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Rabbi Shaya's Thoughts

Do We Make Mistakes?

One of the best ways of teaching life lessons is through stories. That is why the Torah is filled with stories.

The Torah must also teach us laws, and it does so by stating the facts clearly. Yet, sometimes those laws can seem not only dry but also irrelevant, especially when it comes to the laws regarding purity and impurity. These were more relevant in the times when one was prohibited from entering the Temple in a state of impurity, or e.g., a Kohen, priest, who was unable to partake in special foods if they were impure.

In order for us to appreciate these laws, it helps if we look into their nuances. One example is the difference between the consequences of becoming impure by mistake or on purpose. Now, if we become impure purposely, we can understand why we would have to take a purposeful action to purify ourselves, but if something happened unintentionally, then why not let it pass? After all, there was no ill intent.

From here we learn that G-d has expectations of us. G-d sees in us something that we, ourselves, may tend to ignore—what we may consider subconscious is actually not on a deeper level, but rather consciousness that is just being ignored. What the Torah is teaching us is that we have the power to tap into that part of us and to harness our subconscious.

When it comes to our essences, there are no “mistakes”—everything we do has a reason, the good and the bad. If we made a mistake, we have to take responsibility for it, and own up and apologize. If we did something good, even if it was inadvertent, we still deserve credit for it. Because, deep down, everything that we do is ours, whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not.

Shabbat Shalom

Why Kosher?

Let's examine this week's portion, Shemini, where the laws of keeping kosher – Kashrut – are introduced. Here are the basic rules that would make an animal kosher: Animals must chew their cud and have split hooves; fish must have fins and scales. There is a comprehensive list of forbidden fowl as well.

I often get asked why is it that today, in an age of refrigeration, government inspection, and modern hygienic standards, do we still need the laws of Kashrut (which may even be termed archaic, anachronistic, or quite dispensable), let alone “kosher supervision” which can drive up the cost of kosher food?

It’s difficult to answer this question since the laws of Kashrut were never designed for health reasons to begin with. If keeping kosher happens to be a healthy lifestyle, or if it provides good hygiene, that is purely a fringe benefit. It may well be one of the perks, but it has never been the underlying reason.

Keeping kosher was not designed for our physical health, but rather for our spiritual health. It is not for our bodies but for our souls. It is a Jewish diet to help Jews remain spiritually sensitive to their innate Jewishness.

Keeping kosher guarantees that our Jewish souls remain sensitive to things that are Jewish. This is clearly a mystical concept and imperceptible to our physical senses, but according to our sages it is a fact. Just as too much red meat or fatty foods are bad for your cholesterol level, non-kosher foods are bad for your neshamah. They clog your spiritual arteries and prevent those warm, healthy Jewish feelings from circulating through your kishkes and your consciousness.

It's very important to have a mezuzah on your door. It identifies your home as Jewish. But what really defines your home as a "Jewish Home" is the kitchen. A kosher kitchen makes a Jewish home truly Jewish.

Your favorite diet may build healthy bodies, but a kosher diet builds healthy souls.

The Big Shabbat

 

This Shabbat, the Shabbat before Passover, is called Shabbat HaGadol, the Big Shabbat. Why is this such an important Shabbat? Clearly it relates to Passover.

Here is the story.

Four days before the Jews were to leave Egypt, G-d commanded them to take a lamb and hold it in their homes. The day before they left they slaughtered it, ate it with their families, and took its blood and marked their doorposts so the Angel of Death would know to "pass over" the Jewish peoples’ homes and not kill their first-born sons.

To commemorate this day, we call the Shabbat before Passover, Shabbat HaGadol. In essence, this is the beginning of the exodus from Egypt. However, we can ask the question, why is this turning point so important that it deserves a special mention (and observance) even if in name only?

Holding lambs in their homes had a double effect on the Jews and on the Egyptians. For the Egyptians, they were witnessing their "god" being held to be slaughtered. To them, this was perhaps worse than all other plagues. For the Jews, they were risking their lives to fulfill G-d's will. "What will the Egyptians say when they hear our reason?" The Jews were putting their lives on the line. This was the first time that they were really facing this kind of challenge, yet they were willing to do what was asked of them.

