Tuesday, December 27, 2011
We say in "Al HaNissim" that the Jews who triumphed over the Greeks lit candles in the holy courtyards ("...והדליקו נרות בחצרות קדשך...") referring to the miracle of the menorah.
The Shem MiShmuel asks – why refer to the menorah as standing in the courtyard of the Beis Hamikdash – it stood in the Heichal (sanctuary)?!
His answer will help us milk the last drops of inspiration from this incredible holiday.
The Greeks intentionally unpurified all the oil in the Beis HaMikdash. They were well aware of the value of purity – it was exactly that which they sought to destroy – our souls – our pure souls. The more internal something is, the holier it usually is, and the more resistant to tumah (impurity). That's why we refer to the neshama as having been placed inside our body (even though it is no more inside our kishkes that it is outside our noses). When the Greeks wanted to go after the Torah, the soul of the Jewish nation, they reasoned that if we were wallowing in impurity we wouldn’t be able to maintain our lofty souls. When we defeated them, however, the tide of the battle turned so decisively that we didn't only reclaim the internal "point of purity" (that 'Jewish spark' which is in every Jew – sometimes known as a 'pintele yid') we chased them back into their, external domain!
The Menorah didn’t just burn pure oil inside the Heichal of the Beis HaMikdash – it shined that light outward into the courtyard! That external shining, more than anything else, signified our victory. We took back our intimate connection with Hashem (through the Torah) and broadcast it through the public display of the shining lights.
As Chanukah closes and we say Al HaNissim those last few times – let us take a moment to reflect upon the close, intimate connection we have to Hashem – and then let that connection shine outwards! It could take the form of a Mitzva or Beracha performed loud and proud, even just walking with the surety of step and regal bearing of a crown prince or princess.
Shine on !!
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
The Greeks and the Jews should have been great pals! They were both learned cultures who valued knowledge, so why was there such friction between them?
The Medrash teaches us that the description of existence before creation was actually a metaphor for our different exiles [see Bereshis Rabba 2:4]. Which word does the Medrash insist describes the Greeks? "חשך" – Darkness. If the Greek culture was so advanced in it's pursuit of various wisdoms, why does "חשך" aptly describe their oppression of the Jews?
Wisdom is compared to light, because they accomplish similar things. Understanding gives you a new perspective, just as light enables you to ascertain what was unfathomable in the dark.
When Hashem created the world He first created light. This light, according to some, was then crystallized into the sun, moon and stars. When Hashem finished creating the world, there was only one source of light, that which was divinely created.
But despite the concrete testament to Hashem's awesome power that these marvels represented, there was an inherent danger in them as well. What would happen if man started to believe that these sources of light were independent of G-d? That would be tragic. It would run directly contrary to the reason and purpose of their creation. The celestial bodies are known as the 'armies of the heavens' (צבא השמים), since part of their purpose is to reflect glory upon their creator. But if they are appreciated for themselves – without praising the One who put them there – then they might as well not be there! And without them – we have darkness.
Darkness is not simply the absence of light, it is also the absence of the message of light. Without the knowledge that all light comes from G-d, we may have physical light – but essentially we are dwelling in a mental darkness.
The same is true of wisdom. If we value wisdom, but insist on separating the wisdom from its proper divine source, then we have not wisdom, but ignorance.
The ancient Greek culture was rich with knowledge and wisdom, yet both of these were used in an inherently flawed fashion – to glorify the man who possessed them instead of worshiping G-d, who created them. Their light was really darkness.
To celebrate our victory over their flawed ideology we perform the opposite ritual. We light flames – a source of light that is clearly ascribable to man – and we acknowledge that in a deeper sense, even these dancing lights are actually a gift from G-d.
Yes, Hashem does give us the ability to partner Him in the creation of this magnificent world. And yes, we are able to be the source of glorious things like light and wisdom. But in order for us to truly 'get it' we must first acknowledge that we are only acting with the permission and blessing of the true source. It was the lack of this acknowledgment that represented the flaw in the Greek philosophy (you could call it their Achilles heel – hah!) And it is this acknowledgment that we broadcast by lighting our own little lights in salute of the great spiritual lights that Hashem gave us.
Happy Chanukah !
Monday, December 12, 2011
After rising to the prestigious post of seneschal in Potifar's house, Yosef is propositioned by Potifar's wife. While it is understandable, and supremely commendable, that he refuses her advances – Yosef's reason for doing so bears some analysis.
[בראשית לט:ט]"...ואיך אעשה הרעה הגדולה הזאת וחטאתי לא-לוקים"
"… and how shall I do this great evil and sin before G-d" [Bereshis 39:9]
Having been a slave - sold multiple times – may have made Yosef appreciate the cushy position he held in Potifar's household. Wouldn't it be his gratitude to Potifar that would prevent Yosef from commiting this adulterous betrayal?! Yet, not a word about the master of the house is spoken when Yosef rebuffs Potifar's wife.
The answer teaches us what it means to be a committed Jew and also gives us a glimpse at what makes a tzaddik tick.
The bottom line in every Jew's life is G-d. A true servant of Hashem is not satisfied relegating G-d and His laws to the Beis Medrash or shul. Hashem is a considered factor in every facet of life. As such, Yosef's first thought about this traitorous offer was what G-d thought about it. Since G-d forbade adultery – there was no reason to examine the issue further and regard the obvious grievance that would arise with Potifar.
Furthermore - Yosef, as we saw, refused Potifar's wife on ideological grounds and not social ones. But in his refusal – those are the reasons he mentions. Why doesn’t he give her the reason she can most easily digest? Surely this betrayal is something she can grasp without a lesson in theology? Yosef, however, is not interested in easing anyone's comprehension. Yosef is interested in the emes. Declaring the act to be forbidden on social grounds would be the understatement of the century. It would be like saying that smoking is bad for you because it makes your clothes smell. As such, Yosef calls it as he sees it and condemns the action on its most heinous grounds.
But there is even a deeper message to be taken home.
Potifar's wife knows full well what she is suggesting. The betrayal of her husband and provider doesn't seem to weigh very heavily on her conscience. Yosef makes a declaration which is designed to answer this hedonistic attitude as well; Yosef declares the act to be a sin before G-d. Using powers that G-d has given him in a manner that is counter to their divinely intended purpose is wrong. You may claim absolution from social constraints on all sorts of grounds – but you are never free from your divine obligations. How could you – metaphorically - stab G-d in the back with the very knife He gave you?! And if you are prepared to betray your fellow man – won't betrayal of G-d be not too far behind?
