Thursday, 27 February 2014

Rabbi Shlomo Elyashiv - The Last Kabbalist

Rabbi Shlomo Elyashiv (1841-27 Adar 1926) - "The Last Kabbalist" - as the Chazon Ish called him. He was not just fluent in every aspect of the kabbalistic tradition but was able to teach some of the most complicated concepts in the most simple of terms.

His most famous work is known as the "Leshem Shvo Ve'Achlama" referring to the three stones in the third row, found in the breastplate (Chosen Mishpat) that the Kohen Gadol wore. Amazingly this line from Parshat Pekudei (Exodus 39:12) - which we read this week - usually falls in the week of the Yahrtzeit or just after! 

He is the grandfather of the late Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv who was Niftar in 2012 at the age of 102! 

I have heard the following story and read it in a book - though all things considered I have questioned its authenticity. If anybody knows of the truth or falsehood of this story (and why perhaps it even came about or how) please let me know:

A story that goes back some 105 odd years is told about a lady who lived in the centre of Jerusalem. One day she was cleaning her and her husband's garments. In those days, there were no fancy washing machines nor driers. After hand-washing the items one by one taking much time, she hung them on the main outside line in the courtyard shared by many other neighbours.

A neighbour of hers who was upset by / about something cut the washing line and the freshly laundered garments fell into the dirty mud below. The lady - whose name was Chaya Moussia - picked them up one by one - only to have to clean them all again! 

When her husband returned, she said nothing of the despicable story that had occurred. 

The same day, the lady who had recklessly cut the washing line returned home to find her son with an immensely bad fever. She was in a state, and not knowing what to do, she made her way immediately to the Rabbi of Jerusalem - Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld! He enquired from her, if perhaps she had done something bad that day that may have warranted the possibility of such a punishment being imposed upon her from Above. She told the Rav that indeed she had caused much aggravation to a neighbour by soiling her washed clothing... 

He told the woman that without any delay - she was to go to the lady and ask forgiveness, and that he would go together with her. They knocked on the door and were greeted by the warm smile of Chaya Moussia. Her husband - Rabbi Avraham - came to the door as he heard some commotion going on. He asked about the visit and was told about the story that had occurred that day. 

"Do you mean to say," Rabbi Sonnenfeld asked the the husband, "that you knew nothing of the event?" The husband replied that indeed his wife had not so much as whispered a word! The wife on her side had preferred not to speak words of Lashon Hara and had kept quiet! 

So impressed was Rabbi Sonnenfeld with her behaviour and her spiritual beauty, he asked her if there was anything she needed in her life. She told him that since she was already "old in days" and not blessed with children, that she wanted only one thing... a child! 

With that, Rabbi Sonnenfeld gave his blessing and the couple were blessed shortly thereafter with a son... That son, and grandson of the Leshem - Rabbi Shlomo Elyashiv who had only one daughter - was none other than Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, the great Posek of our generation!!! (Indeed his first name was named for the Rabbi who gave the blessing!) 

Amazingly, Rabbi Shlomo had only one daughter (who it seemed would never "bear fruit",) but it is known that at the time that his grandson died, he (the grandson - Rabbi Yosef Shalom) was blessed with more than 1000 descendants!!! 

Rabbi Shlomo Elyashiv was truly one of the last of the real kabbalists around. His daughter is buried in the Sanhedria cemetery - almost right next to the Tzaddik Rabbi Aryeh Levin - whose daughter married her son! 

We go there often to pray...

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Destitute - A Meditation

A recent conversation had me thinking about a terrifying situation in life (may we not have to know of it.) The word "destitute" came up. I haven't consciously paid attention to it recently. On the contrary, words like "poor" or "lacking" - words so much more clinical in nature - are more the norm for today's society. "Destitute" on the other hand tells it all - no holds barred!

The Free Dictionary defines destitute as, "utterly lacking, devoid," and "lacking resources or the means of subsistence; completely impoverished". I was thinking of that other cruel sounding word which many "with means" are so fond of using, "indigent," to refer to someone considered to be a lost cause to the world, hopeless, and often even a waste to society (G-d forbid.) At least this is the way I've always heard it in the conversations I've been involved in.

