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Rabbi Shaya's Thoughts

Finding Differences in our Sameness

Is there more sameness to our differences or are there more differences in our sameness? There is no question that every person has their own unique personality, and uses their own talents to contribute to society. On the other hand, the question arises, when we do the same thing day in and day out, how do we make our mark in this world?

 

Some career roles clearly give us the opportunity to make our mark more than others. For example, if someone works on an assembly line and they do the exact same thing over and over again, even if someone else steps in and takes over, nothing will change. In such a case, is sameness the same, or can we find some differences in the sameness?

 

In this week’s Torah portion, Naso, we read about the twelve tribe leaders who brought their dedication offerings to the Tabernacle, one each day for twelve days. Each one brought the same exact set of offerings. The fact that they brought the same thing is not so amusing; what is interesting to us is that the Torah repeats verbatim what each one brought as if it were something new, when in reality it was the same exact thing as the day before. This happened for twelve days straight. Why does the Torah do so, especially when the Torah is usually short on its words? Why the repetition?

 

Each of the offerings presented had significance to it. For example, they each brought a silver bowl. By attributing a standardized number to each letter, a silver bowl, Ka’arat Kesef in Hebrew, has the numerical value of 530. In addition, if you change around the letters of Ka’arat, it reads Akeret, meaning ruler. This is a reference to Adam, the first person who lived in this world and ruled this world. Perhaps not coincidentally, he lived for 530 years. Each of the items that the tribe leaders brought have similar significance. 

 

However, not every person—and definitely none of the twelve tribe leaders—could relate to each of the years of Adam’s life equally. So, although each of them related to the general idea, and therefore brought the same gift, they didn’t have the same intention when they did so. One tribe leader might have related to one period of Adam’s life, while a second tribe leader, to another.

 

The same is true in our own lives as well. Each and every one of us has unique qualities. Even if we are doing the exact same thing, we are still thinking different thoughts, doing things our own way, putting in our own effort, etc. So, although from the outside it might look the same, each and every one of us has something different to gift to the world.

 

That is why the Torah goes to such lengths to repeat the same exact thing over and over again—to teach us that each and every one of us is unique. It doesn’t matter if it looks like we are doing the same thing as someone else or if we are doing something different. At the end of the day, we are always investing our own flavor.

Staying Focused

 

Often we feel that we are being pulled in many directions, and at times in opposing directions. One may question themselves by asking: Am I normal? What is it with me that I am being pulled in opposite paths at the same time?

 

When we do question ourselves, we need to know how to respond.

 

For starters, it is important to keep in mind that we are not alone. Not only do many human beings experience the same kind of thing as you, it is ingrained in our collective DNA.

 

This week’s Torah portion, Bechukotai, starts off with blessings—if we fulfill the will of G-d—and then it gives us some very strong warnings if we don’t. This seesaw of positive and negative is prevalent in the portion of the week.

 

As an example, one verse says, “I will walk with you upright.” What does “upright” mean?

 

Will G-d lift us up? Or will we be expected to lift ourselves up, and when we do, G-d will be there at our sides?

 

One way to explain this is with the famous verse that adorns many a synagogue today, and was the reason why the Temple was built in the first place. “Build for me a Temple so that I can dwell within it.”

 

Let’s take a moment to reflect on this verse. G-d is telling us two opposite things at once. A- “Build for me a Temple …” This is the job for we human beings to do, which means that it will be accomplished with our minds, our limitations, and our successes. The achievement will come only through our initiation. However, B- “…so that I will dwell within it.” This part of the verse is talking about G-d. This is not dependent on us, but on G-d. It is up to G-d to decide if He wants to accept our efforts as satisfactory or not. True, the Temple is a building, but our views and G-d’s view are not the same. To us it looks like a structure that we, as humans, built. To G-d, it is a home in which He chooses to dwell.

 

To use Kabbalistic terms: To us the Temple represents our initiation from below, a lowly world, to a higher, more spiritual place. For G-d this is a Temple that He, in the most spiritual, highest of places, comes down to, this low, worldly place.

 

As we see, all of us experience this pull in many directions frequently. The challenge of life is to harness this feeling and utilize it to serve our Creator.