Hashem has given us many talents and abilities – let us endeavor to dedicate them to the exclusive use in His service. And the next time we are tempted to do something we shouldn’t – just think – are we straying or betraying? May Hashem give us strength to guard ourselves and not falter.
Friday, December 09, 2011
Yaakov Avinu prepares for his meeting with his murderous brother, Esav, by taking a three pronged approach. He sends a gift of appeasement, he splits his camp into a more defensible formation and he davens to Hashem for help (see Rashi Bereshis 32:9).
It would seem that Yaakov has certainly thought this all out – and is doing all that G-d would require of a Jew in times of distress. He performs hishtadlus and then relies on Siyaata Dishmaaya.
If this is the blueprint for us for generations – if this is what we are meant to learn from – why does Yaakov seem to be doing twice as much hishtadlus as bitachon ? Out of the three items of preparation he performs – only one of them is directed at the spiritual source of all – while two are dealing with the physical and mundane. How does this add up ?
Yaakov Avinu is not working twice as hard in the natural world – he is just teaching us a valuable lesson about our efforts at success.
The two actions of mundane preparation – the splitting of the camps and the gifts of bribery – are two distinct courses of action. There is no unifying principle in the different forms of hishtadlus that we must do.
In Avodas Hashem, the opposite is true.
There are many avenues by which we endeavor to find favor in the eyes of our creator. We pray, dedicate ourselves to greater mitzvos or even pledge to avoid any semblance of prohibition. We may approach our commitments to G-d in many ways. But in the end, there is only one goal – being a closer, better servant of the One Above.
So while Yaakov Avinu may have seemed like he was pursuing twice as many earthly avenues for salvation as heavenly ones – it was really just an act of recognition that anything he did in hopes of being a better Jew would be one, unified act of avodah.
May we see all of our spiritual efforts blessed with the recognition that we are one people dedicating all of our disparate energies towards the common goal of service of the divine. May this dedication rebuild His house that we may serve Him all the better – speedily, in our days, amen.
Friday, December 02, 2011
When Yaakov arrives at the well in Charan, he asks the locals if they know Lavan. After exchanging a few more pleasantries, he tells the shepherds that their daily work is not yet completed – why are they just lounging around the well instead of grazing their flocks?
What kind of answer could we expect for this bit of intrusive rebuke?! Probably a choice word or two. But, incredibly, the shepherds answer him! Why did they seem to accept Yaakov's rebuke?
The reason for this is Yaakov's sincerity.
When we have difficulty accepting rebuke it is because we sense the veiled criticism that may accompany it. But, if the rebuke is filled with loving sincerity – you can't help but receive it well.
This is a powerful lesson to us at both the giving and receiving end of the rebuke spectrum. When receiving any reproof – let us try to feel the honest caring that is behind it (even if only partially). And when delivering any rebuke we must only be thinking of the good of the other person.
Friday, November 25, 2011
Why does Yitzchak ask Esav to hunt him up a meal ? Since when is a tzaddik interested in game or does he even notice what it is that sustains him ?
R Shimshon Raphael Hirsch observes that Yitzchak was well aware of his son's shortcomings. He wanted to right those wrongs and therefore make Esav worthy of divine blessing. Esav used his "red" traits to hunt and dominate the animal world, but he did this for his own gratification. Yitzchak sought to offer Esav a path of reconciliation where he could still use his "red" traits but not be wicked. Since Esav excelled in kibbud av, Yitzchak reasoned that it would provide the perfect outlet. This hunting trip would be different – instead of seeking his own pleasures, Esav would hunt for his father, butcher the animal for his father, and engage in his "best" traits – but all for the sake of his father's command.
This ploy actually worked and we find that Esav did become worthy of receiving some sort of blessing, just not the main one.
Whenever we find an Esav streak in ourselves – sometimes we can correct its evil influence in this same fashion. If we find a way to channel the behavior into the observance of a mitzvah then we will have broken the spell. Once we take any given behavior or action and remove it from the exclusive domain of the yetzer hara – by using it for a mitzvah, even once – we are on our way to conquering that trait and bettering ourselves.
Friday, November 18, 2011
When Eliezer decides that Rivka meets his criteria for Yitzchak he bestows upon her two lavish gifts: a nose ring and a pair of bracelets. Chazal point out that these symbolize the half shekel coin that the Jews would give in a census and the ten commandments, respectively.
Understood is the significance of ten with the bracelets, two items each weighing five "selah", as the ten commandments. Telling Rivka that her children will merit receiving these from the hand of G-d is certainly something Eliezer might do. One might ask, however, why was the mitzvah of machatzis hashekel worthy of being represented in these gifts ?
To answer, the Kli Yakar points out that the Luchos HaBris had to come in two installments. The first time around they were given with great pomp and ceremony – thus inviting the negative effects of "ayin hara." Take two, however, were given in a discreet fashion – which is why they survived.
Rivka was destined for great things, and her magnanimous nature had already been established. What Eliezer had to do now was find a way to safeguard it. This is where the half shekel comes in.
When the Jewish people are counted – the "ayin hara" can take effect. (Over)Simply put, when we broadcast loud and clear any positive item – the forces of evil can't resist and redouble their efforts at destroying it. To escape this, Hashem commands them to take a census using the half shekel.
So when Eliezer gives Rivka her two gifts he is, in effect, saying – "Your children will be great, but let's just keep that to ourselves and be discreet about it."
(One can clearly contrast with Lavan who blesses his sister with far reaching blessings upon her departure.)
We can learn an important lesson from this. Good deeds are, perhaps, most prone to being over broadcast and hoisted up upon pedestals for all to see. Now, we should be proud of our kindnesses, but at the same time, we should realize the need and propriety of discretion.
May we, in the merit of our good deeds and subtlety in performing them, be privileged to once again behold the Aron Hakodesh, where the whole and broken Luchos reside.
Friday, November 11, 2011
Hashem tells Avraham Avinu of the impending destruction of Sodom and Amorrah. What's Avraham's reaction ? He tries to avert this "tragedy" by negotiating with G-d.
