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Monday, 14 May 2018

Judaism is all in the mind

Daf Yomi Zevachim 31

King Ahab and Queen Jezebel were the most corrupt and wicked royal couple in the history of our people.  They spread idolatry throughout the land and promoted false prophets in place of the Divine seers, whom they strove to wipe out.  In one of their worst acts of treachery to Heaven, King Ahab desired a field belonging to a man called Navot.  But he was unwilling to sell.  Ahab was bothered to no end and could not sleep, so great was his jealousy. 
When Jezebel sensed her husband’s anxiety, she concocted a plan to get him what he wanted.  She had Navot falsely accused of blasphemy and put to death.  They then entered his field and claimed it as their own.  Witnessing this terrible act, Hashem declared, “How could you murder and then inherit?” And so he sent the Prophet Eliyahu to curse them, saying, “In the place where the dogs licked up the blood of Navot, so too shall the dogs lick up your blood.”

The Torah states, “And if one shall surely eat [the meat of his offering] on the third day, it is invalid, it shall not be desirous [to Heaven].”
Rabbi Eliezer said: The verse refers to one who had intent to eat the meat on the third day [at the time when he brought the offering].
Rabbi Yanai taught: If one had in mind even that dogs would eat the meat of the offering the next day, it is likewise invalidated.  For it is written, “And the dogs shall eat Jezebel in the portion of Yizreel.”
Rashi explains: We see from this verse that canine consumption is considered ‘eating.’
Tosfos asks: Why does the Gemara not quote the verse in the Torah, concerning the yield of the sabbatical year, that states, “and for your animals and the wild animals, all of the produce shall be to eat”?
The Metzudas David explains Hashem’s words to Eliyahu: How could you murder Navot as an enemy and then have the chutzpah to enter his property to inherit as a beloved friend would?  This contrast of enemy versus friend is the connection between Ahab’ and Jezebel’s heinous act and the prophecy about the dogs.  On the one hand, a dog can be a scary, dangerous animal.  On the other hand, a dog can be man’s best friend. 

Why does the Gemara choose a verse specifically about dogs to demonstrate that animals ‘eat’? Because of the unique relationship that exists between humans and canines.  They could be our worst nightmares or they could be our best friends.  When you first encounter a dog, there’s no way to know.

Likewise, when one brings an offering in the Holy Temple, nobody knows your true intent.  Are you close to Hashem, as the word ‘korban’ (offering, but literally: closeness) implies?  Or are you thinking about the delicious steak meal you’re about to have and that you’ll discard the leftovers to your pets?  The former intent develops your bond with Heaven; the latter distances you from Heaven.  There’s no middle-ground – either your offering is wholehearted and pure, or it’s halfhearted and impure.

And of course, whether you find yourself serving Heaven in the Holy Temple or elsewhere, that’s always the question you must ask yourself.  Am I giving it my all?  Or am I just going through the motions?  Am I enjoying it like the delicious Divine feast that it is?  Or is it nothing more than dogfood to me, tasteless and unappetizing?

Nobody knows your intent but you.  But the good news is that nobody gets to control your intent but you!  You alone decide whether to serve with enthusiasm and vigor.  It’s all in the mind.  So why not give it your very best?  If you’re anyway doing it, you might as well be motivated and excited.  You might as well think of this ritual as the most luscious, delicious feast.  Because, after all, when you serve the Almighty, He invites you to sit next to Him at His Divine table, as it were!

Serve G-d with enthusiasm!  Enjoy the mouthwatering delights of His service!  May you always discover new ways to motivate yourself in the service of our Father in Heaven!

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Is it rude to say 'hi'?

Daf Yomi Zevachim 30
Today is Yom Yerushalayim, the day we celebrate the regaining of Jewish sovereignty over the entire Jerusalem, a miracle of modern history that we have not merited for two thousand years.  Chag sameach!
In one of the final heroic acts before Jerusalem and the Holy Temple were destroyed, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai famously saved Judaism.  As the city was falling to the Romans, he snuck out in a coffin and pleaded for mercy for the continuity of Torah life.  His request was granted, the Sages were spared, and the centre of Jewish learning moved to Yavneh.
But that’s not all Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai was known for.  Amongst his many impeccable character traits was his superb etiquette.  He was always the first to greet every person he encountered, Jewish or not, and whether or not he knew them.  In fact, he would jump to be the first to greet complete strangers in the marketplace! 