For this reason, this is a Big Shabbat. That is also why there is a custom to read the first part of the Haggadah on Shabbat afternoon.

Wishing you Shabbat Shalom and Happy Passover .

 

A Pleasing Aroma

One of greatest pleasures in life is when you ask someone to do something for you and they do it. This stands true if this person is your spouse, child, friend, or employee.

The question is, what degree of pleasure do you derive from performing this act? 

Seemingly, the more the person being asked to do a requested act appreciates the outcome of what they are doing, the less it is being done for the requester, and the more it is being done for themselves. True the result is the same, and the benefit should be appreciated. But let’s be honest—what degree of pleasure do you draw from an act that is being done for you, if the person is actually enjoying doing it?

Or to phrase the question a little differently, do you get more satisfaction if a favor is being done 100% for you, or if only 10% is for you but 90% is really for the person who is doing it?

Is it only the narcissist who wants 100% pleasure? Or, perhaps, is it also a way to test someone's commitment to another?

This is another way of understanding the difficult question as to why G-d commanded the Jewish people to bring animal sacrifices to the Temple, as discussed in this week’s Torah portion.  If the people would have consumed the animal meat, we might have an easier time understanding the laws. However, most of the offerings had the majority of the animal burned on the altar! For what? The Torah tells us why: “For a pleasing aroma to G-d.” Really? G-d likes the smell? There must be something deeper going on here.

This “pleasing aroma” is a term for when we do something that we take zero pleasure in doing for ourselves, but nevertheless do it for one reason and one reason only: because G-d asked us to do it. We are showing G-d that we are listening to Him and we are acting because He asked us to. We are letting Him know that our relationship with Him is not 10% / 90% or some other equation, but that we are 100% committed to Him and we will do anything that is asked from us, whether it makes sense to us or not. This is what is a “pleasing aroma” to G-d.

“Sacrifices” in Hebrew is Karban, which literally means, “to come close.” The idea is to come close to G-d, to put our egos aside and do what G-d wants, even if we don't understand why.

As we near Passover, a time when families get together, it is important to keep in mind that we have to put other people's needs before our own. It is a time when G-d asks a lot from us (no bread for the duration of the holiday of Pesach, e.g.). It is a time to put G-d’s requests before our own needs. Give it a try. Do something for another before yourself. Give it 100% and you will see that you, too, will benefit.

 

The Power of Fire

 

Melacha: Action verb--the fact or process of doing something, typically to achieve an aim. The Dictionary

This week’s Torah portion is a follow-up to the last few weeks’ instructions on how to build the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. This portion tells us that the Jews actually did build it. However, by way of introduction, it reminds us of the sanctity of Shabbat. This is to teach us that as much as it is important and holy to build a “house for G-d,” it is even more important to keep Shabbat holy. 

In addition, we learn from this language that whatever is considered actionable work in building the Tabernacle is considered actionable work when it comes to Shabbat--and is forbidden to do on Shabbat. In total this numbers thirty-nine. Amongst them is creating fire.

However, based on the definition of the word “action” (the fact or process of doing something, typically to achieve an aim), what is being gained by burning something? That is destruction, so shouldn’t that be permitted? Maimonides and other codifiers pointed out that kindling a fire is only prohibited if you intend to accomplish something with the fire, even if it is just for the ashes.

In our personal lives this means that every action we do has an effect. We might not realize that even the smallest action has an effect. It might be as small as just creating ashes, but an effect it has, nevertheless. Even a minute action still counts significantly toward the building of the “Temple” of G-d in our own life.

Now imagine when we have in mind to make a real impact … how we can change the world for good!

Shabbat Shalom

Like This, They Shall Give

There is a fascinating Midrash that allows us to listen in on a conversation between Moses and G-d.

G-d tells Moses that he should take a headcount of the Jews. He cannot do this directly, since we don’t count people, but by having each person donate a half-shekel, he can count the half-shekels; additionally, the half-shekels will be atonement for their souls. When Moses hears this he turns to G-d and asks, “How will a half-shekel act as an atonement?” G-d responds by showing Moses a fiery coin and says, “Like this, they should give.”

