Thursday, December 9, 2010

Sweet Cucumber Salad

I've heard the Jewish holidays summed up in about nine words:
They tried to kill us. We won. Let's eat!

Of course this isn't true for all the holidays, but it is true that food is a major part of all our holidays (except Yom Kippur, but we do eat beforehand). So I figure that it makes sense to include recipes every so often on this blog. I'm still a beginner, so please do not expect brilliant, or complicated recipes - I just want them to taste good.

I usually make this cucumber salad for Shabbat. It generally needs to sit for 24 hours before it tastes its best. But if you have less time, cut the cucumber into as thin slices as possible.

Sweet Cucumber Salad
* 1 cucumber - slice into thin slices
* 1/8 vidalia onion - slice into thin slices
* 3/4 teaspoon salt
* 1/4 cup + 3 teaspoons sugar
* 4 3/4 teaspoons white vinegar

Mix and refrigerate

** Important note - "teaspoon" here means those white, plastic disposable teaspoons.

I'm taking suggestions and ideas for recipes to post here - please try to make them as specific as possible ie. give measurements (not, "to taste" - I don't know how to figure those sort of things.) If you have any to contribute feel free to post them.

Shabbat Shalom!!!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Natural Miracles of Chanukah

There are two miracles that we are celebrating on Chanukah. The first is the victory of the Jews (the few) against the Syrian-Greeks (the many). The second miracle is that the oil flame that was supposed to only last one day lasted eight days.

The battle of the Maccabees/Hasmoneans occurred only after push came to shove. In other words, Jews are relatively easy going people. Assimilation of the Jews into Hellenistic philosophies and actions had been going on for quite a while before we see the Hasmonean uprising. Jewish males were participating in athletic games, and in the Greek tradition that means they were wearing their birthday suits. In order not to "look" Jewish there are records of these men attempting to "reverse" (I don't know how, and I'm not sure I want to) their brit milah (circumcision). But there came a breaking point.

While Antiochus Epiphanes declared most Jewish actions illegal, a few specific ones were:
* Circumcision
* Shabbat observance
* Torah study
* Keeping kosher
* Celebration of Rosh Chodesh/the new Jewish month

These five things are very basic to Judaism. These are the activities that identify us as Jews. It seems to me that once Antiochus began making these things not a matter of preference, but rather a dictate of law - Jews could no longer stand for the intrusion into their lives leading us to the battles we fought against the Greeks.

What's important to think about is that the Jews (I believe) did not necessarily expect to win. It was a lopsided fight - the few against the many. Some could argue that guerrilla warfare is effective enough to beat experienced armies. This may be true - but there are certainly no guarantees, especially when the 'few' are farmers and the 'many' are professional soldiers. When Mattityahu (Mattathius) shouted 'Me L'Shem A'lai' - 'Who is with G-d come with me!' He was making a clear declaration of purpose at the very outset of the war.

When Mattityahu and Judah (his son) began the rebellion there were no longer any prophets around to let them know that they would win. They prayed to G-d and went to battle and ultimately they were successful. Why do we count this as a miracle?

After liberating the Holy Temple/Bait HaMikdash from the Greeks, the Maccabees cleaned it out and re-dedicated it to the service of G-d. This is where we get the name Chanukah from. Chanukah means dedication. As they were cleaning they were looking for a jars of purified oil in order to light the 7 branched Menorah that was housed in the Temple. They found one small jug that would only last one day, never assuming anything different would happen. As we know, that small jug lasted eight days, enough time to allow the Maccabees to make more oil.

What I find fascinating in both these instances is that the Maccabees never expected a miracle to happen on their behalf. They went to battle with the Greeks because it was the right thing to do, I'm sure hoping to win but not necessarily expecting it. The same for lighting the menorah. There was no expectation for the oil to last more than the one day that it was supposed to.

There are times that we wish G-d would part the clouds above our heads and say "Hey! I'm here!" and tell us the right direction to go. However, this isn't an option since the end of the Prophetic Era. We don't have easy access to G-d in that way.

I think that we can sometimes relate to the miracles of Chanukah more than we can the open miracles of the Torah. We go about our lives doing the best we can, doing what we know is right. We can take away from Chanukah is that G-d is there for us even in the natural events in our lives. Perhaps not performing the open miracle of the oil burning for eight days - but definitely in the smaller, hidden miracles of the Chanukah battles, since we still count the victories of the few against the many as a miracle, albeit not an open one.

We should keep in mind that G-d is there for us at all points in our lives - when we feel close and when we don't. Chanukah can be there to remind us that while we do not always see G-d's open hand, we know that He's there in a hidden way supporting us.

Chag Sameach! Happy Chanukah!

Chanukah 5770 (Last year's article)

A few technical notes about setting up the menorah: (Check this video for help: Animated Menorah)

On the first night, the light is placed on the right side of the menorah, and each subsequent night lights are added to its left. The newly added light is always lit first and then the lighting goes from left to right.

The blessings are:
* 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.
* 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 person lights a menorah during the holiday of Chanukah:
Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who has granted us life, sustained us, and enabled us to read this occasion.

After lighting this is said:
We kindle these lights [to commemorate] the saving acts, miracles and wonders which You have performed for our forefathers, in those days at this time, through Your holy Kohanim. Throughout the eight days of Chanukah, these lights are sacred, and we are not permitted to make us of them, but only to look at them, in order to offer thanks and praise to Your great Name for Your miracles, for Your wonders and for Your salvation.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Chanukah Guides

It's always good to prepare for a holiday - here are two guides that you'll find useful when getting ready for Chanukah this year. - Hanukkah Guide - Chanukah Guide

Chag Sameach!

