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Wednesday, 25 October 2017

Do you have what it takes to win big?

Daf Yomi Sanhedrin 101

A man calls his Yiddishe Mama, “Mom, how are you?”
“Not too good,” says the mother, “I've been very weak.”
The son says, “Why are you so weak?”
“Because I haven't eaten in 38 days,” she replies.
The son responds, “That's terrible. Why haven't you eaten in 38 days?”
The mother answers, “Because I didn't want to have a full mouth when you called!”

“All the days of a pauper are bad” (Proverbs 15:15).
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked: But what about Shabbos and Yom Tov?
As per Shmuel, for Shmuel taught: A change of diet results in a tummy ache.
Rashi explains: Even poor people have delicacies on Shabbos.  But if they eat more than they are accustomed to, they could get sick.  Thus, even Shabbos and Yom Tov are bad for them.

What’s wrong with these poor sods?  After going hungry all week, they finally get a Shabbos invitation and are treated to a delicious meal; only to leave with a tummy ache!  Rabbi Yehoshua is teaching us an important lesson: Sometimes we get so caught up in a rut of negativity that even when we are blessed with good mazal, we allow the situation to become self-destructive. 

We’ve all heard stories of people who were struggling to make ends meet and then one day they win the lottery.  Overnight, they’re multimillionaires.  And then no sooner has the good fortune struck than it all comes crashing down.  There’s this sibling that won’t talk to them anymore because they won’t share their winnings.  Or that cousin who doesn’t like their new fancy-schmancy attitude.  And before long, they lose it all because they have no idea how to handle wealth.

I once knew a young lady who had a difficult childhood and was very bitter about her upbringing and past experiences.  Unfortunately she hadn’t had much luck on the dating scene either.  One day, she met a lovely young man and they began seeing one another.  The problem, however, was that she was still bitter.  She was so scarred by her past experiences that she couldn’t trust the new man in her life and treated him with the same contemptuous attitude she was so used to displaying.  Not surprisingly, it wasn’t long before he decided to move on.

So how do you ensure that when the time comes for the mazal to shine down on you, you have the right attitude?  The secret is to get out of the rut of negativity long before things turn around.  If you can train yourself now to find the positivity in even the most trying of situations, you will prosper in any and every circumstance.  Training yourself to give and share generously even when you consider yourself to be lacking, will guarantee your ability to handle the wealth when it does come.  Acting kindly and graciously with every relationship that comes your way will ensure that you say and do the right things when Hashem brings that special person into your life, whether that person is a future spouse, employer, or even just a friend.

Maybe Heaven hasn’t yet given you that aspect of your life you’ve been longing for.  But in the meantime, if you focus on all the wonderful things the Almighty has blessed you with, health, prosperity, relationships, you will be eternally grateful and happy.  May you be attitudinally prepared for the blessings that Hashem is getting ready to rain down upon your life!

It's okay to vent

Daf Yomi Sanhedrin 100

After receiving the Torah on Mt. Sinai and witnessing the greatest Divine revelation in history, it only took the Israelites forty days to slip back into their idolatrous habits.  Lacking the patience to wait for Moshe Rabbeinu, they proceeded to build a Golden Calf.  The Almighty turned to Moshe and declared, “Move aside and I shall destroy them.”  Following his prayers, however, Hashem acceded to Moshe and gave us a second chance.  Despite the fact that our great teacher had cast down and smashed the Tablets, G-d promised to give the Children of Israel a new set. 

The Torah concludes, “Vayenachem” – Hashem changed His mind, so to speak, about the bad He had spoken of doing to His people.  But does G-d change His mind?

“If there is worry in a man’s heart, he should quash it” (Proverbs 12:25).
Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Assi: One says it means he should remove it from his mind (by focusing on other matters).  And one says it means he should discuss it with other people (l’acherim).

Rashi explains that focusing on Torah removes any anxiety from a person’s mind.  Alternatively, one could talk it out, thereby receiving comfort or good advice.  Whether it means talking to a spouse, a close confidant, a therapist, or rabbi, if you need to remove a stone that is weighing heavily upon your heart, sometimes all you need to do is let it out.

In fact, while it is forbidden to listen to lashon hara (gossip) under almost all circumstances, one exception is when you sense that the talker needs to vent.  As long as you promise yourself that the divulged information will not impact your thoughts and feelings – meaning that you shouldn’t even believe the lashon hara you hear! – you can be there when people need to let off steam.

Rabbi Chaim Tyrer (Beer Maim Chaim Vayigash) suggests that the Almighty’s wrath over the Golden Calf abated after He’d ‘vented’ to Moshe!  Thus, the meaning of vayenachem is not that He changed His mind, but that ‘He was comforted,’ and therefore able to give the Israelites a second chance.  Now, of course, G-d doesn’t need to vent or receive comfort; rather Rabbi Tyrer explains, the Torah is impressing upon us the importance of getting your issues off your chest by talking them out with someone else.

According to the Alexanderer Rebbe, the meaning of the Gemara is that one should pray.  The best way to remove anxiety from your heart is to have a conversation with the Creator.  He explains that both Rabbi Ami and Rabbi Assi are advising a person to turn his eyes heavenward.  The first meaning is simply pray to G-d to remove the source of your worries.  The second meaning (l’acherim) is that you should pray for others’ welfare.  The Talmud teaches that ‘one who prays for his friend is answered first.’  The most effective way to have your prayers answered is to stop focusing solely on your own needs, but to think about others’ suffering, as you pour out your heart before the Holy One, blessed be He.

