Friday, August 9, 2013

Not Even Your Socks

The Parsha for this week - Ki Teitzei

 This World, The Next World, and Your Socks

The end was drawing near. Mr Wolf Lazerson, one 
of the richest Jews in the country was on his death bed
with all his children surrounding him. "I have two last 
requests to make," he said in a weak voice. "The first is 
that you do not read my will until the shloshim, and the 
second is that you bury me with my socks on"

"But Dad," his son protested "halacha doesn't  allow 
such a thing." "I don't care," Wolf said "that's what I want." 
No amount of convincing was going to change his mind. 
He insisted on keeping the socks on, and that was that. 
His children were disturbed knowing that their 
father insisted on doing something that he himself knew was contrary 
to halacha.

A few days later, the father was niftar and the children consulted a poseik 
who told them that their father's wish must be ignored and so he was buried 
without his socks. At the shloshim, they opened his will. "My dear Children," 
they read, "I left you a lot of money and a large estate.I wanted you to realize 
before dividing it up that in the end you can't take any of it with you 
- not even your socks. love, Dad."   and as Rabbi Dovid Kaplan concluded, 
a story like this can really knock your socks off.

In this weeks sedra, it says "VeLo takim lecha matzeva asher saneh 
Hashem Elokecha"  "and you shall not make for yourselves a pillar..."
It is brought down in Pirkei Avot, this world is compared to a corridor leading 
up to the world to come. Fix yourselves in the corridor so you can enter the 
Banquet Hall. A person needs to be constantly aware that this world is fleeting 
and temporal. One must utilize all his worldly dealings and all his physical 
necessities as a preparation for the service of G-d, for the world to come.  
Chazal often refer to "worldly pleasures" as "lecha" (literally "for yourselves")

Kedushas HaLevi teaches us that the Torah is saying "VeLo takim lecha matzeva..." 
and you shall not make the "Lecha" a pillar.  In other words, you shall not make 
your worldly pleasures into a pillar, i.e., into that which is strong, sturdy and 
everlasting, but rather, only as preparation for the world to come.

May we  merit to utilize all that Hashem gives us leTova.

The short story at the top was taken from Rabbi Dovid Kaplan's 
- Awesome for the Shabbos Table!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

The Depth of Tragedy


This is a very difficult post to write because there are so many raw emotions and opposing views on the subject that I know it may not be a very popular piece. Yet, I feel that if we look at the big picture, it will help us through what at first glance appears to be a nightmare scenario, one which makes us wonder, "What is going on?"

We have just completed the 'Three Weeks' which, in the Jewish calendar, has been known to be a time fraught with many calamities for the Jewish People. On a national level it is a time of the destruction of the first and second Temples, the foundation of Jewish spiritual life. So many horrible things happened to our people during this period that we have been instructed to be very careful throughout these days. The last nine days leading up to Tisha B'Av, the 9th of the Jewish month of Av, we treat as a time of mourning,  holding by many of the traditions attached to that sad event. So real is the danger, that we are forbidden from swimming as well.

This year, while thank G-d, there was no major catastrophe affecting the Land of Israel, several terrible events permeated our beings. One is the ever-increasing contempt and misplaced criticism between our brothers. There is so much infighting involving different sectors of society that it is hurtful to watch. We are supposed to be as one and yet we treat each other like our own worst enemy. I heard a very true statement that is quite ironic - our enemies don't differentiate between us. They are anxious and willing to annihilate all of our people; national religious, haredi, reform, secular and chassidic Jews. To them, we are one unit. And that is what we are meant to be.  The commandment to "love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18) obviously lost its meaning even to some who claim to have a fear of Heaven. Sadly, this internal strife reached a pinnacle over the past three weeks. At a time when we should strive for peace and guarding our tongues from loshon hara (evil talk and tale-bearing) instead we bring shame upon ourselves.

Then something less public and more dreadful brought us all into different corners of the ring. As if bickering over our different views would somehow bring back the three precious souls who lost their lives through parental misjudgments. Yes, three young babies in the course of two weeks left this world through pain and suffering, being left alone in the back seat of their parent's hot car. One can say the parents were negligent and failed in their responsibilities, but it is really irrelevant because the torment they will endure the rest of their lives will more than make up for any lack of civil punishment. It's difficult to imagine how one can go on after such a catastrophe. In Israel, despite the squabbling, we are as one family in agony and therefore we are all grieving. 

If we view these instances through spiritual eyes, we may still not be able to comprehend it, but we can come to an acceptance on a different level.

As much as it hurts, Hashem (G-d) decided that those infants were meant to leave this world. Each detail was predetermined so that even the amount of suffering they experienced was somehow beneficial to their neshamas (souls). We will never know or understand the reasons, but this was decreed in Shomayim (Heaven). Even the poor parents, regardless of the turn of events which led to the disaster, are destined to suffer for the remainder of their existence on earth. This too, though it is humanly impossible to fathom why, is somehow the way it was intended to be and for their ultimate good. When someone passes away, we say "Baruch Dayan HaEmet" which means, Blessed is the True Judge". We accept G-d's decision, as painful as it is. When we pass these tests in our material lives knowing that everything  He does is for the best, that is basis of emunaAcknowledging this can, with Hashem’s help, give the families the strength to go on.