The Torah states: “If an animal that one brings as an offering to Hashem, anything that he gives to Hashem shall be holy.  He shall not switch it nor substitute it good for bad or bad for good, and if he should substitute one animal for another, then the original animal and its substitute will both become holy.”
Gemara: If one declared about his animal, “May this be a substitute for my Olah offering, my Shelamim offering,” then it is considered a substitute Olah offering, according to Rabbi Meir.  Rabbi Yossi says: If he originally intended to substitute both offerings, since it is impossible to make both declarations at once, his words take effect (and it is a substitute for both).  If, however, he initially declared the animal an Olah substitute, and then changed his mind and said, “May this be a Shelamim substitute,” it remains an Olah.
Tosfos explains: There are two definitions of ‘toch kedai dibur’ (the amount of time one could fairly make a correction to a declaration, because he inadvertently said the wrong thing).  One is the equivalent amount of time that it takes a teacher to greet his student (“Shalom to you!”); the other is the amount of time it takes a student to greet his teacher (“Shalom to you, my teacher and my master!”).  This then is the meaning of the Gemara.  If one said ‘Shelamim substitute’ within the shorter ‘toch kedai dibur’ timeframe, implying that was his original intent, the switch stands.  When the Gemara says that he ‘changed his mind,’ it implies the longer ‘toch kedai dibur’ which has no effect.

Why did Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai make such a big deal about greeting every person?  Surely, a man of his stature didn’t have time for small talk with the street-cleaner!  That would certainly be the attitude of many people of privilege today.  Rabban Yochanan, however, saw each human being as a reflection of the Almighty.  Every individual was created in the image of G-d.  How could he not rush to greet the Shechina (Divine presence)?

How do you greet another person?  The Gemara here teaches that it depends on who the person is.  If it’s your buddy, you greet them a certain way.  If it’s your teacher, you greet them in a more respectful and lengthier manner.  

Sadly today, people have forgotten how to show respect for those who are older and wiser.  We live in an age and society where everyone is equal.  The Torah’s concept of one person deserving greater respect than another on account of their physical or spiritual maturity, is considered antiquated and unfair.  But a key part of our value system is respect for our elders, and that anchors us in our tradition.

Where does the greeting ‘hello’ come from?  It’s related to the word ‘health.’  Back in the day, when you would see someone you would inquire as to their health.  That still happens in Hebrew.  When you say ‘shalom’ it means you’re asking about their peace and welfare.  When they depart and you say ‘shalom’ you’re offering them a parting blessing of peace. 

It used to be that way in English, too.  You’d meet someone and say ‘How’s your health?’  Later, it was shortened to ‘hail’ (as in Hail, Caesar!), then ‘hello’ and ‘hi’.  Now you’re lucky if people you encounter bother even to look up from their smartphones.  Our contemporary interactions give a whole new meaning to ‘bumping into someone’!

It’s time we started greeting one another with the proper respect that we should be showing to the Shechina!  We should be acknowledging the dignity and stature of every human being.  And those who have earned the right to greater respect and reverence (either by virtue of their age or wisdom), we should be recognizing with the appropriate honour they deserve!

Next time you say ‘hi’ or even ‘Good Shabbos,’ stop for a moment and ask the other person how they’re doing.  Make it personal.  Let them know you care about their ‘shalom’ – their peace and welfare.  May we all learn to be the first to greet with the warmth and respect of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakai!

Thursday, 15 February 2018

Is religion choking you?

Brachos 11

Rabbi Tarfon was once travelling from Jerusalem to Lod.  In ancient times, travelling alone was dangerous – you could be attacked by highwaymen.  When you were ready to take a trip, you would stand by the side of the road and wait for a group of travelers, called a caravan.  You would stick out your thumb and they would stop and invite you to join their convoy. 
Prior to the building of the VFT between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, the journey to Lod would take a couple of days.  But the caravan would keep going as long as the members could muster the strength, oftentimes many hours into the night.  Rabbi Tarfon, however, found himself in a quandary: upon nightfall, he had become obligated to recite the evening Shema.  But should he risk stopping to daven if that meant dropping out of the caravan?

Mishnah: Beis Shamai says: Each evening a person should lie down and recite the Shema.  And in the morning, he should stand up, as the verse states, “when you lie down and when you rise.” Beis Hillel says: Each person should read it as he regularly would, as it states, “when you go on the way.”
Gemara: Rav Nacḥman bar Yitzcḥak taught: One who acts in accordance with the opinion of Beis Shamai is deserving of death, as we learned: Rabbi Tarfon said: I was coming on the road when I stopped and reclined to recite the Shema in accordance with the statement of Beis Shamai. Yet in so doing, I endangered myself due to the highwaymen who accost travelers. The Sages said to him: You deserved to be in a position where you were liable to pay with your life, as you transgressed the statement of Beis Hillel!

