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!

Jan 13 2017

The Value of a Smile

Before his passing, Jacob blessed Joseph’s sons, and then his own. Our Sages explain to us that each blessing is filled with prophetic insight, words which each brother in particular, the brothers overall, and all of their descendents, needed to hear.

And when Yaakov turns to Yehudah (Judah), he knows that the Kings of Israel will come from his family. “Your father’s sons will bow before you… The scepter will not leave Yehudah, or the staff of the ruler from between his feet, until Shiloh comes” [49:8,10]. And he blesses him with abundance: “His eyes will be read with wine, and teeth white with milk” [49:12].

Our Sages see a deeper thought contained in the second phrase of this verse.

Says Rebbe Yochanon, “greater is the one who whitens the teeth to his friend, then the one who gives him milk to drink. For it says, ‘and teeth white with milk’ — do not read ‘and teeth white’ but rather ‘and whitening the teeth'” [Tractate Kesobos 111b].

A similar thought is found in the Avos D’Rebbe Nosson:

And receive every person with a pleasant face.” How? This teaches that if a person gives his friend every gift in the world, and his face is surly, the verse treats him as if he gave him nothing at all. But if he receives his friend with a pleasant and warm expression, even if he gave him nothing at all, the verse considers him as if he gave him all the gifts in the world. [13:4]

A man once walked into a subway station, and as he was going in, the proprietor of a kiosk recognized him and hurried over to greet him. The fellow walking in, however, didn’t recognize him.

So the proprietor reminded him that they had met several months earlier. At that time, the proprietor only had a small collection of pencils, which he was selling in order to make a living. The fellow thought he was a beggar, gave him a quarter and continued on. But the proprietor ran after him, until he caught up and gave the man his pencil.

“Oh I’m sorry,” the man said. “I didn’t realize you were a merchant!”

The proprietor said that the man’s comment touched him. He realized that he was indeed a “merchant,” selling people something that they needed. And he began to sell more actively, until he was able to afford a kiosk selling a host of different items. And he told the man that he could have whatever he wanted, because it was only thanks to his comment that the proprietor began to think of himself as a merchant.

Our Sages understood this very well. A simple comment — or even a facial expression — can brighten another person’s entire day. It could even change a life!

Jan 05 2017

There’s No (Real) Excuse

Special Opportunity: we have an extension on the Early Bird offer in this year’s raffle! You must get your entry in by January 10, at which point a lucky winner will receive two tickets to Israel (or $2500 Cash), and still be in the running for the $100,000 grand prize! This is our biggest fundraiser of the year, and we truly need your participation. Would you please take a moment to join the raffle?

In this week’s reading, Joseph finally reveals himself to his brothers. “And his brothers were unable to answer him, for they were disoriented in front of him” [Genesis 45:3]. Recognizing that not only had Joseph survived and even flourished in Egypt, but was even the Viceroy seated before them, was simply too much for them.

The Medrash says something more. Their disorientation was because all the various excuses that they had made and told themselves about why they had treated Yosef as they had — they all fell away. They knew they had no answer. They had nothing to say.

All of us have situations in our lives where we know we are not doing the best thing we could be doing. We often give ourselves reasons why we aren’t meeting our own standards. But we should also know that those reasons are merely excuses. They will melt away under the harsh light of truth.

Rabbi Yaakov Galinsky tells a story from the Tana D’vei Eliyahu, in which the prophet Elijah meets a person in his travels, and can tell that this person has not studied the Torah and Jewish ethics. He says to him, “my son, what are you going to tell your Father in Heaven at the end of your life?”

The man responds, “Rebbe, I have an answer to give Him, for understanding and knowledge were not given to me from Heaven in order that I should be able to read and study.”

“My son, what job do you have?”

“I am a fisherman.”

“My son, who taught you and told you that you should bring flax and weave it into nets, and toss the nets into the water, and bring up fish from the sea?”

“Rebbe,” he answered, “in this, understanding and knowledge was given to me from Heaven.”

And then Elijah said to him, “To bring flax and to weave it into a net, and toss it into the water and bring up fish, in all of that you were given understanding from Heaven, but in words of Torah, about which it is written: ‘for this thing is extremely close to you, in your mouth and in your heart to do it’ [Deut. 30:14], you were not given understanding from Heaven?”

Immediately, the fisherman began crying, for he knew that he had no answer.

We should learn from what happened to Joseph’s brothers when he identified himself. If we know that we could be doing better in a particular area, let’s dispense with the excuses. We should take the opportunity to do better, instead!

Dec 23 2016

Points of Light

candles-hanukkahchanukah-2012-hd-wallpapersThe holiday of Chanukah is often misunderstood. People imagine that it was a fight of military prowess and for political liberty. Yet neither of these is true. Chanukah, rather, tells us that we can accomplish miracles when we truly dedicate ourselves to G-d.

The Greeks of that time glorified the external. They celebrated physical prowess and great works of art, all in the service of their idols. Olympia was the site of the games, because it had a “sanctuary site” for their gods, and sculptors and poets would gather there during the Olympiads as well.

When they invaded Judea, they did not expel the Jews or enslave them. Rather, they attempted to eliminate Judaism, to make the Jews no different than other, idolatrous nations. They targeted three Jewish practices in particular, because each of these differentiated the Jews from other nations: Circumcision, Sabbath Observance, and Sanctification of the New Moon. The first two of these differentiate Jews physically and in their practices. The third is tied to the Jewish belief that we ourselves can impact the spiritual realms, by determining the times of our holidays.

Many Jews went along with the Greeks and even participated in idolatrous practices, but the Maccabees refused. And as we say in our prayers, G-d “gave the strong into the hands of the weak, the many to the few, the impure to the pure, the wicked to the righteous, those who provoke to those who involve themselves with Your Torah.”

Each of these phrases is important in our understanding of the true nature of Chanukah. The Jews of that time did not win political independence — they did not become the dominant force in a turbulent region, and continued as a vassal state. But they secured religious liberty and freedom to practice as Jews.

Physically, it denies logic to imagine that a small band of Jewish priests should be able to overcome the mighty, well-trained and well-armed Greek army. Spiritually, it also makes no sense. The entire world of that day was pagan, devoted to idolatrous gods. Rather than persisting with their unique ideas and study of Torah, the few, persecuted Jews should have succumbed to the popular ideas of the day.

And yet, of course, what happened is the very opposite. The Greeks and their gods are gone, while the Jewish ideals of ethical monotheism and morality have spread. On Chanukah, we celebrate the ability of small points of light to push back a world of darkness.

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