Friday, December 28, 2007

In The Best Of Times and The Other Times ...

When making the grand impression on Moshe, Hashem chooses a nondescript thorny shrub to appear out of. Couldn't He have chosen a more stately botanical entity ?

Rashi tells us that no, He couldn't have - because this was Hashem's way of showing us that He also participates in our sorrows. Simply put, this means that when His people are being enslaved Hashem will not flaunt honor and majesty, but rather, make do with something more humble.

The Kli Yakar, however, suggests two explanations that are very far from this one.

What Rashi may possibly be hinting at is the desire of Hashem to convey information about this current crisis to Moshe. The thorny shrub actually symbolizes Pharaoh and the Egyptians and the fact that it wasn't consumed is indicative of the staying power Hashem will grant the Egyptians to withstand all ten plagues !

Alternatively, the thorns represent the discord found amongst the Jewish nation ( as was evidenced by the incident with Dosson and Aviram that sent Moshe fleeing Egypt in the first place ) and the crackling of the fire is meant to represent the subtle whisperings of lashon hara !

What message is Hashem giving Moshe ? What about hope ? What about believing in the people he is going to be sent to redeem ?

Possibly this is the most important lesson to absorb. Especially for an up and coming leader of the Jewish people.

There are always troubles. The national destiny of the "chosen" people is one that is marked out for suffering. But that shouldn't convince us that there is no G-d, chas veshalom. The opposite is true. This revelation at the burning bush is instructive for just that reason. It is precisely when we are outnumbered, bruised and (seemingly) hopelessly enslaved that Hashem's hand in the world is felt the most. You see, any other nation wouldn't survive this kind of treatment - they would just turn over and die. But the Jews, Hashem's people, live on - this is the greatest revelation of our G-d.

This is also the message Hashem seeks to impart to Moshe when they speak. "I will be with them in all their troubles" says Hashem.

And what of the people ? Why appear in a bush crackling with the fires of lashon hara ? Because this too is a powerful testimony, not just to Hashem but also to His people.

The story is told of a man who turned to bitterness by his horrific experiences in the holocaust. He remarked by way of explanation, that he saw, in the camps, a man who charged half a slice of bread for use of his smuggled siddur. When he saw such contention and selfishness, the bitter man just turned off. What he didn't focus on, however, was the line of people who would sacrifice their bread for the opportunity nonetheless. It is specifically through our small-mindedness and contentiousness that our nobility shines through. Not in the display of these negative traits - but in the strength of character that is displayed in rising above them.

Let us learn from this example. Let us, when faced with adversity, struggle to see Hashem's hand - specifically in our troubles. And let us be shining examples - not of the fires of slander and negativity - but of the shrub that continues to exist and thrive despite being beset by this plague.

Hatzlacha !

Friday, December 21, 2007

Do I Count ?

A rather radical transition takes place for the Jews in this week's parasha. They go from royal kin to a rather low caste in Egyptian society.

Both Yaakov and Yosef foresee this downshift and prepare for it in their own ways.

Yaakov, before going down to Mitzrayim, sacrifices "zevachim" in Beer Sheva [see Bereshis 46:1]. And Yosef, on his deathbed, commands his children with the following haunting message.

" .... V'E-Lokim Pakod Yifkod Eschem ...." [Bereshis 50:24]

Literaly, "Hashem will surely remember you ...". But the word "Pakod" isn't just remeber - that would be "zachor". The word "pakod" means remembering enough to count. It's as if Yosef is telling the Jews that they will not only be the subject of divine nostalgia, so to speak, they will actually currently matter to Hashem.

This is Yosef's command to the Yidden descending into galus and this is the heralding cry we still need to march to. The much spoken about "Jewish Continuity" isn't an issue of whether future generations will be Jews. Yosef Hatzaddik taught us that in reality, the issue is whether we are Jews. If we live our lives so our children can be Jewish we are actually showing our kids that we are "setting them up" into a system. But, if we live life as Jews because we believe that we count as Jews then our children will, be'ezras Hashem, be filled with same strong self identity as Yidden as we are.

Hatzlacha !

Friday, December 14, 2007

Wagons Of Righteousness

When the brothers come back to Yaakov with news of Yosef's continued existence and success in Egypt - Yaakov is unwilling to believe them. Only once he sees the "wagons" that Yosef sent along for the journey does Yaakov's spirit return.

What was it about the wagons and what, exactly, didn't Yaakov believe ?

The question is discussed by many authorities. Most agree that Yaakov had no trouble believing that Yosef was alive. What he doubted was the quality of his life - was Yosef spiritually intact or had he lost much of the stature he had held in Yaakov's house. Twenty two years in the hedonistic, idolatrous culture of Egypt could certainly do that to you.

The Kli Yakar suggests ( based on the Medrash ) that the wagons were an allusion to the last mitzva that they had learnt about together, the Calf of the Severed Head ( עגלה ערופה ). The wagons symbolized this by indicating that Yosef observed the commandment to escort his guests - a commandment that is derived from the statements required of the beis din in the case of the Calf of the Severed Head.

Rav Zev Leff discusses the implication of the wagons as a vehicle for decending to Egypt. By Yosef sending enough wagon space to transport Yaakov and all his possessions - Yosef is hinting that he knows that the key to maintaining high spiritual standards is to insulate yourself against the outside world with your own 'daled amos' of yiddishkeit. And if need be, transport them with you, wherever you go.

I would like to offer my own humble suggestion. Self Identity. As the Viceroy to the emperor - Yosef would be completely within his rights in sending whatever inferior transportation to pick up his father and maintaining the best for himself - after all - he has the honor of a throne to uphold. As viceroy - that logic is sound. As a Jew - he has an obligation to his fellow Jews and certainly his father. By sending the very best wagons he had - and making due with less in the meantime - Yosef demonstrates that he has not forgotten who he is. A Jew. With the responsibilities incumbent therein.

So when life finds us in our own little 'Egypt', when we have to live with our public face forward - we must never see that face when we look in the mirror. To ourselves, we must always be our true selves, a Yid.

Hatzlacha !

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Lights, Camera ... More Lights !

As we light our menorahs and gaze beyond the lights into the darkness outside ... remember - that only takes one little candle to dispel the darkness.

But in order to work it has to be real. A picture of a candle just won't do it. A fantastic sculpture with perfect likeness and coloring - also won't get the job done. It has to be real.

For our Torah learning to give 'light' and meaning to our whole day - it has to be real. Borne of a true desire to serve Hashem by connecting to his words. But if we can manage this little slice of 'lishma' - it can make a major difference. Like the difference between a walk in the dark and a walk with a lighted candle.

May we all be zocheh to illuminate our days (and nights) with the words of the Holy Torah and may our dedication to this lofty goal hasten the geulah sheleimah, amen.

Hatzlacha !

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Ruling : A How To Guide

The Torah describes the episode of Yehuda and Tamar as an interlude between the selling of Yosef and the events that would bring about his ultimate redemption from slavery.

Rashi, quoting the Medrash, teaches us that Yehuda was effectively exiled for failing to suggest that Yosef should be returned to their father unharmed. It was during this exile that the events with his sons and Tamar transpired. Following this incident, we can see that Yehuda is once again accepted into his brothers' midst. He even rises back to his position of leadership – as we see when he is appointed responsible for Binyamin in the second Egypt expedition (to barter for grain during the famine).

What did Yehuda learn – or what atonement did he perform – through his misadventures with Tamar ?

When Tamar seduces Yehuda, she takes from him three items as collateral – against his promise of payment. His staff, signet ring and cloak. Taken at face value, these are items of both practical and personal value to Yehuda and he would be sure to redeem them with his promised payment. On a deeper level, points out the Kli Yakar, these are highly symbolic items – and the key to Yehuda's personal redemption and rehabilitation.

The signet ring represents the bris that Hashem has signed into Yehuda's flesh (and every Jewish male since). Hashem is telling Yehuda – through Tamar – that if you will follow your desires you will be giving up or reneging on your covenant with Him. The staff is the scepter of kingship. Certainly, a king cannot be subject to his whims – how can he rule others when he can't even rule himself. Finally, Yehuda is persuaded to give up his cloak – the tzitzis – the symbol of the mantle of mitzvos that we willingly accept upon ourselves. You cannot dedicate your actions to God and to your desires.

When Yehuda charges Tamar with infidelity she merely hands over the items and requests that he realize what he is about to do. Yehuda then has a choice – to remain seemingly oblivious to Tamar's plight and his own level of involvement, or to acknowledge his responsibility for the actions that he committed. With heroic determination, Yehuda rises to the challenge – effectively reclaiming his charge over himself, his actions and - later - his brothers, as well.

Certainly we can all be inspired by Yehuda's personal redemption to assume a more active charge of whichever aspect in our lives may need a firmer grip and surer hand.

Hatzlacha !!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

On Enemies and Friends

When Yaakov Avinu is faced with his marauding brother and his 400 troops, he pleads with Hashem for assistance. The wording of his tefilla, however, gives us a fantastic insight into how Yaakov perceived the danger.
"הצילני נא מיד אחי, מיד עשו" "Save me please, from my brother, from Esav"
[Bereshis 32:12]
The straight understanding – as explained by Rashi [ad loc.] – tells us that Yaakov is mentioning the exceptional cruelty with which Esav is pursuing him. Not only is he employing his famed 'Esav' qualities by hunting them down with intent to kill – he is also ignoring their brotherly status, a double wrong.

Homiletically, however, the seforim kedoshim explain that what Yaakov is doing in the prayer is enumerating the possible outcomes and davening for salvation from each one. Possibility one – Esav catches up to them and acts out his 'Esav-ness', i.e. kills them – an undesirable outcome. Possibility two – Esav catches them and does not want to harm them at all ! Rather, he wants to rekindle his brotherliness with Yaakov. By mentioning this in his tefilla, Yaakov is teaching us that this is an equally undesirable outcome !

