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

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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Parsha Tazria – 7 Days to Life

The Torah tells us that we should establish special Levite cities of refuge in the land of Israel.  When someone murders someone else inadvertently, a relative (also known as the blood avenger) of the victim can take revenge on the inadvertent murderer according to Torah law.  However, this can only happen if the inadvertent murderer is not in one of the 6 cities of refuge.  (There were 3 east of the Jordan River and 3 west of the Jordan River.)

Once the inadvertent murderer reaches the city of refuge, the blood avenger can not harm him while he’s there.  He must remain in the city for the rest of his life or until the High Priest dies in order to be safe from the blood avenger.  I always found it particularly interesting how the Torah sees people that made mistakes as opposed to the secular system of courts. 

In our society, if someone died due to the negligence of another, the guilty party may very well be sent to prison.  That prison will be filled with all kinds of terrible criminals.  After spending the required amount of time with other criminals, what do we think the guilty party learned?  I would venture to say that they didn’t find too many positive role models in prison.  They probably found violence and negativity.

The Torah’s sentence for people like this is very different.  They go to the city of Levites where the priests live.  They interact with people of the highest moral caliber.  Chances are, they learn from these people and improve their lives.

Even though I am mostly involved with Jewish causes, I also am involve with a program that helps young minority men re-enter society after spending some time in prison.  The original goal of the program was to train them in the field of construction so that they can earn a decent living and not have to resort to criminal behavior.  Early on, it became very apparent, that income was only half the battle.  Because these people spent so much time either with poor parenting or in prison, they had no positive role models and were missing the basic life skills that we take for granted.

In G-d’s wisdom, he saw that the best way to rehabilitate someone who made this type of mistake was to surround them with inspirational people and through that was the key for them to reenter society.  In following G-d’s infinite wisdom, I also try to keep these people away from negative influences and surround them with positivity.

This week’s parsha tells about someone who became inflicted with the disease of Tzara’as which is the spiritual reaction to the person engaging in evil speech.  Unlike the inadvertent murder or the perpetrator in our secular legal system, once it’s proclaimed that someone has tzara’as, they neither go to a place with inspirational people or a place with criminals.  They are sent outside the camp away from everyone, even the other people with tzara’as.  We can only imagine what would happen if two perpetrators of evil speech got together.  They would keep talking forever and never heal.  It’s only when the perpetrator is left in isolation that they can cease their evil speech and prepare themselves for reentry into society.

The lesson for us is not just that we shouldn’t engage in evil speech, but we should also isolate ourselves from other people who do. 

We need to be very careful of who we chose to spend time with.  If we surround ourselves with the Levites (great men) of our generation, we’ll be able to raise ourselves to the loftiest of spiritual heights.    

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Mourning During the Omer

The seven weeks between Passover and Shavous represent the periods where we fulfill the mitzvah of counting the Omer, commemorate the time between when the Jews left Egypt and received the Torah on Mount Sinai and finally a mourning period for the death of the students of Rabbi Akiva.

Omer – Counting the Omer is a biblical mitzvah that we fulfill when every night we acknowledge what day it is.  This is day One.  This is day Two, etc.

Passover to Shavous – We also recognize that when the Jewish people left Egypt they were at an extremely spiritually low point.  The Rabbi’s tell us that they were on the 49th level of impurity and they use each of these 49 days to raise themselves another level.  There are 7 emotional traits that interact with each other with a different combination each day representing different aspects of our personality.  It’s a good thing to work on ourselves every day so that we’re ready to re-accept the Torah on Shavous.

Rabbi Akiva’s Students - Whereas the first two periods are happy occasions, the third is both sad and confusing.   The Rabbis tell us that during this period Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students all died.  There are a few different opinions as to how they died, but the most popular one is that they died in a plague, because they failed to show each other the proper respect and honor.  We commemorate this period by not shaving or having haircuts along with not listening to music.