My friend, Jessie, told a related story which may help clarify this concept. There was a great Tzaddik (righteous man) who was niftar (passed away) and when he went to the next world, he was judged as righteous. Just as he was about to enter Gan Eden, an accusing angel told the Heavenly Courts that he had nursed from a non-Jewish mother for two months because his own mother was ill. Therefore, he was sent back to earth and was born to a Jewish mother who nursed him for two months. Immediately, a bat kol (Divine 'voice' proclaiming G-d's Will) came from Shomayim (Heaven) and welcomed the Tzaddik to his rightful place in Gan Eden. But to the new parents of the two month old baby, they were faced with an aching loss. We have no clue. Hashem runs the world in every aspect down to the next meal of the smallest ant on a blade of grass and everything He does is for the good.

By all estimations, we are living the birth pangs of Moshiach. We are told it will be a rough ride but we must hang on with all our spiritual might. It is no coincidence that recently we have lost many holy Tzaddikim.... Torah Giants, Scholars, sinless babies plus other upright men and women who have died simply for being Jews. These excruciating sacrifices are the price we pay to bring us closer to our final Redemption. May it be G-d's will that there will soon be an end to all this heartbreak and struggle, bringing us together in song and joy to the newly rebuild Beit Hamikdash!

Forbidden Fruit


“.. of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it” (Genesis 2:17)

From the beginning of creation man’s freedom of choice has been tested. Adam was told directly by G-d Himself not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, but with a little friendly persuasion, he chose to disobey Hashem’s Will. At first glance it appears that Adam’s choice was based solely on lack of self-discipline, but how could anyone in his right mind purposely disobey the Master of the Universe? Our Sages tell us that his motives were not as dishonorable as they appear. All he wanted was to get closer to Hashem and to understand the difference between good and evil so he would be better able to live his life as G-d intended. Unfortunately for future generations, it was the wrong decision.

One mistake, one bite of one little ‘apple’, and humankind is banished from the Garden of Eden. One erroneous judgment and man was condemned to toil by the “sweat of his face” for his daily bread, woman was decreed to endure pain with childbirth and to all human beings death now became a reality. Such a seemingly innocent action held the power to generate such guilt and caused the evil inclination to reside within mankind.

Someone pointed out a very interesting idea to me the other day. We all have access to a seemingly innocuous device, namely the computer with internet access, which also has the ability to destroy one’s whole future. Hashem gave man the intelligence to construct it but it takes aTzaddik (righteous individual) to be able to back away and refuse the dangerous enticement it holds. It is no coincidence that the first mainstream personal computer, and now a major icon worldwide, was made by a company with the name, none other than: Apple. The company logo portrays the fruit of temptation with a bite out of it! This is the same fruit the world recognizes as the fruit that Adam and Eve ate. (We know from our Sages it was not actually an apple they ate, nonetheless, this is the fruit that the general public accepts). All leading Rabbis of our generation have openly declared these electronic devices to be hazardous. Overflowing with knowledge, both beneficial and harmful, it lures us into believing that it is safe and useful.

Yes, it can be. Yet, I too, diminish its danger. I am only using it for work, to earn parnassa (income) and to spread emuna, to share Torah and do kiruv (Jewish Outreach). I set limits and try not to get carried away. I tell myself that a little news story and a short scrabble game can’t hurt. I rationalize that it keeps me in touch with what’s happening in the world and allows my ever aging mind the mental exercise it needs to stay sharp.

If it would end at that, there would be no problem. But who can truthfully say that they don’t spend a minute extra doing wasteful and pointless things. This in itself is “Bitul Torah” (neglect of Torah study). Couldn’t this time also be better spent working on interpersonal relationships rather than ignoring those we care about? Once we plunk ourselves down on the chair by the computer, the yetzer hara (evil inclination) plays havoc with our desires. Just a minute more on this site and a second more reading that and before we know it, we have wasted precious hours on this hypnotic invention. And that’s not to mention the lewd and sinful options available to those who show no restraint!

With the advent of Moshiach, prophecies tell of a fight between good and evil. It will be a spiritual war between belief in Hashem, our steadfastness of emuna on one side versus those diametrically opposed to this principle on the other. Like the snake in Gan Eden (Garden of Eden), the computer, internet and all the technology of this modern world are deadly temptations feeding the venomous enemy. Snakes symbolize so many negative traits such as immorality and deceit (by way of its forked tongue). We see this clearly as the internet is full of deception with people hiding behind aliases and false intentions.

Since nothing in the world is coincidence, I will leave you with something else to think about. The Tree of Knowledge contained good and evil. We humans are constantly confronted with the choice between the two. Everything that has a negative side also has a positive aspect. That is what free will is all about.

