Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Jewish pride (National Post, 23 Dec 2009, Page A21)

A letter to the editor I wrote about Chanukah got published!

Jewish pride

National Post
23 Dec 2009

Re: Jew Versus Jew, James Ponet, Dec. 18. James Ponet has deemed it his duty to tell us the dirty little secret that everyone (including religious Jews) already knows about — that the history of Hanukkah includes a Jewish civil war. What possibly more...

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Chanukah 5770!

Unbelievably we are arriving at Chanukah! I feel like we just celebrated Rosh HaShanah and then ... here we are.

Chanukah is not a Jewish alternative to Christmas - although some may think so around about this time in the malls. In fact, the history of Chanukah took place before Christianity existed at all.

Our narrative begins in 336 BCE - when Alexander the Great conquers the known world at the time. Alexander dies in 323 BCE, leaving his kingdom to his generals to fight it out amongst themselves. The kingdom gets split into parts - the Seleucids Greeks - located in the Syrian area of the empire end up in control of Israel. In 168 BCE, Antiochus IV begins sending out his decrees against the Jewish religion.

The Hasmonean Revolt lasted from 167-165 BCE (when the Maccabees recaptured the Temple from the Greeks) and from then until 140 to drive the rest of the Greeks out of Israel.

Antiochus wasn't out to destroy the Jews physically - to wipe us out like Hitler - but rather to destroy us spiritually. There were three specific decrees:
1. Banned Shabbat
2. Banned Rosh Chodesh/Beginning of the Jewish month
3. Banned Brit Milah/Circumcision

Banned Shabbat
Shabbat is a very special day. Since it does come once a week, people have a tendency to take it for granted. The question is - why is the Shabbat all that important to the Jewish People? To continue that question, why would Antiochus think that this was an important way to destroy us?

What is Shabbat? It's the seventh day of the week. The day, we know, that after six days of creation, that G-d "rested" and therefore we rest. On Friday night we make kiddush over wine. The kiddush includes these words...
You are blessed, Lord our G-d, the sovereign of the world, who made us holy with His commandments and favored us, and gave us His holy Shabbat, in love and favor, to be our heritage, as a reminder of the Creation. It is the foremost day of the holy festivals marking the exodus from Egypt...

It's not only the Creation we are reminded of, but also the Exodus itself. The Exodus is a turning point in Jewish history. We go down to Egypt as a tribe of 70 souls and are taken out by G-d as a nation.

Creation included everybody - all nations, everywhere. The Exodus was specific to the Jewish People. During the kiddush on Friday night we are saying that G-d takes a personal interest in us as a people - and in our everyday ordinary lives. G-d didn't just create the world and walk away, rather, G-d cares about each and every one of us. By banning the celebration of Shabbat - the Greeks were saying the exact opposite... G-d is impersonal and cannot be accessed by ordinary people. This is not Judaism. We do not need a middle-man to reach G-d.

Banned Rosh Chodesh/Beginning of the Jewish month
In today's world this would not have been a big deal. Knowing when the beginning of the Jewish month falls requires us to check our calendars and move on with our day. However, at the time of Chanukah, this was a big deal. The entire procedure of announcing the new moon (and the new month with it) required time and effort.

While all this is true, we must understand why the banning of Rosh Chodesh is important. If you don't know when the beginning of the month is - you won't know when the holidays fall. You won't know when to celebrate any of them whether it's Rosh HaShanah, Pesach, Sukkot or Shavuot, all holidays established in the Torah. Once Rosh Chodesh is eliminated, those holidays are soon to follow.

Banned Brit Milah/Circumcision
The Brit Milah symbolizes the direct connection between the Jewish People and G-d. By not allowing us to perform the brit milah the Greeks were effectively destroying the physical mark that identifies us as Jews.

All of these decrees were specifically designed to destroy our spiritual lives as Jews. By examining these decrees one by one, we can see how the Greeks were attempting to eliminate our connection to our heritage and to our G-d. They didn't want to to destroy us physically - like in Purim - but rather to make us like everyone else. We shouldn't be any different than our neighbors.

We celebrate two miracles on Chanukah.
* The first is the military victory - the few Jews against the many Greeks.
* The second is the miracle of the oil. The small flask of pure oil lasted eight days - long enough to make more pure oil for the Temple Menorah.