 

We should not permit ourselves to get distracted by the world around us. In fact, it is just the opposite: When we elevate our world, G-d will do His part and come down and help lift us up so that we can unite heaven and Earth, and then we will see that all these distractions are just annoyances that get in the way of our road to achieve our life goals.

 

 

 

 

 

  

Is Remembering Important?

"Remember them." When we hear these words, we know they refer to the victims of the Holocaust. (In a broader sense, they urge us to also remember all the anti-Semites who tried to kill us throughout the ages.) These words are ingrained into our psyches. 

 

"Remember It." These words refer to Shabbat. 

 

There are seven “remembrances” that should be constant in our minds.

 

This week’s Torah portion, Emor, mentions one such remembrance. Seemingly however, it doesn’t fit with the rest. When it comes to remembering to blow the Shofar—the ram’s horn—on Rosh Hashanah, the same word, Zichron, is used: remember. Why do we have to “remember” to blow the Shofar? Couldn’t the Torah have simply given us the commandment to blow the Shofar and we would do so just like we do every other mitzvah?

 

The technical answer is that G-d wants us to associate the blowing of the Shofar with the verses of remembrance, so that the experience of hearing the Shofar is not just that of an instrument we hear on Rosh Hashanah, but a sound that penetrates the soul. Reciting the verses while we hear the sound of the Shofar puts us in the mind frame of recognizing that G-d is the creator of this world, and we are coronating Him as our king on this very day.

 

However, there is even more to it. It is not just we who should be remembering. We are asking G-d to remember as well. We blow a ram's horn to show G-d that we remember—and so should He—way back when, at the binding of Isaac, Abraham sacrificed a ram in Isaac’s stead. 

 

Why is it so important to us for G-d to remember this? Abraham’s unconditional devotion and actions showed that he was ready to put everything on the line for G-d. We, as Abraham’s descendants, have followed Abraham’s path. We thank G-d for not testing us daily, nevertheless, we want G-d, on the holy day of Rosh Hashanah, to remember this about Abraham and Isaac, and about us as well.

 

True, we don’t have to sound the Shofar daily, but when we do, we want it to carry the full meaning of its sound. We are here for you!

 

In our own personal lives, we have memorable experiences that often pass us by, and we don’t give them much thought. In truth, though, many have really shaped us in very meaningful ways. Today might not be Rosh Hashanah, but every day should be a meaningful day. So take a minute and think of a memorable moment that has been especially meaningful to you—and if there is someone associated with it who deserves recognition, let that person (or G-d) know.

Procrastination

The subject of procrastination has been studied in depth. It is a complex topic and not easily covered in just a few lines. Each person’s challenges are different as to why they might not do something now and push it off for a later time, against their own better judgment.

 

Many researchers point out that the issue has nothing to do with laziness or poor time management, and therefore using tools such as apps to help with organizing tasks will not help. The issue is more of an emotional one than anything else. At times, we might be in a bad mood, and we simply don’t want to do something, so we procrastinate. Research shows that chronic procrastination can go from bad to worse in a cycle, as we can become depressed because we are not being productive; that is why it is important to recognize that procrastination is not about productivity but about emotions in the first place. If we can get our emotions under control, if we can deal with our anxiety, our fear, our hesitation to face whatever task is on hand, we will be able to tackle our tasks in a timely fashion. 

 

This sounds overly simplified, so the question that we must ask ourselves is, how do we get there?

 

There are dozens of recommendations in self-help books, such as rewarding yourself for getting a job done on time. In the end, however, all ideas boil down to one conclusion: that for anything to work, the motivation must be internal. It cannot come from anywhere else other than within ourselves.

 

However, this week’s Torah portion, Kedoshim, takes that concept one step further. Within the discussion of the sin of stealing and the mitzvah of returning the stolen item, emphasis is placed on the importance of not procrastinating in the process of returning the stolen item. 

 

Why is it so important for a thief to return a stolen item right away? After all, the person has to overcome their embarrassment to ‘fess up. Why not give the person some time? Where is our compassion?