When it comes to the physical well being of his family – he is concerned lest Esav attempt to harm him. When it comes to their spiritual wellbeing, however, Yaakov Avinu is more afraid of Esav's friendly overtures.

A friend is a person whom you trust implicitly to look out for what's best for you. A real friend will do just that – with one major caveat - his assistance and caring will be colored by his own opinion. A simple friend would make sure that you had what you needed. A righteous friend might look out for your neshama. A wicked friend, however, will try to get you to join in his corruption. This isn't malicious – on the contrary – he is trying to perform in a friendly manner and 'hook you up' with whatever evil he is currently involved in ! The results for you are, understandably, disastrous.

Having an enemy is dangerous because it means that someone wants to do harm to you and yours. Having a friend like an Esav can be just as bad. When Yaakov Avinu begs for salvation from this confrontation – he is clearly begging against both of these outcomes.

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Truth ? Maybe. Emes ? Definitely !

When we see Yaakov Avinu, paragon of truth, deliberately obscure this truth in order to receive the berachos from is father we may have been a bit confused. However, when we find that the same Yaakov takes steps to insure that the sheep born into Lavan's flock will end up in his (Yaakov's) pocket we know our confusion is well justified !

In other words, why does Yaakov, who is the patriarch that served Hashem by perfecting his dedication to Emes, seem to dabble a bit heavily in truth's evil twin, trickery ?!

When Esav claims that Yaakov had used subterfuge to secure the birthright the Torah uses the term "מרמה", trickery. The Targum ( translation and running commentary to the Torah written by Onkelos, a contemporary of the authors of the mishna ) however, translates the word as "בחכמאה" namely, in a wise way. When Lavan does a deed of trickery the Torah uses the same term to describe his activities ( "למה רימיתני" ). There, though, the Targum happily condemns Lavan's actions with the term of "שקרת בי" - you've lied to me.

Based on this discrepancy, Rav Yerucham Schwab ( as quoted in the Maayan Beis Hashoeva ) postulates that there is a big difference between the seeming half truths of Yaakov and the sins by omission of Lavan. While Yaakov's actions seem to deviate from the literal truth - they are actually directed towards a higher, broader Emes. When he takes the brachos under disguise, Yaakov is - in fact - only taking what is rightfully his - after all, he bought the birthright ! When Yaakov manipulates the birthing sheep to produce ones with the markings he requires - it's only because Lavan is trying to cheat him out of twenty years worth of paychecks !

Sometimes the path to the straight truth has a few curves. Just like a steep mountain trail - it can twist and turn so much that you might find yourself moving in a direction that is the complete opposite of the one you are supposed to be going. If you stick to the trail, however - you will find that it curves back towards your objective. Yaakov, who served Hashem by a dedication to the ultimate, higher goal of Emes - was well versed in negotiating these curves to arrive at the loftier goal of real truth.

Hatzlacha !

Monday, November 05, 2007

To Each Their Own Struggle

Yitzchak Avinu and Rivka Imeinu remain childless for the first twenty years of their marriage. Undoubtedly, they both davened pretty hard for the blessing of a child. The passuk explicitly points out that Hashem answered Yitzchak Avinu's teffila and granted them children. [ see Bereishis 25:21]

What about Rivka Imeinu's teffilos ?

The gemara [yevamos 64a - quoted by Rashi ad loc.] explains that the prayers of a tzaddik who is also the son of a tzaddik are greater than the prayers of a tzaddik whose father was wicked. Rivka's father, Besuel, was wicked, while Avraham - Yitzchak's father - was righteous.

But why should that be the case ? Doesn't the gemara teach us that a sincere Baal Teshuva is possessed of such a high level of holiness that even a completely righteous individual may not stand in his place ? The teffilos of a tzaddik ben rasha should be higher !

It's true, that the tzaddik ben rasha has made great strides in his personal development. The road from the household of sin to the halls of righteousness is certainly long and arduous. But that's just it - it's arduous - but also obvious. While the baal teshuva guards himself against relapse - the tzaddik ben tzaddik must guard himself from an even deadlier foe - complacency.

How easy would it have been for the son of the greatest righteous man of the generation to simply content himself with living in his father's household and being "just a good boy" ? How many FFB's are just happy with status quo ?

Yitzchak Avinu wasn't.

He was a sincere tzaddik in his own right. And having risen up, despite the most powerful yetzer hara of stagnation and complacency, certainly accounts for why his teffilos carried special merit.

And us ?

We must ask ourselves - are we also fighting complacency and the lethargy to resign ourselves to our religious status quo ? Could we fight harder ?

Friday, November 02, 2007

Our Finest Hour

The Torah goes to great length to record the story of Eliezer, servant of Avraham Avinu, who was sent to find a wife for Yitzchak Avinu. On his journey, Eliezer is the recipient of much divine assistance, including a complex conditional test that he planned to give the prospective bride, which is miraculously passed. And when Eliezer finally secures the bride, Rivka Imeinu, he describes these miracles to Rivka's family in great detail.

And the Torah records them both. The narrative itself and Eliezer's retelling in Lavan's house. Why ? Surely Hashem isn't getting paid by the word ?!

The Medrash Rabba ( Bereishis 60:8 ) explains that the even the (seemingly) mundane tales of the servants of the Avos ( Patriarchs ) are more beloved by G-d than the Torah learned by their descendants. In other words, the holiness of the Avos had permeated to the extent that even their servants' mundane tasks were on a higher spiritual level than the dedicated holy tasks of their descendants.

I would like to offer a slightly different take on the wording of the Medrash. It is specifically the description of the tasks of servants that Hashem loves. This is because when we perform lofty spiritual deeds we may feel ourselves to be VIP's on a spiritual scale. The yetzer hara can easily sneak in to our motivations and inject haughtiness and pride into them.

When we are servants however, there is no place for haughtiness and pride - and our actions are purer. Even our mundane actions, when viewed as the fulfillment of the will of our Master, take on an aura of spirituality that is unparalleled.

Let us examine our actions and attempt to do one thing a day - holy or mundane - with the intention that we are just simple servants of Hashem - dedicated to Him completely and hanging upon His word.

Hatzlacha !

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Mark of A True Tzaddekes

When Eliezer goes to the well to find a wife for Yitzchak, he sets a condition for himself. "If the girl tells me that she will give both my camels and I to drink - then she is the one for my master, Yitzchak."

(Additionally, there was another condition set by Avraham Avinu, however. She must be descended from his family.)

So Eliezer goes to the well and sees Rivka - she passes the "drinking" test and offers to draw water for Eliezer's camels too. And then the passuk describes that Eliezer stands waiting with baited breath. What, is he waiting for her to describe her family now, to fulfill Avraham's condition? No, because we learn that her lineage was 'proven' when the water rose up to her.

So what's he waiting for?? She's proven herself on all counts, right ? Wrong.

It was the actual drawing of the water that was a final condition. Once Rivka had promised Eliezer that she would draw water for his camels ( quite the promise ! ) Eliezer just had to wait to see if she would follow through. Anyone can make large and grand gestures of chessed - the mark of a true tzaddekes is the follow through.

And thus, as soon as Rivka is done drawing, Eliezer gives her the jewelry and thanks Hashem for guiding his mission to fulfillment.

Hatzlacha !

Friday, October 26, 2007

What Are Friends For ?

"And Hashem appeared to Avraham on the plains of Mamre ... "

Rashi points out that Mamre had the unique zechus to host this revelation because he gave Avraham good advice regarding the bris milah. Prompting the inevitable question - why would Avraham Avinu, who had tracked across continents following the word of G-d, need someone else's advice regarding a commandment ? Hashem said to do it - so he will. period.

Many answers have been given to this classic question. An approach that we can all learn from, however, postulates as follows.

Avraham was meant to view the bris as a test. He would have to find some struggle to overcome and perform this mitzva. A struggle that Avraham was well versed in winning was the struggle against popular opinion. He is called "Ivri" ( lit. "the Hebrew" but figuratively "the one from across the river" ) Avraham stood against an entire polytheistic culture and proclaimed the belief in one G-d - even to the pain of death !

It was this struggle that Avraham thought he had to overcome - to perform what would be taken as self mutilation is certainly different - and to do it for the sake of Hashem's mitzva would be a making a real stand against the pagan world. But only if they knew about it. So Avraham contacted his old war buddies ( see war on the four kings ) and told him what he would do.

Mamre is the only one that saw that Avraham's approach was wrong. For this mitzva - a bris - a covenant - a personal sealing of an almost intimate relationship - no public stand was needed - and that's why Mamre suggested he should go through with it.

Hashem must have agreed with Mamre's reasoning - that's why he revealed Himself to Avraham in Mamre's plains.

And what can we learn from this ? There is a time for making a public stand and there is a time for quiet personal conviction. Sometimes we need an outside perspective to clue us in to which is which. Our job is to seek out and maintain friends that will help us in this lofty mission called life.

Hatzlacha !

Friday, October 19, 2007

Why Not ?

When Avram Avinu successfully defeats the armies of the four kings and rescues his nephew Lot, he also rescues much material wealth that had belonged to S'dom. When the king of S'dom invites Avram Avinu to 'help himself' to the spoils Avram Avinu declines rather forcefully, saying that he shall not take even " ... a string or a shoelace ..." from the spoils.

Why not ?

We find that Hashem had promised Avram Avinu great wealth. Wouldn't it seem like Avram Avinu is rejecting Hashem's gift by turning down the king of S'dom ? Moreover, Avram Avinu does accept gifts of substantial wealth from Pharoah and Avimelech, two kings who are no more saints than the king of S'dom.

The key to unlocking this mystery lies in a mishna in Pirkei Avos and an idea presented by Rav Eliyahu Dessler, zatzal.