The Military Victory-
We have to remember that the Jews of that day were not warriors, they were farmers or merchants. The Greeks were an occupying force in the land - in other words soldiers. Mattityahu, father of Judah Maccabee, began the revolt only when the spiritual life of the Jewish People was in danger, not before. The revolt was not about political freedom - but about our spiritual lives.

The Oil-
When we light candles/oil - we think about the light of the Torah. The Torah is compared to a candle's light. While we are used to flipping a light switch to get our light these days - imagine a dark room with one candle. That one candle is enough to dispel a lot of darkness all on it's own. The Torah is a candle that we can illuminate the world and our own lives with.

During this time of Chanukah we should examine our own lives with respect to what the Maccabees were fighting against. What can we do to integrate our Judaism into our everyday lives? Ask yourself these questions:
* Do I light Shabbat candles Friday night?
* Do I know when the Jewish holidays are?
* How can I celebrate those holiday?
* Do I believe that G-d cares about me?
* How can I learn more about my heritage?

The world is many times a dark place. Each of us can be a Maccabee - bringing the light of the Torah into our lives. It is not an all or nothing process. Each new Jewish idea you learn, every Shabbat candle you light, every holiday you begin celebrating - brings another candle into a dark world and more light into your own life.

Happy Chanukah!

The How
Chanukah this year begins this coming Friday night (December 11th). We light the first candle of Chanukah before lighting our Shabbat candles. This is because once we light Shabbat candles - it is officially Shabbat and no more work can be done - which includes lighting even our Chanukah candles. [To find out more about the 'how' and the 'why' of Shabbat candles - click here.]

We continue lighting Chanukah candles until the last night - which is also a Friday night - December 18th.

We set up our candles from right to left, but always light the new candle first - which means lighting from left to right.

You can find the find the brachot/blessings in a siddur/prayer book - but here they are in English.

1. Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who has sanctified us with His commandments, and commanded us to kindle the Chanukah light.

2. Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who performed miracles for our forefathers in those days, at this time.

The next blessing is only recited on the first night or on the first occasion that a person lights a menorah during the course of Chanukah - The Sheh'Hechiyanu Blessing.
3. Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.

For more information - including coloring pages for your kids - take a look here.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Breisheet/Genesis: Chayei Sarah - Using our Time Wisely

Sarah's lifetime was one hundred years, twenty years, and seven years... - Breisheet Chapter 23:1

This parsha begins with Sarah's death. As we see from the quote from the Torah - her life is broken into parts. There's a focus here on time.

We can divide our own lives into parts as well. Growing up, being a teenager, young adult, midlife and our older years. How have we been using our time?

We have two jobs in this world:
* To create yourself in the image of G-d.
* To make this world a dwelling place for G-d.

Everything we do should be focused on these goals. Every moment, day, week, month and year - should be examined to see if we've grown in learning Torah, doing mitzvot, helping our neighbors, and creating a world G-d would be proud to share with us.

We've all heard the expression - "killing time". Time is a precious gift, we don't know how much of it we've been allotted in this world. Why would we waste the time that we've been given?

If you have "free" moment - what are you going to do with it? Turn on the television or read a Jewish book? Give a dollar to tzedukah (charity) or buy a candy bar? Choices, big and small, face us every day - what are we going to choose?

Sarah used her time - every moment - focused on these two goals. She was a true partner with G-d. We see from her life that she knew what her job was here on earth. She knew that time matters - that we only get so much of it.

Take a moment to look at the way you spend your time during the day. Is most of it spent in front of the television? Listening to the radio? How much of it is dedicated to being a better Jew? Doing mitzvot? Learning new things?

Introduce 5 uninterrupted minutes into your day (every day) reading something Jewish that you're interested in. Not more - not less. You can even set a timer. Begin today - you will quickly see what a difference it will make.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Breisheet/Genesis: Parshat Vayeira

This is a great parsha for many different reasons. This is the parsha with the three angels, when Sarah was promised she would have Isaac, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Lot and his salty wife, Lot and his daughters, the travels of Avraham and Sarah, the birth of Isaac, the sending away of Hagar and Ishmael and the binding of Isaac.

There is so much here to choose from.

