Thursday, 29 April 2010

Day 30 of the Omer - Strength of Acknowledgement

The combined Sefirot for today's counting of the Omer consists of Gevurah (Strength) and Hod (Glory/Splendour).

"Who is strong?" – asks Ben Zoma in the first Mishna of chapter 4 of Pirkei Avot. "One who conquers his inclination," is his answer. Such an answer should be safe guarded well knowing well that it comes from no less a person than one of the four great rabbis who entered into the Pardes – the deepest secrets of Torah.

There are two ways to understand strength. One way is to view strength as power – which it certainly is. The other is to see strength as having the ability to hold oneself back when it is necessary too. Sometimes strength is necessary, "Be as strong as a lion to serve your Father in heaven" (Pirkei Avot 5:20). At other times, the necessary quality of Gevurah must be restrained. Speaking boldly with strength about Torah, G-d and goodness, is a virtue! But speaking boldly about the negative character traits of another (or practically anything about another person which has no benefit to it) is a sin! At that point, the quality of holding back, restraint – becomes the essential necessary trait of Gevurah.

Hod – glory, relates to Aharon HaKohein – a man filled with peace, empathy, kindness, and consideration to, and acknowledgement of others. In Hebrew, the word to say "thanks" is Todah. This is because thanking someone is an acknowledgement of who they are and the favour they have done for us. The most essential trait of any Jew is the quality of appreciation to another. For this reason, he is called a Jew – a Yehudi – again from the word "Hod," a word that not only means glory and splendour, but also "thanks." When Leah gave birth to her fourth son – Yehuda, she called him this because she showed her appreciation (the first person in the Torah to,) for G-d having blessed with far more than was her due.

One who wishes to improve himself through the combination of these two Sefirot would do well to get a feel for the qualities inherent in both of them. Let's take a look at a beautiful approach to seeing the force of these Sefirot in real action!

One should contemplate G-d's powers in the world (Gevurah), that through them he literally saves the Jewish people each and every moment – and all the more so each individual from the many pitfalls and destructions that can come about. On Purim, G-d saved the Jewish people from the wicked Haman who wished to destroy us. In each generation there are those who wish to destroy the Jewish people. It is a wonder that we continue to thrive – successfully in the world around us – in spite of the persecutions and the plots made by the nations of the world (whether in private or in public.)

Those that live in Israel know well the news when a bomber is found with kilograms of dynamite and other explosives strapped to his body. We tend to think that it was a once off. Months go by until another incident is published regarding the efforts of the Israeli army in representing the physical side of G-d's protection of the Land of Israel. But what of the hundreds of incidents not published, whether for political reasons, safety reasons or other?! G-d's great powers are at work constantly saving the Jewish people from the plans and plots of the enemies. "In every generation…" as we read in the Haggadah, "But G-d saves us from their hands."

The Lavan's of the world – those whose exteriors sport complete purity wearing the whitest of the white garments (Lavan-white), whose real interiors are blacker than black! The Lavan's who kiss and hug the Jew externally with warmth… as their hands touch ever so slightly (and sometimes quite heavily!) the pockets of the Jew to find out if there may be some jewellery, other precious stones, or money inside them! Or perhaps a warm kiss on the mouth, wondering if perhaps they could not find the wealth inside the pockets, that it might well be hidden inside the mouth of the Jew (where it certainly is… in the form of words of Torah and kindness!)

One could and should consider the continual miracles (Gevurot) G-d performs for us individually and to our entire families and households when they may be in danger (even unknowingly). One needs much time to consider how frequently these occur (surprisingly!) We are a generation that has lost the sensitivity to realise the numerous miracles around us – each moment! It is here that we must give thanks (Hod.)

When one see the ways of the wicked being successful – and it seems that they have miracles being performed for them through their evil plots – many turn towards their deceptive and crooked paths (Rachmana Litzlan) acknowledging their apparent powers. Instead, here, one should strengthen oneself (Gevurah) to not be pulled after them. One should instead take it to heart that King David himself was amazed at their success when he said, "These are the wicked, but they are always tranquil, they have attained great wealth" (Tehillim 73:12,) but continues, "Only on slippery places do You set them, You cast them down into destruction. How have they become desolate in an instant! They came to an end, they were consumed through bewildering terrors" (74:18-19.)

Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai gave over his very life in order not to acknowledge – to accept, to show any liking towards their success – to such a degree that he was forced to flee to a cave because he was sentenced to death because of this.

The Gemara teaches (Shabbat 33b):

Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Shimon were sitting together, when Yehuda ben Geirim came and sat by them. Rabbi Yehuda said, "How beautiful are the deeds of this nation that they have market places, they have built bridges and bathhouses!" Rabbi Yosi kept quiet. Rabbi Shimon answered, "Everything that they established, they did only for themselves. They established market places to bring in immorality, they established bathhouses to pamper themselves and they established bridges to impose for themselves taxes." Yehuda ben Geirim went to the government and reported the event to them. The government decreed that Rabbi Yehuda – who praised them, should be promoted. Rabbi Yosi, who kept quiet, should be exiled to the city of Tzipori. Rabbi Shimon who degraded their deeds should be killed! And so, Rabbi Shimon fled for his life together with his son – to the desert of Lod, and they lived there for 13 years!

The government were far from issuing decrees for nothing. Rabbi Akiva – Rabbi Shimon's teacher would himself be killed for nothing worse than teaching Torah!

Rabbi Shimon understood the importance of balancing the true value of appreciation and knowing when it is to be used – and when not. Appreciation is a trait to be used in connection with G-d Himself. One thanks, when it comes to thanking G-d or others because of the greatness of the right things in life – the greatness of good in the world, the appreciation of blessing and kindness in this world. But when this trait is misused, disaster results!

One who wishes therefore to master the Sefirot of Gevurah SheBeHod – should pull all his strength into knowing when and where to exercise his power of thanks. A trait to be praised… Hod – thanks – but when misused can bring disaster to the world. As the Torah teaches, "When one is kind when one should be cruel, one will be cruel when one should be kind…" (Kohelet Rabba 7:16.) Real growth means being in charge of every attribute and knowing just when the right time is to use it.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

The Zohar on the Lights of Pesach - and Pesach Sheini

The 14th of Iyar is known as Pesach Sheini – the Second Pesach. 

