Sep 04 2015

An Abundance of Good


happyfarmerWhen we come to this week’s reading, I always remember the way my teacher Rabbi Asher Rubenstein zt”l spoke about the poor person bringing his first fruits to the Temple.

The Torah obligates a person to be happy. It is part of the Commandment to bring the First Fruits: “And you shall rejoice in all the good which Hashem your G-d has given to you and to your family…” [26:11] And conversely, the Torah predicts that punishments will come to the Jewish Nation “In compensation for your failure to serve Hashem your G-d with joy and with happiness of heart, from an abundance of all.” [28:47]

What does this mean? If a person has everything he needs, of course he will be happy to come to the Temple with his offering and express his gratitude. And if, on the other hand, he has nothing to bring, the Commandment of the first fruits (and the Commandment to be happy) doesn’t apply. So what is the importance, the relevance, of telling a person to be happy? The Chumash Rav Peninim addresses this question, as Rav Rubenstein explained.

Imagine a farmer who owns a modest few acres of land. He works through the year, harvests his crop, and knows that he’ll be able to feed his family. He’s content, because he has all that he needs. He fulfills the saying in Chapters of the Fathers: “Who is wealthy? He who is happy with his lot.”

But before he can take advantage of that crop, he knows he has to bring his first fruits. So he saddles his donkey, fills a small bag with loaves of bread and a few clusters of grapes, and heads off for Jerusalem. After traveling for a while, he reaches the main highway.

And this is where Rabbi Rubenstein would tell us, “he isn’t so happy anymore.”

He gets to the main road, but needs to wait — a huge caravan is passing. There is a huge carriage with extraordinarily large and beautiful grapes. The next is piled high with loaves of bread. And in the third sits the owner of the horses, carriages, farmland and crop.

The farmer looks at his small bag of first fruits. Has anything changed? Only his perception. His satisfaction is replaced by jealousy, because someone else has all that wealth.

This is what the Commandment to be happy with what Hashem has given us is all about. No one else’s portion is our own. It is so tempting to look around and try to “keep up with the Joneses.” Our obligation is to realize that Hashem gives each person what he or she needs.

One of the leading rabbis and teachers alive today is Rabbi Aharon Leib Shteinman shlit”a of Bnei Brak. His words wield tremendous power in the Orthodox world — including several Knesset members who turn to him for guidance. Meanwhile, his “headquarters” is a tiny, deteriorating apartment. Even his family was surprised to hear him describe it as “such a nice house!”

Yet that’s what the Mitzvah is all about. We get what is sufficient for our needs. Yes, there are people who own vast wealth, but they have their own situation and their own challenges — they are not our own.

The Chapters of the Fathers also says that jealousy is one of the things that “removes a person from the world.” It occurs to me that in extreme cases, this is literally true. There was a recent story of a man so outraged by his perception of injustice and lack of fairness that he attacked three other people who had, in his eyes, been more fortunate and part of the injustice — and when police caught up with him, he took his own life.

While we can hope that none of our readers are at risk of anything similar, we can still learn a valuable lesson: trying to keep up with others only leads to bad decision-making. Our Commandment is to “rejoice in all the good which Hashem your G-d has given to you and to your family.” As we approach Rosh HaShanah, let us ask for His blessings for success, health, life — and the wisdom to perceive the abundant kindness He gives us.

Aug 28 2015

Helping Your Brother


In this week’s reading, the Torah commands us to help each other, and to avoid pain even to animals: “You shall not see the donkey of your brother or his ox falling on the path, yet lift your eyes from them; you shall surely right it with him.” [22: 4] It’s not just a Mitzvah to help; the Torah prohibits us from not helping.

Like everything else in life, however, we must balance this Commandment with other considerations. For example, if a person is leading his donkey along a path through a cemetery, and the observer is a Kohein, who is prohibited from entering a cemetery — the Kohein may not enter. In that case, he must hold himself back from helping.

But the Talmud [Bava Metzia 32a] gives us another example which is perhaps more surprising. If the owner abandons the animal and goes and sits down under a tree, and says “go do your Mitzvah” — then you have no obligation. The verse says you have to “right it with him,” not that you have to do his work for him.

What about the animal? In this situation, shouldn’t we help the poor creature? It’s obviously not the animal’s fault that its owner is heartless and wants to take advantage of another’s kindness.

The Torah understands well the law of unintended consequences. It’s not true that “good guys finish last.” On the contrary, it’s only our choice to do the right thing that enables us to feel true satisfaction for a “job well done.” Clearly, the person who abandons his own animal and tells someone else to “go do a Mitzvah” has not learned this. He thinks that other people exist to do his bidding; he is finding ways to take advantage of their kindness and their desire to do G-d’s will.

In this case, enabling the other person to take advantage would be detrimental — not so much to the person who helps and does the work, but to the person who is learning to exploit the generosity of others. Making sure that this person does not learn to take advantage of others is so important that it overwhelms the obligation to help the animal. Helping another person to be productive is much better than simply giving him a handout, even of “free labor.”

The story is told of someone entering the subway, who was approached by a man he understood to be a beggar. He gave the man a quarter and rushed to meet his train — but the other man ran to catch up with him, and give him one of the pencils he was selling. “Oh, I’m sorry,” said the hurried traveler, “I didn’t realize you were a merchant.”