I want to start with a side note: We start this chapter with G-d visiting Avraham. Everything is in the Torah for a reason. This is a one liner. "Hashem appeared to Avraham" - why was G-d appearing (not literally, G-d doesn't have a physical form) to Avraham? Because He was visiting the sick. This is important since if G-d takes the time out of His schedule to visit the sick, there's no doubt that we too must take time to visit the sick as well.

In Chapter 18:2-7 Three angels were sent to visit Avraham after his circumcision. The moment Avraham saw what he thought were men, he ran to greet them. This is a fellow who only three days earlier had a circumcision! Then Avraham hastened to Sarah and asked her to make cakes. Then he ran to prepare a calf to eat. All of these are hurried actions to feed the guests. Run, run, run.

What we can learn from this is that we should not let a mitzvah get cold. In the words of the Sages, "When a mitzvah comes into your hand, do not let it pass."

There are so many opportunities that pass our way that we don't take advantage of. We figure that we'll catch the chance when it comes by our way again. Whether it's keeping kosher or Shabbat, or being friendly to a brother or sister, greeting another with a smiling face, going to a Torah class, visiting someone who isn't feeling well, feeding guests, or just cleaning after ourselves so someone else doesn't have to, we cannot let these opportunities pass us by.

Rabbi Hillel said, "Do not say, 'When I have free time, I will study' - since you may never have free time." (Pirkei Avos/Ethics of the Fathers 2:4)

This is a very true statement. Free time always seems to get swallowed up by all sorts of mundane activities. We need to take the time to grab that mitzvah walking by.

[Some information is taken from Don't Look Down by Rabbi Michael Haber]

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Breisheet/Genesis: Parshat Lech Lecha

G-d has told Avram and Sarai (their names haven't been changed yet) to travel to the land of Canaan. The Torah then gives us the details of their journey into the land of Canaan. Avram goes to Schem (today Nablus). G-d then promises to Avram that his descendants will be given the land. Avram builds his alter to G-d then moves on to pitch his tent between Beit-El and Ai. He then goes down to Egypt with Sarai because of a famine in the land.

If every letter and word in the Torah is significant, why does G-d bother to go through a whole detailed description of where Avram, Sarai and their group traveled? Why is this information we need to know?

The Ramban states a principle that we are supposed to learn from our patriarchs and matriarchs. This is a concept called: Ma'aseh Avos, Siman L'Banim - The actions of the fathers are a sign to the children. We learn from Avram and Sarai's actions that they were preparing for the future of the Jewish People.

Avram stopped in Schem to pray for the future battle between Jacob's sons and Schem (the leader of that city)... Avram also stopped to camp in Ai, one of the first cities to be conquered by Joshua. And of course we know all about the Children of Israel enslaved in Egypt.

What can we learn from this principle of Ma'aseh Avos, Siman L'Banim? We can see this when parenting children. Children watch everything that their parents do and say.

We have to ask:
* How is conflict resolved in the home? Is it through quiet discussion or yelling and screaming?
* Do both parents speak with the same voice? Do the parents override each others opinion when a child asks something of them?
* Are both parents expressing the same values to their children?
* Are the parents consistent with the rules of the house? Consistent with reward and punishment?
* How is Judaism being portrayed in the house? Is it an annoyance or something to be enjoyed?

All of these things are very important to keep in mind. Parents have been entrusted with young minds to guide and mold in the right way. Keep away from - do as I say, not as I do. Children watch and emulate even the smallest action. Even what parents may consider insignificant. What are your actions that are signs for your children?

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Breisheet/Genesis: Parshat Noach

There are two different ways to look at the quote "Noah was a righteous man, perfect in his generation". The first according to Rashi (a commentator from the Middle Ages), Noah was only righteous in comparison to his corrupt generation. The other perspective is that Noah was righteous in spite of his generation and how much more righteous he could have been if he would have been born into a righteous generation.

Keeping this point in mind, if Noah would have been a neighbor to Abraham (who was born 10 generations later), how much more Noah could have learned from even just observing Abraham's actions. Each and every word that a tzaddik (a Torah scholar) says and the actions they take is a reflection of the Torah perspective of the world.

What we learn from this is the major importance of surrounding yourself with people you can learn from and and putting yourself in situations that are conducive to Torah learning, personal growth and refining your character. To sculpt yourself into the person G-d wants you to become.

The first verse in the book of Tehillim (Psalms) gives clear direction about who not to associate yourself with.
Happy is the man who has not walked in the counsel of the wicked, nor stood in the path of sinners, nor sat in the company of scoffers.