Two points to consider:
1. Why would the presence of any amount of righteous people be reason to spare the wicked multitudes from their just desserts ?
2. Secondly, if Hashem already informed Avraham that He was going to punish the people of Sodom – what was the point of the negotiation – wasn't it a done deal ?
There are multiple reasons that someone would choose a path of righteousness. Motivations could include positive role models or a mature worldview that values the goodness inherent in positive actions. There is another possible motivation which is really counterintuitive. Bearing witness to the dark underbelly of the human condition – someone might be "scared straight" and decide to devote themselves to the polar opposite of evil, namely, goodness. In this last instance, the wicked people are perversely partially responsible for the ensuing righteousness. It is this angle that Avraham Avinu plays up in his bargaining.
As far as it being a "fait au compli" – that is not the point. In the Darash Moshe, R Moshe Feinstein ZTL, points out that the negotiations were Avraham's prerogative. It wasn't about changing G-d's mind – it was about trying. Despite an absolute inability to affect the outcome – how could a man of kindness stand by and let entire cities suffer? He couldn't.
We learn many powerful lessons from this episode.
1. To have gratitude towards anyone who helps us on the path to goodness – even if it is someone whose example we decidedly avoid following.
2. That we have an obligation to wish everyone well – even to the point of bargaining with G-d Himself.
3. We must do our part in following the dictates of righteousness. Even if there is no way we will succeed – Hashem doesn't look to see if our actions bear fruit – He just wants us to do our best.
Thursday, November 03, 2011
When Avraham Avinu defeats the four kings he makes off with a fair bit of wealth in spoils. Doing the "right thing" Avraham returns the wealth to the king of S'dom. When the king offers to let Avraham keep the money – Avraham Avinu declares emphatically – "I swear by G-d, I will not take a string nor a shoe strap from you!"
Why strings and straps ?
Strings and straps are both methods of connection. Some connections are more permanent, like tied knots, and some are meant to be strapped and unstrapped. The king of S'dom was offering Avraham Avinu a golden gift – with strings attached (pun intended!). The king wanted bragging rights that he had been responsible for Avraham Avinu's wealth.
And why would the king of S'dom care whether or not he was known as Avraham's benefactor? Because to a s'domite – wealth was everything. By retaining a connection to Avraham's wealth the king of S'dom was actually gaining. He would rise in echelons in Canaanite society.
This offer, and attitude, Avraham vehemently rejects.
"Man is not defined by his wealth," he tells the king, "and I wish no connection to you or your philosophy."
Sometimes we find ourselves caught up in something we may not be truly supportive of. It could be a sports team's winning streak or a sale at the boutique that sells the latest fashions. Step back and ask yourself – would I be willing to strap on this philosophy and worldview?
And while you're at it - what are you connected to ? And how strong are your knots ?
Sunday, October 30, 2011
When humanity thoroughly contradicts the very purpose it was created for and becomes hopelessly morally corrupt, Hashem decrees that it must go. The Torah goes to great lengths to describe the punishment of the flood and the specifics of G-d's divine judgment. For a full year the world is uninhabitable, covered in a watery blanket.
Why take an entire year? Hashem could have just wiped them out and started again in a matter of hours (or seconds for that matter) – what was so important that it take a full year?
To answer that let us remember that not everyone was killed – Hashem spared Noach and all that were in the teiva with him.
The world was going to be rebuilt and repopulated by the survivors of this horrible generation. Civilization as a whole was evil – but these refugees managed to avoid sin long enough to earn a spot in the teiva.
What would prevent mankind from deteriorating back into the same behavior patterns and impropriety? The Meshech Chochma answers that Hashem would reeducate them. And that takes a full year.
It would only take one moment for Hashem to destroy and recreate. But it takes many many months for man and animal to learn again how to be G-d fearing and upright.
It is no coincidence that this parsha follows the high holidays. After a month of intense spiritual effort we need to return to the daily and weekly routines of school and work. What can help cement the spiritual gains that we have made over this period? The knowledge that real change comes slowly. If we take our desire to hold on to the 'high' of Tishrei and lock in up in our teiva like heart – it will survive even torrents of nisyonos in the long winter ahead – and come next Tishrei – it'll even be a part of who we are.
Friday, October 21, 2011
"ויאמר ד' א-לוקים הן האדם היה כאחד ממנו לדעת טוב ורע ועתה פן ישלח ידו ולקח גם מעץ החיים ואכל וחי לעלם: וישלחהו ד' א-לוקים מגן עדן לעבד את האדמה אשר לקח משם:"
"And Hashem said, since man has become uniquely paralleled to Me in his knowledge of good and evil – and now, lest he send out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat and live forever. And Hashem sent him [Adam] from the garden of eden to work the land that he was taken from."
When Hashem banishes Adam from gan eden, He comments to the ministering angels that this move is being done to prevent Adam from eating from the tree of life. The passuk implies that it would be a great tragedy. Would the harm be in disobeying G-d again – or is there something deeper? And of what significance is the Torah teaching us when it tells us that G-d sends Adam to make his penance working the ground from whence he came?
When Adam sins – he introduces an element of doubt and uncertainty into his worldview. Before the sin – Adam is an entirely spiritual being – and even his physical body is nothing more than a vehicle for his soul. Once he sins, however, Adam has broken the taboo placed upon the body and used it for purely physical and mundane goals. Put simply, Adam takes his pristine body and throws the mud of physical gratification all over it – dirtying it beyond recognition.
For sins that are particularly heinous, the Rambam teaches us that even Yom Kippur and afflictions will only go so far in atoning for the sinner (see hilchos Teshuva 1:4) ultimately, only death will cleanse the penitent sinner completely.
Now we can understand why Hashem expresses serious concern at what was to happen to Adam. By sinning, Adam is now in need of serious atonement. If he eats from the tree of life, however, he is robbing himself of the very same atonement that he so desperately needs! In His great mercy, Hashem sends Adam away.
And to where does He send him? To engage in the actions that will hopefully generate a recognition of the depth of his sin and to motivate him to repent – to work the ground that he was taken from – i.e. to acknowledge his physical side and all of its shortcomings.