Monday, November 29, 2010

Thanksgiving and Shabbat Dinner

This past week we celebrated Thanksgiving, one of my favorite holidays to spend with the family. There's a major concept to be learned from this holiday - the concept of haKarat haTov - Recognizing the Good. Obviously this isn't something we should only do once a year, but every day! However, the week is a hectic time and Shabbat Friday night dinner is a better time to reflect on the week past.

Shabbat is the time of the week where we take a "time out" from being the creators and shapers of the world around us to "just being" and enjoying the fruits of our labors. Friday night dinner, whether formal or not, is a great time for the family to get together (without distraction or places to run to) and actually spend an hour or two with those closest to us.

It's during this time together that I want to suggest an idea that my mother instituted years ago at our own Friday night dinners - the 3 Gratefuls. It seems that at the time the Gratefuls were brought in, our conversations at the table were not following a positive note and my mom felt that she needed to point out to us the good things that had happened during the week.

Each one of us at the table, including any guests (we tried to warn them ahead of time), had to come up with three things that we were grateful for that had occurred during that past week. There were a few rules that guided us, these were:
* It couldn't be sports related.
* It couldn't be - "thank goodness the week was over".
* It couldn't be for a future event.

Gratefuls could be small things, or big things. You couldn't opt out of doing your 3 Gratefuls either, no matter how rough the week was (and there were some tough ones). It forced us to review the week and recognize the good that happened or was done for us. It also forced us to be a part of each others lives as a family - since all week long was spent running our different ways.

One example of a Grateful by my father on Friday night is that he thanks my mother for making him lunch every day to take to work. Making a lunch may seem like a small event during the course of the week, but when my father makes note of it (every week) - it shows recognition and appreciation of the good done for him.

HaKarat haTov is no small thing. Recognizing the good - big or small, making someone lunch or getting a raise - is all about seeing your life in a different and positive way. I sincerely recommend instituting the 3 Gratefuls at your Friday night dinner - it will truly improve the way you see your life as well as serve as a bonding experience for you and your family.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Keep the Lines of Communication Open!

It's amazing how time flies - we are already at Parshat Vayishlach - the eighth, very busy and exciting chapter of Genesis/Breisheet.

I've noticed some interesting conversations that some of our ancestors have been having with G-d/HaShem over these last eight chapters. (This is not a complete listing.)

In the first chapter, Breisheet, after Adam has eaten the forbidden fruit, G-d calls out (3:9-12):
"Where are you?"
He [Adam] said, "I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I am naked, so I hid.
And He [G-d] said, "Who told you that you are naked? Have you eaten of the tree from which I commanded you not to eat?"
The man said, "The woman whom You gave to be with me - she gave me of the tree, and I ate."

This is an amazing conversation. Adam is not taking personal responsibility for his actions, and is instead blaming it on the woman that G-d gave him, in some ways placing the blame on G-d!

In another famous conversation, G-d comes to Kayin/Cain and asks him where his brother is (4:9)
HaShem said to Cain, "Where is Abel your brother?"
and he [Cain] said, "I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?"

Does Kayin actually believe that G-d doesn't know what's transpired? Does Kayin really have the nerve to answer HaShem with an attitude? "Am I my brother's keeper?" Wow.

In Parshat Lech Lecha we find Avram/Abram questioning G-d about his future without children (15:1-2).
...the word of HaShem came to Avram in a vision, saying, "Fear not, Avram, I am a shield for you; your reward is very great."
And Avram said, "My Lord, What can You give me seeing that I go childless...?"

This is the same Abraham (his name will be changed later in this chapter) who left his family, his homeland all based on the word of G-d. We know that Abraham trusts G-d, but still he questions Him?

We also read about the negotiations between Abraham and G-d about the destruction of Sodom - a known evil city (18:23-32). Avram is attempting to stop G-d from destroying the city if a minimum of 10 good people were found. Ultimately, these people were not found, and the city is overturned.

What I'm bringing from all these conversations... is that there was communication between our forefathers/mothers and G-d. All relationships are built through communication - whether between person to person or between a person and G-d. Some people think that we can't question or argue with G-d. I would say that it's a good beginning to building a relationship between us and the Creator.

It's when we stop talking, questioning or arguing with G-d that the relationship begins to fail. At the point where G-d is no longer part of our private dialogue and no longer part of our thought process that the relationship is over.

We see from the Torah that keeping the lines of communication open with G-d is important. He wants to have a relationship with us. When G-d asks the seemingly obvious question to Cain, "Where is Abel your brother?" it wasn't because G-d didn't know where Abel was, it was in order to start a conversation with Cain - to bring him closer to G-d even after the murder took place. To bring him to teshuva/return.

We have to keep the lines of communication open. Feel free to question, argue, and discuss with G-d. At the same time don't forget to ask, thank and appreciate all those things He does for us as well.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Rosh Chodesh Kislev

It's the new month of Kislev - most well known for the holiday of Chanukah. It's always exciting to start a new month, hoping and praying for the best. In Judaism the months are set by the new moon - it's known as a lunar calendar.

On the Shabbat prior to Rosh Chodesh (new month), the new month is announced with the day that it will land. This month Rosh Chodesh Kislev landed this Sunday and Monday (November 7 & 8).

