Tuesday, May 14, 2013

As One

"כאיש אחד בלב אחד"
“Like one man, as one heart”
With those words chazal describe the incredible unity that was demonstrated by the Jewish nation at Har Sinai. The Shem MiShmuel offers an insight into this famous analogy which will help us actualize our feelings of unity.
The Jewish people are also considered to be represented by the letters of the Torah. The Zohar teaches us that there are 600,000 letters in the Torah parallel to the number of Jews who were present at Har Sinai. If the letters in the Torah are spaced too far apart – they are unable to be read as one and the Torah is passul. However, if they are mashed together, they are equally illegible. The balance is to have the letters individually defined, yet read as one.
Similarly, we are described as being one body. If our limbs were separated from each other we would surely perish, but to facilitate proper health our body’s functions must be clearly defined – with one limb yielding to another. The arm will not perform the task of the leg and so on.
It is with this analogy that chazal describe our unity. We aren’t all identical, nor do we all serve the same purpose. Yet, in our differences, we create a harmonious whole.
As a Jew, I love my fellow Jews both because of our similarity (as we are all part of one whole) and our diversity, which allows us to create, together, a rich and textured canvas.
Gut Yom Tov !

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Its All Got To Go


The Torah teaches us that following the long introspective process that a former metzorah has to undergo there is a semi bizarre ritual he must participate in before his atonement is complete. The metzorah must shave all of his hair. All of it - head, eyebrows and all. [See Vayikra 14:8-9]
What message about reformation could Hashem be sending us by including this law ?!
It’s all about growth.
There are three components to the offering of the metzorah. There is the pine branch and the bird which is slaughtered [Vayikra 14:4-5] which represent the haughtiness and gossiping that the sinner engaged in which is what landed him as a metzorah in the first place. Next, there is the hyssop and worm-dyed wool and live bird which represent what he should be from now on – humble like the lowly hyssop and worm, despite being alive like the bird. But neither of these two stages represents what the baal teshuvah needs to avoid a relapse.
That’s where the hair comes in. Literally. When you have gone without any hair at all – you will be more attuned to its presence and rate of growth. It’s been said that life is like a downward escalator – if you are not going up – you’re going down. What may have been a solid conviction to remain humble the week after his offerings may turn into a distant memory a few years down the line. What is a more constant reminder for the former metzorah, however, is spiritual growth. As long as he is growing in his avodas Hashem then he will be reminded not to backslide into the arrogance and selfishness that caused him to deserve tzaraas.
While we are not recovering metzoraim (Thank G-d) this lesson is equally applicable to us. This is probably why hair continues to grow even after most things have stopped. As an “adult” we are no longer getting taller and our shoe size is no longer changing. But hair keeps growing to signify to us that there are aspects of our life that we must constantly seek to grow in.
Hatzlacha !!