This one verse covers all the possible variables: don't walk with them, don't stand with them, and don't sit with them. Any association with them will take you away from the right path.

In Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 2:6, Hillel tells us that " a place where there are no leaders, strive to be a leader." What we can see is that if the proper way is not being followed, if there is no real Jewish leadership, it is up to each individual to stand up and be the one to set the example. This is what Noah did. While he did not go out and convince the people to change their ways (which is something that Abraham tried to do), he perhaps tried to lead by example.

This is a lesson we can all learn from. To do the right thing even if in the most extreme example, the entire generation has been completely corrupted to the core. Not a simple thing.

Monday, September 14, 2009

G-d the Giant Gum Ball Machine

All of us remember being kids begging our parents for a quarter to feed the gum ball machine. You know the machine. You slide the quarter into the slot, turn the crank (it was hard work), lift the silver cover... and lo and behold there was a colorful gum ball sitting there waiting for you.

It was amazing how the whole thing worked. A quarter went into the slot, a little bit of effort was expended, and a gum ball came out. We have this same idea of how G-d works. To us, G-d is a gum ball machine. Really.

We are generally good people. We give tzedukah/charity, we help our neighbors and try to do good deeds when we see an opportunity. But how many of us consciously or unconsciously do more of these acts thinking that we're going to be repaid in some sense by G-d? If I do this for You, what will You do for me? This is our relationship with G-d.

Is this how it really works? Is G-d really just the Giant Gum Machine in the sky?

Considering most of us haven't thought about G-d in a serious and mature way in years, we probably do think of G-d in this manner. And those of us who do think about G-d on a more than on an occasional moment many times do think of G-d as a someone who can give us stuff.

But what is our relationship to G-d supposed to be? The answer can be found in the Avinu Malkeinu, Our Father, Our King prayer chanted from Rosh HaShanah through Yom Kippur.

We relate to G-d in two ways.
* First and foremost, as our Father.
* Second, as our King.

There's a concept in Judaism regarding doing mitzvot (commandments). Mitoch sheh-lo ba lishma, ba lishma... a mitzvah that isn't performed with the right intention will eventually come to be performed with the right intention.

To go back to our topic. Is it okay to look at G-d as the Great Gumball Giver? Yes, as long as you keep in mind the long term plan... to do the mitzvot for their own sake - to do it for G-d.

In the beginning of the Torah, we encounter the narrative of the snake being punished for leading Adam and Eve astray. What were the snake's punishments?
...upon your belly shall you go, and dust shall you eat all the day sof your life. I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring. He will pound your head, and you will bite his heel. (Genesis 3:14-15)

What kind of punishment is this? We can understand the eternal dislike of snakes by people. However, the part that seems to be out of place is the eating dust. Not that I'd like to eat dust the rest of my life... but this does give the snake a certain amount of freedom. There's dust everywhere in this world - the snake will never go hungry. How is this a punishment?

The lack of G-d in the snake's life is the punishment. The snake has food where ever it goes, it has no reason to have a relationship of any sort with G-d. G-d has cut it out of His life (so to speak). This is the ultimate punishment.

G-d wants a relationship with each and every one of us. He wants us to be in touch the same way our parents want us to be in touch. One of the saddest complaints is the one where an elderly person wonders why they never see their children. Many of our Jewish jokes center around these sad complaints. Parents want a relationship with their children. And children should want a relationship with their parents.

This is where the breakdown occurs. The myth of self-sufficiency. As children we are very acutely aware of how much we need our parents. As time passes we begin to see ourselves as something separate and independent from our parents. This is good and healthy - as long as we realize we still need our parents. It is certainly a different relationship than when we were children - but this is a relationship where much can be gained. We like to believe that we don't need others, that we are self-sufficient. But this is a myth - as much as we truly are independent, we also need the love and support of our family and more specifically our parents.

Avinu Malkeinu - calls upon our Father. Avinu Sheh BaShamayim, Our Father in Heaven, also wants a relationship with us - as much as our physical parents want a relationship.

When we make deals with G-d, or ask for things... I need X, Y, Z... it's the same as coming to our parents and asking for 20 dollars for gas money. Parents are happy to be a part of their child's life - even if it's just a $20 bill that keeps the connection. G-d wants a relationship with us as well. He wants to hear us ask for things we need to make our lives run smoothly. Nothing is too small for a parent or Parent that cares.

