On the roof of the Aish center looking down at the Western Wall with Chevra & Davai in 2011

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Sunday, September 23, 2012

How does one do Teshuva?

Teshuva, while typically translates repentance literally means return.  Teshuva is one of those words that most of us throw around easily.  We tell people and ourselves that they should so Teshuva. We refer to ourselves at Ba’al Teshuvas.  Around Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur especially, we need to work on Teshuva.  That all sounds nice, but…

How does one do Teshuva?

The book Hayom Yom describes how the saintly Reb Meshulam Zusya of Aniponli dealt with Teshuva.  “He can not attain the heights of Teshuva; he therefore breaks down Teshuva to its components for each letter of the word Teshuva is the initial of a verse:

T: Tamim – “Be sincere with the Eternal your G-d” Devarim 18:13
Sh: Shviti – “I have set G-d before me always”  Tehillim 16:8
U: V’havta – “Love your fellow as yourself” Vayikra 19:18
V: B’chol – “In all your ways, know him.“ Mishlei 3:6
H: Hatznei’a – “Walk discreetly with your G-d.” Micha 6:8

The Rebbe Rashab of Lubavitch said that each letter is a path and a method in the avoda (labor) of Teshuva.

What did Reb Zusya mean that we should be sincere with G-d?

Before we can answer that question, we need to recall a famous story about Reb Zusya.  It’s told that when Reb Zusya was an old man, his students came into his room and found him frightened and crying.  He explained to them that he felt that his life was drawing to an end and his judgment was drawing closer.  He said, I’m not afraid that G-d will ask me Zusya, why weren’t you Abraham or why weren’t you Moses.  I’m don’t have their great potential.  I never had the abilities to accomplish what they accomplished.  I’m afraid that G-d will ask me, Zusya, why weren’t you Zusya?  Why didn’t you live up to your own potential?

This story gives a tremendous insight into how we’re judged.  According to Reb Zusya, we’re not judged according to what the Code of Jewish Law says we should do or what our Rabbi or friends say we should do, but only what we really could have done.  And we’re judged in a world of ultimate truth… no excuses.

Close to 10 years ago, I was sitting with a fairly new Ba’al Teshuva on Rosh Hashanah and I told him this story.  I then asked that if G-d would ask him if he prayed the entire morning service and the entire afternoon and evening services, what would he say to G-d.  He thought about it a minute and calmly said that he wasn’t at a place in his spiritual development to be able to do that.  I told him that according to Reb Zusya, he doesn’t have to worry.  I then asked him what would he say if G-d asked him if he could say the Shema every morning and every evening.  His face instantly became pale.  He literally started to stutter… and he said, I could do that.  I told him then that’s where he needs to work on.

Sincerity with G-d is eliminating all the excuses that we sometimes tell the world and often tell ourselves.  I like to use the analogy of an alarm clock.  My alarm is typically set for 5am.  There are times when it goes off and I’m so tired, I just can’t get out of bed.  I need that snooze.  There are other times where I wake up at 5:09am and don’t even remember hitting the snooze.  But, there are other times when I hit snooze and maybe I could have gotten out of bed if I would have pushed myself.  This is where sincerity comes in.

You can apply the same sincerity to every aspect of our lives.  There are times we need to relax… that we just can’t go to the class or minyan or whatever.  Maybe we turn on a baseball game to unwind.  In the world of complete sincerity, that’s fine.  The question is at what point are we relaxed enough to spend our time doing a mitzvah and at what point to we just want to keep watching the game?  Does it really go that far?  Where does it end?  If a Jew needs to take a break, and I mean really needs it… let’s say he just emotionally needs to take an hour break.  What’s the big deal if he takes and hour and 5 minute break?  After all, it’s only 5 minutes… such as small amount of time.  What difference can it possibly make?  Well… it’s enough time to give someone a smile… give a friend a hug… tell someone that you love them.  It’s enough time to learn just a little bit of Torah, but that little bit of Torah his G-ds infinite wisdom and therefore, even 5 minutes can be limitless if we use it correctly.

The answer and circumstances are different for every person and changed with every situation, but the first step in doing Teshuva is recognizing what we are and what we could be.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

… would you be happy?

As my usually custom, this past Saturday night, I traveled to my old shul to for a midnight fabrengin (Chassidic gathering) and to say the first selichot service.  The fabrengin was typical… some food, friends and a little vodka.  I was enjoying myself when my Rebbe said something that literally stopped me in my tracks...

If G-d answered your prayers… would you be happy?

Like most of us, I add personal requests into my daily prayers.  I ask for health for friends and family that need it, Parnassa (the ability to earn a living), among many other desires.  I never stopped to think about how I would feel if G-d gave me what I was asking for.  For years I’ve experiences off and on back pain.  As I was sitting there, I felt a dull pain in my right leg.  I certainly want it to go away and would be happy if it wasn’t there, but the truth is that there are plenty of days that it’s not there and I don’t know if I’m any really happier on those days.  The same thing can be said when things are going well at work.  Would we be momentarily happy if our prayers were answered, yes.  Would it be a permenant happiness with that particular area, no.  Chances are the momenatry happiness would fade onto the back drop of our every day lives.  If one is unemployed, he may be very happy when he gets a job, but after a while, that intitial happiness will most likely fade.

