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Rabbi Shaya's Thoughts

On Being Angry

Is it ever worth getting angry? On the one hand it shows that you are a person of passion, filled with so much emotion that a situation can move you to the point where you are boiling with anger. However, if you look at it from another perspective, it shows that you allowed a situation to get the better of you. And then you might come across as cold and callous.

 
How do you balance your emotions and yet show that you are serious?
 
If we look at this week’s Torah portion, we see something very interesting. G-d was about to punish the Egyptians for the suffering they caused the Jews. However, before He did so, he would perform, through Aaron and Moses, a little miracle.
 
Aaron took his staff and threw it down on the floor and it turned into a serpent. The Egyptian magicians were unfazed; they took their walking sticks and did the same. Aaron’s serpent then returned to the status of a staff and only then, swallowed the Egyptians’ staffs as they were serpents. Voila! Two miracles in just a few minutes.     
 
Our first question is why the need for this miracle in the first place? Don’t the miracles of the plagues make enough of an impression so that G-d does not have to perform this little meaningless trick as well? In addition, we must also ask, what is the meaning behind this double miracle—the staff turning into a serpent and then eating the other serpents, not as a serpent, but once it become a staff again first?    
 
Perhaps we can say that this was not about punishment, but about establishing the rules of engagement. G-d was showing the Egyptians who was in charge, and to prepare the Egyptians for the plagues to come. 
 
You see, a serpent is an “angry” animal. It slays. Therefore, first G-d sent the warning bells that bad things were going to happen. However, G-d also wanted Pharaoh to know that the punishments were not coming out of anger, but out of strength, which is symbolized by Aaron’s staff, not the serpent. 
 
That is why the miracle – as a way of introduction – is for the staff to turn into a serpent, but then to turn back into a staff and consume the other serpents, since being a serpent is not a good way of life. Being strong is.   
 
 
 
 
 
 
On Being Angry
 
Is it ever worth getting angry? On the one hand it shows that you are a person of passion, filled with so much emotion that a situation can move you to the point where you are boiling with anger. However, if you look at it from another perspective, it shows that you allowed a situation to get the better of you. And then you might come across as cold and callous.
 
How do you balance your emotions and yet show that you are serious?
 
If we look at this week’s Torah portion, we see something very interesting. G-d was about to punish the Egyptians for the suffering they caused the Jews. However, before He did so, he would perform, through Aaron and Moses, a little miracle.
 
Aaron took his staff and threw it down on the floor and it turned into a serpent. The Egyptian magicians were unfazed; they took their walking sticks and did the same. Aaron’s serpent then returned to the status of a staff and only then, swallowed the Egyptians’ staffs as they were serpents. Voila! Two miracles in just a few minutes.     
 
Our first question is why the need for this miracle in the first place? Don’t the miracles of the plagues make enough of an impression so that G-d does not have to perform this little meaningless trick as well? In addition, we must also ask, what is the meaning behind this double miracle—the staff turning into a serpent and then eating the other serpents, not as a serpent, but once it become a staff again first?    
 
Perhaps we can say that this was not about punishment, but about establishing the rules of engagement. G-d was showing the Egyptians who was in charge, and to prepare the Egyptians for the plagues to come. 
 
You see, a serpent is an “angry” animal. It slays. Therefore, first G-d sent the warning bells that bad things were going to happen. However, G-d also wanted Pharaoh to know that the punishments were not coming out of anger, but out of strength, which is symbolized by Aaron’s staff, not the serpent. 
 
That is why the miracle – as a way of introduction – is for the staff to turn into a serpent, but then to turn back into a staff and consume the other serpents, since being a serpent is not a good way of life. Being strong is.   
 
 

On Being Angry

Is it ever worth getting angry? On the one hand it shows that you are a person of passion, filled with so much emotion that a situation can move you to the point where you are boiling with anger. However, if you look at it from another perspective, it shows that you allowed a situation to get the better of you. And then you might come across as cold and callous.

 
How do you balance your emotions and yet show that you are serious?
 
If we look at this week’s Torah portion, we see something very interesting. G-d was about to punish the Egyptians for the suffering they caused the Jews. However, before He did so, he would perform, through Aaron and Moses, a little miracle.
 
