Thursday, February 28, 2019

The Ascent of Sin

"He forgives sins.... " [Vayakhel 34:7]

The word for "forgive" here literally means "carry" or "lift". Based on this, the Baal Shem Tov taught that G-d elevates the sparks of holiness in the sin, for nothing - not even a sin - could exist unless it contained a spark of holiness. G-d returns them to their source. This is the essence of forgiveness.

Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi explained this idea as follows: It is indeed impossible to elevate a sinful act; such an act is evil, and the only proper treatment for it is to denounce it. 

In contrast, the power of desire vested in the act is not evil, for it is possible to utilize this power to desire good as well as evil. When we repent properly, we divest our power of desire of its veneer of evil and restore it to its holy source.

from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Adapted by Moshe-Yaakov Wisnefsky

Friday, February 22, 2019

Ki Tissa: When Bad Things Happen to Good People

by Chanan Morrison

After Moses succeeded in petitioning God to forgive the Jewish people for the sin of the golden calf, he made an additional request from God: “If You are indeed pleased with me, allow me to know Your ways” [Ki Tissa 33:12]

 What exactly did Moses desire to know? The Talmud (Berachot 7a) explains that Moses wanted to understand the age-old problem of reward and punishment in this world:

“Master of the Universe, why is it that some righteous people prosper, while others suffer? Why do some wicked people prosper, and others suffer?”

Two Factors

According to Rabbi Yossi, God fulfilled Moses’ request. The Talmud initially explains that anomalies in divine justice in this world are the result of ancestral merit. A righteous person whose parents were wicked may undergo suffering in this world, while a wicked person whose parents were righteous may be rewarded.

However, the Sages were not satisfied with this explanation. Why should a righteous person who rejected his parents’ evil ways be punished? He should be rewarded doubly! The Sages concludes that if there are righteous who suffer, it must be because they are not fully righteous. (This is usually understood that they are punished in this world to atone for their sins so that their reward in the next world will be complete.) Similarly, the wicked who prosper must not be totally evil. They receive reward in this world for the few merits they do possess.

(The Talmud also mentions an additional factor, called “Afflictions of Love.” Even a perfectly righteous individual may suffer in this world in order to gain additional reward in the afterlife.)

Upon inspection, we discover that these two mitigating factors - ancestral merit and incompleteness of righteousness or wickedness - are interrelated. All actions may be broken up into two categories. Some actions are performed purposely, by choice; while others - the majority - are done without thought, but by habit or training. For a righteous person from a righteous family, good deeds come naturally. He does not need suffering in order to refine his soul. The righteous individual born in a wicked family, on the other hand, must work harder. His good deeds are a conscious effort, going against his education and natural bent. He therefore needs the refinement that comes from suffering in order to perfect his character traits.

The wicked person who hails from a righteous family is naturally helpful to others, and may have inherited many other positive character traits. Therefore, his portion in life is good, as he contributes to the world. But the wicked who comes from a wicked family is usually an utterly evil person. His lot in life is made difficult and unstable, in order to limit the damage that he may cause in the world.

Beyond Our Grasp

The Talmud records a second opinion, Rabbi Meir, who disagreed with Rabbi Yossi. According to Rabbi Meir, God did not fulfill Moses’ request to explain the mechanics of suffering and reward in this world. The complex calculations of how much of our actions is a function of free will, and how much is due to society, education, and family background - belong to the Creator alone. The knowledge needed in order to understand divine justice in this world is beyond the grasp of all humans - even the master of all prophets, Moses.

[Gold from the Land of Israel (now available in paperback), pp. A 162-163. Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, p.32]

Monday, February 18, 2019

Sparking Joy

I have embarked on an early Pesach spring clean.  Inspired by Marie Kondo [who has become incredibly popular here] I have been tossing out the bad and tidying up the good.

Marie Kondo has taught us how to tidy up our homes using JOY.  Basically, if an object doesn't spark joy, then  you throw it out.  This includes clothing, books, kitchen ware, furniture.... anything you own.  [A friend jokingly said that her husband is no longer sparking joy, so he may have to go too!]

It occurred to me that it's not only the things in our homes that should be sparking joy.  It's also the things we think about and speak.  If a thought does not spark joy, throw it out.  Replace it with something that does spark joy.  If you are about to speak badly of someone, that should not spark any joy at all, so try and replace that topic with something else that does spark joy.  Try to be someone who sparks joy for others - complaining and whinging is not joyful for anybody.

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Rabbi Kessin Update on Current Events

Rabbi Kessin speaks about the political situation in Israel, and also about the "Erev Rav''.  Highly recommended listening !

