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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!)

Friday, 24 February 2017

How do you call up a child of a cohen who is not a cohen?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 32

The region had been a battlefield for years.  First King Amraphel and his allies conquered the neighbouring city-states, controlling them for twelve years.  Then the slaves rebelled.  It was a rough year, which culminated in much devastation and human suffering. 

Suddenly word arrived that Lot had been taken captive.  His uncle Abram did not think twice about the rescue mission.  With bare resources, off he goes and almost singlehandedly takes down the major national armies of his day.  By the end of the daring operation, AB’RAM began to be called by the nickname RAM’BO!

In recognition of his extraordinary accomplishments, Malkitzedek, King of Shalem, greets him bringing a meal of tribute.  He was a cohen (v’hu cohen) to the most high G-d.
“Blessed be Avram!  And blessed be the Most High G-d!”

Our Sages ask: why wasn’t he simply called Malkitzedek the cohen, king of Shalem?  They answer that the Torah separates him from his cohen title, because he was a cohen (v’hu cohen), but his children were not.  Instead, the priesthood was transferred to Avraham’s family (Nedarim 32b).

Let’s say we established a fellow as a cohen based on his father’s lineage, but then word got around that he was the child of a divorcee mother.  So we demoted him.  Then a single witness showed up and testified that he was a bona fide cohen; we thus reinstated him.  But then two witnesses arrived and testified that he was indeed the child of a divorcee, and so once again we demoted him.  And then finally, an additional witness arrived saying that his cohen status was intact.  Now what?
All opinions agree that the two individual pro-cohen witnesses would be counted as one larger testimony, thus equalling the anti-cohen testimony.  The question is, however, should we be concerned that reinstatement might cause people to disparage the beth din (court)?

If this fellow is not a cohen, how do we call him to the Torah?  As the child or spouse of a divorcee, we would call him up for a later aliyah, say revi’i or chamishi (the 4th or 5th call up).  But the problem is that his father was a cohen (at least in the case of the spouse being the divorcee).  So do we call him up, “Yaamod Reuven ben Shimon hacohen, chamishi! (Arise, Reuven the son of Shimon the cohen for the 5th aliyah)?  Calling up someone who sounds like a cohen for chamishi would certainly raise a few eyebrows in shul!  But to dump his father’s cohen status doesn’t seem fair either!

One idea suggested by the poskim (halachic decisors) is to call him up as ‘Reuven ben Shimon v’hu cohen.’  Remember why our Sages say that Malkitzedek was described as v’hu cohen he was a cohen, but his children were not.  Thus we find an ancient model of describing someone as a cohen without implying anything about their kids’ status.

But it begs the question.  Malkitzedek didn’t marry a divorcee.  Why did he not merit to pass on his cohen status to his descendants?  Rabbi Zechariah quotes Rabbi Yishmael:  Malkitzedek’s failing was that he blessed Avraham before blessing Hashem, saying, “Blessed be Avram!  And blessed be the Most High G-d!”

We are called a ‘kingdom of priests.’ You and I are all cohanim before Hashem!  But if you want to maintain your priestly status, you need to ensure you get your priorities straight.  Sure you need to thank people in your life, but first and foremost you always need to remember to thank the Almighty.  He’s the One who has given you His bounty.  Any mortal human being who has played a part in bringing Heaven’s blessing to you must be thanked – but only as the vehicle of Hashem’s blessing.  G-d first, man second.

In our home, our kids know the bentching (Grace after Meals) drill: You finish your meal. You bentch.  The last word of bentching is what?  Shkoyach!  That’s a nod to the balabosta (mommy) for a meal well done!  We normally add a few words of personal thanks to it.  We saw our parents do that; and no doubt, they learned it from their parents.  First we bless Hashem, our spiritual Provider; then we bless Ima & Aba, the physical providers.

A student of the Chasam Sofer once went for a shul probah – a try-out for the pulpit position.  Rabbi Sofer gave him a stellar reference and it seemed like a shoo-in for the young man.  The position, however, ended up going to another candidate.  Crestfallen, he went back to his teacher, seeking solace.
Rabbi Sofer told him, “Know, my son, that what a Book of Tehillim can accomplish, even the Chasam Sofer cannot accomplish.”  In other words, given the rabbi’s stellar reference, the student believed it was a done deal.  The other candidate, however, understood that blessing truly comes from Hashem, and he poured out his heart before his Creator.  And got the job.  First G-d; and only afterwards, man.

You are a priest of the Most High G-d.  Bless Him, thank Him.  And never forget who truly serves you the bounty of this world.  May you forever thank Hashem, followed by His servants whom He has sent to deliver the blessing!

(Thank you to Hashem and to Rabbi Mendel Senderovic for some of the ideas in today’s Life Yomi!)

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

Halacha is not Black & White

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 31

Should we give an aliya to someone who is not Shabbos-observant?  That was the question on the agenda of the ritual committee at the Young Israel of Dayton.  For Rabbi Moshe Parnes the answer was obvious: exclude people who were not yet observant and you might as well close up shop. 
But one stubborn fellow wouldn’t let it go.  “Rabbi, the poskim (halachic decisors) clearly prohibit it!  If we allow people who are not shomer-Shabbos to be called up, what’s next?  Pork-eaters as the chazan?”

