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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!