Let us realize that all of Hashem's "punishments" are nothing more than His kindnesses towards us – His attempts to give us the best shot at returning to Him and righting the wrong that we stumbled into doing.
Wednesday, October 19, 2011
Ever wonder why we celebrate simchas torah after sukkos ?
In chu"l there are two days of yom tov – so it is common to separate, in our minds at least, the core meaning of shmini atzeres and simchas torah. This is of course, totally wrong.
The essence of shmini atzeres is the final few moments of this incredible sukkos festival – comparable to a simcha where only those who are really close to the baalei simcha stay until the very end. Hashem tells us – that we all made this incredible big show over the entire chag – we brought seventy oxen as part of the mussaf offerings, representing the seventy nations of the world. Now He wants us, just us, to hang around for another day (or two).
The heart of simchas torah is seemingly totally different. Instead of the quiet intimacy with Hashem - we participate in a loud, almost raucous, celebration that practically outstrips the decibel levels of the simchas beis hashoeva of sukkos. It is almost forgivable to think this day separate from the shmini atzeres that came before it.
The last words of the Torah are "לעיני כל ישראל" "…before all the people of Israel" – Rashi teaches us that Hashem is praising Moshe for breaking the tablets during the episode with the golden calf. That's it ?! That's the big finale ?!
The torah is teaching us an incredibly valuable lesson – Moshe Rabbeinu was willing to throw away forty nine days of preparation – willing to forgo certain attributes of the first tablets that were forever lost (Chazal state that if we had kept the first luchos we would never have forgotten any words of torah that we learnt) all because we were no longer pristine. And why ? Because without cleanliness and purity we would just muddy up everything we touched – including G-d's perfect torah. Our only chance to acquire torah and fuse it into a part of ourselves lies in becoming as pure as possible so as not to contaminate Hashem's flawless words.
Now we can comprehend why shmini atzeres and simchas torah are one and the same – after 51 intense days since rosh chodesh elul, after ten days of "סור מרע" and seven days of being surrounded in the most pervasive "עשה טוב" possible – we are as purified as we get the whole year! This is precisely why Hashem wants us to 'hang around' for another intimate day with Him. And nothing exemplifies this intimacy more than Hashem's own treasure trove of wisdom. And there is no more natural reaction to receiving G-d's word anew than extreme, bursting-at-the-seams, jubilation.
This year let us merit becoming as one with the torah and it's Giver – and let this oneness generate unparalleled simcha that will carry us through the entire year!
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
There are an incredible number of hiddurim to look for when selecting the arbaa minim. Above and beyond the basic requirements – we search high and low to find the nicest and most pleasing set. The tallest, greenest, lulav, or the haddasim with the tightest weave of perfectly triangulated leaves. The arava, with the most flowing lavluv (a new leaf growing at the tip) or the reddest stems. And the esrog, oh boy, the esrog – you could fill a book on the amount of things people look for!
Yet, in all the hiddurim that are out there – there is one that remains conspicuously absent in most of the four minim. The mishna states that a lulav which is bent is passul (depending on the orientation). While there are those who are particular that the esrog line up in a straight fashion – from pitom to okeitz – this is not a requirement. But nowhere is it mentioned, or even looked for, regarding the aravos or the haddasim.
Why don’t the haddasim or aravos need to be straight ?
The medrash teaches us that the arbaa minim also represent four major limbs – and that they all unite to serve Hashem. The lulav represents the spine, the esrog - the heart, the aravos are similar to lips and the haddasim's leaves are like eyes. All four minim need to be fresh and not dried out – we can't let our avodas Hashem wilt in any of these areas! But our avodah is qualitatively different in each of these arenas – and that accounts for the different hiddurim we look for.
The esrog that beats in each one of our chests should be as perfect as we can make it – after all "Rachmana leeba ba'ei" (The Merciful One desires you to serve him with your heart). The lulav should be straight – to teach us that we should be proud to wear the mantle of servants to the king. But the haddasim and aravos have no business being straight.
When chazal tell us that a good person possesses an ayin tova (Avos 2:9) what do they mean? That they see everything as it is ? No! Chazal are praising someone for being able to see the good in every Jew they meet. Sometimes that requires a little creativity – not straight at all.
What about the lips? Shouldn't they be straight? At least three ideas come to mind.
Firstly, that sometimes not saying something is more valuable than saying it – and that is not always so straight forward. Secondly, we need to be sensitive to our friends' needs and if need be, talk around an issue rather than mention it directly.
Lastly – the arava does not represent the mouth – but specifically the lips. What is a tremendous avodah that our lips perform, and in a crooked fashion no less?
And when we interject simcha into Hashem's world, He is surely looking down upon us and smiling too.
Thursday, October 06, 2011
In his epic work, the Mishna Torah, the Rambam covers just about every topic. The section titled Hilchos Teshuva has ten chapters and it is therefore a custom for some to review them during the aseres yemei teshuva.
In chapter four of these halachos, the Rambam lists twenty four different impediments to teshuva. One of them is one who mocks the mitzvos.
Now, don't get me wrong, I am not in favor of mocking the mitzvos – but why would that preclude me from doing teshuva ? I thought teshuva was all about returning to Hashem and getting past the hurdles that I had placed in my own way by sinning. Where do mitzvos come in ?
The answer can be found in the Rambam's explanation.
רמב"ם יד החזקה - הלכות תשובה פרק ד
"והמלעיג על המצות שכיון שנתבזו בעיניו אינו רודף אחריהן ולא עושן ואם לא יעשה במה יזכה"
"… since the (mitzvos) are belittled in his eyes he does not chase them – and if he doesn't – by what merit will he (do teshuva)"
Let's say we are scrupulous and careful not to transgress a single prohibition – and we even succeed. What is the point ? Is that what we were put on this earth to do ? Then it would be a zero sum game – a game where the best case scenario has us accomplishing nothing. That is certainly not what Hashem has in mind. He put us here to accomplish tremendous things - to shake the earth and rattle the heavens with acts of kindness and profound commitments to the Torah. That is our primary mission.
If we become derailed by sins and forget our mandate – then we must repent and return – but if we lose sight of the big picture – then by what merit will the One Above accept us back ?!? Hashem will only help us return if we know what we are returning to. A life of Torah and mitzvos.