Aaron took his staff and threw it down on the floor and it turned into a serpent. The Egyptian magicians were unfazed; they took their walking sticks and did the same. Aaron’s serpent then returned to the status of a staff and only then, swallowed the Egyptians’ staffs as they were serpents. Voila! Two miracles in just a few minutes.     
 
Our first question is why the need for this miracle in the first place? Don’t the miracles of the plagues make enough of an impression so that G-d does not have to perform this little meaningless trick as well? In addition, we must also ask, what is the meaning behind this double miracle—the staff turning into a serpent and then eating the other serpents, not as a serpent, but once it become a staff again first?    
 
Perhaps we can say that this was not about punishment, but about establishing the rules of engagement. G-d was showing the Egyptians who was in charge, and to prepare the Egyptians for the plagues to come. 
 
You see, a serpent is an “angry” animal. It slays. Therefore, first G-d sent the warning bells that bad things were going to happen. However, G-d also wanted Pharaoh to know that the punishments were not coming out of anger, but out of strength, which is symbolized by Aaron’s staff, not the serpent. 
 
That is why the miracle – as a way of introduction – is for the staff to turn into a serpent, but then to turn back into a staff and consume the other serpents, since being a serpent is not a good way of life. Being strong is.   
 
 
 
 
 
 
On Being Angry
 
Is it ever worth getting angry? On the one hand it shows that you are a person of passion, filled with so much emotion that a situation can move you to the point where you are boiling with anger. However, if you look at it from another perspective, it shows that you allowed a situation to get the better of you. And then you might come across as cold and callous.
 
How do you balance your emotions and yet show that you are serious?
 
If we look at this week’s Torah portion, we see something very interesting. G-d was about to punish the Egyptians for the suffering they caused the Jews. However, before He did so, he would perform, through Aaron and Moses, a little miracle.
 
Aaron took his staff and threw it down on the floor and it turned into a serpent. The Egyptian magicians were unfazed; they took their walking sticks and did the same. Aaron’s serpent then returned to the status of a staff and only then, swallowed the Egyptians’ staffs as they were serpents. Voila! Two miracles in just a few minutes.     
 
Our first question is why the need for this miracle in the first place? Don’t the miracles of the plagues make enough of an impression so that G-d does not have to perform this little meaningless trick as well? In addition, we must also ask, what is the meaning behind this double miracle—the staff turning into a serpent and then eating the other serpents, not as a serpent, but once it become a staff again first?    
 
Perhaps we can say that this was not about punishment, but about establishing the rules of engagement. G-d was showing the Egyptians who was in charge, and to prepare the Egyptians for the plagues to come. 
 
You see, a serpent is an “angry” animal. It slays. Therefore, first G-d sent the warning bells that bad things were going to happen. However, G-d also wanted Pharaoh to know that the punishments were not coming out of anger, but out of strength, which is symbolized by Aaron’s staff, not the serpent. 
 
That is why the miracle – as a way of introduction – is for the staff to turn into a serpent, but then to turn back into a staff and consume the other serpents, since being a serpent is not a good way of life. Being strong is.   
 
 

How to Stop Hate


 
Lately, I have been asked about all the anti-Semitism that we currently see in America. Although we are not happy with this new wave, it is not new to us. Jews have been experiencing anti-Semitism here since the birth of our nation, but long before that, while we were in Egypt.
 
It all started when we were in Egypt way back when, after Joseph died, which occurs in this week’s Torah portion. “A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph.” The rabbis point out that this can be taken literally: “A new king.” Or, the king made out as if he were new, i.e., he made out as if he did not know Joseph. Either way we interpret the verse, we see that anti-Semitism is born. The lack of appreciation for what Joseph did for the Egyptians was evident, but then it became time to strike back.
 
To gain a deeper understanding of this concept and how we as Jews are affected by it, we should continue reading the story. If we look closely, we see that two stories are told concurrently: the story that happens to us from the outside and the story that happens to us from within our own community.
 
I would like to focus on the story that happens from within our own community.
 