 

So long as the stolen item is in the possession of the thief, there is a “living sin” in the world. This negative reality is antithetical to G-d. Even the thief, who seemingly doesn’t care about right and wrong, should not procrastinate in their process of doing teshuva, of changing their ways and returning the stolen object to the rightful owner, and returning to G-d. Because the issue at hand is not just between the thief and the owner of the stolen object; it affects the whole world while this “living sin” exists in the world. When they correct their misdeed, they don’t only right their own wrong—between two people— they remove this bad stain from the world as well.

 

And so much more so when we do a good deed in this world! Every positive action that we take doesn’t just have an effect on our personal life, but it has a ripple effect on all those around us.

 

When we think of pushing something off because we are simply not in the mood, we should not only think about how it will be beneficial to us to do our task right away, but we should think how the world at large will benefit as well.

 

We are a microcosm of a macro world. We are interconnected. We make a difference.

Recognizing our mistakes

One of the most challenging things for a person is to admit that they have erred. When possible, we prefer to brush it under the rug or make believe it never happened, and hope that our mistake will go unnoticed. 

 

Which is why it makes sense that for many centuries, this week’s Torah portion, Metzorah, was not called Metzorah at all, but by the more monotonal name, Zot Te’yeh. Metzorah refers to a person who comes down with a skin disease—not a pleasant reference—while Zot Te’yeh means “this shall happen” to the person who is afflicted. This is more of an indirect reference to the topic than saying it “out loud,” since we don’t really like to talk about subjects that make us uncomfortable.

 

This begs the question, why did the name of the Torah portion change?

 

An afflicted person must be quarantined outside the community. For the purification process to start, the Kohen (priest) visits them to determine if they are healing. Based on what we just read, the verse should say, “and the priest should go to them.” However, it says that “you should bring them to the priest.” Seemingly, this doesn’t make sense, since they are outside of the camp already. So how can they be brought to the priest? Shouldn’t the priest go to them?

 

The reason why the Torah words it like this is because if the priest goes to a person without the person being ready for a visit, then the purpose of the visit will be futile. Meaning, if a person doesn’t recognize what caused them to become afflicted in the first place, then even if the symptoms of the affliction are gone, we must ask, are they ready to come back to civilization? Did they learn from their mistakes? Are they ready to admit that they did something wrong in the first place? Was the lesson learned?

 

Being quarantined is not meant to be a punishment as much as a time to reflect why one was afflicted.

 

That is why it is important to help this person “come to the priest,” i.e., come to recognize the priest within themselves—G-d within their own life, within their own being—so that they will not come to sin again.

 

Over the years, we become more open to the recognition of our faults, more open to say we’re sorry, and that is reflected in the way we name the weekly Torah portion as well.

 

Although on the surface we may question a lack of sensitivity in the name of the portion, in actuality, the name change is a positive sign of our growth in our coming to recognize our faults and growing by learning from our mistakes.

 

Shabbat Shalom and Happy Pesach.

ReJEWvenating

Many people take a vacation to relax, to take their minds off work, and to tune out all their worries, be they small stuff at home or work, or big things like Russia’s attack on Ukraine. You just want to shut everything out. If the idea is to have quiet time and just lounge around, then why do we tell our family and friends that we are “traveling,” when we are staying in one place once we reach our destination? 
 

The truth is, we are not the first ones to use this language. The Torah itself uses this term “traveling” as well. The last words of the book of Exodus, which is this week’s Torah portion, Pekudei, ends by telling us how the Jews “traveled.” If you think about it, it should have said that the Jews lived in forty-two locations throughout their sojourn in the desert. The fact that they had to travel from place to place was only by necessity. It was not the travel that mattered, so why the emphasis on the travel vs. on the destination? 
 

Here we have a lesson in life. 
 

True, we can just look at each destination, each location we arrive at, as its own independent entity and ignore the way we reached it.  However, if we truly want to take advantage of every step we take in our lives to reach our destinations, we must also focus on our travels that help us get there.  
 

Every trip that we take is significant not only when we reach a destination, but the road that we travel is also significant, full of lessons in life. This is what the Torah is teaching us: There is no downtime. We must appreciate the journey as well as the destination. Every minute of every day teaches us a lesson. We should always be traveling to the next destination, always growing, always looking to achieve something greater. Every experience that we have in life happens for a reason—here is a lesson to be learned. Whether we are on the road or settled in one place, we should always be on the “move.” Perhaps not in the physical sense, but in the spiritual sense, growing; we must grow. 
 