What was Rabbi Tarfon thinking when he lay down to recite the Shema and had to leave the caravan?  Rabbi Tarfon’s calculation, no doubt, was that by doing it Beis Shamai’s way, he was fulfilling both holy opinions and he was willing to do that no matter the consequences.  The Rabbis response to him was: you’re acting foolishly if you’re risking your life to do an unnecessary act!

It’s a rare occasion that we’re expected to put everything on the line to maintain our connection with Hashem.  Serving Hashem is generally meant to be a pleasurable experience.  That doesn’t mean that it’s easy – most things in life that come too easily don’t have much value.  The performance of mitzvos should be both challenging and, at the same time, satisfying.  And so if it feels like you’re risking your life to stay in the relationship with G-d, you’re probably trying too hard and you just need to relax. 

How do we balance the dual requirements of challenge and enjoyment?  If you open up a Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), you’ll find that most halachos have a letter-of-the-law mandate and then a more stringent opinion.  Why?  Because we’re all different.  Some of us will be able to excel in one area of mitzvah observance, while others will be champions in other areas.  Beyond the basic law, it’s not a one-size-fits all.  If you’re finding that mitzvah observance is ‘strangling’ you, first things first, you need to check whether you’re choking on actual halachos or chumros (stringencies).  What works for one person in terms of self-sacrifice and chumra will not work for another person.  Yes, you need to break yourself and your character a little for G-d, but not to the extant that you’re at the cliff’s edge.

Hashem loves you dearly.  He gave you mitzvos to enhance your relationship with Him.  Mitzvos are a mark of love between you and Him.  If you’re not enjoying their performance, you need to ask yourself what you’re doing wrong.  Your relationship with Heaven should be exceedingly pleasurable!

The same is true of the spousal relationship.  The abundance of jokes on the subject would seem to suggest that marriage is not a fun and enjoyable enterprise.  You do it because you need to, but it’s a burden of sorts.   That’s not what marriage is about!

Sure you need to work at marriage.  But if coming home to your spouse feels like the hardest, most challenging, task of the day, you’re clearly doing something wrong.  If every word you breathe, every move you make, feels like you’re walking on eggshells, you’re trying way too hard.  Marriage is the most exhilarating experience in life.  When it’s working right, it carries all the challenges of life on its back, as you have a life-partner to share everything with!

If your marriage is not the most amazing aspect of your life, it’s time to figure out why not.  Discuss it with your partner.  If need be, seek outside guidance.  It should never feel like a burden.  Till 120, you want to be running home to see your spouse with the most incredible feeling of excitement!

Nobody is forcing you to be in a relationship with Hashem or your spouse.  You’ve chosen it because it’s an awesome feeling!  If it’s anything less than that, ask yourself what you’re not doing quite right.  May those relationships forever be the most pleasurable elements of your life!

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Are your critics getting under your skin?

Brachos 10

There were troublemakers in Rabbi Meir’s neighborhood who caused him a great deal of distress. Rabbi Meir prayed that they should die.
His wife, Bruriah, said to him, ‘What are you thinking? Do you base yourself on the verse that states, “Let sins cease from the land”?  Does it say “sinners”?  It says, “sins”!  Go to the end of the verse, where it states, “And the wicked will be no more.” Once sins cease, then the wicked will be no more!  Pray for mercy for them that they should repent and that they shall no longer be wicked!’
He prayed for mercy for them, and they repented.

Rabbi Meir was one of the greatest rabbis of the Mishnaic period.  In fact, anytime we find an anonymous Mishnah, we attribute the opinion to Rabbi Meir!  He was known as a miracle-worker who once stopped a Roman execution with his mystical powers.  Incredibly, till today, his extraordinary righteousness is cited as a segula (omen) that assists with the cure of various afflictions, including the recovery of lost property!  

What issues could these troublemakers have had with the holy and great Rabbi Meir?  Why would they have sought to distress him?  He was such a righteous individual!

The answer is that they gave him problems precisely because of his elevated stature.  These people were ne’er-do-wells who had failed in their own lives.  And so instead of taking responsibility for their own inadequacies, they shifted their negativity to Rabbi Meir.

Bruriah’s message to her husband was: Don’t take it personally.  They’re the ones with the problem.  Don’t stoop to their level by fighting fire with fire.  Instead, pity them and their unsuccessful lives.  Once you recognize that they are to be pitied, you will realize that the solution is to pray for them!