Finally, Rabbi Parnes caved in to the man’s obstinacy.  “I’ll tell you what,” he informed the fellow, “let’s ask your rebbe in Boro Park, Rabbi Menashe Klein, what he thinks.”  And so off they travelled to New York to see the counsel of the wise sage.
“Whether or not to call up people who are not shomer-Shabbos?  That’s a very important shayla (question),” responded the Ungvarer Rov.  “Now let me give you the teshuvah (answer).  It is absolutely assur (forbidden) to give an aliya to someone who is not shomer-Shabbos . . . here in Boro Park.  But in Dayton, it’s absolutely assur NOT to give an aliya to someone who is not yet shomer-Shabbos!”

Two people appeared before the beth din (court).  One claimed, ‘This land always belonged to my family.’  The other claimed, ‘The land always belonged to my family!’  One of them brought witnesses testifying that it was family property and he was personally living there.  The other only offered witnesses testifying that he was personally living there.
Rav Nachman ruled: The two testimonies regarding current personal use cancel one another out and we award the property to the one who brought witnesses that it belonged to his family.

The second litigant later produced witnesses that it was family property.
Rav Nachman ruled: We placed the first fellow in the property and we may likewise remove him (and reopen the case).  We are not worried about the consequent disrespect for the beth din.
Rashbam explains: We are not worried that people may mock the beth din, alleging that they contradict their judgments and they appear to be a joke.

Halacha is an art-form.  Very often, questions are not black and white.  Each situation is unique and must be judged on its individual merits.  Rabbi Klein had never been to Dayton, Ohio.  He probably never made it across the Brooklyn Bridge.  But he knew that not everywhere is Boro Park.  Moreover, he understood firstly that each time and place requires unique consideration, and secondly that Rabbi Parnes, as the mara d’asra (city rabbi) was best placed to respond to the specific needs and level of his community.

Unfortunately, there are those who misunderstand the depth of halachic rulings such as Rabbi Klein’s distinction between Boro Park and Dayton.  To them, the rulings appear inconsistent.  How can the same behavior be a sin in one place and a mitzvah in another?  And so they deride the rabbis and their halachic determinations.

Maybe it would be simpler if we just kept things constant and homogeneous?  That way nobody would question the integrity of rabbinic law!  Comes along Rav Nachman and says, ‘No. We have to do the right thing for the question at hand.  Even if that means the naysayers start their mockery and questioning.’  In our Gemara’s case, it meant overturning the previous ruling and starting fresh.  Who knows what people would say about rabbinic process?  Rav Nachman wasn’t worried.  He needed to do what was right for that time and place.

At some point, you might have asked your rabbi a question expecting a certain answer.  Only to find the ruling to be quite the opposite.
‘But you gave so-and-so a completely different response!’ you cry. 
‘What can I say?’ he responds, ‘I love you and I love him.  But, here’s the difference.  For him, he was looking for an out.  You, on the other hand, I know you can handle the more stringent halachic position!’

Now you begin to understand how these things work.  An accomplished rabbi knows how to respond to each shayla uniquely.  Essential to emunas chachomim – trust in our sages – is the belief that ‘there’s a method to the madness’ of rabbinic rulings that you might feel are inconsistent.  If your rabbi knows his stuff and understands his people, he will know exactly how to respond to each particular inquirer.

That’s where Rabbi Google falls short.  He might be able to provide you with answers, but he doesn’t know you and your specific circumstances.  To a large extent, it’s also why you need to have a personal relationship with your rabbi.  Sure, there are rabbis who will respond to anonymous inquirers, but it’s never as effective as having a conversation with a rabbi who knows all the particulars of your situation.

Halacha is not black and white.  It’s complex.  That’s why we have expert rabbis who have spent years pouring over the poskim.  May you have faith in the integrity of rabbinic law and be the first to defend our holy tradition from those who seek to make a mockery of it! 

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Is anyone (really) home?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 30

One day, following the morning Shacharis services in Berditchev, Rabbi Levi Yitzchok went over to a businessman who was a regular at the minyan.
“Shalom aleichem!” he said to the businessman.
“Aleichem shalom?” the man responded, a little confused, “But Rebbe, I haven’t gone anywhere.  I’ve been here in town all along!”
“Oh, I know that you were here physically.  But your face during Shacharis told me that in your mind, you were at the market in Leipzig!  So now, here I am welcoming you back to Berditchev!”

A fellow once told his friend, “What are you doing in my house?”
“You sold it to me,” he responded, “and I have proof that I’ve been living here for the past few years!”
“I was doing business overseas,” the first one replied. (Rashbam: And so he didn’t know the friend was squatting in his house and therefore didn’t protest.)
“But I have witnesses that saw you at the local market for thirty days each year!”
“That’s true,” he admitted, “but those thirty days I was occupied in the market!” (And therefore still unaware of the squatter.)

Sometimes we spend so much time away from the house that we no longer know what’s going on there.  How our spouse is doing.  How our kids are.  What’s going on in their lives.  Friends, work, school.  We’re so busy doing our own thing that we don’t realize how out of touch we’ve become.

Until one day we wake up and realize that we’re not around enough.  And so we resolve to be home more.  But even though we might be there physically, we still seem to somewhere else.  Like the fellow davening in Berditchev.  Sure he was right there in shul, but in reality he was off in Leipzig.  Or the fellow from the Gemara who was home one month a year.  He might have been physically in the city but he still had no clue who was living in his house!

When you’re home with your family, you need to be 100% present!  Not on your phone, not on your computer, not sitting in front of the TV.  None of those ‘moments’ count!  You have to deduct all that time from whatever amount of hours you think you’re spending at home with the family.  Being with them means taking the time and transforming it into an unforgettable experience!