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Every Little Bit Counts

The entire concept of counting the Omer leaves us with quite a few unanswered questions. Firstly, if the Omer is meant to connect between Pesach and Shavuous – why begin counting in the middle of Pesach? Shouldn’t we count as soon as Pesach is over? Secondly, the Torah refers to the first day of Pesach (following which we begin the count) as Shabbos [see Vayikra 23:15] – why? Thirdly, we seem to be confronted with two mitzvos of counting – the weeks and the days [see Vayikra 23:15-16]. In fact, we do count both seven weeks and fifty (up to and not including) days. Wouldn’t it seem logical to count days only up to seven and then by full weeks? Lastly, the reason behind the title of the entire seffira is unclear – why refer to it as the omer, the omer is simply a measurement, in this case of oats, why don’t we refer to it as seffiras haSeorim or seffiras haMincha Chadasha (the flour offering that is the first to contain the new wheat of the season which is offered at the culmination of the seffira)?
All of our questions reflect the misunderstandings of an outsider looking in. When we come to a fuller realization of the meaning of seffira, our questions won’t be answered – they will simply fade away.
The holiday of Pesach is the holiday of redemption. There is an important distinction between redemption and salvation (Geulah and Hatzalah). To save someone usually means to somehow prevent a negative event. Sometimes, it can mean to mitigate or otherwise neutralize the negative effects of an event (ex. When my power went out, my neighbor really saved me by offering refrigerator space for all my food). To redeem, however, means to remove the person from their situation. Redemption is usually accompanied by accepting personal responsibility for them from here on out. While Hashem certainly saved us from the Egyptian bondage and torture, He ultimately redeemed us from Egypt entirely into his domain and personal jurisdiction.
This redemption happened in multiple stages. Firstly, Hashem took the Jews out of Egypt (this was accomplished in one day – with the same term as the Torah uses to describe the removal of leaven from our houses for Pesach – “תשביתו” or “Sabbaticalize”) then Hashem took the Egypt out of the Jews (this took the remaining 49 days until the Jews were ready for the purpose of their redemption – the receipt of the Torah).
Taking the Egypt out of the Jews was a process with at least two major components – "סור מרע ועשה טוב" – “turn away from bad [deeds] and perform good [ones]” [Tehillim 34:15]. Performing good deeds is a daily event. We rise every day and thank Hashem for the ability to serve Him and for the opportunities He gives us to do mitzvos. How do you “turn away” from bad deeds, though? By being presented with the opportunity and refusing. We are not faced with the same challenges every day – there are the diverse trials of the weekday and the unique set of circumstances that govern the weekend. In order to truly wash our hands from sin we must experience both and come out unblemished. This is the reason for the two separate counts.
Finally, why the reference to the measurement of the Omer instead of its substance? because it is that philosophy that keeps us going day by day. While we do need to focus on a “big” goal and know where our life and Torah accomplishments are going; ultimately, we should realize that it isn’t the “big goals” that count. Hashem put us here every day to accomplish an everyday goal. As the mishna states “It is not up to you to finish the task, yet you are not at liberty to desist from working towards its completion” [Avos 2:16] The most empowering lesson of all is that Hashem only requires from us our part, our “measure”.
And when we shoulder our part of the burden, the Hashem will surely see the interwoven tapestry of all of Am Yisrael and bring the final redemption, speedily in our days. Amen.
So, happy counting, because every day counts, because you count, and because Hashem is counting on you !
Hatzlacha !

Monday, March 25, 2013

Anti Chaos Theory

Probably the biggest lesson that we can take from the seder on Pesach is its name.
Why is it called the seder (literally, the order)? On a simple level – because we have so many mitzvos to fulfill that is we don’t perform them in a pre arranged order – we may forget one or more.
I think there is a deeper reason as well.
The message of the entire story of the exodus and the crippling punishment of the Egyptians is precisely that – that there is an order to the world. Events are not happenstance and there is a choirmaster that directs everything. If there is one message that we must internalize on this holy, holy night – this is it.
Have a very meaningful seder !

Friday, March 22, 2013

Doing Our Best - But Why ?!

In the special Haftarah that we read for Shabbos Hagadol we hear the prophet Malachi tell of the messianic era. After centuries and millennia of toil – devoted Yidden who toiled, guided only by their unwavering faith will finally be recognized and rewarded. Obviously, their reward will be commensurate with their efforts and will be granted on several levels. One distinction that will be made involves those who “serve Hashem and those who do not serve Him” [Malachi 3:18]
The Gemara [Chagiga 9b] teaches us that both of the people referred to in the passuk have been righteous, that is why they receive divine rewards. The harsh condemnation of an incomplete tzaddik as “one who does not serve Him” is solely in reference to that tzaddik’s lack of total dedication. How is this lack of totality expressed ? He has only reviewed his learning 100 times and not 101.
An idea that explains this seemingly harsh statement is an analysis of motives. What drives us to achieve and excel in our Avodas Hashem ? Sometimes it is nothing more than a type A personality that looks to overachieve in everything. While every effort spent in divine service deserves recognition, there is a special place reserved to reward those that toil purely for the sake of Heaven. There is nothing to gain (qualitatively) from reviewing one’s learning that extra hundred and first time, yet one whose avodah is purely lishma will do it, while those who only seek to excel will not.
This Pesach we will all perform many, many acts of avodah – the cleaning, cooking and even learning to insure that we will have a memorable Pesach. Lest an impure thought creep into our motives – lest we be driven by a mundane desire to just “do it right” – let us remember the admonishing words of Malachi. Even when there will be ‘no difference’ and even when all is already done – let us exert our best efforts in recognition of the true reason. We were once slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt – and now, gloriously so, we are slaves to the Almighty.
Hatzlacha !!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Now You Have Money... And Now You Don't

