The year 2020 will forever be remembered as a year of global chaos and turmoil. The new year was welcomed by all with a renewed sense of hope, but with an underlying insecurity as to whether 2021 will really be any different.
As Passover approaches, it is befitting that we look towards the story of the Exodus for direction and perspective. In so many ways we can draw a parallel between what we are experiencing in our own times and what God put the Egyptians through in the hope that they would change. Pharaoh and the Egyptians did not get the message, which led to the country’s downfall. But with our eyes open, we can take the message to heart, and use these uncertain times as the impetus to grow and become even greater.
The classic reading of the Torah’s account of the 10 plagues might not seem like the most relevant story to our modern day era. When was the last time God took down a mighty empire by unleashing a host of open miracles and wonders, anyhow? But when we look a little deeper at what the actual plagues represented, and what message they contained, one can see how relevant they are to our times.
The plague of blood was an attack on the Nile river, the source of Egypt’s endless abundance and prosperity. Without the need for rain they felt completely independent of needing God, giving them license to view themselves as deities. The visual of blood, a symbol of blessing, turning to blood, a symbol of pain, was meant to capture their attention and make them realize that prosperity can be a source of blessing or a source of misery. Put in this context, one might argue that our generation can very much relate to this plague, as we see the most affluent generation in the history of mankind suffering from crumbling morals and widespread sadness. Observing the lifestyles of the rich and famous- so many of whom seem to be living very dysfunctional lifestyles- just confirms that “water”, or abundance, without recognition of God, eventually turns to “blood” or misery.
The constant croaking of the second plague of frogs gave the Egyptians no respite from the terrible noise, just as we are suffering from an endless stream of terrible noise from our media and social media, and its constant spread of slander and hate. The plague of lice were meant to show the Egyptians that God can cripple the mightiest of empires through the most miniscule of messengers, a very relatable plague in a world that is only beginning to recover from an almost invisible virus.
Though we might not see lions and bears running through our streets as what occurred in the fourth plague of mixed wild animals, who cannot say that when we see the shattering glass, graffitied storefronts, and scorched buildings after yet another riot, it doesn’t feel that we were not attacked by a herd of wild animals?
The fifth plague of pestilence was an attack on the domestic animals who were worshipped as Gods by the pagan Egyptians. Though pagan worship is fairly uncommon today, one does wonder whether our society's obsession with celebrities, movie stars and sports figures borderlines on idol worship. And, perhaps, this is why our initial wake up call that Covid-19 should be taken seriously was when professional sports and the entertainment industry closed up shop, a very similar message, perhaps, to what God was communicating to Egypt in this fifth plague.
The sixth plague of boils was the punishment for the Egyptians obsession with their sexuality. As a result the boils made them embarrassed about how they looked. This can be taken as a wake-up call to a culture that has put so much emphasis on looking a certain way, that we have produced a generation of young people who feel ashamed about their looks as if they possess some sort of defect, even though there is nothing wrong with them at all!
And while we are not getting attacked with hailstorms of fire and ice crashinging through the atmosphere, as how it occurred during the seventh plague, we are struggling with the heated debate of whether we are damaging that atmosphere to a point that it will be beyond repair.
Surely, the millions of business owners who saw their businesses fall apart this past year by the coronavirus can certainly relate to the eighth plague that saw locusts devour whatever was left of the Egyptian crops, completely crippled their economy.
Perhaps, none of the plagues are more relatable to our society today than the final two. The ninth plague featured a darkness that was more than just a dimming of the sun. It was described as a heavy and thick darkness that completely paralyzed Egypt so that they could not get up or sit down. This brings to mind the overall mental and emotional health of our generation, with so many whose anxiety and depression feel like a dark cloud that makes even the simplest of tasks difficult.
And finally, the final plague that targeted the Eguptian firstborns who were considered the leaders in Egypt. The firstborn were attacked because of their failure to lead Egypt in a way that was honorable. This collapse of leadership is something that we are being plagued with in modern day society as well, as many of our politicians and world leaders certainly fall short of being considered reputable and often lack even the basic decency.
But there is good news in all this. The ten plagues was God’s way of saying that it was time to usher in a new reality. It was the birthing of the Jewish people who would go on to receive the Torah and bring new values and enlightenment to the world. We can only hope and pray that the ten plagues of today are once again the Almighty’s way of waking us up and calling on us to take notice of Him, to be ambassadors of a higher system of values, and to be ready to welcome in a new dawn and a much brighter future.