The Mishna, in the fifth chapter of maseches Avos, gives us an uncommon insight into human character and it's perversion by the people of S'dom. It states; "He who says what's mine is mine and what's yours is yours - is of medium character ( neither righteous nor wicked ) and some say his is the character displayed by the people of S'dom." The simple understanding is of someone who respects other people's property ( and is thusly not wicked ) but has not progressed to the level of righteousness where he sees his own property simply as a means to help others. Beneath that, however, is an understanding of human nature. All people are either givers or takers, says Rav Dessler, and more frequently, combinations of the two. In S'dom - they were strictly takers. They had town ordinances that prevented acts hospitality - because it was antithetical to their philosophy - which was to take. That's why the people of S'dom were so obsessed with ownership - what's mine is mine and what's yours is not yet mine ( otherwise known as yours ).

But possession is not the only way to "take". Sometimes I can actually give but still be taking. If I give you an item but constantly remind you of my largess and use it as a bargaining chip ( "well since I've given you such and such - you should definitely sell your product to me at a discount" etc. etc. ) I have, in fact taken from you and not given to you.

This is why Avram Avinu does not take money from the king of S'dom. If the king of S'dom were giving it outright it would be one thing - but he isn't. He is attempting a classic S'dom move - to gain fame and influence by being known as 'The man who gave Avram Avinu his start'. It is for this reason that Avram Avinu refuses him - True, Hashem promised Avram Avinu great wealth - but Hashem gives and his messengers would do the same.

How do we measure up in our personal interactions ? Are we worthy of being descendants of Avram Avinu ? Or are we, sadly, echoing the philosophies of S'dom ?

Have a great Shabbos ! And Hatzlacha !

Friday, October 12, 2007

Adrift In Our Very Own Ark

In order to determine if the waters of the flood had sufficiently receded, Noach sends an ambassador out into the world - the dove. When the dove returns with the olive branch - Noach knows it is safe to venture outside.

There are several unexplained points.
1. Even after Noach receives this information he patiently waits for Hashem to release him from the ark and give him permission to leave. So why send the dove ? What would sending the dove accomplish ?
2. Where did the dove get the olive branch ? Weren't the trees destroyed along with the people ?
3. The Ramban, quoting the medrash, actually says that the olive branch came from Gan Eden. According to this medrash - how would this signify dry land to Noach (which was the entire reason the dove was sent out to begin with) ?!?

What was Noach doing in the ark for a year ? Feeding the animals ! Why would Hashem put Noach through all that hard work just to save him from the flood - couldn't he just have sat back on a deck chair and watched the waves ? No ! The time spent in the ark was a personal rehabilitation for Noach - he had to dedicate his time to others to become worthy of being saved.

So how worthy is worthy ? ( i.e. when was Noach's rehabilitation sufficient ? ) When he managed to reverse the process that brought on the flood to begin with.

The generation that was condemned by the flood had "...destroyed the ways of all flesh upon the earth."[Bereshis 6:12] Even the animals were immoral because of the pervasive influence of the corrupt society. In order for Hashem to know that Noach had managed to earn his salvation - he had to influence the animals on the ark to a high level of holiness - the opposite of corruption.

So the purpose of sending out the dove wasn't only to see if the waters had receded - it was to see the reactions and interactions of this bird, that had been positively influenced by Noach for a year, with the new world. When the dove returns with the olive branch, Noach knows that he has been successful in his personal redemption - for no corrupt animal would have returned with a bitter branch that signifies trust in Hashem ( see Rashi Bereishis 8:11 ). And the medrash that says the branch was from Gan Eden is emphasizing how powerful Noach's reformation was - that it reached the levels of perfection in service of Hashem that are only associated with Gan Eden.

And what lesson remains for us ? Every day there people that we influence ( friends, family, etc. ) just by being around them. Are we contributing to their levels of holiness - or chas veshalom, the opposite ? Let us take inspiration from Noach and set to work - not only on our own spiritual achievements, but on the achievements that we can inspire in others.

Hatzlacha !

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

The Arava : Sins or Supplications

The day of "Great Hoshanna" is almost upon us. If we notice, the major player of the day is not the beautiful esrog ( compared to a scholar filled with torah and good deeds ) or even the strong Lulav ( compared to a scholar who has, at least, Torah study to his credit ) rather, the plain arava – with no merit and no redeeming factors ( it has no fragrance – to indicate good deeds, nor does it produce sweet/or any fruit – to indicate Torah study ).

Why the arava ? Let us offer a few suggestions.

Firstly, the sifrei mussar speak about the Arava's symbolic meaning ( of a Jew with no merits ) as being apropos for us. In the final calculation can we really stand before G-d and declare that we have righteous actions to our credit ? On Hoshanna Rabba - the day that the final notes are being made in our judgment for the year to come – we come before G-d with humility and declare ourselves aravos, and pray mercy and salvation from Hashem. Not because we deserve it but because He is the great redeemer. " ! אנא ד' הושיעה נא "

Secondly, the Sefer Toda'ah quotes the idea of our sages, that the arba'a minim are also compared to parts of our body. The arava is meant to compare to lips. It is extremely fitting, then, that we take the species that resembles our mouth and use it to offer our prayers to Hashem on this awesome day. This is why the Ushpizin guest of this day is Dovid Hamelech – the composer of praises and supplications ( that we use our mouth to say ) to G-d.

Thirdly, the art of prayer is compared to water in the passuk "שפכי כמים לבך נוכח פני ד" "Pour out your heart like water, in the presence of Hashem". While all four minim need water to survive, the arava is particularly in need of water. It often grows on river banks to be near a water source. It is the first to dry out when kept out of water. On this important day – we don't want to just pray – we want to epitomize prayer with all of our actions.

Lastly, there are the letters that spell out the word arava ( ערבה ). They could easily be rearranged to spell out aveira ( עברה ). So why do we approach G-d with our sins in hand ? Because it's much better than hiding them behind our back. We know that we are imperfect and when we daven we are beseeching the almighty for mercy and salvation – not justice. At the conclusion of the Hoshannos we actually beat the arava bundle on the ground – signifying our rejection of our aveiros. The letters of aveira ( עבירה ) can also be rearranged – to form the word areiva ( עריבה ) ( pleasant or good ). So how do aveiros become pleasing before G-d ? Through this process of acknowledging them, taking them by the hand ( so as to speak ) and giving 'em a good couple of thwaks on the ground.

May we all be zocheh to own up to our shortcomings, stand before Hashem in pleading supplication and merit having a "gut kvittel", a good note, entered into the book of tzaddikim in our name. Amen.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Our Full Attention

After 40 days of introspection, after an intense two day proclamation of Hashem's sovereignty, after a week's worth of personal self betterment and sincere desire to return, and after an entire day of fasting and praying for the atonement - the cleansing from our past misdeeds - what is the next step in our personal journey ?

Naturally, if we used our time properly and achieved a measure of success in our Elul and Tishrei-so-far, then the real question on our minds is - how do we protect all that we've gained ? How do we prevent the heightened sensitivity to all things holy from dropping beneath the radar into a physicality-induced stupor ? How can we safeguard the "New Me" who is more concerned with my fellow man from slipping into a cynic who is only out for themselves ?

The answer is, of course, Sukkos - but how ?

Well, before our crash course in self betterment, there was plenty of mental energy being focused on our desires, wants and schemes. It is a given that these can prevent one from serving G-d properly. Even once we have emerged, a better person, we have still not directed these energies for good - we have simply denied them their evil application. Enter Sukkos, a holiday that is so filled with mitzvos that it can ( and does ! ) demand our entire attention. We have completed the "סור מרע" and now we are embarking on the "עשה טוב". This is the final part of our reformation - investing in our relationship with Hashem our full attention.

B'Hatzlacha !

Friday, September 21, 2007

The Way We Were

"השיבנו ד' אליך ונשובה חדש ימינו כקדם"
"Return us, Hashem, to you - and we will return, renew our days like they were before"

The greatest miracle of teshuva is a return to the innocent state of pre-sin.

When we do something wrong - we may say we're sorry - we may even mean it - but, generally speaking, we can never become the person we were before the wrongdoing.

Enter the eternal kindness of the Creator. Teshuva is a cooperative venture. When we successfully complete our part ( regret, viduy and acceptance for the future ) Hashem's part begins. In His kindness he really does recreate us into a person - who is startlingly similar to the one we were - with one major difference. The sin is not part of their personal history.

"השיבנו ד' אליך ונשובה חדש ימינו כקדם"
"Return us, Hashem, to you - and we will return, renew our days like they were before"

Gmar Chasima Tova Lekol Klal Yisrael, amen.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Just Our Luck

While it is a matter of great discussion exactly where (or to whom) we sacrifice the Se'ir L'Azazel - the sacrificial scapegoat - all agree that it's fate must be chosen by lottery, or luck.

The Sefer Akeida shows us, through this, yet another facet of Hashem's tremendous kindness towards us.

We know that we must do teshuva for our misdeeds because they are barriers between us and our Father In Heaven. But what about things that we never knew were wrong ? They still create barriers and distance ourselves from the divine connection we wish to have - how can we atone for those sins - we never consciously chose to transgress by doing them ?! It was just our rotten luck that we were never exposed to the right way of doing things !

This is precisely why, says the Akeida, we have to have at least one korban chosen by lottery - or luck. This is to atone for - and remove any barriers created by - any misdeeds that we may have done, without knowing, just by our sheer, ill fated, luck.

And what about nowadays - when we no longer bring this sacrifice ?

We must seize this meaning and concentrate on it - when we mention the Se'ir L'Azazel in Yom Kippur's Mussaf.

Gmar Chasima Tova Lechol Klal Yisrael !

Monday, September 10, 2007

Why Apples ?

Well ...

