Tuesday, December 27, 2011

PDA's for G-d

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

When Light is Really Darkness

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

In The Eyes Of Man and G-d


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.

Why not?

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.
Hatzlacha !

Friday, December 09, 2011

In G-d We Trust


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.
Hatzlacha !!

Friday, December 02, 2011

Say It With Love (To That Lazy Bum!)


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.

Hatzlacha !