I guess that it’s human nature to take the positive things we have for granted and only really focus on the negative things.  Thank G-d, I have 3 healthy, active kids under the age of 6.  When I get home from work, my wife and I usually discuss how the kids were that day.  If they were particularly challenging, she’ll tell me how hard it was and we’ll express our concern and frustration.  If there weren’t any problems, she’ll tell me that they were OK and we’ll move on to the next topic.  Can you imagine how different our lives would be if we focused on the positives instead of the negatives?  If on the days where there were no major incidents, we would cry how to G-d, thanking him for making things go so well…

There’s a famous story about the Ba’al Shemtov walked into a study hall of a town that he was visiting.  He noticed a Jew immersed in studying Talmud.  The Ba’al Shemtov approached and asked him how he was, but the Jew waived him off.  He asked him again, but again the Jews waived him off.  Finally the Ba’al Shemtov got right in the Jew’s face and asked “Why are you not giving G-d his parnassa?”  Typically when one Jew will ask another how he’s doing, the Jew will respond “Thank G-d” or “Baruch Hashem.”  The Ba’al Shemtov taught us that this simple blessing of any Jew is G-d’s parnassa.  This is how we connect to us and when we miss opportunity to say “Thank G-d” we are both denying ourselves and denying G-d this connection.  Chassidus explains that G-d’s purpose of creation was to create a dwelling place in the lower worlds, but we have to do our part to make that happen.

If we don’t call out to G-d with proper kavana (intention) when things are going well, then if G-d wants our kavana, he may send us little problems so that we do call out to him and, in a sense, give him his parnassa.  There’s an old saying that there are “no atheists in foxholes.”   When a soldier is pinned down with his enemies shooting at him, he tends to change from atheist to believer real quick.  Maybe if he would have been a believer before he got there, he could have avoided the whole experience in the first place.

If we can train ourselves, to thank G-d for all the good that he does for us with the same power that we would if we were going through troubles, then we would be allowing G-d in our lives and possibly eliminate the need for him to give us troubles in the first place.  We’ll get our parnassa by giving him his parnassa.  If we truly appreciate all that he does for us on a regular basis, then not only would we be happy, we would, in a sense, make G-d happy.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Going from Geula to Gallus… what do I do now?

This past Shabbas I had the pleasure of hosting a friend of mine for Shabbas who just got back from a few months of learning in Israel.  I had met this person when I helped lead a kiruv trip to Israel a little over a year ago.  This friend, let’s call him Bill, was inspired when we were on the trip together and started going to classes in the U.S.  When his semester ended he returned to the holy land to spend sometime learning and having fun.

We talked a lot over Shabbas about his experiences over the past couple months.  As we got to the topic of his future plans, he was returning to his last year in college, but religiously, it was a little more uncertain.

Bill was keeping the Shabbas for the most part and taking steps toward the observance of Kosher and other laws, but has a new Ba’al Teshuva, he’s still on shaky ground in terms of maintaining his new found inspiration.

When someone first gets inspired and feels the excitement of developing their relationship with their creator, it’s an unbelievable opportunity for positive growth and change.  Unfortunately though, that intense inspiration and enthusiasm doesn’t last forever and if they don’t come up with concrete ways to keep their spiritual momentum going, they may backslide.

There are a ton of different variations and choices that one can make when their in this position, but for simplicity sake, I’m going to boil them down to three separate categories.

The BT High – After the initial inspiration, a person going through this may tend to take on every mitzvah, custom and stringency that they can learn about.  They’re waking up early to daven, their going to bed late.  There’s hardly a class around that they’re not going to.  While this can lead someone to unbelievable spiritual heights, it can also lead to burnout and disaster.  I’ve seen several cases of someone growing a long beard and wearing a gartel within months of their initial inspiration only to see everything, and I mean everything disappeared for a year.  Just like in physical health, attempting to run a marathon on the first day one starts exercising could be suicide.  The same goes spiritually.  A strong house can only be built on a steady foundation.

My Old Life – The opposite extreme of the BT High is when someone resumes their old life as it was before their inspiration… same friends, same places, same hobbies, etc.  Sure, maybe they stay home Friday nights or order different things at the restaurant, but everything else is basically the same.  Someone may light an intense fire, but unless they keep putting new fuel on the flames, the fire will eventually disappear. 

Steady Steps – Our great Rabbi, Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon) tells us that in almost all cases, the middle path is the best.  The first thing someone needs to do when they get back from Israel or pass the point of initial inspiration is pick something that they can do every day to keep their fire going.  It could be going to minyan.  It could be putting on tefillan at home.  It could be going to a class or learning by yourself.  Pick something that appeals and inspires you.  It doesn’t matter what, but the important thing is that it should be consistent and something that can be done every day no matter what. 