1. In kabballa, the scent of an apple orchard is said to resemble the smell of Gan Eden. ( see Rashi in Bereshis 27:27 ) therefor - we dip an apple in honey to symbolize our desire to see Hashem's kingdom declared ( as is the focus of the entire Rosh HaShana davening ) and the "scent" of Gan Eden permeate the world.
2. The apple is a traditionally sweet fruit and we dip an already sweet fruit into honey ( which is even sweeter ) to show that we are hoping for a really sweet year. Additionally, the idea of sweetening something is not just a culinary preference - rather - it refers to injecting doses of mercy into Hashem's otherwise strict judgment of us. By sweetening the year we are actually hoping to be judged favorably.
3. Shlomo Hamelech compares the Jewish people to an apple tree [Shir HaShirim 2]. The Medrash Rabba states that the apple fruit matures before the leaves on the tree can sufficiently protect it - similarly - so did bnei yisrael say "Naaseh" ( we will do the mitzvos ) before "Nishma" ( we will hear what they are ). So the apple is symbolic of our wholehearted desire to serve Hashem completely - with no reservations or conditions.

May we ( and all klal yisrael ) be zocheh to a sweet year, a year of bracha and hatzlacha - a year where we truly bring to frui(t)tion all of the symbolism of Rosh Hashana night.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Echoes of Return

The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh details for us two paths to Teshuva - each one bearing evidence of the supreme kindness that Hashem has does for us when He accepts our teshuva.

The first - Teshuva through suffering.

If we are 'afflicted' with any form of suffering ( ranging from a minor inconvenience - like not having any change for a parking meter - to serious wrath-of-G-d type stuff ) it's our cue to stand up and say "I have sinned - please return me to you, Hashem". We may be convinced that our 'sorry' isn't worth much - after all G-d did have to force it out of us - not so, says the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh, this is what punishments were created for - and therefor the proper outcome of such punishments is the teshuva process.

The second - Teshuva through blessing.

This mode of teshuva is perhaps harder to come by but yields a much more substantial outcome. When one repents as a result of suffering - there is always the small nagging feeling ( even to the penitent himself ) that it was done merely to spare himself the next blow. If one focuses on Hashem's blessings to us, says the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh, we can achieve a teshuva which will bring us closer to Hashem. In this mode we aren't running away from negative circumstances into the arms of G-d - we are actually running straight at them with an overwhelming feeling of appreciation. So next time something good happens ( even the smallest thing - like having correct change for the parking meter ) realize all the blessings that Hashem showers down upon us and resolve to try to get even closer to Him in the coming year.

Hatzlacha !

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

A Song Of Praise

"רננו צדיקים בד' לישרים נאוה תהילה"
[ תהילים לג:א ]

" Sing your praises of G-d, O righteous ones, the praise of those who walk in the straight paths is beautiful "

What is the defining factor in the "value" of praises to G-d ? Not how well it sounds or even how sincere it is. The most beautiful praise is praise that comes from an intimate knowledge of Hashem's ways.

If I glance at a painting and declare it to be wonderful - certainly that would be nice - but it would pale in comparison to a master artist declaring the same thing ! That's why Dovid Hamelech tells the righteous to sing of Hashem's wonders - they are the ones that can really expound upon them.

What about the rest of us ?

The gemara introduces a concept of a talmid-chacham-in-one-topic. Let us attempt to become a tzaddik in one aspect - before any praise or thanks to Hashem, take an extra moment or two to think about how great a kindness Hashem has granted you and how you would fare without it.

May all our shiros vetishbachos take on the aspect of Rannenu Tzaddikim and may we then be zocheh to bring mashiach, bimheira byameinu, amen.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

A Disgrace Of G-d

The Torah teaches us that if we execute capital punishment by hanging that we shouldn't leave the body hanging because it is a disgrace to G-d - since we are created in His image.

Rashi quotes the Medrash that explains this by way of an allegory : There were once twin brothers. One became an important governmental minister, and the other became a thief. One day the thief was caught and sentenced to death. He was hung on a tree - and all passersby thought it was the minister and the minister was greatly shamed.

Now this story refers to the physical resemblance between the two brothers - surely this is not what the medrash meant when it said that we are created in G-d's image ?!

When we say that we are a Tzelem Elokim we are describing our similarity to Hashem in our ability to choose good over evil. Hashem has free will to choose - and it is in that aspect that He granted us His likeness.

Now we see why it is a disgrace to G-d to leave a person hanging on a tree - it is the very same G-d-like bechira that the perpetrator abused and landed himself in this mess. And therefor it is specifically the misuse of this likeness to G-d that the executed is showcasing by being hung a tree for his crimes. That's why we don't leave him up there - to not harp on the disgrace of free choice and it's consequences.

Monday, August 20, 2007

To Sing Your Praises

In Tehillim 27, which we add to our davening come Elul, we find Dovid HaMelech making an interesting request.
" הורני ד' דרכיך ... למען שוררי "
"Hashem, guide me in your ways ... for the sake of my praises"

At first glance, it seems that the pasuk is implying that the purpose for divine guidance is the "thanks" that Hashem gets in the end - that Dovid HaMelech is dangling a 'carrot' to G-d saying that if you help me I'll 'be your best friend".

Two points help us see past this erroneous conclusion. Firstly - Dovid HaMelech is asking for guidance in Hashem's ways, not his own. So his motivation couldn't be selfish. Secondly, Dovid HaMelech realised that the most meaningful prayer is not the one of desperation. A desperate prayer ( like to heal the sick or grant salvation ) is a big thing - because at it's core there is an acknowledgment that Hashem is the power and force controlling these events. A song of praise however, is an even higher level - because it comes with the realization that Hashem is always looking out for us and the only thing we can really give back to him is our own free willed expressions of praise.

This is the power behind this pasuk - the intense desire to 'do something for G-d' and the understanding that the only thing we have to give is our freely given praise.

Hatzlacha !

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Daven For What We Really Want

When Dovid HaMelech says : "Achas Sha'alti Me'es Hashem, Osa Avakesh" [ Tehillim 27:5 ] he is not only stating his request but is emphasizing it. We know that Dovid HaMelech is asking for the ability to reside in the house of Hashem all his days - why must he declare his request with emphasis ?

Sometimes when we ask for something - we don't necessarily want whatever it is we're asking for - we simply want an additional benefit that we'll get if we ask for this thing.

There is a story of one housewife who tells her friend that she can produce a magnificent dinner for two just by opening a can. The friend doesn't believe her and so she stays hidden away in a closet to watch the proceedings. When the husband gets home his wife sets before him the unappetizing contents of the can and he declares : "Canned beans again ?! Let's eat out !"
The beans were not the source of the fancy meal, just the cause that made it happen.

One can imagine that living in the House of Hashem is a wonderful experience - aside from the sublime pleasure that would permeate the place - there is of course the security of knowing that you are beyond harm's reach.

This is why Dovid Hamelech must emphasize his request - "Osa avakesh" - This is my request - because one might think that he ( and we, when we pray with his words ) simply wanted to be close to G-d for the side benefits it offers. However the emphasis tells us that the desire to be close to Hashem here is pure, wholly for the sake of serving Hashem, nothing else.

So when we petition G-d with these words daily - we should have kavanna for purity of focus and a sincere desire to be closer to Hashem. Le'maan sh'mo.

Hatzlacha !

Friday, August 10, 2007

What Came First, The Temple Or The Tree ?

Commanding the Jewish people regarding the destruction of idolatry, Moshe Rabbeinu recounts all the places where the pagan temples could be found. "...Upon the tall mountains and under every verdant tree..." [Devarim 12:2]

The Kli Yakar points out that this actually highlights a major difference between true divine service and the mistaken notions of the idolaters. Their temples are situated in pastoral, impressive settings - mountaintops and the like - because they have no intrinsic value. In order to inflate the worth of the pagan temples they placed them in important places.

The Beis Hashem, on the other hand, is in an opposite place - firstly, chosen by G-d (and not man) and secondly, on an otherwise nondescript mountain. The real value of the place is in it's kedusha - not it's scenery.

With this in mind we can redouble our efforts to serve Hashem in sincerity and not for the outer trappings we associate with frumkeit.

Hatzlacha !

Friday, August 03, 2007

Oh, Is That All ?!?!?

"What is Hashem, your G-d, asking of you ? But to fear Him and to follow in His ways ..." [Devarim 10:12]

The gemara in maseches Megilla [25a] asks the obvious question - 'Is fear of G-d such a simple matter ?' and it answers ... 'yes, for Moshe rabbeinu it was'!
To illustrate this principle the gemara gives an analogy - imagine someone needing a great big utensil, a pot to hold 100 liters, say - if he has the item in question ( catering warehouse ) then even a big item will seem small ( i.e. he will not feel that cooking a 100 liter pot of soup is a big deal, after all, he has the equipment ). The opposite also holds true, says the gemara. If one needs a small utensil ( like a 5 liter pot ) but doesn't have it - it seems insurmountably large ( picture trying to cook 5 liters of soup in thimbles).
Moshe Rabbeinu had mastered the avodah of yiraas shamayim - therefore he referred to it as a simple matter.

We must still ask, though - why would Moshe Rabbeinu refer to it as a simple matter for us ? We hadn't mastered it yet !

The lesson here is a powerful one - whenever any trial or obstacle comes our way - we must realize that Hashem has already given us the resources to overcome it - and therefore we should be as calm as the one who may have a large task ahead of him - but is confident that he has the tools with which to accomplish it.

Hatzlacha !

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

A Curious Torture

"And He caused you hardship, and He sent you starvation, and He fed you the manna that neither you nor your forefathers had known ..." [Devarim 8:3]

We find all throughout the Torah that the manna was praised as being a heavenly food - what's more, whenever Bnei Yisrael complained about it they were smitten mightily - so how can Moshe Rabbeinu describe it as a torture device !?!?

It must be noted, that when the people complained - they were complaining to Hashem - they were being ingrates ! Lack of proper gratitude is one thing that Hashem doesn't 'let slide'. Here, however, Moshe Rabbeinu is simply sympathizing with the people.

Moshe Rabbeinu was, first and foremost, a Shepherd. His entire relationship to the people was based on compassion. Recognizing that change is stressful - Moshe is even willing to call it torturous - in order to make his point. That point is found in the second half of the passuk - "... in order to instruct you that man shall not live by bread alone, rather, upon all that the Lord says shall man find sustenance"

So G-d is essentially, killing us with kindness here. He gave us the most marvelous food ever imaginable - however, in that, it was so foreign that the Jews were skeptical of it and having to rely on it - was seen as torture. So while we may not prove ungrateful for Hashem's goodness we do need some extra effort to recognize the blessing in it. In our case that we may see directly that our livelihood is provided by G-d.