When we grow up - we begin to assess our relationship with our parents and with G-d. Do we just ask for things without considering the other party? Do we begin to think about more than our particular needs of the moment? Or do we stay that child that can't see past his own feet?

"Mitoch sh-lo ba lishma, ba lishma" - that a mitzvah done without the proper intent will eventually come to be done with the proper intent. In other words, when we ask G-d to give us X, Y, Z because we did a good deed - we're doing that good deed with the wrong intent. We should be doing it because G-d asked us to! We shouldn't be doing it because we hope G-d will notice and we'd like to get something out of it.

A clearer example is taking out the garbage. We're told by our parents that it has to go out - so we take it out. Most of the time when we do this chore, we don't do it with the proper intent. We're told (or yelled at) to do it, so we do it. The proper intent would be to consider how we are making our parents happy, or making the house a healthier place to be. Unfortunately, that proper intent doesn't always realize itself when we're children. Hopefully as we mature, we see the larger picture.

This brings us to the second part of our relationship... Our King. In the example above our parents tell us to take out the garbage. We don't always see the benefit of taking out the garbage when we're a child. Why do we have to take it out Monday night? Why not Wednesday or Thursday? It seems somewhat arbitrary. The child doesn't always realize that the garbage pick-up is Tuesday morning - and it does make a difference when you put it out on the curb. There is plenty that we don't understand until we see the larger picture.

Like our parents, our King also has given us rules to live by. They are there for our benefit - whether we realize it or not. These rules are not there to hold us back, to stifle, to limit us - they are there to help us grow, to push us to be better, to give our souls the oxygen it needs to survive and thrive.

We are all G-d children. It's okay to think of G-d as the Great Bubble Gum Giver, the same as it's okay to think of our parents as the Great Money Tree. But this isn't where it should end. G-d (and our parents) want a deeper relationship with us than the superficial one we've assigned Him (or them).

It's time to build that relationship - listen to that shofar blow, let the sound enter your heart and give a call Home. It's never a bad time to start.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Rosh HaShanah and the Importance of Self

We commonly think of Rosh HaShanah as the beginning of the new year and the birthday of the world. This is only partially true.

According to The Book of Our Heritage, creation began on the 25th day of Elul... and six days later man and women were created - on Rosh HaShanah. So in fact, we are celebrating the birth of the human being. Isn't this a little bit self-serving? We're using man's creation as the beginning of our year.

What seems to be self-serving is really not. We don't actually realize our own potential; we go around saying (usually when we fail at something) "I'm only human, you can't expect that much from me." We don't realize our own greatness.

We are reminded of this potential greatness by King David in his Book of Psalms/Tehillim.
What is man, that You are mindful of him, and the son of man, that You visit him? For You have made him a little lower than the angels and have crowned him with glory and honor. (8:5-6)

We can be more than we believe our limited selves to be - we can be just a little lower than the angels - or even closer to G-d than the angels are. Man has the capability to be greater than the angels themselves. Angels interact with G-d in a "face to face" situation. They have no choice but to see G-d's Greatness. We do have choice - and it is that choice of seeing G-d in our lives and involving G-d in our lives that can lead us to being greater than the angels.

Let us return to Man's creation. Man was created at the end of the creation process. The world has everything in it that a persons needs to live and succeed. A good analogy is when a guest comes for dinner. The guest walks into the room - the table is set with everything needed -plates, cutlery, glasses and good food. All that is missing is someone to sit down and eat. This was the world when Man was created. The world was created for us.

We are the reason for the world being created. The next question we need to ask is who we are. Many times we identify ourselves by our jobs. Other times we identify ourselves by what we are not and sometimes what we wish we were. A negative identity of sorts.

Rosh HaShanah is the time of year when we bring our "selves" to G-d. Generally it's our negative selves we bring. It's that self that doesn't believe that we are capable of being as close to G-d as the angels are or even closer. It's that self that doesn't recognize that the world was created for each and every one of us. It's that self that doesn't recognize our greatness.

G-d recognizes what many times we do not. G-d sees our greatness just waiting to be tapped. G-d sees what we are capable of achieving and who we can become. Most of our leaders over our long history started as simple shepherds or tradesmen and became more than they imagined they could ever be.