Months later, the man selling pencils saw the same traveler, and brought him into his store. He told him to take anything he wants, because the whole store existed thanks to him. “You were the first person to make me think of myself as a merchant!”

People think about the immediate situation — like the poor donkey struggling to get up — and not about the future consequences. Sometimes what is best for a person isn’t what will help him right now, but what will lead to a better future. And that is where we should “lend a hand.”

Aug 14 2015

Division, Not Discord


ceremonial-647061_1280In this week’s reading, the verse says “Lo Sisgodedu” — “do not cut yourselves,” which was a mourning practice of idolators. But the Medrash tells us that the words give us another messages as well: “do not divide, do not split up.”

Someone once asked Rabbi Yisrael M. Kagan zt”l, the Chofetz Chaim, why the observant Jewish world was so divided. Why are there Chassidim and non-Chassidim, and even among Chassidim there are all different types. Some focus more on study, some more on prayer; some are mostly silent while others sing and dance. And that was in Poland in the early 20th century, when most Jews were at most marginally aware of the diversity of Sephardic and Yemenite Jewry. What would the world be missing, he asked, if there was simply one group of Jews, all praying the same way and following the same customs?

The Chofetz Chaim responded that before asking him this question, the questioner ought to go to the Czar of Russia with a similar one: why are there so many different types of soldiers? In their day they had infantry, cavalry and artillery — today that would just be the Army. Could we rationally question why there are different units, whether the world would lack anything if there was only one type of soldier? In order to win in battle, the military needs a variety of techniques, strategies, and strengths.

So too, says Rabbi Kagan, in our ongoing battle against the Evil Inclination. We are all in the same battle, trying to perfect ourselves and make better choices. As someone explained more recently, without the modern Yeshivos of Lithuanian Jewry, Torah learning would not be so strong, and without the impact of the Chassidic movement, Judaism would not be so strong. When we learn and benefit from each others’ strengths, we are united in serving our Father in Heaven.

Jul 31 2015

The Foundation of Judaism


Sinai-StoryThe Torah tells us in this week’s reading that we must always remember what happened at Sinai. “Just guard yourselves, and guard your souls very well, lest you forget the things that your eyes saw, lest it leave your heart all the days of your life. And you shall make it known to your children and grandchildren, the day that you stood before HaShem your G-d at Chorev” [Dev. 4:9-10].

The Rambam [Maimonides] says (in his Igeres Teiman, his letter to Yemenite Jewry) that this isn’t simply something we believe, but the foundation of Jewish belief. But… isn’t that circular reasoning? How can something be its own foundation? It’s something we believe, therefore we believe it and everything else also. Right?

Actually, no, it’s not circular. Maimonides says that this is the foundation because every Jew knows that his or her own great-great-grandparents believed that his or her own great-great-(great-great-great etc.)-grandparents were there. As in, Jews have traditionally believed that their own forebears were actually at the foot of Mount Sinai and saw it happen.

Maimonides asserts that there is only one way for that belief to take root, and that by the same standards that we know most anything, we are able to analyze this event and reach the conclusion that we know it happened. It’s not just a belief, it’s knowledge.

Why is it so common to dismiss this as just another story? The answer is simple: because of the ramifications. Under most circumstances, no one would believe that a community of millions of people believe that their own ancestors witnessed an event, yet it’s all mythology. If Brazilians were holding an annual feast to commemorate a massive flood that nearly destroyed the community, the impartial observer would tend to believe that the flood must have actually happened — and that’s true even if the flood was reported to have taken place hundreds or even thousands of years ago. Because everyone knows that floods can happen, and it’s possible for communities to escape them by the narrowest of margins.

But knowing that this particular story may be difficult to believe, Maimonides points to this week’s reading: “when you will ask about the first days that happened before you, from the day G-d Created man on the earth and from one end of the heavens to the other, has this ever been, or has [a story] like this ever been heard — has a nation heard the Voice of G-d speaking from inside the fire, as you heard, and lived?” [4:32-33] The Torah says bluntly that, as Maimonides put it, “there never was such a thing before, and there will never be anything like it.”

This is an amazing prediction, especially considering how world history has played out over the past 3300 years. It’s not just that there are other religions, it’s that today over fifty percent of the world’s population derives their beliefs from our Bible. Today’s dominant religions begin here — that G-d revealed Himself to the Jewish Nation. And they all also believe that at some point, the Jews got it wrong.

All of them believe that they know the Jews got it wrong, because someone told them so. Either that someone was a prophet, or that someone was an angel, or that someone was even divinity in human form — but someone told them. No one believes that G-d publicly revealed Himself once again to say so. Today, there are more Americans who believe an angel talked to a man in a cave in upstate New York and showed him the new path, than there are Jews in the world who [try to] follow the rules laid out in the Torah!

What is it about this story, that no one tried to duplicate it? Doesn’t it make more sense to start a new religion by saying that G-d came back to tell us the new way? And for that matter… how did the Torah know and declare with full confidence that although the Jews came to believe the story as told in our Torah, no one would ever get a group of people to believe a new version of this story, ever again?

Maimonides may have been on to something.

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