The Passover Seder is supposed to be fun and engaging to anyone we find present around the table. We read about how the “wise son” receives wisdom, the “evil son” receives sharp confrontation, the “simple son” is taught the ABC’s of Judaism, and the “one who doesn’t know how to ask” is engaged in dialogue that will open him up.
Many of us know how to engage kids with fun games, props, junk food, and the promise of really cool Afikomen presents. But how do we engage the adults and make sure the Passover Seder becomes more than an annual family get-together featuring matzah and Manishevitz?
Questions that provoke discussion about relevant topics can help bring your Seder to life. Here are 20 conversation-starters for your Seder table that will help you engage even the least interested guests. You can pose the questions yourself, or- with a little pre-passover prep- you can create conversation cards and hand them out to your guests for them to facilitate the conversation.
1. When doing the “salt water dip”: Has anything ever happened to you which seemed bitter at the time but later turned out to be sweet?
2. When breaking the Matzah and hiding the Afikomen: What is a “hidden” aspiration that you have, i.e. something that you have postponed for later in life but you plan/aspire to one day get to?
3. When speaking about God’s promise to Abraham: What can we learn from Abraham about standing up for what you believe against popular belief? Are we living up to our title as the "children of Abraham"?
4. What contributions have the Jewish people made to humanity over history?
5. When speaking about how the Jewish people were sent down to Egypt: How have the hardships in our life helped us become better people?
6. During Vehi She’Amdah: Why has there always been so much hate and discrimination including antisemitism and racism in the world? Does it still exist today?
7. When speaking about the beginnings of Jewish life in Egypt: How does the Jewish people’s assimilation into Egyptian culture resemble Jewish assimilation throughout history?
8. When speaking about Jewish identity in Egypt: What does Jewish identity mean in Exile? What role does your religion and culture play in your life as an American?
9. When speaking about the harsh slavery: In our day-to-day lives, do we really love what we do or are we more like slaves to our work?
10. The word Mitzraim resembles the Hebrew word for constriction. What is our personal Mitzrayim? What is holding us back the most?
11. When speaking about the plagues: Are there signs in our life pushing us to change that we are just refusing to see?
12. Are there signs around us that God exists? What are they?
13. Pharaoh Vs. Moshe: What are the ingredients to be a great leader?
14. When speaking about the various miracles: Does the existence of the Jewish people defy the natural order of the world? Are we a miracle?
15. If you knew 100% that God would help you succeed- even through miracles- what new endeavor would you take on?
16. When speaking about jumping in the Red Sea: What have you done recently to step out of your comfort zone?
17. When singing Dayneu: What are the gifts in our life that make it all worth it?
18. What Mitzvot/Jewish gifts are you most appreciative of? Israel? Shabbat? Torah? Something else?
19. When reciting Hallel: If you could fully express gratitude to someone in your past who really made a difference in your life, who would it be?
20. When eating Matzah: If you could eradicate laziness from your life and live with complete discipline, what would you accomplish?
The Pain of Transition
The placement of the Maror in the order of the Seder is quite mysterious.
When we observe the 15 steps of the Seder, we see that there is a clear path of ascension. Our actions throughout the night take us through a virtual journey where we, ourselves, are experiencing a trek from bondage to freedom. Corresponding to the 15 steps entering into the courtyard of the Beit HaMikdash, every act that we do seems to take us one step farther away from the salty tears of Karpas to the festive bliss of Hallel and Nirtzah.
When we reach the middle five steps of the Seder, we find ourselves at a point of transition. The four steps revolving around Matzah and Maror are a recreation of the ceremony that the Jewish nation performed while still in Egypt but already smelling the scent of freedom. As we eat the Matzah and lean, it seems that we have finally gotten to the place in the Seder where we, too, are smelling the scent of freedom and it smells a lot like the delicious Shulchan Aruch food that is only a few minutes away.
And it is at that point of transition, moments away from freedom, when the Maror ceremony commences.
Maror. The symbol of bitterness. The symbol of pain. Chicken soup with Kosher for Pesach Luckshen is on our mind, yet tears of suffering are pouring down are cheeks! How do we understand this contradiction of emotions we are supposed to be experiencing at this time? And why would the Jewish nation be commanded to be eating Maror while still in slavery and specifically at a time when they are beginning their freedom? What are we to make of this?