The Torah [Vayikra 5:1-13] describes a particular type of offering known as “קרבן עולה ויורד” or the “Rising and falling offering”. This is an atonement offering that is brought to complete a teshuvah process for a few specific sins including taking an oath in vain and entering the Beis Hamikdash while forgetting that one is impure.
 The reference of rising and falling is to the value of the offering. If the one seeking atonement is wealthy, an animal offering is brought. If he (or she) is of lesser financial means, the korban is two doves. And, finally, if the penitent possesses even fewer funds, they may fulfill the korban with a flour offering.
The sliding scale nature of the korban is certainly very understandable – after all, every man should pay according to his means. There is, however, a slight difficulty in understanding the justice of this method. The Talmud [tractate kerisus 27b, quoted by Rashi here] teaches that if a person committed these sins while wealthy and subsequently fell from financial grace, they need only bring the lesser korban. The opposite also holds true, if the sinner was impoverished and received a windfall, then a wealthy person’s offering is required.
Shouldn’t the sinner be responsible to bring the level of offering that corresponds to his financial status at the time of the sin ?
The answer lies in an understanding of what any korban is coming to accomplish. If we (mistakenly) believe that a sin offering is somehow making restitution for the crime committed – then we would be justified in believing that the sinner’s level of wealth at the time of the sin matters. But in truth, the korban is not coming to replace anything that was lost. It is, rather, coming to repair a relationship that was broken. As such, it should, no – must, take into account where the penitent is standing now. Because it is only from his current position that the former sinner must pursue G-d and seek to draw close to him.
Perhaps this is another allusion to the name of the offering. In our spirituality, we all rise and fall – if we dwell on former glories we may fail to conquer our current hurdles. But once we realize that we can always start from where we find ourselves right now – we can begin to re-build our spirituality and once again soar to staggering hights.
Hatzlacha !!

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Set In Stone

In understanding the aftermath of the sin of the golden calf, we are faced with a dilemma. When Moshe Rabbeinu smashed the first Luchos he was applauded by G-d ( See Rashi, Devarim 34:12). But now that Hashem has forgiven the people enough to give them another set of tablets, Moshe Rabbeinu is instructed to hew them himself. If there was such a high degree of divine approval for breaking the luchos why “punish” Moshe Rabbeinu and demand he make restitution?
We would be stumped by this question if we didn’t take a closer look at the wording of the instruction. “פסל לך שני לוחות אבנים” “Carve for yourself two tablets of stone” [Shemos 34:1].
The operative word is “לך”, “for yourself”. The first set of tablets were entirely spiritual in nature. They were hand-carved by G-d Himself and presented as a gift to the Jewish people. But it was a gift that was unearned, and as such its importance and message were callously rejected by them.
When the time comes for the fullness of the penance over the sin that caused the first luchos to be set aside, Hashem tells Moshe Rabbeinu – if you don’t want these to be betrayed as well, you’d better not consider them a gift. Only by accepting ownership and claiming it through the effort of carving the tablets himself, does Moshe truly acquire the Torah on behalf of mankind. No longer is the Torah simply a divine gift, but it now resides etched in the tablets of man’s toil.
What held true then applies even now. If we see the Torah as some light handed down from above – we may be wowed, but we will also feel entitled to turn away at will. But, if we carve our own tablets – if we struggle and invest in the acquisition of that Torah – then it will be truly ours, never to be betrayed.
Happy Carving!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Cloaked In Light