If you’ve achieved success in life, you will know that, sadly, success breeds enmity.  If you’re doing the right thing and prospering, there will be difficult people in life who try to cut you down.  It’s tempting to hope for their failure or demise.  If only they would just disappear!

But stop for a moment and ask yourself why they’re so obsessed with your success and why they can’t just focus on their own lives.  It’s tempting to pat yourself on the back and tell yourself that you are more deserving than they are.  After all, you’ve worked hard to get to where you are today!
But is that 100% true? Perhaps you’ve simply been blessed from Above? Maybe they haven’t had the same opportunities as you?  Maybe Heaven blessed you with a greater IQ or a stronger sense of willpower, motivation and determination? 

If Hashem were to grant them the same opportunities and character traits, maybe they’d be even more successful! Bruriah wasn’t suggesting that Rabbi Meir pray that Heaven remove their free will to sin; that’s contrary to the Almighty’s plan for us in this world.  What she wanted her husband to understand was that they were jealous because they weren’t as accomplished as him.  And that was only partly their fault.  If Rabbi Meir could pray that the impediments to their success were removed, they might very well thrive and have no reason to be bothered by his achievements!

The Torah states that Moshe Rabbeinu was the “humblest man on the face of the Earth.” How could that be?  Didn’t he know that he took the Israelites out of Egypt?  That he spoke to Hashem directly?  That he received the Torah on Mt. Sinai?  Of course he did.  But he said to himself: I was merely blessed with unparalleled opportunities in life.  Had anyone else received those blessings of opportunity, maybe they would have achieved so much more!

When others are jealous of your success, don’t let it get to you.  Rather, pray for their success!  If they were successful, they wouldn’t feel the need or have the time to give you problems!  May Hashem grant you and all those around you abundant opportunities for material and spiritual prosperity and greatness!

Thursday, 1 February 2018

To play in the major league, prove yourself in the minors

Brachos 9

The great Israeli leader, Natan Sharansky, grew up in the Soviet Union knowing very little about his Judaism.  Following Israel’s miraculous victory in the Six Day War, his neshama began to learn more and he yearned to make aliya.  Learning of his plans, his employer fired him but that only strengthened his resolve.  Natan began organizing pro-Israel demonstrations and was imprisoned for his activities.  He spent the better part of two decades behind bars, much of which was in solitary confinement.
But no matter how hard the Soviets worked to break his spirit, the experience only made him stronger.  His most treasured possession was a Book of Tehillim, given to him by his wife, Avital.  He recited the chapters of Psalms over and over and his faith grew ever more powerful.  At the same time, he never allowed his mind to go stale; an avid chess player, he played thousands of games in his mind, never losing a tournament!
Upon his release and ascent to Israel, he became an important leader of world Jewry, statesman, author, and advocate. One of our generation’s most inspiring figures, Natan Sharansky will forever be etched in the history of the Jewish people.

The Torah states [Shemos 3:14]: And Moshe said to Hashem: Behold, when I come to the Children of Israel, and shall say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you; and they shall say to me, ‘What is His name?’ what shall I say to them?”
And Hashem said to Moshe, “I shall be as I shall be.” And He said, “Thus shall you say to the Children of Israel, ‘I shall be sent me to you.’”
Gemara: “I shall be as I shall be” – The Holy One blessed be He said to Moshe, ‘Go tell the Children of Israel: I have been with them throughout this captivity and I shall likewise be with them throughout the captivities of future regimes.’
Moshe replied, ‘Master of the universe, it is more than enough for them to have to deal with the problems when the time comes!’
Rashi explains: Why worry them now with bad news about the future?

Imagine young Natan Sharansky had been shown a video of his life.  Do you think he’d have agreed to it?  My guess is he would have said, ‘Thank you, but no thank you.  I’m happy being regular Joe-citizen Anatoly Sharansky.  Sure, I’d love to be an international Jewish hero, but if it means I need to sit in solitary confinement in the gulag for years, forget about it.  I think I’ll skip it.’

And that’s why he was never presented with the offer.  Most of the challenges we endure in life, we’d pass on if we were given the choice.

But the Almighty placed you here to become stronger and ever more powerful.  Every challenge, every difficulty in life that you overcome fortifies your mind and soul.  If you want to accomplish great things in this world, you need to demonstrate that you have the strength of character of a leader.  