Eventually, the initial excitement of doing this mitzvah may wear off, but as one keeps doing it day in and day out, the connection it creates with G-d becomes stronger and stronger.  As your relationship grows, it takes on a new level of love and closeness.  It’s not that different from marriage.  When newlyweds are young and vibrant, they should have a tremendous physical attraction to each other.  As a marriage grows, that initial attraction may not be exactly the same, but the emotional attraction from going through so much together becomes so much more powerful then the physical attraction ever was.

We have so many resources and possibilities for people when the decide to go learn in Israel, but when it comes to having support systems for when they get back, the Jewish world seems a little bit lacking. 

Stay strong, stay inspired and stay involved.  As you keep moving closer to Hashem, by performing is mitzvahs, he’ll draw closer and closer to you.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Parsha Shoftim – The King is in the Field

In the Hebrew month of Elul, Chassidim have the custom of saying that “the King is in the Field.”  As the analogy goes, when wants to have a meeting with the King, they need to call the right people and go through background checks and a series of his subordinates before the King’s officials will even consider letting the person see the King.  However, once a year, the King leaves his palace and takes a tour of his kingdom.  As he’s going from town to town and field to field anyone can approach the king with any matter without going through all of the preparation and protocols as the rest of the year.

Normally, when we want to pray to G-d, we also need to go through a whole procedure.  We need to spiritually prepare ourselves, dress appropriately, go to the minyan on time, say all of the prayers, pronounce all the words correctly, enunciate them loud enough so we can hear ourselves, have the proper intention… the list goes on and on.  It’s no easy task.  In Elul, things are different.  G-d is somehow more accessible to us. 

There are two ways to look at this… 

One way is do what we’ve done all year.  After all, if G-d will hear our prayers without jumping through all the hoops, why jump through them?  We can just do our normal routine, which isn’t always so great, and G-d will hear us.  The main focus with this approach is to make sure that we’re praying to G-d sincerely.  In Elul, as long as we pray with proper intention, G-d will hear our prayers.  That being said, calling out to G-d sincerely is no so easy.

The second possibility is that if G-d is in the field and somehow closer to us, we need to step up our game.  When the boss is away, decent workers will work at a reasonable level, but when the boss is in the room, the worker steps up his game big time.  As we said before, there are a lot of rules that surround how to pray and conduct oneself properly as a Jew.  Using this approach, we should try to strengthen all aspects of our Judaism, particularly the ones surrounding prayer.

I’m going to focus on the second possibility.  Here’s where our parsha comes.  It starts out with the words Shofitm vshotrim teten l’cha (Judges and officers shall you appoint.)  The Middrash has many explanations for what this means.  As a preparation for Rosh Hashanah, it’s also been said about Elul that it’s the opportune time to take a spiritual accounting of one’s conduct over the past year and make resolutions for improvement next year.  The initial words of our parsha could mean that we’re to judge ourselves on our conduct and appoint officers or methods of guarding ourselves against any of last year’s pitfalls in the hopes of avoiding them in the future.  While this is a nice idea it can be both difficult and scary.  I may be an observant person, but I’m no tzadik.  I’ve made plenty of mistakes and even though I know that I can do better, I’m not sure if it’s good enough.  My yeitzer harah (evil inclination) is one tough cookie.

Chapter 20, verse 1 tells us that “When you go out to battle against your enemy… you shall not fear…”  It then tells us in verse 8 that on the battlefield, the priests announce “who is fearful and fainthearted?  Let him go return to his house…”  The verses seem to say that on one hand, G-d is commanding us not to be afraid.  On the other hand he’s giving us a way out if we are.  I would propose an alternative explanation that “the enemy” that the verse speaks of us is our own evil inclination.  Also, when the Torah says “return” to his house, the Hebrew word that is used is  V’Yashov which has the same root as teshuva.  

If we insert these explanations the verses can be read: When you go out to battle against your evil inclination, don’t be afraid.  But… if anyone is fearful, let him do teshuva and return to my house.

In the last lines of the HafTorah, Isaiah sums it up beautifully “Hashem shall go before you and the G-d of Israel shall be at your rear guard.”

It doesn’t matter so much how we strengthen our relationship with Hashem.  He’s with us when we’re strong.  He’s with us when we’re scared.  He’s with us when we pull it all together and do a good job serving him.  He’s even with us when we screw up.  Our job is to recognize that he’s with us every step of the way. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

A Mitzvah Can Change a Life

Sometime around 1980 or so there was Jew who worked in a financial company around Washington DC.  Let’s say his name was Naphtali.  He was Ba’al Teshuva through Chabad and through his work he befriended a non religious Jew.  Occasionally, Naphtali and his new friend got together at the park where his son Gedaliah played with his friend son Stephan.  Though he occasionally talked about Judaism to his friend, nothing really sank in with exception of one occasion. 

Naphtali remembers that one day, the day after Yom Kippur that year, something was different when his friend arrived to work.  His friend was wearing a kippah.  Naphtali’s friend wore it all day.  Wearing a kippah in public, for the first time, is truly one of the bravest things a Jew can ever do.  Unfortunately, this was the last time his friend wore a kippah to work and he remained uncommitted to Judaism.  Eventually, the friends got different jobs, moving to different cities.  Naphtali undoubtedly thought that his conversations about G-d and Judaism had no effect on his friend.