As soon as Hashem created the first human being, He declared, “It is not good for Adam to be alone.  Let me make him a helpmate.”  Find people you can trust and confide in.  Find mentors who can guide you through the complexities of life.  May the Almighty surround you with the right people to help relieve you of the anxieties of this challenging world! 

Monday, 23 October 2017

Who wrote the Torah?

Daf Yomi Sanhedrin 99

Adam and Eve eat the forbidden fruit.  Noach gets drunk.  Avraham tells a white lie about Sarah. Sarah laughs in disbelief.  Yitzchak blindly favours the wrong kid.  Rivkah tricks her husband.  Yaakov gets angry at his barren wife.  Yehuda consorts with Tamar and then almost has her killed.  Aharon builds the Golden Calf.  Moshe hits the rock.  Shimshon takes a Philistine wife.  David takes Uriah’s wife.  Shlomo has too many wives.

The Torah is filled with stories of leaders of our nation who were just a little bit off.  What kind of guide book is that?  Shouldn’t the Torah present our greats in a way that portrays them as unparalleled amongst men?  Wouldn’t that spur us to follow in their holy footsteps?

“For the word of Hashem he has despised.”  This refers to one who says, ‘Torah is not from Heaven.’  And even if he said, ‘The entire Torah is from Heaven except one particular verse, which was not said by G-d, rather Moshe said it himself,’ he is guilty of “For the word of Hashem he has despised.”

The period since the nineteenth century has seen a concerted effort to deny the Divinity of the Torah.  Biblical critics have all manner of proof to demonstrate that the Torah is a compilation of human texts, redacted by some great editor.  Nevertheless, this phenomenon is far from new.  The Rambam already lists as his eighth principle of faith, “I believe with perfect faith that the entire Torah that we now have is that which was given to Moshe.”  And this principle is premised on the teaching of our Gemara.

The proofs of the critics are hardly convincing.  Let’s just look at one oft-quoted example.  In the Book of Bamidbar, we find a tribal prince called Deuel.  Then suddenly his name becomes Reuel.  Now, in Hebrew, the letters dalet and reish look similar.  Therefore, posit the Bible critics, it’s obviously a scribal error.  Whoever was copying the text wasn’t paying attention – maybe his mind had wandered off to the latest gladiator duel he’d watched – and he carelessly wrote the wrong letter.  Well, considering their claims to a great editor, it sounds like a pretty sloppy mistake.  You’d think someone on the editorial team would’ve caught that one!

Rabbi Sacks points out a more fundamental basis for our belief in the Divinity of the Torah.  Every other religion’s foundational text paints their leader as flawless.  If you were going to invent a theology, it only makes sense.  Who would buy into a cult where the leadership were anything less than godly?

As the list above demonstrates, however, Judaism never attempts to whitewash our leaders’ behaviours.  We are hard-pressed to find a single character who is faultless!  Why?  Because only the Almighty is perfect.  Human beings can achieve perfection, but we must work on ourselves.  Our great leaders were the individuals who overcame their humble and flawed beginnings and rose above.

The Torah is the word of Hashem.  Some passages and stylistic approaches may indeed be cause for uncertainty.  But our Sages have gone to great lengths to strive to understand some of the complexities, and the solutions are all presented in the biblical commentaries.  May you forever maintain your belief in the eighth principle of faith!

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Better than yesterday, not as good as tomorrow

Daf Yomi Sanhedrin 98

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi found Eliyahu the prophet, standing at the entrance of the cave of Rabbi Shimon ben Yocḥai. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to him, “Will I be privileged to enter the World-to-Come?”
Eliyahu replied, “If Hashem should so will.”
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to Eliyahu, “When will the Moshiach come?”
Eliyahu said to him, “Go ask him.”
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked, “Where is he?”
Eliyahu replied, “At the entrance of the city of Rome.”
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked him, “How do I recognize him?”
Eliyahu answered, “He sits among the poor who suffer from illnesses.  All of them untie their bandages and tie them all at once, but the Moshiach unties one bandage and ties one at a time. He says: Perhaps I will be needed to serve to bring about the redemption. Therefore, I will never tie more than one bandage, so that I will not be delayed.”

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi went to find Moshiach. He said to Moshiach, “Shalom to you, my rabbi and my teacher.”
Moshiach said to him, “Shalom to you, bar Leva’i.”
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to him, “When will the Master come?”
Moshiach responded, “Today!”

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi returned to Eliyahu. Eliyahu said to him, “What did Moshiach say to you?”
He said to Eliyahu, “Moshiach said: Shalom to you, bar Leva’i.”
Eliyahu said to him, “He thereby guaranteed that you and your father will enter the World-to-Come, as he greeted you with shalom.”
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to Eliyahu, “The Moshiach lied to me, as he said: I am coming today, and he did not come.”
Eliyahu said to him, “This is what he said to you: He said that he will come ‘today, if you will listen to His voice.’”

Rabbi Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev was once sitting at a tish (Hasidic gathering) with his chasidim, when he turned his eyes heavenward and cried out, “Today, if you will listen to G-d’s voice?  What kind of an answer is that?  Obviously, if we do teshuva (repent), Moshiach will come!”

What exactly was Moshiach’s message to Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, when he told him he was coming ‘today’?  He was telling him that when we develop a ‘Today!’ attitude to life, Moshiach will come.  A ‘Today!’ attitude sees life as urgent and critical, treating each day as if it were the only day of the rest of your life.