That power doesn’t just happen.  Great leaders don’t just happen to be in the right place at the right time.  To place someone into a position of great responsibility without the prior strength training would simply set them up for failure.

We’d all love to experience the glory of being there under the stadium lights as a professional football player.  But without years of training, you’d be trampled in a second!  It’s the same way with any position of greatness in life. If you haven’t undergone the prior preparation, you just won’t be able to handle it!

We all experience challenges in life.  Sometimes they’re related to our livelihood.  Sometimes they’re related to health matters.  Other times we deal with relationship issues.  Let’s say five years ago I told you about the challenges you would face and asked you if you wanted them in your life.  What would you have said?  Of course you would have refused.  But now that the challenging period has passed, you realize that you actually handled it pretty well, right?  You’re now stronger, wiser, less fazed by the vicissitudes of life.  With each trial Heaven sends your way, you climb ever closer to that moment of greatness.  Demonstrate to the Almighty that you can handle the minor league challenges today, and He’ll know that you’re ready for the major leagues tomorrow!

Maybe you’re in a position of communal leadership, say, a volunteer board position. Or perhaps you’ve been promoted to a low-level management position in your company.  But all of a sudden, you hear that people are talking about you. Do you let it get to you?  Do you say, ‘That’s it, I quit, they don’t appreciate me’? Or do you forge ahead and let the comments flow away like ‘water off a duck’s back’?  Show Heaven today that you are able to rise above the ‘little critics’ and you’ll be ready tomorrow to handle the major roles of leadership!

We’re here in this world to be challenged and overcome our challenges.  The more successful you are at proving yourself, the more you demonstrate to the Almighty that are you truly ready for greatness. May you merit mastering the rocky path to greatness very quickly! 

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Why not daven at home?

Brachos 8

A friend of mine once told me that he often davens at home on a morning instead of going to shul.
“Why don’t you daven with the minyan?” I asked him.
“You know, I have a few daughters,” he replied, “I daven at home so that they’ll have the opportunity to see how a Jewish man davens with tallis and tefillin.”
“Really?” said I, “Did you never consider bringing them to shul?”

Rabbi Natan says: How do we know that the Holy One, blessed be He, does not reject the prayers of the congregation? For it is said, ‘Behold, Hashem despises not the mighty.’
The Holy One, blessed be He, says: If a man occupies himself with the study of the Torah and with works of charity and prays with the congregation, I account it to him as if he had redeemed Me and My children from among the nations of the world.
Resh Lakish taught: Whoever has a synagogue in his town and does not go there to pray is called a bad neighbour.

Davening in shul versus davening at home is incomparable.  When you daven at home, you’re davening all alone, not just physically, but also spiritually.  When you daven by yourself, the Almighty looks at you and says, “Let’s see, Friedman is asking for all these things.  Does he really deserve them?”  And He turns to the angelic accounting department for an income and expenditure report.

What happens when you daven at shul?  Hashem looks at the crowd and says, “You know what?  On the whole, they’re a pretty decent bunch.  I’m going to give them what they’re asking for.”  That’s the meaning of Rabbi Natan’s teaching.  While He might not heed the prayers of an individual, the prayers of a congregation are never rejected.

The Mishnah in Pirkei Avos teaches, “The world stands on three things: on Torah, on prayer, and on acts of charity.” True, these three are the pillars that uphold the world.  But our Gemara takes it a step further.  If you want to do more than simply maintain the status quo, if you want to actually redeem the hidden sparks of the Divine that have been scattered across the globe, you need to act cooperatively.  When you learn Torah, engage in charitable work, and pray together with a community, you transform the universe.  Why?  Because it takes much more energy to coordinate your efforts with other people.  It takes patience and flexibility.  It takes compromise and goodwill.  But when you learn to work with others for the greater good, you make this world a better place for everyone, even for the Almighty Himself!

And that’s why an individual who has a shul in the area and chooses to daven at home is considered a bad neighbor.  Yes, they’re praying.  And they could be the most meritorious person on Earth.  But if they’re not willing to share some of that merit with the rest of the community, it means they’re not interested in making this world a better place.

If you want your prayers to go directly to Heaven, you need to go directly to shul!  Don’t worry if your merits are less than perfect, you will ride the wave of congregational goodwill as the Almighty looks down upon you with favour.  May you always be a good neighbour and make this world a better place!

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Stop beating yourself up spiritually!

