May 16

A Gift of Love

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mordechai eliyahu with etrogMy cousin’s daughter is celebrating her Bas Mitzvah this weekend, and as they studied this week’s reading in preparation, they came across one of the classic questions of Jewish philosophy: why do we do what we do?

The parsha says that if we follow G-d’s Laws, we will be richly rewarded — but also says that if we don’t, we will be punished. So are we acting out of fear of punishment, or because we want the reward? Our Sages add two additional possibilities: acting out of fear or love of G-d, without regard to the reward or punishment. Similarly, if someone has done wrong and is returning to G-d, the Sages distinguish between one who does so out of fear of punishment, fear of G-d, or love.

Obviously the highest level is to do the Commandments simply out of love. The story is told of Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, the Gaon of Vilna, who was unable to locate an Esrog (one of the four species taken on Sukkos) one year. His assistant found someone with an Esrog, but he would part with it on one condition only: that all of the Gaon’s reward for the Mitzvah of taking Lulav and Esrog that year would belong to the one giving up the Esrog. The Gaon would share in none of the reward at all.

Observers said that the Gaon did the Mitzvah that year with even greater intensity than his elevated norm. Why? Because he was doing it purely out of love for HaShem and His Mitzvos, without the least concern for the reward he was earning!

It is obvious, though, that sometimes this isn’t enough. G-d never wants to punish us, any more than a loving parent enjoys disciplining a child who has done wrong. But it is sometimes necessary for a person to fear the consequences of bad behavior, in order to avoid it. G-d knows (of course) that we aren’t always up to the challenge of acting out of love alone.

Nonetheless, that is the goal we should be striving to meet. Mazal Tov, Sarah Miriam Edelson, on your Bas Mitzvah, and may you always merit to serve G-d out of love! [And may we all have the same blessing.]

May 09

Hope is Not Lost!

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At the end of this week’s reading, we are told not to set up idols. “You shall make no idols, and a graven image or pillar you shall not set up… You shall keep My Sabbaths, and revere My Sanctuary, I am Hashem” [Lev. 26:1]. The Medrash, quoted by Rashi, says that this is talking about a person who sold himself into servitude to a non-Jew. He isn’t allowed to say “because my master is an idolater, I will be like him,” or “because my master engages in forbidden relationships, I will be like him.” He is still obligated to observe the Commandments like anyone else.

The-Climber-Rejoices-at-the-Top-of-the-MountainRabbi Yisrael Mayer Kagan, the saintly Chofetz Chayim, says that the Torah is teaching us that even a person who has put himself into a bad situation is not exempt. By putting himself into indentured servitude to a non-Jew, this person was certainly embarrassed, and knew full well that he would have many challenges and failures when it came to doing the Commandments. Nonetheless, he remains obligated like anyone else.

So, he continues, if this is true of someone who sold himself, then all the more so the fact that a person might have willfully ignored the Commandments in the past doesn’t exempt him for the future. Tomorrow brings with it new obligations and new responsibilities.

What this also means, of course, is that every new day brings with it new opportunities as well. Sometimes a person tries to do various things, doesn’t manage to “keep it up,” and thinks he or she just isn’t cut out to do it. But every person, at every level, experiences repeated failures on the way to success — in many different areas of our lives. That’s what makes the success so sweet in the end.

The same is true of spiritual success — if it’s hard to accomplish, every day one has a new opportunity, and the eventual success that will be much greater. The Torah is telling us to never give up, that we can always win in the end.

May 02

An Accident of Birth

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IMG_4403-761858The story is told of the uninformed Jewish fellow who desired to be a Kohen… a Priest. He went to a Rabbi, who told him that that’s impossible: a child is a Kohen at birth or not at all. But the fellow persisted, even offering huge sums of money if the Rabbi would only declare him a Kohen. Finally the Rabbi asked, with exasperation, “why is this so important to you? If you’ve never learned about Judaism, why must you be a Kohen?”

The man responded: “it’s very simple, Rabbi. You see, my grandfather was a Kohen, and my father was a Kohen, so I also want to be a Kohen!”

For those who need the joke explained — he already was. The priesthood is limited to the male descendants of Moshe’s brother Aharon, who was the first Kohen Gadol [High Priest]. As found in this week’s Torah portion, it’s not optional, but rather a Kohen has unique limitations and obligations. It’s not about privilege and prestige — it’s about having a mission, beyond the one shared by all Jews and that shared by all humanity.

As I was writing this morning, a woman wrote into our Torah.org chat, and my colleague Rabbi Dixler answered her. Her great-aunt had once told her that she might be Jewish — and, in fact, she is! She’s also only 30 minutes from a center for Jewish studies, so he was able to recommend a place for her to learn more about what it means to be Jewish.

The world needs variety — and we are all different. And all of us have a mission that is in tune with our own spiritual needs; we each have our own parts to play, our own path to follow. Some of our differences are obvious from birth — others, less so. Some can dunk a basket while others have two left feet. Some find calculus easy while others can’t master long division. And some are born with the proverbial silver spoon, while others struggle to make ends meet — and so on.

So many times in life, we may be tempted to look over the fence. Be it medical issues, schooling, financial problems — we can find ourselves asking why we can’t have someone else’s fortune, rather than our own. But the Torah’s answer is always the same: we are placed in the situation that is uniquely right for us — to see what we make of it.

We come into the world to have the opportunity to emulate G-d, to earn closeness by becoming more G-dly. The Torah teaches that the situation in which we find ourselves is the one that G-d Himself deemed necessary for our next opportunity for spiritual growth. That is what we all share in common. What’s ultimately important isn’t how we are born — but how we die!

Apr 25

Stretching Our Muscles

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Exercise more! That two-word synopsis of what the doctor told me is probably familiar to many readers. What differs from patient to patient is which muscles and bones need the exercise, but by a certain age most of us are told to work on something or other to stay healthy.

senior-man-jogging-lycopene-lgIt turns out that our brains need exercise, too. The Alzheimer’s Association reports that “higher levels of education appear to be somewhat protective against Alzheimer’s, possibly because brain cells and their connections are stronger. Well-educated individuals can still get Alzheimer’s, but symptoms may appear later because of this protective effect.” It is almost ordinary to find a Rabbinic scholar in his 90′s with no noticeable loss of his faculties — due to constant exercise of the brain.

In this week’s reading, the Torah tells us that our “moral compass” needs exercise, as well. G-d tells Moshe to assemble everyone and tell them: “Be holy!” Why? “Because I, HaShem your G-d, am Holy.” And the very next verse tells each person to fear his or her father and mother, and observe the Sabbath, and repeats: “I am HaShem your G-d.”

Being holy is neither easy nor immediate; it doesn’t just happen by itself. The Torah gives us an example of moral behavior, telling us to treat parents with deference and respect. And it requires us to be intelligent in making moral decisions, as evidenced by the placement of the requirement to observe the Sabbath in the same verse. The Sages teach us that this teachesĀ us that listening to our parents has exceptions: if told to violate the Sabbath, we must not listen, because “I am HaShem your G-d,” and both parents and children must listen to Him first.

Like anything else, it takes study and practice — exercise — to get it right. Without studying the difference between appropriate speech and harmful gossip, for example, it’s almost impossible not to make a mistake.

They say practice makes perfect. Perfection isn’t really part of the human endeavor… but we can try our best. This is a marathon for which everyone needs to train!

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