By extrapolation - it's ok to acknowledge the difficulties we encounter in our service of Hashem. What's not ok is to fail to grasp the reasons behind the 'torture' and why Hashem wants us to receive this treatment.

Hatzlacha Rabba !

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Tightrope Walkers

As we concluded the Tishaa Bav service I was struck by an interesting proclamation. In the Aleinu prayer we state "Shelo Asanu Kegoyeih Haaratzos - that He did not fashion us like the peoples of the lands".

After hours of sitting on the floor and weeping for our national tragedies - and after the crushing realization hits home again and again - this has only befallen us because we are G-d's nation and we strayed from the chosen path that He laid out for us - should we not declare ( as we do to the bee) "Lo miduvshech velo meuktzech" - I'll have none of your honey so I will not risk your stinger ?!? Wouldn't it be better to have been one of the 70 nations who, while never rising to the heights of the Jewish nation, have never been afflicted so and have never been thrown to the same bitter depths ?

Lest we be drawn to this erroneous conclusion - we culminate the tefillah with Aleinu. For all the troubles that it can bring, and for the harsh - even cruel - punishments that may afflict us - we'd still rather be Hashem's chosen people. The higher the tightrope - the more disastrous the fall, but we wouldn't give up our rightful place in a million years.

The true nobility of the Jewish Nation.

May we all be comforted in the rebuilding of Zion and Yerushalayim - may we see the view from the top of the tightrope - speedily and in our days, amen.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Moshe Rabbeinu's Mussar

When Moshe Rabbeinu gives klal Yisrael the mussar schmooze of their lives - he makes sure to say it in a gentle tone and to only mention things by hint ( see first few pesukim of Devarim ).

Why ?

I mean, the purpose of mussar is surely to better the person receiving it ( providing it is both accurate and sincere - two qualifications we can easily attribute to Moshe Rabbeinu ) - so why beat around the bush ? If you saw someone's child ingest poison - would you tell them that " it might be a good idea to get to the doctor in case something ... " or would you tell it like it is ?!?!

So why is mussar different ?

[ According to the Alter of Kelm - it isn't ! He would teach this by example and genuinely thank anyone who rebuked him. After all, he said, this person is just trying to help me be a better Jew ! ]

For the most part - we don't take criticism well. Hashem gave us an independent streak that serves us very well in our ability to function day by day. However, this same self confidence will also rise up to defend itself against any onslaught. So the frontal approach for criticism is rendered ineffectual.
However, if the mussar is only hinted at - then when we discern the true meaning of the rebuke we are actually employing our own cleverness. So it is a win-win situation as far as our ego is concerned - either we were correct in our actions - or - we were clever enough ( with the help of others ) to figure out what we did wrong and correct it. The second option is much more palatable when put this way - thus enabling us to see past our ego and accept the rebuke.

On some level, Moshe Rabbeinu's greatest mussar to us was in how to give mussar - lovingly, and with as much care and concern for the recipient's ( perhaps fragile ) ego as we have towards their spiritual state. He was truly Moshe, Our Teacher.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Spill Milk If You Have To

I've heard the saying that tears are the sweat of your soul.

mmmmm, spiritual shvitz.

What I believe lies behind that saying is when something affects us deeply enough to 'move' or 'exert' our equilibrium - the result is tears.

During this traditional time of mourning we usually find ourselves wondering - are we really mourning enough ? Is the discomfort we feel attributable to our inherent loss or the restrictions we place upon ourselves in an attempt to 'make it real' ?

I ask you - does it matter ? No.

The reason the sages enacted these laws ( such as : diminishing from joyful activities, avoiding long pleasurable baths or showers, refraining from eating meat etc...) is because we sometimes need a sharp smack to bring us back into the reality where we should have been in the first place. That's ok - it's ok to exercise our soul a little (even in a different direction than we intended) in order to enable ourselves to exercise it in the right direction.

In short, we can and should (as part of our mourning) dwell on unpleasant and painful thoughts to evoke a proper feeling of sadness and then - when the tears come - try to add a few for the churban.

If there was a time or place that we were sad - try to tune into that same feeling and then relate it to the tragedies that have occurred to us as a nation. If you were ever hurt by someone's words - realize that that hurt is also a hurt longing for the times when people wouldn't talk like that because we had the laws of tzaraas to keep us from descending to such a level.

If we succeed in really shvitzing our souls into tears - may we merit to see the fulfilment of the teaching of chazal - "All who (truly) participate in the mourning for Jerusalem will merit to see it rebuilt" and may this year represent the first Tisha'a B'Av that we laughed instead of cried - with the coming of Moshiach, Amen.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Where did'ya come from & Where will you go ?

Prefacing Moshe Rabbeinu's recounting to the people of the camps in the desert is an interesting passuk.
It states : "And Moshe wrote their points of origin to their travels by the word of Hashem, and these are their travels to their points of origin." [Bamidbar 33:2]
Noting the reversal of the phrases 'travels' and 'points of origin', the Kli Yakar views this passuk as saying two different things. The phrase in it's proper order ( points of origin to the travels ) is accompanied by the word of Hashem - referring to the travels that were directed by Hashem for good purpose - simultaneously teaching us that when we follow the word of Hashem we are properly moving forward in life. While the latter part of the passuk reverses the order ( travels to their points of origin ) implying that the Israelites journeyed backwards ! ( which they did on, at least, two occasions when they fled from a calamity in panic. ) This type of journeying was not directed by the word of G-d.
An alternative lesson that the Kli Yakar learns from this is that the 'erev rav', the insincere Egyptian converts that joined the Jews on their way out of Egypt, are being referred to by the latter half of the passuk and the entire journey their eyes were 'backwards' - meaning they regretted coming and wished they could slip back into their immoral, Egyptian ways.
Our lesson in all this is to see how far our intentions count. No matter how 'frum' we pretend to be ( The erev rav were practicing members of the Nation ) it's what we really feel underneath that has an indelible impact on our actions. So the question to ask ourselves is thus - which way do we wanna go - forwards by the word of Hashem or ....

Hatzlacha !

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Happiness Through Suffering

While perhaps the classic understanding of this difficult concept is based around the idea that all Hashem does is for the best, no matter how much it seems to the contrary - I would like to share a slightly different angle.

Why do we suffer ? Because our ideas of how things should be and Hashem's ideas ( i.e. the facts ) are at opposite angles. I'm not speaking of pain - that is a physical reaction - I'm referring to suffering - the misery which descends upon us during times of great trial, the cloud of never ending doom and gloom that seems to envelop our life in our most troubled times. Yet, if we saw all this as an opportunity to grow, an opportunity to develop beyond our limited selves and become greater people - wouldn't that change our perspective just the smallest bit ?

Imagine : a person who is currently enduring great suffering ( insert horrible personal tragedy here ) still taking the time out for acts of chessed. How much more are those acts worth ?! How great the degree of selflessness and dedication that the performer possesses ?

With this in mind we can come to find a ray of sunshine in the dark cloud of suffering - while we may not have chosen to have this unique opportunity the better ourselves - we are certainly presented with it. Our choice is whether we will succeed in our self transcendence and rise to the occasion or not. And for this chance at self betterment we can certainly see a glimmer of joy through the sadness.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Once In The Morning & Once In The Evening

So what's the most important passuk in the Torah ?

One opinion has it as "Shema Yisrael..." but a different opinion actually places the passuk in our parasha. " את הכבש אחד תעשה בבקר ואת הכבש השני תעשה בין הערביים " "One sheep shall be offered in the morning and the second sheep shall be offered in the twilight".

Why is this passuk the most important ?

Because a cornerstone of our beliefs is that whatever it is we believe and hold dear to - it must be practised. It's not enough to belong to a group with the right ideas, or to celebrate the proper holidays and sabbaths. Real Jewish Practice demands daily service. It should be evident by our daily schedule that we are serving G-d.

Especially in summer months when regular structure is not at it's finest ( for those in education related fields ) we need to redouble our self discipline to make sure our days are filled with service of Hashem - at the very least - Once in the Morning and once in the Evening.

Hatzlacha !

Friday, June 29, 2007

Pray What ?!?

One of the classic questions of faith revolves around prayer. Why pray ? Do we haughtily believe that Hashem would grant us something He withheld - just because we asked for it nicely ? And what about vice a versa ? Would G-d fail to grant us something we deserved because we didn't say pretty please ?
An approach can be found in the creation of man. There was no rain, says the Passuk [Bereishis, 2:5 and Rashi ad loc.] because there was no one to ask for it. Without man's prayer - there is no recognition of Hashem's goodness. Hashem wants to give us everything, but if we don't demonstrate that we will be properly appreciative, then the giving is in vain.
In actuality, we pray for something - and by doing so we redefine ourselves as those who will see G-d's glory in whatever he gives us - thereby making us worthy of receiving - thereby enabling G-d to grant us our desire.

All this is in strict contrast to the wicked prophet, Bilaam. His prayers were not focused on self betterment and deservingness. Quite the opposite, actually - Bilaam looked for ways to point out faults in his opponents - and utilize strict divine judgment to punish them.

Let our teffilos be sincere and our neshamos open to accept the spiritual growth that we can promote - and may we deserve the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash, speedily in our days. amen.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Without Restraint

"This is the law of the Torah; if a man shall die in a tent ..."