I enjoy being in synagogue for this announcement - it's found in the siddur/prayer book under "Blessing for the New Month". It's usually sung with a special tune, the congregation standing at attention, and the person leading the prayers holding the Torah scroll. It's a special moment.

The congregation says the blessing first followed by the leader:
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 [Cong: Amen].

The leader then announces the following, followed by the congregation:
Rosh Chodesh (name of the month) will be on (name the day(s) of the week on which it falls) which will come to us for good.

The congregation says the following, followed by the leader:
May the Holy One, blessed be He, renew it for us and for all His people, the House of Israel, for life and for peace [Cong: Amen], for gladness and for joy [Cong: Amen], for deliverance and for consolation; and let us say, Amen [Cong: Amen].

In the spirit of the new month of Kislev I want to wish everyone a wonderful, successful and healthy month - and may we all be blessed with peace and redemption.

The Significance of Rosh Chodesh

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Women, Clothing and Self-Respect

I wrote this article back when I was a student at the university about eight years ago - nothing has changed. Unfortunately what applied to campus life back then also applies to us all today. It's time to think about how we portray ourselves to ourselves and the outside world at large. Are we exclusively our bodies, or are we more than just the cleavage or legs that we show off? (I've made a few adjustments here from the original as well as added a new paragraph at the end.)

Thank goodness winter is coming. It will now be easier for us, the women on campus to keep our own self-respect.

What we wear is who we are. We don't have to like it, but it's true. Business people wear suits, bank tellers wear business casual, baggers at the supermarket wear aprons that have the name of the supermarket on it, and some of the women on campus dress like prostitutes.

What the question really comes down to is, who are you dressing to impress? If you wake up in the morning with no thought to what you are wearing and you put on the most comfortable jeans and sweatshirt, then this article is not for you. For the other 95% of women on campus, pay attention.

Most women wear clothing to attract the opposite sex. So who is it that you want to attract? Will exhibiting your body get you the man you want? What do you want the guy sitting next to you in class to notice first? Your chest, almost covered by a nonexistent shirt, or the insightful question you just asked the professor?

"Wait a minute", you yell. "I should be able to wear whatever I want and he should still respect me for my mind."

As a woman, I would agree with you. You should be able to wear whatever you want. But let's deal with Reality. Are guys dating you because you look like an easy target or are they interested in a real relationship? What image are you projecting?

Are we women so insecure with ourselves that we are dependent on a man to give us an identity? What happens when you "get" a man? Are you going to be able to keep him? What will you give up in order to keep him?

We all know the answer to that one. But what about "love"? You fell in "love" with him. How long does that "love" last - until he finds someone else? Is this a real relationship, or is this sex? How much do you know about him? You both like the same movies? That's real deep. It definitely something on which to base a lifetime relationship.

Let's go back to the idea of clothing. Clothes are the objects that tell the rest of the world who you are. What kind of a person you are. Wearing clothing that doesn't show off every curve of your body, leaving nothing to the imagination, is a good thing. It shows that there is more to you than your body. You are more than your body. Hopefully. If you're showing off your body, it may be that there is nothing else to show off, no mind to go with it.

When you go outside in the rain, and you have something that shouldn't get wet, like a book or a camera, you cover it with something. Not because that object is bad, but because you want to protect it.

The same concept applies here. The body is not a bad thing at all, rather the exact opposite. It is very valuable and it needs to be protected. It must not be used at anyone's discretion or as a means to an end. The more valuable something is, the more protection it should be given. This does not include dressing like the Taliban women under a veil, where they were unable to participate as a full member of society. This is unnecessary and cruel.

We are not objects. Or bodies should not be objects. If we want a real relationship with a man, we must show them that we are more than how much skin we show. Show them that you have some self-respect. Otherwise, there's no difference between us and a prostitute.

* To add to this article a Jewish aspect - our bodies are also the clothing of our souls. Our goal in life is to create a partnership between our souls needs and our bodies wants. Our bodies are transitory - we have them on loan for a temporary period of time - our souls are forever. Our souls are our direct connection to G-d, and our bodies are the physical interface between our souls and the world around us.

Sometimes our bodies do not want to listen to our souls needs, and wants purely the pleasures of the world without the responsibilities of the purpose of our creation - to bring G-dliness into the world, to make the world into a place where G-d wants to dwell. One of the challenges we all face is to bring our bodies under the control of our souls and allow them to work together in tandem - in unison. The soul needs the body to bring good into the world, and the body needs the soul in order to focus its power in the correct direction.

Clothing is there to help us focus on the spiritual side of ourselves, rather than solely on the physical side of life. This is certainly a challenge - to integrate our G-dly soul and our physical bodies. It can be done. Don't neglect your soul - go to a Jewish lecture once a month or once a week. Find a Jewish book and read from it for five minutes a day. The same way it is essential to feed your body - it is essential to feed your soul. Begin today.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Yom Kippur Preparation

When you're sitting in synagogue it's sometimes hard to follow or always be interested in what's happening during the services. No worries, that's part of being human. What you can do is plan ahead.

Go to these two websites and print out ahead of the holiday - this year Yom Kippur lands on Shabbat, from Friday night to Saturday night - the information that's assembled here and bring it with you to services:'s Yom Kippur Reader's Yom Kippur Guide

I also recommend this book: The Rosh HaShanah Yom Kippur Survival Kit by Shimon Apisdorf. Very worthwhile reading (along with his other books). You can find his books at your local Jewish book store - and probably at your Barnes & Noble as well.

