Nov 17 2017

First, Choose a Direction

This week’s reading begins with Rivka’s pregnancy, which came about only after many years and many prayers. And then we read a verse which, according to Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki himself, begs further explanation: “And the children struggled within her, and she said ‘if so, why am I here?’ And she went to inquire of G-d” [25:22].

First of all, what’s the problem? Different children behave differently in utero. Some move around a great deal, while others are more placid. Women can often tell how their children will behave before giving birth.

So Rivka’s baby moved around a lot. Admittedly, a child like that is likely to be somewhat more taxing (and that may be an understatement). But this is not, to use the expression, “the end of the world!” So why does she say “if so, why a why am I here?”

Second question: where did she go? G-d fills the world, yet the verse says “she went to inquire” of Him.

And what is the answer she receives? “And G-d said to her, ‘there are two nations in your womb, and two peoples will separate from within you; and the one will be stronger than the other, and the older will serve the younger'” [25:23]. They are two brothers, and they will not get along. One will bully the other, she is told. And she is reassured and goes home, and indeed eventually gives birth to twins.

This, then, is the reassuring answer, that they are brothers who won’t get along?

Our Sages explain that what Rivka perceived was not “conventional” movement of a baby. There was a House of Study, dedicated to understanding G-d, led by Shem the son of Noach, and his great-grandson Eyver. And any time that Rivka went by this House of Study, she felt her baby (not knowing that there were, in fact, two babies) trying to get out to go study with them.

But by this time, there was also a great deal of idolatry in the world. And every time she walked by a house of idolatry, she also felt her baby trying to get out, to go worship the idols!

It was to the House of Study of Shem and Eyver to which she went to seek guidance. And that is where she learned that she was going to have twins.

Our Rabbis say that what bothered her so much was that her baby appeared to be pulled in every direction. He or she wanted to simultaneously serve G-d and serve idols. And the consolation was, these are two different children, each of whom is naturally drawn in one direction but not the other.

This was a consolation, they say, because then one could hope that the child naturally drawn to idolatry would nonetheless defeat this inclination and serve G-d. But if he didn’t perceive that idolatry and service of G-d were different and mutually exclusive, then he was lost at a much more fundamental level.

Unlike babies in the womb, we have within us both good and evil inclinations. We are all, in our lifetimes, drawn to both sides — and every person, on his or her level, sometimes makes the wrong choice. But our very first task is to know that there is indeed a choice to be made, that some actions are superior than others. The Torah tells us how to discern between them. And then, we must take stock. We must know in what direction we are going, rather than allow ourselves to be lost in our daily affairs. That will enable us to change for the better.

Our goal is to grow. We must attempt to become more G-dly, and bring more G-dliness into the world through our actions. If we are “all over the place,” lost in a cloud of good and bad behaviors, then indeed “why are we here?” We must take stock of our actions, choose our direction, and pursue the good. Then the bad will be subjugated to the good, even if the bad appears to be “greater,” dragged to the House of Study to be elevated and purified.

Oct 20 2017

Losing Perspective

What on earth — or perhaps, off earth — did Nimrod and his followers think they could accomplish? How could building a tower enable them to “make war against G-d?” [Rashi to 11:1]

Not only is the idea nonsensical, but they contradicted themselves: “They said: ‘Come, let us build a city and tower, its head in the Heavens, and make a name for ourselves, that we not be scattered across the earth.'” [11:4]

But Rashi explains there that battling with G-d was so “that He not bring upon us a blow that scatters us from here.” They convinced themselves that their aggression was defensive!

So the people perceived a false danger, that G-d would want to harm them without reason, and provided themselves a ridiculous solution to their false problem. The result was truly counter-productive: the very thing they wished to avoid was done to them, due to their own actions.

This came about because the people followed this line of thinking without thinking. Nimrod is described as a charismatic leader who was able to capture people’s thoughts and imagination with his words. Logic and analysis were replaced with sweet-sounding invitations and sloganeering, all for the supposed benefit of humanity.

We have not learned. Throughout history, charismatic leaders have enticed unthinking followers to do abhorrent things that run counter to their stated goals. Jules Streicher, the Nazi leader, “taught” Germans to believe that “the peoples of the ancient world perished from the Jewish poison,” and that this was “proven” by world history — thus requiring that Germany act to remove the Jews before it be destroyed.

By his day, world history had long proven the very opposite – that it was those who oppressed the Jews who found themselves in “the dustbin of history.” And so it went with Streicher and his comrades; not only were they defeated and the Reich destroyed, but today to call someone a Nazi is the worst of epithets.

How little things change: today, much of the world celebrates murderers of children as “freedom fighters,” asserting that “resistance is not terrorism” as long as the victims of said terrorism are Jews.

Our Torah teaches us to think and analyze, rather than mindlessly accepting what we are told to believe. Is is when we maintain objectivity and study carefully that we arrive at the truth. Never let slogans replace substance!

Sep 15 2017

Daunting or Doable?

It is not in Heaven, such that one could say ‘who will go up to Heaven and take it for us’… For this matter is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to do it” [30:12, 14].