The week which contains the Sefirah of Hod (Empathy/Glory – Aharon HaKohein) during Sefirat HaOmer is filled with an extra measurement of holiness. Pesach Sheini – the 14th of Iyar contains its own special holiness within the week – a holiness which is high and exalted. It is during this week that the gates of heaven remain open…

On the mystical level, the Zohar (3:152b) explains this holiness:

"Since the time that Knesset Yisrael which is the Shechina (the indwelling Divine Presence) is crowned with her crowns during the month of Nissan – which means that she receives the lights (the flow of blessing and goodness) on the first night of Pesach, she does not remove her lights from herself for 30 days until the 14th day of Iyar.

"All these 30 days from the day that the Jewish people had left (Egypt) and brought the Pesach offering, the Queen – the Shechina, sits with Her lights, and all Her hosts are filled with happiness! Therefore someone who wishes to see the Queen i.e to receive from Her these lights, is able to ascend all these 30 days (i.e. until the 14th Iyar.)

"Afterwards an announcement is made – "Everyone who up until now had not been able to see the Queen – the Shechina, and to receive from her these lights, let him come and see now before the gates are locked." When is the announcement made? On the 14th day of the second month (i.e. 14 Iyar.) From then, up until another seven days the gates remain open, because the light of Pesach Sheini illuminates in the same way corresponding to the seven days of the First Pesach. From here onwards… they lock the gates closed. Therefore those who were not able to fulfil the First Pesach, are still able to fulfil the Second Pesach on the 14th of the second month (14 Iyar.)"

To summarise:

Pesach Sheini – the 14th of Iyar, contains within it beautiful lights of blessing. It is a time for us to "tap into" these beautiful lights, to pray with extra fervour knowing that just as the power of miracles existed on the 14th (15th) day of Nissan at the time we offered the Korban Pesach and then left Egypt, so too these same lights of blessing exist also on the 14th Iyar. More than this, these lights continue shining out to the world – and to each of us for the entire week of the Sefirat HaOmer which includes the Sefirah of Hod – the Sefirah related to empathy, to glory, to acceptance – to Aharon HaKohein.

Eat a piece of Matzah and be reminded that the holy sparks contained in this humble food, charge each of us with healing and the blessing of "swallowing" the faith we need to be completely absorbed inside ourselves to live a Torah lifestyle – every day, every night – every single moment – with our only desire to please G-d, to bring blessing to others, and experience the most wonderful thing of all, to feel completely balanced within ourselves, at ease with our own souls that desire nothing more than the True Goodness that life has to offer.


Thursday, 22 April 2010

How to Love Another

Leviticus 19:18 is made up of some of the hardest words the world will ever come to understand, "And you shall love your fellow as you love yourself." For someone working on themselves, these words are not difficult to understand. These are words that are necessary for life itself. 

The average person who listens to others during regular conversation talk, will quite often hear them quoting this very line - a line not from some "other" religion, but rather from the Chumash itself - that book that forms the crux of the Torah given to the Jewish nation at Har Sinai. 

Rabbi Akiva says that this principle is a great rule in the Torah! And Hillel taught, "What is hateful to yourself, do not do to others." These areas have been explained in other posts, and the plethora of material available about this topic is truly unlimited. One does wonder however, why the world is in such a topsy-turvy state, when these words seem to be on the lips of all - so very often! Not only that, it seems like those who relate these words often seem to be caught up in their own world as to what these words could really mean -resulting in a situation of complete chaos of what love is really all about! If these words were being taken to heart, we would surely have a world of peace, goodness and kindness.

There's no doubt, these words are worthy of contemplation every single day. Instead of considering the options of meditating on some word (that has no one direct meaning as such), would the world not be a far better place, if we could spend that "meditation time" considering the power of these words?! Thereafter - of course - the necessary step of actually implementing them into every life situation, becomes an absolute necessity!

Those interested in mastering the "techniques" involved in really coming to love one's fellow, would do well to spend at least an hour every single day involved in the study of Chassidic works as well as some of the more well known Mussar works. But for those wishing to digest a summary of important points, the Ksav VeHaKabbalah (Rabbi Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenberg - 19th century) enlightens us:
  • Your affection for others should be real, not feigned
  • Always treat others with respect
  • Always seek the best for them
  • Join in their pain
  • Greet them with friendliness
  • Give them the benefit of the doubt
  • Assist them physically, even in matters that are not very difficult
  • Be ready to assist with small or moderate loans and gifts
  • Do not consider yourself better than them
It doesn't take an entire lifetime to get to understand the basics... but it may take an entire lifetime of both study and action to be able to appreciate and value just how much needs to be done to be able to truly understand what it means to... "Love your fellow as you love yourself."

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Working on Oneself During the Sefirah - What it Takes

During Sefirat HaOmer we work on ourselves especially hard. We try to refine every part of our human characteristics that are in need of "purification".  Giving – for example may be good. But if one has not refined the aspect of giving, then one may fall into the trap taught by the Torah that "If one is kind when one should be cruel, then one will be cruel when one should be kind." Balance and a refinement of character means to be able to master our main attributes and make use of them when necessary. By doing so, we become fitting receptacles for the Divine Presence. We literally become chariots (like a car or horse to its rider) to fulfilling G-d's will. We become angels – yet with completely free will – a level even higher than angels!

When working on oneself, there are a variety of areas one can concentrate on. Some of the important themes to consider will be:
  • How can I improve my relationship with G-d?
  • How can I improve my relationship with my fellow man?
  • How do I work on the spiritual limbs of my body?
  • When are the best times for doing what?
  • Consider that there are 49 days to the Omer, and 48 ways of acquiring Torah (Avot  6:6). Each day provides the opportunity to reflect on one particular way (and then working through them all on the last day again.) 
Because there are 7 Sefirot (Middot) – 7 main spiritual attributes that G-d uses to interact with the world and us (save for the 3 intellectual aspects) – and that man is a complete microcosm of the world, this means that there are seven main areas of work necessary.

Because the Sefirot are combined of themselves within each individual Sefirah, and they too inside themselves ad infinitum, this means that not only must we work on the Sefirah in its "raw" state, but that we must also work within the part inside the "raw" which brings it (and us) to a more balanced state. In fact, one who could truly master this "level within a level" may well think of the level within level within level… but for most mortals, just getting to grips with the raw and the level within a level is enough to work on. For the Sefirah, our focus is on these seven of the ten Sefirot.