This passuk is referring to the chok of impurity - that if there is a source of tumah in a tent ( or any covered enclosure ), the tumah actually envelopes the entire enclosure spreading to it's edges and contaminating anyone who is under that roof.
( This is why it can be problematic for kohanim to enter hospitals, even on floors where there are no deceased patients. )

Chazal, however, interpret this passuk to have another, equally important, meaning. "This is the law of the Torah, it will only be accomplished by one who kills himself for it ... "
While it is clear that chazal are not actually advocating ritual suicide, what are they saying ? That in order for one to really accomplish something in Torah - observance or learning - they must be willing to sacrifice all.
It is only with a no-holds-barred, give-it-all-you've-got attitude that we can truly, properly observe the mitzvos - because only then are we in full recognition of what the mitzvos stand for.
Hashem gave us this life for a goal and purpose - by "putting it all on the line" for the mitzvos we are, in fact, affirming that goal and re declaring that purpose.
If we were to show even the smallest bit of restraint - that we'll give 99% but not a 100% - we are saying that life is ours and we do with it what we please - and now it pleases us to serve G-d. That is not service - that is picking and choosing! In order for us to truly serve we must be willing to go at it without restraint.

( This is, of course, a level to aspire to. If you haven't gotten there yet - keep trying! Initially you'll feel this for maybe a second or two at a time - only the really great tzaddikim maintain this level of conviction on a constant basis ! )

B'Hatzlacha !

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

I feel taken care of

One of the birkot hashachar that we say every morning is an expression of thanks and praise that Hashem provides us "with all our needs" ( "sh'asa li kol tzorchi" ). This blessing actually refers to shoes. Hashem provides for us ( or enables us to provide for ourselves ) this measure, which is a great boon in climates that are disagreeable, but is basically an 'extra' when viewed versus, say, lungs.
So why, in a series of blessings that we praise G-d for our actual sight and mobility, do we toss in one about 'creature comforts' ?
Because, in a way, that is even bigger praise. That Hashem looks out for us - not just for what we absolutely need as we travel down life's road - but also what will make the road smoother.

Praise G-d !

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

With a good eye

When the meraglim spoke out about the land of Israel - they were severely punished. One aspect of their heinous crime - which in turn led them to such a harsh punishment - was that they should have taken example from Miriam.
At the end of last week's parsha we see Miriam struck with tzaraas because of a disparaging comment she made about Moshe Rabbeinu.
In both instances one is compelled to wonder - why is lashon hara such a horrible sin ? Don't get me wrong, I'm not advocating slander. No one thinks that libelous comments and catty snipes are a proper model for a Torah life - but it seems as though they are actually a fundamentally opposing viewpoint - how ?
We are well aware that we were created in G-d's image. Obviously, that doesn't mean physical image - G-d has no arms or nose hairs. Rather, we were created with the inherent ability to also create. As Rabbi Jeff Greenberg used to put it, we can be 'mini g-ds'. Our ability to create is not just a physical issue - far from it. If it were, then every animal who can reproduce would also be considered 'in G-d's image'. No, our ability to create lies in the world of the non-physical. Specifically, ideas. When we postulate a thesis or just dream up a recipe we are actually creating it, and thus echoing the Creator of all.
And when we speak ill of someone or something, we are misusing our gift in the most heinous way. We are creating negativity and bad feelings were there were none before. I would almost go so far as to say - that we are corrupting G-d's world and using his very image to do so.
When seen that way - lashon hara is certainly an evil like no other - may we be zocheh to guard our speech, preserve our divine image and bring mashiach b'mhaira b'yameinu, amen!

Friday, June 01, 2007

Shooting for the stars, even with a BB gun.

One time when R' Akiva was up a tree ( he was fleeing from those who were over zealously guarding the honor of a sage ) he asked the following question : The pesukim that describe the daily avodah refer to the korban to be brought as a "keves echad", a single sheep. Why, if the word sheep is in the singular, does the Torah need to emphasize that it is one ?
Rav Chanina HaGadol answered Rebbi Akiva that the word "echad" here is actually derived from "meyuchad", or special, and alludes to specialness necessary for a korban to Hashem. It must be the nicest animal in flock. ( R' Akiva's question convinced R' Chanina that he was a budding scholar and therefor wasn't mocking the sages. He was promptly allowed down )
Since the reference to a singular sheep occurs in the daily avodah - we can learn an interesting lesson from this idea.
The sheep must be the nicest in the flock - not the world. For the Yom Kippur avodah, the animals must be world class - and perfectly cultivated for their tasks. For the daily worship, however, it is understood that you can't get the best every time. So this animal must be the best we can find at the moment.
Sometimes when we are davening or saying brachos, we are under constraints that prevent us from concentrating as we should. This idea tells us that Hashem isn't looking for the best teffila / bracha of our lives every time. He's just looking for the best we can do at the moment. If it sometimes seems that we don't have the ammunition to shoot for the stars, it's because we fail to realize that Hashem wants us to try, even with a BB gun.

Let's give it all we've got !

Friday, May 25, 2007

Smile !

Along with all the substantial brachos that Hashem has the kohanim bless bnei yisrael with, is one that doesn't seem like such a significant bracha.
The bracha goes "May Hashem light his countenance towards you and grant you grace". Rashi, in defining 'light his countenance' explains - will show you a smiling face.
We all know that it is pleasant to see a smile and unpleasant to see a frown - is this really on par, though, with Hashem's protection or the promise of peace ?
If we really knew the power of a smile - we wouldn't doubt this. Maybe that's what Hashem is blessing us with - the knowledge of the true power of a smile.

Go ahead, load both barrels - ready, aim ... smile ! And unleash a whole world of joy and happiness into someone's day.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Special delivery !

We know that Shavuos is the holiday of receiving the Torah and that we don't just commemorate it - we actually relive it. If we are going to relive it we need some basic facts straightened out.

Well, if the Torah is being given to us - stand to reason that we have to able to receive it. If someone hands me a heavy package - I have to be able to lift it from them. If someone has several gallons of water for me - I can only accept it if I have a tank or a kiddy pool to store it all. With that in mind, think about this - where did Bnei Yisrael find a vessel big/worthy enough to store the Torah once they received it ?

The answer, says the Alei Shur, is found in the approach of the Jews to Har Sinai. When they camped around the mountain - they are described as having a tremendous sense of unity and purpose - " כאיש אחד בלב אחד " - "... like one man with one heart ... ". The combined hearts of roughly 2 million people unified for one cause - to accept Hashem as king and hear His message - THAT is a vessel big and worthy enough to accept the Torah into.

So on Shavuos night, while you learn, remember : When you daven you are talking to G-d, when you learn - He is talking to you! And if you approach the learning with the same earnest desire to hear His message that Jews worldwide will be demonstrating - you will, iy"h, merit to join the huge, conglomerated, Jewish heart, and successfully relive the receiving of the Torah.

Good Luck !

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

So, why don't we start the Torah as soon as we get it ?

In other words, why do we start and end the Torah on Simchas Torah - when we actually received it on Shavuos ? Wouldn't that be a more appropriate time ?

I was asked this question by a very chashuve Jew.

The Gemara in Megilla ( 31b) states : "Ezra established for all of Israel that they should read the warnings in sefer Vayikra before Shavuos and the warnings in sefer Devarim before Rosh Hashanna. Why ? So that the year and it's misfortunes should exit together."
In other words, the cycle of Torah readings reflects the time of year that we find ourselves in. This cycle was generated in order to get the most meaningful associations and lessons from the parshiyos.
One question still remains, however, since when is Shavuos the same as Rosh Hashanna ?!
The gemara answers that on Shavuos we are judged regarding tree fruits - so it's like Rosh Hashanna which is also a day of judgment.
Another answer that occured to me was that Shavuos and Rosh Hashanna really do share a common purpose - they both commemorate the creation of the world.
You see, when the Torah recounts the days of creation it mentions the sixth day as the "yom HAshishi" ("THE Sixth day" - these are also the words we start kiddush with.) The gemara [Shabbos 88a] states that this refers, not to the sixth day of creation, but is in fact alluding to the sixth of Sivan, Shavuos.
The world was created on condition that the Jews give it purpose - which they did by receiving the Torah. So, Shavuos is a commemoration of creation ( or at least the reason for it ) and Rosh Hashanna is the day of creation - and since they both represent renewals we aim to finish up those scary parshiyos of tochacha before hand - so we can start on a positive note.

Let's gear up for a day of renewal in our service of Hashem and devotion to His Torah - more importantly - realize the whole world is counting on you !
- Hatzlacha !

Friday, May 11, 2007

More On Prerequisites

So we said that learning Torah is a prerequisite for personal growth ( as opposed to being synonymous with it ) - but are all prerequisites created equal ?

The Torah points out that tumah is transferred onto a fruit or vegetable that grew from the ground only after it is picked and only after it has been splashed with one of the seven liquids. But the prerequisite of splashing is mentioned in the reflexive ( ..."and if water was placed on it"...) to teach us that even if the owner of the fruit / vegetable didn't want the prerequisite fulfilled - it still is.
It therefor, logically, follows that if the Torah had to make special mention of the fact that this prerequisite is fulfilled even without the owner's intentions - other prerequisites ( like the one we were discussing ) must be done with intention to fulfill the prerequisite - or else they are insufficient !
In other words, one cannot become a tzaddik just by learning, it is merely a prerequisite. And learning doesn't even fulfill the prerequisite of 'tziddkus' unless you actually intend for it to do so.

Hatzlacha !

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

What Can the Torah Do For Me ?

The mishna in Avos [6:1] points out that one who learns Torah is treated to all sorts of beneficial side effects. In addition, the mishna says that learning torah acts as a prerequisite for being a tzaddik. "ומכשרתו להיות צדיק"
Why doesn't learning Torah grant one immeddiate 'tzidkus' ? Why does it only serve as a prerequisite ?
Even if one learns and absorbs the learning - it still takes a specific, concerted effort to see results. If you learn Torah and feel that the learning is enough, that personality development is not for you - you may, chas veshalom, end up like R' Akiva's students - steeped in Torah but unable to relate properly to their fellow man.
Sefiras HaOmer is a time uniquely suited for this particular avodah...
Let's do it !

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Hey, what about us ?!?!

Pesach sheni is upon us !!

