Sunday, October 30, 2011

Are Neshamos Waterproof?

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.

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, October 21, 2011

To Live Or Not To Live


"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:"
[בראשית ג:כב-כג]
"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.

Haztlacha !

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Quiet Boisterousness


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!

Hatzlacha !

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Straight As An S Curve


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?

They smile!

And when we interject simcha into Hashem's world, He is surely looking down upon us and smiling too.

Hatzlacha !!

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Everything To Gain

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 !