Let's take an example of the concept of Torah study. In fact, we could find the need to work on all 7 levels within 7 levels of Torah study itself. But let's use some practical ideas and see which attributes we would be working on when cleaving to particular Sefirot at particular times.

What is the essential Sefirah that defines Torah?

The written Torah is paralleled to the Sefirah of Tiferet – beauty, harmony, balance and truth. The oral Torah is parallel to the Sefirah of Malchut – royalty, kingship, receptivity. When learning Torah one can actually cleave to these Sefirot and master them – perfect them within ourselves – depending on whether one is learning the written or oral Torah. One should keep in mind that one is repairing these aspects that need repair – as one goes about involved in Torah study.

If we talk about the limbs of the body, the entire trunk of the body parallels the Sefirah of Tiferet.  Therefore one should immerse the entire body in one's learning. Just like when one dances, one moves the entire body together with the limbs, so too, when involved in Torah, one should literally immerse the entire body in one's learning (a possible reason for shockeling when learning!) When studying, one needs to "excite" the main part of the body which connects all the limbs – as one goes about one's learning.

If one asks about the time to learning Torah, one may wish to consider the "level within level" aspect of the Sefirot so as to know the best time to learn a particular area of Torah. For example, since the Sefirah of Chessed – kindness, corresponds to day-time, when working on this, one should involve oneself in learning Torah in the day time with the express purpose of perfecting Chessed SheBeTiferet.

One should also constantly keep in mind the person who corresponds to the particular Sefirah, as it gives us an insight into the full power of the Sefirah. For example, if one considers that the Sefirah of Tiferet corresponds to Yaakov Avinu , then one can focus on the life of Jacob when working on perfecting Tiferet.

In addition, each Sefirah corresponds to one of G-d's Names. This gives us the opportunity to actually see the Sefirah in action when mentioning a name of G-d. Example: Tiferet corresponds to the Tetragrammaton (the Ineffable 4 letter name of G-d.) When one sees this name, one can also visualise that the attributes of truth, harmony, balance etc. are emanating and being brought into the world.

When talking about improving our relationship with G-d, we need to interweave the Sefirot again by placing one within the other and bringing each out at a point in time that brings us closer to G-d. For example, if we were talking about studying G-d's Torah which is somewhat Pareve, we could add to this the Sefirah of Chessed – kindness by letting others know of the kindness of G-d. In this way we bring ourselves closer to G-d. 

Of course, if this meditation actually leads us to giving charity or the like – we would be physically manifesting the aspect of giving through having learned the Torah – or to say it another way Chessed SheBeTiferet – kindness of truth/balance/harmony/the written Torah.

Each of the 49 days is a composite of the seven Sefirot as they manifest themselves within each other. Our duty is to understand what each Sefirah is in terms of time, place, limbs, Names of G-d, relationship of ourselves to G-d, relationship of ourselves to our fellow man. Once we begin to internalise the power of each Sefirah, we are able to perfect our emotive attributes that lie within ourselves. Through this we come to appreciate our bodies and souls. We begin to appreciate the value of time. We learn to appreciate the spiritual powers that emanate through pronouncing G-d's names as we pray. We begin to see the greatness and importance of refining our relationships to others and to G-d. It's a process and takes much time.

During the Sefirah – that period between Pesach and Shavuot, we have the opportunity to work even harder at understanding how to truly refine ourselves, to be better people and fill this world with Divine goodness, bringing happiness to ourselves and those around us.

Sunday, 18 April 2010

Day 19 of the Omer: Hod SheBeTiferet - Acknowledgement of Truth

The Sefirot Tiferet and Hod are by no means the easiest to translate, having a variety of possible understandings to them.

If one wishes to truly grasp the meaning of a Sefirah, one should simply make a parallel comparison of the Sefirah to the person who is the embodiment of that particular Sefirah.

Yaakov Avinu is the Sefirah of Tiferet personified. He (and the Sefirah) epitomises truth and Torah. He is the direct balance between his father Yitzchak who represents Gevurah (Strength/Restraint) and his grandfather Avraham – Chessed (Kindness.) For real truth is the complete balance between overflowing kindness and complete restraint and holding-back of something.

Aharon HaKohen is the Sefirah of Hod personified. He is certainly a man filled with kindness (even though he is not Chessed – Avraham). Yet part of the concept of being kind is the ability to acknowledge, admit to the truth, and thank those that are kind to oneself. In other words the one thing that stands out with Aharon HaKohen is not just his unselfish kindness to others, but rather than he is extremely empathetic to their needs, wants and desires. He acknowledges and admits to what must be admitted to – and in this way brings kindness and balance to all people – bringing peace to everyone.

How do we understand the concept of Hod SheBeTiferet – acknowledgment of truth?! We are taught that it is a great Mitzvah for one to put in effort to strengthening and supporting Torah scholars – those who spend their days and nights involved in Torah study. Indeed, Yaakov – the medium between Avraham and Yitzchak – balance and truth – also represents the Torah SheBichtav – the Written Torah. 

When we speak about Tiferet, we speak about the Written Torah. One who wishes to connect with Tiferet does so by studying Torah and also by being a support for those whose fulltime occupation is Torah study. Tiferet is also represented by the entire body which keeps all the vital organs in place and acts as the perfect middle point to joining all of a person's limbs and head. His body is the perfect balance that keeps him alive – just as the Written Torah is the essential body that keeps us all alive too.

Hod – acknowledgment and empathy – is also represented by the left leg – one of the supporting structures that hold the body up. After all, a body without legs is a body that is left limited to only one point. It cannot move about from one area to another. It needs the actual support of its legs in order to be able to bring things into reality. While the body may have a head upon it with all sorts of ideas to accomplishing various tasks in life – it will find most things to be impossible without its legs and feet! (Could it be that only the fastest sprinters in the Olympics realise that without feet they would be nowhere?!) Though in today's times we have a variety of artificial means to making travel possible – the theoretical concept still applies.