The same goes for us. We must realize our G-d given abilities in order to make a difference in our communities, to make ourselves givers and not takers, to see the good in others and ourselves, and to create a world that G-d would like to be a part of. Think big and start small. Every seemingly small mitzvah leads us to another and another. Before you know it you will be as great as G-d thinks you already are.

Everyone, everywhere should find peace, health and success this coming year.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Blessing for the New Month

This blessing is said and generally sung on the Shabbat of the week that the new month will occur. We should all find what we want and need this coming month of Elul.

May He who performed miracles for our fathers and redeemed them from slavery to freedom, speedily redeem us and gather our dispersed people from the four corners of the earth, uniting all Israel; and let us say, Amen.

May the Holy One, blessed be He, renew it [the month] for us all His people, the House of Israel, for life and for peace, for gladness and for joy, for deliverance and for consolation; and let us say, Amen.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Elul is Coming, Elul is Coming...

This week brings us to Rosh Chodesh Elul (Thursday and Friday), the beginning of the Jewish month of Elul. The next question should be:

Excellent question.

The month of Elul is followed by the month of Tishrei. The first day of Tishrei is Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year and the tenth day of Elul is Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement. We'll discuss both those holidays... but not right now.

So the big deal about Elul is that it precedes Tishrei and the major holidays within it. So again, why should we care?

Let's go with an analogy.
You have a big court case next month. You will be appearing before a judge and there's a chance you will win your case and a few million dollar judgement. You want to be prepared. It's not like your homework from elementary school - your teacher will excuse your forgetfulness. Preparedness is the key.

Being prepared is what Elul is all about. In order to be prepared we need to evaluate ourselves.

Let's start with these three questions:
* Who are we? As a family member? A friend? A community member?
* What did I accomplish this past year? Materially and Spiritually?
* What do I want to accomplish this coming year? Materially and Spiritually?

There's a lot to think about. Just those three questions should make us all stop and think for more than a moment. These are not simple questions that should be thought as we're getting dressed for synagogue on Rosh HaShanah.

Elul is an interesting time. Elul in Hebrew is spelled Alef-Lamed-Vav-Lamed. These letters can also spell out the words Ani Ledodi V'dodi Li. I am for my beloved and my beloved is for me (Song of Songs 6:3). The Song of Songs is a love poem written by King Solomon describing the relationship between G-d and the Jewish People.

Elul is this time where we are trying to bring ourselves closer to G-d. How do we bring ourselves closer to G-d? We can do this by improving ourselves and by letting G-d into our everyday lives.

The entire purpose of living is to become the best Jewish person we can be. G-d created each and every one of us. And as I heard once, "G-d doesn't make junk!" which means that we have a responsibility to work on ourselves and become who G-d believes we can be.

Elul is the time for all of this preparation. Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year, is when we come to G-d and say - this is what I've got - this is my plan for the coming year.

The first day of Elul is this Friday (beginning Thursday night). Let's take this opportunity to get closer to G-d - by evaluating who we are now and who we want to become.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Maarat Ayin - The Appearance of Impropriety

This idea started running around in my head after Michael Jackson died and all the news coverage followed - giving us the play by play of Jackson's life. They mentioned the scandals that he was involved in. I'm not going to discuss here the truth or the falsehood of any of the scandals - but wanted to mention an idea that occurred to me.

It's the concept of Maarat Ayin - the appearance of impropriety. We avoid doing things that may look like we're doing something wrong... even if we're not doing anything wrong. We don't want to give anybody that idea.

There are two reasons for this.
* The first is that we don't want anyone to think badly of us as an individual.
* The second is that it may give someone else the idea that what you're doing is correct, and influence them to do the wrong thing.

I will explain.

The first reason -
Jackson did many things that looked wrong, and as a result opened himself up to lawsuits and settlements.

As Jews, we're not only representing ourselves as individuals, but as a group. When one Jews does something right or wrong - it reflects on all of us as the Jewish People. Some have complained that it isn't fair to judge a whole group by something an individual does, but that does seem to be the reality.

The second reason -
An example of the second reason: A religious Jewish looking man is sitting in a non-kosher restaurant having a Coke. A Coke is kosher. Another Jew walking by the restaurant sees the religious Jew in the restaurant and mistakenly believes that the restaurant may be a kosher establishment. This Jew doesn't know that the religious Jew is only having a Coke and nothing else - and makes a big error as a result.

