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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!