Those who support Torah study are rooted in the Sefirot of Netzach and Hod. Indeed as we say – the Torah is a tree of life for… those who hold on to her. For those who support the Torah – the Torah becomes their own very source of life. Torah is not just a source of life for those who are the embodiment of the Torah, rather those who support Torah are blessed with life too.

Those wishing to perfect the Sefirot of the day should strive to support Torah scholars as much as they possibly can – and those who study the Written Torah in particular. Included in this is to strengthen them with their wealth and with their deeds of action – and to provide for them all their needs – their food and the fulfilment of their will. They do this in order that the Torah scholar is free to engage in the study of Torah continuously – so that he need not be distracted from the task at hand – to be totally and 100% immersed in study. 

Those who would prefer to criticise the Torah scholar for apparently wasting his days away instead of getting a job like everyone else and the rest of the world – so that he can support himself without being a burden on society – should do well to reflect on the very real situation of what they do when finding themselves in need of a Rabbi to answer a very intrinsic (and often life threatening) question! Suddenly the importance of a responsible and knowledgeable person becomes apparent, and the "criticiser" is finally ready to admit defeat as he suddenly requires an expert to handle his questions. As our Sages of blessed memory have said, "If one shames a Torah scholar there is no healing for his wound" because he has desecrated the Torah, as it is said, "But they mocked the messengers of G-d... until there was no remedy" (Chronicles 36:16) (Shabbat 119b)

Yet if it is not for the Torah scholar's total absorption in Torah study day and night – so that he can master both the Written and the Oral Law, then when answers are needed – there will be nobody to ask! Once the what-would-be-Torah-Scholar is forced to working like everyone else – the entire Torah collapses. The Hod (glory and support) of Torah – the legs give in, leaving the body motionless, possibly even paraplegic with no means whatsoever of ever moving about ever again.

The criticiser looks well at the present situation while failing to "see the future" – the very needed trait of a "good and proper way" of life (see Pirkei Avot 2:10). The criticiser falls into the ultimate trap of the one who has no clue about real life and promptly positions himself on a path of life which is exactly the opposite of a "proper one" (Pirkei Avot 2:10)

In addition to the qualities above, the person wishing to perfect Hod SheBeTiferet should be careful not to insult the Torah students' studies to cause them to abandon their learning (even when it seems like they may not be making the progress that the other feels they should be making!) Rather one should honour and praise their learning and good deeds, in order that they will be strengthened even further in their service.

One should provide them with books (or the money needed to purchase the thousands of books necessary to acquiring the full range of Torah needed to be able to answer life's every day questions.) One should provide them with a Beit Midrash – a learning centre, so that they can learn with a broad and relaxed mind. In this sense, a beautiful, open and clean building is a basic necessity. An old dungeon with faulty chairs and rickety tables hardly accounts for blessing a Torah scholar with a place to learn – let alone old toilets (often lacking proper seats,) with broken doors and wide open windows for all and sundry to look through to see what is actually happening! Many using these facilities will be qualified Dayanim (Jewish judges) – and one can only but wonder if we would provide our every day judges with the same quality chair, table, study room and toilet!

One should awaken the hearts of others that they should be strengthened in Torah too and that they too strengthen those involved in learning Torah.

Through this, one is able to get a glimpse into the start of acquiring the perfection of Hod SheBeTiferet – acknowledgement of truth.

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Beauty of Beauty - Tiferet SheBeTiferet - Constant Growth

The Sefirah related to the 17th day of the Omer is Tiferet SheBeTiferet. Roughly translated it would be Beauty of Beauty / Truth of Truth / Compassion of Compassion / Mercy of Mercy.

Tiferet refers to the actual body itself – that part that joins right and left side. Because of it being situated in the middle, it teaches us the concepts related to balance in everything. Giving is great. Receiving (at the right time) is also meritorious. But being a constant giver or constant receiver is not a comfortable situation. One needs balance.

Likewise being too stern on others can affect many. Being too kind to others likewise can cause more harm than good. One needs to keep balanced in everything one does. Balance – of course, as defined by the Torah's definition (and not our own logic!)

There are many ways of viewing this combination of Sefirot (as with all others too.) For this article, we will take just one idea with a wonderful story – in the hope that it will serve to inspire us on to higher growth in all that we do.

Tiferet refers to the idea of balance. If so, it seems that once one has attained this balance – one has reached the goal of creation. After all, how much more can one do after one has attained complete and perfect balance in everything? Our Sages teach us differently. There is never an end to the growth we can attain. While the attribute of "balance" has a middle point of perfection in all matters, it is also a point that reaches from below to above. This means to say that while the balance remains balance wherever one is on the vertical pole of balance, there is always room for improvement.

In fact the concept of the Sefirah of Tiferet SheBeTiferet is exactly this idea. Just when one thinks that one has attained the balance, one must seek out even greater ways to grow even further in understanding what real balance is really all about. There is never an end to any of the attributes – the Sefirot. On every level there is always the truth, but there is never a case of attaining complete balance because even balance reaches until infinity!

One should never feel completed in having attained the level of perfection demanded by the Sefirah of Tiferet – because there are even higher levels for those wishing to climb the ladder of success in balanced growth.

The story is told regarding Rabbi Saadia HaGaon, the outstanding Torah leader of the 9th century. One evening a student of his came over to visit his Rebbe and caught him by surprise! Rabbi Saadia was rolling in the snow (a practice upheld by many great Rabbis wishing to purify themselves by experiencing the pain of the cold in order to numb the body to physical desires.) The student was amazed and asked his Rebbe what he was doing! "Rebbi, Rebbi," he cried out, "Have you G-d forbid performed transgressions that require such afflictions? And if you can assume you have done something so bad that it requires such afflictions to atone for, what will become of us whose every-days are filled with an abundance of forbidden things since our youth? What are you doing rolling in the snow?!"

Rabbi Saadia replied that indeed he had never ever done any sins that required such atonement as rolling in the freezing snow. Rabbi Saadia explained to the pupil that he had however learned about the necessity to do this from a manager of an inn. Rabbi Saadia related a story that had happened to him. "I had once gone out of town and had lodged by an inn where the manager had not known who I was. The manager had treated me as he would any guest in the inn, making sure he had his basics, from food to lodging etc. but certainly no more honour was given to me than would be to any regular client. Suddenly the news got out that I was in town, and those who knew who I was became flocking to attend to me and to greet me. Men – Torah scholars, women and children all came through and began praising me and serving me."