I considered in my own mind the super abundance we seem to be living with, with most people oblivious to the reality of things. Sure in today's times, we are all poor. Nobody has any money. We're all suffering. The cliche's and platitudes continue ad nauseum. One dare never point this out to those making such original, caring statements, lest they bark up another dozen insults at the other's way of living. And then, just after their ingenious brilliance at the terrible state of life affairs, they'll continue with the importance of the next vacation they're planning for at least three weeks at the coast. They'll be sharing how their latest smartphone - just two months old, has already seen it's last - and it's time to upgrade! They might even laugh at their silliness at having dropped the last one down the toilet (a feat I have never understood,) and the necessity of purchasing a new one without delay! But the phone is not the only necessity. Today one needs the laptop (constantly updated!) for meetings, the Tablet (for ease of carrying around) and the electronic book reader - wherever one goes. All of course - for those in this senseless crazy situation of dire poverty!

I was thinking about the "greatness" of our generation today. Many commit themselves to an hour or so a day of introspective meditation. Feet folded a certain way. Hands positioned just right. Breathing - in absolute and perfect control. The relaxation is said to assist them with all of life's trials and challenges and help them to relax - so that perhaps they can get back into paragraph 3 again.

I considered the power of one of my favourite Torah books - Shaarei Kedusha (Gates of Holiness) written by Rabbi Chaim Vital and containing the secrets of some of the deepest levels of meditation available. The work may be a short one, but the effort needed in attaining these sublime levels of holiness can mean a lifetime of work. Not the kind mentioned in Paragraphs 3 or 4, but the kind related to that very word "Destitute". When one can truly understand it. When one can hear it, listen to it, and be so affected, that when one arises after having considered the total depth of despair another may feel when they are indeed destitute - that one can think of nothing less than doing whatever one can to assist them to succeed in life again - to have, just like everyone else does, to be able to live like others who do, and who themselves can become givers to others too.

Call it new-wave meditation if you like. It's something about hearing the reality of a situation. It's about being able to calm oneself enough - not for simple relaxation - but in order to listen and in order to hear the difficulty another may be going through (or if you like, to experience their joy too when the time comes!) When one arises after the session, the reality is so great, that it leaves nothing less, than the need to act in action. This is true holiness. It is true greatness. It is the most real of meditations possible because it affects oneself - and it affects another. It's not just something to think about. It's something to actually do.

Not for nothing does the Torah teach, "Action is the main thing!"

Monday, 24 February 2014

Planting a Seed - For Eternity

It's one of those strange things about life... With all the hustle and bustle of today's times, we're all focused on getting on with our own careers - you know - making whatever we're able to, so that we can take care of ourselves. The Talmud tells us the story of Choni HaMaagel - Choni the Circle-drawer who was not only famous for praying for rain when the town needed it - but was also famous for falling asleep for 70 years to awaken and find the world still carrying on as usual. The only thing that seemed to have changed was a tree that had sprouted up next to him. Some 70 years before he had "scoffed" when he noticed an old man planting a carob tree, knowing it would take some 70 years before any benefit could be had from it. When he asked the old man what in the world he was doing, because surely he wouldn't be alive at that time when real benefit could be had from it, the man answered that he was planting for the next generation - because after all, wasn't it the previous generation who planted for them to enjoy the fruits that they now eat from?!

Though we certainly must focus on ourselves, there's a far deeper message with Choni and even the cartoon above. In most instances, we'll find that much of life brings us what others have already left us. It's the greatness of the father planting a seed with his son and watering it daily that's going to count so many years later for his son. One day, there will be a large tree (with fruit too!) all thanks to the father. But the son will also have learnt a great lesson. He too must add something. Even a tree can have something more added - that will bring even further happiness for even the next generation. That son, may well add a swing for his child and attach it to the tree. I guess his child will enjoy both tree and swing, learn the lesson and find himself being able to add something even further.

It all begins with the intial seed though. It's about seeing to it, that wherever one is, that seed is planted so that the tree will grow somewhere - so that when the time comes, the next generation will have something even better. That's a great lesson a "Dad" can teach his "Son." It's a lesson for us all. We can't always do everything on our own - but with the right "inheritance" and guidance, we'll not only get to enjoy what a previous generation gave to us - but be able to give over something even greater!

Sunday, 23 February 2014

It's FREEZING! What Would You Have Done? What Would You Do?