The Torah introduces this holiday in a strange fashion - by quoting those who made a claim / complaint to Moshe Rabbeinu in a positive light ! There were certain Jews who could not bring the korban pesach due to their impure status - and why were they impure ? They were part of the chevra kadisha and had to deal with their deceased brothers.
Their claim was essentially as follows : What should we have done ? We accept that those who are tameh due to their own lashon hara (tzaraas) should be excluded from the korban pesach. But we were dealing with a mitzva, the proper burial of a fellow Jew ?! Why should we miss out on this crucial mitzva ?!
We find that whenever Bnei Yisrael had a claim / complaint to make they were either reprimanded and granted their request ( such as the request for water ) or reprimanded and not granted their request, sometimes both ( the request for meat yielded the slav - but also yielded a plague that killed the offenders ). There are two complaints, however, that Hashem greeted with a smile. The first is the claim of those who wished to bring a korban pesach despite missing out due to tumah. The second, is the claim of the daughters of Tzelafchad - that they wished to have land in Eretz Yisrael.
Let's learn their lesson - when we have to kvetch - let's not kvetch to Hashem "why didn't you give me that" or "how can I live without this". Rather, "Hashem I really want to serve you better - help me !"
Happy Kvetching !

Friday, April 27, 2007

To Do or Just To Hang Out ?

So according to the Ramban, the mitzva of "Kedoshim Tihiyu - Thou Shall be Holy" is avoiding the excesses that would otherwise seem permissible. According to Rashi, the mitzva focuses more on restraint ( bordering on total avoidance ) from excesses in the particular field of arayos.

Either way, I think the requirement is to have a more definitive purpose to our actions. Not just to do because the option presents itself, or avoid for lack of opportunity - rather to have a specific mode of conduct that one pursues.

Let's be Kedoshim in the strictest, literal sense of the word - let our actions be firmly dedicated toward accomplishing positive things instead of simply hovering outside the boundaries of the forbidden.

Hatzlacha !!

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Are We Mice or Are We Men ?

The Ramban [ Bereishis 6:3 ] seems to imply that man is made up of two almost independent facets.

One - our animal side - we are two legged mammals who have a greater than average preoccupation with hair care - but otherwise, fully animalistic.

Two - our spiritual side - is actually a malach, an angel that was created to serve Hashem in the best way possible.

Who's gonna win out ?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Pesach isn't over yet ?!?!

Actually - it's not ! Not until we receive the Torah, that is. Receiving the Torah is what Hashem took us out of Egypt for, after all. But it's a long, hard road of personal growth to go from the spiritual depths we sunk to in Mitzrayim until we are fit to receive the Torah.
That's why Pesach is so long - to allow us time to do this.
Consider this small aspect of our growth process - on the first day of Pesach - we were physically removed from the tumah of Mitzrayim. On the second ( the first day of the Omer ) we are commanded to bring a korban to Hashem - dedicating the first crop of grain - barley.
Why would we dedicate barley as the first crop ? Shouldn't we dedicate wheat, the staple grain of people, as opposed to barley, the staple grain of animals ?
No ( the obvious answer, of course - but why ? )
You see - when Hashem took us out of Egypt we weren't worthy of serving Him. We had scarcely any mitzvos to our credit and were generally impure. At that first redemption - we could only dedicate our physical selves to Hashem - because that's the only part of ourselves that we had any connection to. As such, our first korban is the one of barley, animal food, to symbolize the dedication of our physical ( or animalistic ) selves to Hashem.
Once we complete an intense seven week process of purification - we are better in touch with those higher faculties that make us people ( see Targum Onkelos on the creation of Man, Bereishis 2:7 ) and we can dedicate to Hashem the first korban of the staple grain of people, wheat, the korban of Shavuos .

Monday, April 09, 2007

Everything's gonna be alright ......

With the Egyptians closing in and the seeming dead end of the Yam Suf ahead - the Jewish people are, at least mildly panicked, and they cry out to Moshe. In turn, Moshe relays the pleas of the people to Hashem.

When addressed by Moshe Rabbeinu in no small degree of distress, Hashem responds - "What have you to yell at me - speak to the people and let them travel !".

Homiletically ( a fancy word that means that the following is a drasha and not strict pshat ) Rashi learns that Hashem was really telling Moshe - "What do you have to yell ? On me [is the responsibility] - talk to the people and tell them to travel !".

When the Jewish people are in trouble, Hashem tells Moshe, they need only to realize that the burden of responsibility for their welfare rests firmly on Hashem's shoulders. Nowhere else. Once they are secure in this knowledge - they can proceed.

This can be similar to when you have many chores to complete and a limited time to complete them - you may be panicked and anxious to get everything done. If, however, someone tells you "Do what you can - I'll take care of the rest" - the pressure is off. But it's not just the relief - it's the reassurance - the knowledge that there is someone who will provide a safety net and make sure that you are taken care of. And when that someone is Hashem - the reassurance is double. At least.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

A word on gratitude

The Torah makes sure to admonish the Kohanim with the strongly worded "Tzav" regarding the procedure of the korban olah. Rashi points out that this is necessary because of the nature of people - when they stand to lose monetarily - they are likely to need extra encouragement to do the job well.
Now this is the korban olah - it all gets burnt and no meat goes to either the kohen or the bringer of the sacrifice. So what monetary loss are we referring to ? If the kohen has become accustomed to receiving korbanos from people - he is in danger of taking them for granted. And if he were to take them for granted - he may view them as his right. And when someone decided to bring a korban olah instead of a korban shelamim ( from which the kohen does get a portion ) a kohen with an inflated sense of entitlement might feel that the fellow has no right to deprive him, the kohen, of his due meat - just because he would rather bring an olah, I mean really ?!?
This sense of entitlement - that I am automatically deserving of everything - is a very dangerous trait. If I am entitled - why should I thank the one that gave it to me ? If I am entitled to the outcome of his sacrifice - shouldn't I have the right to dictate it's terms ? And so on ...
We see that above and beyond regular loss is perceived loss. Not what you're losing but what you think you're losing. This is such a common pitfall that Hashem chose to admonish the kohanim specifically regarding this situation.
Is there anything that we take for granted ? Isn't it time we show a bit more gratitude ?
Consider this your admonition.

Friday, March 23, 2007

The Good the Bad and the Simple

( Sorry about the title - I couldn't resist )

I saw a fantastic shtickle from the Sefas Emes as explained by my esteemed colleague and good friend, Rabbi Reuven Boshnack.

The Sefas Emes begins his thought by pointing out that our sons ( Banayich ) are also viewed as our builders ( Bonayich ) - which in and of itself is a fantastic thought - that the greatest achievements that we can aspire to involve building future generations by our example and our legacy. And so, the four sons are in fact, four approaches to build ourselves as better servants of the King.

To the wise son in all of us the Sefas Emes points out that we should exhort ourselves to remember that for all the logical reasons in the world and all the wisdom that lies behind the mitzva observances - what is paramount in our service of Hashem is devotion - the kind of devotion that leads us to want the sweet taste of the mitzva of afikoman in our mouths long after we discharged the technical obligation. In a play on words, the Sefas Emes says that the 'taam' hamitzva ( or 'taste' of the mitzva ) is more important than the 'taam' hamitzva ( reason for the mitzva ).

To the wicked son who questions the point of the fanatical attention to detail, who casts doubt as to why Hashem, King of the entire universe, would possibly care if we found every last crumb that was stuffed into the outlets and behind the refrigerator - we say "Because of this Hashem took us out of Egypt". Our neurotic attention to detail does not mark us as those who have deteriorated in their service of G-d into worrying about trivialities ( as the rasha claims ) quite the contrary, it is exactly this nitpickiness which is our most valuable service to G-d. This is what we are able to do for Him - to finely concentrate on every little detail - and it was with this in mind that He took us out of Egypt - to serve Him - the way we know how, with attention / devotion / obsession with the details.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

Eliyahu HaNavi, drink up !

I was asked by a very chashuve student why we only wake up and mention Eliyahu Hanavi at the end of the seder when we pour 'his' cup.
I saw two answers that I wanted to share with you.
Eliyahu's cup is a misnomer, points out Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, Zatzal, ( as quoted in the Roshei Yeshiva Haggadda ) because the cup is not for him at all. We know that the four cups are drunk, in part, to correspond to the four statements of redemption ( Leshonos HaGeula ). They are : VeHotzeiti, VeHitzalti, VeGaalti, VeLakachti ( In various pesukim, Hashem says "And I will ... Free, Save, Redeem and Take you out of Egyption bondage ). The gemara in Pesachim maintains that there is a fifth pasuk that is perhaps also a statement of redemption : 'VeHeveiti' - and I will Bring you to the Land of Israel. In order to resolve this conflict we pour the fifth cup ( in case it is a lashon geulah ) but, we don't drink it ( in case it is not a lashon geulah ).
Like many cases in the gemara - we state that we await Eliyahu Hanavi to come and resolve the difficulty - that's why it became known as Eliyahu's Cup.

Friday, March 16, 2007

When G-d Says Jump - We Say "How High ?"

And Moshe caused the people to congregate.

Rashi points out this difference between the gathering of the people to hear Hashem's word and the people gathering themselves.

But what does this semantic difference teach us ?

After the third period of 40 days in shamayim, where he was praying and fasting for the return of the close loving relationship between Hashem and His people, Moshe returns and all he has to tell the people is "I have some Torah to teach you !" and the people come flocking.

You can tell alot about a person by what gets them truly excited and animated. In fact, this was readily apparent in the sin of the golden calf. The people said they wanted a spiritual intermediary, but - in reality - all they wanted was to have a lavish banquet dedicated to immorality. We see here, however, that the time Moshe Rabbeinu and the Jewish people spent doing teshuva for the cheit ha'eigel paid off. Not only were the people ready to accept the word of G-d - they were also quick to gather to hear it.

And what about us ? What gets our eyes shining and voice raised just a bit too loud ? And what does that say about us ?