There’s no time more precious than quality family time.  Your spouse and kids should be counting down the hours and minutes until you get home.  And so should you!  But that only happens if you give the time you spend with them the same focus and honor you give your work and other commitments.

If you’ve come home to watch TV or play on your phone, why bother?  You could have done that at the office!  May your family time be the most quality moments of your day!

Monday, 20 February 2017

Can your kids pick up where you leave off?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 29

Rabbi Yitzi Hurwitz was the founding rabbi of the Jewish community of Temecula, California.  In 2013, he was diagnosed with ALS and he quickly began losing his fine motor skills.  Today, he is confined to life in bed, surrounded by his loving wife, Dina, and seven children.

But Rabbi Yitzi never let his illness end his life’s mission to inspire others and bring them closer to our Father in Heaven.  Each week, incredibly he writes a Torah blog, using his eyes to choose letters on a computer screen.  Letter by letter, painstakingly he composes his weekly D’var Torah, which is read by thousands across the globe.

In 2014, his daughter discovered an SD memory card and inserted it into her computer.  Lo and behold, it was a song that Rabbi Yitzi had composed and roughly recorded.  She showed it to her mother who shared it with members of the Jewish music industry that she knew.  They loved it and arranged for it to be recorded by a conglomerate of all the top Chasidic music artists in the world today.  Shine a Little Light became an instant hit and Rabbi Yitzi became a household name and an inspiration to Jews everywhere.

The Gemara asks: Whence do we derive that three years of property occupancy establishes a presumption of ownership?
Rava says: The first year, an owner can forgive a squatter, the second year he could likewise forgive, but three years, one would not forgive!
Abaye said to him: But now, when the property returns to its owner, it should return without the fruit yielded in the meantime.  If you are correct that the first two years an owner forgives, why did Rav Nachman teach, “The property returns and the fruit must be returned?”
Rashi explains: Further in this chapter . . .
RASHI Z”L DIED HERE.  From here on, it is the explanation of Rabbeinu Shmuel ben Rabbi Meir (Rashbam). 
Rashbam explains: Further in this chapter, Rav Nachman teaches that if an occupant fails to produce proof of ownership after two years, the property returns to the original owner and he must recompense him for the fruit yield.

This page of the Gemara always bring tears to my eyes.  Stop and picture what happened here.  I can’t imagine Rashi took a break in the middle of an explanation to run some errands.  If his commentary discontinues mid-sentence, that was probably his final moment on Earth. 

What happens next is simply awe-inspiring.  Rashi’s commentary doesn’t come to an end.  It is picked up by his grandson, Shmuel, who finishes not only his grandfather's sentence, but the remainder of the tractate!

That is incredible on so many levels.  Firstly, it is a tribute to Rashi that his grandchildren were able to step into his huge shoes.  Sometimes great people are so focused on their own achievements in life that they fail to take the time to invest in their own offspring.  Not Rashi, his children and grandchildren were great Torah leaders who similarly left volumes of inspiration for all generations.

But the second aspect of the matter that I find breathtaking is the fact that Rashi’s family knew exactly what his dreams were.  Following his passing, they immediately saw to it that his vision and life-goals were completed.  They knew that he had set out to write a commentary on the Talmud and they were determined to bring that dream to fruition.

What are your life-goals?  What great spiritual projects are you in the midst of?  Do your family members know your dreams?  Are they able to complete your vision if you are no longer able to?  In Rashi’s case, he passed on but his grandchildren knew what needed to be done with his commentary.

In Rabbi Hurwitz’s case, he is Baruch Hashem still going strong but he can no longer perform his own music.  His family has figured out not only how to bring his music to the world, but with the wonders of modern technology, they’ve found a way to help him continue teaching Torah around the world!  We pray that a cure for ALS be found very soon and that he have a refuah sheleimah!

No matter what stage of life you find yourself, if you’re still kicking, you should be deep in the midst of a spiritual life-goal project.  Maybe it’s fundraising to build a new shul.  Maybe it’s ending homelessness in your town.  Maybe it’s writing a powerfully-inspiring movie script.  Maybe it’s learning all the way through Tanach.  My wife and kids know that my current goal is to write a ‘peirush oif gantz Shas’ – an inspirational message on every page of the Talmud!  Whatever your goal is, make sure your loved ones know about it, so that they can complete it if and when you no longer can.

And if you’re ever thinking you’re no longer up for a new project, just think of Rashi who never retired till his very last day.  Or think about Rabbi Yitzi who literally spends hours plugging away at his weekly D’var Torah, letter by letter.  And while we’re on the topic, if you’re ever feeling like life’s got the better of you and you can’t deal with the challenges you’re facing, just go online and watch the video of Rabbi Yitzi creating his D’var Torah from his hospital bed.  Most of us have no clue what the word challenge even means.

Let us briefly return to our Daf and remember that nothing in life is coincidental.  Dr. Nathan Light teaches that it wasn’t by chance that Rashi handed over the reins to his grandson when he did.  Rav Nachman’s teaching was that the fruits accompany the field when it returns to its owner.  When we return to our Owner, will we be proud of our fruits – our children and grandchildren?  Will we be able to say that we are one with them?  That they understood our mission?  That we made our life’s message so crystal clear to them that they are able to smoothly slip into our shoes and continue our life-goals?

What is your life-goal?  What project are you in the midst of right now?  Do your loved ones know how to pick up precisely where you leave off?  May you make every second on Earth count and may your fruit be one with you!  