In 2004 or so I was a regular at an urban shul where wasn’t uncommon for non-religious Jews to start coming to try to explore their Judaism.  Some came every day.  Some came once and never again.  One day, a Jew walked in who looked and acted like he couldn’t be less religious.  He drove a taxi, went to community college and had no shortage of tattoos including the heart, spade, diamond & clover tattooed on his knuckles.  We were about the same age and became friends.  Simcha explained that he had been raised totally secular and neither he nor his family had any connection to Judaism.  As he grew older, he had a burning curiosity which inspired him to come to shul for the first time.  This guy started coming every Shabbas morning, but had to leave in the afternoon to go to class.  Eventually the semester ended, he started becoming more observant and even started going by his Hebrew name, Simcha.

It wasn’t that long after, the Simcha decided that he wanted to move to Israel to learn.  Those of us closest to him were very proud of his progress.  I remember the Shabbas before he was scheduled to leave.  Since he lived in a different part of the city, he would typically sleep over at the Rabbi’s house or sometimes at my house.  On the Shabbas before he left, the Rabbi was out of town and I already had guests.  I made some calls and the Chabad Rabbi in the a couple neighborhoods away agreed to host him.  He explained to me that his parents were staying with him as it was their last Shabbas in America and they were moving to Israel that week.  I thought that it was a great connection.  Now Simcha will at least know someone there.

The Shabbas was fairly normal until I arrived at Shul for Mincha on Shabbas afternoon.  Apparently at lunch at the Rabbi’s house, Simcha and the Rabbi’s father, Naphtali started talking.  They first realized that both Simcha and the Rabbi, Gedaliah were born in the same city.  Then they realized that Simcha’s father and Naphtali worked at the same company.  They then realized that it was Simcha’s father who was Naphtali’s old friend and Gedaliah and Simcha, called Stephan up until a year ago, had played together in the park has children.  I can only imagine the emotions when Naphtali told Simcha the story about his father wearing a kippah and that Simcha’s father, in fact, did have sparks of Judaism lying dormant within him.  I can only imagine how Naphtali must have felt that his efforts in trying to help his old friend were not in vein… it just took a generation before they sprouted forth.  As they told me this story before Mincha, still fresh in their memories, it was overwhelming. 

It was about a year later that I received an email from an address I didn’t recognize with the subject line reading “I’m engaged.”  I opened up the email and saw a frum looking couple that I didn’t recognize.  I assumed it was sent to me by accident, but just before I deleted it, I looked over it once last time.  I saw a man in a black suit, white shirt, black hat and a full untrimmed beard.  As I glanced down, I saw the man’s hand… and on his knuckles were tattoos of the heart, spade, diamond & clover.  It was my friend whose yiddeshkeit burned so brightly that I hardly recognized him. 

The lessons are clear.  Every single mitzvah or act of kindness has an affect that can change a life.  Most the time we don’t get the privileged of seeing the results of our actions, but once in a while, G-d gives us a glimpse.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Parsha Chukas – Aaron HaKohein… Perfect Hero or Failed Leader?

Among many of the incidents in the Torah portion of Chukas we read about the death of Moses’s brother Aaron. 

There are few characters in Chumash who present us with such as dichotomy as Aaron.  On one hand, he was so great that the entire Jewish people wept and mourned him for 30 days.  On the other hand, he had a role in the greatest sin in the history of the Jewish people, the golden calf.  Several months ago, I witnessed a conversation between two friends of mine about Aaron.  One referred to him as a failed leader.  The other took the opposite extreme and denied that he had any participation in the incident in the golden calf at all.  This leads to the question, who was Aaron?

Let’s go over what happened in the Torah portion of Ki Sisa.  Chapter 32, Verses 1-5: The people saw that Moses delayed in descending the mountain and the people gathered around Aaron and said to him “Rise up, make for us g-ds who will go before us, for this Moses, the man who brought us up from Egypt – we do not know what became of him!”  Aaron said to them, “Remove the golden rings that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters and bring them to me.”  The entire people unburdened themselves of the golden rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron.  He took it from their hands and he bound it in a scarf, and made it into a molten calf; then they said, “These are your g-ds” O Israel, who brought you up from the land of Egypt.”  Aaron saw and built an alter before him; Aaron called out and said, “A festival to Hashem tomorrow!”

There are several classical answers given as to why Aaron did what he did.  Here are some:

  1. Aaron tried to delay the people by telling them to get jewelry from their wives.  He knew that Moses would be back the next day.
  2. In the exact language of the verse, he never pronounced the golden calf to be a G-d.  He stated that G-d took them out of Egypt and there will be a festival to G-d tomorrow.
  3. The Midrash tells is that Hur, the son of Miriam and Caleb stood up to the people when they first demanded that the golden calf be made and the people killed him. Aaron didn’t want the Jewish people to kill him.

All of these provide some sort of explanation, but they still seem to leave us lacking in the true understanding of Aaron.