Brachos 7
One Yom Kippur, Rabbi Yishmael ben Elisha, the Kohen Gadol, entered the Holy of Holies to burn the incense offering, when he saw a vision of Hashem sitting on His throne of glory.
“Yishmael, my son, bless Me,” He said.
Yishmael responded, “May it be Your will that Your mercy conquer Your anger and that Your mercy overpower Your other attributes and that You behave with Your children with the attribute of mercy and treat them with leniency.”
His vision then concluded with the Almighty nodding His approval to the blessing.

Rabbi Yochanan quoted Rabbi Yossi: How do we know that the Holy One blessed be He prays?  As the verse [Isaiah 56:7] states, “And I shall bring them to My holy mountain and gladden them in the house of My prayer.”  Since it does not say, ‘their prayer,’ rather, ‘My prayer,’ we deduce that the Holy One blessed be He prays.
What does He pray?  Rav Zutra bar Tuvia quoted Rav: May it be My will that My mercies conquer My anger and that My mercies overpower My other attributes and that I attend to My children with the attribute of mercy and that I deal with them leniently.

Sometimes we disappoint ourselves with our religious behaviour.  We don’t measure up to our own self-expectations.  You know you could have done better.  You should have done better.  And so you conclude that Hashem must be even more disappointed.  That kind of attitude leads to a downward spiral where you become so obsessed with your failures that your entire life begins to stagnate.

Stop beating yourself up.  The Almighty’s love for you is greater than the love any mortal parent has for their child!  As Rav teaches, He is forever reminding Himself – so to speak – that His mercy must rise above everything else.  Anything you did, He has long since forgiven you.  It’s time to pull your socks up and face a bright future!  Any lingering feelings of self-doubt are the machinations of the yetzer hara who doesn’t want you to get up and move on to wonderful accomplishments in life!

But what’s a little strange about our Gemara is the notion of Hashem praying.  Who’s He praying to?  Himself?  Is He simply reminding Himself?  Does that constitute prayer?  Obviously, Hashem doesn’t need to remind Himself of anything.  And He doesn’t need to pray.  What is the message of the Gemara? 

To pray in Hebrew is ‘lehitpalel,’ which is a reflexive verb form.  Why? Our job in this world is to be imitatio Dei – we must strive to emulate G-d.  When we pray, we’re talking to Hashem.  But at the same time, it’s almost as if we’re holding a mirror up and asking ourselves how we’re doing in terms of our duty to be children of the Divine.

And so the Gemara is saying that if you want Hashem to have mercy upon you, first you need to hold up that mirror and ask how you’re judging others.  Sure, they could have done a little better by you.  But had you acted the way they did, don’t you think you’d want a little leniency?  Here’s the deal: if you stop judging others so strictly and start cutting them a little slack, the Almighty will cut you some slack and shower you with His mercy!

Did Yishmael the Kohen Gadol see the Almighty nodding to him?  Of course not.  Not even Moshe Rabbeinu was able to see Hashem’s face, “for no man can see My face and live.” Nodding to another person implies that the two of you are in agreement.  The Divine nod was a symbol of Yishmael’s understanding that the outpouring of mercy was to begin with him.  ‘If we’re on the same page,’ G-d responded, so to speak, ‘you have my guarantee that I too will shower upon you My mercy and compassion.’

Don’t ever allow your yetzer hara to convince you to get bogged down because you believe you’re stuck spiritually.  You’re never stuck – Hashem’s mercies are boundless!  May you treat others with abundant mercy and rest assured that the Almighty will forever shower His mercy upon you!

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Is life on a machine worth living?

Brachos 6

The news came out of the blue.  Rachel, a dear member of the community, urgently needed a kidney transplant.  One day she was out for a jog when she started feeling pain in her abdomen.  The next thing she knew she was in the Emergency Room being told by the doctors she was suffering from kidney failure.  Rachel was quite young with a husband and three little kids and the thought of spending the rest of her life on dialysis if she didn’t find a donor in time was terrifying.

We asked around and a few family members and close friends were quick to raise their hands to offer to donate their kidneys to Rachel.  One young man in the community, Shmuel, heard about Rachel’s plight and he too offered to donate.  Alas, one by one, the potential donors were crossed off the list as it became clear that they were not matches for Rachel.

Finally, it was down to two: Shmuel and a cousin of Rachel’s.  They each went through months of tests, getting closer and closer to becoming eligible to donate.  And then one day, Shmuel received a call asking him to come back in to repeat a test.  He wasted no time in doing his duty and eagerly awaited the results.  Unfortunately, however, the results weren’t conclusive.
“While you are a healthy enough young man, we can’t recommend the removal of one of your kidneys.  You may need them both in the future,” said the voice on the other end of the line.