The goal on Yom Kippur is not to watch the clock and count how many pages are left until the service is over. The goal is to return to G-d, our King, our Creator, our Father in Heaven who loves us. Take the time think about how you can improve that relationship with Him. Many times we don't take the time to prepare for a holiday - we are too busy running errands or working to properly think about a holiday before we light candles and begin. I suggest that we take five minutes - right now - to go print out these Yom Kippur guides in order to have them to read at the synagogue (and if you have a moment, to read beforehand as well).

Here's a link to Holiday Candle Lighting.

To find free services, click here.

Gmar Chatima Tova.
May we all have a healthy, successful and peaceful upcoming year.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Rosh HaShanah and You

In the last article I mentioned the blessing Asher Yatzar. The more I've been thinking about it - the more amazing a blessing I think it is.
Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who has formed man in wisdom, and created within him numerous orifices and cavities. It is revealed and known before the Throne of Your Glory that if but one of them were to be blocked, or one of them were to be opened, it would be impossible to exist even for a short while. Blessed are You Lord, who heals all flesh and performs wonders.

What I find interesting is that the same G-d who created the universe, is the One who created each individual walking the Earth. The same detail that went into creating the world and all we find in it - is the same amazing detail we find in ourselves, in our bodies.

In Judaism, each person is considered an olam katan - a miniature world. At this point we should also consider that Rosh HaShanah is not the birthday of the world - but is really the birthday of man. Adam and Eve were created on the first Rosh HaShanah.

The world was created for people to use and therefore the importance of mankind should not be overlooked. That being said, let us paraphrase a semi-famous statement: "with great power comes great responsibility".

G-d gives us a tremendous power - the power to choose. We have free will to make our decisions. He's given us all our strengths and talents in order to choose the correct path.
See - I have placed before you today the life and the good, the death and the evil, that which I command you today, to love HaShem, your G-d, to walk in His ways, to observe His commandments, His decrees, and His ordinances; then you will live and you will multiply, and HaShem, your G-d will bless you... [Deuteronomy 30:15]

Rosh HaShanah is the holiday where we recognize that our Creator, the one who fashioned us is also our King. It is the realization that our individuality and the innate gifts that we posses are given to us by something greater than ourselves.

Rosh HaShanah is there as a reality check for us -
1 - People as a whole are the pinnacle of creation. The world is there for us to use and to make better.
2 - Each individual - you - has importance. You were created for a reason by the Creator of the entire universe.
3 - Rosh HaShanah is there to recognize the King of the universe and to realize that who we are depends entirely on Him.

Rosh HaShanah presents us with a new start and new opportunities. Let us take take stock of who we are and where we are in our lives and move forward, using every gift given to us by our Creator, the King.

I want to wish everyone a healthy, successful and sweet New Year.

Monday, August 23, 2010

How do you eat an Elephant?

Answer: One bite at a time.

A dumb joke, but a great analogy. During this time of Elul, the month bringing us into the High Holidays of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, we begin thinking about the past year and how to improve the year ahead. This joke gives us an idea of how to approach the coming Holiday season.

It's normal for us to get involved in what we need for living our everyday lives. Everything from - what am I going to have for dinner tonight to the ability to make a living. These are obviously important things to consider, but we have a tendency to overlook the spiritual parts of ourselves while just trying to make ends meet.

There is a major assumption that we may have when thinking about our involvement in Judaism.
* That involvement in Judaism is an "all or nothing" proposition.

"All or nothing" is not Judaism. This is certainly not to say that G-d isn't asking us to keep all the commandments, or to pick and choose the ones we like doing most. Realistically we have to take into account human nature - keeping the Torah and mitzvot may seem overwhelming to some. This is why the elephant analogy is so apt. We are meant to approach our Judaism one step at a time.

Judaism is a lifestyle - the way that G-d explained to us to get the most out of our time alive. While we may see this statement as intellectually true, it is not always easy to implement it into our lives. That's why we should take it slowly.

King David instituted the idea of saying 100 blessings daily. Why? To bring the recognition of G-d into our every day actions. One hundred blessings might be a bit much for us right now - but how about one blessing said with real feeling every day?

I do this myself with one particular blessing. It's what I call the bathroom blessing. It is said after doing your "business" in the bathroom (saying it outside the bathroom). It's called the Asher Yatzar.
Blessed are You, Lord our G-d, King of the universe, who has formed man in wisdom, and created within him numerous orifices and cavities. It is revealed and known before the Throne of Your Glory that if but one of them were to be blocked, or one of them were to be opened, it would be impossible to exist even for a short while. Blessed are You Lord, who heals all flesh and performs wonders.

If we contemplate the words in this blessing - we see something amazing. We take much of our health for granted and certainly do not think much of using the bathroom - but the truth of this blessing brings us back to the basics of human biology. We are delicate creations, with organs and blood running through us, DNA and cells with vital information - if anything goes wrong with any of these parts of us... we are in real trouble.

Understanding the basics is where I think we should begin when approaching the New Year. By saying this blessing we gain the recognition that G-d watches out for us personally and wishes for us the best - saying one blessing with feeling once a day for a total of two minutes is a good place to start.

Monday, July 12, 2010

We're Missing the Big Picture

We take the laws of nature for granted. Birds fly, people don't. An apple falls from a tree and hits the ground. It doesn't head out into the sky. We have four seasons. (In Michigan there are two - winter and construction.) The leaves on the trees turn pretty colors in the fall. Snow is cold. We can go on and on.