That is why the Torah calls us travelers. That is why we say about ourselves, when we are going to rejuvenate ourselves, we are traveling. 


 

Even More Important

There are times in life when we can get caught up doing very important things. Perhaps something that is so important that you start working on that project every day and every night. You may fall into a trance and become unaware of your surroundings, because that is how critical the work that you are doing has become. You cannot even tend to the things that you do on a regular basis, and although they are very significant, those tasks start to fall to the wayside. 

The question becomes, how do you prioritize? Or better yet, how do you figure out what is really the more meaningful priority? 


In this week’s Torah portion of Vayak’hel, Moses was about to tell the Jewish people all the details of how to build the holy Mishkan—the Tabernacle—for the very first time! You can just imagine the excitement and enthusiasm in the air. The Jews were ready to jump on the opportunity to start working on this special project 24/7. Remember, the Mishkan was granted to them as a way to redeem themselves—collectively—from the sin of the Golden Calf. Nothing was going to dampen their spirits.


However, Moses had some words of warning first: “Remember,” he told the Jewish people, “that G-d gave you the Ten Commandments, which contain the order to observe Shabbat. Nothing should come between you and the observance of this day. Even your commitment to build the House of G-d, as admirable as that is. Keeping this day holy, as simple as it sounds, is more valuable than the House of G-d. After all, what is the house worth, if you can’t invite G-d inside to live there?” 


This is a lesson for all of us: You want to find G-d? He is found in the ordinary day-to-day acts that we do when we simply do what is asked of us. We don’t have to build large edifices, beautiful buildings, or major spiritual skyscrapers, or get involved in a spiritual project that will overwhelm us. All that is asked of us is to be consistent in our commitment to G-d. 

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall

One person's junk is another person's treasure. That is why there is a whole marketplace on the internet for recycled goods. However, it is one thing to reuse something from someone else’s home and bring it into your home, and a vastly different thing to do so in a “House of G-d"—which is why Moses was perturbed when G-d told him that he should use the mirrors that the women donated to cover the washing basin for the Temple. 

 

A little background is necessary. When it was time to build the Tabernacle, the Mishkan—years later when it became permanent, it was called the Temple—Moses asked for donations. People brought gold, silver, and copper to build the elaborate edifice. Some Jews even wove tapestries so that everything about the building would be spectacular. All of this information is recorded in the Torah, and we read about it two portions ago. However, in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Tisa, we learn about one more object that was not mentioned until now, the washing basin. The washing basin was used by the priests before the service started. The priests would wash their hands and feet to cleanse themselves so that they would be ready to serve. Once they were clean, they could enter the Mishkan itself. 

 

What was this washing basin made of?  The Torah tells us that it was made from the mirrors that the women donated. When Moses saw this, he did not know what to do. He wondered if he should use the “objects of vanity” for such a holy purpose. How is it possible that one should prepare themselves to serve G-d using such a lowly item for such a lofty service? Something did not click. 

 

G-d then taught Moses—as well as us—a lesson in life. It is not enough to elevate the “elevatable” to take the holy and make it even more holy—the goal in life is to take something that is not only mundane, but could promote vanity, and transform that into a vessel for holiness. 

 

You see, in G-d's eyes, a mirror that is used by a woman to make herself attractive in and of itself is not unholy, especially when one considers the background. The Jews were not only in Egypt, they were slaves in Egypt. They worked hard each day. Yet they wanted to look attractive; they wanted to build Jewish homes, even though it was dangerous to do so. That is not vanity, that is not self-serving; rather, that is the epitome of self-awareness, of self-sacrifice. It is the willingness to do what is right and to do so attractively. There is nothing more pleasing to G-d than when one takes pride in their Jewishness. That is why the first object that the priests encountered when they entered the courtyard of the Mishkan was the washing basin. You want to serve in the Temple? No problem, but first remember who you are and who you are going to serve. 

 

We too, as we wake up each morning and look in the mirror, should think to ourselves, what are we made up of? Are we aware of our purpose in this world? Are we ready to fulfill our reason for being in this world, without making it about us but about the cause? 