This should lead one to a couple questions.  The first is: How could it be that Rabbi Akiva’s students weren’t so nice to each other when Rabbi Akiva exemplified the mitzvah of loving your fellow as yourself?  The second question is: Even though the death of 24,000 Jews is a tragedy, why do we specify such a long mourning period for them?  There have been many other tragedies in Jewish history that we’ve lost many more lives, The Exile of the 10 tribes, the Spanish Inquisition, the Khmelnitsky Massacres and the Holocaust just to name a few where many, many more Jews died.  Even when we commemorate the destruction of both the first and second Temples, we only morn for 21 days in between the 17th of the Hebrew month of Tammuz and the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av.  There are debates as to when the Omer mourning period starts and ends (either from Pesach until Lag B’Omer or from Rosh Chodesh Iyar until Shavous), but it runs a minimum of 33 days to a maximum of 49 days.  What’s different about this time? 

We understand the first question by saying that they were such great people that the showing each other a lack of respect or honor was judged severely.  The second question is much more troubling to me and there’s no real answer for it.  It took me a long time to develop the following possible answer.

Another explanation of how Rabbi Akiva’s students died is that they were killed in the Bar Kochba uprising.

The Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE.  In the year 132 of the CE a great warier arose from among the Jewish people named Bar Kochba.  He had a tremendous success in the beginning of his revolt, defeating the Romans.  There was such an excitement surrounding him, that some people, including Rabbi Akiva declared him to be the Moshiach (Messiah) and Rabbi Akiva’s students joined Bar Kochba’s army. 

The sages did not all join in Rabbi Akiva’s view about Bar Kochba being the Moshiach.  This created a riff within the Jewish people.  Bar Kochba, becoming increasingly paranoid had Rabbi Eliezer killed.  Soon after the Romans put down the Jewish revolt, killing Bar Kochba and possibly Rabbi Akiva’s 24,000 students.

According to the Rabbis, there are many possible proofs how we know someone is the Moshiach.  One of them is that if every Jew agrees that someone is the Moshiach, then he’s the Moshiach.  This poses two interesting philosophical questions. 

What if someone really has the potential to be the Moshiach and almost everyone agrees that he is, but there are a few people that disagree?  Presumably, then the Moshiach would not reveal himself.

Alternatively, what if someone is really isn’t supposed to be the Moshiach, but everyone agrees that he is?  Presumably, then the potential of Moshiach that lies within him will spring forth.

I believe that what we’re really mourning during this period is not necessarily the lack of unity among Rabbi Akiva’s students, but the lack of Jewish unity within ourselves.  This mourning observance will continue every year until the Jewish people can finally get together and speak with one voice.  As we lead up to Shavous, may we focus on the mitzvah that Rabbi Akiva loved so much, to love our fellow Jew.  If we can master that mitzvah, the Rabbi Akiva’s dream of Moshiach will become a reality and we can re-accept the Torah on this Shavous at the Third Holy Temple in Jerusalem… with one voice. 

Friday, April 20, 2012

Parsha Shemini – Opening Day at the Mishkan

The Torah portion of Shemini tells us about the opening day of the (Mishkan) temporary tabernacle in the desert on the 1st of the Hebrew month of Nissan almost one year after they Jews left Egypt.

At some point after the initial service, the two eldest sons of Aaron the High Priest, (Kohen Gadol), Nadab and Abihu brought what the Torah calls an alien fire on the alter and died. 

Nadab and Abihu were great men.  What did they do that was so wrong that would cause such a strong reaction from Heaven on such an important day?

There are a lot of questions and commentaries about what exactly is going on here.  Here are some of them:

1. Rabbi Yishmael holds that they used a fire from the alter, but it was alien because they had not been bidden to offer it.
2. Rabbi Yishmael also says that Nadab and Abihu had been drinking wine and it is not permissible to enter the sanctuary after drinking wine.
3. Rabbi Akiva holds that the fire was alien, because it didn’t come from the alter.
4. Rabbi Eliezer holds that their actual offense is that they ruled the fire holy, but it was inappropriate to make a decision about Jewish law in front of their teacher, Moses. 
5. They also did not consult their father, Aaron.
6. Only the high priest is permitted to enter the Holy of Holy’s and they were not the high priest, nor did they wear the high priests garments.
7. They didn’t wash their hands and feet before entering.
8. They weren’t married
9. They didn’t have children.

There are few incidents in Torah where there are so many different opinions about what happened in a particular situation.

The only thing that all of the commentators agree upon is that these were great men and they acted with the intention of serving G-d.  They were judged so severely because they were so great.

The core of their mistake and the running theme throughout all of the explanations is that they served G-d in a manner in which they wished to serve him, not in a manner that he wished to be served.

