Tuesday, May 14, 2013

As One

"כאיש אחד בלב אחד"
“Like one man, as one heart”
With those words chazal describe the incredible unity that was demonstrated by the Jewish nation at Har Sinai. The Shem MiShmuel offers an insight into this famous analogy which will help us actualize our feelings of unity.
The Jewish people are also considered to be represented by the letters of the Torah. The Zohar teaches us that there are 600,000 letters in the Torah parallel to the number of Jews who were present at Har Sinai. If the letters in the Torah are spaced too far apart – they are unable to be read as one and the Torah is passul. However, if they are mashed together, they are equally illegible. The balance is to have the letters individually defined, yet read as one.
Similarly, we are described as being one body. If our limbs were separated from each other we would surely perish, but to facilitate proper health our body’s functions must be clearly defined – with one limb yielding to another. The arm will not perform the task of the leg and so on.
It is with this analogy that chazal describe our unity. We aren’t all identical, nor do we all serve the same purpose. Yet, in our differences, we create a harmonious whole.
As a Jew, I love my fellow Jews both because of our similarity (as we are all part of one whole) and our diversity, which allows us to create, together, a rich and textured canvas.
Gut Yom Tov !

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Its All Got To Go


The Torah teaches us that following the long introspective process that a former metzorah has to undergo there is a semi bizarre ritual he must participate in before his atonement is complete. The metzorah must shave all of his hair. All of it - head, eyebrows and all. [See Vayikra 14:8-9]
What message about reformation could Hashem be sending us by including this law ?!
It’s all about growth.
There are three components to the offering of the metzorah. There is the pine branch and the bird which is slaughtered [Vayikra 14:4-5] which represent the haughtiness and gossiping that the sinner engaged in which is what landed him as a metzorah in the first place. Next, there is the hyssop and worm-dyed wool and live bird which represent what he should be from now on – humble like the lowly hyssop and worm, despite being alive like the bird. But neither of these two stages represents what the baal teshuvah needs to avoid a relapse.
That’s where the hair comes in. Literally. When you have gone without any hair at all – you will be more attuned to its presence and rate of growth. It’s been said that life is like a downward escalator – if you are not going up – you’re going down. What may have been a solid conviction to remain humble the week after his offerings may turn into a distant memory a few years down the line. What is a more constant reminder for the former metzorah, however, is spiritual growth. As long as he is growing in his avodas Hashem then he will be reminded not to backslide into the arrogance and selfishness that caused him to deserve tzaraas.
While we are not recovering metzoraim (Thank G-d) this lesson is equally applicable to us. This is probably why hair continues to grow even after most things have stopped. As an “adult” we are no longer getting taller and our shoe size is no longer changing. But hair keeps growing to signify to us that there are aspects of our life that we must constantly seek to grow in.
Hatzlacha !!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Every Little Bit Counts