 

When we can do that, we can then use the mirror to make sure we look presentable to the world, because we know it is not about us, but about a greater calling. 

What kind of olive are you?

We have a saying that when life gives you lemons, make lemonade. 

On a very basic level this means that not all things in our life work out the way we want them to, so when we are given something that doesn’t look good, such as a lemon, we should make the best of it. 


What is interesting is that in the Torah portion of the week, Tetzaveh, we have a similar analogy, but with olives. Olives are very bitter fruit. Yet we are told to take this fruit, crush it for its oil, and use only the finest, clearest oil for the Menorah. 


Leave it to the rabbis to dissect this verse and debate its meaning. When it says to use only the finest and clearest oil, does that apply to the olive itself or only to the oil? 


Let me explain.  Olives, when growing on the tree, can easily be pecked by birds. So the question is: Do we use for the Temple only the best olives (i.e., from the middle of the tree canopy, where the birds can’t reach), or are any olives fine, and we should only be concerned about the oil itself being pure?  If so, we make sure that we want the extra virgin olive oil, without any parts of a pit or any other dirt inside the oil. Just plain, good, clear oil. 


There are technical, Halachic, and spiritual ramifications to these opinions. Today, let’s focus on the spiritual aspect. 


An olive in its own right is a bitter fruit, but what comes out of it is oil. Oil provides light, and adds flavor to food, to mention just a couple of its benefits. However, the clearer the oil, so too, are its benefits. 


Yes, it is true that if we take a “better” olive, we will get tastier oil, but the lesson for us is that even if we don’t go along with that opinion and take any olive, if we crush it, we can and will get very good oil. 


Life works the same way. Each and every one of us has the potential to shine and to bring light and warmth in to this world. We might say that we are like damaged goods—we have been picked on by the vultures, we are useless, and no one can benefit from us (perhaps some might think that they are simply past their prime). The Torah teaches us that we are to look at the end result: Did oil come out of the olive? If the oil is clear, that is all that matters, because every olive can produce oil. Sometimes we have to crush one a little more than another, but that is OK, because crushing brings out the sweetness in the olive oil. In our own lives, the good comes out after we are challenged. 


Let’s not be afraid of a challenge, as that is how the best of us comes out. 


Shabbat Shalom.

Know Your Class

Let’s take our perspective toward money, for example. 
 

There are those who like to follow the Gold Standard. Whether they use the standard as a means to invest or view it as the control for the world's economy is secondary; what matters to those people is the value of gold itself. 
 

Then there are those who prefer to look at the Consumer Price Index (CPI). What matters to them is not so much the value of the currency itself (the bar of gold), but what people are buying and selling. How is the consumer behaving? They are interested in investment behavior patterns.  
 

The third category includes those whom we call the Common Consumer. They are not thinking too deeply about prices or about the market. They are not concerned about the Federal Reserve, or which way interest rates are going, short term or long term. Yes, they know inflation when they see it, but they don’t really understand it; all they know is when the end of the month comes whether there is less or more money in the bank. 

The Torah, in this week’s reading of Teruma, recognizes that we each have different perspectives on life. Yet in Biblical times, we wanted to be united as one when it came to building the Temple, and the temporary Temple, called the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Therefore, today, as in historic days, we are commanded to use as building materials gold, silver, and copper.
 

In the examples mentioned above, gold represents the people who are tied to the Gold Standard. Silver, a currency which was more commonly used (in the old days) in business dealings, is represented by those interested in the CPI, while copper represents the commoner who cannot afford more than their daily expenses. 
 

This is a nice lesson that brings all the Jews of different classes together, or better yet, showing that there really isn’t a separation between one Jew and the next. However, we must ask a question: When the Jews came out of Egypt, they had more than enough gold and silver, so why the need for copper? 
 

True, in later years, in the times of the Second Temple when the Jews were poor, copper was necessary, but not now.
 

Actually, it is not so clear as to when G-d commended the Jewish people to erect the Tabernacle. Was it before the sin of the golden calf, or after the sin? Perhaps G-d told Moses about it before the sin of the golden calf, but Moses didn’t have a chance to tell the Jews yet, as he was still on the mountain, and only told the Jews about it after they sinned? 
 

