The Torah say: Honour thy father and mother.  Do you folks have parents?”
“Gut gezogt (well said)!” declares the Holy One blessed be He as He hands over the holy Tablets.
What a wonderful tale!  But at the end of the day, if Moshe was a mere mortal, how did he enter Heaven?  And he wasn’t the only one.  As everyone knows, Eliyahu Hanavi entered Heaven in a fiery chariot, very much alive!  How can physical human beings enter the spiritual realm?

Mishnah: A house with an upper story, if the upstairs was ruined and the owner (living downstairs) does not want to repair it, the upstairs tenant may go and live downstairs.
Gemara: How much of it was ruined?
Rav says: Most of it.  But if it was only an area of four handbreadths, the person lives half of himself below and half of himself above.
Rashi explains: It means that some of his tasks he performs below and some of his tasks he performs above.  Let’s say he kept a box in the ruined area, he moves it downstairs and when he wants to use it, he may do so.

Our Sages explain that Moshe Rabbeinu was half of himself and below, man, and half of himself and above, divine (Devarim Rabbah 11:4).  That doesn’t mean he was some kind of centaur.  No, he was the fulfilment of the original declaration, “Let us make man!”  According to Ramban (Nahmanides), that statement was a call to Heaven and Earth to join forces in the creation of a being that would be the embodiment of the physical and spiritual realms.  Prior to the advent of humankind, creations were either physical, such as plants and beasts, or spiritual, such as angels and celestial bodies.  Human beings are the unification of above and below.

But not everyone reaches their incredible potential.  Moshe Rabbeinu did.  Eliyahu Hanavi did.  Being half mortal, half divine means looking and acting like a human being on the outside, but being utterly spiritual on the inside.  How do you do that?

The key is to constantly remember that you are in this world, but not of this world.  You are a child of the Almighty.  He has placed you here on Earth as His ambassador to make this world a Heavenly place.  You may appear to be mortal, but you aren’t.  You are divine!

It’s not easy to keep that at the forefront of your mind and behaviour.  That’s why not everyone reaches the level of Moshe or Eliyahu.  But that doesn’t mean you can’t get part of the way.  You might never reach their level of ‘half below, half above.’  But even forty percent spiritual and sixty percent physical, or even ten percent spiritual and ninety percent physical, is awesome!

The secret to success is, never stop asking yourself: why am I here?  Every action you take, every word you utter, every thought you ponder, just keep asking the big question.  The more you remind yourself of your divine mission, the more your spirituality will shine forth.  And it will become abundantly clear to you and everyone around you that you are a cut above this world.  That you are more angel than human.  That the power of Heaven is shining through your flesh and blood body!

It’s time to start living with your head in the clouds!  Your Father in Heaven sent you to this planet as His special envoy; never forget that your embassy – your physical body – still belongs to home territory up above.  May you live life on Earth as the divine being you were created to be!