I recently asked a friend how he was doing and he replied, ‘Better than yesterday, not as good as tomorrow.’  Unfortunately, that’s how most people live their lives.  The problem, though, is that when we constantly look to tomorrow as the better day, we risk falling short on fulfilling our potential today.

Imagine you lived your life like today was the last day – not because we’re expecting tragedy to strike tomorrow but because Moshiach could arrive at any second!  Who would you forgive and make amends with?  How would your relationship with the Almighty look? 

Would it be one last football game you couldn’t miss out on watching? Or would it be one last dinner you spent with your family?  Would it be one last golf game before we are whisked off to Israel?  Or one last page of Gemara you learned?

Some things can wait till tomorrow.  Others can’t.  Moshiach sat there at the gates, careful not to change his bandages all at once, just in case he’d suddenly be called upon to lead the way to redemption.  A ‘Today!’ attitude means thinking about all the things you are currently engaged in and weighing up what business could be left unfinished and what ‘bandages need to be wrapped up’ if Moshiach were to suddenly appear.

An old adage goes, ‘Yesterday is history.  Tomorrow is a mystery.  Today is a gift.  That’s why it’s called the present.’  May you live today as the best day of your life!  

Fake News, Child of Postmodernism

Daf Yomi Sanhedrin 97

The First Lady of the United States is an impostor.  Unwilling to play her public role, the president apparently found a ‘double’ to stand alongside him and act the part.  Meanwhile, they say that she is no longer living with him and has begun life anew in the Midwest under a pseudonym.

That was the story put out jokingly by a writer for the Guardian.  To her shock and amusement, the story went viral in no time.  Two days later, she lamented the situation out there on the internet, the phenomenon known as ‘fake news.’   With the ability to manufacture stories so simple, how can anyone tell what’s real anymore?

Rabbi Yehuda says: During the generation that the son of David comes, the public square will be a place of lewdness, the Galilee will be destroyed, the parchment will be desolate, the residents of the borders will circulate from city to city and will receive no sympathy. The wisdom of scholars will diminish, and sin-fearing people will be despised.  The face of the generation will be like the face of a dog.  And truth will disappear, as it is stated: “And the truth disappears [ne’ederet], and he who departs from evil is negated” (Isaiah 59:15). What is the meaning of the phrase: And the truth disappears [ne’ederet]? The Sages of the yeshiva of Rav said: This teaches that truth will become like multiple flocks [edarim] and go away. What is the meaning of the phrase: “And he that departs from evil is negated”? The Sages of the yeshiva of Rabbi Sheila said: Anyone who deviates from evil is deemed insane by the people.

How do we know that the final redemption is right around the corner?  Rabbi Yehuda provides us with the clues to identify the generation of Moshiach.  Somehow, they sound all too familiar.

Sign #1: The public square will be a place of lewdness.  Historically, people were very private and modest, and there were certain things that one did not discuss publicly.  In our generation, the line between the private domain and the public square has become blurred, and we have witnessed an increasing lack of modesty in society.

Sign #2: The Galilee will be destroyed.  The word Galilee here is a metaphor for the Torah, which is rolled up as a scroll.  At the end of the Torah reading, the act of rolling it up is called Gelila, and Pirkei Avos enjoins us to “turn it over and over, for everything is in” the Torah.  Sadly, however, today more than any time in our history, Torah values have been destroyed.

Sign #3: The parchment will be desolate.  We’re living in a generation today where most people are not getting their information from books. They’re reading various web-sites, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  But it’s amazing to see that the Talmud already predicted our current situation.

Sign #4: The residents of the borders will circulate from city to city and will receive no sympathy.  The refugee crisis today is unlike anything we’ve seen since the end of WWII.  The number of stateless people in the world today is astounding.

Sign #5: The wisdom of scholars will diminish.  It’s not that today we don’t have smart people.  The problem is that instead of listening to their wisdom, we live in an age that everyone has the right to an opinion.  All you need is a Facebook page and a Twitter account. 

Sign #6: Sin-fearing people will be despised.  Somehow today, religion is blamed for everything.  For all the wars in the world.  For the deterioration of the environment.  For societal polarization.

Sign #7: The face of the generation will be like the face of a dog.  Rabbi Yisrael Salanter explains this phenomenon as follows: If a Martian were to land on earth and see a man walking a dog, who would he think were leading the way?  The dog appears to be leading the way, but in actuality, the man directs the animal.  Similarly, we live in a generation where the ‘leaders’ are being directed by the ‘followers.’

Sign #8: Truth will become like multiple flocks and go away.  Nowadays, nobody really cares about the truth.  All they want to know is what their political team believes to be true.  You can literally find any ‘facts’ that will demonstrate whatever truths you seek today.  The latest incarnation of this phenomenon is called ‘fake news,’ but previously its postmodernist version was moral relativism.  Sadly, we live in an era where nobody can make the claim to absolute truth and the consequence is absurdity. 

The good news from all this craziness is that these are all signs of the imminent redemption.  May we see the culmination of these signs speedily in our days!  

Are human beings innately evil?

Daf Yomi Sanhedrin 96

Nebuzaradan, the general of the Babylonian army was the tyrant who destroyed Jerusalem, ending the First Commonwealth.   A mighty warrior, he entered the city, ploughing down anyone who stood in his path, right up to the Holy Temple.  When he reached the Sanctuary, he saw the blood of the Prophet Zechariah boiling, which had not calmed since he was killed by his fellow Jews.  