Why was Moses so perturbed? We all know that giving charity is good for the soul, so why doesn’t this make sense to Moses? In addition, since when do all of Judaism’s Mitzvot have to be logical? Can’t G-d just make things happen?

Let’s take a moment and try to think like Moses. A coin is made from the lowest and most physical element of this world. Coins are made out of material that is found deep down beneath the earth. Moses wondered, ”How is it that such a lowly coin can have such a great spiritual impact on our souls?”

G-d shows him a coin of fire. When there is a fire in the heart of the donor, even a lowly coin can be transformed into a holy coin. The coin itself can transform the giver into a holy, fiery human being.  All we need to do is to give it with good intention.

This was difficult for Moses to understand—before G-d explained it to him. Yes, he knew that when we do something holy with an ordinary item we can elevate it to a higher place, but for it to be an atonement for our souls—that is a little bit of a stretch. And that is why G-d showed him a fiery coin. Within every single thing in this world, even something as small and insignificant as a coin, one can find the “fire” inside. And when we find that “fire,” we are transformed.

The trick for us is to not be afraid to light that spark. We can access it all the time by doing acts of loving kindness. One Mitzvah at a time.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Shaya Deitsch

 

PS … These Shekalim eventually went toward the upkeep of the Temple and were collected once a year in the month of Adar. Since the Temple was destroyed – more than 2,000 years ago – a custom was instituted to donate a half-shekel on the eve of Purim.

Unity In Stones

This week’s Torah portion discusses the garments of the High Priest. His outfit was very elaborate, with layers of colorful clothes, bells etc.  One of the main garments was the breastplate which included twelve inlaid precious stones, with the names of the twelve tribes engraved within the stones, with a total of twenty-five letters.

It is interesting to note how the commentators point out the nuances in relation to the listing of the names of the tribes.   Are they listed in the order of the birth of their father or their mother? Were they listed downward or across?  Regardless how they’re listed, the number equals twenty-five.   On the surface, one can ask, who cares? Why does it matter?

Upon closer examination we realize that the key to understanding the significance lies with the number twenty-five. There are twenty-five letters in the Shema. The Shema talks about our commitment and unity with G-d.  

What matters to us is to understand the lesson that the breastplate teaches us. Each and every name and each and every letter has a message that unites all the Jews together as one.  We might come from different tribes, but we all have one father. We all say the Shema with the same number of letters; it is the Shema that unites us all as one.  The High Priest with his breastplate unites all the Jewish people together as one.  

A Dwelling Place for G-d

In the vestibule to our Chabad Center is a sign with a verse from this week’s Torah portion that states: “They should make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell amongst them.”

This verse in its purest sense is referring to building the temporary Mishkan (tabernacle) in the desert, and eventually the permanent Temple in Jerusalem. So why are we citing the verse here? Are we trying to equate our humble synagogue with the great Temple of yore? 

If we understand that the Torah is timeless and every statement from G-d is relevant to every generation, then we understand that, although our “temples” are nothing compared to the grand Temple of Jerusalem, we can, and should, still build temples wherever we are and invite G-d into these houses of worship so that G-d can dwell amongst us.

However, the Lubavitcher Rebbe took this a step further in 1987 while he was giving a public address to children. He said that little children may find their bedrooms/playrooms to be more comfortable places to hang out with their friends; therefore it would be an appropriate idea for them to turn their bedrooms/playrooms into “mini-sanctuaries” by keeping there a prayer book, a book of the Torah, or a charity box, and to have friends over and do good deeds. This way, even a bedroom or playroom can become a place where G-d can “dwell amongst us.”

Here we see how far the meaning of a verse can go. True, the Temple has been destroyed, but the spirit of the message that G-d can, and does, dwell amongst us still lives on, so long as we invite G-d in.