The Maarat Ayin is an interesting concept, since in reality - we are doing nothing wrong. Why are we so concerned with the appearance? Appearances matter. Society is based on trust between people. When trust breaks down, society isn't far behind.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Moshe Received the Torah from Sinai

Mishnah 1:
Moses received the Torah from Sinai and handed it to Joshua, and Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets handed it down to the Men of the Great Assembly.

Why do we start here? This is a book of ethics. Why do we bother with this chain of transmission? Why not just give us a list of dos and don'ts?

Let's begin at the beginning of the chain. Moses received the Torah from Sinai. Rabbi Ovadia from Bartenura (1450-1510 CE) explains that... (I'm paraphrasing)
The wise of the nations of the world also have books of ethics and character, how a man should deal with his neighbor - it is because of this that our Pirkei Avot start in this way, "Moshe received the Torah from Sinai" in order to say to you that these ethics and character traits are not assembled and written by wise men who came up with these rules from their own hearts... rather these ethics and character traits were given at Sinai.

These ethical rules do not change from person to person or from generation to generation. These are hard and fast rules that we received at Sinai as part of the Torah itself. This is why it is important to begin where it does. These ethical rules are not relative or subjective.

We have seen cultures and societies where the old and infirm are killed because they are a "drain on society". We've seen societies where the wives of those who have died are killed in order for them to join the dead in the afterworld. When you have subjective ethics... all this is allowed. When you have objective ethics given at Sinai by G-d... none of this is allowed.

Ethics are as important as rule of law. A society without true objective ethics is one where the law has no restraint and all is permissible. A scary thought.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Creating a Home for G-d

Rabban Gamliel, son of Rabbi Yehudah the Prince said:
Torah study goes well with work, since the toil of them both banishes misdeed.
-Pirkei Avos (Ethics of the Fathers), 2:2

The act of earning a living actualizes the goal of creation, which is to make the material world a Divine home. This can only be achieved by those who deal directly with the material world in a sanctified manner.
- Likkutei Sichot, 30:138

A person is made of two parts: the body and the soul. The body is there to serve the soul. In the same way the body is there as a conduit for the soul - our physical work is there as a way to sanctify G-d.

When we are honest in our business dealings, when we are polite to the clerk at the store, when we help others, when we do the mitzvot - these are all ways that we change our physical world into a spiritual one - a home for G-d.

Every Jewish person, whether they recognize it or not, has a mission to make the physical into the spiritual. The way we accomplish this is through the mitzvot. Why the mitzvot? Can't we be good people without being told what to do?

Of course we can be good people without the mitzvot. The catch is - that we don't always know what it means to be "good". But we'll save that discussion for a different day.

Friday, April 17, 2009

The Connection between Pesach and Shavuot

Pesach (Passover) is the holiday when we commemorate and celebrate when we were taken out of Egypt by G-d to be G-d's People. For 210 years we had been slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. When Moses first comes to Pharaoh in the name of G-d to "let my People go!" Pharaoh answers quite obnoxiously - "who is this G-d that I should listen to Him?" In response to Pharaoh's question G-d lets Pharaoh know exactly who He is by sending the 10 plagues which completely destroy the land of Egypt.

After Pesach we count the days of the Omer. 49 days of the Omer. The 50th day (counting from the second day of Pesach) is the holiday of Shavuot. Shavuot is the holiday where we celebrate receiving the Torah. The entire Jewish People is there at the Mountain of Sinai. All Jews from all times. Even if we don't remember it - our souls (neshama) were there to watch and receive the Torah from G-d.

What's interesting about Pesach and Shavuot is how close these two holidays are to each other. Only 50 days - which means they must be connected in some way.

What I think is this:
Pesach is the holiday of freedom. But pure freedom without rules is dangerous. Imagine a busy street like Broadway with no traffic lights, crosswalks or policemen. That's a scary thought! And that's only a street. Imagine a world without rules or restrictions - that's a scary world.

Shavuot is the holiday where we get those rules. G-d is like a parent, He only wants what is good for us and only wants to give us good. Sometimes we understand why our parents tell us what to do, and sometimes we don't. We do know, however, that they love us and only want what's best for us. We know the same about G-d. G-d loves us and only wants what's best for us. The Torah is way that G-d puts out in front of us - sometimes in the form of a story, or a list of laws - what is best for us.

