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.