The one thing that everyone agrees on is that Aaron never waivered in his belief in Hashem.  If that’s the case, then maybe Aaron was afraid he’d be killed and that’s why he participated in the making of the golden calf.  This also can not be the case.  When G-d tells Moses that he’s going to die, Moses begs and pleads for more time.  When Aaron finds out that he’s going to die, he doesn’t complain at all.  He clearly wasn’t afraid of death.  If he wasn’t afraid of dying, why did he do it?

In the Torah portion of Korach, a plague fell upon the Jewish people when Aaron’s leadership was questioned my a minority of men.  G-d was so outraged that the people stood by while this happened, he started killing them.  The plague was only stopped by the actions of Aaron.  Aaron was a prophet.  He understood that if this was going to happen when the Jewish people questioned him, if they would have killed him, there would have been no way that G-d would have forgiven them.  They all would have been wiped out. 

Coincidentally I heard in a lecture today, that it’s better for to sin for the sake of heaven then to do a mitzvah not for the sake of heaven. (Nazir 23b)  Even though the lecture didn’t have anything to do with Aaron, I couldn’t help to think that this was very fitting.

I offer two other proofs.  The first is that it wasn’t until after the incident with the golden calf that Aaron was given the job as high priest.  The second is found in this week’s parsha.  One would expect that the reason for Aaron’s death would have been a delayed reaction to the golden calf.  In actuality, the Torah says clearly it was because that “you (Moses) defied my word at the waters of strife.”

By acquiescing to participate in the building of the golden calf, Aaron was willing to risk his life in both this world and the next in order to save the Jewish people.  Can there be a greater act of leadership?

Friday, June 22, 2012

Parsha Korach – Strong Wife / Weak Wife

The Torah portion of Korach centers around two women that we never officially meet, doesn’t mention directly and never even get to know their names.

The text of the portion tell us how Korach, the cousin of Moses, assembles a group of 250 or so leaders of the Jewish people and strongly questions the leadership of Moses and even more precisely, questions the role of Aaron as high priest.  Obviously, Hashem sided with Moses and Aaron and Korach and his followers were destroyed.

One of the questions that the Midrash deals with is what inspired Korach to mount this open act of rebellion.  After all, Korach was a leader among the Jewish people.  As a Levite, he did not waiver at the sin of the Golden Calf or the incident with the spies.  Why now?  There are many reasons given, but there’s one that I found particularly interesting.

Several weeks ago in the Torah portion of Beha’aloscha, it tells us that Hashem commanded Moses and Aaron to put all of the Levite men through a purification ritual.  The shaved the hair off their entire bodies, immersed their clothing, Moses leaned is hands upon their heads and then Aaron picked each one up and waved them around as a wave offering.

After this incident, the Midrash tells us that Korach was walking home, bald, no eyebrows, wet clothes and after being picked up and waved around by his cousin Aaron when he saw is wife.  She saw the humiliation of her husband and fed and nurtured the seeds of strife within him.  With his wife egging him on, any inhibitions about his plan were removed and it emotionally freed him up to commit open rebellion against Moses.

In the beginning of the parsha, the Torah tells us who the leaders of the rebellion were.  Korach is listed first, followed by Dathan and Abiram.  We know Dathan and Abiram from when the Jews were still in Egypt.  They were the two Jews fighting with each other which eventually led to Moses leaving Egypt after they told the Egyptian authorities that Moses has murdered an Egyptian guard.  The Torah mentions one more leader.  His name is On the son of Peleth.  Later on the portion, when the Torah tells us about the rebellion and the punishments given to the perpetrators, On is missing.  The Midrash asks the question, what happened to On?

It answers by telling us that On was married to a righteous woman.  When she heard what he and his friends were doing, she wanted no part in it for her and her husband.  She tried to talk to On to convince him that he was going down the wrong path, but he wouldn’t listen.  Not giving up, she seduced her husband and got him drunk.  After he was drunk, she put him to bed where he passed out.  (I once read that she actually tied him to the bed) so he would miss the rebellion.  When Korach’s followers saw that On had overslept, they went to get him.  Still protecting her husband, she sat at the entrance of her tent and uncovered her hair.  (This by the way, is one of the first evidence that we know that married Jewish women should keep their hair covered).  Even though the men were following the wrong path by rebelling against Moses, they were still G-d fearing men and wouldn’t dare look at a married woman whose hair was uncovered so the left and On slept through the whole thing.

On and his wife are never mentioned again, but she goes down in history as a role model for all Jewish wives.  In the Torah portion of Bereishes, G-d makes Chava as a help mate against Adam.  What does this mean?  Either the wife is a help mate or she’s against her husband.  How can she be both?  The answer is that when her husband is acting properly, the wife is a help mate.  When acting improperly, she’s against her husband.  On’s wife fulfills this commandment beautifully.  With righteousness and modesty, she put’s her own humility on the line to protect her husband.  Korach’s wife, on the other hand, is so her concerned about her husbands dignity and her own, that she sacrifices their values for it.  This is why she suffered the same death as her husband.

Many times we thing that marriage should be peaceful and there should be no fights ever.  Sometimes we think that our wives should be docile and subordinate, but this is not the Torah way.  Our wives should be strong and forceful for the sake of the keeping the family together and fulfilling the words of the Torah and its mitzvahs.