In the original story, after Moses neutralized an Egyptian for beating up a fellow Jew, he found out that word about his violence spread to the palace and his life was placed in danger. Moses said, “Behold, it became known.” In other words, people were talking negatively about Moses.  Clearly, someone reported his deed to the palace, so he concluded that there was an informer amongst the Jews. Such behavior was considered unacceptable.
 
Moses escaped and years passed. Eventually G-d appointed Moses to be the leader of the Jewish people and to take them out of their exile. Moses witnessed their suffering, which became so much worse than it was before he left. Moses said, “Now I understand why the Jews are suffering.” He didn’t mean that as a form of punishment, but rather as a form of enlightenment.
 
You see, even when we suffer and experience anti-Semitism (which is inexcusable), and even if it was brought upon us because of our own behavior (although that is not always the case), there can also be a silver lining. That is what Moses witnessed—Moses saw that the Jews came together. No longer was one Jew talking negatively about another. They were not backstabbing each other. Instead, he observed a united Jewish community. When his eyes beheld that scene, he knew that they would be redeemed. There would be an end to the suffering, an end to their pain.  
 
In our own time we have witnessed this as well. Less than two weeks ago on a beautiful Sunday morning, Jews from all stripes and colors walked hand in hand. Orthodox Jews and Reform Jews. Chasidic Jews and Conservative Jews. It didn’t matter because labels don’t matter. A Jew is a Jew, and we stand by each other’s side. Each put politics and differences aside and were united with one voice. We are one family, one people. When we witness such unity, we know that there will be an end to the hatred in this world.
 
Just as in Moses’s day when the Jews triumphed, so too today, we will succeed in stopping hatred from spreading and we will dispel the darkness with light, and replace hate with love, and usher in an era of peace and prosperity.  

 

The Nature of Nature

Two rabbis are sitting and eating a meal. One turns to his fellow and says, “Share a thought.” He responds, “It is not safe to speak while you eat.” But when he finishes, he says, “Jacob, our father, never died.” “But haven’t they given a eulogy at a funeral and buried him in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Chevron?” the first rabbi asks. “Yes indeed,” the second rabbi answers, “but since his progeny are alive, so is he alive.” 

At first glance this is a typical story found in the Talmud, which is trying to teach us a lesson about life: If we live a meaningful life and teach our children how to live theirs, we will live on through them. However, upon deeper reflection we can see that there is much more to the two rabbis’ dialogue.
For example, why was it necessary to point out not to talk while eating? He could have just kept quiet. When he said that Jacob never died, did he think it was meant literally? Why didn’t he just ask what was meant? 
 
The deeper conversation is about whether or not Judaism engages with nature or just casually interacts with it. 
 
Both rabbis are practical and know that they live in the natural world and that they need to eat to survive. They are discussing whether they do so as a necessity or for pleasure. 
 
Is nature meant to be a peripheral part of our lives, with our main focus on G-d and spirituality? Or is nature meant to be integrated into our lives so that it becomes an essential part of our spiritual experience? 
 
If you are of the thinking that it is the latter, then you might want to “share a Torah thought while you are eating.” In this way you can combine the mandate with the holy. This is what the first rabbi tells the second. How does he respond? You might be right, but that is unsafe, as the food can go down the wrong pipe. 
 
“If you want to know how to merge the two worlds together,” responds the second rabbi, “then you should know that Jacob never died. You see, when you combine the two worlds of heaven and earth, nature and higher-than-nature, then even after Jacob dies, he still lives on, through his children.”  
This is the deeper meaning of this conversation in the Talmud. The rabbis are teaching us to have a more nuanced appreciation of life. To integrate our thinking and behavior not only to wonder how it will impact us, but how it will impact our children and the people around us. Jacob didn’t live in a bubble and that is why we are still talking about him today. We, too, should live our lives in such a way that we will make a difference, and in order to do so, we have to understand the nature of our little world. 

Standing Together

In wake of the recent anti-Semitic attacks in the New York area, we have seen the Jewish community come together in solidarity. These rallies are important and hopefully they will send a message to the larger community that “an attack on one is an attack on all.” And the Jewish community will not stay quiet as Jews are attacked. 


However, if you listen to the commentators discuss why this segment of the Jewish population is being attacked, they posit that it is because they “look Jewish.” If that is true, then the question becomes how do we stand together if we don’t dress like them? 