Many suggest that the message here is one of “never forget where you came from” or “realize that it was the pain of the past that got you to this point”. But, I would like to suggest a somewhat different approach based on my work with so many people who are trying to make major changes in their lives, to go from whatever “slavery” they are experiencing in their life to whatever “freedom” they are looking for. It can be the slavery of an addiction, of a toxic relationship, of a dead-end job, or of a life without Torah values.
The message of Maror smack in the middle of the Seder can very well be teaching us that as difficult as slavery is, very often the pain of transitioning out of that slavery can be even harder, more painful and certainly scarier. For as bad as that slavery may seem, there is a certain complacency and comfort that is present, and the idea of having to pick up and enter into a “desert” without knowing what will happen there can be absolutely frightening.
Certainly, one who pays close attention to the subtle hints of the Torah and of our Sages can see that this was not an easy task for the Jewish people. We know that only a small number of Jews actually left Egypt. We read how when they are commanded to “request a man from his friend (rayaihu)” silver and gold vessels (Shemos 11:2), an usual term of affection referring to their Egyptian masters. And we see how whenever anything goes wrong in the Desert, some Jews fondly reminisce about their time in Egypt and how they “sat by the pot of meat” and “ate bread till they were full” (Shemos 16:3).
The Maror teaches us to be sensitive of the pain of transition from slavery to freedom. To look around us and see if there are people in our life who are experiencing this pain and maybe longing for those “good old days” of slavery, when life was just more simple. And Maror is a time to look inward and ask ourselves if, perhaps, we are avoiding a potential Exodus in our own life because we are afraid of the Desert ahead. And if in fact we are, Maror is a time to strengthen ourselves and remind us that Shulchan Aruch is only moments away.
Chaos, Serenity and the Power of Words
We live in a world of massive neuro-stimulation. We are all super busy, always multi-tasking and usually scatter-brained. We live in a world where being “too busy” is a badge of honor, where life is an exhausting marathon just to get to the end of the day. There is no such thing as sacred time or sacred space. Even the toilet has become an online shopping mall via our smartphones.
What does all this do for us? Has it made us happier people? Not a chance. In fact has created all sorts of complications in our brains such as stress, anxiety, exhaustion, poor decision-making, and worst of all, a lack of real enjoyment of the beautiful world and beautiful people around us that take time to appreciate.
The Torah in Parshat Noach tells of a world gone corrupt. A flood, which the Torah calls the Mabul, comes to destroy humanity and only Noach survived by building a boat called the Teivah, the Ark. But deeper than this fascinating story, the Torah is hinting to us a very deep and powerful lesson that is timeless and priceless.
To understand this lesson, let’s focus our attention to some excerpts of an account written by a student a student of the great “Rebbe of the Warsaw Ghetto”, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Piacetzna (1889-1943) about how to “quiet one’s mind” from the constant flow of stimulation that the world presents through a form of meditation, using holy words a as a form of a mantra.
The student writes:
In the year [1932-1933]… I was privileged to be called to a private meeting with the holy master… who instructed us about this matter of “quieting the mind.”
Our Holy Master shared with us his thesis that the ego constitutes a barrier to the heavenly flow. Thus, if one's thoughts and intellect are active, it is difficult for the heavenly flow to penetrate… Thus our goal is to come to a sleep-consciousness while we are awake. That is to say, we wish to stem the flow of thoughts and impulses that is endemic to the working of the mind.
He said first that one simply watches for a set period of time, observing his thoughts. He eventually will notice that the mind is emptying, his thoughts are slowing a bit from their habitual flow. He then must repeat a single verse or phrase, such as “God is truly God,” in order to insert a thought of holiness into his now open mind. After these steps, he can articulate a need for help in any one of the areas of character development which he needs to work on, be it faith or love or awe…
This idea of setting aside time to quiet the mind by focusing on holy words, is perhaps a hidden message in the story of Noach and the Flood. If we take a close look at the most literal translation of the key words, we see this message playing out.
The word Mabul shares the root of the world Bilbul which means ‘chaos’. The name Noach shares the root of the word Menucha which means ‘serenity’ or ‘calmness’. So “Noach being saved from the Mabul” can also allude to finding calmness amid the chaos of life. And what is the vehicle that saves Naoch the Ark, or the Teivah. That word Teivah has an alternate meaning: words. It is the holy words that create calmness and serenity among the chaos of life, exactly the message that the Rebbe told his students.