The entire concept of counting the Omer leaves us with quite a few unanswered questions. Firstly, if the Omer is meant to connect between Pesach and Shavuous – why begin counting in the middle of Pesach? Shouldn’t we count as soon as Pesach is over? Secondly, the Torah refers to the first day of Pesach (following which we begin the count) as Shabbos [see Vayikra 23:15] – why? Thirdly, we seem to be confronted with two mitzvos of counting – the weeks and the days [see Vayikra 23:15-16]. In fact, we do count both seven weeks and fifty (up to and not including) days. Wouldn’t it seem logical to count days only up to seven and then by full weeks? Lastly, the reason behind the title of the entire seffira is unclear – why refer to it as the omer, the omer is simply a measurement, in this case of oats, why don’t we refer to it as seffiras haSeorim or seffiras haMincha Chadasha (the flour offering that is the first to contain the new wheat of the season which is offered at the culmination of the seffira)?
All of our questions reflect the misunderstandings of an outsider looking in. When we come to a fuller realization of the meaning of seffira, our questions won’t be answered – they will simply fade away.
The holiday of Pesach is the holiday of redemption. There is an important distinction between redemption and salvation (Geulah and Hatzalah). To save someone usually means to somehow prevent a negative event. Sometimes, it can mean to mitigate or otherwise neutralize the negative effects of an event (ex. When my power went out, my neighbor really saved me by offering refrigerator space for all my food). To redeem, however, means to remove the person from their situation. Redemption is usually accompanied by accepting personal responsibility for them from here on out. While Hashem certainly saved us from the Egyptian bondage and torture, He ultimately redeemed us from Egypt entirely into his domain and personal jurisdiction.
This redemption happened in multiple stages. Firstly, Hashem took the Jews out of Egypt (this was accomplished in one day – with the same term as the Torah uses to describe the removal of leaven from our houses for Pesach – “תשביתו” or “Sabbaticalize”) then Hashem took the Egypt out of the Jews (this took the remaining 49 days until the Jews were ready for the purpose of their redemption – the receipt of the Torah).
Taking the Egypt out of the Jews was a process with at least two major components – "סור מרע ועשה טוב" – “turn away from bad [deeds] and perform good [ones]” [Tehillim 34:15]. Performing good deeds is a daily event. We rise every day and thank Hashem for the ability to serve Him and for the opportunities He gives us to do mitzvos. How do you “turn away” from bad deeds, though? By being presented with the opportunity and refusing. We are not faced with the same challenges every day – there are the diverse trials of the weekday and the unique set of circumstances that govern the weekend. In order to truly wash our hands from sin we must experience both and come out unblemished. This is the reason for the two separate counts.
Finally, why the reference to the measurement of the Omer instead of its substance? because it is that philosophy that keeps us going day by day. While we do need to focus on a “big” goal and know where our life and Torah accomplishments are going; ultimately, we should realize that it isn’t the “big goals” that count. Hashem put us here every day to accomplish an everyday goal. As the mishna states “It is not up to you to finish the task, yet you are not at liberty to desist from working towards its completion” [Avos 2:16] The most empowering lesson of all is that Hashem only requires from us our part, our “measure”.
And when we shoulder our part of the burden, the Hashem will surely see the interwoven tapestry of all of Am Yisrael and bring the final redemption, speedily in our days. Amen.
So, happy counting, because every day counts, because you count, and because Hashem is counting on you !
Hatzlacha !

Monday, March 25, 2013

Anti Chaos Theory

Probably the biggest lesson that we can take from the seder on Pesach is its name.
Why is it called the seder (literally, the order)? On a simple level – because we have so many mitzvos to fulfill that is we don’t perform them in a pre arranged order – we may forget one or more.
I think there is a deeper reason as well.
The message of the entire story of the exodus and the crippling punishment of the Egyptians is precisely that – that there is an order to the world. Events are not happenstance and there is a choirmaster that directs everything. If there is one message that we must internalize on this holy, holy night – this is it.
Have a very meaningful seder !

Friday, March 22, 2013

Doing Our Best - But Why ?!

In the special Haftarah that we read for Shabbos Hagadol we hear the prophet Malachi tell of the messianic era. After centuries and millennia of toil – devoted Yidden who toiled, guided only by their unwavering faith will finally be recognized and rewarded. Obviously, their reward will be commensurate with their efforts and will be granted on several levels. One distinction that will be made involves those who “serve Hashem and those who do not serve Him” [Malachi 3:18]
The Gemara [Chagiga 9b] teaches us that both of the people referred to in the passuk have been righteous, that is why they receive divine rewards. The harsh condemnation of an incomplete tzaddik as “one who does not serve Him” is solely in reference to that tzaddik’s lack of total dedication. How is this lack of totality expressed ? He has only reviewed his learning 100 times and not 101.
An idea that explains this seemingly harsh statement is an analysis of motives. What drives us to achieve and excel in our Avodas Hashem ? Sometimes it is nothing more than a type A personality that looks to overachieve in everything. While every effort spent in divine service deserves recognition, there is a special place reserved to reward those that toil purely for the sake of Heaven. There is nothing to gain (qualitatively) from reviewing one’s learning that extra hundred and first time, yet one whose avodah is purely lishma will do it, while those who only seek to excel will not.
This Pesach we will all perform many, many acts of avodah – the cleaning, cooking and even learning to insure that we will have a memorable Pesach. Lest an impure thought creep into our motives – lest we be driven by a mundane desire to just “do it right” – let us remember the admonishing words of Malachi. Even when there will be ‘no difference’ and even when all is already done – let us exert our best efforts in recognition of the true reason. We were once slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt – and now, gloriously so, we are slaves to the Almighty.
Hatzlacha !!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Now You Have Money... And Now You Don't