At first glance Torah observance can seem daunting, filled with myriad rules and regulations governing every aspect of life. It seems impossible for a person to know everything! And in reality, this is true: Rabbi Tarfon says in the Chapters of the Fathers that “it is not upon you to complete the work, but neither are you free to separate yourself from it.” A person will never know and understand the entire Torah, but rather has a lifelong obligation to study, learn and grow.

This is only true, however, because there is unlimited depth and breadth to the Torah. That which we need to know in the daily course of our lives is well within our limits.

We find a similar concept in secular law: we follow complex legal regulations every day without a second thought, simply because we learn patterns of correct behavior. All of us learn to operate turn signals while we learn to drive a car, and from then on use those turn signals even when turning right at an empty intersection. At least, most of us use our turn signals! When you come across a complex situation that requires greater knowledge (think taxes), then we consult experts and try to follow their advice.

Once you learn to put on the right shoe first and tie the left shoe first, it becomes daily practice, even without learning the deeper meaning behind this behavior that elevates it to the status of a religious act. The Torah enables every person to perform the basic, correct behaviors, but all of the Torah that we learn continues to add depth and refinement to those same acts.

In discussing the Commandment to love G-d (as found in the daily recitation of Shema Yisrael from the Torah), Rabbi Yisrael Mayer Kagan, the saintly Chofetz Chaim (whose Yahrtzeit is today, Erev Shabbos), cautions against simply reading the words without putting them into action. He compares this to a factory foreman who carefully writes the instructions given by the owner into a manual, and then each day gathers the workers and reads through the manual from beginning to end while the machines sit idle the entire day.

The holiday of Rosh Hashanah is not only the Day of Judgment, but the beginning of a 10 day process of self reflection, which should spark with in us the desire to refine our behaviors during this coming year, to correct what we are doing incorrectly, and further perfect even what we are already doing correctly at more basic levels. There is always room for improvement that always room for growth, yet it is never so intimidating that we can’t get started.

May the coming holidays lead us to greater growth and commitment, to better behaviors that will manifest themselves throughout the coming year. May it be a new year of success, growth, and happiness for us and our families!

Aug 24 2017

We Don’t Know the Story

In this week’s reading, we are told “you shall be ‘simple’ with Hashem your G-d” [Deut. 18:13].

As you might suspect, “simple” is a very incomplete translation of “Tamim,” which also means pure and unsullied. Our forefather Yaakov is called “a simple man, dwelling in tents,” which meant that he was totally devoted to G-d and to studying in the tents of Torah.

What does it mean to be “simple” in our verse? Our Sages explain that a person should not imagine that he can understand the underlying rationale of the Commandments that G-d gave us, to the point that he is able to create exceptions based upon his understanding.

Rav Yosef Horowitz zt”l, known as the “Alter [Elder] of Novardhok,” explains this with a parable.

In this parable, two kingdoms – we’ll use Hungary and Poland – were about to make an historic treaty between them, and the King of Hungary called in one of his closest ministers to serve as his representative to sign the treaty in Poland. And he gave his minister one clear instruction: don’t make any sort of bet while you’re there. He said that the Polish were compulsive gamblers, and it would not work out well were his minister to join in.

So with both his mission and instruction in hand, the minister went to Poland, signed the treaty with much fanfare, and sat down with all the participants – the Polish King, his ministers, and the rest of the Hungarian delegation – to a celebratory feast.

At the banquet, one of the Polish ministers commented a bit too loudly, “I know we got the better of this deal!”

When the Hungarian minister protested that his was not so, his Polish counterpart boldly asserted that their spies within the Hungarian government had told them everything, right down to the Hungarian minister’s unusual birthmark.

To which the Hungarian exclaimed, “But I have no birthmark!”

“Of course you do, and you’re not admitting it because of your embarrassment at having been duped. I will bet 100,000 rubles that you do indeed have a birthmark!”

Now the minister remembered his instruction, but immediately reasoned that this was not what the king was talking about. The king said that the Polish were experienced gamblers, and thus he, the Hungarian, would lose. But there was no way he could lose this bet!

Before you knew it, he had accepted, undressed down to his underwear to prove the story false, and collected his 100,000 rubles. So he returned home especially happy to deliver his report to his King.

But when the King heard the story, his reaction was, “Oh no, you did what?”

The King proceeded to explain: the Polish minister, on his last visit to Hungary, had insisted that the King himself should come to sign the treaty. He claimed to know the Hungarian minister, and that he was a fool. And he made a bet with the Hungarian King, a bet of 10 million rubles, that were he to send the minister in his stead, that the Polish minister would manage to get the Hungarian to undress down to his underwear in front of the Polish King and his ministers!

“Now of course, the one rule of the bet was that I could not disclose it to you. I thought about this for a long time, and I decided that the only way he could get you to undress like that would be to make another bet — so I told you not to bet with him. So you see, you didn’t win me 100,000 rubles. You lost me 9,900,000!”

The message of this parable is clear. We can imagine that we understand the rationale behind our Mitzvos, but at the end of the day, we do not. We have only our conjectures. What we do know is that the system has worked for thousands of years, holding us together in a totally unnatural way, unlike every other nation. As they say, don’t mess with success! Our job is to follow the Commandments, and not imagine that we can make them better.

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