Nebuzaradan asked the priests, “What is this?”
They replied, “It is the blood of sacrifices that was spilled.”
Nebuzaradan said to them, “Bring animals and I will test to determine if the blood of the animals is similar to the blood that is boiling.” He slaughtered the animals and their blood was not similar to the boiling blood.
Nebuzaradan said to the priests, “Reveal the source of that blood to me, and if not I will comb your flesh with an iron comb.”

The priests said to Nebuzaradan, “This blood is the blood of a priest and a prophet who prophesied for the Jewish people with regard to the destruction of Jerusalem and whom they killed.”
He said to the priests, “I will pacify the blood so the boiling will stop.” He brought the Sages and killed them over the blood and its boiling did not cease. He brought schoolchildren and killed them over the blood and its boiling did not cease. He brought young priests and killed them over the blood and its boiling did not cease. He continued killing until he killed 940,000 people over the blood, and still the boiling did not cease. 

Nebuzaradan approached the blood and said, “Zechariah, Zechariah, the worthy among them I killed on your behalf. Would it be satisfactory for you if I were to kill them all?”  Immediately the boiling ceased.
Nebuzaradan contemplated repentance, saying to himself, “If they, who caused only one person to perish, gained atonement only after all this killing, then how about myself, what will be required for me to gain atonement?  He deserted his army and dispatched a last will to his house and converted.

Naaman the Aramean became a resident of Israel.  Nebuzaradan converted to Judaism. The descendants of (the wicked general) Sisera studied Torah in Jerusalem. The descendants of Sennacherib taught Torah in public. And who are they? Shemaya and Avtalyon.  The descendants of Haman studied Torah in Bnei Brak.

Wasn’t Haman an Amalekite?  Whatever happened to wiping out Amalek?  How could we have accepted his grandchildren as converts, let alone yeshiva bochurim?  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg: we have here a laundry list of all the worst antisemites who, either personally or their descendants, ended up joining the Jewish people!  It’s almost unbelievable that we accepted Nebuzaradan as a convert, after the terrible atrocities he committed, what were we thinking?? 

When we left Egypt, we were attacked by the Amalekites.  At the consummation of our victory, the Torah instructed us to “erase the memory of Amalek.”  But who were the Amalekites and where did they come from?  How do we find them to eradicate them?

Although in Tanach we find locales of their residence, the Torah initially ascribes to them nomadic status.  They were wanderers in the desert, who “encountered” us and attacked.  The Torah is implying that the concept of Amalek has no fixed abode.  Hitler and the Nazi Germans were most certainly Amalekites.  And yet, today Germany is one of the most welcoming countries in the world for Jews and other immigrants.  The Spaniards, at one point, burned Jews at the stake; recently, they’ve extended an invitation for Jews of Spanish descent to return to the country.  Even the worst Amalekites and their children are not beyond redemption.

Sometimes we dismiss certain people or nations as inherently anti-Jewish, or worse yet, rotten to the core.  Heaven forbid!  Every person in this world was created in the image of G-d and is essentially good.  At first, we may not appreciate their innate holiness.  But if we maintain our faith in G-d and man, we will persevere in our efforts to rehabilitate even the lowest of the low.

Domestic, regional, and global peace can only come with a prior belief in the goodness of every human being.  Only when you see every human being as a child of the Almighty will you discover the good person concealed deep inside.  May we merit to see the G-dliness of every human being revealed speedily in our days!

Friday, 20 October 2017

What's next after Carlebach prayers?

Daf Yomi Sanhedrin 95

Just before Rosh Hashanah, a team of masked-men invades the shul and takes the rabbi, the cantor and the shul president hostage. Hours later, the prime minister stands tough: he won't hand over a million dollars, nor a getaway car, nor a helicopter.  The kidnappers gather the three hostages in a corner and inform them that things look bad and they're going to have to grant them their last wish.
“Please,” says the rabbi, “for the last two months I've been working on my Rosh Hashanah sermon.  What a waste to die now without having delivered it? Just let me recite my sermon. It's an hour to ninety minutes long, tops.” They promise to grant him the wish.

“Please,” says the cantor, “after 50 years I've finally gotten the Hinneni prayer just right. What a waste to die and not sing it to an audience. It's only about 45 minutes long - then I'll go happily.” The masked-men promise to grant the cantor his wish too and they turn to the shul president.

“Please,” says the president with tears in his eyes, “Just shoot me first!”

The Rabbis taught: For three people, the ground was contracted: Eliezer, servant of Avraham, our patriarch Yaakov, and Avishai ben Tzruyah.
Concerning Yaakov, it is written: “Yaakov left Beersheba and went to Charan.”  And it is written, “He encountered the place and stayed over there for the sun had set.” 
When he arrived in Charan, he said to himself, “How could I possibly have passed by the place my forefathers prayed and not prayed myself?”
He decided to return.  No sooner had he made the decision than the ground was contracted for him, and immediately, “he encountered the place.”

Why did Yaakov turn around?  Because he realized he had neglected to pray in the place where his forefathers had prayed.  Why was he so concerned with praying there?  Why couldn’t he simply forge a new path and prayer space, one that would be unique to his personal service of G-d?

We find an interesting dichotomy when it comes to prayer.  On the one hand, our prayers seem to be quite fixed and rigid.  On the other hand, during certain parts of the service, we are encouraged to be creative and beseech Heaven for our unique set of needs and wants.  These two objectives are by no means contradictory; nonetheless, they must be complementary.

Many people today find traditional prayer services unstimulating, stifling, and lacking in personal meaning.  And so their solution is to invent entirely new approaches to prayer.  While there’s nothing wrong with being creative, you always need to make sure that what you are doing doesn’t go so far off the cliff that it no longer resembles traditional prayer.