"The manager of the inn – after realising that I must have been some sort of important personality came over to me and apologised for the way he had treated me!"

"Had I only known who you were," he said, "I would have granted you all the respect due to you. I would have served you faster. I would have brought you better food, a better bed! I would have made sure to honour you accordingly in whatever way I could have to make your stay an easier one, a more comfortable one and a more dignified one."

"From that moment on, the manager began treating me with even more respect in accordance with his ability to do so."

"When I wanted to take leave, the manager came over and began crying and weeping, begging my forgiveness for the way in which he had behaved towards me before knowing who I was. I asked him how he could think all this, after all, he had treated me in the best possible way he could from the moment I had entered the inn. He replied that he had only treated me as he would treat any guest, but that had he only known who I was, he would have gone to even more effort – spared nothing – to make sure I got even better service from him, even above the norm!"

"And so," the managed continued, "I must beg your forgiveness on the little honour I had at first given you – as I had not known who you really were!"

"These words entered and penetrated the innermost parts of my heart as I considered what was being said… If for the sake of the honour of people – of flesh and blood, he had fallen in front of me crying and supplicating that I should forgive him regarding the past, then all the more so when it comes to the Creator of the entire world that I have known well – and yet I now know even better than I did before."

"And so my own service towards Him – my love and fear of Him are even greater in accordance with my recognition of Him now. So I now regret the past and supplicate and request from Him – and I afflict myself with these afflictions that He should forgive me on the little I have done to serve Him. My love and fear of Him have been so small, and my service to Him have been so little in comparison with the way I now understand how great He truly is and even more so as I realise how much I must still learn about Him to serve Him even more so! The more I learn, the more I realise how little I had known of Him before, and how much I must now serve Him even more!"

"For this, I constantly regret my service towards Him as I realise that as time goes on, I must serve Him even more so than I had from before… and must do Teshuva even upon the Teshuva I have already done as I realise just how great He truly is!"

Truth is true wherever it is. Beauty is beauty wherever it is. But when one comes to appreciate – even more so – the greatness of another, the greatness of G-d, then one has to add even more to the Tiferet – the truth and beauty that one has already acquired.

The Middah for the 17th day of the Omer (Tov!) is one which shouts out loudly… Even when you have reached truth… even when you have reached the perfection… even when you have reached balance, realise there are even higher levels within this balance, more perfection within the perfection, more beauty in the beauty and even more truth within the truth itself. There is no end to truth, because G-d – who is Truth, is infinite Himself.

Our duty is to search for the good, the perfection, the truth and the balance. But even when we think we've mastered it, we must realise that there are even further deeper levels to attain. Tiferet SheBeTiferet… Balance of Balance – Mercy of Mercy – Beauty of Beauty – Truth of Truth.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Speaking of Lashon Hara (Evil Slander...)

"It's just talk," you might say. "What harm does it really do?" you might think. "Am I physically hurting anybody?" you might compromise – as you consider whether there really is any problem in speaking about someone else. Let us not be mistaken in thinking just how much damage that particular vessel just below our noses can actually do. It does not just contain a soft piece of flesh that seems to babble away at most of life's futilities. Rather, that small piece of flesh can literally kill people – faster than a gun. It's sharper than a sword!

For this reason the Torah devotes a good share of two Parshiyot (Tazria-Metzora) to the consequences of evil slander. The experience had by the one "caught out" is by no means pleasant (and perhaps even a little embarrassing!) – having first to be inspected by a Kohein to check the reason as to why certain lesions and the like begin to grow on his body, to having to be put in quarantine for possible "infection," to ultimately having to spend "good time" by oneself (an appropriate punishment for one who cannot do anything better in life than to slander all other people,) in a state of impurity waiting for healing from G-d.

Is it really that bad – we continue to ask, if one just tells another about someone else? Or does it matter if one just shares a story about what one person said to the other about someone else – or what one person saw another doing when they were out shopping?! We only want their best – and we feel justified in letting all and sundry know the "deficiencies" of the other – from the level of their wealth, to the way they look physically, to the way they speak or move about, let alone how wise or foolish they may be. Speaking about the activities they're up to and what they're saying about others and sharing all of that with yet others – is surely just a part of life to keep society normal… to be fair to everyone and let everyone else know what should be the entitled privacy of every individual person?!

And then, there are again many "authorities" who already know all the laws of Lashon Hara after having already attended a one hour Shiur explaining what it's all about.  They may even tell you they already know what Lashon Hara – evil slander – is. They know it, and what they're about to say – is the exception – the part that's permitted to be said.

Yet the Chofetz Chaim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir HaKohen Kagan 1839-1933) compiled a number of intensive works devoted to this subject – notably his main work "Chafetz Chaim" – after which he was named for always. Who is the man who desires life? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit! In his work, he lists not only the detailed laws involved, but points out clearly that one may come to violate 17 negative commandments and 14 positive commandments with each word of evil slander one says about another – let alone the numerous curses one brings upon oneself for doing so.

Ask anyone who has been harmed by the effects of harmful evil slander said "in jest" by "friends" and you'll find out that many have lost out on opportunities to marry, to succeed in business – or even just get a job to be able to support themselves and live! Let alone those whose entire families have been ostracised from the "normal" Jewish community as a result of the "truth" being said. At least we're not alone… it's not only our thinking that this is real. The Chafetz Chaim continues to reiterate these points page after page in his work(s) detailing the harmful effects that occur every single moment a bad word is said about another (or even what many consider a "good word".) It's must reading for every single Jew. In fact, learning just two laws a day will take 4 months to cover the work. Then of course there are the other works to get through… And, one must revise, revise and revise! 

While eating a non-Kosher piece of meat may only incur one or two negative commandments – consider that each word of slander said about your "fellow Jew" costs a total of some 31 transgressions. It's kind of like watching the one-arm bandit machine at the casino when one hits the jackpot… the figures on the screen multiply in leaps and bounds in seconds! Here, however, while those figures go up – they're not going up for the good.

Let's just take one example of the disaster that occurs when one "harmlessly" says something about someone to someone else. It falls into the category of Rechilus – another section of evil slander where one goes about sharing the latest updates about others to those who we feel may be interested in hearing them. From the example, we should do well to appreciate that any form of negative and evil slander, whether about another to another, or whether a story about the happenings of someone else is bound to have ripple effects – such that can lead to consequences and results that may even be life threatening!