Shabbat Shalom,

You Are Not Forsaken

We hear this line often in our liturgy: “G-d has not forsaken the Jewish people.” Clearly this is true, as we are still here. However, we can ask, “Is this true for the Jewish nation and even for individual people?” Perhaps G-d might forsake an individual. After all, if we are running away from G-d, why should he chase us? Why not just give up on us?

When the Jews were in Egypt, many of them gave up on G-d; they assimilated into the Egyptian way of life. They had nothing to hold onto. Being a slave was not an attractive option, so they slipped into the comforts of Egypt.

On the Egyptian front, they were bombarded with plague after plague. Ten in total. Each time a plague would come, it did just that: it arrived.  

Yet by plague number ten, the death of the first born, Moses warned Pharaoh that G-d will “come to Egypt” and save the first-born Jews from the plague, while first-born Egyptians will die. The question is asked, “Why does G-d Himself have to ‘come’ to Egypt?” Every other plague arrived without G-d Himself “coming.” Even though this plague was put into action by the Angel of Death, why is G-d’s presence necessary? In addition, to save the first-born Jewish children, the Jews were given the cue: “Put the blood of the Pascal sacrifice on the doorpost as a sign for the angel to ‘pass over’ your home.” If that is the case, what will G-d be coming to do, anyway?

Tradition tells us that there were Jews hiding in Egyptians homes. Not only did they ignore Moses by not putting blood on their doorposts, they defied G-d! They went and lived within the homes of the Egyptians! They camouflaged themselves so well within Egypt that only G-d Himself could find them. 

This is what Moses was saying to Pharaoh: G-d does not forsake His people. Every single Jew will come out of Egypt!

Are there Jews who are hiding their Judaism? Yes. Do they deserve to be forsaken? No.

This is not just a phrase that we have lived with for so many years. This is true. This has been true then, and this is true today.

 

 

 

Equality

To wear black or not to wear black? When is a compliment appreciated and when is it harassment? Our world is walking on eggshells. How do we recognize people’s individuality, yet celebrate equality? When you address a couple, who do you list first? If you choose the husband before the wife, are you making a statement? If you choose the wife before the husband, are you making a statement? Can’t we just live our lives without tripping over ourselves?

Is this even a new phenomenon? In this week’s Torah portion, we see that G-d himself goes back and forth when addressing Moses (the younger brother but the leader) and Aaron (the older brother but the helper to Moses). Sometimes G-d addresses Moses before Aaron and sometimes Aaron is addressed before Moses. Is this because G-d is walking on “eggshells” and doesn’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings? Is G-d wishy-washy?

There must be a deeper message here. “Equality” doesn’t mean “the same.” Equal in value yet different in talent. Moses and Aaron were each celebrated for who they were, for their individual strengths, albeit not for the same ones. Yet, at the same time they each recognized within themselves that they were not perfect and that they each needed the other to fill in for the weaknesses that they possessed.  What they did focus on was who they were, and not who they weren’t. 

There are times when it is important to emphasize Moses‘s strengths over Aaron’s, and there are times to emphasize Aaron’s talents over Moses’s.  

Our approach to life must be sensitive, yet balanced. There are times when “Moses” comes first and there are times when “Aaron” comes first. 

The main thing is to see the positivity that everyone brings to the world we live in. 

Jacob's Blessings

 

The Torah says something very peculiar about the blessings Jacob bestows upon his children. After Jacob finishes blessing each of his children individually, it says, “He blessed each son with a befitting blessing to them (singular) and he blessed them (plural).” The simple explanation is that after he blessed each one with a blessing individually befitting them, he gave an additional blessing to them as a group.  

The only shortcoming of this explanation is that we don’t know what Jacob actually said. Therefore, it is incumbent upon us to probe a little deeper so that we can understand what the verse means 

Here is one beautiful insight: Jacob is teaching his sons an important lesson that applies to us today as well. He is saying that yes, each one of you has a specific talent, a specific way of connecting to G-d, but at the end of the day, you are all one.  

Isn’t this true today? There are so many different kinds of Jews and we each try to find our way to serve G-d. However, as we search and we say to ourselves that this way fits me well, we have to understand and respect other Jews for their ways as well, since all of our paths reach the same G-d.  