Yaakov Avinu, our Sages tell us, created the Maariv prayer in the evening.  Presumably, that was his best time of the day for prayer.  Maybe he was a night owl.  But does that mean that he neglected the Shacharis (morning) and Mincha (afternoon) prayers instituted by his father and grandfather?  Heaven forbid!  He didn’t say, ‘Well I’m just not a morning person, and so I’ll pray at night instead.’  His Maariv creation was in addition to his ancestral traditions.  That’s why he rushed back to ensure he would pray in the place where his parents had prayed.  He wanted to make sure that his religious practice was deeply rooted in the traditions of his forebears.

In every generation, new ground is broken in prayer, with shlichei-tzibur (prayer-leaders) designing services that are fitting for their era.  In the time of the Lurian Kabbalists, it was the expansion of the Kabbalat Shabbat service (yes, Lecha Dodi is really only that old!); in the early twentieth century, it was chazanut (cantorial music) and in the late twentieth century, it was Carlebach services.  These innovations are all wonderful enhancements to the prayers.  But they never usurp the tradition.  We never forsake the traditional for the newfangled. 

We always need to seek exciting ways to enhance both our personal and communal prayers.  But if we’re so far off the beaten path that Zeidy wouldn’t know what religion he had walked into, then we can no longer claim to be part of the evolution of Jewish prayer.  By returning to his ancestral prayer grounds, Yaakov Avinu demonstrated to his descendents that prayer must always be firmly rooted in tradition.  And by fast-tracking his journey, the Almighty demonstrated that He was in lockstep with our patriarch’s decision.

There is no shortage of exciting, creative communal prayer opportunities out there today.  And there is no shortage of ways you can make your personal prayers more meaningful.  May you always find refreshing – and yet, traditionally-sound – ways to enhance your conversation and experience with the Holy One, blessed be He!  

Living a testful life

Daf Yomi Sanhedrin 94

Sancheriv, King of Assyria, was incredibly successful as he forged along the path of imperialist conquest.  Having vanquished the Northern Kingdom of Israel, exiling the ten tribes to Africa and beyond, he pushed his armies southward.  Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, a righteous king, Chizkiyahu, had ascended the throne.  Reversing his wicked father’s idolatrous policies, he reinstituted proper Torah study and observance throughout the land.  During his tenure, there was not a child to be found who was not an expert in the minutiae of the laws, all the way down to the details of purity and impurity!

But now, Sancheriv was getting closer and closer to the Judean capital, and Chizkiyahu cried out to Heaven.  Certain of imminent victory, the Assyrian king returned home and left the culmination of his conquest to his foremost commanders.  Jerusalem was surrounded and the end appeared nigh.  But suddenly, the night before they were planning to conquer the city, G-d sent an angel to smite the Assyrian camp.  On one night, 185,000 soldiers mysteriously died.  Those who remained alive, fled the scene, confused and terrified.  And Chizkiyahu’s Jerusalem was spared.

“After these matters and this truth, Sancheriv, king of Assyria, came and entered Judea and encamped against the fortified cities and sought to breach them for himself” (II Chronicles 32:1).
The Gemara asks: Is this gift, the invasion of Sancheriv, appropriate compensation for that gift, Chizkiyahu’s restoration of the Temple and the worship of G-d in Judea?
Ravina says: The Holy One, Blessed be He, took an oath that He will deliver the spoils of the army of the king of Assyria into the hands of Chizkiyahu. And this was because He had said: If I say to Chizkiyahu: I will bring Sancheriv and I will deliver him into your hands; he will then say: I neither want him delivered into my hands nor do I want the accompanying fear of him.
Immediately, the Holy One, blessed be He, pre-empted Chizkiyahu and took an oath: I take an oath that I will deliver him, as it is stated: “The Lord of hosts has taken an oath, saying: Is it not as I imagined it, so has it come to pass; and as I have proposed, so shall it arise, that I will break Assyria in My land, and upon My mountains subdue him; then shall his yoke depart from them, and his burden depart from its shoulder” (Isaiah 14:24–25).
Rabbi Yocḥanan says: The Holy One, blessed be He, declared, ‘Sancheriv and his entourage shall come and be transformed into a feeding trough, a source of sustenance, for Chizkiyahu and his entourage.’

King Chizkiyahu was rewarded for rededicating the Holy Temple and restoring the glory of Torah to the Jewish people with the miraculous defeat of Sancheriv’s army.  But as Ravina teaches, had you asked Chizkiyahu if he wanted such a reward, he’d have told you, ‘How about you spare us the trouble and just keep Sancheriv in Assyria?!  I don’t need the deliverance if You don’t send me the headache!’  So why indeed did G-d allow Sancheriv to reach the walls of Jerusalem if, at the end of the day, He was planning to foil their plans?

According to Maharsha, the point of the exercise was to publicize the power of Heaven.  The faith of any person bearing witness to such an open miracle would most certainly be fortified.  We find a similar phenomenon at the Exodus from Egypt.  Hashem declares that the goal of the ten plagues is to exalt His Name throughout the land.  But does G-d really need His reputation enhanced?  What, does He have self-esteem issues?!

Expounding the verses in Isaiah, Rabbi Yochanan sheds light on this bemusing question.  G-d is not the one with the problem; it’s us.  He sent Sancheriv as a “feeding trough” to Chizkiyahu.  That doesn’t mean we cannibalized their remains, Heaven forfend!  It means that the experience fed our spiritual needs.  How so? 