The reason why this matters to us is because of the answers to these question: Were the Jews righteous when they were commanded to build the Tabernacle (Gold Jews), or was the Tabernacle given to them as a place to repent for their sin of the golden calf? If it was part of the process of repentance, then building the Tabernacle is all about the consumer (Silver Jews). However, if they sinned after G-d gave the command, even though they didn’t know, then they were, at the time, sinners. Therefore, they might have thought to themselves: What do we have to do with building a “home for G-d?” That is the way a commoner (Copper Jew) might think. The Torah teaches us that this type of person can also change their ways and become an investor, a partner with G-d. 
 

All three possibilities are correct; all three types of Jews are necessary to build the Tabernacle. Unity of the Jewish people is what G-d wants more than anything else to make His home our home. 
 

No one should cast themselves as being a lost cause. Everyone is part of the Temple. Each and every one of us matter. A gold, silver, and copper Jew were all part of building of the Tabernacle! 
 

We all belong. Am Yisroel Chai.

Faith vs. Reason

Religion, to many, means faith or blind faith. Just believe in G-d and everything else follows. If you don’t have faith, then you can’t be religious. This logic can be used to come to the opposite conclusion as well: logical people are not religious since they use logic and not faith to come to their decisions. Hence, religious people are unreasonable. They may be kind and giving, but they can also be fanatical and unbearable because they don’t use logic and reason to come to their conclusions, only faith, and faith can lead a person down a path where one should not go. So says logic. The faithful obviously disagree and feel that it is faith that keeps them going. They have a higher purpose, they are connected to G-d and there is more to their actions than just what makes them feel good. 

This in short, is the age-old argument between the faithful and the atheist, between those who believe and those who don’t.  Which makes us wonder, what happens in this week’s Torah portion, Mishpatim? Last week, we read how G-d gave us the Torah at Mount Sinai. The Jews accepted with complete faith to do whatever G-d asked of them. No questions asked.  Yet, this week, the Torah portion starts by teaching us logical mitzvot, mitzvot that make sense to us. True, they are commandments, but they resonate with us, they are reasonable! We can understand them. When we fulfill these requests from G-d we are doing them not out of faith, but out of reason. What happened here? Why the shift from a “faith-based religion” to a “reason-based relationship with G-d” (did you even know that you can have that)? Yet, as the Torah portion moves on, we go right back to the famous verse in which the Jews say, Naaseh V’nishma, meaning “We will do and we will listen” (the Torah does jump back and forth in the narrative). Clearly, this verse is telling us that Judaism is based on faith.
 

How to we explain this sequence of events: Faith – reason – faith? 
 

The foundation of Judaism is based on faith. However, from the earliest moments after the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, G-d wanted to make it clear to us that we should not rely on faith alone to have a relationship with Him. We must use our minds, our thinking heads to understand what it is that G-d wants from us. True, there are some mitzvot that might be more difficult for us to understand while others are very easy and logical. But that is beside the point; the main thrust of Judaism is that we should study, learn, and understand. Judaism should be meaningful and understandable to us.  We should enjoy our connection to G-d. It should not be a burden on us.  However, there are times, that for whatever reason, all logic gets thrown out the window, and all that we have left is faith. 
 

That is why the Torah starts off with faith, moves on to logic, and then finishes with faith. To teach us that the foundation of Judaism is based on a strong, never-wavering faith in G-d.  However, we must nurture this faith with a deep understanding. Therefore, we learn and debate as we try to dig deeper into the meaning of the whats, whens, whys, and hows of what G-d commands of us.  In the end we know that even if we don’t understand, it all boils down to faith. 
 

So, is it faith vs. reason, or is it faith AND reason?

Making the Impossible Possible

There are times in life when we feel stuck. We may think to ourselves, how in the world can we accomplish this task? It’s impossible for us to do this! Yet somehow or another, we find the strength within us to be able to accomplish the task at hand. Does that ability come from within us or from some outside power? Perhaps a mixture of both? 

We find examples of this in our own life all the time. We are put to a challenge and we wonder if we are up to this task. Can I do this particular thing or is it too much for me to do? Yet we go ahead and just do it – because we were forced by circumstances, perhaps even against our will.


From where do we get the strength? 


