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.