The Chofetz Chaim calls this incident an "Oys Firn" in the Yiddish vernacular – something that could be translated as "An out-lead" – or to rephrase that, the "real effect" of that "harmless" comment said without caring where it would go to.

The Chofetz Chaim tells us just how many transgressions we commit and just how far reaching the effects are from a simple story:

Reuven starts to tell Shimon: "Levi spoke about you to me such and such." Immediately Reuven transgresses the Mitzvah of, "Do not go around as a tale bearer amongst your nation," as well as other positive and negative Mitzvot. Shimon believes what Reuven says (and he know transgresses the negative of, "Don't believe a false report" and other positive and negative commandments.)

Afterwards when Shimon meets Levi he begins to blaspheme and insult him (and thereby transgresses the negative, "Let no man taunt and hurt their fellow with words".) Can it be that just because he accepted these words of evil slander and believes that he (Levi) had spoken evil slander about him that he now believes it has become permitted for him to hurt the other back?!

Now, Levi stands in amazement! For what reason are you cursing me? Until Shimon answers him angrily, "Why did you insult me in front of Reuven? Did you think I wouldn't come to find out? Surely Reuven would come to tell me! (And he transgresses also the negative, "Do not go around as a tale-bearer…" which relates to things that are spoken in truth. And he answers him and says, "Could it be that Reuven lied to me about you and that it was for nothing that he told me about you insulting me?"

Afterwards when Shimon encounters Reuven, his inclination incites him even more to finish off the matter on a good note! So he says to him, "Because of your lies, I was incited to tell off Levi for nothing! And he told me that there never were such things ever!" (He never said such things about me and you lied!)

So one sin leads to another...  Reuven now says to Shimon, "Come with me and you'll see that I will say these things directly to his face!" As things turn out, life has a way that those who wish to make themselves impure – get given the opportunity to – so he goes along with him and meets up together with Levi, and Shimon says to Reuven, "Okay, tell it to his face now!" So he clothes himself in the garment of arrogance and says, "You spoke about Shimon in front of me such and such (and now he transgresses yet again "Do not go about as a tale-bearer…" even though it's the truth!)

Immediately Levi turns ash-white (and now Reuven transgresses yet again – this time by the Mitzvah of, "Do not bear sin on account of him.") And Levi answers, "You have spoken the truth. But I never said these things using the tone of your voice and the way you are saying them now." As is known a number of things can change from just one movement.

Shimon answers, "Now, even if you deny this 1000 times, I can never believe you (Levi) since he said these things in front of you! (And he transgresses also on "Do not believe a vain report.)

Can it be that just because this evil fellow clothes himself in a garment of arrogance and says it in front of him that suddenly the prohibition of believing a false report can simply fall away?!

Here we have just a small example of just how many transgressions can come about through the love of this terrible attribute! Had Reuven only just gone in the ways of G-d, he would have simply kept quiet and (at best) would have simply suspected that perhaps Shimon had lied about Levi and not have to have actually gone together with Shimon to Levi and then to add sins upon his first sin.

When we study Torah – we must be prepared to want to grow. Part of growth, part of a healthy society, is the ability to see each person for what they are and doing our best to help each person at the place that they find themselves. Evil slander is simply our way of telling ourselves – and G-d – and others, that there really is nobody in the world greater than ourselves. If this is truly how we think, then the afflictions brought upon the slandered – the lesions and strange bald spots are simply G-d's way of letting us know that there really is no better place for ourselves than to sit – away from people with our faces covered all day and night – as we call out to the world and anyone else who has the displeasure of being in our immediate vicinity, "Tamei Tamei" – I am impure… I am impure.

Tuesday, 13 April 2010

Good Manners... Before Torah!

During the weeks between Pesach and Shavuot we concentrate a part of our learning on the teachings of Pirkei Avot – Ethics of Our Fathers. These 6 chapters of Mishnayot (teachings) deal with everyday life for the "everyday" type of person. There's no need to be a serious Torah scholar to master these teachings. Yet even the greatest Torah student should be involved in internalizing the powerful messages revealed and hidden in these global essentials of life.

There is no Talmud to the teachings of Pirkei Avot. There are no arguments of the general give and take found in the Talmud. One finds only the simply teachings of what life is and should be all about. In fact, were these teachings not actually included in the Torah, even the "average" person could come to realize their importance on their own. Such a person would even think these values as simply just "the right thing!"

We might ask ourselves though – why it is here, at this point in time, that we concentrate on these teachings. We could learn these teachings any time of the year. Why do we concentrate on them at this particular period of the Jewish year?

Many of us are quick to forget – even though our entire purpose of counting the Omer is to awaken us to it – that we left Mitzrayim (Egypt) to enter the Land of Israel. Through our journey to Egypt, we would ultimately become the nation we were destined to become. From being slaves of Pharaoh, we were to become "slaves" of G‑d Himself. But the journey and the transition from one master to Another would not just take time, it would also take knowing what would be required to make the transition a successful one. Though on our way to Israel – there was one important stop along the way. Just 50 days after leaving Egypt, we would receive the Torah itself. This day would be celebrated as Shavuot – the day that we received the Torah.

49 days of another kind of journey were experienced even before the actual receiving of the Torah. Likewise, as we move across from the festival of Pesach to the festival of Shavuot, we journey through these 49 days each year. During this time we concentrate on these special teachings of Pirkei Avot.

Pirkei Avot teaches us about simple life manners. Certainly, having one's fork on the left side of the plate, and knife on the right may well be important. Opening the door for a lady to walk through first may well indicate proper etiquette in life (though it's highly unlikely this would ever have reached a real Torah standard!) Not leaving the dinner table before everyone has finished their meal may also indicate upright conduct and one that should be upheld by all… And sitting up straight when eating may certainly show dignified table manners! But it's more.

From the way we greet each other (this includes an actual "Good Day" to a fellow man we may pass by on the street) to throwing our garbage in the bin (and not having to feel it's someone else' job to do) – to acknowledging that someone else might actually know more than we do and humbling ourselves to their wisdom. From considering our own worth in this world – and preparation to the next to appreciating the value of another human being – whoever they may be. From respecting another driver on the road, to acknowledging that our friend's money is as important to them as ours is to us! From simply being polite and non-judgmental of everybody else in the world, to being able to consider that when wrongs were done – there is always room to allow for forgiveness. The concepts are of course infinite!