The excuse is always what we will do "one day" that counts. We all talk about the times when we'll have the money - just how many people we will help! How many times have we heard this from others? The future is open and when the good times come - we'll be giving to everybody! Then of course, are the times when we see what others have done - and say the same thing! If we were there, then we too would have done the exact same thing!

But life is about the now. It's about doing what counts right this moment - to those who may need more than we do. What would we do right now, if we saw the situation truly needed something? Would we be there to help - or would we talk of the past - of doing what others have already done? Or perhaps we would talk of the future - of just how much we will help when we have it all (if we ever do.)

Let's see what others really do do - in this beautiful video clip. This is reality. Here are the real people of the world. Are you one of them? The situation demands immediate attention. Are we willing to give in - right away? So many do. To see it happening is an inspiration. Don't forget, you can always be one of these people. It takes courage to stand out from the crowd - to help the other when they are in need. But that's what it's really all about. It's not about discussing what work they're doing at the time, nor criticizing why it is that they're now freezing ("you made your bed...") It's about real action. It's about now. That's what's required - from every one of us. There really are no excuses - when it comes to doing an additional kindness for someone - without demanding answers - when they're suffering.

Thursday, 20 February 2014

Rabbi Yoel Sirkes - the Bayit Chadash (Bach)

Rabbi Yoel Sirkes (1561-20 Adar 1640) was known as the Bayit Chadash or better - the BaCh after the major commentary he wrote on the Arba'a Turim (the Tur - written by Rabbi Yaakov ben Rabbeinu Asher - the Rosh.) His commentary can be found on the outside of every page of the Tur.

The Tur is one of the most basic Halachic texts dealing with all aspects of Halacha as relevant today. The Tur takes into account the most essential Halachic opinions up until his day and reflects his final opinion in his own code. As the years moved on, two very important Halachic commentaries were added to the Tur - that of Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1565) known in his commentary as the Beis Yosef (House of Joesph) and also known as the author of the Shulchan Aruch and later the Bach (Bayit Chadash - the New House) - Rabbi Yoel Sirkes. The Beis Yosef details the opinions of hundreds of Rishonim (early codifiers of Halacha) as he examines every single Halacha as brought in the Tur. Later he compiled his Magnum Opus Shulchan Aruch giving a final verdict as to the opinion to follow after his immense analysis of the different opinions in the Beis Yosef.

Rabbi Srikes was not happy with the final opinion ruling system as he felt it would detract from people learning the codes as they appear in their original form. He therefore wrote his own commentary - the New House (as opposed to the House of Josef - the Beis Yosef) and then hoped all would come to learn the codes as they appear through the original opinions and analysis.

The Bach was an adherent to Kabbalah and he opposed the type of study known as Pilpul. He was also the father-in-law of the Taz (Rabbi Dovid HaLevy Segal), who wrote a major commentary on the Shulchan Aruch and who often cites his father-in-law (whether in agreement or even in sharp disagreement!)

He is considered one of the most basic and powerful leading Halachic authorities in all matters of Torah law today.

Wednesday, 19 February 2014

Appreciating Kindness and Truth

Yesterday was a big day for me as I changed the banner to my blog. It's been some time and it was worth the face lift! It got me thinking again about the beautiful values of kindness and truth - Chessed Ve'Emet (the name of our organisation) - what everybody should stand up for. The world is built on kindness - says King David (Tehillim 89:3,) and in 85:11 he says "Kindness and truth met, righteousness and peace kissed." They are the core values of life for any human being. At this time of year as we read about the building of the Tabernacle - the Mishkan - we become aware of the awesome wealth involved in order to make it what it was. And what exactly was it? It was a place for the Divine Presence to rest inside - ultimately shining Her rays into the heart of every Jew.

The Creator of the world wanted nothing less than the very best of material things - in order to rest Her Presence. More suprisingly, the Jews responded with a hearty "YES!" They all contributed. Some gold and some silver while others took part with materials. It was an awesome project that brought G-d into the world bringing blessing to all(!)

Our focus must continue in this same direction. We must admit to the beautiful values of truth - and we must be prepared to be kind - because that brings out a necessary truth in itself - one that acknowledges the need of the other - as much as we want it for ourselves. The Jews did not compromise in building the ultimate palace for G-d - and it is a lesson to  us to never slacken in contributing goodness and kindness to all others too.