While Rachel’s cousin did indeed end up being a match, Shmuel was devastated.  It wasn’t about his own health that he was concerned, but about his inability to perform this life-saving mitzvah.
“Rabbi, I gave it my all,” he poured out his soul to me, “I so, so wanted to fulfil the mitzvah of saving a life!  And what do I say next time, when they ask for a donor?  That I’m not healthy enough to donate?”
“Shmuel,” I responded, “you did donate your kidney.  When they ask the next time around, you’ll tell them that you’ve already donated.”
“Huh?!” replied Shmuel, looking a little confused, “whatever are you talking about, Rabbi?”

Malachi [3:16] declared, “Then those who feared Hashem spoke to one another, and Hashem listened and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who fear Hashem and for those who think of His Name.”
What is the meaning of “those who think of His Name”?  Rav Ashi taught: If one merely thought about doing a mitzvah, but was ineluctably prevented from its performance, the Torah considers it as if he had actually done the deed!

How often do we fail to take the plunge to do something positive for fear that we will be unable to complete the task?  I’d really like to try Daf Yomi, but I’m not sure I could keep up the daily commitment.  I’d really like to join the chesed committee but I don’t know if I’ll be available every month to help out with the initiatives.  I’d like to volunteer on the school PTA, but I might get busy at work.  And so we don’t even start.

Rav Ashi teaches that first and foremost it’s about your intent.  If you will it, you are automatically rewarded.  Just get up and go!  If it so happens that circumstances work against your intentions, you still get to keep the reward!  You see, in this physical, material world, we get rewarded for our achievements.  And so, if you don’t complete the task, it was all for naught.  In contrast, in the spiritual realm, we get rewarded for our efforts!  As long as you mean well and do your best, you get the mitzvah points! 

And that’s why I told Shmuel not to worry.  Since he had every intention to donate his kidney, Heaven considers it as if he had indeed completed the mitzvah!  At the end of the day, the Almighty had a different messenger – in this case, Rachel’s cousin – to actually carry out the mitzvah.  Nevertheless, in no way does that diminish Shmuel’s mitzvah.  He set out to donate his kidney, he was unable to complete the mitzvah through no fault of his own; and so, as far as Heaven is concerned, he has donated his kidney!  And that’s why next time they ask, he can respond that he’s already fulfilled that mitzvah!

Always remember Rav Ashi’s principle: in order to receive spiritual reward, all you need is intent and effort.  After that, it doesn’t matter what obstacles stand in your way.  You’ve accomplished what you needed to accomplish.

Unfortunately, the saddest time I have to teach this principle is when talking to a family with an ill loved one who appears to be unresponsive.  Why intervene to keep them alive?  Even if they were to recover, what kind of life could they expect?  And so, sometimes the family believes that – as painful a decision as it is – the best thing for the patient is to let them go.

G-d forbid! They might be physically unresponsive, but as long as there’s brain activity, we have no idea what’s going on in their mind.  Maybe they’re wishing they could put on tefillin, or light Shabbat candles, or give tzedakah, or even lend a helping hand to a friend who needs their driveway shoveled!  Those thoughts alone suffice for them to be considered as if they’d performed the mitzvah.  Since they are physically restrained from fulfilling the mitzvos they want to do, they still get the entire spiritual reward!  And that’s why every moment on this Earth is priceless and contains unlimited potential, no matter one’s physical state!

Stop worrying that you won’t finish the job before you’ve even started.  As Rabbi Tarfon teaches in Pirkei Avot, “It is not incumbent upon you to complete the task.  Nonetheless, that does not mean you are free to neglect it.”  May you set out with the finest intentions and best efforts and may Heaven show you the path to the fulfilment of your incredible potential!

Monday, 1 January 2018

How to survive prison

Brachos 5

Rabbi Chiya bar Abba was ill.  Rabbi Yochanan went to visit him. 
He asked him, “Do you appreciate Divine affliction?”
He responded, “I don’t care for it or the accompanying reward!”
“Then give me your hand,” said Rabbi Yochanan.  Rabbi Chiya gave him his hand and he healed him.

 Rava taught in the name of Rav Sechora in the name of Rav Huna: Any person that the Holy One blessed be He desires, He strikes with afflictions, as the verse [Isaiah 53:10] states, “And the one whom Hashem desires, He struck with sickness.” 
Now, I might think that one continues to be afflicted even if one does not accept the afflictions lovingly.  Therefore, the verse continues, “If his soul accepts asham,” meaning just like an asham (guilt) offering must be made willingly, so too must afflictions be accepted willingly.
And if he accepts them, what is his reward? He will see offspring and merit long days, and furthermore, he will remember his learning well, as the verse concludes, “and the desire of Hashem will succeed in his hand.”