Friday, March 09, 2007

How much can you grab ?

When I was a bochur in Yeshiva, my Rebbe - Rav Yechiel Bloom, Shlita - used to give us chizzuk when the beis medrash was a little empty - so that we should not become disheartened by the lack of fellows. He said that min haShamayim it is decreed how much torah will be learnt in a particular beis medrash - but not by whom - so when we were fewer in number we could, in fact, get a bigger slice of the pie, i.e. - 'grab' more learning.
As I sit here in Cracow, about to experience shabbos in the city where pure Toras Chaim flowed from the Rema, the Tosfos Yom Tov, the Bach and practically countless others - I wonder - just how much can I 'grab'?

Friday, March 02, 2007

A Powerful Hidden Love

The entire story of Purim is one big mystery. The miracle is understated and behind the scenes. For the story to be so subtle is understandable - the whole point of the miracle was that it should be hidden from the casual observer. But why should the biblical narrative emphasize this? Surely we could have a more explicit story that would point out the divinely inspired turning points in the great saga that is the Purim Tale?

If we were to do that, however, we would lose the real message of purim. The idea is not simply to look for the hidden hand of Gd and respond in a loud and raucous praise. That's only scratching the surface. Rather, just like Hashem demonstrates his love for us through these subtle behind-the-scenes ways - we should also harbor in our own actions and feelings a powerful hidden love for the Ribbono Shel Olam - it doesn't need to come out in huge garish displays of fervor - it just needs to be there. That's why the heroine of the story was called Esther or 'hidden one'. It was her hidden reserve of devotion to the One Above that gave her the ability to sacrifice all for her people.
May we be zocheh to a purim filled with deep and abiding devotion to the One Above. Amen.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Can You Handle That ?!?!

The Sefer HaChinuch ( mitzva 96 ) points out that the very shape of the utensils in the BeisHaMikdash were designed to inspire us and teach us "great and awesome lessons".
The Aron HaKodesh had a unique addendum to it's shape - not the crown, not the cherubim - the badim, the handles. They weren't designed to simply be a carrying tool - as the passuk points out - they may never be removed from the aron.
So what can we learn from the handles ?
Well, each one of the keillim in the Beis Hamikdash represented something - the Menorah - wisdom, the Shulchan - wealth and the Mizbeach represented devotion. While some of these keillim had handles - the handles were not part of the inherent shape and could therefor be removed.
Handles are a way of grasping something. Designed specifically to make a handhold possible, we can say handles represent accessibility or approachability. The Torah's wisdom - has no shortcuts - no handles. If you want to become wise - you must toil. Period. Same goes for wealth - we may have an approach ( giving maaser does come with a promise of wealth ) but that isn't a given - Hashem will always be the final arbiter of a person's financial well being. Even devoting oneself to Hashem through service or prayer isn't automatically going to click. It requires effort.
to our connection to As opposed to the Aron. The Aron played host to the "witnesses" of the covenant between Hashem and His children. The Aron also had handles that never left it's side - the accessibilityHashem - the ability to tap into it and reaffirm it never wanes. Wisdom, wealth - these things may be important and Hashem does enrich our lives, at times, with them. But our inherent connection to Him - that's something that is always available - no matter what no matter when.

That was the very nature of the Aron - to teach us this idea - that's why it is regarding this mitzva that the Chinuch says that the shape of the keillim was meant to teach us something - because it's not just that the handles must stay to complete the utensil - but that the lesson we are to learn was from the handles themselves.

Can we handle that ?!

Sunday, February 11, 2007

How About Dirt ?

When Hashem tells us that we are supposed to worship Him and serve Him - we might expect that we would be required to exert ourselves to the utmost to do so in as grandiose fashion as possible - not so, says the Torah.

"An altar of earth you should make for me ... " ( Shemos 20:21 )

Hashem requires from you, not gold, not silver - just a little earth - and your devotion. As our sages teaches us "Rachmana Liba Bai " ( 'The Merciful One [Hashem] requires only the [devotion of the] heart').

So why does Hashem only ask for a mizbeach of earth ? Is this because the service is worth so little that it can be fulfilled on a mound of dirt ?
Is it because our inner devotion is so powerful it can transform a pile of mud into an Altar fit for serving the King of All Kings ?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

So What ?!

Why Yisro gets his own parasha is something of a conundrum. You see, he wasn't a tzaddik like Noach nor a zealot like Pinchas. He wasn't even Jewish. But his name is on the parasha ( of Matan Torah no less ) to teach us an important lesson.

He never said "So What ?!"

When we see things that are inspirational - what do we do with that inspiration ? Do we even recognize it ? And then, do we seek to implement a change in our lives because of it ? Yisro used it as a springboard to make a journey across the desert to find the Jews. Where will your journey lead you ? And will you have the courage to take it ?

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Think Tree !

We see that the Jewish calendar is rather divinely inspired and in perfect harmony with the school year, even when we are out of school we still end up pacing our years in the same method.
We needed to start anew and afresh with the Yamim Noraaim - and have Hashem wipe the slate clean in order to be ready for the year. After all that praying and cleansing we felt so pure that we could just dive into a mitzva with our whole bodies ! (We sit in the Succah with our entire bodies ! The Lulav & Esrog represent our main limbs ) The long, dark winter set in - we felt estranged from hashem ( chas ve'shalom ! ) so we received a gift of light ! to carry us through.
With most of the winter gone, and our roots strengthening in the soil of Torah - our 'sap' is starting to finally rise within us and we can now begin to think about bearing fruits. As we know - fruits aren't the product of intense concentration on the part of a tree - the tree just focuses on growing and absorbing and assimilating nutrients into itself. The fruit is the byproduct of this focus. It's what happens when the tree builds up it's goodness to the bursting point. If we approach our own growth in order to 'see what we've gained' then we are missing the point. For example - if we want to be the kind of person who loses herself in the sweet words of Tehillim for a half hour every day - taking out a stopwatch is the wrong way to go about it !! If I am concerned that my chessed resume isn't so impressive - going out to do something for someone else - so I can really do it for myself - is missing the boat completely !

It's our job to concentrate on soaking up the 'nutrients' of Torah - the 'fruits' - our maasim tovim - will proceed on their own as a natural outcropping of this. So as we celebrate the renewal of trees and the approach of springtime - remember - "Think Tree !"

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Are you Happy ?

My Rosh Yeshiva, Shlita, always used to ask me
- "Yoyav, are you happy ?!"

I believe the purpose of his question was not just to make sure things were going okay with me.
I think it stemmed from a unique perspective on the dictum of Chazal, "Ivdu Es Hashem BeSimcha"

One can understand it to mean - serve Hashem while being happy, 'besimcha' with happiness - while you perform your mitzvos and other services for Him.

However, the meaning projected here - is 'serve Hashem with your happiness' ! The happiness isn't a condition or mindframe while serving Hashem - it IS the service itself !

Why do some things make some people happy and others do not ? The answer is that Hashem created us uniquely, each one with a sense of what will make us happy. When we are happy we are in fact fulfilling our individual destiny - our mission from on high. Proof ? We're happy !! We are answering the echo of that which Hashem created within us.

So when we want to know how we are doing spiritually - we must ask ourselves
- "Are we happy ?!"

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Taking on G-d

When Moshe Rabbeinu comes to Pharoh for the first time the results are mildly disastrous. Pharoh increases the workload of the Jews to even more intolerable proportions. Then Moshe Rabbeinu does the unthinkable, especially for a prophet who has a clear understanding of Hashem.

He blames G-d.

This is the most righteous person in the generation - the one destined to receive the Torah from G-d's own hand ( so to speak ) and here he is .... blaming G-d ?!?! Why ?!?!

Because he loves us.

Hashem makes us a promise ( see tractate megilla 11a) that he will look out for us in every generation by sending us true leaders who will guide us through the winding, blinding pathways of Olam Hazeh into the wide pastures of Olam Habba. That these leaders are so dedicated to us, their charges, that they are willing even to do the unthinkable and challenge the Ribbono Shel Olam - that is the icing on the cake. A true expression of love from our shepherds who, in turn, represent to us the true love of Hashem.

I feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

On Angels and Men

When we say "Kadosh Kadosh Kadosh ..." in kedusha we are actually echoing the angels. This is the high point of davening - it is there, at the pinnacle of our prayers, that we can really sing G-d's praises with the absolute clarity of a being that basks in His presence constantly. I mean, if these angels were created specifically to praise Hashem, you'd think that they do the best possible job of it! After all, they are tailor-made for the part.

So why introduce the kedusha with our own declaration? "Nekadesh ..." We will sanctify your name in this world ( "BaOlam" with a kamatz - as opposed to in the world " BeOlam" with a sheva na )

This is the difference between us and the malachim. They can sing the praises of G-d in ways we can barely hope to emulate - but their praise is static. The angels can only describe Hashem's majesty and holiness. We can extend it into this world through our actions. As creatures of free will and infinite choice, we can actually spread the mantle of G-d's glory willingly over ourselves and our world... by realizing that in our decisions, there is the opportunity to choose for ourselves or for G-d.

Go on, extend the majesty of Hashem to a corner of the world its never been before - next time you choose to do something right, keep in mind, you are doing it for G-d.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Is it black or white ?

Ever wonder why the sun might bleach hair but darken skin ? The answer may very well be found in Malachi 3:19-21.

Malachi, last of the prophets, culminates his prophecy with these apocryphal words -

"3:19 For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the Lord of hosts,t hat it shall leave them neither root nor branch.
3:20 But unto you that fear my name shall the sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall. "

The rishonim point out, however, that this is not a case of a great battle between the oven that burns the wicked and the sun that protects the righteous. Rather, they are one and the same ! The judgment you will receive at the end of days is your own just dessert, period. The sun, in this case, is just clarifying the consequences - that's why it can burn the wicked like an oven yet be pleasing to the righteous like a summer's day. May we merit to see the redeemer soon and may we feel the balmy rays of the sun and not it's vicious heat, amen.