Monday, February 11, 2019

Favoritism in Heaven is Acquired Down Here

by Rabbi David Hanania Pinto

"You shall make vestments of sanctity for Aharon" [Tetzaveh 28:2]

Going about our daily life, we encounter many different sorts of people. There are the successful ones and the ones who constantly fail; those who are energetic and those who take life easy. There are people who are greatly respected and those who are less valued. There are also people who have 'connections' - children of important personalities or famous askanim; they are the ones who can resolve almost any predicament, with minimum time and effort…

This latter group is in a special category; everything falls into place for them almost by itself - they find work easily, they have friends in all the right places, they are accepted in the best educational institutions, and in the Beit Haknesset too they are accorded all the honors. The cherry on the cake is that when they need to deal with an issue in a government office, or sort out a problem with the local council they enjoy special treatment; lengthy procedures are carried out with alacrity and in a most efficient manner and they also receive all kinds of benefits…

But in heaven, Rabbi Osher Kovlesky shlita enlightens us, there is no such thing. All people are considered equal and are judged according to their deeds alone. Benefits are bestowed on those who have earned the merit. But there is nevertheless one group, a special 'elite' group, whose members do enjoy special reprieve in heaven. They are dealt with lightly, processes are shortened for them, they are assisted in closing their case, and their sins are bypassed. They automatically merit lenient treatment, not down in this world but in heaven – the place where it matters the most…

How does one join this club? It is open to one and all. One's country of origin makes no difference, nor does one's financial status. Those who enjoy special benefits in heaven, those who merit efficient service in the most valuable place - are those who give in to others, those who show submission. They behave with restraint, know how to defer to others and to be flexible and they know how to yield even when they truly deserve something.

Chazal have revealed a wonderful concept: "המעביר על מידותיו" – one who yields and doesn’t take a stand over offenses that were done to him, "he is forgiven for all his sins" – he merits heavenly assistance to fully repent. His repentance is given priority, he is treated with reprieve when seeking to erase debts and sins, and the focus is on judging his merits.

But one moment, how can this be? In heaven, nothing is overlooked. Heaven reckons every word that comes out of our mouths and every sight that we gaze at; a careful note of our every deed is recorded, "for all these things G-d will call you to account" [Kohelet 11:9]?

This is certainly correct - if we too behave according to the strict law and we are most particular about everything that others do to us! But, if we know how to yield and we are prepared to behave beyond the strict letter of the law, then in heaven we will merit the same attitude: we will be rewarded with abundant merits which will glide over our sins.

In this parsha we are told about the garments of the kohanim, the special clothing that Ahron and his sons wore. Aharon HaKohen "loved peace and pursued peace". This was his essence. He was a person who exuded peace and went out of his way to make peace between others and to increase peace and brotherhood. One of the most effective tools for increasing peace and friendship is to adopt the trait of giving way, to forgo and forfeit. We should firmly resolve that we are prepared to flee from all strife and peace is our priority, even if this means forgoing in any way.

The next time someone takes our place in the line, or takes advantage of us in any way for example by blocking our air or light, or parking in our private space – we can be right and make sure that he doesn’t get away with it, but it is much more worth it to be clever - to surrender and show restraint, to move on. At that moment we may seem weak in other people's eyes, but right then all our books of debt will be opened in Heaven, and entire pages will be deleted without batting an eyelash. We will merit special benefits and alleviations, which will cause our repentance to be accepted willingly and with ease. It could be that the person will again park in your space, and it is totally correct that someone insulted you so deeply that there is no way you are going to help him, and maybe the neighbor's extension blocks your light – but it is so much more worth it to merit a stream of benefits in heaven! To forgo and receive preferential treatment in the place where life itself is determined, is of much greater worth!

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Vayelech Eisav....

Photo by the Cheeky Scrub Wren and it has nothing to do with the blog post :)

Big HT to Yeranen Yaakov for this one

וַיֵּלֶךְ עֵשָׂו, אֶל-יִשְׁמָעֵאל  -   So Esau went unto Yishmael

Pope meets with UAE leaders

Monday, February 4, 2019

The Book of Remedies

by Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum

At one of the most critical junctures of Jewish history, with Assyrian King Sennacherib's vast army closing in on Jerusalem, Hezekiah King of Judah suddenly fell mortally ill. His entire body was covered with horrible sores. The prophet Isaiah came to him and said, "Thus says the Lord: Set your house in order, for you will die and not live" (Isaiah 38:1; Kings II, 20:1).

With God's prophet telling him to make his will and prepare to die, a lesser man might have given up the fight. Not Hezekiah. He had a tradition from his ancestor, King David: "Even if a sharp sword is pressing on your neck, don't despair of pleading for God's mercy" (Berakhot 10a).