If a vegetarian is hungry and you bring him a nice juicy steak, you didn’t do him a favor.

If a car has a flat tire and you bring gasoline, you didn’t help the situation.

If we really want to help someone or serve G-d, we need to do give them what they need, not what we feel like giving.

I recently read an article online about Conservative Judaism.  The article was presenting the argument that Conservative Judaism should recognize Jews whose father is Jewish, but mother is Gentile.  The foundation of the argument was Conservative Jews already drove on Shabbat, so if they broke that Torah law, why not break this one too.  I found it almost amusing, in a strange sort of way, that the article never even considered that maybe they should actually stay true to the words of G-d’s eternal Torah as opposed to adjusting our practices to fit our needs.

The only way to truly serve G-d is by following the instructions of the Torah.  Anything other than that is like brining a vegetarian a piece of meat and really only serving ourselves.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

The 5th Son, the 5th question and the 5th Cup… a Passover story

The Haggadah tells us that there are 4 sons that ask questions on Passover, the wise son, the wicked son, the simple son and the son who doesn’t know how to ask a question.

The 5th Son - To the wise son, we instruct him in Jewish law.  To the wicked son, we’re strict.  To the simple son, we explain that everything we have is because G-d took us out of Egypt.  To the son who doesn’t know how to ask a question, we must engage him.  The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that there is actually one more son.  This is the son who is so far removed from Judaism that doesn’t even come to the Passover Seder.  In our generation, there are an increasing number of Jews who fall into this 5th son category.  They’re so confused about their Judaism they may not even know that it’s Passover.  To this son, we must engage them on whatever level we can to try to peak their curiosity.  After morning services of the first day of Passover, I got into a conversation with a friend of mine at synagogue.  He told me that for the first Seder, he had a guest over who had never been to a Seder before.  He practically beamed as he told me how engaged she was and the questions that she asked.  He truly did a great job getting the 5th son to the table.

The 5th Question – At some point after the 4 questions, one of my Seder guests leaned over to me and asked a fairly disturbing 5th question.  He asked ”What do you think Israeli soldiers are thinking right now as they read about the Jews being oppressed by the Egyptians, knowing that they are oppressing the Palestinians.”  I generally consider myself a political centrist, but this question seemed to come from the left most point on the spectrum.  What was even more troubling then the question was that the asker was someone who is an intelligent, professional, and by every other standard, a reasonable person who I respect and like very much.  Even though I already had 2 cups of wine, I firmly said that I did not believe his question was valid.  His question made the assumption that Israel as a whole and its soldiers in particular are oppressing the Palestinian people.  I explained to him that, even though there were some incidents of cruelty from individual soldiers, Israel as a whole has acted with a greater sensitivity to human rights and suffering then any other country in similar situation that has ever existed in the history of civilization.  The worst thing that Israel can legitimately be accused of is a proactive defense.  The only people directly responsible for the oppression of the Palestinian people, is and has always been Palestinian leadership.  My point in bringing this up is not to defend Israel’s record on human rights.  I would imagine that most people reading this article are at least sympathetic towards Israel if not out right Zionist.  My point is too illustrate how an educated modern day Jew can be so far off base.  Like the 5th son that the Rebbe describes, they are so far removed from the situation; they don’t know which end is up.

The 5th Cup – There’s a Chassidic custom to have a final meal in between Mincha and Maariv (afternoon and evening services) on the final day of Passover.  In this final meal, called the Seudas Moshiach (The Meal of the Messiah) they consume matzah and have 4 cups of wine.  Traditionally, it lasts well after Passover ends.  The prolonging of Passover is an key part of the meal.  Maybe we can consider these final tastes of wine an extension of the 4 cups we have on the Seder.  I once heard that if someone is exactly the same after praying as they were before praying, they didn’t do it right.  I would imagine that the same analogy can be applied to every mitzvah and experience. 

