Rabbi Shaya's Thoughts

G-d Wants Our Love

OK, so it is just days before Rosh Hashanah and we are all busy preparing. Some of us are in the kitchen cooking up a storm, others are in the store buying clothes, while others are working to pay the bills. The cantor is working on his songs and the rabbi on his sermon. Everyone is putting last-minute touches on their holiday preparations.

All of these preparations and responsibilities are important, but the most important preparation of all is readying ourselves spiritually so that when we come to the synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, we feel like we belong.

Interestingly enough, in this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, there is a verse that alludes to how we should prepare ourselves on a spiritual level. The verse reads, “G-d will ’circumcise‘ your heart and the heart of your children (which will enable you) to love G-d.” What does this verse mean? Clearly we are not physically circumcising our hearts, and why does circumcision enable us to love G-d?

In our efforts to improve ourselves, we need to first ask for forgiveness and to forgive. We have to let go of our past so that we can move forward. But what do we do after that? How do we reveal our inner power and potential? How do we grow beyond what is obviously achievable, to reach the greatest heights? To attain these goals, we need help.

You see, to become a better person there are two basic steps that need to be taken. First, you have to let go of your past. Second, you have to dig deep within yourself to reveal your true potential. For that step we ask for help. So G-d says, “I will circumcise your heart.” Circumcision is not just cutting off something that is unwanted; it also has the potential to reveal something that is hidden. G-d says, “I will help you reveal your potential.” Once that happens, we can come closer to loving G-d.

If we approach the holidays with a loving mode, our connection to G-d will be a loving one. After all, G-d wants our love more than our prayers.

Looking forward to an inspiring Rosh Hashanah.

Edited by 

It’s all in the packaging! Or is it?

It’s all in the packaging! Or is it?

We package a gift nicely so that the presentation should not only be attractive, but also as an expression that shows it is a meaningful gift. We presume that the recipient keeps the packaging together with the gift. 

But what if the recipient gives the packaging back? Is that a sign that they don’t appreciate the mode of delivery? Or is it a message that the gift itself is appreciated, even without the packaging?

Don’t be surprised to learn that the Torah has an opinion on this as well.

This week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, talks about giving a gift to the Kohen (priest) of the first, and best, fruits that have grown on one’s land. This Mitzvah is called Bikurim. Now the question arises, what to do with the basket that the fruits were delivered in? Does it remain in the possession of the giver, or does the Kohen keep it?

Here we have an interesting answer: It depends. If the basket is an expensive basket, the Kohen gives it back to the giver. If it is a simple basket, it remains in the Kohen’s possession. On the surface, we can explain the reason why by saying that the giver of the expensive basket did not intend to give such an expensive basket as part of the gift, so it is returned; but the giver of the simple wicker basket, the one that is not worth much, intended for the Kohen to keep it. However, it doesn’t say that the Kohen “can” keep it—it says that the Kohen “does” keep it. This teaches us that the wicker basket is actually part of the gift, yet the gold or silver basket is not and it has to be returned! Why?

Is this where the saying “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer” comes from? 

In Judaism, intent is very important. It is possible for someone to give a gift intending only to include the contents of the basket, or that same someone can intend to include the basket as well.

When someone gives a gift of fruit in a fancy basket, this tells us that they are interested in the packaging, in the external aspects of the Mitzvah. There is some ego involved here, and the gift is not as pure, and that is why the basket is returned. On the other hand, when the intent is pure and there is no need for the fancy basket – because it is not about the basket but about the fruit – the fancy basket takes away from the purity of the mitzvah instead of adding flavor. It’s as if the giver is saying the fruit itself is not that valuable, therefore I must dress it up with a fancy basket.

The beauty lies in the simplicity.

That is why when the simple wicker basket is given, the Kohen keeps it to show the value in this simple act, while the expensive basket is returned so that the giver doesn’t lose out by the basket cheapening the gift.

In our lives, we too, have to think about the times when “packaging” is necessary and when it’s not.

As we gear up for Rosh Hashanah, we remove our external packaging from our souls and we let our souls shine—purely. 

 Edited by

G-d, Show Me The Money!

The Torah says that we are rewarded for the Mitzvot that we perform. The question that we should be asking is, how come we don’t see those rewards?