In life, G-d never says that He will remove challenges from our lives.  If He wanted us to avoid challenge, He would have kept us in Heaven.  The point of coming down into this physical world is to be faced with earthly challenges and, in spite of it all, to maintain our faith in Hashem.  When we do so, we grow spiritually stronger and our souls soar to ever higher plains of existence.  Chizkiyahu might have responded to Sancheriv’s siege of Jerusalem in two possible ways: either he could have said, ‘Okay, it looks like we’ve reached the end of the road for the nation of Israel.  Clearly the Torah’s promise of an eternal covenant is bogus.  It’s time to throw in the towel.’  Or, he could have – and in fact did – respond, ‘Okay G-d, you promised an eternal covenant with the nation of Israel.  I’m not seeing it quite now, but I have complete faith that Your salvation is imminent.’ 

In other words, Chizkiyahu was faced with this massive spiritual test, which he passed.  And so, while he would have never requested such a challenge, once he was given it, it became a ‘feeding trough’ for him to develop his spiritual strength.

Nobody wants to be tested in life.  But ultimately, it’s a major part of our mission on Earth.  Some of us will be challenged with health issues.  Others will face parnassah (livelihood) struggles.  And others will have to deal with difficult children.  The key is never to despair of the Almighty’s providence.  He loves you deeply and would never forsake you.  He has given you these challenges because He knows that you have the power to overcome and pass the test!

Each day we wake up and ask Hashem in our morning prayers, “Please don’t test us!”  But much as we aren’t thrilled about the challenges, our Father in Heaven is sending them our way for our good.  May you forever maintain your faith in the Almighty and thank Him for giving you opportunities to soar to higher and higher spiritual worlds!  

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Confronting the naysayers

Daf Yomi Sanhedrin 93

Nebuchadnezzar, the infamous Babylonian king, had destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and exiled the Jewish people from our homeland.  But the damage was not yet complete.  Unsatisfied with how long it was taking them to become habituated to the local culture, the wicked ruler constructed a massive statue and ordered everyone to prostrate themselves before it.  Three young men, Chanania, Mishael, and Azaria refused to bow down and were thrown into a fiery furnace.  Miraculously, however, they emerged from the furnace, without as much as a singed garment!  In fact, before ordering their release, Nebuchadnezzar noticed a fourth individual – an angel – hanging out with them in the midst of the fire!

Rabbi Tanchum bar Chanilai taught: When Chanania, Mishael, and Azaria emerged from the fiery furnace, the nations of the world came along and slapped the Jews in the face, saying, “You have such a G-d, and you are bowing down to a statue?!”
Where did these great men (Chanania, Mishael, and Azaria) end up?  Rav says: They passed away on account of the evil eye.  Shmuel says: They drowned in saliva.  And Rabbi Yochanan says: They moved to Israel and got married, bearing sons and daughters.
And Daniel, where did he go?  Rav says: To dig a great river in Tiberius.  Shmuel says: To import aspasta seed.  And Rabbi Yochanan says: To import pigs from Alexandria, Egypt.

Following such an awesome miracle, you’d think that Chanania, Mishael, and Azaria would have become national heroes for the remainder of their lives!  Alas, not all stories have a happy ending.  Instead of honouring these courageous young men, the people began to show them disdain, heaping scorn upon them.  After all, it was embarrassing.  They’d succeeded in their religious commitments while nobody else was able to maintain their faith.

And so the Sages posit different approaches that the young men took.  Rav and Shmuel explain that they never really recovered from the aftershocks of the unfortunate episode.  According to Rav, they disappeared from public life.  Recognizing the way people looked at them, they chose to simply hide away and live out the remainder of their lives in solitude, as virtual hermits.  According to Shmuel, they didn’t hide from the world, but the scorn of their neighbours had a deleterious effect upon them.  They took the ill-feeling to heart and accepted their place as societal pariahs. 

Rabbi Yochanan is a little more optimistic.  He suggests that they understood that life would never be the same for them in Babylonia and chose to seize the moment and make aliya.  They began their lives anew, marrying and starting families.  His explanation also anticipates the discussion later in the Gemara regarding the ability of the youths to father children.  Case closed: in Rabbi Yochanan’s most positive scenario, it goes without saying that they were not physically maimed whatsoever by Nebuchadnezzar and went on to live happily ever after.

But then the Gemara goes a step further and contrasts their story with that of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar’s holy advisor.  He too lived in their era of spiritual depravity.  Nevertheless, according to the Sages, his response to the scorn of his less-devout brethren was remarkably different.  Instead of becoming downtrodden by the attitude of his fellow Jews, he decided to do something about the situation.

According to Rav, Daniel dug a great river in Tiberius.  In their explanation of the four elements, the Kabbalists explain that Tiberius is the world’s source of water.  Water symbolizes Torah.  In other words, Daniel realized how far the people had drifted from observance and began a major Torah teaching campaign.  According to Shmuel, Daniel wanted to demonstrate that they shouldn’t expect major improvements overnight.  Sometimes you need to sow the seeds today, only to reap the fruits many years later. 

Rabbi Yochanan says that Daniel sought to impress upon the people how drastically life could change for them k’heref ayin, in the blink of an eye.  When we were in Egypt, we were spiritually at the lowest of the low.  We were like pigs, so to speak.  But then the Almighty redeemed us, and before we knew it, we were standing at the foot of Mt. Sinai, receiving the Torah.  In fact, our Sages tell us that pigs are called chazir in Hebrew, which means ‘return,’ because when Moshiach comes, they will return to their original spiritual source and become kosher!  And so Daniel showed the people pigs that he brought in from Egypt, and begged them not to despair of redemption.