Through our words we can move mountains. Our kind words can make people smile. Our words of Prayer can shake the heavens. And our inner words can help us find calmness and allow the heavenly flow to break through the storms of chaos that try to drown us out.
The Dance of Our Nation
The grand finale of the Torah is Parshat Zos HaBracha, which we read every year on the holiday of Simchat Torah. Zos HaBracha, which means ‘this is the blessing’, relays the blessings the Moshe gave to each tribe immediately before his death.
While Moshe’s blessings seem to focus on their material matters, like “triumph” for Yehudah, “dew” and “crops” for Yosef, “the riches of the sea” for Zevulun, etc., our commentaries explain that there is a deeper meaning to each one which relates to the spiritual portion of each one.
Just as Yaakov, before his death, looked at his twelve sons and realized that each one of them has a very unique contribution that is a crucial piece to the puzzle that is the Jewish people, so too Moshe on his death bed reiterated that every tribe had its unique mission and style that is necessary to make the Jewish people function as a complete unit.
One can compare the twelve tribes to the twelve edges of any three dimensional physical object. When you bring all twelve edges together, it creates a new vessel with height, width and depth. For the Jewish people that vessel contains in it the holiness of the Shechina, Hashem’s dwelling in this world. This idea is represented as well in the twelve months of the year.
This idea also represents itself in the fact that Parshat Zos HaBracha is the 53rd Torah portion. The number 53 is the numerical value of the word Gan, which means garden. The Torah begins with the sad story of Adam and Eve being kicked out of the Garden of Eden which was a place where the Almighty’s presence was felt with complete clarity. The world is sent into turmoil and becomes a place of sin and destruction until Avraham and Sarah come along and build a dynasty that would restore the glory of Hashem in the world. Hence the dwelling of Hashem that was once in the Garden of Eden is restored through the children of Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov, the twelve tribes.
This vessel for the Divine dwelling is represented in the circles that we dance in on Simchat Torah. The completion of the cycle of leaving the Garden and then “returning” is represented in the circle that leaves its original point only to find its way back there. And in a circle, every person is equidistant from the center despite each one having their own viewpoint, just like the twelve tribes who each have differing spiritual missions but is necessary to complete the circle.
Simchat Torah is not just a day to celebrate the fact that we read 53 Torah portions. It is a day where we celebrate our own personal accomplishments in Torah and in Mitzvot. Have we joined the circle at some point over the last twelve months? Did we take on a new Mitzvah or learn something new? Did some part of Torah connect with us in a very deep way? Did we improve in any areas of our life because of a Torah teaching or new Mitzvah we embraced?
If so, we have so much to dance about on Simchat Torah. And even if we haven’t yet found our place in the Torah, let’s rejoice in the fact that there is a new year ahead and- just maybe- this year will bring us new clarity. But most importantly, let’s dance because we are a part of a special family where every single person matters and needed to complete the whole. Because, dear friend, without YOU on the dance floor, our circle is not complete!
So this Simchat Torah, just dance like nobody’s watching!
Chag Sameach and Mazel tov on completing another year!
The Song of Our Lives
A great Jewish composer of thousands of beautiful melodies was once asked to explain why his songs resonate so deeply with people. He answered that after he writes a song, he asks himself, does this song have the ability to bring someone to dance and does this have the ability to bring someone to cry. And if the answer is yes to both of those questions, only then will he release the song.
At the end of Moshe’s life he recites a Shirah, a song to the Jewish people, known as Haazinu, which is the name of this week’s Torah portion. The commentaries teach us that hidden in the words of this song is the story of the Jewish people as well as the story of every individual from the beginning of time until the coming of the Messiah.
Just like a moving song has its high notes and low notes, its minor chords and major chords, and it is the ups and downs of the melody that truly open up our hearts, so too the story of the Jewish people is so powerfully moving because of its extreme highs points and terribly low points. The song of the Jewish nation is certainly a song that you can dance to and that you can cry to.
The song of Haazinu is a moving ballad filled with both sadness and joy, bearing witness to the perfect, faultless, justice of Hashem. "The Rock -- His work is perfect, for all His ways are Justice, the G-d of faithfulness in Whom there is no wrong, He is righteous and straight!"
