Mar 02 2017

Cultivating a Generous Heart

Have you heard “Mitzvah” translated as a “good deed?” That’s incorrect, and this week’s reading proves it: not every good deed is a Mitzvah!

A Mitzvah is something we are Commanded to do, from “Tzivui,” a command. When it comes to the donations for building the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the desert, the Torah never actually gives Israel a Commandment to give; rather, it simply tells Israel that “they shall collect a donation for me, from every person whose heart moves him you shall collect My donation” [Exodus 25:2]. And then, the reading goes on to describe to us what Israel was able to accomplish.

Now, I do not mean to say that there is no Commandment to give. The word used here for donation, Terumah, is the same used for allocating a portion of one’s crop for the Kohanim, the priests. But even there, no amount is specified (the Rabbis do specify the standards for generous, normative and miserly portions). We are supposed to give what we can, and to learn to give frequently on behalf of many causes.

I must add at this juncture that our raffle, a critical fundraiser for us, is not performing nearly as well as last year; I’m not sure why, but I do believe that I have insufficiently expressed our gratitude to all those who have given in previous years, and whose support we do need once again — and those who have not yet been able to give have similarly not heard from us how important it truly is for our ability to reach you all. We are blessed to hear from Jews all around the world every day and to offer individual guidance, while also continuing to improve our websites and ability to reach people.

If you are moved to help, we truly need to hear from you. If you wish to simply make a donation, that’s wonderful as well! And a good way to put the lessons of this week’s reading into immediate practice.

Our obligation is to duplicate G-d, who is boundless in his generosity; we are left with the task of learning to open our hands, to be generous with others, in accordance with our ability. The Ohr HaChaim writes that when a person is a “Nediv Lev,” of a giving heart, we can be assured that he or she will do what he or she can. And G-d Himself testifies that this is “My donation,” this is a person giving what he or she is able to give.

Feb 16 2017

Why So Much Hate?

Why are Jews hated? It comes from this week’s reading. “Why is it called Mount Sinai? It is the mountain where hatred [Sinah] descended upon the nations of the world” [Shabbos 99a].

The Medrash says that G-d offered the Torah to various other nations of that time, but when they found out that the Torah had laws against murder, theft and immorality, each nation chose a reason why they did not want to accept its laws upon themselves.

Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Klein of Torah U’Mesorah gave me a fascinating insight into this Medrash. Wouldn’t it make more sense, he asked, for nations to be bothered by incomprehensible Commandments, such as the laws of the red heifer, which even King Solomon could not understand? Every civilized nation has laws against theft and murder; otherwise you would have anarchy!

Yet what bothered them, he explained, is exactly this idea — that even basic laws, central to civil society, are in G-d’s Hands. Even a king is not exempt, he cannot do as he pleases. The prophets were very critical of David and Solomon, although they, as kings, did so much good, and wrote prophetic works of their own.

A king wants to see himself as above the law, as having absolute power. Everyone else isn’t allowed to steal, but he has eminent domain. Everyone else cannot commit murder, but he is able to call for a royal execution.

This idea, that we are not Kant philosophizing about our own moral requirements, but subject to an absolute standard that we cannot challenge or change, is what they found so offensive. That is the concept that those filled with hatred cannot abide.

Hitler said he was honored to be called a barbarian. His enmity for Jews went along with his enmity for the idea of conscience, which he called a Jewish concept. He even said that he wanted Germans to be ruthless and cruel.

In the end, anti-Semitism is about hatred for an absolute standard of morality. If you’re going to be hated for something, it might as well be for the very best of reasons!

Feb 09 2017

A Maidservant by the Sea

Even after all of the miracles that happened on behalf of the Jews while they were still in Egypt, what happened at the crossing of the sea was that much greater. In the Passover Haggadah, we compare the plagues which afflicted the Egyptians in Egypt to what happened to them at the sea. We read that what happened at the sea is referred to as the “Hand of G-d,” while in Egypt it was merely the “Finger of God.” So whatever happened in Egypt, at the sea it was five times greater.

And our Sages say that this was not mere exaggeration. They point out that each plague had many different facets, such that each one could be considered to be four or five plagues. And then they repeat, whatever happened at the sea was five times greater: if there were forty plagues in Egypt, there were 200 at the sea. If there were fifty in Egypt, there were 250 at the sea!

And all of the above is only discussing what happened to the Egyptians, a small part of the story. The sea split. The Medrash says that water in a glass split, so everyone knew a miracle was occurring at that moment. The water of the sea actually split into different channels, one per tribe. The water rose like a wall on each side, and the ground in front upon which the Jews walked through was completely dry. So the whole experience was one miracle after the next.

