Friday, August 31, 2012

A Pocket Full Of Kryptonite


The Torah commands us to refrain from possession of the trappings and tools of the trickster's trade. We may not have in our pockets two different weights (Devarim 25:13) nor in our house, two different dry measures ( Ibid 25:14).
The Torah then emphasizes that we must own proper, just weights and containers for dry measure. And to cap it all off – if we abide by these guidelines (required, not suggested) we will merit long life (Ibid 25:15).
Huh ?!?!
There seems to be much more being discussed here.
Firstly, we are already under "standing orders" not to cheat in business or in any way swindle our fellow man. Secondly, even if we were to view this commandment as an expansion upon the concept of honesty (since previous laws focused on the practice of cheating and this one prohibits mere possession of cheating paraphernalia), we still must question the insistence of the Torah that we acquire proper weights and measures. Supposing I want to refrain from weighing and measuring altogether – shouldn't I be within my rights to forgo the entire experience – why must G-d insist that I possess accurate tools ?
Because these laws are alluding to a much bigger issue. Not everyone is involved in the buying and selling aspects of business. We do all make purchases from time to time – so the simple, literal meaning of this law certainly applies to everyone. But, this law can also be seen as referring to a different system of weights and measures.
We each make dozens of decisions daily. We weigh our options and measure our resources – in an attempt to "get the best deal" towards whichever goal we are working for.
The Torah is cautioning us – it is not sufficient to engage in honest self assessment when pursuing our life's goals. We must purge our value system of dishonest considerations completely ! It is not enough to avoid rationalizations and other mental manipulations when serving G-d – we must eliminate these things from our lexicon entirely!
In this month of tremendous divine assistance in our personal betterment – may we merit this, and all other, lofty steps in pursuit of our ultimate goal. As Dovid HaMelech said – "… To sit in the house of Hashem all the days of our life " [Tehillim 27:4]

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Fruits Of Man


"כי תצור אל עיר ימים רבים להלחם עליה לתפשה לא תשחית את עצה לנדח עליו גרזן כי ממנו תאכל ואתו לא תכרת כי האדם עץ השדה לבא מפניך במצור" [דברים כ:יט]
"If you will lay siege to a city for many days to do battle against it and capture it, you must not ruin its trees to destroy them by the axe, for from these trees you shall it and these (trees) you shall not chop down, are they a man – these trees of the field – that you consider them your enemies in this siege ?! " [Devarim 20:19]

The Torah emphatically states that while we may lay siege to an enemy city, and deal death and destruction to its inhabitants, upon capture, we may not destroy their orchards or vineyards. This is not merely military strategy. There is a deeper issue at stake here.
At first glance, the Torah is limiting and guiding us – even during periods of battle. "I know you are fighting a war", says the Torah, "and I know that you are laying waste to living things right and left." But, we must guard ourselves from willful destruction for destruction's own sake. After all, this is Hashem's world we are talking about and we may not cast our axe about with no regard for the Creator. Rather, we must be calculating in every action – destroying what needs to be (our enemies - who are called Hashem's enemies by extension) and preserving that which need not fall under our hatchet.

But the Torah makes an interesting analogy – are the trees of the field similar to the men that you fight against ? the passuk asks rhetorically.
On a pshat level – the answer is no. Our enemies are men, capable of free will and choice – and when they choose to persecute Hashem's people and defy His word – they righteously "earned" their fate. But trees have no control over who planted them and should not suffer for the sins of their caretakers.
The baalei mussar, however, read this passuk with the exact opposite message. (technically,  this too is pshat – a straightforward reading of the words. The inflection on the phrase "is this tree a man ?" is a questioning one – but one can also read it as a statement. i.e. "man is a tree of the field")

How exactly is man a "… tree of the field" ?
The answer can be found by analyzing the prohibition associated with the trees. It is only fruit trees which are spared the army's ire. Non fruit bearing trees are fair game for the besieging army to chop away at. Why ?
Because that is the level at which the fundamental comparison (between man and tree) lies. If man is comparable to a tree – it is only because, like the tree, he is designed to give fruit.
A tree is known by its fruit. It is that fruit that goes far and wide bringing praise, or heaping scorn, upon its parent tree. So it is with the fruits of man.
Man's fruits are not his children (they, too are fruits but not in this context). Man's fruits are his actions and accomplishments. It is by them that man is known and through them he will garner eternal rewards or reap the bitter sprouts of failure.
Why is a fruit tree spared the army's axe ? because it has a higher purpose. Even as a marauding army, we are enjoined not to undermine this tree's potential for accomplishment.
So too, man is a fruit tree. He has achievements. They are his potential – they are the 'calling card' he leaves behind him and the one he sends on ahead.

During this introspective month of Elul – we may ask ourselves – what 'fruits' am I producing ? And would they be sufficiently important to save me from the besieging army's blade ?

Hatzlacha !