To be a Jew means to be ready to embrace the full experience of this symphony. The Torah way of life certainly leads us down a path of life that is truly pleasurable. It shows us how to get the maximum pleasure out of this world by informing us which kinds of enjoyment elevate us and which kinds of enjoyment destroy us. It gives us the tools to improve our relationships with our spouses, parents, children and loved ones. It infuses our life with meaning and a higher purpose and helps us transcend the pettiness of the mundane. It brings together community and makes us feel part of something incredible.
But there is much pain as well in living a Jewish life. There is isolation. There is loneliness. There is inner strife. There is the awareness that there is Master of the World who is looking at us very closely and making sure that we don’t forget that we are in fact different than the rest of the world.
The Song of Haazinu is read during this holy time of year when we are doing our annual soul searching, to strengthen us to join in the singing, to embrace both the highs and the lows, to be ready to dance but also be ready to cry as we discover our own personal notes within this symphony of Jewish history.
As we enter into the joyous days of Sukkot and Simchat Torah next week, let’s sing our songs with all our hearts and all our souls. The song is for YOU!
The Transcendence of Kol Nidrei
Yom Kippur eve, as the sun goes down and the holiness of the highest day of the year sets in, Jews all over the world will gather together to listen to the stirring declaration of Kol Nidrei. As the Chazzan stands before the congregation, dressed in white, with the Torah scrolls at his sides, and as everyone's hearts are filled with the excitement of starting fresh, one can feel the holiness in the air. Everything seems so picturesque, except for one thing.
As we begin to read through the words of this ancient paragraph, waiting for something inspiring to catch our eye and instill the feelings of the day's holiness, we instead find that the paragraph has very little to do with Yom Kippur ... or repentence ... or judgment ... and - for cryin' out loud - it isn’t even a prayer! It just seems to be a technicality, some type of legal protocol to be fulfilled in order to annul our vows before Yom Kippur begins. Yay!
But, in fact, there is tremendous depth to what is happening when we say these words. The Torah strongly discourages us from taking vows. This is because most vows are made in moments of weakness and vulnerability. At a point of anger one might make a vow never to speak to a loved one again. At a point of frustration and failure, one might take a vow never to try again. When we take vows, we are creating new barriers and new limitations, as well as new perspectives that are not based on the truth in our hearts but, rather, the emotions of the moment.
On Yom Kippur, we are supposed to rise above those false realities. We are supposed to be able to transcend all past experiences and embrace the world as if it is our first day on the planet. It is, in fact, the first day of the rest of our lives and we are starting with a clean slate. On Yom Kippur we declare that we are ready to give over our past to the Almighty. Everything that happened yesterday is now in His ballpark to fix. The past is His "problem." We have to focus on tomorrow.
Furthermore, at the time when the Kol Nidrei was written, it would not be uncommon for Jews whose behavior was not aligned with the community standards to be excommunicated. They would have to leave their communities and people would not be allowed to associate themselves with these outcasts in any way. Imagine the scene on Yom Kippur eve when the Kol Nidrei was recited and the back door of the Synagogues would open and all of these "sinners" would suddenly be welcomed back into the community! The haunting chant of a seemingly unispiring declaration meant a new life for them, a chance to start again.
Kol Nidrei is about letting go of the dark past for a new beginning infused with new light. It is the declaration that all the pain, negativity, cynicism, and all the chips on my shoulder can no longer exist. During Kol Nidrei we replace yesterday's disappointments with the promise and potential that this year will bring. And what can be more inspiring than that?
May we all be written in the Book of Life!
-Nitzavim & Vayelech
Parshat Nitzavim and Vayelech are read every year right around Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, as Moshe shares with the Jewish people his heartfelt words about returning Hashem no matter how far we have drifted, and how Hashem is always there to “have mercy on you” and “gather you in”.
It is interesting to note that the word for repentance is Teshuva which means “returning”, as if we going back to a place that we have already once been. No matter what we are working on, whether it is to clean up bad behavior or strive to new spiritual heights, it is always a process of returning.
This is because, in truth, we are really not creating anything new. We are returning to a place deep inside us that constantly drives us to reach our potential and be a better person. And when we get there, we discover that it really isn’t new at all. It feels like we belong, that this is really who we are.
Teshuva begins by identifying the areas of life that are the most challenging for us. The great Rabbi Tzadok HaCohen of Lublin was well-known for his teaching that the areas that a person struggles most, those are the areas that he is destined for greatness if he chooses to put in the effort. This is the time of year when we decide which of our struggles are we ready to not only work on, but to transform them and elevate them to a place of holiness.
