Friday, April 29, 2005

Pesach/Sefirat HaOmer/Shavuot and Personal Growth

Right now we are celebrating the holiday of freedom, Passover (Pesach). But what are we celebrating freedom from? It is freedom from and freedom to do something else. It is freedom from slavery as well as freedom to become the Jewish People.

Pesach is an opportunity to free ourselves. Originally it was the time where G-d freed us from Egyptian slavery, which included both physical and spiritual bondage. At a time in history where we as people and as Jews are physically a free people, how are we supposed to understand the idea written in the Haggadah (the book read at the Passover Seder) that we too are supposed to see ourselves as having left Egypt?

It is difficult to put ourselves in a mindset that understands that we are enslaved. We do not have to be physically enslaved to try to wrap our heads around the concept. We are slaves to our desires. Our desires might be the need to be liked by others. It may include the need to buy more material things to make us happy. These are things that restrict us from doing what is necessary to do in our lives, to allow ourselves to grow as Jews.

We may decide that we would like to attempt a mitzvah that we have not tried before, but because it may look strange to other people, we decide not to bother. This may include keeping kosher, lighting Shabbat candles, or not going out on a Friday night. It all comes down to the limitations (not even physical ones) that we place on ourselves, and the limitations we allow others to place on us. We are afraid of what others will think of us. This is slavery.

We must remember that the goal of the Exodus from Egypt was that G-d was redeeming us to be His People. This was not just a group of slaves “escaping” from Egypt. This was an incredibly special event, an event which defines the Jewish People. This is the beginning of the beginning of Jewish history.

“The Haggadah quotes two verses describing the redemption; one in the singular, one in the plural. There are two aspects of redemption: the redemption of the Jewish People as a whole; and the particular redemption of each individual.

Both elements are essential. Each person must experience a personal exodus from his boundaries and limitations. However, beyond this individual experience, he must await the ultimate redemption of the entire people. Indeed, it is our faith in that redemption that grants each of us the potential to leave our individual exiles” -- Rabbi Yehudah Arieh Leib of Gur

[taken from the The Chassidic Haggadah]

Unfortunately, most afternoon Hebrew schools end without having the time to talk about Sefirat HaOmer or Shavuot. Sefirat HaOmer is the 49 day period where we are counting the days until Shavuot, the time when we received the Torah from G-d at Mount Sinai on the 50th day. The day that the 12 Tribes that made up the Jews, became the Jewish People, G-d’s representatives on Earth.

This period of time, Sefirat HaOmer, is a time of personal growth. This is the time where we can make the most impact on our personal characters. The Jews leaving Egypt were at a very low spiritual level and were redeemed based on the merits of the four matriarchs: Sarah, Rivka (Rebecca), Rachel and Leah, and in the merit of the Jewish women of Egypt. G-d needed to give these newly freed slaves time to become free in their minds and to work to bring themselves to a high enough spiritual level to receive the Torah.

The same way we must see ourselves as leaving Egypt, we also need to see ourselves as receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. We need to create ourselves anew as individual Jews and as a nation.

Sefirat HaOmer is an opportunity for no matter what we have been doing all year spiritually, we have a period in time to rededicate ourselves to G-d, the Torah and to our mission as Jews. In general, over the course of the year we are striving to make ourselves better people, however it is easy to get discouraged and annoyed for not making progress. Sefirat HaOmer is a limited time where we can make a concerted effort to break new ground.

Shavuot, the holiday celebrating G-d giving us the Torah, is the culmination of this work. This is the day we have been waiting for. We too were standing at Mount Sinai receiving the Torah (albeit in spiritual form) becoming the Jewish Nation. Shavuot is again the day we will stand at Mount Sinai in order to receive the Torah again for the first time. This is a proud moment. A moment that defines us as individuals and as a nation. Like the Torah says, we stood at the foot of the mountain like one man with one heart. Unified by becoming G-d’s people. We were no longer 12 disparate tribes, but one nation.

Some mark the night of Shavuot by staying up all night learning Torah. But no matter how you mark this day, it is the day that we began looking forward to on Pesach, seven weeks before. This is a period of growth. Let us take advantage of it and move back toward being one man with one heart.

Chazak. Be strong.

Chag Sameach. Have a good Holiday!

Next Year in Jerusalem!

Friday, April 1, 2005

Vayikra: Parshat Shemini

There are two major issues which take place in this parsha. The first is the death of Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu. The second is the discussion about kosher animals.

The first topic is the one of the death of Aaron’s sons. This is a tough one to think about. Aaron is not only Moses’ brother, but was also the High Priest. His sons were also priests who worked in the Tabernacle. They had made an unauthorized offering, which G-d through Moses had asked them not to. But how can we condemn them for trying to go over and above what was expected of them?

Aish HaTorah brings an interesting story to try to help us understand.

What is interesting is that the kosher discussion follows. This is where we gets the rules which explain the basic outline of what we are looking for in kosher animals. We learn that a kosher animal has split hooves and chews its cud. Fish need fins and scales. Seafood is not kosher. We also know that we do not birds that are carnivorous are not kosher either.