Our differences are only superficialdeep down, we all are one. That is Jacob’s ultimate blessing.  

Three Levels In Harnessing Our Faith

 

The Torah tells us that seventy members of Jacob’s household entered Egypt, yet the Torah itself counts the names with a total of just sixty-nine.

There are different opinions on how we reach a total of seventy. One is to simply say that the Torah rounded up the number, as we have seen done throughout the Torah. There are three other possibilities: We can count either G-d, Jacob, or Yocheved, who was born as they entered Egypt.

Generally speaking, the explanations are not mutually exclusive, but in this case, it cannot be all three, because then the number would be seventy-two! So how do we reconcile these opposing opinions?

In this case we must find a deeper understanding of what is going on here.

In order for the Jews to leave Egypt down the road, they have to have strong faith in G-d. However the question is how the faith will be provided to them. Here is where we have three approaches.

1 - G-d. G-d provides us with faith. But the way G-d does this for us is in a very external way, to the extent that we don’t feel G-d providing it to us. If we did, then we would not have faith per se, but knowledge. G-d enters into the exile with us so that we are able to tap into our faith and stand strong in the face of such a difficult time. (This is on the level of Aggadah.)

2 - Jacob. Jacob also provides us with faith. He brings along the commitment to G-d that he inherited from his parents and grandparents. This kind of faith is real and tangible to the Jewish people. This reason is more esoteric yet practical. (It is hard to include G-d as one of the seventy since G-d is not felt on a physical level, and Yocheved never left Israel, so she could not be the inspiration or the bedrock of our faith to return to Israel.)

3 - Yocheved. Yocheved may not be connected so strongly to Israel, but she is the only survivor of that era that experienced the hardship of the exile. Yocheved was a woman who had a very deep-rooted faith in G-d. We read in the Torah in numerous portions how women have a deep natural belief in G-d, and here Yocheved was able to bring this faith to the Jewish people. We see that Yocheved ends up mothering Moshe, the eventual leader and redeemer of the Jewish people. That is why we count her as the seventieth. This reason is more befitting for the literal explanation of the verses, since it clearly says the children of Jacob equal seventy (which means not including Jacob).

We can now understand that the three opinions are not mutually exclusive, but are rather three levels in harnessing our faith.

L'chayim To Life!

At joyous occasions we wish each other l’chayim - to life! To health and to wealth!

Are these just words that we utter or is there a deeper meaning to these good wishes?

Let’s analyze Jacob’s life, covered in this week’s Torah portion, Vayishlach, which will help shed some light on this theme.

Health: After all the trials, obstacles, and physical battles that Jacob had to deal with between his Uncle Lavan and his brother, Esau, he has healed from his illness. This taught him a valuable lesson in life that although there are times when we may be ill, those times, too, can be part of the growth process. 

Wealth: From the story it seems that Jacob felt obliged to give gifts to his brother. However, Jacob understood that in the big picture of life, gift giving was not an obligation. If he was meant to give money to his brother, then it had to be part of G-d’s plan. If that were the case, then why should he be upset? It was never intended to be his in the first place. The process of forced giving was nothing more than a wake-up call, just as the injury was a reminder to feel healthy and grow from the pain.    

Faith: The reference to “To Life!” is to one’s spiritual life, to a strong faith in G-d. Jacob was a “holy person;” after all, we refer to him as one of the three fathers of the Jewish people. Yet he was not a person who sat in synagogue the whole day and prayed and studied Torah. He worked hard for a living – he even became very wealthy. He was engaged in the “real world.”  This is because Jacob understood that to have strong faith in G-d is accomplished specifically by engaging in the world, not by secluding yourself from the world. He took the teachings of the Torah and incorporated them into his engagement in his worldly affairs, so the Torah and the world became one.

We, too, can learn from Jacob in our dealings with the world around us. We should view our challenges as opportunities for growth, and utilize every opportunity to infuse the world with holiness.

L’chayim to spiritual life, to good health, and to an abundance of wealth! 

Shabbat Shalom.

