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Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Why won't Israelis become synagogue members?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 45

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you own property in Israel?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 44

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 7 March 2017

Why is the Torah reading so boring?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 43

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 6 March 2017

What's your spiritual elevator pitch?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 42

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 5 March 2017

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

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 41

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 4 March 2017

Hashem loves surprises!

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 40

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 3 March 2017

Do celebrities care if we speak about them?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 39

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Should Israel give back Tel Aviv?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 38

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is there life on other planets?

Daf Yomi Bava Basra 37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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