During the 49 days between Pesach (the holiday of freedom) and Shavuot (when we get the Torah) the Jewish People had to work hard on themselves - to improve themselves to be the best they could be when it was time to receive the Torah. It is the same for us. We need to take this time, just like the Jews who left Egypt, to improve ourselves and try our hardest to be ready to receive the Torah when Shavuot comes.

One of the ways we try and improve ourselves is by reading a part of the Oral Torah called Pirkei Avot (the Ethics of our Fathers). It is a tradition to read one of the chapters (there are six) each Shabbat afternoon. We start with Chapter One. I'm going to try and pick a part of the chapter each week and explain a little about it.

Chapter One starts with the words:
"Moshe (Moses) received the Torah from Sinai and passed it on to Yehoshua (Joshua)..."

Now take a look at those first few words. "Moshe received the Torah from Sinai". What's interesting about them is that it makes us wonder. Really Moshe received the Torah from G-d at Mount Sinai - you can't receive the Torah from a mountain, but from G-d. Let's think about this. Where was Sinai? Sinai was in the desert - we don't know exactly where and it isn't really important where either. The Torah was given on a mountain in the desert in the middle of nowhere.

This teaches us something very important. Learning Torah and doing mitzvot (commandments) are not dependent on where you are. You can be in the Land of Israel - or the United States, Canada, Zimbabwe, China or Scotland - and still you can learn Torah and do mitzvot. G-d did not want to give anyone the mistaken idea that Torah and mitzvot are only for certain locations. (Just a sidenote: there are special mitzvot that are specific to the Land of Israel.)

So remember, no matter where you live -- find a mitzvah that you especially like, or are good at - and get even better at it. This is the time between Pesach and Shavuot to argue less with your parents, brothers and sisters. This is the time to smile at someone new at school or help someone who needs help. This is the time to improve yourself and prepare yourself to receive the Torah. Start now.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Be Right Back

I am getting married this coming Sunday. It has been a long transition from living in New York City to moving back to Detroit and forward to Toronto. I hope to get back to writing my parsha sheets sometime really soon when things settle down for me.

Transitions are times where we learn a lot about ourselves and what we find important and on the flip side... not important.

I have found that locations are not permanent, but friends are.
I have learned that family is really important and I should make more of an effort to be with them.

I am learning to trust G-d. It will always be an ongoing process.

I wish everyone all the best.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Parshat Beshalach - Have a Little Trust

This past Shabbat was Parshat Beshalach. It happens to be one of my favorite parshiot of the Torah.

The parsha begins with the Jewish People leaving Egypt after 210 years of slavery. They're led by Moses, a former shepherd chosen by G-d to lead the Jewish People. We're doing well - we've left Egypt behind when we find that the Pharaoh has changed his mind. He didn't really mean to let the Jews go! Pharaoh sends his entire army after the Jewish People to bring them back.

Faced with an army behind them and the Red Sea in front of them, the Jewish People begin to cry to Moses to save them. Moses turns to G-d and starts praying. G-d tells Moses to lead the people into the sea.

This must have been a scary time for the Jewish People. They were just saved from Egypt and now they're being told to walk into the water? They didn't know that the water was going to split for them.

There is a famous midrash of a fellow named Nachshon ben Aminadav (Nachshon the son of Aminadav). He heard that G-d wanted the Jewish People to go into the water - so he went. He walked further and further into the water up till his nose! It was only then when the water split.

What do we learn from Nachshon? We learn to trust G-d. The water didn't split right away. I'm sure he was thinking while he was walking into the water - why isn't something happening? But he knew this was what G-d wanted, so he did it even though he didn't know what was going to happen.

It's not always easy to trust that everything is going to turn out for the good. But we try our best to know that G-d watches over us and wants what is best for us.

G-d is like our parents. Our parents want what is best for us. We don't always understand why they want us to do somethings. Why do I have to go to bed when I'm not not tired? Why do I have to eat food I don't always like? There are many questions like these that we don't understand. But our parents want what is best for us, and try and to take care of us so we grow up to be good people and good Jews doing the right things.

We don't always understand why things happen the way they happen, but we trust that our parents and G-d know what's best for us.

Have a good week!