Dec 19 2014

More than 8 Days

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forever-ink2Lighting the Menorah each night after dark, seeing the children’s excitement for this beautiful Mitzvah, and singing Hallel, the festival prayer of gratitude, praise, and hope each morning for 8 days, is a reservoir of inspiration that it would be a shame to waste. I wish I could take these moments and put them in a bottle to pull out later when I need them most.

“On a good day be good, and on a bad day reflect” (Koheles – Ecclesiastes, 7:14). When you have a day filled with goodness, be mindful of the goodness and let it penetrate your being. On that same day, consider the “bad day” in the future when the cycle of this world takes its natural course, and prepare by insuring your inspiration has left an indelible mark on your soul. Pharoah’s nightmare of healthy cows and grain being consumed by emaciated cows and parched grain gave him no rest, until Joseph proposed a plan to secure Egypt’s healthy years of plenty and responsibly face the years of famine.

Chanukah is a festival designed to leave permanent impressions. The miracle of the oil and the victory over Greek culture were gifts from the Al-mighty during the Second Temple, when a significant portion of the Jewish people were still exiled from Israel, and the feeling of the Al-mighty’s Presence (Shechinah) in the Temple had been diminished. The destruction of the Temple would follow, and our exile continues, the Sages tell us, until the coming of the Messiah (Moshiach). Our celebration of this festival helps us to relive these miracles each year, to help carry us through the exile.

Chanukah is also unique in that it takes place during a full week during which we continue to work normally, and are involved in productive activities. The spiritual experience overlaps the mundane. This demonstrates that it is possible for our daily activities to coexist with G-d’s Presence.

Preparing for Chanukah is relatively easy – clean the Menorahs, buy the wicks and candles, dust off the dreidels – but how will we plan for after Chanukah? Perhaps you have some ideas. Please, share them in the comments below. Have a happy, and long-lasting, Chanukah! (based on Sefer HaLekach V’Halibuv, Chanuka)

Good Shabbos and Happy Chanukah,
Rabbi Mordechai Dixler
Program Director, Project Genesis – Torah.org

Dec 12 2014

Certainly Wrong

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greek-soldierI was once driving with my wife, way back in the pre-GPS days when you actually had to remember directions. She was driving, and approached a T in the road with her left-turn signal on. “Wait!” I said. “Not left, definitely not left!”

We arrived at the intersection, and I saw and remembered where we were. “OK, maybe left.” This has been a family joke ever since.

After Yosef’s brothers threw him in a dangerous pit of snakes and scorpions, they sat down comfortably to eat [Gen. 37:24-25, Talmud Shabbos 22a]. The Tiferes Tzion explains that they believed they had judged Yosef correctly for having slandered them to their father, and attempting to elevate himself above them with his dreams. They were so certain of their decision that they were able to sit down to eat with a clean conscience — not realizing that their true motivation was simple jealousy. Even these great and holy individuals, the tribes of Yaakov, were capable of not merely misjudging, but of being quite certain that they had acted correctly.

The holiday of Chanukah is just around the corner. While it is sometimes misunderstood as commemorating a battle for freedom between the Jews and the Greeks, the truth is considerably more nuanced. There was an internal battle between Jews, between those who promoted the Hellenization of Judaism and Jerusalem vs. those who rejected it. Those in the first camp were so certain about what they were doing, that it was they who defiled the Temple in Jerusalem. They believed it would somehow help the Jewish people for them to be more like the dominant Greeks. And of course, in the end it was just about their personal biases, their desire to worship idols and engage in the immoral behavior the Greeks encouraged.

Personal bias is capable of not merely enticing us to do the wrong thing, but to do so with complete confidence that we are acting correctly. We have to look to third parties with sound judgment and a neutral perspective, precisely when we think we are so obviously right that there is no question to ask.

Dec 05 2014

Dental Admonition

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homeremedyforatoothacheThe Medrash tells us many things not found in the written text of the Torah. It is, in fact, crucial to our understanding, because otherwise many passages could be misunderstood and misconstrued.

Sometimes, however, statements in the Medrash appear to conflict with each other, representing differing schools of thought on how to understand a particular passage. How do we respond to apparent conflicts? When there is a true conflict, we must conclude that while each is intended to teach its own lesson, only one could actually have occurred. Unlike a question in the law, we don’t need to resolve the conflict by declaring one version correct — we try to learn from both in any case — but we still recognize that the two accounts are at odds with one another.

