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Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Why Jews love mosquitos

Daf Yomi Sanhedrin 38

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

No such thing as a sinner

Daf Yomi Sanhedrin 37

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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