Of course, if one feels one just cannot be kind - then at least do be quiet!

Someone once said that there are three sets of beautiful words that can instantly make a woman smile - "You are beautiful," "I miss you," and "I love you." They are not just for women - they will make anyone smile.  When said with meaning, these are words of kindness and they are also words of truth. It's kindness and truth that makes all the difference - to everyone.

Experience the Tabernacle. Experience the effort all went through to make it beautiful - because it is a place for G-d. So too is each individual a mini-Tabernacle needing the best of everything, the love, the kindness, the genuineness of the other and their caring.

Try it some time soon. You will see that the other will smile. 

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Forgotten Story of Irena Sendler (Guest Post)

Today you can find numerous articles, books and other materials about Irena Sendler but the Polish resistance heroine -- a woman who is credited with having saved almost 3000 Jewish lives during the Holocaust -- had been all but forgotten until 1999. Aside from a 1965 commemoration from Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile Sendler's bravery had been relegated to the dustbin of history until a group of Kansas schoolgirls, acting on a rumor, researched the story and revived interest in Sendler's actions. The project began as a school assignment but ended up being turned into a book, a website, a performance which as, to date, been viewed by tens of thousands of people from around the world. and the eventual establishment of the LMC to commemorate unrecognized heroes. 

Sendler was a young Polish social worker working for the Warsaw Department of Social Services when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. She joined Zagota, a Polish resistance underground which specialized in helping Jews escape from the Nazis. During the first year of the war Sendler assisted an estimated 500 Jews, helping them locate hiding places, secure false papers and evade the Nazi juggernaut. 

In 1940 the Nazis built a ghetto in Warsaw. The ghetto encompassed a three mile radius and close to half a million Jews were trapped in the ghetto where they were kept on starvation rations of a few hundred calories per day.  Sendler secured papers that identified her as an infectious disease specialist. These papers allowed her to freely enter and exit the ghetto.

Sendler's first forays into the ghetto involved smuggling food and medicines to the residents but she quickly realized that such smuggling activities could only prolong a few lives for a short amount of time. She considered other ways in which she could help and, in the end, decided that she would be able to aid the largest number of people by smuggling Jews out of the ghetto. Zagota agreed and asked Sendler to focus on smuggling children since it was easier to bring children out of the ghetto and easier to hide them once they had reached the Aryan side.

Sendler began to smuggle street children out of the ghetto. These were children whose parents had been deported or killed.  The children were sedated and hidden under tram seats, under garbage on garbage carts or inside toolboxes or luggage. Sendler also focused on children whose parents were still alive. She went from door to door to convince the parents to allow her take their children out of the ghetto.

These encounters were traumatic, both for Sendler and for the parents who were forced to try to decide whether to trust Sendler, or, indeed, whether their children would have a better chance of survival inside the ghetto or outside on their own. Sendler was still alive when the Kansas schoolgirls started their project in 1999 and she described to them how difficult her mission had been. "I talked the parents out of their children" she told the girls. “Those scenes over whether to give a child away were heart-rending. Sometimes, they wouldn’t give me the child. Their first question was, ‘What guarantee is there that the child will live?’ I said, ‘None. I don’t even know if I will get out of the ghetto alive today.”

Once the children had been safely removed from the ghetto Sendler and other Zagota members had to find places where the children could hide. Some were taken in by sympathetic Polish families and others were sent into hiding in orphanages and convents. Sendler recorded the names of all of the children, together with their hiding places. She wrote the information on strips of tissue paper and placed them in glass jars which she buried in her garden. She hoped that, after the war, the children could be reunited with their families or, at the very least, with the Jewish community.

In October 1943, shortly after the Germans liquidated the Warsaw ghetto, the Gestapo arrested Sendler. They  brought her to the infamous Piawiak prison and tortured her but Sendler didn't reveal any information about the childrens' whereabouts or about her Zagota comrades. The Germans sentenced Sendler to death but her Zagota comrades were able to bribe a guard and secure her release. Sendler lived out the rest of the war in hiding.

Due to the Life in a Jar project Sendler was properly recognized during her own lifetime -- she died in 2008.

--- Guest Post


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