Friday, August 17, 2012

A Labor Of Love

 The great Mussar sages tell us that when they announced the upcoming Rosh Chodesh Elul in shul, people would already begin to tremble. The image we have of Elul is one of repentance and intense personal growth. We hear the shofar and say extra pirkei tehillim, all in an effort to become better people. Elul is a time of seriousness.
But, if we get hung up on the almost somber aspects of this intense month – we miss one of its greatest themes, love.
Amongst the few acronyms that spell out the letters of Elul is a passuk in Shir Hashirim, "אני לדודי ודודי לי" – "I am (devoted) to my beloved and my beloved is (devoted) to me". Elul is a time of renewed pledges and demonstrations of that love. Elul is not just a time when we invest in ourselves – it is a time when we invest on our relationship with Hashem.
If we spend our entire Elul trembling with fear, we will have totally missed out on an even greater opportunity – to spend this month basking in His love.
There is a world of difference between a worker hurrying to prepare a lavish feast for his master and a love-struck youth preparing a meal for his (or her) beloved. They are both intensely focused and exert great care to have the meal be at its utmost. But one is overawed, and works with an eye towards the door in fearful anticipation, while the other is overcome, and eyes the door in sweet expectation.
This Elul, let us realize our potential and devote ourselves to the loving service of our Creator. And in the same measure that we show our love – we will merit to feel His boundless love for us – as the passuk stresses – "I am to my beloved, and my beloved is to me"

A Gut Chodesh !

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, August 10, 2012

Just One Small Thing ...


"ועתה ישראל מה ד' א-לוקיך שואל מעמך כי אם ליראה את ד' א-לוקיך, וללכת בכל דרכיו, ולאהבה אותו, ולעבדו בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך" [דברים י:יב]
"And now, Israel, what does Hashem require of you ? Just that you stand in awe of Him, and follow in all of his ways, and love Him, and serve him with all your heart and soul." [Devarim 10:12]

In this famous passuk, Moshe Rabbeinu seems to encapsulate the heart of what it means to be a G-d fearing Jew. What comes off as inconsistent, however, is the reference that this is a simple task. Specifically, when Moshe uses the term "כי אם" – contextually translated as "Just that…" – he is saying that this is no big deal.

From the Gemara (Brachos 33b) on down, scholars throughout the ages have tried to come to terms with how Moshe Rabbeinu can refer to standing in awe of Hashem as 'no big deal'. The Gemara concludes that the lofty concept of Yiraas Hashem is indeed 'no big deal' to someone of Moshe Rabbeinu's caliber. There is another lesson to be learned here.

Awe is the natural reaction of a frail and mortal man when confronted with powers and occurrences that are well beyond him. The raging sea during a gale or the majestic, towering clouds of a thunderstorm; the endless array of stars on a clear night or the vast desolation of a desert wasteland – all these produce in us a feeling of awe. We don't need to learn mussar works to feel awed by the destructive power of a huge bomb, and we don't need to meditate upon awe when we come upon a deep and cavernous canyon.

Moshe Rabbeinu tells us that standing in awe of Hashem is not an extraordinary feat for one simple reason, it doesn't need to be faked.

If we had to pretend to fear a harmless flea or be overawed by a small child – that would be something to emphasize. That would take acting, meditation and years of study to perfect. But Hashem? The one and only ruler over all ?! The One whose very essence sustains and directs every molecule and atom in the universe and whose awesome power unleashes and tames every storm and quake ?!?!?! All that takes is recognition. Once we recognize, once we actually see the world and Hashem for what they are, inevitably, we will be awed.

Let us take a moment to look around and see the world for what it is – an incredibly complex, living and breathing testament to Hashem, and the extent of His power. And then let us stand in awe, after all, its 'no big deal'.

Hatzlacha !! 

Friday, August 03, 2012

Been There, Done That


"וידעת היום והשבות אל לבבך כי ד' הוא הא-לוקים בשמים ממעל ועל הארץ מתחת אין עוד" [דברים ד:לט]
"And you shall know today, and you shall internalize towards your heart, that Hashem is G-d in the heavens above and in the earth beneath there is no other" [Devarim 4:39]

This famous passuk which concludes the first half of the Aleinu that is said at the end of every teffila contains two very important lessons.

The first message is a lesson in internalizing. How do we take knowledge and assimilate it ? How do we apply that which we have learned – and make it into that which we are ?  The trick is in where we attempt to integrate the information into.

When the passuk speaks about our heart – it uses the multiple "ב" of "לבבך"(levavcha) instead of "לבך" (leebecha). The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh teaches us that this is an allusion to both "halves" of our hearts.

If we try to learn about good actions and things we should do and believe - all that stays in the realm of the theoretical. The key to bringing it into the actual is not in our yetzer tov (he wants to do all the mitzvos in the world !) but rather in our yetzer hora! 

Just learning about something is not enough to make a lasting change. We need to develop a game plan, a battle strategy for overcoming the obstacles the evil inclination will certainly place in our way.  Once we have a realistic approach of how the yetzer will attempt to dissuade us from doing this mitzvah or learning this torah – and have a plan for how to counter that evil advice – then we will have set the stage for transcending mere knowledge and reaching internalizing.

The second message is equally powerful.

The word the torah uses to describe this process is derived from the same word as teshuva, or return. This hints to us that any bit of divine wisdom – every positive action or mitzvah oriented mindset that we attempt to assimilate into who we are – is in fact just an act of returning to the pristine state we once occupied.

When a Jewish neshama is about to be born it learns all of the torah directly from an angel. The angel then promptly makes us forget it all. Why learn it if we are only going to forget it ? Because we are nonetheless comforted by the knowledge that no matter how hard it gets – we can definitely do it ! After all, we've already been there and done that.

Hatzlacha !!