We believe that the character of what we eat has a direct impact on our character. We don’t eat predatory birds. We don’t want to be predatory types of people, taking advantage of others. We also kill the animals we eat in a “kosher” way as well in the most humane way possible.

These are only a couple examples of why we eat kosher. There are some who suggest that we no longer need to keep kosher since they are only ancient rules to staying healthy. In ancient times people did not eat pig because of trichinosis, but nowadays we no longer have to worry about that and therefore eating pig products isn’t a problem.

While the logic is interesting, the premise of the idea in wrong. We don’t keep kosher because it’s healthy. While certainly there are side benefits, both spiritual and physical, these are not the reasons we keep kosher. We keep kosher because G-d instructs us to. G-d’s giving us an opportunity to bring spirituality to the physical. Our job in the world as Jews is one of bringing G-dliness into the world around us. Here we have instructions of how to go about doing it.

Where Nadav and Avihu made their mistake in trying to decide what they thought would bring spirituality into the world by going beyond what G-d wanted, we can learn from their error. We know what G-d wants since it’s written there. It’s not up to us to decide what G-d wants, and feel that it’s out of date in our modern day. Perhaps this is why the story of Aaron’s sons is followed by the rules of kosher. Eating kosher is an everyday example of us being able to carry out something that G-d wants.

It all comes down to integrating Judaism into our lives. How do we do that? We check into each week’s parsha to find out what we can learn. It’s not only about the learning, but about the doing. All the best. Shabbat Shalom.

Saturday, February 12, 2005

Purim -- Not Politics!

I just finished the book Let My Nation Live, by Yosef Deutsch about the Purim story and miracle. Besides being an excellent book, it does send a reminder about how everything works...even politics.

Imagine being an ordinary Jew at the time, going along your business. You attend a party at King Achashverosh's palace, a short time later it's found that the second in command to the king is out to destroy the Jewish People in all the land. Next you know the queen is Jewish, we fast and pray for three days, and somehow through a strange turn of events -- the Jewish People are saved.

You could say, "Wow, isn't it amazing how politics works. That Jewish lobby must be pretty strong, I'll make sure to support them the next time they call me for a donation."

However you would be missing the point. G-d is always in the background orchestrating the events...even if we don't see His hand clearly. Purim is an example of how G-d is always there, even in politics. While for some reason we see politics as outside the realm of G-d's involvement, this is totally 180 degrees from the truth. Politics is one the ways that G-d gets our attention.

With all the craziness in the world, from the tznunami of southeast Asia, to the persecution of Jews in Europe and around the world, to the move toward removing Jews from their homes in Israel, we must pay attention to the signs that are right in front of our eyes.

This is not to say that we should not be involved in politics. Absolutely not. We must do what we can to make a difference through natural means, however...

We must realize that politics are run by G-d. When we see events that don't make sense, we must take a minute and think about what we can learn from it. Purim is an amazing time. This is the time when the Jewish People re-accepted the Torah with a full heart.

It is time for us to do the same. I suggest that since Adar is upon us, and Purim is on its way, we need to look to the teachings of Esther and Mordechai to show us the right path. We need not be afraid of the wicked...G-d is there for us. It is up to us to show G-d that we trust in Him, and we will follow His Torah.

Let's start by saying the first line of the Shema every night before going to bed, declaring that G-d is One, and there is nothing else.

Shema Yisroel, Ado-nai Elo-heinu, Ado-nai Echad.

Listen Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One.

We can also light Shabbat candles at the right time on Friday nights. By acknowledging Shabbat, we make clear that G-d created the world, continues to create the world, and is involved in each of our lives. Check your siddur for the instructions and prayer.

If you are already doing these two mitzvot written above, find something to involve G-d in your everyday life. G-d has to be One with you. G-d is not only for the home, G-d is for your business dealings as well as studying Torah.

On a final note, the Jewish People stood at Mount Sinai and accepted the Torah like one man with one heart. We MUST treat every Jew with respect, no matter who they are, what denomination they belong to, whether we agree with their politics. We must show love to one another, this is the only way.

Even if you are not religious, or even if you is not about labels. It is about reality. Do one mitzvah. Just one mitzvah, it will make a huge difference in the world. The world does not run on politics (or money), it runs by mitzvot.

Just remember Purim -- not politics.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Parshat Trumah

This parsha speaks about the construction of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. This was the moveable sanctuary that housed the ark and within the ark, the Tablets that we received at Mount Sinai. This portable Mishkan would later be replaced by King Solomon with the Temple in Jerusalem.

Why did we need this Mishkan? Did the Jews wandering the desert need something else to bring with them on the way?

An explanation for why we need the Mishkan and later the Temple is important to think about, even today. It is important for us to understand that it is not because G-d needs a home on Earth or that we can confine G-d to one place. Or, G-d forbid, that He assumes physical shape. We know that G-d is everywhere and is involved in everything from the large events to helping us pass our exams.