Where's your umbrella?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 28

Jerusalem was under siege.  While there was no shortage of false prophets predicting the loss of the enemy, Nebuchadnezzar, the one true prophet, Yirmiyahu, was undeterred in his message.  He boldly stood up and declared that the end was nigh.  The Babylonians would conquer the city and take King Tzidkiyahu captive.

That was too much for the king to bear!  How could Yirmiyahu utter such treasonous words?  The king nabbed the prophet and threw him into prison.  Suddenly, Yirmiyahu had a completely different vision.  He prophesied that his cousin Chanamel would appear at the prison seeking to sell his field.

Sure enough, Chanamel shows up and Yirmiyahu purchases the field.  He then instructs his scribe, Baruch ben Neriyah to secure the title deed in an earthenware container for the future.  Turning to the downtrodden people, the prophet declared, “Today, we are going into exile.  But in a few short decades, Hashem will return us to the Land of Israel.  Now is the time to buy!”

What is the source for the Rabbis’ dictum that in order to establish a presumption of property ownership, three years of unchallenged occupancy are required?
Rav Yosef says: Yirmiyahu declared, “They shall purchase fields with silver and inscribe and seal the transaction in a ledger.”  Now, the prophet made his declaration in the tenth year of King Tzidkiyahu and warned that they would be exiled in year eleven.
Rashi explains: If Yirmiyahu instructed them to record their transactions in a ledger and document the sales before witnesses, it means that their two-year occupancy (years ten and eleven) would not suffice to establish a presumption of ownership.  From here we see that (sans documentation), one needs three years of continuous occupancy to establish a presumption of ownership.

Why would Yirmiyahu tell the people to purchase property that they would not be able to enjoy for at least another seventy years?  If exile was clearly happening, didn’t it make more sense to sell off everything now and emigrate with liquid assets that they could use to purchase property abroad?  Upon their return to Israel, they or their children or grandchildren could repurchase the fields then!

Yirmiyahu was offering the people a powerful message of hope: Right now, all may seem bleak, but things will turn around.  Guaranteed.  But it’s not enough just to believe me.  Go out and purchase a field.  That tangible act will make your belief unshakeable.  Once you’ve invested your hard-earned cash, you’ve translated your faith into practice.  And there’s no turning back. Keep that document with you throughout the exile, show it to your children and grandchildren, and it will solidify your faith through the most challenging times.

If you really believe in something, you need to translate your faith into action!  Maybe you hope to be a doctor one day.  At the moment, you’re just beginning to apply for college.  It might seem like a long way away, but if you really believe, go out today and buy a stethoscope.  Hang it up on your bedroom door and it will serve as a constant reminder of your eventual destination!

Maybe you’ve been given a poor health assessment by the doctors.  They’ve told you that there’s 80% chance you won’t make it.  But you know that means there’s 20% chance that you will make it!  Put differently, one in five people beat the illness and go on to live productive, fabulous lives!  Don’t just believe that you will be one of the fortunate 20%, send someone out to buy you a brand new pair of running shoes.  Keep them right next to your bed.  You might not be able to use them today, but seeing them each day will remind you to maintain your faith that you are getting up from this setback in no time at all!

Maybe your child has dropped out of school or yeshiva.  You certainly haven’t given up on them.  Every day you turn your eyes Heavenward and wait faithfully for Hashem to set your child back on the right path.  It’s time to turn that faith into action.  Call the school and tell them you’d like to start making a monthly donation that will, please G-d, become the future tuition account for your child.  Pay in advance now – it will save you a lot of money in the future when your child is ready to get back on track!

The story is told of a drought that once took place in the area of Teveria (Tiberias).  It hadn’t rained for months and the crops were now suffering.  Food prices were out of control and drinking water was at a premium, let alone water to wash with. 
But then word gets out that Rabbi Moshe had called for a communal prayer service at the main synagogue.  “We will all pray together and I promise that the rain will come immediately!  As long as we have faith in Hashem, our united prayers will bring the rain without delay.  Everyone should gather tomorrow morning and we will bear witness to the miracles of Hakadosh Baruch Hu (G-d)!”
The next day, all the townsfolk appear at the shul, siddurim (prayerbooks) in hand.  Finally, Rabbi Moshe arrives.  He looks around and shakes his head despairingly.
Exiting the synagogue, he declares, “My friends, if you really believed that the rain would come immediately, where are your umbrellas, raincoats and galoshes?”

If you truly believe in the Almighty’s blessing, you need to translate your faith into tangible actions.  Hashem will turn your life around, but you must demonstrate your total commitment to the outcome.  May you accept His blessings into your life today! 

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Are you considering everything that could go wrong?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 27

The Children of Israel were weary.  They had been travelling through the wilderness for over a year and all they wanted to do was begin life in their own country, hassle-free.  They reach the border of the Land of Canaan and send spies to check out the situation.

But, to Moshe’s shock, the spies return with a terrible report of the land. 
“The land is full of giants!”
“Their cities are impenetrable!”
“The land will eat us alive!”

The Israelites spend the entire night weeping.  And despite the begging and cajoling of Moshe, Joshua and Calev, they refuse to take one step further towards the land promised to their forefathers, Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov.  As a result, they end up wandering in the desert for the next forty years, and ultimately never make it into the Land of Israel.