This Yom Kippur let us cry. Let us repent. Let us sincerely say to our Father in heaven – "take me back!" And lets focus on why He should accept us back -because we want to perform His mitzvos and learn His torah. And we want to do it without the negative baggage of our sins.
Gmar Chasima Tova to all of klal yisrael.
And Hatzlacha !
Sunday, September 25, 2011
Why is the Jewish new year called Rosh Hashanna ? I mean, 'head-of-year- ?!? Why not – 'new year' ? Or 'start of year' ?
That is because this isn't just the beginning. When something starts – it is usually slow to get going. The beginning of a party is almost never the most memorable – neither are the first few plays of a crucial game. It's just the start.
The head is something completely different.
Within the head you have the greatest concentration of life enabling processes. The head isn't just the part of you that happens to be tallest – it's the part that's closest to the heavens.
When you try to swim – it's called keeping your head above water. And when you drown (chas veshalom !) it's when your head goes under. More than anything else – where your head is at – is where you're at.
So Rosh Hashanna is not just a time to start something on the right foot – it's a time to figure out where your head is at. When Hashem seeks Adam in Gan Eden right after his sin (which took place on Rosh Hashanna) he asks him one question – "ayeka?" – loosely translated – "Where you at ?!".
Hashem asked Adam that – and each year He asks us too.
Oh, and another thing. In order to put your head where you want it to be – you may just have to stick your neck out a little.May you be written and inscribed in the good book of health, life and happiness.
Friday, September 23, 2011
וחרה אפי בו ביום ההוא ועזבתים והסתרתי פני מהם והיה לאכל ומצאהו רעות רבות וצרות ואמר ביום ההוא הלא על כי אין אלהי בקרבי מצאוני הרעות האלה: ואנכי הסתר אסתיר פני ביום ההוא על כל הרעה אשר עשה כי פנה אל אלהים אחרים:
"And I will exhibit great anger towards them on that day … and they will say – it is because G-d is not in my midst that these misfortunes have come upon me. And I will surely hide my face from them on that day …"[Devarim 31:17-18]
All throughout sefer devarim we see this pattern to Moshe Rabbeinu's discourse. If we are properly righteous then Hashem will reward us with goodness and if we fail in our duties to Him then calamities will be our sorry lot.
The Shem MiShmuel points out that here the order is not quite right. We see in passuk 17 that Hashem will punish us ( the previous passuk describes our abandonment of Hashem – so His actions are in line with the devarim pattern ) but in the end of the passuk we have reached a reconciliation. Recognizing that leaving Hashem out of our lives is a negative thing we accept our troubles as due payment for our unfaithfulness.
Isn't this sufficient teshuva ? Why then does passuk 18 continue with Hashem's punishments ?
In this season of teshuva – the answer can guide us greatly.
The recognition that we came to in passuk 17 was not complete teshuva and does not absolve us completely from the responsibility for our sins.
It was a great start. The knowledge that distance from Hashem is what brings about all of our sorrows is absolutely fundamental in achieving the proper worldview. But it is not enough. We must strive for more than just utilitarian teshuva, says the Shem MiShmuel, more than just doing our minimum as a safety net against tragedy. Our relationship with Hashem should be one of excellence, one of reaching ever higher and toiling to create a spiritual paradise.
This year – reach for the stars ! Hashem's waiting for you !
Friday, September 16, 2011
דברים [כו יא]
"ושמחת בכל הטוב אשר נתן לך ידוד אלהיך ולביתך אתה והלוי והגר אשר בקרבך:"
"And you shall rejoice in all the goodness that Hashem, your G-d, has given you and to your household – you and the Levite and the convert that is in your midst"
The Torah tells us that the bringing of the bikurim, or first fruits, is a time of great rejoicing. But hidden within this passuk is a greater wisdom that can teach us to be happy always.
When my hand is involved in the growing process – I feel a great satisfaction when I see the final product. The phrase "fruits of my labor" comes to mind. I may think (erroneously – you knew that was coming, right ?) that the higher percentage of credit I claim for myself – the greater my satisfaction and joy. This is not the case (told you !) An unseen pitfall awaits all those who rely on the "strength of their hand". If I am the final judge of what I receive and what I don’t – then I also accept the blame for any discrepancy between the end result that I wanted and the one that I got. Exclusively mine is the frustration of not putting in just one more row …
It is only if I realize that the hand of Hashem is guiding my plow and he is the true source for my success that I will 'forgive' myself for any shortcomings.
And how will I truly find the joy in my G-d given material wealth ? By sharing it with those who have not. Hording your bounty may seem like it will give you more. But in fact, you'll appreciate it less.
Let us commit to seeing divine hashgacha in whatever success we have and to sharing it with those less fortunate – and may we rejoice over our first fruits – and all the ones subsequent.
Friday, September 09, 2011
"כי תהיין לאיש שתי נשים אחת אהובה ואחת שנואה ... " [דברים כא:טו]
"And if a man has two wives, one whom he loves and one whom he hates … "
While the simple meaning of the passuk is referring to a case where one wife is actually despised – the baalei mussar reveled to us that the passuk teaches us a deeper lesson in the laws of human affection. If a man has two wives and he feels / displays more affection for one – all his protestations of adoration for the other will fall on deaf ears. As far as she is concerned – her husband hates her.
The pesukim we say every day when we bind our fingers with the teffillin describe our relationship with Hashem.
" וארשתיך לי לעולם וארשתיך לי בצדק ובמשפט ובחסד וברחמים: וארשתיך לי באמונה וידעת את ד' "
" And I will be betrothed to you forever, and I will be betrothed to you through acts of justice, law, kindness and mercy. And I will be betrothed to you in faith and you will know Hashem. " [Hoshea 2:21-22]
Additionally, when Hashem granted us the torah at Har Sinai, he went forth to greet us – like a bridegroom greeting his bride – and held the mountain over our heads as a chuppah ! In essence, on a national level, we are married to Hashem.
Applying the message of the despised wife – how do we treat our 'spouse' ? Do we love Hashem – just love other things a bit more ? How would Hashem take this ?
Let us recommit to prioritizing our most important relationship – so that it should not suffer disastrous consequences – and may we all be judged to a year of good health and good tidings !