The greatest, most challenging question that any spiritual person has ever been faced with is the matter of theodicy: Why do bad things happen to good people?  How could a good G-d allow the righteous to suffer?  No mortal human being has ever managed to sufficiently answer this question, despite many a lifetime of attempts to do so.  Even Moshe stood atop Mt. Sinai and pleaded with G-d to elucidate His ways, but to no avail. “You shall see My back,” replied the Almighty, “but My face you shall not see.  For no man can see My face and live.”  In other words, human beings can not fathom the ‘face’ of G-d – we do not see the big picture and can never fully appreciate His dealings.

Rava teaches here that one of the reasons that righteous people suffer is specifically on account of their righteousness.  The Holy One blessed be He afflicts those whom He is particularly fond of.   But that makes no sense!  If He likes you, why would He want you to suffer?

Let’s take a step back and ask ourselves why we’re even here to begin with.  Before you came down to Earth, your soul was enjoying life up in Heaven, basking in the rays of the Shechina (Divine presence).  One day, an angel walked in and said, ‘Who wants to go down there?’ And like you’d done a million times prior, you hid under the table, hoping you wouldn’t be chosen to descend into the rotten, physical world.  But then, one day, your time came.  You couldn’t say no any longer and so down you went.

Why?  You’re here for seventy, eighty, one hundred twenty years, and then you’re going back up to Heaven.  Seems a little futile doesn’t it?  If you’re going back to where you came from, why bother coming down to begin with?

The answer is that yes, you’re going back to Heaven, but hopefully you’re getting to an even better place than you started.  You see, Heaven is not a single destination.  There are myriad levels of Heaven.  The more you accomplish during your lifetime here on Earth, the higher the level of Heaven you’ll gain entry to.

So how do you accomplish great things on Earth?  Well, first off, you commit to the commandments G-d has set out for us in the Torah.  The more mitzvos you do, the stronger your bond with Heaven.  But the second aspect to building your soul-power is the development of your faith in Heaven.

It’s hard to maintain your faith when pain and suffering come your way.  Whether it’s health issues, financial difficulties, or relationship woes, sometimes life’s just too much to bear.  When life’s not treating you right, you wonder where G-d has disappeared to.  Has he forgotten you?  You don’t deserve these travails!

Here’s the thing: Hashem never forgets His children!  Any time he sends hardship your way, it’s in order to strengthen your soul-power.  When you maintain your faith in Heaven through all the challenges, your soul is elevated.  That’s why the Gemara calls it ‘afflictions of love.’  Our forefather, Avraham, the Mishnah tells us, was tested ten times, culminating in the instruction to sacrifice his own child.  Why?  Explains the Mishnah in Ethics of the Fathers: because Hashem loved him so much!  The more tests one passes, the stronger one becomes both in this world and the next.

Is it bad if I don’t always welcome G-d’s afflictions with love?  Well, as we see from today’s Gemara, even Rabbi Chiya rejected the test!  He didn’t want to be ill any longer.  He just wanted to get better.  Sometimes we can bear it, other times we pray that G-d gives us a break.  But the main thing to remember always is that good or bad, everything that happens to us comes from G-d.

When the butler was leaving the Egyptian prison, Yosef asked him to remember him and get him out of there.  After all, he’d been placed in jail for no good reason.  The Talmud says that as a result of his lack of faith in Heaven, it was decreed that he remain there a further two years.  What does the Talmud mean when it says he lacked faith in Heaven?  Obviously, he couldn’t just sit around waiting for a miracle to happen –  didn’t it make sense for him to ask the butler to help him? 

Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk explains that Yosef’s lack of faith wasn’t at the moment of his request, but over the preceding number of years.  If Hashem had him incarcerated, it was most certainly for a good reason.  In this case, explains Rabbi Meir Simcha, Yosef was imprisoned in the royal prison so that he could learn the mannerisms of royalty from the other prisoners in preparation for his imminent elevation to the position of viceroy of Egypt.  You see, every trial and challenge Hashem sends our way, He is simply making us stronger, physically and spiritually.

Nobody goes looking for a life of suffering.  But when challenges do appear, feel honoured – the Almighty has chosen you for strength and power.  May you maintain your faith in Heaven and grow ever stronger and more powerful as you pass the tests of life!