Mishnah: If one’s tree is leaning over into the public thoroughfare, he must cut off the branches that would impede the passing of a camel and its rider.  Rabbi Yehuda says: A camel carrying flax or bundles of wood.  Rabbi Shimon says: He must cut any branches extending over his property line, due to concern for the transfer of impurity.
Gemara: Who is the author of the Mishnah?  He maintains that regarding damages, we assess the situation as it stands now.
Rashi explains: The Mishnah teaches that the tree owner must cut off the branches so they do not impede a camel and its rider today, despite the fact that with the passage of time, they will grow back.

Some people spend their entire lives worried about all the things that could go wrong in the future. 
‘I can’t start this business, because I won’t get a loan from the bank.  Customers might not like the product.’
‘I can’t join that social group, because they might not like me.’
‘I can’t join that Daf Yomi class because I won’t be able to wrap my head around the Talmud.’

But with that attitude, you can never move forward.  Because so many things could actually take your plans off the rails.  Our Mishnah teaches that ‘regarding damages,’ you need to ‘assess the situation as it stands now.’  Worrying too much about what might happen in the future guarantees one outcome: stagnation, which equals zero accomplishment.

The Israelites were so worried about the great leap into the Holy Land that they simply couldn’t move forward.  They were stuck in their comfortable life, protected by the Clouds of Glory, fed with manna from Heaven, and satiated by Miriam’s well that accompanied them wherever they journeyed.  The thought of facing the inhabitants of Canaan and subsequently becoming responsible for their own food provision by way of agriculture and farming was too scary for them to consider.

But if you shouldn’t worry, does that mean you shouldn’t plan for a rainy day?  Of course you should.  You can’t go through life blindly assuming things will always be perfect.  You need to take reasonable precautions as you traverse the game of life.  But don’t let your worries get in the way of your vision! 

Trust in the Almighty that He will minimize the risk!  Success in life means having a plan and then taking calculated risks to see that plan come to fruition.  Will there be potholes along the way?  Of course.  But have faith in Hashem that He will guide you around – or better yet, over – the ditches! 

With the Almighty guiding your life, you will reach your Promised Land.  Instead of worrying about all the ‘giant’ obstacles and everything that could go wrong, you need to trust in the One Above that it will all work out for the best.  Knowing that He is leading you means expecting success in every aspect of life’s journey.

Expect that He will bring blessing into your life!  Expect that He will restore your health!  Expect that He will make your business successful!  Expect that He will bring the right person into your life!  Expect that He will guide your children along the right path! 

Negative thoughts only draw down negative energy which turn your worries into self-fulfilling prophecies.  The old Chasidic adage says, “Tracht gut, vet zayn gut” – when you expect the best, the best will happen.  May you take the leap of faith to success in every facet of your life!

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Does the Environment matter?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 26

Choni Hamagel was once walking along the road when he noticed an elderly man planting a carob tree.  
“Tell me, my good man,” asked Choni, “how long does it take for this tree to bear fruit?”
“It takes seventy years to produce fruit,” answered the old man.
“Do you really believe that you will live seventy more years to enjoy the fruit of this tree?” asked Choni.
“Of course not,” replied the man, “ but just as my ancestors planted for my sake, so do I plant this tree for the sake of those who will follow me.” 

Choni then sat down to eat. After he finished his meal, a deep sleep fell over him.  Hashem then caused a rock to take shape around him, protecting him from the elements and wild animals.

Seventy years later, the rock unfolded and Choni awoke.  He got up and noticed a young man picking carob from the tree.
Amazed, he asked the man, “Are you the man who planted this tree?”
“No, I am not,” was the reply. “This tree was planted by my grandfather, seventy years ago!”

Rava bar Rav Chanan had palm trees adjacent to his neighbor, Rav Yosef’s, vineyard.  Birds would come and perch on the palm trees and descend onto the vineyard and damage it. 
Rav Yosef said to him, “Go and chop down your trees.”
Rava said to him, “But I distanced them from your property!”
Rav Yosef replied, “That distance you created applies only to trees, but a greater space is required for vines.”
Rava responded, “But didn’t we learn in the Mishnah that the same is true whether one is planting grapevines or any kind of tree?”
Rav Yosef said to him, “The law is so only between one tree and another tree, or between one vine and another vine. But the space between a tree and vines necessitates a greater distance.”
Rava replied, “I will not cut them down, for Rav said: A palm tree that produces one kav of fruit, it is prohibited to cut down.  And Rabbi Chanina said: My son Shikcḥas died only because he cut down a fig tree before its time.  If you wish to chop it down, you go right ahead!”

When Hashem created Adam and Eve, He took them for a tour of the planet.  Once they had enjoyed all the beautiful sights, He turned to them and said, “See my works, how lovely and how excellent they are.  Everything I created, for you I created.  Pay attention that you do not corrupt it, for there is no one to fix it after you!” (Koheles Rabbah 7

We are stewards of planet Earth.  We were placed into this world with the instruction “to work it and to protect it,” meaning that we must work to make this world a better place.  But at the same time, we have an obligation to protect the physical environment for ourselves and for generations to come.  Just like our parents bequeathed a relatively clean planet to us, we must leave the same – or better – to our children.

That’s not just a pipedream.  As we all know, just a century ago, the Land of Israel was swampland.  And our grandparents tilled the soil and made the desert bloom.  What that means is despite all the reports of doom and gloom we hear, we have the ability to improve the planet for the future.  But just like our grandparents who weren’t afraid to get down and dirty, care for Hashem’s creation takes serious effort.

We can all make a difference, as long we are consciously aware of the consequences of our actions.  A little thought goes a long way to protecting this planet.  If we would all just pay attention to our personal consumption and unnecessary waste, this world would be pure and clean for generations to come!