The Torah [Vayikra 5:1-13] describes a particular type of offering known as “קרבן עולה ויורד” or the “Rising and falling offering”. This is an atonement offering that is brought to complete a teshuvah process for a few specific sins including taking an oath in vain and entering the Beis Hamikdash while forgetting that one is impure.
 The reference of rising and falling is to the value of the offering. If the one seeking atonement is wealthy, an animal offering is brought. If he (or she) is of lesser financial means, the korban is two doves. And, finally, if the penitent possesses even fewer funds, they may fulfill the korban with a flour offering.
The sliding scale nature of the korban is certainly very understandable – after all, every man should pay according to his means. There is, however, a slight difficulty in understanding the justice of this method. The Talmud [tractate kerisus 27b, quoted by Rashi here] teaches that if a person committed these sins while wealthy and subsequently fell from financial grace, they need only bring the lesser korban. The opposite also holds true, if the sinner was impoverished and received a windfall, then a wealthy person’s offering is required.
Shouldn’t the sinner be responsible to bring the level of offering that corresponds to his financial status at the time of the sin ?
The answer lies in an understanding of what any korban is coming to accomplish. If we (mistakenly) believe that a sin offering is somehow making restitution for the crime committed – then we would be justified in believing that the sinner’s level of wealth at the time of the sin matters. But in truth, the korban is not coming to replace anything that was lost. It is, rather, coming to repair a relationship that was broken. As such, it should, no – must, take into account where the penitent is standing now. Because it is only from his current position that the former sinner must pursue G-d and seek to draw close to him.
Perhaps this is another allusion to the name of the offering. In our spirituality, we all rise and fall – if we dwell on former glories we may fail to conquer our current hurdles. But once we realize that we can always start from where we find ourselves right now – we can begin to re-build our spirituality and once again soar to staggering hights.
Hatzlacha !!

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Set In Stone

In understanding the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf, we are faced with a dilemma. When Moshe Rabbeinu smashed the first Luchos he was applauded by G-d ( See Rashi, Devarim 34:12). But now that Hashem has forgiven the people enough to give them another set of tablets, Moshe Rabbeinu is instructed to hew them himself. If there was such a high degree of divine approval for breaking the luchos why “punish” Moshe Rabbeinu and demand he make restitution?
We would be stumped by this question if we didn’t take a closer look at the wording of the instruction. “פסל לך שני לוחות אבנים” “Carve for yourself two tablets of stone” [Shemos 34:1].
The operative word is “לך”, “for yourself”. The first set of tablets were entirely spiritual in nature. They were hand-carved by G-d Himself and presented as a gift to the Jewish people. But it was a gift that was unearned, and as such its importance and message were callously rejected by them.
When the time comes for the fullness of the penance over the sin that caused the first luchos to be set aside, Hashem tells Moshe Rabbeinu – if you don’t want these to be betrayed as well, you’d better not consider them a gift. Only by accepting ownership and claiming it through the effort of carving the tablets himself, does Moshe truly acquire the Torah on behalf of mankind. No longer is the Torah simply a divine gift, but it now resides etched in the tablets of man’s toil.
What held true then applies even now. If we see the Torah as some light handed down from above – we may be wowed, but we will also feel entitled to turn away at will. But, if we carve our own tablets – if we struggle and invest in the acquisition of that Torah – then it will be truly ours, never to be betrayed.
Happy Carving!