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.

Jul 28 2017

An Active Response to Tragedy

The Ninth of Av, which this year begins on Monday evening, is a national day of mourning for the Jewish people. 3329 years ago, we mourned needlessly on this day, responding to the report of the spies that we would be unable to overcome the Canaanites and move into our Promised Land. And G-d Told us at that time that because we mourned on the Ninth of Av for no reason, this would be a day of mourning for generations.

And so it came to be. Both Holy Temples were destroyed on the Ninth of Av, 656 years apart. The expulsion of all Jews from England happened on the Ninth of Av in 1290 CE, and from Spain in 1492 CE. Again and again, those who hated the Jews unwittingly proved the power of prophecy.

On the surface, the mourning of the Ninth of Av may appear like the mourning for a close relative, like “sitting Shivah.” But it is much more than that. In Judaism, we learn that tragedies don’t merely happen, that we must try to draw inspiration from tragedy the same way that we draw inspiration from times of joy, from our holidays.

Why was the First Temple destroyed? An historian would tell you that it was because the Babylonian army invaded and took over the land. But the rabbis gave us a very different answer: because the Jews of that day were violating the key Jewish prohibitions against murder, idolatry and adultery. The Rabbis knew full well that the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, but taught nonetheless that this only occurred because of needless hatred between Jews. In all cases, our Sages taught us these messages in order that we not merely mourn past events, but be inspired to do better.

Some instinctively recoil when this concept is applied to more recent tragedies. People imagine that this means claiming that the victims of tragedy brought it upon themselves, that it was somehow their fault.

That is categorically untrue. Israel is considered not merely one nation, but one body, and thus a punishment upon the nation is a national tragedy, rather than a judgment about the individuals most directly affected. On the contrary, King David says in Tehillim (Psalms 116:15), “Precious in the eyes of G-d is the death of his pious ones.” The greatest and holiest among us may be taken from us because of the sins of the collective nation.

When the Satmar Rebbe was in declining health, one of his devoted students asked him, to whom will we go for a blessing when you have passed away? And the Rebbe replied, when you go to synagogue in the morning, watch the men putting on their Tefillin (phylacteries). Find one who has a number tattooed on his arm, and you can ask him for a blessing.

The Ninth of Av is not merely a day of mourning, but a call for self-improvement. Yes, we look at the past, but to learn from tragedy. Are we showing love for others? Are we caught up in today’s ideologies, rather than the teachings of Judaism? We must use the Ninth of Av as a time of introspection, to look at ourselves and address that which we could do better.

And may we soon see the fulfillment of the prophecy (Isaiah 60:20) that “your days of mourning will end.”

Jul 14 2017

Transfer of Leadership

In this week’s reading, Moshe begins the transfer of Jewish leadership to his closest disciple, Yehoshua (Joshua). He “stands him before Elazar the High Priest and the entire congregation” [27:22], in accordance with G-d’s Commandment that he do so, and “you shall give from your glory upon him, in order that all the congregation of the Children of Israel will listen [to him]” [27:20].

People often ask why it is that the initial observant congregations in America were in such disarray. There were several factors, of course. Besides the abandonment of Jewish practice on the boat to Ellis Island, there were many who fell away from Jewish observance when they learned that if you didn’t show up for work on Saturday, you didn’t have a job on Monday.

But Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Rabinowitz zt”l (1848-1910) of Kovno taught us a different reason, when he declined an invitation to become the Chief Rabbi of New York City in 1888. He said that the way things classically happened was that a group of Jews organized in a city, and then sought out a Rabbi to guide the community and preserve Jewish practice, that it not be disturbed. He said that to go organize a new community, to establish a new order with newly-arrived Jews in a new location — that, he said, required a Rabbi like Moshe!

As we see, what eventually grew Jewish communities was not the Rabbi of the synagogue, but those who built day schools to educate the next Jewish generation, as Moshe taught Yehoshua, and in the same way that Yehudah preceded his father Yaakov to Goshen, in Egypt, to (according to the Medrash) build a Beis Medrash, a House of Study (Breishis Rabbah to Gen. 46:28, see Rashi).

And so it remains. Giving our children a strong Jewish education is the singular way that we preserve a Jewish future for generations to come!

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