What extra effort are you making to fulfill the Divine command “to protect it?”  Are we thinking about the kind of paper we purchase?  How long we leave the tap running?  If we really need to leave our car idling?  How many JNF trees we’ve invested in this year?  To many of us, concern for the environment might not sound like a religious imperative, but our Sages were clearly very environmentally-conscious.   And way before it was a hip cause!

One of the tenets of our faith is the resurrection of the dead.  That means we are destined to be on this planet for a very long time!  Let’s make sure we make the experience as comfortable as possible!  

Must I choose between wealth and spirituality?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 25

I feel like it’s a trick question.  Every time I reach the part of the High Holy day kedusha that offers choices, I get dumbstruck.  I wonder whether maybe I should check with Batya, first!  Some of you won’t have a clue what I’m talking about, but I see many of you silently nodding.

The perplexing section of the service appears in many (primarily Nusach Sefard) machzorim.  While the chazzan is saying the word “ayai,” the congregation is offered the choice to pray for either Divine inspiration, or parnassah (material prosperity), or holy children.

Great, what an awesome opportunity!  But, honestly, which one of these three important blessings should you choose?  Everybody knows that holy children is the right answer, right?  But it’s so tempting to choose one of the other options. . . Is this a test or something?!

Rabbi Yitzchak taught: One who wishes to be wise should face south during his prayers.  And if one seeks wealth, he should face north.  The symbolism is the fact that the Holy Table was at the northern part of the Tabernacle and the Menorah was in the southern part.
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught: One should always face south, for with wisdom he will gain wealth, as the verse states, “For long days is in the Torah’s right hand; in its left are wealth and honor.”
But did not Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi teach the following?  One must pray towards the Shechina (Divine Presence), in the direction of Jerusalem!
The Gemara answers: One should (face Jerusalem, but) turn a little southward.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi provides the solution to the quandary.  When you pray for Divine direction, everything else falls into place.  In elucidating the path to prayer, he explains that you don’t need to choose between wisdom and wealth.  For if you have wisdom, you will figure out how to create and sustain wealth!

His proof text is interesting.  “For long days is in the Torah’s right hand; in its left are wealth and honor.” Not only does Divine direction provide wealth, but it also brings honor.  What is honor?  In Pirkei Avos (6:8), Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai teaches that the ultimate honor of the wise is seeing grandchildren who follow in their footsteps.  In other words, wisdom leads to wealth and honor, and so in the High Holy day prayers, the ‘right’ choice is Divine inspiration, because that really contains all three blessings!

What is Divine inspiration?  It’s the ability to tap in to the spiritual vibe all around.  The Rambam explains the concept of prophecy as the ability to tune in to the Divine message that is everywhere.  Most people only see the external shadow of this world, but really there is a whole other program operating beyond the façade of this physical world.  With the proper spiritual antennae, you can hear the waves of the Divine.  Living in the twenty-first century, it’s simple for us to grasp – all you need is a handheld device and suddenly you have access to all the wisdom in the world!  Likewise, with the right spiritual transmitter, you have access to everything the angels see! 

Imagine you had all the secrets of the universe at your disposal!  With the secrets of wealth acquisition and accumulation, you could be rich beyond your wildest dreams!  With the secrets of relationship perfection and character building, you could have the finest children on Earth!  And so all you really need is the blessing of Divine inspiration, and everything else falls into place!

How do you acquire Divine inspiration?  One way is to pray to Heaven for the blessing.  That’s the meaning of the machzor’s option and that’s the segulah (omen) offered by Rabbi Yitzchak. 

But beyond those ‘short-cuts,’ true Divine inspiration requires effort.  Pirkei Avot teaches, “Nullify your will before His will and He will nullify the will of others before your will.”  When you become one with the Divine, everything else falls into place.  It doesn’t happen overnight, it takes a lot of asking yourself in every situation, ‘Am I doing the most efficient thing Heaven would want of me right now?’  But the more you do it, the more it becomes second nature and at that point, all the blessings start pouring into your life, effortlessly!

You can have all the blessings of the universe.  All it takes is tuning in to the Divine energy all around you.  May you become a vehicle for G-dliness and tap into the complete bounty of Heaven!  

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Are looks important?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 24

King Shaul was depressed.  Failing to heed the word of Hashem in the battle against Agag and the Amalekites, he was told by the Prophet Shmuel that the kingdom would be taken away from him.  In an attempt to cheer up, he hired a harpist, one young David, the son of Yishai.  David is described by the Tanach as skilled musician, a man of valour, a man of principle and intelligence, and a handsome man, guided by Heaven. 

It makes sense that David would have been a skilled musician – that’s why he got the job!  But what difference did his intelligence or looks make to the position?

Mishnah: One may not plant a tree within a twenty-five cubit radius of a city.
Gemara: What is the reason?  Ulla taught: Due to the aesthetic impact on the city.

Some people think of Judaism as a ‘spiritual’ religion.  It’s all about the heavenly realms and the less we engage with this world, the better.  They imagine that this world is an impediment to our relationship with the Almighty and the more we learn to disconnect from the world around us, the stronger Yidden we become.

Here’s the truth: in contrast with most other religions, Judaism is not ascetic and other-worldly.  Hashem created this world as the ultimate expression of His greatness.  That’s why unique to our belief system is the understanding that we will eventually be resurrected back into our bodies and live life again on this earth!

