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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!