The Medrash says that this was the greatest revelation in history of G-d’s Hand at work. The Mekhilta quotes Rebbe Eliezer, “a maidservant saw at the sea what Yeshayah (Isaiah) and Yechezkel (Ezekiel) did not see.” The prophets had visions, similar to dreams. But what Israel saw at the sea, they saw with their own eyes. It doesn’t make this comparison regarding the Revelation at Sinai, because in that case there were far fewer physical manifestations of G-d’s Hand at work.

So we must ask: how is it that everyone saw these tremendous miracles, greater visions than those of Isaiah and Ezekiel, yet they did not all become prophets? Why did they remain at a lower spiritual level?

The answer, though, is sort of obvious: it’s not just what you are privileged to see, but what you learn. It’s what you take away from the event. The reason why Yeshayah and Yechezkel became prophets is that they looked for the handiwork of G-d in every small thing that happened, and analyzed each event to see what they could learn. They pursued knowledge throughout their days. And that’s why they were ready to reach that level, to have those visions.

Israel in Egypt, by contrast, had been downtrodden, and had descended to a very low spiritual level. They were not used to looking for the Hand of G-d in every event. Many had lost hope that they would be redeemed at all. And so they were not ready to ascend to massive spiritual heights, despite everything they saw at the sea.

Throughout our lives, we are offered both small and large opportunities to learn and to grow. Spirituality, like any physical or mental activity, is an area in which we can grow and develop — through practice. We cannot sit around waiting for a great moment of revelation, as we may not be prepared to learn from it when it comes. If we learn to take inspiration from each little event in our lives, that is the way we grow to spiritual heights!

Jan 27 2017

An Appropriate Answer

Moshe and Aharon go to confront Pharoah and demand that he release the Jews. Pharoah demands a sign, and, as Commanded, Aharon throws his staff on the ground in front of Pharoah , where it turns into a snake.

Pharoah calls in his magicians, and lo and behold, they do exactly the same trick.

Then what happens? “The staff of Aharon swallowed their staffs” [Ex. 7:12]! Aharon’s snake wasn’t a mere trick… his staff had turned into a living, breathing, eating snake. Actually, the Talmud [Shabbos 97a] tells us that Aharon’s snake turned back into a staff before swallowing the others (one miracle within another).

The Talmud [Menachos 85a] also records a fascinating, even bizarre exchange between Pharoah’s magicians and Moshe. They said to him, “Egypt is filled with sorcerers. You’re coming here to do sorcery?”

And Moshe responds, “it’s like they say, to a city where they sell lots of vegetables, you take your vegetables to sell [because that’s where the buyers will be].”

Rabbi Yaakov Galinsky asks, what sort of answer is that? This was Moshe’s opportunity to say that what Aharon’s staff had done was obviously above and beyond mere magic, that they were G-d’s messengers!

He tells a story about a young man who had grown up on a very secular kibbutz, and began to study in yeshiva. The kibbutz, believing in freedom of choice for all who agree with them, refused to release his identity documents, so the Rabbi went together with this student to a government office to help him file paperwork and obtain new documents.

They were traveling by train, and lo and behold, one of the student’s old friends from the kibbutz recognized him, and began to berate him for joining the “mindless fools” in yeshiva. Recognizing that a war was about to break out, and knowing that the poor student had been studying for only a few weeks, the Rabbi prepared to intervene. But the student quickly answered, “leave it, David. You let me be a fool like the Chazon Ish, and I’ll let you be enlightened like Yoskeh!”

And that was that. David walked away. So Rabbi Galinsky asked the student, “who is this Yoskeh?”

And the student replied, “he’s the one who feeds the chickens.”

We understand why the magicians initially believed that Aharon was merely performing magic with his staff. But by the end, it was obvious that his staff became a miraculous, living being, not merely the product of sorcery. So it was obvious that the magicians merely wished to use mockery to take away from the seriousness of what they had witnessed. At that moment, it became impossible to have a serious discussion, only to respond to the mockery in kind.

Today, the word “mockery” itself seems outdated. Anything and everything becomes grist for “late-night comedians,” to the point that many (nearly 1 in 8) Americans admitted that they received their “news” from a popular comedy show. We lose the opportunity to have a serious discussion about a host of serious issues, because someone insists upon making it into a joke.

Our Sages tell us that a brief joke can take away 1000 words of serious thought. We should capture moments of inspiration when they come, rather than, like the magicians, finding a way to laugh them off!

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