While we take the rules of nature for granted - we see the Jewish laws and customs as random; a haphazard set of archaic rules. We don't see a "big picture" banding them together into a coherent message or guide to life.

This is why I picked the two books on the featured page of A Jewish Minute's store. I have read both and sincerely recommend them without hesitation.

Masterplan by Aryeh Carmell - This book takes the mitzvot and creates that coherent picture that we're missing. How these mitzvot relate to one another, how the mitzvot help us relate to each other, help us relate to the world, and how we can create a better world. One or two pages are dedicated to explaining each mitzvah and how it fits into this bigger picture. It is readable and can be read slowly - one mitzvah at a time, or obviously more.

The Sabbath by Dayan Dr. I. Grunfeld - This book does a good job of explaining what exactly the Shabbat is and what it really means to "rest". I just finished reading this book and while I thought I understood the purpose of Shabbat and what we're supposed to get out of it, I really did learn new things. It's a short book, just over 100 pages long and of course readable.

These two books do an excellent job of clarifying that big picture that we're missing. The assumption that Judaism is made up of a bunch of random and useless rules just isn't true - these books help put the pieces together.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The High Holidays and the Three Weeks

Just last week I saw an big sign outside a synagogue advertising High Holy Day tickets to services. I was shocked. Here we are in the beginning of July and they are advertising early bird tickets. I could not believe it.

But the message planted itself into my brain and started bouncing around. It's true, Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur are only two months away.

One of the main ideas associated with the High Holidays is one of teshuva, return. We are attempting to return to G-d and doing the mitzvot. The time of year we try to make amends. Many people spend the week prior to the Holidays running around to their family, friends and acquaintances apologizing for the way they may have been mistreated over the past year.

I think that this is a nice idea, but there's a better time of year to begin this mea culpa ritual. I believe that the time is now.

There is a period of time during the Jewish calendar year called the "Three Weeks". This is a period in our history that includes terrible things that have happened over the last 4000 years. It's a period of mourning. It begins on the 17th of Tammuz (this year June 29) and ends on Tisha B'Av (this year July 20).

While there is more to the 17th of Tammuz than I am including here - I am going to focus on the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish life. On the 17th of Tammuz the enemy broke through the walls of Jerusalem before the destruction of the Second Temple. The Second Temple (and the First) was then destroyed on Tisha B'Av, the Jewish national day of mourning.

The Talmud teaches us that the reason that G-d allowed for the Second Temple to be destroyed was because baseless hatred had become prevalent within the Jewish People - known in Hebrew as sinat chinam (free hatred).

While it is difficult to imagine the High Holidays coming up, it may be a good time to think about that concept of teshuva. During the Holidays we are focused on our relationship with G-d, not on our relationship with others. In fact, G-d can not and does not forgive us for what we have done to our fellow man, rather G-d expects us to work on these relationships and right the wrongs which may have occurred.

Since this is the case, it is really up to us to do teshuva in the interpersonal relationships of our lives. During this period of the Three Weeks where we remember the loss of the Holy Temple due to our own loss of love and baseless hatred for our fellow Jew - this - is the time where we need to take the time and call our friends, family and acquaintances to ask for their forgiveness for any errors in judgement on our part. This is the time to outwardly show baseless love for all Jews. Don't wait for the High Holy Days to roll around, jump on the early opportunity today.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Modim - A Prayer of Thanks

We thankfully acknowledge that You are the Lord our G-d and G-d of our fathers forever. You are the strength of our life, the shield of our salvation in every generation. We will give thanks to You and recount Your praise, evening, morning and noon, for our lives which are committed into Your hand, for our souls which are entrusted to You, for Your miracles which are with us daily, and for Your continual wonders and beneficences. You are the Beneficent One, for Your mercies never cease; the Merciful One, for Your kindnesses never end; for we always place our home in You.

The part of this prayer that strikes me is the part I have marked in bold and recount here "...for Your miracles which are with us daily, and Your continual wonders and benefices..."

While walking home one day I stopped at a traffic light waiting for the sign to let me cross. While waiting I noticed a beautiful scent. I looked around and found the lilacs and had to smile. I realized at that moment how blessed I really was. I had not noticed the flowers before, but per chance had stopped to enjoy the smell.

Soon after the encounter at the traffic light I had the opportunity to visit with both my nephew and my niece. Both are approximately the same age (6-7 months old) and only beginning to realize that there is a world around them. They have discovered their hands, and most importantly their thumbs. They have begun rolling and crawling backward trying to get from place A to place B. It is truly an amazing thing to watch.

Over these past five months I have also had the opportunity to volunteer with 1st graders, about 6 years old (going on 17), helping with their reading and writing. They are just beginning to really understand and comprehend what they are reading. They are deep in concentration when forming the letters on the page. They are creating relationships with others in class, figuring out what makes them "friends".

All the things that these children, whether 6 months or 6 years old, are learning the first time, we clearly take for granted. When was the last time we closely examined our fingers? Or carefully concentrated on our handwriting? The ease in walking from one end of the room to the other? The ability to communicate our needs and hopes to another person?

These are all gifts. We generally do not spend any time thinking about these things. Perhaps it may cross our mind to consider our bodies when something isn't working right - when we sprain an ankle, or break a wrist - but generally it doesn't.