If clothes make the man – What are women made of? Seriously, though, it seems like a lot of the Purim feeling revolves around clothes and costumes.
We dress up on Purim (either to enhance the festive atmosphere or to commemorate the hidden nature of the miracle). Yet, we also find clothes in the meggilah.
When Achashverosh is “in his cups”, he calls for his pipe, his bowl, his fiddlers three AND Vashti to come in – without any clothes! When Haman (ptui !- ed.) is appointed chief minister – this is highlighted by specific jewelry (a type of garment). When Mordechai hears of Haman’s decree he wears sackcloth and ashes. Queen Esther attempts to send Mordechai clothes (he refuses). When Esther goes to see Achashverosh the passuk describes her wardrobe as royalty (“ותלבש אסתר מלכות”). When Haman is forced to publicly proclaim support for Mordechai this is expressed by dressing him up in royal clothes (we even sing this passuk out loud !). And finally, Haman (ptui again !- ed.)  begins to see his downfall – at the hands of his own daughter – it is when he “wears” some unpleasant stuff!
What is it with clothing ?!
The answer can be best understood if we go back to the first place in the Torah where we see clothes. Adam and Chava have just fallen from grace and committed the sin. What does Hashem do for them? He gives them clothes. The passuk tells us:
[בראשית ג:כא] “ויעש ד' א-לוקים לאדם ולאישתו כתנות עור וילבישם
“And Hashem made garments of leather for Adam and his wife, and He clothed them”[Bereshis 3:21]
What do these clothes represent? Well, for one thing, forgiveness. The ability to start over, not to be burdened by the baggage of their mistakes, but to make a fresh start. It’s true that merely covering up your mistakes is not the same as fixing them. But when you cover something – and you keep covering it, over and over again (everybody keeps wearing different clothes !) you are showing that you are constantly making a choice; a choice to regret your mistakes and a choice of what to cover them with.
Perhaps it is for this idea that in the Torah of Rabbi Meir the garments were not of leather “עור”, but rather of light “אור” [Medrash Rabba, Bereshis 20:12]. Because there is no greater light than the light of one who wishes with all of their heart to correct their mistakes. This Purim let us utilize all our potential and sincerely return to Our Father in Heaven. And when we do we will be enveloped by such a powerful light that it will be a beacon to bring Mashiach and the final redemption, speedily and in our days, amen.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Why Horns ?


Perhaps the most famous of the vessels of the holy Mishkan was the mizbeach or altar upon which the sacrifices were offered. This altar was made in a very unique shape with four protrusions or battlements that adorned each of the four corners. These four were known as “karnayim” or horns.
The Medrash Tanchumah (quoted by the Shem MiShmuel) remarks that these karnayim served to atone for a nation which was ennobled by being charged with the elevation of four pillars; the pillar of Torah, pillar of Israel, pillar of kehunah and the pillar of royalty.  
The Shem MiShmuel then asks why should these karnayim be part of the mizbeach per se? What connection is there to this atonement and the acts of sacrifice?
When a Jew approaches the altar and offers an animal, he is obligated to see this animal as his proxy. The act of bringing a sin offering is tremendously powerful in hammering home the realization of just how far he has sunk and just how low the sin has brought him. The danger inherent in this realization is that it could bring him to depression and lowliness.
It is for this purpose, says the Shem MiShmuel, that the mizbeach was the possessor of the karnayim. So, that precisely when a Jew is feeling down and worthless, he should see these four shining beacons and be filled with self worth and purpose. Despite his earlier mistakes (not to down play them, of course) A Jew who sees the karnayim is infused with the realization that he has not been rejected by G-d for his sins, but rather embraced by G-d for his repentance. Embraced, and once again charged (or recharged) with the eternal mission of the Jewish people to shine these four beacons upon all of humanity.
We no longer have the mizbeach and we no longer bring the offerings (may they be renewed speedily in our days) but we still face this difficulty with every step of sincere penance that we offer to G-d. Instead of being derailed by feelings of depression and worthlessness we should feel energized and proud to be, once again, charged with the loftiest of all assignments – to be the harbingers of divinity in this world.
Hatzlacha !

Friday, February 08, 2013

This Religion Is Going To The Dogs

"ואנשי קדש תהיון לי ובשר בשדה טרפה לא תאכלו, לכלב תשליכון אותו" [שמות כב:ל]
“And you shall be a people of holiness, a carcass of the field you shall not eat, but rather throw it to the dogs” [Shemos 22:30]