If we look deeply at the areas that we constantly struggle, we can come to understand new aspects of our personality; what triggers us to act in this way, what are the necessary steps to avoid confrontation with the issue and how to shake off the dust after we have fallen. The struggle itself becomes our threshold to a higher spiritual awareness, a meeting point between us and the Almighty. And, sometimes, we discover that the weakness itself is the key to discovering our greatness.
One of the most amazing examples of this can be found in the beginning of the Book of Yehoshua. As the Jewish nation is gearing up to enter the Land of Israel, Joshua sends two spies to scout out the land. We don’t necessarily know why but, we assume, it is in order to assess the mood of the land. They decide to lodge at the home of a famous prostitute known as Rachav, an interesting decision but, we assume, that since the house of Rachav was a place where the aristocrats of the land spent their leisure time, this was, presumably, a hot spot to really get a sense of the mood of the land.
As the evening progresses, the King of Jericho finds out that there are Jewish spies in town and sends guards to the house of Rachav to get rid of them. Rachav saves the spies by sending the guards on a wild goose chase and then requests that in return, she and her entire household should be saved when the Jewish nation enters to conquer the land.
The Rachav that we observe in the story doesn’t seem to fit the part of what we would imagine. Our Sages teach us that Rachav’s home was the location for all 31 kings of the land to go when they wanted to indulge, and that Rachav would never turn down a client. That seems to be a woman that most of us would not want our children exposed to! And yet, when Rachav speaks to the spies, we hear the voice, not of an immoral wild woman but of some one who has a deep recognition of God and a deep desire to join the Jewish people.
Furthermore, our Sages tell us that after this encounter with these spies Rachav did a complete Teshuva, became the wife of none other than Yehoshua bin Nun, reached a level of prophecy and became the mother of many prophets. How do we understand this?
The commentaries let us in on a much deeper understanding of that story. Rachav wasn’t just a strategic location for the spies to learn about the land, she was the very reason they came. Yehoshua and the spies knew of Rachav and understood that her immodest ways was an untamed and uncontrolled usage of a tremendous potential, a flame of holiness burning inside of her. They saw the a future Jewish leader inside of her, a woman who deeply cared for others, who had endless space in her heart for people- as her name Rachav, which means a wide space, indicates- but at that time had not yet discovered how to use her gift. And they knew that the Jewish people, who had fallen in the desert into the trap of immorality would need a leader who came from that world and overcame it, to provide them with the inspiration to resist the temptations of the land they were about to enter and conquer.
The story of Rachav teaches us that we can never profile another person or ourselves based on the poor decisions of the past. But rather to look deep inside to what might have caused those decisions and see how that source of energy can be used for purity. So often the very same traits that are causing us to sin, can be the traits that will lead us to greatness.
Elul is a time to get to know ourselves. To ask ourselves why we have made the decisions that we made. What really drives us? What is our Neshama really saying? And use that foundation to rebuild and to achieve greatness.
Together Forever and Ever
The month of Elul is a month of introspection, a time when we are supposed to look deeply at ourselves and our world and ask ourselves what we can do to improve. It is a time when we must look at our relationships, both with the Almighty and with other human beings, and challenge ourselves to make them better. Even if we view ourselves as generally good, kind-hearted and generous people, often when we think about how we relate to the people that are the closest to us, the people who need us most, we are faced with the painful realization that are relationship with them has slipped to become less than satisfactory.
For those who are married, certainly the first place to look when taking inventory of our relationships is to our spouses. Are we living up to our potential in how we treat our significant other? Are we sensitive to their needs? Do we show them enough love? Do we show them the right amount of love? Do we really love them or do we just convince ourselves that we do, when really we just love… ourselves???
Hidden in the words of this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Ki Teitzei, there is a beautiful message about marriage and about relationships in general. But to extract this message, we need to turn to a fascinating Talmudic passage that reveals a most romantic idea, through a seemingly technical law.
In several places in this week’s portion, the Torah refers to the act of marriage as an act of “taking” a spouse. As the Torah never explicitly tells us exactly how to create a marriage between two people, our Sages interpret the language of “taking” as a transaction that can be created through a gift of value, either money, an object or, as is our custom, a ring.