The Midrash throws light on the meaning of Hezekiah's illness. "Rabbi Levi said: Hezekiah mused, `It isn't good for people to enjoy constant good health until the day they die. This way they'll never think of repentance. But if they fall sick and then recover, they'll come to repent their sins.' God said to Hezekiah, `This is a good idea. And I'll start with you!'" (Bereshit Rabbah 65:9).

Hezekiah saw that illness can have a positive side if it prompts us to examine ourselves. What have we been doing with our lives? How have we been using our bodies? What is our true purpose in this world? How can we attain it?

As Hezekiah lay in mortal danger, he asked the prophet where he had gone astray. Isaiah explained that he had failed to carry out the first commandment of the Torah, to be fruitful and multiply. Hezekiah said this was because he had seen with holy spirit that his offspring would be unworthy. But Isaiah said this was not his business: he had an obligation to have children. Hezekiah understood his mistake and undertook to marry and have children.

That sickness is a prompt from God to examine ourselves was a lesson Hezekiah, spiritual leader of his people, had long wanted to teach. The point is brought out in a rabbinic comment on Hezekiah's prayer as he lay sick: "I did what is good in Your eyes." Enumerating Hezekiah's achievements during his reign, the Rabbis said he was alluding in his prayer to two major innovations: he "joined Redemption to Prayer, and he put away the Book of Remedies" (Berakhot 10b; Pesachim 56a).

"Joining Redemption to Prayer" literally refers to Hezekiah's institution of the rule that during the daily prayer services no interruption may be made between recital of the blessing of Redemption that follows the Shema and commencement of the silent Amidah prayer. But what about the Book of Remedies? What was it, and why did Hezekiah ban it?

Extant clay tablets and papyruses indicate that the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia and Egypt possessed a vast body of medical knowledge. Hundreds of therapeutic plant, mineral and animal substances were in use, as well as a wide variety of surgical and other treatments. It would be easy to speculate that the Book of Remedies included medical techniques borrowed from other cultures with which the Jews had contact.

On the other hand, Rabbi Shimon bar Tzemach (the TaShBaTz, 1361-1444) states that the source of the book was supernatural: when Noah was in the ark during the flood, destructive spirits injured his sons, but an angel took one of them to the Garden of Eden and taught him all the remedies in the world (Seder HaDorot #1657).

The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman of Girondi, 1194-1270) opines that the Book of Remedies was composed by Hezekiah's ancestor, King Solomon, whose God-given wisdom enabled him to deduce the healing properties of the various trees and plants from allusions buried in the Torah (Ramban, Commentary on the Torah, Introduction).

By any account, the Book of Remedies contained the accumulated healing wisdom of the Jewish People. Why then did Hezekiah put it away? It was not that the remedies were ineffective. On the contrary, in Hezekiah's view they were too effective! "When a person became sick, he would follow what was written in the book and be healed, and as a result people's hearts were not humbled before Heaven because of illness" (Rashi on Pesachim 56a). In the words of the Rambam (ad loc.): "They did not have trust that it is the Holy One, blessed be He, Who heals and binds up wounds."

Resort to the Book of Remedies turned sickness and healing into nothing but a mechanical process. Hezekiah was not seeking to withhold medical expertise because of some morbid desire to make people suffer their sicknesses to the full so as to somehow expiate their sins. Far from wanting them to be sick, Hezekiah saw that reliance on the Book of Remedies actually prevented people from being truly healed. While the remedies it contained might alleviate their bodily ailments, the very effectiveness of these physical cures allowed those who used them to avoid confronting the underlying spiritual flaws to which their bodily ailments pointed.

King Hezekiah wanted the people to understand that illness, terrible as it may be, is sent by God for a purpose. It is to prompt us to examine ourselves and our lives, to ask ourselves where we have strayed from our mission and what steps we must take in the future in order to attain genuine self-fulfilment. Concealing the Book of Remedies would encourage people to take their lives in hand and actualize their latent spiritual powers, playing an active role in their own healing process.

Putting away the Book of Remedies was thus intimately bound up with King Hezekiah's second innovation, "joining Redemption to Prayer." This was more than a technical rule of religious ritual. Hezekiah redeemed prayer itself! He taught people how to pray again. Prayer brings us to the ultimate connection with God. And precisely because prayer is so exalted, it is surrounded by endless obstacles. For many people it seems like a meaningless, tiresome burden: prayer is in exile. Hezekiah sought to tear down the barriers and reveal the new-old pathway of prayer in its true splendor.

Prayer is not just a matter of asking God for favors. It is our way to channel divine power and blessing into ourselves, our lives and the whole world. Through prayer the soul rises to God and is healed, and in turn sends healing power into the body. By truly redeeming prayer Hezekiah was able to put away the Book of Remedies. There was simply no more need for it.