It's about good manners and being a decent human being. Etiquette?!  Humbled behaviour and a recognition of others may be a more suited expression. It takes the artificiality out of societies norms and puts an emphasis on being a decent human being.

Eliyahu HaNavi (Elijah the Prophet) in the very first chapter of his teachings (Tana Devei Eliyahu) teaches us that "Proper conduct comes before Torah." If one is truly interested in acquiring Torah (which takes 48 ways to obtain), one cannot even begin to approach this task, unless one precedes the undertaking with the acquisition of being a decent human being. 

Though water can cause beautiful plants and tress to grow – this is only true when the seeds are suitable from the beginning. As for weeds, watering them will produce nothing less than bigger weeds! Those expecting sweet smelling roses after watering their weeds, may find themselves sadly disillusioned when they see just what has grown!

So too does the Torah produce the person who is ready to accept it. If this person has refined themselves and is already a fine human being, then the Torah will refine him further elevating him to the level of angels. But the "Torah scholar" (even when dressed in the finest garments sporting the longest beard) who has not yet understood the value of good behaviour will amount to nothing more (in the long run) than a bigger weed. 

Though the Torah scholar may be filled with the holiest of books in his "insides', a trip to the Mikvah accompanied by pushing every other person, throwing one's garbage on the floor, and literally kicking another out of the shower so that *they* can shower will do little to show the value of what the Torah is doing to him. If anything, it clearly points to his inconsistency in understanding that the Mikvah – the place he wishes to visit to pure himself – has become a place of much impurity!

Torah can only be acquired if one has first mastered the basics of decent human behaviour. Since Shavuot is a time of receiving the Torah, we are granted 7 weeks first, in which to spend learning about simple decent conduct, so that we can be prepared to receive the Torah and grow as human beings. Therefore there is no greater time period to begin learning these teachings than the period leading to Shavuot – the time of receiving the Torah. Derech Eretz Kadmah LaTorah. Proper behaviour – proper human conduct and respect – precedes Torah. You don't need to be a giant of a scholar to understand this… but you must at least be a decent human being.

Monday, 12 April 2010

28 Nissan 5751... Bring the Redemption - NOW!

On the eve of Nissan 28, 5751 (April 11, 1991), the Lubavitcher Rebbe issued an emotional call to his followers, and to the world Jewish community, to increase their efforts to bring Moshiach and the ultimate redemption. Spoken in an anguished voice and couched in uncharacteristically personal terms, the Rebbe's words deeply shocked the Chassidim present in the Rebbe's synagogue and reverberated worldwide. "How is it that the Redemption has not yet been attained?" the Rebbe cried. "That despite all that has transpired and all that has been done, Moshiach has still not come? What more can I do? I have done all I can to bring the world to truly demand and clamor for the Redemption...The only thing that remains for me to do is to give over the matter to you. Do all that is in your power to achieve this thing--a most sublime and transcendent light that needs to be brought down into our world with pragmatic tools... I have done all I can. I give it over to you. Do all that you can to bring the righteous redeemer, immediately! I have done my part. From this point on, all is in your hands..."

For more on what the Rebbe said that day; for more about the Redemption, Moshiach and what you should know and how you can help make it a reality, see "Sound the Great Shofar."


Sunday, 11 April 2010

The Value of One Pita...

What's a Pita worth to you? How about if it were during Pesach? What takes precedence in your mind then (Pesach or Pita?) Is it just "days gone by" when the Jewish people simply had to follow the Torah's rules, or are they relevant to us today? Could the eating of one Pita really make the difference in anyone's life today - even if it were being eaten on Pesach?! How many lives could we possibly save - how much goodness could we bring into the world - if we simply refrained from eating a Pita on Pesach? How many lives could actually be destroyed from eating a Pita on Pesach?!

Do we ever stop to consider the real ramifications of our strength in following the Torah as a guide in life - as opposed to the often detrimental consequences from going against it (G-d forbid)? So many of us are crying out for a better world. STOP THE WARS... we shout out. 

The Torah is our ultimate guide to life. In fact, eating a Pita on Pesach can well make the difference to the lives of thousands... That choice (when it comes to eating that Pita then), a choice which shows an apathetic attitude to acknowledging that there really is a Creator of the world can truly mark the difference of bringing life into this world - or G-d forbid, taking it away.

The following story was recently written up in a newsletter of Manhigut Yehudit.

"In the first Lebanon War in 1982, the IDF essentially forced the PLO terror organization out of Lebanon and into exile in Tunisia. The PLO was in complete disarray. One of the prisoners in the Israeli detention camp, Ansar, was a senior terrorist, admired by his henchmen. His name was Salah Taamari and he was a broken man.

In the book about Taamari, Mine Enemy, penned by Israeli journalists Amalia and Aharon Barnea, Taamari told Barnea of the transformation he underwent in Ansar. While in prison, he had completely despaired of any hope that the Palestinians would one day realize any of their territorial dreams. He was ready to renounce the struggle and was well on the way to convincing his prison-mates that they would never defeat Israel. 

Then, one Passover, he witnessed a Jewish prison guard eating a pita. Taamari was shocked, and asked his jailer how he could so unashamedly eat bread on Passover. 

The Jew replied: "I feel no obligation to events that occurred to my nation over 2,000 years ago. I have no connection to that." 

That entire night Taamari could not sleep. He thought to himself: "A nation whose members have no connection to their past, and are capable of so openly transgressing their most important laws, has cut off all its roots to the Land." 

He concluded that the Palestinians could, in fact, achieve all their goals. From that moment, he determined "to fight for everything - not a percentage, not some crumbs that the Israelis might throw us - but for everything. Because opposing us is a nation that has no connection to its roots, which are no longer of interest to it." 

Taamari goes on to relate how he shared this insight with "tens of thousands of his colleagues, and all were convinced." 

Taamari did indeed convince his co-terrorists and breathed new life into the war against Israel. It is hard to exaggerate the damage done by the pita in the mouth of just one Israeli prison guard on the holiday of Passover."