In this week’s Torah portion, Yitro, we learn that when G-d gave the Torah to the Jewish nation, we “heard the lightning and saw the thunder!” You read that correctly. Our senses were so in tune that we heard what we usually see and we saw what we usually hear. Well, that is at least the way Rabbi Akiva understood the verse. Rabbi Yishmael, however, understood the verse a bit differently and took the more practical, albeit less literal, interpretation, and said that they saw the lightning and heard the thunder. 


There are of course reasons for their disagreements, but what is interesting is that they do agree on one thing: G-d was creating a bond with the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. The question is, how was it done?  Was G-d telling us that He works in wonderous ways? That it is He who runs this world, and therefore He performed a miracle that betrayed the laws of nature, so we could have “seen the thunder and heard the lightning?” Or was the message that the world is meant for us to live in, and to reveal G-dliness within the confines of this limited space? If so, the thunder was heard and the lightning was seen, in a very natural way.


The truth is that the two rabbis are not arguing but teaching us an important lesson. We need to always remember that we should keep both perspectives alive in our outlook on life. Yes, we live in this physical, mundane world. We see and hear things through our limited perspectives. However, there are times when we have to, and have the ability to, see what is usually heard and to hear what is usually seen. How? When we connect to G-d. We can do that when we learn the Torah, and we connect to G-d. That is when we recognize that this world is G-d’s world.  


We are real, and G-d is real. We can make the impossible possible. 


What doesn’t break you makes you stronger

What doesn’t break you makes you stronger. This is a well-known saying, but what does it mean? Why are we so sure that if we don’t break from the pressure of the “thing” (whatever the thing may be), we will come out stronger? Perhaps we will still come out weaker, even if we are not destroyed.

Many ideas in our world originate in the Torah. This concept, above, can also be found in this week’s Torah portion, Be’Shalach.  The story is about how the Jews are stuck between the Egyptian army behind them and the Sea of Reeds in front of them, and they don’t know what to do. G-d instructs them to go directly into the sea and the sea will split on their behalf. In order for the water to remain divided so that they can pass through the sea to the other side, G-d has to perform a continuous miracle, holding the “walls of water” up on both sides. After the Jews pass through, the water returns to its original state, as it was since the creation of the world.  


The Hebrew word used in the verse to say that the water returned to its original state, is L’eitanu, which can mean “to its original form,” however, it can also mean “to its original condition.” This is a wordplay that can mean to the original deal (condition i.e., deal) for which it was created. 


To appreciate this nuance of the meaning of this word, we must understand what the deeper message being conveyed to us is. On the surface, the water is doing whatever G-d wants it to do. If G-d wants it to flow, it will flow, if G-d wants it to stand still it will stand still. If G-d wants it to split for the Jews to go through, it will do that as well. So what does it mean “to its original condition?”  


G-d made a deal with the sea. He said, “I am going to create you only if you fulfill your ultimate purpose, if you do that job well, willingly, and enthusiastically; then, once you go back to your natural state of being, you will be even stronger that you were before.”  


Of course, the sea has no mind of its own and it must follow whatever G-d wants it to do. True. However, if it just goes along with G-d’s plan, then over time, G-d will also allow the sea to dry up, perhaps die a natural death. However, if the sea shows that this temporary change in its nature is not something that it is upset about, but it understands that this is part of G-d’s plan, then it will come out stronger.  


That is the reason why G-d put a condition on the sea to begin with. He didn’t have to make this deal; G-d wanted to make this deal so that He could reward the sea afterward. 


In our life we experience the same thing. Our life can be plain vanilla, every day the same thing. No ups or downs. No challenges – just boring.  However, G-d says, “I have a deal for you. I am going to throw you a curve ball. I am going to ask you to change your nature, just for a little while. If you go with the flow, a reward will come as well. I may ask you to stay still, or I may ask you to run. Whatever I ask, it will be a challenge, and if you succeed, the reward that will come out of your hard work will make you much greater and stronger than what you were as a person before you started.”


The challenges that we face are not here to break us but are here to strengthen us. Take up the challenge with love as it comes from G-d, as it was all part of the plan from the beginning.