Sometimes in life, you do the right thing, only to find yourself ridiculed and scorned by all the people doing the wrong thing.  It’s tempting to retreat into our own little caves or to find ourselves drowning in all the negative attention.  Maybe we decide to leave town altogether to escape the nonsense around us.  If we can provide a more conducive spiritual atmosphere for our children, then that’s certainly an appropriate approach to take.

But if you can figure out, like Daniel did, how to capitalize upon the moment and create a teaching opportunity for those around you, then you’ve really faced up to the challenge of the hour!  Instead of ignoring or putting up with the naysayers, try turning the matter around and showing your critics the beauty of Torah and mitzvos!  Daniel noticed that oftentimes people feel so overwhelmed by the vicissitudes of the Exile that they cannot even begin to imagine life with a higher, more meaningful purpose.  It’s easy to interpret that attitude as disdain towards what you are doing, but chances are it’s more a case of a lack of awareness and understanding about living a heavenly life on earth. 

Don’t let the critics get you bogged down.  Don’t run away when they’re heaping their ridicule.  May you master the art of calmly and lovingly demonstrating the wonder of a living a purpose-filled life! 

Monday, 16 October 2017

Can we offer sacrifices today?

Daf Yomi Sanhedrin 92

Our shul property is quite large and extraordinarily accessible to all.  While the shul building itself is under 24/7 security monitoring, anybody can enter the general grounds of the shul, pretty much at any time of the day or night.  The joke in the local community, amongst Jews and non-Jews alike, is that everyone in the neighbourhood first learned to drive at Beth Israel Synagogue!

One time, I arrived at the shul late at night and noticed some youths gathered in the corner of the parking lot on their bikes.  I drove my car up to where they were and motioned to them that they were on private property.  Frightened by my intrusion on their little rendezvous, they froze like a deer in the headlights.  Just then, a man emerged from the shadows and informed me that this was his fault and that they were innocent of any wrongdoing. 

Turns out, he was a homeless man living in the sandbox, which we use to melt the snow.  These kids had discovered the poor fellow and each night, they would bring him sandwiches.  He pleaded with me to let him stay put, because, “Rabbi, you can’t imagine how dangerous the homeless shelters are!”  After discussing the matter with the ‘powers that be,’ we ‘adopted’ the man and began bringing him leftovers from the Kiddush and other shul events.

Rabbi Elazar taught: Anyone who does not leave over bread on his table (following the meal) will never see a sign of blessing, as the verse (Job 20:21) states, “There is no remnant to his food, therefore his goods shall not prosper.”

When we reach the conclusion of our meal, our Sages instruct us to leave some of the uneaten bread on the table while we bentch.  The Levush explains that the presence of the leftovers improves our bentching experience.  Seeing the abundance of food reminds us that G-d has blessed us with His bounty and then some!  That should cause us to bentch with an even greater feeling of gratitude to Heaven. 

But of course, every time we connect with Hashem, we should strive to emulate Him.  Rashi says that we should always make sure that there are leftovers just in case a poor person shows up.  After all, we are blessing the Almighty for His provision of our needs; so too should we be ever-ready to provide for those less fortunate.  In fact, the Shelah teaches that our dinner table is like an altar and one who hosts poor people or sends them portions is considered as if he offered a sacrifice on his ‘altar’! 

Now let’s be honest.  I don’t know about you, but I have never left my pieces of bread on the table for bentching, and then suddenly had a knock on my door from a beggar wanting to eat my scraps!  That’s simply not the world we live in today.  But what’s interesting about the message of the Shelah is that you don’t have to wait for the poor people to show up at your door.  He teaches that you can just as well fulfil this dictum of our Sages by sending the portions to the poor!

So what are you going to do, start packaging your leftover challah pieces and head over to the inner city to find somebody who will eat your scraps?  Hardly.  But what you can do, each time you sit down to eat, is invite the poor to your altar by setting aside a couple of cans for the local foodbank.  Imagine how different your dining experience would be and the everlasting impression you would create for your children, if every meal ended with a gift of canned food to those less fortunate! 

Don’t worry, you don’t have to take it over straight away.  You could pile up the cans in a big box, and on Friday or Sunday, take a family trip to the foodbank – or even the collections bin at your local supermarket – to deliver your sacrificial portions.  Start doing it every time you sit down for supper, and I guarantee, all your relationships will be transformed immeasurably!  You will start to see the needy in a different, more sympathetic light.  Your interactions with your family members will reach a whole new plane of altruistic existence.  And your conversations with Heaven – when you bentch and daven – will take on a whole new level of meaning.

Let’s not eat just to fill our own bellies.  It’s time to bring back the sacrifices to your altar.  May you always include the less fortunate whenever you dine!  

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Stop uttering Vacuum Prayers!

Daf Yomi Sanhedrin 91

A heretic once approached Rabbi Akiva and asked him, “Who created this world?”
Rabbi Akiva replied, “The Holy One, blessed be He.”
So the heretic said, “Show me a clear proof.”
Rabbi Akiva responded, "Come back here tomorrow."

The next day the heretic returned and Rabbi Akiva inquired, “What are you wearing?”
The man replied, “A suit.”
Rabbi Akiva asked him, “Who made the suit?”
The man said, “A weaver.”
Rabbi Akiva answered, “I don't believe you. Show me a clear proof.”
The heretic replied, “What can I show you?  Don't you realize that a weaver made it?”
Rabbi Akiva answered, “And don't you know that the Holy One, blessed be He, created His world?”