Our goal throughout Passover is to educate & inspire the 5th son… both literally Jews who don’t go to a Seder and the 5th son in ourselves that has moments of doubt.  It’s also to inspire ourselves to think about things from G-d perspective as opposed to our own.  I once heard Rabbi Berel Wein speak about a situation where a businessman was trying to get the head of the Orthodox Union to break a technical rule for certifying their business as kosher.  After a few back and forths, the Rabbi asked the businessman what he thought G-d would say to his proposal.  By the same notion, what would G-d say to this 5th question?  What would he say to all of our questions of doubt and compromise?  We must strengthen our resolve to take away the validity of questions of doubt.  The only true question is; what does G-d want me to do right now?  If we can strengthen ourselves and inspire others, maybe we can have the 5th cup of wine with the Kiddush of the Moshiach at this years Seudas Moshiach in Jerusalem.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Pesach, Childbirth and Redemption

This past Thursday night my wife and I were blessed with a perfectly healthy baby boy. 

Over the past 9 months or so I’ve been praying for three things. 1. That my wife comes through the delivery healthy.  2. That our new baby is healthy. 3. That the L-rd limits the pain that my wife has to endure during childbirth.  I was fortunate enough to be blessed with all three.  Since the sin of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, women have had to have pain during childbirth, but some labors take longer and some go shorter.  While I prayed many times that the labor be short, I didn’t quite expect what I received.

At roughly 12:45 am Thursday night, my wife woke me up and told me that labor at started.  I called my mother in law, who came over, got dressed and we left the house around 1:25 am or so.  The hospital was 20 minutes or so away.  At about 1:45 am, when we were only a few blocks away from the hospital, our new baby decided that he didn’t want to wait and we gave birth somewhere between 8th & Market Streets and 12th & Sansom Streets.  Considering how close we were to the hospital, I kept driving as quickly as possible until I got to the ER entrance just a few moments after my child was born.

After we settled down in the hospital, my wife had the frame of mind to tell me about a Dvar Torah that she had read a few days before.  She said that we think that the coming of the Moshiach (messiah) and the redemption seem to be far off things.  In our minds, we can’t imagine them happening so soon and when they do happen, we expect to have some warning.  The reality is that the very next mitzvah that someone does anywhere in the world can bring the Moshiach and we can all be together in Jerusalem at the 3rd Temple in a matter of moments.  In fact, one of the Rambam’s 13 principles of Jewish faith is to believe that the Moshiach can come today.  Just like when our baby was born in roughly an hour from the onset of labor, the redemption can come even faster.

A car birth, especially one where the car doesn’t stop, is rare enough where word spreads and it gets people talking.  My mother, like many others, had a very hard time wrapping her arms around what happened.  She asked me “Did you deliver the baby?”   Me: “No.”  Her: “Did a paramedic or a policeman come? Me: “No.” Her: “Then who delivered the baby!?”  Me: “The only people in the car were me, my wife and Hashem.” Her: “Then you delivered the baby!?” Me: “My wife delivered her own baby.”  Her: “Who does that?” 

It was an odd conversation, but I had many similar ones over the course of Shabbas.  Who delivers their own baby?

As soon as I heard the question, I realized the answer.  The Torah tells us of the harsh decrees Pharaoh inflicted upon the Jewish people before Moses led us out of Egypt.  When the time for Moses’ birth had arrived, Pharaohs astrologers foresaw that the redeemer was being born and advised Pharaoh to murder all Jewish male newborns.  To accomplish this, he enlisted two Jewish midwives named Shifra and Puah to do his bidding.  Pharaoh didn’t realize it, but these righteous women would never commit such a terrible act.  When Pharaoh questioned why they hadn’t murdered the Jewish baby boys, they told Pharaoh that the Jewish women aren’t like Egyptian women.  They deliver their own babies before the midwife even arrives.  The Rabbis tell us the midwives were in fact Moses’ mother Yocheved and his older sister Miriam.  Since they were righteous women, there must have been truth to their statement to Pharaoh.

It was this generation, born to mothers who delivered themselves that led the redemption from Egypt.

Almost all, if not all, great Rabbis say that we are in the birth pangs (final stage of redemption) of Moshiach.    
As most of you reading this perform the mitzvahs of the final preparations before Pesach, and I have the two fold privilege of both preparing for Pesach and preparing for my sons bris which will, G-d willing, take place on the morning before the first Seder, may these mitzvahs usher in the coming of the Moshiach and the final redemption.  As you may recall, at the end of our Seders, we call for “Next Year in Jerusalem.”  I believe that if we perform these mitzvahs with proper intention, it can truly be “This Year in Jerusalem.”

Have a Happy and Kosher Pesach and I hope to see you in Jerusalem soon.