Standing together doesn’t mean being like each other. It means recognizing that we each need each other. Just as the hand needs the foot, so too does each segment of the Jewish community need the other. There is no segment that is more or less significant. We are truly one. One body.  

This realization leads to a higher level of unity when we start learning from each other. When we see that each Jew – with all our differences – has something to teach another. 

The ultimate goal is achieved when we recognize that there is no difference between us. We are truly brothers and sisters.  

This kind of relationship of standing up for one another is learned from Judah in this week’s Torah portion. When he approaches his brother Joseph and he demands the release of Benjamin, he says, “I guaranteed my life on this life.”   

Judah teaches all Jews for all the generations to come that we must stand up for each other no matter the risks involved. That is what it means to be a Jew. 

When we stand up for each other, we become a cohesive Jewish community! 

Why Did the Maccabees Fight?

As Chanukah approaches, we busy ourselves with preparing the Menorah, the dreidel, and the parties, and the joy that comes along with them. However, it is worth taking a few minutes to ponder what motivated the Maccabees to risk their lives to fight the Hellenists. 

 

The Maccabees’ lives were not in danger. They were permitted to practice almost all of the mitzvot – even though a few laws were forbidden, such as circumcision. They were even permitted to learn Torah! Well, they were not allowed to say the blessing before they learned, but how bad is that? Could they not endure such a comfortable life under Greek rule that it is was worth putting their lives at risk, just because they suffered some “inconveniences” regarding the nuance of the law?  

To strengthen the question: According to Jewish law, we can only put our life at risk if we are challenged to disobey any of the three cardinal sins: idolatry, adultery, or murder. None of these were being forced upon the Jews. This begs the question, why, from a Halachic perspective, would the Maccabees put their lives in danger? 

 

The Maccabees saw a bigger picture. They recognized that the fabric of the Jewish people was coming apart at the seams—Jews were assimilating into Greek culture. They didn’t have time to worry about the nitty-gritty of the law. Correctly and according to Greek law, they could have sat in the comfort of their homes and under their palm trees and just concerned themselves with their own needs, and when Greek soldiers came around, they could have pulled out their dreidels and started playing so that they would not be caught teaching Torah to the children, the way it should be taught. Yet that was not who they were. They were warriors! They were leaders! They put the community’s needs before their own. When they noticed that the Jewish community was “slipping” into the Greek way of life, they said, “We have to do something about this. We must bring Judaism back into the center of people’s lives.” 

Interestingly, G-d recognizes this and performs a miracle with oil – making one day’s worth of oil last eight days – to teach the Jewish people that by adding a little light into their lives they can transform their world and make it into a holy place. They can rid themselves of the Greek influence and reconnect with G-d. 

 

This message applies to our generation as much as it did to theirs. We, too, are distracted by our culture and can slip into our surroundings and get confused as to what it means to be a Jew, to be able to define to ourselves what Judaism means to us and to our family and community. But on Chanukah, when we kindle a light, we remind ourselves that we have what it takes to stand up to the forces of the world that try to silence us, and we tell them that we will always be a light unto the world.  

Nothing can stop us! 

Happy Chanukah 

 

Every Small step Counts

We find something very interesting in this week’s Torah portion. When the Torah recalls the wives whom Esau married, one of them is named “Basmat.” The commentators point out that she is the same woman as “Machalat,” daughter of Yishmoel, who was mentioned two weeks ago. Basmat is her real name, but, we wonder, why was she referred to earlier as Machalat? Perhaps because Machalat means “forgiveness” and on the day of one’s wedding, a bride and groom are forgiven of their sins. 

If you recall, two weeks ago I wrote about the lack of sincerity on the part of Esau upon his marriage to Basmat/Machalat, yet it is from this marriage that the Midrash teaches that when anyone gets married they are forgiven from all their sins, just as Esau was! Wow.
 
How can we learn from such an insincere marriage that all marriages start with a clean slate?
 