This question is examined in this week’s Torah portion, Ki Teitzei, when it talks about not holding back wages from an employee. “If I have earned a reward,” asks the employee, “how can G-d, who promised us a reward, not pay up on time?”

There are many approaches that we can take to resolve this enigma. Today, I would like to share two perspectives.

1 - We are to be paid after the work is completed. Since our mission in this world is not completed until the day we die, we are not rewarded until then. Therefore, our reward is given to us in the world to come (i.e., after we die).

2 - Are we to be considered employees of G-d or partners? Employees must be paid on time, but partners continuously reinvest their shares into the company. If our role in this world is to partner with G-d, then we take all of our accomplishments and reinvest them in this world; our reward, therefore, will only come when Moshiach comes (i.e., the end of days).

What is interesting is that this Torah portion is read during the month of Elul, as we prepare for the High Holidays. During this month and during the holiday season we continuously ask G-d for blessings in this physical world. This leads us to conclude that at this time of year, we should put the philosophical explanations aside, and beseech G-d for blessings in this world now!

This is why we wish each other a happy and sweet New Year. We want these blessings now, in this world and in a very tangible way.

May you have a very sweet and blessed year.

Shabbat Shalom





Learning For Learning's Sake


Johns Hopkins University recently published a study detailing the effects on children of chronic absenteeism from school. It reported that although their test scores might not have suffered, the children nevertheless suffered setbacks in age-level skills and other appropriate developmental milestones. You may ask, “Who cares? The fact that the children are getting good marks means that they are learning, so what is the big deal if they miss so many days?”

This might be an understandable attitude if the only reason we learn is so we know how to behave. But the reason we learn is more than just knowing right from wrong. Learning is important simply for learning’s sake, so every day of learning becomes important.

This is why it is so important for Jews to say na’aseh v’nishma—we will do and we will listen. Of course we must also learn how to act, but learning is not limited to just knowing how to act. Learning is important for learning’s sake. That is why only after we emphasized the importance of acting did we mention learning, to show that we understand the importance of learning for learning’s sake.  

This week’s Torah portion is called Shoftim, Judges. The midrash tells us that it is a gift from G-d for us to have judges. You see, judges exist not only to “judge,” but to delve deeper into the meaning of the laws.  A judge is meant to be a sage, one who understands the depth of a topic, and that is why it’s a gift. The law exists not only to define how to behave, but to help us understand why the law is the law. We can ask, How does the law make me a better person? What does the law mean to me?

This is what makes us the People of the Book. We are always learning and always questioning.

During the month of Elul, as we prepare for the High Holidays, let’s dedicate time to learn what it really means to be a Jew, and to examine what the holidays really mean to us. 

Shabbat Shalom and have a meaningful Elul.





In today’s day and age, even talking about slavery makes us cringe. It so baffles our minds that we have a difficult time imagining how it was once possible for people to think that it was acceptable behavior to be a slave owner. Yet, the Torah talks about it as if it is a normal thing to do. How do we reconcile our modern-day feelings with the Torah’s age-old teachings?

The truth is, it is misleading to frame the question this way. All you have to do is a take a closer look in the Torah and you will see that the emphasis is not on the rights of the master, but on the rights of the slave. There is a big “if” here, though. If you want to be a master, then you must treat your slave kindly. Instructions on how to be kind are so detailed that the message becomes very clear: The Torah is not advocating slavery; just the opposite is true—the Torah sees slave ownership as a weakness of the master. The master thinks that the world spins around him. The Torah, however, teaches us that this is not so. What makes you a “big” person is not the fact that you have many slaves, but the fact that you think about other people before yourself. You put other people’s needs first. The more you focus on the needs of another person, the better person you become. Clearly the Torah is trying to move us toward not having slaves. 

To top it off, the Torah says that when you finally set your slave free, you have to give him or her many gifts. This is to teach you the importance of leading a life based on what you do for others, not what you do for yourself.

Granted, slavery was abolished long ago, but the lesson for us lives on. How often do we think about another person’s need before we think about our own need? If we think about our own needs first, then we still have a “master” mentality – which might not be as bad as actually having a slave – but it is still a far cry from what we should achieve to succeed.

This week, let’s put other people’s needs first.

Edited by


Looking for older posts? See the sidebar for the Archive.