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Sunday, 31 December 2017

The Right Answer is I Don't Know

Brachos 4

After 210 years in slavery, the Children of Israel are preparing to leave.  So far, Heaven has sent nine plagues to strike the Egyptians.  Moshe is told by Hashem to go to Pharaoh and inform him that at midnight, He will smite every first-born in Egypt.

And so off he goes to the palace and appears before Pharaoh.  With a fierce wave of his staff, Moshe warns the king: ‘At approximately midnight, G-d will smite every first-born in the land!’

Rabbi Zeira taught: Moshe indeed knew the exact time of midnight.  If so, why did he say “at approximately midnight”? Moshe was concerned that the astrologers of Pharaoh would err with the timing and declare Moshe a liar. 
As the teaching goes: One should accustom oneself to respond ‘I don’t know,’ lest others ensnare you in allegations of deceit.

In life, there are many situations when it’s helpful to be knowledgeable.  Whether it’s at work or with your kids, knowledge is power.  It’s a nice feeling when you know all the answers to people’s questions. 

But as any game show participant will tell you, the gravy train eventually runs out somewhere.  Because nobody knows everything.  And unless you’re on the game show, it’s okay to say, ‘I don’t know.’

Some people know everything about everything.  Until they don’t.  But, not to worry, whatever they don’t know, they can just make up.  Who’ll know the difference?  Until one day, they’re caught out, having offered ‘facts’ that don’t even come close to reality.

True people don’t need to prove anything to anyone.  They’re happier to listen to others than to show off their knowledge.  And it’s okay not to know everything.  Nobody knows everything.  Those who are humble about their knowledge are often the ones who know the most.  In most cases, those who ‘know-it-all’ know very little and do a lot of talking to cover up their general ignorance.

Here, Rabbi Zeira takes it a step further.  Instead of your default position being one of knowing the answers until you’re stumped, how about training yourself to a new default, one that assumes an ‘I don’t know’ position?

How does that work?  Doesn’t that make you look foolish?  Not in Moshe’s opinion.  He preferred to appear unsure of himself, rather than be accused of being anything less than 100% honest.

Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik says that a rabbi should never answer a shayla (halachic query) immediately.  Instead, he should say ‘I don’t know’ and tell the questioner that he will look up the answer.  He offers two reasons for this approach.  Firstly, the Talmud warns a student against responding to a halachic query in the presence of his teacher without consulting with him, as it is considered disrespectful.  Nowadays, explains Rav Soloveitchik, most ‘students’ have derived the bulk of their Torah knowledge from sefarim (holy books).  Therefore, the sefarim are considered one’s teacher.  As a consequence, responding to a shayla without consulting with the sefarim is akin to paskening (deciding the halacha) before one’s teacher without consultation!

The second reason that a rabbi should respond ‘I don’t know, let me get back to you’ is that if he were to respond immediately, the questioner might assume that it was too basic a question.  As a result, he may avoid asking questions in the future for fear that he is posing overly-simple queries.  When the rabbi responds that even he doesn’t know the answer, it inspires confidence in the questioner that his query is a really good question!  In the future, he will not hesitate to ask, thereby furthering his knowledge and halachic practice!

And if that’s true of rabbis who are supposedly well-versed in halachic matters, it should give us all pause next time we rush to demonstrate our halachic or other knowledge!  It’s okay to think about it overnight.  Smart people have nothing to prove.  They know that a little contemplation goes a long way.

The wiser you are, the easier you find it to say ‘I don’t know.’  You don’t need to have all the answers immediately.  May you always respond with humility and take the time to investigate the facts and contemplate the truth, without feeling the need to pretend you know it all! 

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Do animals have souls?

Brachos 3

The Prophet Elisha would stay at a certain home every time he would pass through Shunam.  The couple who hosted him had a special room with his name on it in their attic and he would spend much time in his ‘second home’ praying, learning Torah and in deep spiritual contemplation.  He was most grateful to his hosts and one day turned to them and asked them to request whatever blessing they were seeking.  As a holy man, he would turn to Heaven and intercede on their behalf. 