By learning the whole Midrash, we will garner a deeper meaning.
The Midrash goes on to tell us that there are three times in one’s life when they can start anew (in addition to every year on Yom Kippur):
1.      When someone converts to Judaism
2.      When someone is appointed to a position of greatness
3.      On the day of one’s marriage
What are the common denominators between these three seemingly random situations? The outcome of all three will result in growth:
1.      In one’s connection to G-d, through the performance of Mitzvot
2.      Through making an impact in this world
3.      Through having children and performing Mitzvot in the home that you build together as a couple
 
Looking at it this way, it doesn’t really matter that Esau wasn’t sincere. Of course it would be more meaningful if he were sincere but the main thing is that he is doing the best that he can.
 
This is the lesson that all of us can glean even from a person like Esau. We might not be perfect, but that doesn’t mean that our “small” contributions to society are meaningless just because they are not “perfect.” We should try to do our best, and so long as we try and the results are there – even if they are imperfect – we know that we have done our part.

Location. Location. Location.

 When it comes to choosing a place to live or a place to open a business, it is all about location. 

Why? 

Well, in business, if your retail shop is in a poorly located, even if you have very attractive goods but nobody knows about them, you will not sell anything. However, why does it really matter where you live? A house is a house. Why does the neighborhood matter? If you have children in public school then you can argue that you want certain services. However, if you are sending your kids to Jewish Day School, then does it matter in which community you live? So long as you can get them to school, you are good to live in any house you choose. 

We can expand the question to colleges. If a university student is going to learn and earn a degree, does it matter if there is “Jewish life” on campus? 

How about if one is figuring out what job to take? 

Lately there have been articles published about how people are fleeing the big cities (NY, LA, DC) and moving to smaller cities around the country (Charlotte, Austin, Columbus). Should Jews leave the infrastructure of Jewish life, Jewish community, etc., just so that they can live a more “comfortable life” where the Jewish community is less established? Should the Jewish community be a deciding factor in our decision-making?

In addition to the broader benefits that one might get from living in a community that has the amenities one might need, there is also a spiritual factor that one should take into consideration.  

This week’s Torah portion starts with the words, “And Jacob went out from Be’er Sheva and went toward Charan.” The commentators point out that it should read he went toward first, not he went out from first. This teaches us that his leaving town left behind a void—even though his parents, righteous people as well, were still in town. A city or town with righteous people living in it is a blessing for all its inhabitants, and when they leave, those blessings leave with them. Hence the void.

Jacob was running for his life from his brother, Esau, so he had no choice. Wherever he went he had to build a Jewish life there. It wasn’t easy for him and eventually he went back home, but that is for another discussion. The focus here is on the town that he left behind. 

This spiritual factor is, at times, hard to notice. How Jewish a community is might be hard to measure. Even in our personal lives we might not be sure how involved we want to be in our own Jewishness, but that doesn’t negate the fact that our “location” will have an effect on our lives. 

Let’s translate this verse with a Chasidic twist: By looking at the meaning behind the words of the verse, we can glimpse a deeper message hidden within the story. “Jacob” represents the Jewish people, so Jacob becomes the “soul” of the Jewish people and “Be’er Sheva” – the city with seven wells – represents the wellspring of life, or “heaven.” It follows that our souls descend from the highest place in heaven and enter into the town of “Charan,” representing the difficulties of this world, the challenges of day-to-day life. The distraction of our soul, the “Charan” of the world, makes us forget from where our soul came. How do we stay connected? By living in “Be’er Sheva,” by deciding to live in a Jewish community.

So does location matter? Absolutely! Does it matter which college a kid chooses? 100%! Does my neighborhood matter? Of course! 

If we think in terms of “Be’er Sheva” vs. “Charan,” we can think about what is best for our souls, not only what is best for us.

A Litmus Test of Change

How do we know if a change we’ve made in our lives is meaningful? At times, for example, we may make a change just to please someone else. Is a change made to please a loved one, family member, friend, colleagues, or social group a meaningful act or not?

We might think that in order to keep the peace, we should do what it takes to make everyone happy. In other words, go with the flow, even if it’s not who we really are.

There are times when doing what others expect may be right. We follow their advice because we know they are wiser and more experienced, for example. Or maybe not: it’s also possible it’s just guilt that’s guiding our decision. How can we know?