If you think about it, most of the world’s calamites have been caused by an arrogant husband and a wife to weak to stand up against him.

A wife of strength, modesty, self sacrifice and persistence is the true Eshet Chayil (Woman of Valor) may G-d let all men have such wives and may we have the strength and humility to listen to them when they guide us towards the proper path of service of Hashem.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Parsha Shelach - The Spies Evil Report?!

The Torah portion of Shelach describes one of the lowest points for the Jewish people after becoming a nation.

After everything they went through in Egypt and during the exodus… after receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai and the incident with golden calf 39 days later.  After everything the Jewish people went through, they finally reached the boarder of the land of Israel.

It should have been a momentous time.  So many trials and tribulations in their past.  The opportunity to build a new national life for themselves in the land of Israel, the permanent home of the Jewish people.

Unfortunately, things didn’t work out so well.  Moses sent 12 men ahead to spy out the land and deliver a report back.  Ten of the men reported that though the land was great, it was inhabited by mighty people and the challenge was too great for the young nation to bear.  The people quickly became disheartened and cried out to return to Egypt.  The L-rd unleashed a punishment that killed those 10 men, said that the nation would not be able to enter the land of Israel for 40 more years and decreed that all of the men above the age of 20 with the exception of the tribe of Levi, the other two spies, Joshua and Caleb, would die before entering the land.  Numbers aren’t precise, but I would guess that included close to 750,000 people.  The Hebrew date was the 9th of Av.  This was the first disastrous event to start off a date that has brought tragedy after tragedy to the Jewish people.

While tragic, we rationalize the decree against the people that they lacked faith and they will enter the land after the coming of the Messiah during the resurrection of the dead.

The decree on the spies and their exact crime is a little more perplexing.  Here’s exactly what they said in chapter 13, verse 27. “We arrived at the Land to which you sent us and indeed it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.  But, the people that dwells in the Land is powerful, the cities are fortified and very great, and we also saw there the offspring of the giant.  Amelek dwells in the area of the south; the Hittite, the Jebosite and the Amorite dwell on the mountain; and the Canaanite dwells by the Sea and on the bank of the Jordan.”  In verse 31 they state, “We cannot ascend to that people for it is too strong for us!  The Land though which we have passed, to spy out, is a land that devours its inhabitants!  All the people that we saw were huge!  There we saw the Nephilim, the sons of the giant among Nephilim; we were like grasshoppers in our eyes, and we were in their eyes!”

According to the commentaries that I read, the spies told the truth.  If that’s the case, what exactly did they do so wrong?  And additional question is if the spies were so evil, how come they got exactly what they wanted?  They didn’t want those people to go into the land of Israel and that’s what happened.

Ramban says that when they used the word “But” it left a negative connotation and they should have used a more positive word.  While this may be correct, it certainly seems like an extreme reason to deserve the death penalty.

Rashi says that when they said “It is stronger than us!”, they really meant that “It is stronger than him!” claiming that the spies said the land is stronger that G-d.  This could be construed as a rebelling against G-d and that would be a reasonable reason for the death penalty.  However, if this were truly the case, one would imagine that the text of the Torah would reflect it.

In looking at the actual text, the verse Rashi speaks about says that “It is stronger than us”… not “They are stronger than us.”  The verse seems to be saying that as great as the people are, Israel can beat them.  However, the land is stronger than Israel can handle.  That being said, were the spies wrong?

Since the nation waivered so easily, clearly they couldn’t handle living in such a demanding land.  Even after Joshua conquered the land, we were expelled from it because of our improper actions.  The Torah tells us that the land of Israel vomits out immorality.  Even today, living in the land of Israel provides immense challenges.

I heard once in the name of the Lubavitcher Rebbe that the spies’ intentions were to protect that generation.  They saw their faults and did not think that they were up to the challenge of living in Israel. It’s clear from G-d’s response, that this was not their decision to make. 

Leaders of Israel need to lead and inspire not judge and limit.

Just to add one additional point… one should never doubt the greatness of the land of Israel and G-d’s holy people.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Parsha Beha’aloscha – Where’s the beef?

The Torah portion of the Beha’aloscha as the unique privilege of containing the end of the 4th book of the Torah, the entire 5th book of the Torah and the beginning 6th book of the Torah.

You may be thinking… wait one minute here.  There are only 5 books of the Torah.

In a sense, you’re correct.  On the other hand, Chapter 10, verse 35 and 36 in our parsha are surrounded buy two Hebrew letter nuns.  The Sages tell us that these two verses contain an entire book of the Torah to themselves.  The verses state: When the Ark would journey, Moses said “Arise, Hashem, and let your enemies be scattered and let those who hate You flee from before You” And when it rested, he would say “Reside tranquilly, Hashem, [among the] myriads [and] thousands of Israel.”

You may recognize the verses because we say the first one as we open the ark to take the Torah out and we say the last one as we close the ark to put the Torah away on Monday, Thursdays, Shabbas and holidays. 

They’re certainly moving verses, but what’s so special about them that they need a book all to themselves?

In order to figure this out, let’s take a look at what happened in before these verses and after them.