These gifts are available to us 24/7 without break. It is human nature to focus on the things we do not have, and to overlook those that we do. This prayer reminds us that we must take time to be thankful for the things we have and take for granted. Start noticing those small things - see how many you can find each day. Perhaps even keep a list - and you'll see what a difference it will make in your life.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Why G-d Loves the Giving of Tzedukah

Before lighting the Shabbat candles, there is a tradition to put money into a tzedukah box, to give "charity" to those in need. This "Reach for the Quarter" video is a short and interesting take about why G-d loves the giving of tzedukah.

Good Shabbos everyone.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Yom Yerushalayim/Jerusalem Day

One of most obvious miracles in history happened 43 years ago today. Israel was attacked by her neighbors: Jordan, Egypt, Syria with additional troops from Kuwait, Algeria, Saudia Arabia and Iraq.

Amazingly enough, Israel won what then became known as the Six Day War. Israel gained control of the Western Wall and Jerusalem - which had been divided since 1948 - and Jews were finally allowed to worship freely at the holiest location in Judaism.

We can finally take for granted the ability to pray at the only surviving remnant of the Second Holy Temple, built in 349BCE by returnees from the Persian Exile - located on the same ground as Solomon's Temple.

We also need to celebrate the liberation of Rachel's Tomb in Bethlehem and of Hebron, where our Patriarchs and Matriarchs are buried. Hebron was also the first capital of King David. The first seven and a half years of his kingship were located there.

Today is a special day in Jewish history. Please take a moment to appreciate it.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Shavuot - A Romantic Holiday

We are quickly approaching the holiday of Shavuot - the holiday where we received the Torah from G-d at Mount Sinai.

Unfortunately while Jews know of the receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, many do not realize that there is a holiday to commemorate the occasion. The beginning of Jewish history - the creation of the Jewish People, is unknown as a whole.

Rabbi Berel Wein relates a story,
I remember that as a lawyer in Chicago over thirty-five years ago I attempted to obtain a new date for a trial in which I was representing my client and the Jewish judge, a scion of a great Eastern European rabbinic family, asked me the reason for my request. I told him that the original trial date was to fall on the holiday of Shavuot and as such I would not be able to attend court that day. He sneered at me: "Counselor, there is no such Jewish holiday!"

How can this be?

One possibility is that Shavuot generally falls out in mid-May or early June. Most (if not all) Sunday morning Hebrew schools have finished their school year by mid-May, never teaching about this important holiday.

Another possibility is that there aren't any exciting laws connected to Shavuot. There are plenty of customs, but compared to the preparation and excitement of Passover or the noise-making and costumes of Purim -- Shavuot lags behind.

Shavuot is a forgotten and neglected holiday.

I find this sad because I find this a most romantic holiday.

On Shavuot we read the Book of Ruth. Most know the story - Naomi has been widowed outside the land of Israel (her husband had brought her across the Jordan) and wants to return home. She has two daughter-in-laws (her sons have also died), Orpah and Ruth. She asks them to return to their people. Orpah leaves Naomi. Ruth on the other hand does the unexpected. Famously she pleads with Naomi,
Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; where you lodge, I will lodge; your people are my people, and your G-d is my G-d; where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried. (Book of Ruth 1:16-17)

This act tugs at our hearts. Ruth wants to be with Naomi - even until death. This is love.

Shavuot is the holiday where HaShem chose us to be His People. We had chosen G-d many years before with the devotion of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah and Rachel... and now G-d took us out from the midst of another nation - to make us His very own. This is love.

The Talmud describes Shavuot, the day marking the giving of the Torah, as the wedding day between the Almighty and the Jewish people. The nation standing at the foot of Mount Sinai represents the couple standing under the canopy, while God's giving the Torah to the nation represents the groom placing the ring on his bride's finger.

Ani L'Dodi v'Dodi Li - I am my Beloved's and my Beloved is mine. (Song of Songs 6:3)

This is Shavuot. The holiday where we each say - we want to be with You. We do not want to be left behind, as Ruth reminds us.

Our Father in Heaven loves us. The blessings before the Shema speak of His love for the Jewish People.
Lord our G-d, You have loved us with everlasting love... For You are G-d who performs acts of deliverance, and You have chosen us from among all nations and tongues, and have, in love, brought us near... Blessed are You Lord, who chooses His people Israel with love.

In a relationship we are always looking for ways to be closer to the other person. The word 'love' in Hebrew is 'ahava'. The root of 'ahava' is 'hav', which means - to give. The way to create love is by creating a connection. We create this connection by giving. This could be by giving physical things - gifts, or giving of your spiritual self - your time, your attention and fulfilling the others wants and needs.
Make your will like His will so that He may make your will as His will. (Ethics of the Fathers 2:4)

This is Shavuot. A holiday of love. We chose HaShem many years ago. It's time to choose our Beloved again.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Pesach, the Holiday of Freedom?

I had borrowed a vacuum cleaner from a neighbor and was unlocking my apartment when a lady wished me a Happy Passover and said - holiday of "freedom" right?! Passover cleaning does not rank high on my "fun" meter (and obviously not hers either).

That being said, it is true that Passover is a labor intensive holiday - it requires more elbow grease than any other holiday on the Jewish calendar. But what is it that we're cleaning for? Chametz. Chametz is not dirt. Chametz is the stuff that goes into our bread, cookies and pasta. It's the leavening - the stuff that makes bread rise.