In this week’s Torah portion, we read about Esau taking a new wife, Machlat, the daughter of Yishmael. Machlat was more than a daughter and wife; her life had special meaning of its own. The Medrash teaches us that Machlat comes from the Hebrew word “Mechila” which means forgiveness. This tells us that she was forgiven for her sins. She changed, through asking for forgiveness from G-d, and hence she became a better person.

Why is this important? Because Esau married Machlat to prove to his father that he had become a better person. He wanted to show his father he changed his ways by marring a good wife.

But did Esau really change? Esau had previously married two wives against his parents’ wishes. According to the Rabbis, these women spent all their days in adultery and idolatry. 

The fact that Esau added a wife on to these two wives instead of leaving the women he had previously married tells us that he didn’t really change. He had behaved in a certain way to please his father, but the fact that he didn’t get rid of his past life tells us that his new life was not that significant.

This is our litmus test. If a change in our lives demands that we leave something behind and we do it, then we know we’re on the road to true change. If we don’t leave the past behind, then the change will be temporary. 

This Thanksgiving season let us be grateful for the opportunity Judaism gives us to make meaningful change in our lives.

Shabbat Shalom.

Direct Talk vs. Dropping Hints

 Often, I am asked why it is that we need Rabbinic Judaism. If G-d wanted to tell us something, he could have included it in the Torah, just as He has included so many other details. Why the need for the Rabbis to extrapolate it from the Torah through hints? Not only that, He has included some details more than once, such as in this week’s Torah portion, where we are told the story – twice – of Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, and his search for a wife for Isaac.

If we think about it, in our own lives we, too, say things not only once, but twice, and yet we are ignored. The best way – we hope – to be heard, is to “drop a hint.” When we speak in riddles, although our intent may be indirect, it allows the other person to figure it out, and there is a stronger desire to do what is requested.

Let’s use the example if you have a birthday coming up and you want a certain present. If you drop a hint and your beloved “gets it” there will be this “aha” moment and they will be not only willing to buy it but will do so with enthusiasm. If, on other hand you ask for it directly, your wish may be forgotten.

This is why, when Eliezer meets Rebekah’s family, he doesn’t mention the details of the story that are stated directly in the Torah; rather, he shares a miracle that is only hinted – that his trip, miraculously, was much shorter than it could have been, pointing out that this is a sign from G-d that Rebekah is the predestined wife for Isaac.

The commentators ask: Reading the text, there are more obvious signs, such as the way Rebekah cared for the camels and Eliezer at the well. Why discuss an event that happened to him, and not an interaction with Rebekah?

The answer given is because this detail is only hinted at in the Torah and not mentioned directly. It is in the “hints” that the truth is revealed.

The secrets of the Torah, the deeper meaning of the Torah, lurks beneath the surface. Eliezer was showing Rebekah’s family that Isaac and Rebekah are meant for each other not just on the surface, but that their souls are meant for each other as well. 

When we hint to our spouse what we want for a gift and they figure it out, this is a good sign.

When the Rabbis derive a deeper meaning from the Torah, this reveals a strong connection between us and G-d.

Let’s find deeper meaning in the story of Rebekah and the well.

Is There Intrinsic Value in Learning?

 Here is a question for you. You are hired for a new job and you are given the company manual to read, or the computer software to learn. You are told that you should learn this in your free time. You are not being paid for this. Is this fair? Should you be paid for being trained or should you be expected to learn the “trade” before being hired? 

On the one hand, if the company wants you to learn something new, they should teach it to you on their time. On the other hand, that is why they ask for a resume in advance: To make sure that new hires have the skills that are necessary to join the company. They did not pay for you to go to college, get a degree, or learn all the skills up to this point in life, so why should they pay you to learn the last few? 

I might be trivializing the issue because I think we can all agree that when it comes to work, a company has no obligation to hire anyone if they don’t think that they are a match, and a person doesn’t have to take a job if they don’t think that they are being compensated properly.  

Similarly, the question applies to education. We can’t expect our children to be responsible adults when they are children, but if we don’t educate them while they are children, how do we expect them to know how to behave as adults, when they reach the age of maturity? So the question becomes, to what degree are we obligated to educate them? In other words, is it a “biblical” obligation or is it “common sense” obligation? 