Friday, September 02, 2011
"תמים תהיה עם ד' א-לוקיך" [דברים יח:יג]
"You shall be unblemished with Hashem your G-d" [Devarim 18:13]
What, exactly, is supposed to be unblemished ?
There are two approaches with which we can attempt to find an answer. The first, is that our 'with-ness' or our attachment to Hashem should be unblemished. The passuk would read " You shall be without blemish in your association with Hashem ".
This is a powerful lesson in where our avodah is meant to take us. When we are just starting to acknowledge our spiritual responsibilities – we are like a kid in a candy shop – trying to gorge on good deeds and words of Torah. This period is a very big spiritual high, since we have a total gain from our actions – everything we push ourselves to do is seen as a positive act. As we mature in our service, however, we must accept that we are not just privileged to serve G-d – we are also obligated to. And when we perform a service – it may not be viewed as a gain – maybe it is what we already owe. To this the passuk teaches – let your service of Hashem be without blemish. Let your understanding be such that you realize that you carry obligations to Hashem in addition to the privilege of being able to discharge them. And when you see the greater picture of the scope of your service – you will truly be without blemish in your service – for neither your ego ( self congratulatory over having performed so much good ) nor your conscience ( nagging over the deficiencies in your avodah ) will get between you and your Creator.
The second approach is a beacon to all seekers of spirituality and understanding. If you seek to be without blemish – you must cleave to Hashem your G-d. There are others who will offer other (inferior) means of attaining enlightenment and perfection. This passuk comes on the heels of an entire parsha of false prophets and soothsayers. But if you want the true path to self betterment ? You can be "tamim" – you can achieve a blemish free status. But only with Hashem, your G-d.
Let us take chizzuk from these concepts – that we can reach great heights – as long as we remember to take the Torah path to get there. And that we must strive for a blemish free service – neither too full of our successes nor too distraught over our failures – just attempting to hold fast to Hashem with all of our might.Haztlacha !!
Friday, August 26, 2011
The Torah tells us to open our hands to our poorer brethren. Not just to give to them – not just to make sure they are taken care of – specifically, to open our hands.
Why are hands a metaphor for giving ( aside from the obvious reference to the limb that grabs hold of what we have ) ? Because when the fingers are closed they all seem similar in size – only when they are open do we notice that no two are alike. Similarly, when we consider those who are in need – we may stumble into the fallacy of assuming that they can all be taken care of in the same fashion and that the same basic goods will suffice for them. However, as chazal teach us – one must give to the poor "די מחסורו"- i.e. that which he is lacking. And since we are all different – so are our needs. [quoted in the sefer פנינים משולחן הגר"א ]
There is also another angle from which to understand the role that the hands play in giving tzedaka.
Most other limbs are naturally open, or straight. When the muscles are relaxed – your legs lie flat and your arms are completely extended. Your fingers however, are another story. You must consciously flex your muscles to fully open your hand. This can be seen as an allusion to the fact that we are by nature selfish – we must overcome this inborn trait and learn to "open our hands".
Thursday, August 18, 2011
"את ד' א-לוקיך תירא אותו תעבוד ובו תדבק ובשמו תשבע"
"Your G-d, Hashem, you shall fear. Him you should worship. To Him you shall cleave and in His name shall you take an oath." [Devarim 10:20]
Yiras Hashem is a confusing thing. One could (mistakenly) assume that to demonstrate complete awe of the grandeur of the One Above means to be stupefied into a respectful silence. When faced with something of immeasurable greatness we would naturally be overawed and withdraw.
The Passuk comes to teach us that this kind of passive avoidance cannot be considered true Yiras Hashem. Coupled with a healthy fear of the majesty of heaven, we should feel an incredible attraction. Our job is not to avoid involvement with Hashem for fear of messing it up – our job is to specifically engage in acts that mention Hashem's name – just to do it right !
Imagine someone who fears making a beracha with less that the proper kavanna – so they don’t make any berachos at all ! It is obvious that they are missing the point ! For this reason the passuk stresses that we should take oaths in Hashem's name. If we were to avoid it entirely one could assume it is because we do not think that Hashem's name is significant enough to swear by (chas veShalom !) But by stressing that we should swear in G-d's name we are declaring it as being worthy of that awe.
Since we do not take oaths nowadays – how can we apply this lesson ? By focusing on aspects of our avodas Hashem. Do we make berachos quietly out of respect or reverence – or is it because we do not take pride in our level of devotion ? Is our davening relegated to a quiet corner – let it be because of our concentration.
May we have much hatzlacha in our endeavors to properly serve Hashem – finding the balance between withdrawing due to yiraa and embracing out of ahava.
Friday, August 12, 2011
Friday, August 05, 2011
One of the misdeeds that Moshe Rabbeinu rebukes the Jewish people for is their disdain for the man. It is interesting to note – the 'complaint' against the man is extremely ironic. What unique property did the man have ? There was no waste generated by it. In addition to being a fundamental aspect of the man it was also an inherent kindness.
Chazal teach us that the Torah could only have been given to those who eat man. That's because only someone fueled by perfection can relate to the Torah which is correspondingly perfect. Once that generation 'brought the Torah down' into this imperfect world – now we, even in our imperfections, can learn it.
But there was an additional kindness to the man. For forty years the Jewish people never needed to worry about that aspect of personal hygiene, their cleanliness was insured.
What was so tragic about the complaint is that it was directed exactly at an aspect of Hashem's kindness. Ungratefulness epitomized.
The next time we have an 'issue' with how Hashem is running our lives – and with a particular occurrence – let us take the lesson of the man. Don't look at the glass as half empty – realize that Hashem put it there to quench our thirst.
Friday, July 29, 2011
The Mishna in Avos (1:12) tells us that Aharon HaKohein was one who "loved peace and pursued peace". In fact, it was this quality that endeared him to the entire nation, causing them all to mourn him in his passing ( see Bamidbar 20:29 and Rashi there ).
How does one 'pursue peace' ? The actions seem to be contradictory. To chase something down and catch it requires forcefulness, tenacity and single minded conviction. These traits are the exact opposite of the ones we would need to increase peace and harmony – a forgiving, easygoing nature and a relaxed countenance.
So how did Aharon HaKohein do it ?