Part and parcel of that belief in the primacy of this physical world is the knowledge that Hashem wants us to enjoy this world.  As long as we are utilizing the pleasures of this world for spiritual ends, we are enjoined to make the most of the experience!  And so the Mishnah teaches us not just about kosher, Shabbos, and all the other ‘ritual’ laws, but about environmental beauty too! 

When we imagine laws of trees, we probably expect to learn about the perils of planting a tree near the city limits, because you might break off a branch on Shabbos.  Or because you might graft two saplings together.  Or because you might neglect to offer the correct tithes.  But none of those are motivating the Mishnah.  Ulla explains that it’s simply about the aesthetic quality of the city as people enter!

We do not shun the beauty of this planet, this world is the handiwork of Hashem!  When questioned why he was vacationing in the Alps, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch famously responded, “When I reach heaven, the Almighty will ask, ‘Nu, Shamshon, what did you think of My beautiful Alps?’  How will I respond if I was too busy to bother noticing the wonders of the Creator?”

And that’s why the Tanach describes David as handsome, amongst all his other qualities.  He’s certainly not the first – we already knew that Sarah was beautiful, as were Rachel and Yosef.  There were probably many more; the Torah delineated beauty as one of the qualities of each of these characters simply because it was pertinent to their respective stories.  What’s important to note is that physical beauty is not dismissed by the Torah; it’s another impressive quality a person may be blessed with.  And Shaul looked for the most outstanding musician, well-endowed in all areas, to be present in his court.

Does that mean that if one is not the most handsome, Hashem has withheld blessing from them?  Of course not.  It’s like material wealth: the Talmud lists wealth as a Divine blessing – indeed our Sages explain that wealthy people are deserving of honor!  And yet, while many of the Talmudic greats were wealthy, many were extremely impoverished.  Likewise, physical beauty is but one quality among many that is a blessing from Heaven, and should not be minimized or taken for granted.

The message of our Mishnah is that while physical beauty is important, it’s not an absolute.  It’s not a case of ‘either you’ve got it or you don’t.’  Much of physical beauty has to do with presentation.  Sure, trees are beautiful, but if you plant them in the wrong place, they’ll be an eyesore.  Likewise, when it comes to ourselves, Heaven grants us a certain starting point, but beyond that, it’s up to us.

The Talmud teaches that a talmid chacham – one committed to Torah – may not leave the house with a stain on their shirt.  When you represent Torah, you need to be as presentable as possible.  That means taking care of your physical health, looking neat and tidy, and dressing like you’re an ambassador of the King of Kings!

When you wear your commitment to Torah and mitzvos on your sleeve, your sleeves need to be well-pressed.  As a walking-talking earthly ambassador of Heaven, you carry a great weight on your shoulders.  When people see you (and first impressions count!), they need to feel drawn to the heavenly mission you represent.  May you embody and champion Heaven inside and out! 

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

Maybe the Rabbis got it wrong?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 23

Rabbi Eliezer and the Sages were once in hot debate over the status of an oven which may have been defiled.  According to Rabbi Eliezer, the ‘Oven of Achnai’ was pure; according to the Sages, it was impure.
 “If the law is like me,” declared Rabbi Eliezer, “the carob tree will prove it.”  Sure enough, the carob tree was uprooted from its place flying a hundred meters into the air!
But the Sages responded, “Sorry, we do not bring proof from a carob tree.”
He came back and said, “If the law is like me, the water channel will prove it.”  Sure enough, the water channel began to flow in the opposite direction.
But the Sages responded, “We do not bring proof from a water channel.” 
He came back and said, “If the law is as I say, the walls of the study hall will prove it.”  Sure enough, the walls of the study hall began to incline.  
Rabbi Yehoshua quickly snapped at the walls, “If scholars debate one another in the law, how does it benefit you?”  And so due to the honor of Rabbi Yehoshua they didn’t fall, but on account of Rabbi Eliezer’s honor, they didn’t return to their original position either.
Finally, Rabbi Eliezer announced, “If the law is like me, from the Heavens they will prove it!”  And a heavenly voice came forth and declared, “Do you compare to Rabbi Eliezer?  The law is like him in every instance!”
At that, Rabbi Yehoshua arose and pronounced, “The Torah is not in heaven!”

Mishnah: If a young dove was found within fifty cubits of a dovecote, it belongs to the owner.  Beyond fifty cubits, it belongs to the finder.
Rabbi Yirmiya asked: What is the law if it had one leg within the fifty cubits and one leg beyond?
For that question, they kicked Rabbi Yirmiya out of the study hall.
Rabbeinu Tam explains: They kicked him out because his inquiry implied a questioning of the authority of rabbinic measurements, which we hold to be absolute.

As opposed to most other world religions that were propagated by a single individual, Judaism has a unique claim to fame.  Every one of our ancestors stood at Mt. Sinai and heard Hashem speak.  Some three million experienced personal Divine revelation.  Each person then passed that message on to their children, who passed it on to their children, who passed it on to their children, until we heard the incredible message from our parents.  As strange a story as it is, we all seem to be telling the same one at the Pesach seder each year, about the miracles we experienced in Egypt and at the Red Sea, which led us to Sinai.

But a religion is not static.  As a guide for life, the Torah must respond to the needs of every era.  And so Hashem gave the Torah to Moshe with instructions: specific halachic queries will be determined by the rabbinic leadership in each generation.  Will they always all agree?  Not necessarily.  When dispute occurs, go with the majority opinion.  But once decided, that ruling then becomes an essential part of Torah, no less weighty than “I am Hashem, your G-d, Who took you out of the land of Egypt.”