The gematria (numerical equivalent) of the word snake, nachash, (נחש‎), is 358.
The gematria of Moshiach (משיח) is also 358.
Chet is Hebrew for sin and the gematria of the letter chet is 8.
If we take the chet (ח) out of nachash, we will have the gematria 350, which is also the gematria for keren, קרן, the ram’s horn which will one day be blown to herald the arrival of Moshiach.
So if we work together to remove the sin, the chet, from our lives by making an effort to stay off the computer and internet as much as possible, we will help bring Moshiach and the rebuilding of the Beit Hamikdash, speedily, in the coming days, amen!

Monday, January 7, 2013

Emuna Cats


I’m not really a cat lover. I do have a soft spot for animals but until we took in Reggie eight years ago, I would have never thought I would adopt a cat. I grew up with a dog and after I was married we looked after a variety of living creatures; birds, fish, hamsters, dogs and even a rabbit (against my better judgment). Then one day, I saw an ad from a friend who was trying to find homes for a litter of kittens that had been abandoned by the garbage bin. After a couple of weeks, her plea to rescue these fluffy felines finally got to me. I decided to bring home a live Chanukah gift for our kids. In fact, Reggie chose us rather than the other way around as he would not let us leave without him. 

Since learning over the years, it seems that having a pet is really not so simple in terms of halachot, purity and holiness. Many owners are not aware of the numerous problems that can arise with these furry mammals, but that is a whole different discussion.

Reggie is an indoor-outdoor cat. He enjoys the benefits of life in the warmth of our home including regular meals, yet he is free to run in the outdoors to his little heart’s content.  He has it pretty good. By contrast, our neighborhood is overrun with street cats. They mostly live out of the garbage bins and literally fend for themselves. Three brothers recently found a nice little hideout in the entrance of our apartment. When they aren't out searching for food, they can be found snuggling up together or playing. Despite their hard lives, these cats seem happy.

Reggie knows he will be fed and doesn't worry where his next meal is coming from. When he is hungry, he comes in and there is food and water waiting for him. If, for some reason, the bowls are empty, a few meows or a different method of grabbing my attention is all that is needed to have them refilled. If cats possessed human qualities, it would seem that Reggie should have much stronger emuna than all those street cats. After all, he trusts in us, his guardians, to ensure he has all he needs met. He never does without. He knows there is nothing to worry about and for him, life is good.

Upon deeper examination, though, it is really the homeless variety that has a much higher level of emuna. Despite their difficulties in life, they forge on daily in their struggle for survival. They are always scavenging for food and they somehow manage to find their sustenance, yet at the end of the day, they are happy and content.

Although cats are selfish by nature, whenever we occasionally to throw a few scraps their way (yes, we’re guilty) they are so thankful, they purr with gratitude. Reggie, on the other hand, takes it all for granted. I know he appreciates it in his own animal way, but the trio outside really makes me feel like they are grateful for anything they receive.

This is something we should be striving for as well. By being complacent and assuming it is all coming to us, we are not showing HaShem our gratitude. He doesn't have to give us anything and we shouldn't be presumptuous about all our blessings. We could very well be like the street cats, down and out, not knowing where our next meal is coming from or how we are going to pay our rent or mortgage. We must constantly pray for even the most basic mercies such as having a roof over our heads. With emuna, when we realize that it is all for the best, the Master of the World will provide for us.

Every living creature has some unique qualities we can learn from. The Gemara in Eruvin (100:43a line 46) says that we learn tzniut (modesty) from a cat. A cat is very private in its personal hygiene among other things.

Perek Shira also tells of the wisdom we can gain through G-d’s creations. Unlike dogs, cats don’t try to please others and are persistent in their goals. The cat says, in Psalm 18:38, “I will pursue my enemies and overtake them, and will not turn back until they are destroyed.” While this probably refers to a cat hunting a mouse for dinner, we can apply it to standing up for what we believe in or resolving to defeat our adversaries. Yet don’t be fooled into assuming that our successes come about through our own might.

For the cat also observes, “If you raise up to place your nest among the stars like an eagle, from there I shall bring you down, says G-d (Ovadia 1:4). If we are too haughty, HaShem can surely put us in our place. Physically and spiritually, it is only through His guiding hand that we can soar to any heights at all.

In these days of turmoil, when our enemies seek to destroy us and we have no one to turn to but our Father in Heaven, we must pray that our leaders take heed of the lessons of the cat as well. We must firm in our resolve to defend our right to exist in freedom and holiness in the Land HaShem promised us. But only if we act with the modesty and integrity fit for the children of the King, will we merit G-d’s Divine protection.

“Blessed is the man who trusts in HaShem, then HaShem will be his security. I was young and also have aged, and I have not seen a righteous man forsaken with his children begging for bread. HaShem will give might to His people. HaShem will bless his people with peace”. (from Grace After Meals; Artscroll)

Ken Yehi Ratzon – May it be G-d’s Will!