 

 

 

When It’s Too Good To Be True

It is fascinating that at the end of Isaac’s life, he wanted to bless his son Esau instead of Jacob.

One would expect that he would want to bless Jacob, the obedient son. Jacob always followed orders and would be the one to carry on his father’s legacy, along with the principals he stood for. Not Esau, however, who was known to be a wild man, a man with no conscience, let alone a commitment to G-d! Yes, it is true that Esau was a good son in the sense that he would bring his father food, but he was not the son that a dying man would want to bless or to carry on his legacy. So why is it that Isaac looked to bless Esau instead of Jacob?

The Midrash tells us why: Because Esau asked his father a question … and it’s the impetus of this question that caused Isaac to want to bless him.

What did he ask? “How do you tithe salt and straw?”

Now, everyone knows that you do not have to tithe salt or straw; the laws of tithing only apply to things of substance. So isn’t this question a mockery of his father’s devotion to doing what is right, by boasting, “I can be holier than thou?”

Clearly there is a deeper point here that Esau is trying to make. Esau was saying that salt might not have any value on its own, but if you add it to food, the whole dish is enhanced. In essence what he is saying is that one should look beyond just the salt to seek its true potential.

This point did not pass by Isaac unnoticed. Isaac saw the potential in Esau, and wanted to bestow upon him a blessing so that he could achieve his potential. However, Rebekah understood that as great a power the blessing might have, it would not transform him into a better son, since Esau would misuse the blessing (too much salt can ruin the food). Therefore, Rebekah arranged it so that the blessing would go to Jacob instead.

The lesson that we can take from this is that we shouldn’t judge “salt” for what it is, but for what it could be. At the same time, we shouldn’t be blinded by the risk of having too much of something – even if it could enhance our life – if it is something (like salt) that intrinsically can be damaging.  

Does Our Life Influence Us?

“And Abraham came with days.” This statement is more than just a biblical way of saying that Abraham reached old age; if it were just a poetic way to tell us that he became a senior citizen, then the Torah would not have repeated itself a second time—especially thirty-six years after the first time!

The commentators point out that the first mention was before Abraham fathered a child, and when he became a father, he felt young again. The Torah teaches us that he then aged a second time.

However, on a deeper level, we must say that the Torah teaches us a meaningful lesson here.

People sometimes go through life – let it be when they are young or when they get old, and even in their prime years of life – without paying attention to what is going around them. Or worse yet, some do not allow the events in their lives to influence them. For them, they, and the world that they live in, have nothing to do with each other. They exist in the same universe, but that is about it. Neither one has an effect on the other. When we are children, it may be difficult for us to grasp how events in our lives could shape us, but when we are old, already set in our ways, and in our prime years of life, that is when our understanding of the relationship would most naturally occur.

Yet, G-d expects a “living” person to take every experience in our life and “live” with it.  There is no such thing as getting old. There is no such thing as being set in our ways—a living being is always growing, always learning, and always open to new experiences.

So when the Torah says that Abraham came with days, it is telling us that he learned from every experience in his life. Each one influenced him, shaped him, made him into who he became. Thirty-six years later, he was not the same person! He had changed again. We are not talking about a young man here. This is a one-hundred-thirty-six-year-old man! This is an age when we might expect him to be set in his ways, too old to teach an old man some new tricks. The Torah teaches us, no! Abraham never rested! He was always ready to learn from every experience in his life, always looking to learn how to serve G-d by asking, “How can I be a better Jew? Today I might have been good, but how can I be better tomorrow?” This is why the verse repeats itself the second time.

The same applies to his beloved wife, Sarah. The Torah says that she died at the age of “one-hundred years and twenty years and seven years.” Why the repetition of years three times? Because the Torah teaches us that she didn’t age—just like Abraham, she, too, lived every day to its fullest. 

We, too, should live every day of our lives looking for how we can learn from our experiences to serve G-d in more meaningful ways. We, too, should never say that we are too old to learn something new. We have to be open to learn from life’s experiences and to listen to G-d’s messages: to allow the weekly Torah portion to have an effect on our lives.

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