Aharon was tenacious in his forgiving, and fiercely motivated to be easygoing. He would always place before him the goal of loving his fellow Jew and would work himself to acquire it. To assume that Aharon was blessed with a relaxed personality that allowed him to forgive all would be a total disservice to his memory – he worked at it !
This week is Aharon HaKohein's yahrtzeit, on rosh chodesh Av, the day when we begin the 'nine days'. As we enter this period of national tragedy we can ask ourselves – Have I pursued peace recently ? Chasing peace doesn't mean forgiving an offense that didn't really bother you, or going out of your way when you really don't mind. Chasing peace means putting in the effort and determination of a hunter to catch his prey.
Happy Hunting !
Friday, July 22, 2011
After the Jews successfully defeat the Midianites they are instructed as to how to purify the spoils for Jewish use.
"כָּל דָּבָר אֲשֶׁר יָבֹא בָאֵשׁ תַּעֲבִירוּ בָאֵשׁ וְטָהֵר אַךְ בְּמֵי נִדָּה יִתְחַטָּא וְכֹל אֲשֶׁר לֹא יָבֹא בָּאֵשׁ תַּעֲבִירוּ בַמָּיִם:" [במדבר לא:כג]
"Any item that passes through fire shall be passed through fire and be purified, it must be cleansed in water fit for a niddah, and all that does not pass though fire you shall pass through water."
What is the secret, miraculous way by which fire and water serve to remove the idolatrous influences of Midian ?
There are two types of stains that can affect a person's soul. You can be surrounded by negative influences – your entire frame of reference can be one of misguided values and faulty goals. This is common in a society dominated by superficiality and instant gratification. Or perhaps you have fallen deeper into the abyss of impurity and you are actually excited by doing what is wrong in the eyes of G-d.
To correct these flaws you must reverse the effect they have upon you. In order to reorient yourself to a life of divine service and positive values you must completely surround yourself with those of a similar mindset. This spiritual immersion can help shift the focus and sharpen it to true life goals.
The second level of impurity is much harder to expunge. It has become so absorbed within a person that external immersion will not have the power to bleed it out. For this we need to 'burn it out' from the inside. We must fight fire with fire – a fire of longing for the Divine to cancel out the fires of desire; a fire of intense happiness in His service to cancel out a fire of revelry and wildness.
May we be zocheh to add only purity to our lives by every which way imaginable and merit seeing the pure redeemer, speedily, in our days.
Tuesday, July 05, 2011
Did Bruce Lee Really Learn Ohr HaChaim ?
In the memorable beracha that Bilaam bestows upon the Jewish people is a powerful, hidden message.
" מה טובו אהליך יעקב משכנותיך ישראל "
" How good are your tents, Jacob, your dwelling places,
The Ohr Hachaim HaKadosh points out that Bilaam is prophetically praising the Jewish people for having two different types of housing – tents (which are temporary housing) and dwellings (more permanent housing). It is specifically this diversity of housing that is so praiseworthy.
The transient tents represent those of bnei yisrael who toil for their livelihood. Despite this being a chief endeavor in their lives, they nonetheless view it as a temporary pursuit – a means to an end. Amassing a great fortune or finding material success is never viewed as a goal in its own right – it is just what may be necessary to subsist in a physical world. It is this impermanence that renders their actions commendable.
Conversely, the yidden who toil in the house of study see that as their permanent station – despite the fact that some concerns may take them out of it once in a while. It is their steadfastness and solidity that is so worthwhile.
We can even describe this praise as referring to the same people – ones who are able to mentally "switch hats" from a transitory, passing occupation to a permanent, rooted endeavor. Those who possess the ability to view one part of your day or week as being the fixture and another part as a passing errand. A Jew who has mastered the art of knowing when he is in his "tent mode" and when he is in his "dwelling mode" is certainly one deserving of praise.
This recalls a comment made by Bruce Lee, the martial arts guru. He advised the student to "be like water" – fluid and malleable when receiving a blow – but hard and forceful when delivering it.
We can take a look at our own lives – what aspects scream out to us as "tent" things – and what things are substantially more permanent ? Are we as deserving of Bilaam's beracha as the generation who received it ?
Thursday, June 30, 2011
In the perplexing field of tumah and tahara we find an interesting halacha. There are some levels of impurity that are so high that they transfer (or contaminate) everything within the same room or enclosure. This is called tumas ohel. There is an exception to this rule, however (where would we be without exceptions ?). If the item in question is resting in a tightly sealed, earthenware container, then it is saved or insulated from the tumah.
Chazal teach us that an earthenware vessel is different – it is only able to contract tumah from it's inside. Meaning – if it is filled with something impure – it will be impure – otherwise, it will retain purity even in the face of an entire ohel of tumah.
We could assume that this impregnability of the earthenware vessel is due to it's tremendous importance. That assumption couldn't be further from the truth. You see, it is precisely it's unimportance that enables the earthenware vessel to act as an insulator.
Most utensils are significant in their own right. As such, if they are in an area of impurity – they contract it. A simple earthenware jug, however, is only judged vis-à-vis it's inside. Since its only importance is to protect its contents – that is the only halachic reality it has.
I believe the same can hold true for us. If we over inflate our self image and strut around believing we are all that and a bag of chips – then we will be vulnerable to any impure wind that may blow our way. However, if we see ourselves as the custodians of a holy Torah and divine mitzvos, then we become so significant – we can even insulate against impurity when no one else can !
Saturday, June 25, 2011
The Gemara in the final lines of maseches Chagiga tells of the fate of the righteous in geheinom. Rabi Abahu states – the righteous will be unaffected by the fires of purgatory – in the same way that the mythical salamander is able to walk through fire unscathed.
R' Shimon ben Lakish states that even the sinners amongst the Jewish people will be spared from the fire's harmful effects since they are filled with mitzvos. His proof lies in the simile to the golden altar in the Beis Hamikdash. The altar, which was made of wood, had a veneer of gold that was a dinar's width thick. Even though the wooden altar should have burst into flames when the incense was burnt upon it – the golden covering was sufficient to protect it. So too, even the less-than-righteous amongst the Jews still have a solid layer of mitzvos to shield them from the fire.