But where do they see that the word “taking” means a monetary-like transaction? The Sages explain that the term “taking” is found when Abraham purchased a burial plot for himself and his wife Sarah in Parshat Chayei Sarah. Just as taking in that incident was referring to a monetary transaction, so too the taking of a spouse can be completed through a monetary-like transaction.
Now, our immediate reaction to this might be some surprise. Of all the places in the Torah to create a connection that will teach us a law about marriage, the best place our Sages could find was an incident of a purchase of a burial plot?
And, yet, as we think about it more we realize how beautiful of a connection this is! Here we find Avraham teaching us an amazing lesson about marriage. He purchases a burial plot for himself next to his wife Sarah, demonstrating that he viewed his connection with Sarah to be one that would endure even after the physical bond has seized to exist. He saw his connection with her as being eternal. That powerful message, demonstrated by his transaction is such an important perspective, the Torah wants us to learn specifically from there what should be on our mind when we enter into a marriage and one that should be on our mind all the time. Our Neshamos, our souls are one, not in this world, but forever.
While this is certainly central to marriage, the concept holds true with all our relationships. The people in our lives are placed there for a reason. For reasons beyond what we can understand, the Almighty is constantly pairing our souls with the other souls that we encounter and we are somehow forging connections that have profound effects on our souls and theirs.
Do we look at every interaction as leaving an eternal impression? Do we feel that the people in our lives are somehow an extension of our souls? Would we treat them any different if we viewed it that way? Would that make us better people? These are certainly important questions to ask ourselves during the month of Elul.
Rebirth in The Month of Elul
Parshat Shoftim is read each year on the first Shabbat in the Jewish month of Elul. Shoftim begins with the words “Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your gates”, which Rashi explains to mean in all your cities. But many of the commentaries see a hinted message in these words that related to the month of Elul, and the preparation for the High Holidays that we are supposed to be engaged with during this time.
They explain that during this time we should be taking inventory of our lives and identifying what are the areas that we struggled most in this year. Many of the areas that we pinpoint might be weaknesses in our behavior that can only be fixed if we institute significant changes in our life. Perhaps we need to set up greater boundaries to distance ourselves from certain challenging situations or people. Perhaps we need to reach out to others for help and guidance.
“Judges and officers shall you appoint in all your gates”, according to these commentaries refers to the “gates” in our life that lead us into situations of trouble and the “judges and officers” being referred to are the measures that we take to make sure we remain safe and secure from falling.
Jewish tradition teaches us that the four Hebrew letters that spell the word Elul is an acronym of the verse Ani L'dodi V'dodi Li, which means I am to my beloved and my beloved is to me. (Song of Songs 6:3) This is intimate description of King Solomon’s relationship with God defines the theme of the Jewish month of Elul.
Elul is more than just preparation time for the High Holidays. It is a time period infused with the potential to capitalize on the Almighty's love and compassion and completely take down the walls that separate us from experiencing Hashem in high definition through the lens of our daily lives.
The Kabbalists compare the 40 days from when Elul begins until the climax of the High Holidays, Yom Kippur, to the 40 days after the conception of a child in the womb. This is when the initial formation of the child happens and it is the most vulnerable time in the fetus's development. The Talmud says that there are certain aspects of the child that can only be prayed for during these first 40 days, and many Kabbalistic sources say that it is only after 40 days that the fetus receives its soul (interestingly enough, it is around 40 days after conception when we can first detect brain waves).
Corresponding to this, as well, are the 40 days that Moshe spent atop Mount Sinai after the Jewish people received the Torah in order to complete the formation of the Jewish nation after its conception. It is that very formation that we can undergo during these days if we choose to do so. In fact, it is precisely during these 40 days between the beginning of Elul and Yom Kippur that Moshe ascended Mount Sinai for the second time, after the sin of the Golden Calf, to receive the second set of tablets.
This rebirth of the Jewish people wasn't a once-in-history event. It was a recurring experience, an annual opportunity to begin again, to begin a new process of formation, to literally re-create ourselves from a new conception.
The power of Elul doesn't come down on its own. We must initiate. But even the smallest opening, the slightest desire to find new meaning, the smallest spark that begs to be ignited, is enough to bring down this great potential. Like King Solomon we must begin by devoting ourselves to our beloved and then let our beloved do His part in making this season one that will truly be a new beginning.