Rashi comments that this instruction to grant meat that was not schechted properly to the dogs is an eternal gesture of gratitude to “man’s best friend”. During the exodus from Egypt the dogs were under strict divine instructions not to bark out at the leaving Jews. To thank the obedient dogs – Hashem commanded that they be given first priority in discarded meat.
Before we begin to examine this idea – let us remember – the dogs that we give the meat to are not the same dogs who refrained from ruining the atmosphere at the Israelites triumphant exit. So this overture is, in reality, completely symbolic.
More interesting, however, is the way the passuk introduces the idea. In order to be a people of holiness, we must have special restrictions that separate us from the world at large. But, just as necessary to generating that holiness is the idea that while we may be set apart by our laws – we can and must bridge the gap with our demeanor. Holiness may equal separate-ness – but it does not equal aloofness. And to really underscore the point – we even don’t hold ourselves aloof from the animals! Rather, we insist on being completely aware of even the smallest of kindnesses that they perform for us. And what’s more – we take that awareness and translate it into action. That’s true holiness.
This Shabbos – let us make an extra effort to notice all the goodness that surrounds us and even try to express our gratitude for these little things.
Hatzlacha !!

Friday, February 01, 2013

Done ?

"ששת ימים תעבוד ועשית כל מלאכתך" [שמות כ:ט]
"Six days shall you toil and perform all your work" [Shemos 20:9]

Chazal teach us that  the phraseology of this passuk is meant to teach us a lesson in serenity. For six days we do our work and when it comes to Shabbos – we consider all our work as having been completed.
The question arises, however, how do we do this when we are obviously not done with our work? Can a contractor look at a building site and consider it complete? How does a hodgepodge of paperwork and thirty unread messages appear complete to businessman?
The answer lies in our perspective. Imagine a basketball player shooting hoops furiously after the buzzer has sounded. We would consider him a fool! The point of the game is to score the baskets within the allotted time – not after it. Once the game is up – there is no longer any reason to shoot the ball. The same applies to someone who has a hand up to shade their eyes from the sun – once the sun has set, there is no need for them to continue to raise their hand.
The six day week was given to us for toil. To work, expend effort and accomplish. Shabbos was given to us as a day of rest. The clock is not ticking and the meter is not running. On shabbos our work is complete because there is nothing we can do about it! We finished our part, there is no more to do.
This is also hinted at in the next passuk. "On the seventh day it is a shabbos for Hashem, your G-d, you shall not peform any work …" On shabbos – Hashem takes care of everything. There is no need for us to worry, since He is picking up the tab.
This shabbos, let us focus on this feeling of serenity – this recognition that we have done all that we could (even when we didn't finish) and truly perceive this day as one where all our work has been completed.
Hatzlacha !!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Bumps And Bruises

"...כל המחלה אשר שמתי במצרים לא אשים עליך כי אני ד' רפאך" [שמות טו:כו]
"Any ailment that I sent upon the Egyptians, I will not inflict upon you for I am Hashem your healer"  [Shemos 15:26]

Two incredible perspectives on this passuk are quoted in the מעינה של תורה.

Firstly is the idea, expressed by the Malbim, is that just like a healer will sometimes have to perform a painful procedure – so too does Hashem sometimes inflict discomfort upon us. But in sharp contrast to the punitive judgment meted out upon the Egyptians, this discomfort is only part of the healing process and is meant to be instructive, not punitive.
Secondly, the Chasam Sofer gives an analogy of a "house physician" or a medical practitioner who is on retainer to treat anyone in the household versus a doctor who has a private clinic and charges per treatment. It is possible that both doctors are working equally hard to ensure their patient's health. It is inescapable, however, that the physician who has a private clinic may very well wish for some patients to relapse, since treating them would be lucrative. The house physician, however, would only wish health upon his patients since he has nothing to gain from their illness. In this way, says the Chasam Sofer, we should view Hashem – as our personal healer – who has no interest in "treating" us since He has nothing to gain from administering such treatment.
These perspectives are a welcome addition to our own internal arsenal for dealing with, and understanding, life's challenges. Sometimes we fall, and sometimes it hurts. With this passuk, Hashem is reminding us that often our pain is just a bruise left there by the hands of a caring healer. And when that explanation doesn’t seem to suffice – we should always recall that Hashem IS our personal caretaker – and since he doesn't gain from our pain – we can certainly believe that it is not extraneous or meaningless – even when the meaning eludes us.

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, January 18, 2013

Is The Cup Half Empty Or What ?