During the holiday of Passover we not allowed to have chametz in our possession. We are not only supposed to get rid of our physical chametz, but also our spiritual chametz.

At this point we have to examine ourselves. Who are we? What are our priorities? What drives us? Ourselves or others? What is our spiritual chametz?

Let's look at the concept of freedom. What is freedom? Is it the ability to do whatever you want without restriction? No, that would be chaos. What's interesting is that Pesach - the holiday of "freedom" is followed seven weeks later by Shavuot, the holiday of the Giving of the Torah. Our rule book. G-d took us out of Egypt to give us the Torah. G-d gave us "freedom" in order to become a Holy Nation, the Nation of G-d.

The holiday of Passover is one of introspection, not just physical work. The physical work removing the chametz from our surroundings is supposed to be the reflection of the chametz we are removing from our spiritual beings. We should look at our surroundings - not only for physical chametz, but also to see who we are friends with, what we do for fun, what we do to "kill time" - are these people/activities those that build us as G-dly people, or bring us down?

We have two souls. The animal soul - enjoys the physicality of the world around us and the G-dly soul - the part that enjoys doing good deeds.

Our job is to elevate the animal soul - not to destroy it. We elevate it by doing physical activities for spiritual purposes. Eating can be a spiritual activity, if we remember that food is there to help us stay strong to do mitzvot and G-dly things - like helping others. Working out can be a spiritual activity, if we remember that it's important to be healthy - since we can do mitzvot easier when we keep in shape. Cleaning for Passover can also a spiritual activity if we remember what Pesach is about.

Passover is the Holiday of Freedom. Not unrestricted freedom, that leads to destruction. The Freedom of Passover is the freedom to be G-d's People. We know we have only One to answer to. When we realize that we only have G-d to answer to - we become free from all the outside influences that bring us down and away from G-dliness. We are looking to become better people - to improve ourselves and the world around us.

Passover is the first step on our way to Shavuot and receiving the Torah. We are getting rid of those things that lead us away from spiritual things. But we cannot leave a vacuum - once we remove what isn't good for us we must move on to replace those things with activities and friends that will point us in the right direction. We are on our way to receiving the Torah.

Between the holiday of Passover and Shavuot we take a few minutes on Saturday/Shabbat afternoons to read a chapter of Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Fathers. This is a short book focusing on ethical matters.

Whether you pick this book up or another Jewish book - I sincerely ask everyone out there to examine themselves closely to see how we can all do better. Each mitzvah brings us closer to G-d and brings the world that much closer to the coming of Mashiach. This is the holiday of Pesach - the original redemption. May this year bring us the final redemption - and the end of suffering around the world.

For more information:
Passover at Aish HaTorah

Passover at Chabad Lubavitch

Friday, February 26, 2010

Purim - The Holiday of Hidden Miracles

This coming Saturday night is the beginning of the holiday of Purim. It ends Sunday night.

Everyone knows the basic storyline -there was a king (Achashverosh) and his evil minister (Haman). Haman hated the Jews so much he decided to murder all Jewish men, women and children. By happenstance, Esther the Queen happened to be Jewish. Through the intervention of Mordechai and Esther the Jewish People were saved. Amazing story - but why do we bother with it year after year? After all, the name of G-d isn't mentioned at all as our savior.

This is the exact point to be made. In the Purim narrative, G-d doesn't save the Jewish People through open miracles (like in Egypt) but rather is behind the scenes creating situations for the Jewish People to be saved through "natural" means.

I like each of our holidays for different reasons. About four weeks after the holiday of Purim - we have Passover. I like Pesach because G-d came into our lives with a strong "hand" and outstretched "arm" and with great wonders... and we were saved.

I like Purim because it's more along the lines of our lives today. We don't see G-d's hand so easily in our everyday affairs. (I wish we did sometimes.) We take the "coincidences" and "lucky" moments that permeate our lives for granted - rather than see the finger of G-d helping us choose the right direction to head in.

Take a moment this Purim to think about those "coincidences" and "lucky" moments. Let us realize that we are not alone in our lives.

On Purim we have four mitzvot (commandments).

1. The mitzvah of hearing the megillah (story of Esther) read.
It's important to know why we are celebrating. It's also important to note that we gather as a group rather than individuals. We are all part of the Jewish People. Haman wanted to destroy us all - men, women and children. It's important that all of us realize we're all in the same boat - no matter the philosophy a Jew may subscribe to.

2. The mitzvah of giving mishloach manot - gifts of food.
We are required to give at least one package of ready made food (two types) to a friend. This is a way of connecting with one another.

3. The mitzvah of matanot l'evyonim - monetary gifts to the poor.
Yes, there are poor Jews out there. It's important on this holiday to give money to organizations that help our People in their time of need.

4. The mitzvah of seudah - eating a festive meal.
Eating good food is a huge part of the holiday. Haman wanted to physically destroy us. On this day we enjoy our physical body by eating, drinking and having a good time (within Torah guidelines).

All of these mitzvot are geared to bring the Jewish People together. It's important that we show love for one another, and by showing love for G-d's creations - we are also showing love and appreciation for G-d, our Creator.

This Purim realize that Queen Esther was not alone when she approached King Achashverosh to ask for the lives of the Jewish People, and realize that we are not alone when we are faced with problems that seem insurmountable.

Chag Sameach!
Happy Purim!

For more on Purim - click here!

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Shemot: Parshat Bo: Got the Message?