The Vilna Gaon is quoted ( in the green book, פניני הגר"א ) as having made a distinction between these two analogies. The righteous, as represented by the salamander, are inflammable – they simply do not burn. Therefore the act of finding themselves amongst the fires of judgment poses no threat to them. The wicked however, do burn. Like the mizbeach, they are made of flammable wood – their salvation lies in the protective coating they managed to acquire.
When we look at ourselves in the mirror – what do we see ? Do we see imperfection with redeeming qualities ? Or do we manage to glimpse, even in one small corner of our lives, righteousness ? Even if we don’t see it there yet, at least now we know what to look for.
Friday, June 10, 2011
Sounds like a detective book for young readers, right?! Really we are referring to the letter of the Hebrew alphabet – nun or נון.
In the middle of parshas Beha'aloscha the torah interjects two pesukim that are bracketed with two upside down letters in the Torah – the letter nun. The Torah does this to separate between unfortunate incidents – so we shouldn't have an unbroken chain of negative parshiyos.
A closer look at the parsha would seem to indicate that the break is in the wrong place. After all, there are three 'calamities' that are described in the parsha – the Jews complaining about lack of meat, the Jews crying about forbidden relationships and Miriam speaking Lashon Hora against Moshe Rabbeinu - and they all take place after the nuns !
Perhaps what the 'nun break' is trying to teach us is that the one negative item mentioned before the break is equivalent to all three of the 'calamities'.
The Jews' travel from Har Sinai was described by chazal as the flight of a child from the schoolhouse. As if to say – please don't give us any more rules and restrictions. This negative behavior is somehow equivalent to all the misdeeds in the pesukim to follow – and why? Because it underscores the basic human failing that caused them.
Running from Har Sinai represented the ultimate in ungratefulness. The keys to the spiritual salvation of the universe had been placed in the Jews' hands and they resented the effort it would take to use them. This was certainly a flaw equal in magnitude to the others that the Jews exhibited.
What can we do to correct this flaw ? Every time we learn – we can linger at our seforim, just a drop – but enough to demonstrate that we wish we could have more. And what about those of us who have a difficult time learning ? We can close the gemara with the tiniest sigh – that we wish we didn’t feel relieved.
Tuesday, June 07, 2011
The Gemara in Shabbos (88a) teaches us that at Har Sinai Hashem held the mountain over our heads and told us that we must accept the Torah or else He would drop the mountain.
The Sefas Emes comments that this was not a manipulative action, designed to coerce a recalcitrant people. Rather, it was an inevitable outcome of reality. All of nature is totally dependant upon Hashem and his word and nothing has any existence outside His will. The looming mountain was just a physical manifestation of that lofty principle.
In Hashem's great kindness He cloaks reality in illusion and 'nature' so that we may be free to choose our path and be ennobled by our choice.
This Shavuous let us see Hashem's world as it is – an arena for us to declare and practice allegiance to the only reality that truly exists – the will of the divine.
May we be zocheh to accept His Will see it revealed over nature once again in the final redemption, speedily and in our days, amen.
Friday, April 08, 2011
Upon being purified, the metzora brings a korban which involves two birds. One is slaughtered and the other is set free. Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains the significance of these birds.
The slaughtered bird is obvious – the metzora twittered like a gossiping bird and should feel remorse and seek to identify with the bird – to realize he deserves to be slaughtered for his transgression. The second bird, however, is let free – specifically to a field – not a city.
The most concrete definition of the myriad of sins (stinginess, slander, gossip, etc) that bring upon tzaraas is that these are sins against the fabric of society. Any one of these transgressions has the power to drive a wedge between Jews and cause animosity and hatred.
This is the message of the second bird. We tell the metzora that if he continues to gossip (like the bird) then his options are limited. Either slaughter – or exile. But there is no room in a positive Jewish community for any of those sins – or any tolerance.
Maybe the next time we are looking for some inspiration to help us get past a particularly difficult situation - one where we find ourselves tempted to engage in any one of the tzaraas bearing sins - we should remember this idea and realize how much we benefit from our fellow Jews – and how much we would miss the sense of community they afford. This will certainly help us steer clear of this pitfalls – and in this merit may we welcome Mashiach into our whole community speedily, in our days, amen.
Friday, April 01, 2011
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
At this time of year one can't help but contrast the two major redemptions of the Jewish people, Purim and Pesach. On Pesach we were redeemed from a wicked tyrant who was bent on destroying us. Our redemption was complete ( we never returned into the clutches of Pharaoh ) and our reconnection with the One Above was the inevitable outcome. The desert years saw us in tremendous closeness with Hashem – as evidenced by His presence dwelling amongst us in the mishkan. Perhaps that which encapsulates this intimacy the most is the fact that we brought korbanos – daily closenesses - to Hashem.
Purim was a redemption of a drastically different nature. Hidden miracles parading as court subterfuge replaced the open and glorious Divine Hand. The second temple that was the immediate result ( sanctioned by Darius son of Esther ) was a pale shadow of it's predecessor – and certainly the mishkan. To top it all off – most of the Jews stayed in the diaspora after Haman's downfall. What kind of half geulah are we celebrating anyway ?!
The key to understanding this lies in the service of the korbanos. In the times of the first temple the act of drawing close to Hashem's presence was a standardized, predictable act. We had the mechanisms by which to seek out and connect to Hashem – we need only draw physically close to the place where His Presence dwells. In the aftermath of that destruction, though, something in our national psyche changed. We could no longer follow that well worn path. We needed to beat a new path through the ashes back to Hashem's presence. The second Beis HaMikdash would only serve as part of that path – that's why we don’t celebrate purim on the day that the second Beis HaMikdash was rebuilt. The korbanos, brought on G-d's table, are a component. Our voluntary acceptance of the Torah, on our own table, is the rest.
In a standard korban we serve a feast to G-d, at the Purim seudah we serve a different feast – eaten by man – in the service of G-d.
The geulah of Purim didn’t just redeem us from the external enemy of a tyrant – it redeemed us from the internal enemy of self gratification. To celebrate – we indulge in all manner of treats – but all in the service of the One Above.
It is easier to burn an animal on G-d's altar for the sake of heaven – on Purim we learn to eat on the table of man – for the same cause.
Go ahead, enjoy your Purim – but don't forget that with every bite (or slurp) you are declaring and inviting Hashem's presence – not just into your temple – but into your life.
Freillichen Purim !