“We are good members of the community and feel very blessed” replied the couple.
“Nevertheless, you are childless,” responded the prophet, “let me bless you with a child.”
“Please do not taunt us,” said the Shunamite couple, “we are too old!”
“A baby shall you have!” declared the prophet.

And indeed, the Shunamite woman conceived shortly thereafter.  The baby was born and the couple loved their child like only a couple who had been blessed with a child after decades of trying could.  But, alas, it was not meant to be, and after a few years, the little boy suddenly died.

One can only imagine how distraught the mother should have been.  And angry at the prophet and G-d for giving her false hope!  And yet, despite the reactions of most to such a devastating situation, the woman remained calm, placed the covers over the boy, and put her coat on.

“Where are you going?” asked her husband as she opened the front-door.
“Just off to pay a visit to the prophet,” she replied, almost nonchalantly, “I’ll be right back!”
“But it’s not Rosh Chodesh or Shabbat,” responded the husband, a little confused.
And completely at peace, with unquestioning faith that Heaven would not forsake her, she replied, “Shalom.”

Sure enough, she arrived at Elisha’s doorstep and immediately upon hearing of the boy’s plight, he hurried back to Shunam.  He held the boy close and breathed the breath of life back into the boy, miraculously granting him a second lease on life. 

That is the power of faith.

The night consists of three watches.  At each watch, the Holy One blessed be He sits and roars like a lion (over the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Jewish people).  The symbols of each watch are: the first watch is like a donkey moving about, the second is like barking dogs, the third represents a nursing baby and a wife talking to her husband.

The Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eidels) explains that these three stages of the night correspond to the three levels of the soul found inside each and every one of us, called nefesh, ruach, and neshama.  Your nefesh is what animates you, transforming you from a lifeless body into an active creature.  That activity, however, is nothing more than the natural reactions of your bodily instincts.  Just like a donkey acts instinctively, so does your nefesh

The second level of the soul is the ruach, which is what makes you human.  Animals don’t have emotions, they don’t visibly express traits such as love and kindness.  Some animals, however, clearly do profess emotive reactions.  Dogs are called ‘man’s best friend’ for a reason!  They are able to provide more than mere companionship – dogs will demonstrate love and other emotions.  That’s why the ruach level of soul is symbolized by the barking of a dog.  It’s that part of you that makes you more than just an instinctively reacting mammal.

And finally, we have the third stage, corresponding to the neshama.  Your neshama is your ability to think, to discern right from wrong, and to rise above your physical body and become a spiritual being!  The Gemara offers two descriptions for the neshama stage: a nursing baby and a communicating couple.  The Maharsha explains that these two ideas symbolize Torah study and prayer.  When we learn Torah, we are nurtured by the milk of our Heavenly Parent.  And when we pray, we are offered the opportunity to talk to Him face to face.  That’s powerful, and that’s the power of your neshama!

These three phases of the soul, says the Gemara, correspond to different stages of the night.  Just as the soul passes through each daily night, it likewise carries us through the night-times of our lives.  As we pass through life, we often face dark times.  Finances that don’t add up – with each passing month, you’re getting deeper and deeper into debt.  Medical issues that suddenly strike – just when things were falling into place, you’re hit with health complications.  How do we respond when things don’t go according to plan?

Our natural reaction comes from the nefesh.  We get upset.  We get angry.  We lash out at those around us.  We lash out at Heaven.  But when we react like that, our behaviour is no better than that of a donkey.  When donkeys don’t like what’s going around them, they kick.  They begin to bray uncontrollably.  Yes, your nefesh is important; but there’s so much more to you! 