Through the reading of last week's parsha and this week's parsha - we see the awesome hand of G-d in the everyday lives of the Egyptians and Hebrews (Jews) through the plagues brought upon Egypt.

In the 6th aliyah/reading of Parshat Bo, we find the death of the first-born:
12:29 It was midnight and G-d struck down every first-born son in the land of Egypt, from the first-born son of Pharaoh sitting on his throne, to the first-born son of the captive who was in the dungeon, as well as every first-born animal.
12:30 Pharaoh arose at night, he and all his servants and all the Egyptians, and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was no house where there were no dead.

Where was Pharaoh when death was dealt to Egypt? In 12:30 we see that he "arose at night". Rashi expands on this to bring us an amazing point... Pharaoh "arose" - from bed. What's the big deal? If it's the middle of the night - where else would he be?

Generally this would be true. However, we know that Pharaoh and the whole of Egypt was forewarned by Moses about this terrible plague back in 11:4-6.
...About the time of midnight, I will go out in the midst of Egypt. Every first born in the land of Egypt will die, from the first-born of Pharaoh sitting on his throne, to the first-born of the slave girl, behind the mill stones, and every first-born animal. There will be a great cry throughout the land of Egypt, the likes of which there never was and like there never will be.

Pharaoh knew that all the other plagues that Moses had foretold had come true -- wouldn't it worry him that all first-born males in Egypt were about to die? What about his own first-born son at least?

Rather than staying up worrying - Pharaoh got into his pajamas and went to sleep. Not a care in the world. Why would he do that?

He missed the message. Pharaoh was so firmly entrenched in his own faulty world view - no matter how clear the message was - he missed the message. After the nine other plagues had destroyed the land of Egypt, he was still blind to the path he needed to take. Pharaoh was willing to sacrifice his own child in order to maintain his world view.

We shouldn't miss the message. We must make sure to periodically re-evaluate our short-term and long-term goals. We should look for and find G-d in our everyday lives. Unlike Pharaoh, we shouldn't be sleeping when it comes to realizing the messages that are sent our way.

Shavua Tov - Have a good week.

Thank-you to Rabbi Felder of Shomrai Shabbos for this concept. Majority of this is his - I have changed it some. Any mistakes are mine.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Parshiot Shemot and Va'eira: Looking for Inspiration

Last week we read Parshat Shemot - the beginning of the Egyptian Exile. This exile was the forerunner of all the exiles the Jewish People have experienced - and the redemption from that Exile is the forerunner of the ultimate Redemption.

The period of Egyptian slavery began when the 12 Brothers/Tribes were no longer in the Land of Israel and after the brothers had died. The Hebrews (as they were called at the time) were no longer surrounded by the holiness of the Land, their environment had changed. The same way the Hebrews had to deal with being outside the Land and in exile, so do we.

In the era of exile...G-dliness is hidden, and we are presented with many obstacles to our observance of the Torah and its mitzvos. We can no longer rely on our environment to deepen our feelings for G-dliness. Instead, our focus must become internal. In this manner, exile arouses our deepest spiritual resources, and strengthens our connection to G-d.
In the Garden of the Torah, vol. 1 pg. 76.

In todays world we are all looking for inspiration in our Judaism. We feel limited [Mitzrayim is Hebrew for Egypt meaning boundaries/limitations] by ourselves and our environment. We each have busy schedules, keeping us running from when the sun comes up until it sets. It's hard to see past our everyday routines - and attempt to do more with our Judaism. Whether our Judaism is practiced by rote, or not practiced at all we face the same challenges... we need inspiration.

What is inspiration? The inspiration I speak of is the type that we see in this week's parsha of Va'eira. Seeing G-d in our lives. The Jews enslaved in Egypt were finally able to see G-d's hand in their lives - through the bringing of the plagues on Egypt. We too are in exile - unable to see G-d's plan for us. We are hamsters on the wheel of life.

...any setting in which a person lives creates an inertia that resists change. To borrow an expression from our Sages: "A person in fetters cannot set himself free." Since every person's thought processes are today shaped by the environment of exile, many find it hard to see past that setting.
In the Garden of the Torah, vol. 1 pg. 82.

This is the challenge of exile - to be caught in the inertia of the mundane. The solution is inspiration - a jolt of G-dliness to shake us up in order to see past the routine. But once we have that jolt we must do something solid to hang onto that inspiration before it slips away from us.

Where do we find inspiration? Some might find it in nature. Some might find it watching a child at the zoo. I'm afraid that I am not that good. I personally believe in going to lectures by Torah teachers. A week ago I went to hear Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz - speaking about finding happiness. I believe he is one of the best speakers I have heard, no matter the topic he is worth hearing his perspective. That lecture got me to thinking about how I approach life's challenges.

The challenge, once you feel inspired, is to do something solid - to make a physical change in the world. To add something Jewish into your life. To bring the G-dliness that you felt into the physical world. To remove those limitations that keep you from exploring and bringing more meaning into your life.

These parshiot are about exile and redemption. We are all in exile - an exile that seems to make it difficult to connect to G-d. But it is that same exile that forces us to search for and depend on our own internal resources - to find and build that connection. To look for that inspiration. To find that inspiration.

That inspiration should bring us to connect with G-d, to bring spirituality into our lives and to improve the world around us. To make a world a dwelling place for G-d.

To learn more about Rabbi Dr. Akiva Tatz take a look at his website. To read his articles and get free MP3s of his lectures - click here and enjoy.