Before them, the Torah tells us how the camp of Israel would travel during their 40 year span in the desert.  Sometimes they would stay in the same spot for a day and sometimes they stayed in the same spot for many years.  It seems like they never knew how long they’d be at each place.  The stayed or left by the word of Hashem.  The Torah doesn’t give any reason why they moved around so much. I heard a beautiful explanation that said that the reason for the frequent and unexpected moves in the desert was to give us strength to survive in our exile.  The Jewish people have been in almost every civilized country on the planet.  Sometimes, we were there a hundred years or so and sometimes we were there well over a thousand years before we were forced to leave without much notice.  It took great strength to remain a nation under such circumstances.  So much so, that the Jewish people are the only nation that has survived despite such hardships.

After them, the Torah tells us that some of the Jews and others traveling with them complained that they wanted to eat meat.  Up until that point, they had been eating Manna which appeared every day around the camp.  This was considered such an atrocity that Hashem brought down a plague on the complainers and the Torah tells us that the “wrath of Hashem flared greatly.”  A first glance, the desire for meat, while maybe not so nice, isn’t a sin at all.  They didn’t complain that they wanted pork or some other prohibited food.  They just wanted kosher meat.  What’s the big deal?  All they wanted was the next kosher restaurant.  Though it may be permissible, what they were really saying was that the Torah wasn’t enough for them.  There’s a distinct difference between someone who lives to do mitzvahs and someone who does a mitzvah to get it out of the way to get on with their lives.  With their request for meat, they were putting themselves into the latter category.  The Torah gives us 613 mitzvahs to fulfill.  The Torah also gives the non-Jewish nations 7 mitzvahs fulfill.  The difference between a Jew and a non Jew isn’t just a 606 mitzvah quantitative difference.  A Jew must be totally dedicated to G-d with every fiber of his being to such a degree that there are no other desires other than to serve him.  This is the essence of holiness. 

There is solution to our earthly desires and our preemptive cure to our exile.  They can be found in between the two verses “Arise, Hashem, and let your enemies be scattered and let those who hate You flee from before You” And when it rested, he would say “Reside tranquilly, Hashem, [among the] myriads [and] thousands of Israel.”  Since those two verses constantly surround our reading of the Torah throughout the year, in a sense, the represent all of Torah.

The only salvation for the Jew is through Torah.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Why are Jews so Successful? What would you say?

About 9 years ago I had an appointment with a client of mine and we decided to meet at a bar on in the upscale
Rittenhouse Square
neighborhood of Philadelphia after work.  We were having a couple drinks when we started talking to 3 guys sitting next to us at the bar. 

These guys were your stereo typical Wall Street types… with the fancy suits, drinking the best scotch and smoking their fine cigars.  One of them was especially full of himself.  He kept talking about how much money he was making and how he had such and such a car.  He seemed like one of those guys who carry a picture of himself in his wallet.   When we started to talk about where each of us worked, he mentioned that he worked at a fairly famous national stock brokerage company.  I happened to know someone who worked and there and even though my new friend wasn’t Jewish, I decided to play Jewish geography anyway. 

So I asked him… do you know David Schwartz (not the real name)? 

Before, I tell you what he said, here’s what I knew about David Schwartz at the time.  Like me, he wasn’t raised religious, but he became observant sometime after college.  At the time, David had 3 daughters and I had always known him to be a good father and husband.  He also spent whatever spare time that he had working on community projects and helping people rediscover their Jewish roots.  I didn’t know how much money David made, but he had a nice house and always seemed to give tzedaka and sponsor whatever local Jewish charities that he could.  David was one of my early mentors as I was growing in my Judaism and I was very fond of him.

When I asked if this guy knew David Schwartz, his face totally changed.  Every bit of arrogance dropped from his face and he was literally awe struck.  He said “You know David Schwartz???  He’s the number one guy in the area.  He’s one of the best brokers in the whole company.”  By the way he was acting, it was almost as if we were talking about some celebrity or larger than life figure. 

It took him a couple minutes to gain his composure back, but then he asked one of the most interesting questions I’ve ever heard.  He said “I hope I’m not crossing the line, but I have to ask you something… why are Jews so successful?”

In the hopes of getting a range of answers, I’m going to temporarily end the article here and not give my response.  I’ll give it some time down the road.  For now, I want to know…

…what would you say?

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Shavous – The Eternal Marriage

In exactly one week from today, the Jewish people will celebrate the anniversary of their marriage to G-d on Shavous by renewing their vows and once again accepting the Torah. 

The relationship between G-d and the Jewish people has been described by the Rabbis as a Marriage with G-d being the groom and the Jewish people being the bride.  Even though that’s a nice idea, marriage is an interesting analogy for the relationship.  On one hand, there are no two people who are more connected then a man and wife.  Their bond is so strong that we compare them to two half’s of the same soul that are connected with marriage.  The alternative side is we know that unfortunately some times marriages don’t work out.