Let us continue up the ladder of the soul.  The more refined, human response to life’s challenges is to respond with mature emotions.  Love, empathy, feeling.  Most of the time when you’re suffering in life, you’re not the only one.  Nefesh-centred individuals are fixated on themselves.  Ruach-embracing people, in contrast, are self-aware and equally aware of what’s going on around them.  They feel and demonstrate empathy towards the challenges other people are facing.  It’s that ability that makes you human!

But you’re more than just human.  You’re a spiritual being.  You have the power of the neshama.  Your neshama provides you with the opportunity to connect with the ultimate Source of life.  And there are two ways to do that.  Either by nursing from the fountain of life – the Torah.  Or by communicating directly with our Spouse, the Almighty.  When you derive your nourishment and strength from Heaven, you can face any challenge in life!

When you place yourself in the hands of our Father in Heaven, you flow through life, knowing that Hashem knows exactly what He’s doing.  We may not appreciate or understand His ways, but we know that He is completely in control of the situation and that He loves you more than anything and wants only the best for you.  And when you live with such faith, you become a testament and example to all those around you; in time, they too become inspired to live a life of faith and trust in the One above!

We might appear to be just another member of the Earth’s wonderful animal kingdom, but there’s more to us than meets the eye!  What’s more, you’re not just a human being with the ability to think and express feelings.  You’re a spiritual being, created with the superhuman ability to rise above the physical constraints of this world!  May you always rise above the vicissitudes of life and maintain your faith in Heaven! 

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Faith in Heaven during the darkest hour

Dear Friends,

Life Yomi began a year and a half into the Daf Yomi cycle.  I've decided that it's time to return to the beginning to prepare for the next cycle beginning in January 2020.  I hope you enjoy learning with me.

Chag sameach,

Rabbi Daniel Friedman

Brachos 2

In a desperate attempt to save their children from the Holocaust, many parents turned their children over to local Christian orphanages.  There they would be protected, nourished, and nurtured, until such time they could return to retrieve their babies.  Sadly, the vast majority of these Jews were murdered in the camps, and never came back. 

Following the war, Rabbi Eliezer Silver made it his life’s mission to rescue these children.  He located every orphanage in Europe and went from one to the next asking if they had harboured any of the young ones.  Unbelievably adding insult to injury, many of the orphanages – gratified to have converted these innocent souls to Christianity – denied their presence.  

But their denial did not deter Rabbi Silver.  Without waiting for their acquiescence, he would walk into the dining room and cry out, “Shema Yisrael Ado-nai Elo-heinu Ado-nai echad!”  Now, which Jewish child was not serenaded to sleep as a baby with the words of Shema Yisrael?  And the Yiddishe kinderlach would hear the familiar refrain and run up to the rabbi, responding with the second verse of the Shema, “Baruch shem kevod malchuso le’olam vaed,” thereby revealing their identity and enabling their redemption from the spiritual destruction that otherwise would have been their fate.

From when may one recite the Shema in the evening? 
According to Rabbi Eliezer: From the time that the cohanim (priests) enter to eat their terumah (tithes).  When do they eat their terumah?  From the time of the appearance of the stars – if they were impure, they must immerse in the mikvah during the day, following which they may not partake of the terumah until the sun sets.
According to Rabbi Chanina: From the time that a poor man enters to eat his bread dipped in salt.
According to Rabbi Meir: From the time people enter to eat their bread on Erev Shabbos (Friday night).

The Talmud opens with the fundamentals of Judaism.  How do you be a good Jew?  How do you have a relationship with Heaven?  The most basic of all Jewish prayers is the Shema, our declaration of the unity of Hashem.  The Torah instructs us to recite the Shema twice a day, “when you lie down (at night) and when you rise (in the morning).”

Straight out of the gate, the Talmud informs us how to go about reciting the Shema at night.  When things are going well – during the daytime of life – it’s easy to profess your faith and to maintain your relationship with G-d.  But how do you keep the faith at night – during the challenging times, when G-d seems to be hiding His face? When life gets tough, what’s the secret to remaining one with the Almighty?