In this week's Torah portion, Parshat Re'eh, the Torah obligates us to help out the needy. The verses tell us:
If there will be among you a needy person, from one of your brothers in one of your cities ... you shall not harden your heart nor close your hand from your needy brother. Rather, you shall open your hand to him, and you shall lend him sufficient for his needs, which he is lacking. (Devarim 15:7-8)
The great commentator Rashi quotes for us the Talmud's interpretation of this verse (in Ketubot 66b):
" 'Sufficient for his needs what he is lacking:' Even a horse to ride on and a servant to run before him if he is accustomed to this type of lifestyle. 'What he is lacking:' This refers to a spouse (i.e., you should help him find a wife)."
Surprising at it may seem, the Talmud is telling us that when we write out those checks to all of our preferred and very important charitable causes, we shouldn't forget about that neighbor of ours who couldn't make the payments on his car, or second car for that matter and had to forfeit it. Or the family members who just had to cut their domestic help down to one day a week. Or the friends who for the last decade had a beautiful, large home and now have to downsize because of a cut in pay.
While it is important to seek out guidance when we finds ourselves stuck between various good charitable causes, certainly the Torah's message here should not be lost. We learn here that the first step in giving charity is to really try and understand the people around us and what their needs are. We are not absolved from the mitzvah of tzedaka when we write a semi-annual donation to our synagogue, hand a single to the beggar on the corner and attend a gala dinner that at which our friend is being honored. The opportunity to give charity presents itself every single time someone in our life is going through a difficult time.
Often, when we hear a friend or loved one complaining about something that we can't seem to relate to, the thought might cross our mind, "How could you be complaining about this? Why don't you look at all the good you have in your life?" We might compare that person's issues with our own, which, to us, seem so much more difficult. Not to mention that we all unfortunately know someone who is sick with a terminal illness, and that there are children in the world that are starving!
But the truth is that the Almighty sends everyone the challenges and tests that are appropriate for them in that time. Something that might seem trivial to us, for another person could be the source of very deep pain. As the Talmud says, "Even a horse to ride on and a servant to run before him if he is accustomed to this type of lifestyle."
A student of the great Rabbi Moshe Feinstein once entered the home of his teacher just as he was finishing up a meeting with one of the women from the community. From the look on both of their faces it was evident that they both had been crying bitterly. The student asked Rabbi Feinstein what was the cause of all the tears. Rabbi Feinstein answered "I really don't know. This woman came in and sat down at my table and just began to sob. When I saw how much pain she was in, I couldn't control myself and began to sob with her. After a few minutes of crying, she just stopped, thanked me profusely for making her feel better, and left."
Sometimes the greatest form of charity requires us to just stop and take notice of the people around us who are going through an ordeal, and whether or not we can relate, to just empathize with them, cry with them and feel their pain. And if it is within our means to help them through it, it is certainly a worthwhile cause.
In this week’s Torah portion Parshas Ekev, Moshe gives the Jewish people a tall order:
Now, Israel, what does Hashem ask of you, only to have awe of him, to go in all his ways and to love him with all your heart and all your soul. (Devarim 10:12)
This commandment to love God is not only mentioned here, but it is repeated several times in this week's Torah portion; 23 times in total throughout the Book of Devarim.
The commentaries ask, how is it possible to command someone to have a certain emotion, do we have that much control over our emotions? Can a person love something or someone simply because he or she is told to do so?
Furthermore, what does it mean to love God with all our heart? Surely there are people in our lives who we love very much. Can a person love multiple things, each one with all his heart? Does the love that one has for other things or other people in this world detract from loving God with all his heart?
To understand this commandment, we must make a very important distinction between the mitzvah to love God and most other mitzvot in the Torah. As a general rule, the mitzvot are a set of tools given to us in order to build our spiritual selves, to purify us and allow us access to our Godly soul. They are practical steps that can be performed by anyone, from the simplest Jew to the advanced Torah scholar, that affect us in a very deep way. Simple acts like making a blessing on food can elevate our physical bodies through what we eat. Lighting Shabbat candles can bring peace to the home. And wrapping ourselves in Tallit and Tefillin can help us cleanse our thoughts and physical desires.
But loving God is neither a tool nor a practical step. It is the end goal of all that we are commanded to do, the sum total of our mitzvot, the desired results of living a life of Torah. The more mitzvot we perform, the more we gain an awareness of God, an awareness that quickly becomes a relationship; a relationship that quickly becomes a loving connection and unity. In fact, the very root of the word mitzvah means connection.
The more mitzvot we perform, the more we gain an