Even though divorce is frowned upon in Judaism, (The Rabbis say that G-d’s alter cries when a couple divorces) it is allowed. Since divorce is allowed, one could apply the possibility of it to the marriage between G-d and the Jewish people.  Considering how many Jews are so far removed from Judaism and act is if they couldn’t care less about what the Torah says, is there grounds for a possible divorce, G-d forbid?  Once we take a look at the laws of divorce, even briefly, we recognize that the bride can not initiate a divorce.  This probably explains why no matter how fare a Jew thinks he his from his Judaism, it’s never severed.  In life’s hardest challenges that same person will often sacrifice his own life rather and sever his connection completely with G-d.  Just like no matter how bad a bride wants to divorce her husband, she can not without his cooperation so since G-d isn’t cooperating, we are eternally bound to him and our marriage commitment through his Torah.

In taking the divorce analogy further, what happens if the groom consents?  What happens if G-d gets so frustrated (so to speak) with our unfaithfulness that he decides to give the divorce document and separate him from us?

To understand this, we must examine the circumstances of the original marriage that happened with the receiving of the 10 commandments on Shavous.  In the Torah portion Yisro, chapter 19 verse 7, Moses came to the elders and instructed them on everything that G-d had commanded him.  In response, the entire Jewish people said, “Everything that Hashem has spoken, we shall do.”  A few lines later, in verse 17, the Torah tells us that the Jewish people stood under the mountain.  There are several explanations of what “under the mountain” means.  In the Gemara Shabbas 88a, it says that G-d picked up the mountain and threatened the Jewish people saying that they should either accept the Torah or he would throw the mountain down and kill them. 

The questions is asked, if the Jewish people already accepted the Torah in verse 7, why does G-d need to make a threat in verse 17?  Though there are many explanations, the one that I prefer has to do with an odd law found in a different place in the Torah that doesn’t appear to have anything to do with this at a glance.

In the Torah portion Devarim, chapter 22, verse 28, the Torah tells us that if a man takes a girl by force and lay with her, he may never divorce her.  In looking at this law by itself, it’s pretty strange.  What woman would want to marry her rapist?  And is the punishment for a rapist to lose his right of divorce a fitting punishment for his crime?  It doesn’t seem to make sense.  In fact, I would imagine that since no girl would ever agree to marry someone who took them by force, the entire law is useless.

However, if we equate G-ds threat to the Jewish people of throwing the mountain down, he would essentially become the man who takes a woman by force.  Then, once the marriage is official, he loses the ability to ever divorce her. 

It would seem that G-d, in his infinite wisdom set up the scenario just like the Jew is bound to G-d in marriage no matter how far removed he may think he is, G-d has also bound himself, through this law in his perfect Torah, to never leave the Jewish people no matter how many mistakes we make.

Since now that we know our marriage is eternal and nobody is leaving, let’s make it the best possible marriage it can be by reaccepting with a full heart G-d’s Torah on Shavous.  When we do, we can all say once again “Everything that Hashem has spoken, we shall do!”

Friday, May 18, 2012

Parsha Behar & Bechukosai – The land is ours… or isnt it?

As we all know, there is know place on earth that is more highly sought after then the land of Israel.  Over the past several thousand years, it’s been inhabited my many different peoples and the desire to control the land, especially Jerusalem, places it at the center of the world. 

Even though both Muslims and Christians have claimed it has a holy site for them, we Jews believe in our hearts that the land is ours.  It’s been the center of Jewish life, either in practice, or in thought for over 3,000 years.  Some of us use this argument when debates over Israel arise… The land is ours, because G-d gave it to us.

I love Israel as much as the next person.  For me, the greatest spot on earth is in the Kotel courtyard.  On my trips to Israel, I could literally spend the entire time in the Old City.  That being said, I need to share a thought that comes up whenever the “It’s our land” argument comes up…

It’s not our land.  Don’t get nervous.  I haven’t joined the enemies of Israel, but it’s simply not our land.  The Parsha of Behar is very clear about this.  In chapter 25, verse 23, G-d says “the land is mine.”

Israel wasn’t an unconditional gift that we can use however we please.  It’s a responsibility.  Imagine if the King gives a peasant his crown to watch after with instructions on how to maintain it.  The peasant has no right to do what he pleases with the crown.  He must maintain it per the King’s instructions or the King will take it away.  Israel is the same thing.  Yes, the L-rd said that we’re supposed to dwell in and take care of the land of Israel, but he also said 612 other things. 

In the Parsha of Bechukosai, G-d is very clear of what will happen if we follow or don’t follow his commandments.

Last Shabbas, someone had a guest in shul that was from Israel.  He’s visited our community before and is a very nice guy.  A conversation came up about how Israel is perceived in the world and particularity in the United Nations.  For reasons that have no rational explanation, Israel is constantly persecuted within the United Nations.  His proposed to solution for this was to create a media campaign to point out this blatant anti semitic policy of the UN.  I believe that Martin Luther King Jr said “When people criticize Zionism, they mean Jews." 
While I agree with our visitor that the UN’s policies are clearly anti semitic, I don’t think we need to shout that from the roof tops.  Everyone knows it.  There’s only one solution to the world’s hatred to Jews and Israel.  When we start listening to G-ds 612 other instructions, G-d will give is all the rewards that he promises in his Torah and we can finally live in peace.