Today's modern "leaders" of Israel are comfortable dining out and keeping "good" company with the rest of the "leaders" of the world - even if it means eating completely non-Kosher. Isn't the main thing to simply fit it, be a part of modern society? Why be different?! Surely we need to show our ability to easily integrate into the lifestyles of others - to become mixed with them, to follow their ways. Surely this will bring peace?

So, what's the value of a Pita to you? Can it make the difference between life and death? Can it make the difference in making this world a better place? That decision, I leave for the reader.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Counting the Days of Our Lives... Or Making the Days of our Lives Count?

The days between Pesach and Shavuot are celebrated each with their own particular Mitzvah unique to them. Though the Hebrew month of Iyar lacks any particular distinctive Mitzvah to itself, its days are celebrated each with a count to itself… another day, another number.

Counting the Omer is a Mitzvah of the Torah, "You shall count for yourselves from the day following the day of rest, from the day on which you bring the Omer as a wave-offering; [the counting] shall be for seven full weeks. Until the day following the seventh week shall you count fifty days" (Leviticus 23:15-16). Though in today's times, without a Beit HaMikdash (Temple) the issue of the counting being a Torah Mitzvah as opposed to a Rabbinal Mitzvah is much disputed. The essence of the Mitzvah, however, is not lost – whichever way we look at it.

On the first day – we must count that "Today is one day of the Omer". We continue this way until the weeks begin when we add the term "week" on the seventh day, "Today is 7 days, which is one week of the Omer." The Mitzvah is no light matter either. One should do the counting at the closest possible time to nightfall (Tzeitz HaKochavim). One should not even eat before counting – so important is this Mitzvah. One should do everything possible to see to it that one count every single evening until the night (inclusive) preceding the night when Shavuot falls out. Even then, one must wait until complete nightfall before beginning the Maariv (evening prayers) service before praying the Shavuot prayers.

But what is the point of all the counting? Why the excitement in mentioning days and weeks?! If we would at least have the opportunity to blow the Shofar, shake a Lulav, eat Matzah or something tangible – at least this would give us something to really look forward to. What could be accomplished by a simple count?

When Sarah died, the Torah states, "And Sarah's lifetime was one hundred years, twenty years and seven years – the years of Sarah's life" (Genesis 23:1). Rashi points out, "All of them were equal in goodness." The fact that the Torah breaks her life into segments hints to another lesson – says Rashi. It hints to the fact that no matter what part of her life she was at – everything was good. Each part of her life was fulfilled with something good. Every segment, every century, every decade, every individual year… every single day was filled with meaning and goodness.

King David sets the tone as he sings, "The length of our years are seventy years, and with strength eighty" (Psalms 90:10). And Shmuel Hakatan (the Small One – because of his deep modesty) used to say, "At 5 years of age, the study of scripture (should be begun); at ten – the study of Mishna; at thirteen – the obligation of Mitzvot; at fifteen – the study of Gemara; at eighteen – marriage; at twenty – pursuit of a livelihood; at thirty – full strength (is reached); at forty – understanding; at fifty (the qualification) to give counsel; at sixty – old age; at seventy – ripe old age; at eighty – (a sign of special) strength; at ninety – the body is stooped; at one hundred – it is as if he were dead, passed away and ceased from the world. (Pirkei Avot 5:22)

The Torah takes the theme of the days of one's life a serious matter indeed. Years are important – and crucial to real life growth. The days of one's life are no less important, each impacting, building up and creating our years.

Yet as time passes (only too quickly) we find ourselves lost in a world of a 7-7 daytime (nighttime?) job, exhaustion at the end of the day, the need to eat, take care of our bodies and get a good night's rest (if only we can!) before the next whirlwind of a day begins. And for what? To simply receive the salary check in order to be able to continue our lives… until we leave the world.

Sarah's life was one of meaning. Each day counted. King David felt no less when it came to realizing and calculating just how long one could live for. And Shmuel Hakatan felt the need to clarify for each of us the importance of accomplishing what must be accomplished – when it must be done! Though one may try to run away, the obligations of real life growth stare each of us in the face – day and night!

But are we keeping a count of our days? Have the days of our lives turned more into a soap opera that goes on ad infinitum even when the old characters die? Do we look for substitutes to take the "old roles" when we simply need to keep the program running? Or are the days of our lives real?! Do we fill them with something worthwhile – or have they simply turned into a rut of life filled with nothing greater than eating, drinking, sleeping and working (for someone else who is no less dependent on his boss (Boss!) than we are of him (Him!)?

How are we ever to come to terms with the reality of life if we don't even stop to consider that a day has passed? One more day closer to the final day that each of us leaves this world?! Our Sages teach us that before going to sleep each night – that in addition to the complete Shema with additional Psalms and prayers, every person should make a complete accounting of his life that day. One should go through (whether aloud – ideally – or even in one's own head) everything one did that day. One should consider the interactions one had with others, the good and it's opposite. One should consider how one treated others, and how one grew oneself. One should consider how much time one gave the Giver of all life. It can take hours to do of course… but if we can just offer a few minutes each day to considering our lives that day, what a huge difference this will make in turning us into meaningful living people.

Making the Cheshbon Hanefesh (the soul accounting) each day is a huge task indeed. But it does begin somewhere. It begins by realizing that every day counts. It begins by realizing that each day that goes by is another day with its opportunity for growth – and another day closer to one's finale in this world. It's a special time each night as we consider just where exactly we are in our lives.

We can spend the day contemplating where we are in life in general. For many of us, just to get to that stage in life – of taking it seriously – can take years of work! But for those of us who believe in the simplicity of the Torah, we need only but look at a simple Mitzvah which seems really quite ordinary – counting the Omer. Though it seems like nothing much is accomplished, that count may well bring us to realizing that every part of life counts. Each day counts for something – and we need recognize it as such. Of course, if we're not yet ready for the intensive soul accounting, we can at the very least – each day – before entrusting our souls to our Creator as we go to sleep – turn around and realize that as a start – as a very beginning point, each of us needs to begin counting. To begin realizing that the day gone by has amounted to something (whichever way it went) – and another day will come tomorrow – one more day closer to that final goal.. We must make it count! Once we realize the value of a day, we have opened for ourselves the opportunity for real life growth.


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