The difference between the world view of Moshe and Pharaoh can be summed up in the following passuk:
ראו כי רעה נגד פניכם "
"... behold an evil star greets you" [Shemos 10:10]

Pharaoh feels that the Israelites would be foolish to leave, for there is an evil star that rises against them in the desert, a star that signifies bloodshed. Why isn't Moshe worried about the star ? Why does Pharaoh place so much trust in his astrology ?

Despite having his kingdom and country turned upside down by several plagues - some of them too supernatural to contemplate - Pharaoh still thinks that he has the right idea abut how the world runs. He's not all that far off - the evil star does foretell bloodshed. This is where Pharaoh gets caught. He is convinced that if there is an omen of bloodshed that it means that his enemies will suffer.

Moshe isn't worried about the star because he knows the larger truth. Yes - there is an omen for bloodshed - but that won't interfere with Hashem's plan ! Who do you think put the blood star up there in the first place ?! In fact, Hashem does neatly deviate the bloodshed from the Jews to the blood of bris milah.

Pharaoh says to Moshe - the laws of nature are immutable - even your G-d won't save you now ! Moshe calmly responds - even when it seems as if the laws of nature are ranged against us, and even if G-d won't alter the laws outright - Hashem is never bound by those laws.

Every day day the opportunity to choose between Moshe's philosophy and Pharaoh's presents itself. When something doesn't go our way - do we consider it just an unfortunate incident ? A star that just happened to rise against us ? Or can we achieve a slice of Moshe rabbeinu's emunah ? We might not know why it happened but it is certainly all for the grandest master plan there is.

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, January 11, 2013

But, Why ?!?


The Torah is not merely a book of history. It is a book of instruction. One may wonder – what instructions are hidden in the horrific plagues that beat ancient Egypt, and it's meglomaniacal despot, into submission ?

The answer may very well lie in the last pesukim that describe the seventh plague – hail. Makkas Barad was a profoundly explosive attack upon Mitzrayim, in which millions of hail missiles rained down, causing incredible levels of destruction. Immediately following this plague, however, the Torah testifies as to which crops were destroyed and which survived (see Shemos 9:31-32). Rav Moshe Feinstein, Zatzal, teaches us that this is because no destruction is arbitrary.

In a winter season when many are affected by storms and the damage to property has reached epic proportions – we may yet need to internalize the lesson of the hailstones. Not a single hailstone fell at random – and neither does anything else.

Please, G-d, when we can say that our full and perfect belief in the Hashgacha that Hashem employs in the world is standing firm – we will be able to rejoice in the fifth statement of redemption – "והבאתי" and will merit the coming of Moshiach, amen.

Hatzlacha !!

Friday, January 04, 2013

Jewish Heroism

What makes a hero ?

In Egypt, we find that while the Israelites were enslaved there was a tiered system. There were slaves and overseers. The slaves were answerable to the Jewish overseers who, in turn, were answerable to their Egyptian taskmasters.

When Moshe first requests that Pharaoh let the Jews go he is met by ridicule ("Who is the Hashem that I should listen to him?!"). He is also faced with a nasty reality. Rather than relenting, Pharaoh's cruel logic makes him impose even harsher tasks on the hapless Jewish slaves.

The Torah teaches us that the Jewish overseers performed heroically under these new, unreasonable, decrees. (See Shemos 5:14) In fact, for their heroics, they were later projected to roles of prominence in Jewish society.

Just what were these heroic acts in the face of the angered Egyptian taskmasters ? The Jewish overseers took the beating meant for the slaves. They realized that the goals and jobs set before their brothers were impossible. They endeavored to help them finish up – but when that proved untenable – they took responsibility, and the subsequent beating, in their brothers' stead.

A Jewish hero is not necessarily one who triumphs with raw physical power. When it comes to strength, we know that Hashem has it covered more thoroughly than we ever could. So what does He leave for us ? To make the right and noble choice. It takes a bully to throw a punch – it takes a real hero to take one.

Let us use this week to increase our sense of responsibility for our fellow Jews – what can we do for them ? Regardless of who is at fault, or who should have done it – what can we do to alleviate a fellow Jew's hardship ?

This week we can all be heros.

Hatzlacha !!