The Gemara offers a number of approaches.  First, we have Rabbi Eliezer’s advice: you can’t just wait for nightfall to eat your holy food.  You need to purify yourself during the day and then when night arrives, you’ll be pure and able to sustain yourself with the Heavenly tithes.  In other words, when life is good, when things are going well, you need to train yourself to thank Hashem constantly for all His kindnesses. Turn your eyes Heavenward and say, “Thank you for all the good You have bestowed upon me!”  When you get in the habit of appreciating all your blessings, then when life’s challenges strike, you’ll focus on the good things and your faith will allow you to rise above the difficulties.

Purity doesn’t come naturally.  Having a healthy relationship with Heaven is a learned experience.  It takes a lifetime of training and self-mastery.

Next, we have Rabbi Chanina who instructs us that we may not recite the Shema until the poor person has eaten.  You want a relationship with G-d?  First make sure you’ve taken care of His children.  Spirituality isn’t about you and your holy bubble, it’s about making this world a palace for the King of Kings.  What’s more, once you recognize that any challenges you may be facing in life are nothing compared to those unfortunate souls who live a life full of ‘darkness’ and difficulty, it becomes much easier to welcome Hashem into your life.

Our Sages contrast Noach and Avraham, employing an analogy of a freezing room.  Noach and his wife Naama were happy to enter the Ark with just their immediate family, with little regard for the thousands of other casualties around them.  By contrast, Avraham and Sarah dedicated their lives to teaching everyone about G-d.  In a freezing room, Noach would have donned his fur coat.  Avraham would have installed a heating system, warming up the room for all to enjoy. 

That’s what the Almighty wants in a relationship.  Don’t just profess your faith, demonstrate it!  How?  By feeding those who need physical or spiritual sustenance.  Once you’ve made sure that the poor man is eating his meagre bread dipped in salt, you can turn to Heaven with your spiritual and physical needs.

And finally, we have the advice of Rabbi Meir.  It’s been a long, hard week.  You’ve lit the candles and ushered in the Shabbat.  You’re ready to put your feet up and take that well-earned rest.  Just like G-d.  You can imagine how exhausted He must have been on that first Shabbat.  He’d just created a universe!  And so He took the day off and relaxed.

Chas v’shalom! (Heaven forbid!) Of course He didn’t put His feet up!  Sure, He concluded the process of creation, but had he stopped managing and maintaining the world even for a moment, the entire universe would have immediately ceased to exist.

Likewise, Rabbi Meir reminds us that even when Shabbos rolls around, you can’t stop dedicating yourself to Heaven.  You can retire from your law practice, but you never retire from your Jewish practice.  Just when you thought you were ready to enjoy the ‘Sabbath’ meal period of your life, to sit back and relish the fruits of your labour, you’re reminded that you still have the Shema to recite.

You might think you’ve achieved everything you set out to accomplish in life.  You’ve completed your physical and spiritual mission.  You worked hard.  You put your time into Torah learning, shul committees and communal boards.  It’s time for the young ones to step up.  It’s their turn.

But as long as you’re still here on Earth, the Almighty has more for you to accomplish!  The meal can wait, now’s the time to recite the Shema – to dedicate and rededicate yourself constantly to the service of the King of Kings. You’re almost at the Shabbat meal, but you’re not quite there yet.  Forever knowing that you haven’t quite reached the destination will empower and embolden you to continue to develop spiritually, making your bond with Heaven grow ever stronger!

Merely paying lip service to the Shema isn’t enough.  If you want a real relationship with Heaven, you need to pay attention to the fundamentals.  Train yourself to trust in the Almighty during the day and you will have a much easier time maintaining your faith in the night.  Always remember that the road to reach the King of Kings is via His children – treat them well as you would expect princes and princesses should be treated.  And never stop striving higher and higher, maximizing every precious moment of life.  May you merit a life infused with spirituality and a deep, unbreakable bond with Heaven!