To question the axiom of rabbinic halachic authority is to question the entire foundation of our tradition.  If we were to suggest that the rabbis offered an imperfect ruling, then who is to say whether any part of the tradition might not be flawed?  And so, by definition, the consensus rabbinic position becomes authoritative and immutable.  While we know that no mortal man is perfect, that’s the system Hashem put in place, and faith in the rabbis’ rulings and interpretation is integral to our belief in the system as a whole.

It’s actually incredible when you think about the persecution and dispersion our nation has experienced.  Despite all the travails and separation between the various parts of our national community, somehow we have all pretty much maintained the same religious practices.  Sure there are minor variations of custom, but for the most part, the core religion has remained consistent.  And so an Ashkenazi can daven in a Sefardic synagogue.  And a Yemenite can daven in an Italian synagogue.  The tunes might be a little different – no doubt, adding to the flavor of the experience – but the core features of the shul and the service are the same.

That’s why major halachic changes require a consensus of rabbinic opinion.  If every rabbi were to follow his heart and mind, the system would become a mess in no time.  Faithfulness to the national communal consensus might be challenging to individuals who are convinced of their position, but we put aside our own personal yearnings and considerations for the sake of the integrity of the klal (whole).  And once those national determinations are made, they are deemed to be Divinely ordained and precise.

We are so blessed to be part of a Divine system that has withstood the test of time and our national travails.  As committed Jews, we are committed to “Torah tzivah lanu Moshe” – the Torah is the Word of Hashem, but has been transmitted to us through the medium of Moshe, the prophets, and the rabbis.  May you always be a defender of the integrity of the entire Written and Oral tradition!  

Monday, 13 February 2017

Too many rabbis in this town?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 22

The tribesmen of Yissachar and Zevulun had an amazing relationship.  The former devoted themselves to full-time Torah learning while the latter were businessmen.  How did Yissachar survive?  They were supported by Zevulun.  And they had a spiritual pact between them: In exchange for sustaining them materially, Yissachar went fifty-fifty with Zevulun on the spiritual reward for the Torah study.

Can you imagine?  An entire tribe dedicating a significant portion of their earnings to Torah scholars!  When it comes to charitable giving, most of us are careful not to ‘overdo’ it!  Not Zevulun.  They understood, says the Chofetz Chaim, that while tzedakah maxes out at twenty percent for general causes, for partnering with Torah, there is no limit!

You see, it wasn’t just about writing a check and kissing the money goodbye.  The partnership meant that every Zevulonite had a personal Torah teacher, a personal spiritual mentor.  Each morning before work, each evening after work, the Zevulonite would sit down with his Yissacharan chavrusa (study partner) and learn Torah!  The relationship was completely symbiotic: not only did they divide the spiritual reward, but there was no shortage of qualified individuals to ensure lifelong Torah learning for all!

Ezra the Scribe instituted a national ordinance that teachers may set up schoolhouses alongside one another.
The Gemara asks: Are we not concerned that the multitude of teachers will lead to a weakening of the education?
He answered: On the contrary, scholastic jealousy increases wisdom.

At rabbinic conferences, I sometimes hear colleagues express their concern regarding competition in their neighborhoods.  Their shul might have been around for fifty or a hundred years, and then one day a storefront competitor moves into town.  We’re talking about a rabbi whose sole purpose is to promote Torah and mitzvos.  In contrast with the existing shul, the competition doesn’t need to deal with all the big issues such as pastoral care, citywide kashrut supervision, conversions, etc.  And so the new organization is able to devote itself entirely to meeting, teaching, and recruitment. 

The establishment of a competing shul is halachically problematic.  According to the Mishnah Berurah, if you have two shuls in town, the prima facie preference is to daven in the bigger one, because Berov am hadras melech – the larger the crowd, the more we honor the King.  The more we pray together, the closer we come to deserving the ultimate communal prayer-space, the Beis Hamikdash (Holy Temple).

Nevertheless, when it comes to teaching Torah, Ezra the Scribe removed any limitations on competition.  The more Torah teachers, the better.  Increasing competition will only make for a better product!

Here in Edmonton, one of the things we are proudest of, is our ability to all get along.  Our shul has been in existence for over a century.  For many decades, we were the only game in town, and with that comes a certain contentment.  Baruch Hashem, in the last couple of decades, other organizations have arrived in our city with the goal of infusing our community with Torah and mitzvos. 

That’s not a bad thing.  It’s not something to be afraid of.  It just means that we need to up our game to stay competitive.  And sure enough, although our congregation was in decline for many years prior to the arrival of the other organizations, their appearance has kept us on our toes.  As a result, we have witnessed a physical and spiritual revival in our shul in recent years!  Part of that comes from our open-door policy: wherever possible, we encourage others to teach Torah in our building and maximize the opportunities for the spiritual growth of our congregation.

Sometimes I hear the concern that the other institutions are a drain on our communal resources.  Here’s the thing: Hakadosh Baruch Hu (G-d) has unlimited funds available!  There’s more than enough to go around.  If we feel that we’re not getting our fair share, it just means that we’re not trying hard enough.  That we’re not asking often enough.  On the contrary, I have found that these ‘storefront’ Torah teachers create a culture of giving that rubs off, and ultimately benefits, every organization!

We are the People of the Book.  The more Torah learning, the better.  Imagine if every one of us had a private Yissacharan Torah teacher, waiting for us to return from work and jump into the Beis Medrash (study hall).  May you be a partner in promoting, sustaining, and making Torah and mitzvos flourish for generations to come!