When the heretic left, Rabbi Akiva’s students asked him, “What's the clear proof?”
He answered them, “My sons, just as a house indicates that there's a builder, and a suit indicates that there's a weaver, and a door that there's a carpenter, so the world indicates that there is a Creator, the Holy One, blessed be He.”

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi taught: Where in Scripture do we find a source for the Resurrection of the Dead?  For it says, “Happy are those who dwell in Your house, they shall praise You further, forever.”  It does not state ‘they have praised You,’ but “they shall praise You.”  From here we see a proof for the Resurrection of the Dead in Scripture. And Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Anyone who chants praise to Hashem in this world will merit to chant in the World to Come, as it says, “Happy are those who dwell in Your house, they shall praise You further, forever.”

When we pray to G-d, there are three elements: praise, request, and thanks.  We begin our daily prayers by praising the Almighty.  It’s akin to buttering up your boss before you ask him for a raise.  Now, does G-d really need us to butter Him up?  Of course not.  But our Sages instituted the praise part to get us in the mood.  After all, how we can we roll straight into the ask when we haven’t even figured out Who we are addressing?

Once we have praised Hashem, we then proceed to request our needs and wants.  And then finally, we conclude by offering Him thanks for providing our every need.  That’s the correct formula for successful prayer. 

But how many of us go through the three step process?  How often do you find yourself uttering a silent prayer to Heaven in a vacuum?  Maybe your loved one has just gone into surgery.  Maybe you’re hoping a business deal will go through.  Maybe you’re about to sit a big exam.

Sure, G-d listens to all prayers.  But it’s what we call a vacuum prayer, because you’ve forgotten part one, the praise element.  If you really want to make your prayer most effective, you need the complete formula: praise, followed by request, followed by thanks.  

One prayer of praise that I love is Borchi Nafshi, Tehillim (Psalms) chapter 104.  It’s a little long, but I know it’s worth the investment.  If I’m really short on time, I’ll go with chapter 150.  Tehillim has some really good ‘praise’ material.  Find one that works for you!  And if you don’t have a Tehillim handy, go ahead and be creative – invent your own prayer of praise to G-d!

It’s really easy to find things to praise Him for.  Just look at the world around you.  Like Rabbi Akiva told his students, if simple items of clothing require a weaver, then the complex world we live in must have a Creator.  When you consider how intricate and detailed this world is and how perfectly everything fits together, you’re bound to burst out in song and praise for the Almighty!

Many people ask Hashem for things.  But it’s the select few that remember to praise Him first.  And that’s why Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi teaches that they’re the ones who will get to be there in the eternal choir, singing along the capital-C Chazan in the World to Come!

How many times a day do you stop to praise Hashem?  May you stop to smell the roses and merit joining the Heavenly chorus for now and forever!

Can I get to Heaven on twice-a-year?

Daf Yomi Sanhedrin 90

A king once had a field that was producing poorly.  And so he decided to rent it out, the fee being a return on investment of ten tonnes of produce each year.  Alas, not for want of trying, the renter only managed to produce a single tonne per year.  When the king arrived demanding his due rent, the bereft lessee responded, ‘Your Majesty, you knew all the problems associated with this piece of land long before you tasked me with cultivating it!  Seriously, what did you expect? 

All Israel have a share in the World to Come, as it says, “Your people are all righteous, forever they shall inherit the land, the branch of My planting, My handiwork in which I take pride.”

What do you need to do to get to Heaven?  According to the Mishnah, as a Jew, you get an automatic entry pass!  No matter how many or how few mitzvos you perform in this world, you are righteous and going to Heaven! 

How does that work?  According to the Maharal, the key to understanding this idea lies in the verse quoted by the Mishnah.  Why are you righteous?  Not because of anything you did.  But because you are the handiwork of the Almighty.  He fashioned you.  He is perfect and therefore His creations are perfect.  The Maharal continues to explain that every Jew is a child of Hashem, as the Torah calls us, “My son, my firstborn, Israel.”  Each of us possesses a neshama (soul), which is a part of Hashem.  And so, you are righteous in the very essence of your being.  No wonder you are going to Heaven!

The Derech Yeshara (Rabbi Reuven ben Avraham, Italy C.18) uses this parable about the king’s field to explain why we needn’t be overly stressed about losing our place in the World to Come.  Just like the king was well aware of the pitfalls of his field before leasing it out, Hashem knows that He’s burdened us with a yetzer hara (tempter).  Much as He expects us to ‘cultivate the field,’ the odds are stacked against us.  If we can produce even a tonne of produce, we’re doing well.  What’s more, he says, even if we are deserving of Gehenom, we’ve already experienced it, living in exile!  And so, every individual, regardless of their spiritual station in life, is going straight to Heaven! 

Now, that doesn’t mean, of course, that we should slack off.  On the contrary, the knowledge that you are a child of the Almighty is empowering!  Sometimes we think to ourselves, ‘It’s all just too difficult.  We’re not winning this battle.  Why make the effort?’  But knowing that we’ve already won and that everything else is a bonus is incredibly invigorating and gives us the strength to persevere!

Don’t give up!  You’re already going to Heaven!  Now it’s simply a question of whether you get front-row seats to the big show or if you’ll be stuck somewhere high up in the bleachers!  You have incredible potential and an awesome personal mission that nobody but you can fulfill on this Earth.  May you forever remember that you are a child of Hashem and have the ability to accomplish pursuits that are out of this world!