When we speak about making a dwelling place for G-d it is much more than needing a hammer and some nails. The beginning of the parsha speaks about how the Jewish People contributed to the creation of the Mishkan, and were excited to do so. Up until this point in time, G-d had been doing everything for us without us being able to repay in any small way, even in appreciation. Spirituality had been given to us. We received the Ten Commandment and the Torah a couple chapters back and we’d been appointed G-d’s representatives in the world. Now it was time for us to work and incorporate our spirituality. We wanted to contribute to this Mishkan as showing that incorporation of G-dliness into our everyday lives. The giving of the Torah was a one time event. The Mishkan was to be taken with us every day, where ever we would travel.

How does this have an impact on our lives today?

There’s an interesting verse 25:8, “And they shall make Me (G-d) a sanctuary and I will dwell within them.”

This does not make sense. It should say, ‘They will make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell within it.’

This is the point. G-d does not need a physical house. This is the message for today. We are responsible to bring G-dliness into ourselves and our surroundings. We have to make ourselves holy by making ourselves into a Mishkan, and bringing holiness where ever we go. Holiness is not confined to the synagogue, or a place of worship, or relegated to our rabbis. It should be something that becomes part of our innate being as ordinary Jews in our every day actions.

Thursday, January 6, 2005

Shemot/Exodus: Parshat Va'eira

I've decided to post my parsha sheets. None of the ideas here are original, I try to pull them from different sources and find practical lessons. I call this practical Judaism. Feel free to respond and post new ideas. Good Shabbos to all.

Since this parsha deals with the plagues, there is a wonderful book called: Let My Nation Go, by Yosef Deutsch, published by Artscroll. This is a novel written based off all the sources of the exodus from Egypt. It’s a great book, very readable, interesting and informational. Deutsch wrote two other books, Let My Nation Serve Me, picks up after the exodus and talks about the Jewish People going to Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah. The other is: Let My Nation Live, which is the Purim story. I recommend all of these.

All right, back to the parsha. There’s certainly what to learn here. This parsha includes the first seven plagues that G-d visited on Egypt.

We notice that Aaron, Moses’s brother was the one who brought certain plagues down on the Egyptians and not Moses. Aaron changed the Nile waters into blood, and brought the frogs from the river as well. Why didn’t Moshe do these himself? Because of the concept of Hakarat Hatov, recognizing the good that is done for you. According to Rashi, Moshe didn’t smite the river himself “because the river protected Moshe when he was cast into it” (7:19).

The river is an inanimate object, who cares? The point that can be learned here is that we need to sensitize ourselves to recognizing the good. If Moshe has Hakarat Hatov for an inanimate object, how much more so do we need to recognize the good done for us by people and by G-d. By recognizing the good and being grateful, it also trains us to be looking for good in our lives and gives us a more positive outlook in general.

We also notice that the magicians are able to replicate some of the miracles and plagues that Moses and Aaron do (such as making the rod into a snake, water into blood etc.). G-d was giving Pharoh a chance to look past coincidence in order to recognize Him. I was thinking that we can always attribute good things (bad too) to nature or coincidence. But in actuality we also need to look past the obvious and look for G-d’s involvement in our everyday lives.

There is a pattern to Pharoh’s madness, and his refusals to let the Jews leave. According to the Ohr HaChaim, the determining factor in his responses was whether he thought that his life was in danger. If he felt his life was in danger, he would offer to submit to G-d and other times he would not. [Just a comment here, many times we wait until we have our backs against a wall before we ask for help --from G-d or people. Why do we wait?]

1 - Blood - The plague was not life threatening because the Egyptians could buy water from the Jews or find their own water by digging new wells.

2 - Frogs - In addition to the unbearable annoyance of the around the clock croaking, the frogs actually crept into the innards of the Egyptians and threatened their lives.

3 - Lice - Although Pharoh’s magicians finally conceded that the plague could only have been brought by G-d, Pharoh wouldn’t budge, because the plague was uncomfortable but not dangerous.

4 - Wild Beasts - Anyone would have feared for his life when surrounded by beasts of the wild. Pharoh for the first time promised to capitulate to all of Moses’ demands.

5 - Epidemic - Only animals died, not people.

6 - Boils - Again, the plague caused extreme discomfort, but killed no one. Furthermore, as implied by 9:11, which does not mention Pharoh, it may be that it afflicted only his people but not him.

7 - Hail - The loud thunder and flames from heaven terrified everyone, making them fear they would suffer the same total destruction as Sodom had in Abraham’s time.

8 - Locusts - Pharoh said explicitly - remove them from me (10:17).

9 - Darkness - Pharoh did not ask Moses to pray on his behalf. During the first three days of the plague, the Egyptians could have used lanterns; thereafter, they could not move. As soon as the plague ended, he offered to let the people go, but attached an unacceptable condition.

10 - Plague of the Firstborn - Pharoh’s resistance broke down completely, for he was also a firstborn.

[The Artscroll Stone Edition of the Torah, p. 329]