When we look deeper, though, we may realize that two versions of an account are not mutually exclusive. For example, there are differing accounts of who the angels were who were ascending and descending the ladder in Yaakov’s dream. One version says that Yaakov was escorted by different angels outside the Land of Israel, so one set was leaving and the other was coming down to join him. Another says that there were various angels representing the exiles that would befall Yaakov’s children, and each angel ascended according to the length of that exile before falling back down — and the fourth and final angel ascended so high that Yaakov was afraid, until HaShem reassured him that that angel, too, would eventually fall.

Are the multiple versions at odds in that case? Actually, no. Yaakov could have had multiple visions of the angels on the ladder, all designed to teach him something different.

This week, the Sages differ in how to understand Esav’s reunion with his brother Yaakov, whom Esav hated so passionately. In the Torah, there are dots penned over the word “VaYishakehu,” “and he kissed him.” Some say that this indicates that Esav was not kissing him with a full heart, with actual love for his brother. On the contrary, one Medrash says that Esav tried to take the opportunity to kill his brother, by biting him! Yaakov’s neck miraculously turned to stone, and the reason Esav cried afterwards was because of his broken teeth.

Another opinion in the Medrash says the opposite: at that very moment Esav’s heart filled with mercy for his brother, and he genuinely loved Yaakov and cried for their reunion. It seems obvious that these Midrashim are completely at odds with each other.

It occurred to me that even here, we could say that both versions are correct. It could be that Esav came to Yaakov with murderous intent — but when he was thwarted by an obvious miracle, he recognized that G-d was sending him a message, telling him that he was in the wrong. Esav could, in that moment, have realized that he should be greeting his brother with love, and learned his lesson.

We are not greeted with obvious miracles when we find ourselves going down the wrong path, but often there are signals if we are sensitive to them. It could be as simple as a twinge of conscience when doing something unproductive, instead of learning Torah. We are supposed to listen to those messages, to improve and do better — without suffering broken teeth!

Nov 28 2014

The Rewards of Honesty

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20100819_pinocchio1In Jewish sources, our forefather Yaakov is always identified with the character trait of honesty, of dedicating himself to truth. Sometimes this seems difficult to understand — after all, he deceived his father in order to claim the blessings of the firstborn son. So how can he be considered so honest?

To understand Yaakov’s strength of character and dedication to this trait, we need only look at his rebuke to his father-in-law Lavan. He decides to leave Lavan’s camp quietly, because he detects that his father-in-law is becoming hostile. But when Lavan discovers that Yaakov and his family have left, he pursues them. Yaakov then says to him, “what is my sin that you have chased after me?” [31:36] Lavan searched through the entire camp (he was looking for his idols, which Rachel had indeed taken without anyone’s knowledge), and Yaakov tells Lavan to lay out anything he has found that he believes to be his — for there is nothing to be found.

After all, Yaakov continues, he served Lavan faithfully for twenty years. During that time, his only wages were the animals that were born dark, spotted, or patched with color. And if any animal died in Yaakov’s care, he deducted it from his own wages.

And then he reminds Lavan, “you changed my wages one hundred times” [31:41 — see Rashi to 31:7]. When Lavan saw how well Yaakov was doing, he kept changing the deal for his own benefit. When many sheep were born spotted, he said “you take the dark ones and I’ll take the spotted ones.” And when the sheep immediately started giving birth to dark ones instead, he told Yaakov, “you take the patched ones.”

During all that time, as Lavan kept trying to take away from Yaakov that which he had earned, Yaakov remained completely faithful. He could easily have said, “the loss of that sheep wasn’t my fault, and Lavan will never notice” — yet every time, he took responsibility.

Sometimes, even a completely honest person must hide the truth. A careful reading of the verses shows that Yaakov did not lie to his father. He was simply claiming the blessing that was his, for he had purchased the birthright of the firstborn from Esav. He did not want to tell his father that Esav had sold away the birthright, and left it for G-d to reveal this prophetically to Yitzchak.

That was, however, for a spiritual matter, to receive the blessing that was appropriate for the father of the Jewish nation. When it came to business, no deceit on his part was tolerated, no matter how obvious the deceit from his partner. The evidence of Yaakov’s religiosity, of his dedication to G-d, was not found in how long he prayed, or how strictly he kept Kosher — but in how he ran his business.

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