When the Clock Strikes 12:00

This past week, people around the world were counting down to midnight. As the clock struck exactly 12:00, people celebrated the beginning of 2022. Today, with modern technology, we know the exact moment to celebrate. However, if you do some research, you will learn that the question of exactly when midnight occurs, or whether midnight belongs to the day before or the day after—or smack in between the two—is a complicated question. That is why most people try to avoid the issue, and we just raise our glass in celebration and say L’chayim, and we don’t think too much about it. 

 

This makes us wonder, why did G-d, in this week’s Torah portion, Bo, decide to get Himself into hot water by saying that He would bring the tenth and final plague - the death of the first born - at exactly midnight.  

 

In addition, no other plague was given a timeframe. At most, Moses let Pharaoh know that the next day a plague would come. That is a vague timeframe, and even the time that G-d was specific, Moses wouldn’t say exactly what G-d told him to say; instead he said K’chatzos, loosely translated to mean “at about” midnight. Why wouldn’t Moses say what G-d said, “exactly” at midnight?

 

Rashi takes a novel approach to the word K’chatzos. He explains, yes, it can mean “at about” midnight, but it can also mean so much more. We can interpret this word to mean “in between today and tomorrow,” since this time is very difficult to pinpoint. Even today, with all the technology that we have, it is very challenging to split this timeframe in half. Moses, who didn’t want to take the responsibility on his own shoulders to define that time, says “at about” this time, yet he still defined the meaning of this time: “In between the two days.”

 

However, let’s take this a bit deeper. Moses was not telling us when G-d would bring the tenth plague, but how He would bring the death of the first born!

 

The how is that it was G-d Himself who brought this tenth plague, and who brought the other nine plagues, and who performed all the miracles for the Jewish people. And for that matter, who runs this world. G-d was sending a message to the Egyptians and to the Jews alike: There is a Creator of this world. He is a master clockmaker, who knows how to make this world click. Who knows precisely how this world works – after all, He is G-d. That is why G-d says: B’chatzi Haleila at exactly midnight!

 

Moses, who wanted to emphasize G-d’s greatness, changed the word to say “at about” not to diminish the time, but to enhance its meaning.

 

We look at the clock and we may not know exactly when midnight is, however, we know that G-d does, and this fact reminds us of our Creator and our connection to G-d. This reminder tells us to take a moment and contemplate all the blessings that G-d gives us on a regular basis, the “exodus” and “redemption” that we experience each and every day.

Change in Four Steps

With every major milestone we reach, we tend to commit to new resolutions. We want to change ourselves. We want to become a better person, a more refined human being. Yet, it is a common occurrence that these well-intentioned plans don’t always come to fruition. What can we do to plan better?

 

In this week’s Torah portion, Va’eira, which discusses the first steps of the exodus from Egypt, we have G-d’s promise to the Jewish people that He will redeem them from Egypt. Actually, there are four different expressions: I will take you out, I will save you, I will redeem you, and I will remove you (from Egypt). These four expressions are the source - and reason - for the enactment to drink “four cups of wine” at the Seder.

 

If we read deeper into these verses, we will find that they are not just expressions of redemption, but they are lessons in self-refinement. They helped the Jews of that time to prepare for the exodus from Egypt, and they can help us today, to refine ourselves for the better, as well.

 

Step one: Remove yourself from any negative environment. Or, just stop a bad behavior. If there is something that you want to change, first and foremost you must distance yourself from “it.” Don’t define yourself by it, don’t have a connection with it. You and the “thing” just have to disconnect.

 

Step two: Start doing good things. Don’t think too much about the reason behind the redemption, whether you are worthy of this new role or not. Just do it. Start behaving as if you belong. If this is the life that you want to lead, then behave that way.

 

Step three: Pursue goodness. Seek it out. Don’t sit around waiting for an opportunity to come your way, but as soon as you see an opening, grab it. In order to accomplish this, you have to be proactive.

 

Step four: Bring passion into your life. Do steps three and four with zest. Let it become contiguous! Not only should you look for the opportunity, have others search for you – to the point that they will help you find the resources to accomplish great things. This is when you really become successful!

 

If you can get into the zone, you will feel like a new person, and you will not be concerned if you have kept your resolutions or not, since you will be a free person, a different, better person.

 

Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Year! 

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