To further explain the question, I ask: Do we teach children how to behave just so that they will know how to behave when they are older and responsible? Or do we educate them when they are youngsters so that even while they are young, they can behave a certain way—even though we also understand that we can’t hold them accountable since they are young and immature, and they will make mistakes. 

I will take the question even further. When it comes to the practice of Mitzvot, whether children or adults who are taking on a new Mitzvah: During the “educational” process, are we just learning so that one day we will be ready to “do it right?” Or is the learning itself also considered practicing, even if it’s full of errors? As an aside, when it comes to a child, there is no obligation until their Bar/Bat Mitzvah, so the question is stronger.

The answer is that even during the learning and practicing process, there is value. We might not be perfect, but Judaism is not “all or nothing.” Every little step that one takes, even just a baby step, counts. The main thing for us to do is to take that step. The focus should not be, “Are we getting rewarded for it?” because then clearly we are telling the “boss” we are not interested in the Mitzvah.  Part of showing G-d that we are interested in Him is when we try to learn. When we are not focusing on success or failure, but on our effort, that is the main thing.

Becoming Complete

Human beings have an innate desire to be better people. At times, that desire is expressed in a competitive way with others, and at times we compete “with ourselves” by asking ourselves, “How can I be a better person today than I was yesterday?”

Of course it’s a lot healthier when we look at ourselves in the mirror and try to lift ourselves up instead of trying to put others down. Let’s rephrase that: The only way to make ourselves better is to lift ourselves up because nothing is gained by putting others down.
 
Yet, it is worth asking the question: Why the need to become a better person? Why can’t we just come to terms with “who I am,” and just say this is the way that nature is, or that is the way I was nurtured? Why invest in myself? Why improve myself?
 
In Hebrew there are expressions of praise given to people who have lived their lives to the fullest: We will call them Tamim, complete, or Ish Shalom, a peaceful person. These Biblical terms are taken from this week’s Torah portion. However, what is interesting is that the Torah doesn’t just use these expressions to describe people in their old age – such as for Noach and Abraham – but also to describe baby Isaac when he has his Brit Milah, his circumcision!
How is it that a baby can become a “complete” individual, without doing any hard, personal, individualized soul-searching? Just like that, a little “surgery” and bam, you become complete! What is it about the Brit Milah that is so important that it makes an eight-day-old baby “complete?”
 
Circumcision is beyond our understanding. We do it because G-d commands us to. It doesn’t have to make sense, nor does it make sense. We do so in order to connect to G-d on a deep and spiritual level. We want to become one with Him, connect to Him, beyond any reason, not because we understand, but even though we don’t understand. When we achieve a point in our lives when we do something for someone else without expecting anything in return, we have reached a level of perfection that no “self-help” book can teach us. The emphasis is not on the “I” but on the other person. It is the fact that we are willing to subjugate our egos for another person’s that makes us great. So long as we are trying to make ourselves better, the focus is still on us. As we get older, it becomes more and more difficult to remove ourselves from the picture, and that is why we circumcise our children when they are only eight days old.
 
However, the lesson gives us the strength to be able to continue to put others before ourselves, to put G-d before ourselves, and to continue to grow and become better people.
 
The name of the Torah portion is Lech Lecha, Go onto yourself. We should continue to grow and grow. 

What Does The Rainbow Mean To You?

The rainbow, a beautiful natural phenomenon that is caused by the dispersion of light in water drops, results in a spectrum of multi-colored light appearing in the sky. That is how one might explain its natural phenomenon. However, we might also ask ourselves: Is there is a deeper message in the rainbow?

The rainbow has been adopted by many movements to symbolize peace and tolerance and variations thereof. However, those representations didn’t come out of thin air—they originated from somewhere. What does the rainbow really teach us?

In this week’s Torah portion, after the story of the flood, G-d makes a promise that He will never destroy the world again. If he wants the world to know that it should “clean up its act,” then he will show us a rainbow.

Now, if a rainbow were not a natural phenomenon, we could understand why seeing a rainbow might shake us to the core and move us to change our ways, knowing that G-d is giving us a second chance. But since we know that a rainbow is a natural phenomenon, why would a rainbow have any such kind of effect on us?

Allow me to give you another perspective.

G-d didn’t destroy the world and then create a rainbow to remind Himself not do so again. He pushed the “reset” button so that the world would never sink to such a low spiritual level again and need to be destroyed. As a result of this “reset,” the natural outcome was the rainbow! The rainbow became the reminder of the flood that will never occur again because the world is on a higher spiritual level! 

What is even more interesting is that it’s possible for the world to be elevated to an even higher spiritual level so that a rainbow will not be needed to give us this reminder, because the world is so holy!

There were actually two times in history, during the lifetimes of King Chizkiyahu (Hezekiah) and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochi, when the world was on such a spiritual “high” that a rainbow was not seen in the sky. Theoretically, it can happen again!

The rainbow shows us G-d’s kindness. It’s not about destruction but about rebuilding. It’s not scary, it’s beauty.

When I see a rainbow, I see G-d’s miracle revealed, and I say a blessing thanking G-d for sharing it with me. I thank G-d for giving this world to me and allowing me to partner with Him in making this world a better place and creating a “home” for Him to “live in” and to be proud of, with the hope that Moshiach will come and there will be true peace in this world. Amen.

A Man Named Chanoch

 

Here is an interesting story. There are two brothers who give the same name to their sons: Chanoch. Both fathers wanted their sons to grow up to be successful, influential and productive men. Yet it doesn’t turn out to be that way.

Why?

To understand why, we need to know the rest of the story.

In the beginning, there were not only two brothers but three. Kayin (Cain), the bad guy, killed his brother Hevel (Abel). His parents were distraught, so they begat a third son and they named him Shiet (Seth). Sheit, like his older brother Hevel was a goody-goody.

What happened to Cain after he killed his brother? The Torah teaches us that he regretted his actions and did Teshuva—he changed his ways for the better. He turned his life around and he dedicated his life to serving G-d and to educating his children. The name Chanoch, is derived from the word Chinuch – meaning educate and renew. This was his new life's dedication.

What was Seth’s life like? Well, he was naturally a good kid and as he matured, he continued on the straight path. Did he educate his children? Yes, but was he committed to their education? Not really. 

That is why the Torah tells us that although the cousins grow up at the same time, each with the same name, with a city built for them, they have high hopes for a successful legacy. Only Cain’s son Chanoch, the son of the sinner and killer, is successful. His city is the one that prospers! Is it because he is also the son of the one who changed his way, the son of the one who did Teshuvah, the one who recognized his mistakes and who rededicated his life to his children’s education? 

On the other hand, we have the perfect father Seth. He might have done nothing wrong in his life, but he also did nothing extraordinary that would make an impression on his son. That is why his son’s city falters.

The lesson that we can learn from this story, one of the first that we read in this new year, coming off of the High Holiday season, is that we should not get caught up in our past, but look at the actions that we are taking today! What are we doing to advance our Judaism in our lives?  If we do something positive, we will succeed.

 

Even the smallest infraction

When you go shopping to buy something, let’s say a piece of furniture, and you see that it has a small scratch, you might decide not to buy it. But if you do buy it, probably the little imperfection doesn’t bother you that much. However, if you buy it and the furniture gets further scratched at home, chances are that you will be very disappointed. Why is it that the imperfection had less significance in the store than it does when it is at home? 

The reason is because while the object was in the store, you were looking at something that was not yours. You had the option to choose it or not. However, once it becomes yours, it has been chosen—you and the object are one. Therefore, every imperfection is a reflection on you. 

Now we can understand an interesting law connected to our weekly Torah portion. It says that metal should not touch the stone that is used for the altar. The Talmud and the code of Jewish law say that there is a difference if the stone was chipped before the stone became part of the altar, or if it was chipped after the altar had been built. 

If the stone was chipped before, then it only becomes unusable if the chip is of a “measurable” size. But if the altar was already built, then even the smallest damage rendered it unusable and therefore it must be replaced. 

The reason is as follows: Before the stone became part of the altar, the stone hadn’t been chosen yet and therefore a small infraction was not a big deal. If, however, it became part of the altar, then it was “chosen” and perfection was required. 

This teaches us a profound lesson relating to Rosh Hashana: When we see an imperfection in another person we should be accepting and forgiving. But when we see an imperfection in ourselves, even if it is the smallest imperfection, we should work on changing ourselves to the better.

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