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Showing posts from July, 2011

Thought for the Day: Being Jewish is a Reality, Not a Philosophy

I know you will find this shocking, but I often get accused of being too blunt.  Ok, maybe shocking is not the right word; how about: Thank you, Captain Obvious.  Still, I don't think that what I say should be so contentious or shocking.  In particular, I get a particularly strong negative reaction to my comments regarding non-Torah religions that brand themselves with the adjective "jewish".  I think after spending a couple of days in San Francisco, however, I have a better feel for the source of their animosity.

To whit: the American/Western outlook is that religion is a bunch of rules based on tried and true traditions and reactions to life situations.  Religions that have been around for a while have the advantage of weathering many different situations and challenges, therefore even their bits that have no apparent logic are worth following because they have a history and it's at least comforting to have family and national traditions.  Of course, if that is the…

Thought for the Day: Ein Puranos Bah l'Olam Ele Bishvil Yisrael

We are used to thinking of the this ma'amar Chazal in a negative way.  When we see disasters in the news, our first reaction is (supposed to be), "Whoa!  Thank you, HaShem, for that warning shot across the bow.  I better take inventory and make any necessary mid-course corrections."  That is, disasters happen to goyim as a warning to us.  I never thought of it in a positive light until a couple of days ago.

My wife and I are in San Francisco to celebrate with my daughter and her husband the birth of a son.  Of course, we had to wait to make reservations until he was born (or nearly so) because babies don't always listen to the doctor about due dates.  My new grandson was no exception, coming 10 day "late" (ie, on time, but 10 days after the doctor's opinion).  Tickets were expensive, so I pricelined them... we save something like $300.00, but we stuck on a 7:00AM flight Thursday morning (yesterday).  It meant not davening with my beloved vasikin minyan,…

Thought for the Day: Don't Stay on a Sinking Ship

I was discussing a doomed project with a co-worker the other day and asked how he was going to deal with things.  His response was beautiful: "I thought the movie 'Titanic' was too long so I never stayed to the end, but I am sure it worked out for everyone who stayed with the ship."

He meant it tongue in cheek, of course, but it got me thinking.  Every morning we thank HaShem for separating us from those those who wander without direction (hivdil lanu min hato'im) and for giving us accurate instructions (toras emes).  We don't have to just hang in there and hope it all works out.  We have a Torah to guide us, but that only helps if you actually read it and follow it.  I never actually saw the Titanic movie, but I do know it didn't work out well at all for those who stuck it out to the end.  Life has its challenges, but they are bearable and can even be exhilarating when you have the guidance of the Manufacture's instruction manual.

Thought for the Day: Inner Miracles

The mishna in Avos says that 10 miracles were done for our ancestors in Mitzrayim. (Avos 5:5).  The Rav explains that the 10 miracles were that the Jews were saved from the 10 plagues.  I found this troublesome; seemingly the main reason for the plagues were to get the Jews out!  Of course they were not hurt by them!  Worse, to say that they were "saved" sounds as though a special intervention was needed to ensure their safety.

It finally dawned on me that just because something doesn't make sense to me, doesn't mean it doesn't make sense to HaShem; He might have a different idea.  The Ibn Ezra said about himself that his mazal was so bad that if he went into making tachrichim (burial shrouds), people would stop dying.  The Rambam commented, "No, people would just be buried naked."  HaShem has many ways to get His Will done.  So even though the plagues were not "b'derech hateva" in any way shape or form; still, HaShem wants things to look …

Derech HaShem: 1:3;9,10 The Butterfly Effect

The Ramchal has noted that one cannot talk about mankind without specifying whether one is referring to the situation before or after the Mistake.  We have discussed both the devastation that first mistake caused and how that changed our "game plan".  Whereas before the mistake our job was to remove the (small) imperfections that had been left there by our Creator.  Those imperfections were not so much introduced into a perfect being as they were the result of HaShem (so to speak) leaving the work of His greatest creation unfinished; thereby allowing us to be partners in our own creation.  Because of the Mistake, we not only failed to put the final touches on the creation, but we even ruined what we had been given.  We are now living in that ruined world striving to get back to where we were before the Mistake.  Even though the overall "mission of self-perfection and  has not changed, our primary focus now is to get back to the pre-Mistake conditions and try again.

As i…

Thought for the Day: Loving Every Jew Doesn't Mean Just the Nice Ones

לֹא-תִקֹּם וְלֹא-תִטֹּר אֶת-בְּנֵי עַמֶּךָ, וְאָהַבְתָּ לְרֵעֲךָ כָּמוֹךָ Do not take revenge, do not hold a grudge; you shall love your fellow [Jew] as yourself. Vayikra 19:18 I don't need to be commanded to love my friends.  Chazal, in fact, say that this mitzvah applies to condemned murders (K'subos 37b, Sanhedrin 45a; thank you Torah T'mima).  Remember that to have a condemned murderer means that two kosher witnesses warned him, and he said "I know, but I am doing it anyway", and then proceeded to murder another Jew in cold blood before those two witnesses.  And the Torah says about that murder, "love your fellow [Jew] as yourself".  Moreover, R' Akiva says, "this is a great rule/fundamental principle of the Torah" (Yerushalmi Nedarim 9:4).
Klal Yisrael is one entity.  If an organ or limb becomes diseased, we do whatever we can to save it.  When I worked in radiation therapy unit, we once had a young man (20s) with cancer in his leg. …

Thought for the Day: HaShem Commanded Every Mitzvah d'Rabanan

One of the 613 commandments given at Mt. Sinai as part of the Torah is: "You shall not deviate from the decrees of the sages in every generation."  This is enumerated as mitzvah 496 in the Sefer HaChinuch, which arranges the mitzvos according to the order that they appear in the Chumash.  This mitzvah is associated with the pasuk 17:11 in D'varim:
עַל-פִּי הַתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר יוֹרוּךָ, וְעַל-הַמִּשְׁפָּט אֲשֶׁר-יֹאמְרוּ לְךָ--תַּעֲשֶׂה:  לֹא תָסוּר, מִן-הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר-יַגִּידוּ לְךָ--יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאל "According to the instructions they [the sages] give you and the decrees they tell you: do not deviate from that matter; not to the right and not to the left."


Given that the Torah obligates us to follow with precision all the decrees of the Chazal, why do we sometimes hear things like "Well, it's only d'rabanan"?  One would never say, "Well, its only lighting a fire on shabbos.", or "Well, its only worshiping multiple deities.&q…

Thought for the Day: Personal Mourning vs Communal Mourning

Many of the halachos of the nine days are learned from the halachos of mourning.  There are, however, two glaring exceptions.  An avel is permitted to have meat and wine, but forbidden to learn Torah.  During the nine days we find just the opposite: we are permitted (encouraged, even) to learn Torah, but forbidden to eat meat and drink wine.

R' Shlomo Zalman Auerback, z"tzl, explains the difference.  The tragedy we mourn during the nine days is an "old sorrow" and requires external physical actions to decrease our joy.  Hence, we refrain from meat and wine; as chazal tell us (Pesachim 109a): "ein simcha ela b'basar v'yayin" (there is no joy/rejoicing without meat and/or wine).  An avel is permitted these because he needs to external influences to feel his sorrow.  Learning Torah, on the other hand, has the potential to generate such simcha that an avel actually could come to  not only forget his sorrow, but actually come to a level of sublime joy. …

Thought for the Day: More on Proper Tochacha

In halacha there is a concept of "tov sh'y'hiy'u shog'gim v'al t'hi'yu meizidim" -- better they should be careless sinners than (by ignoring your reproof) becoming intentional sinners.  How are we to understand that in terms of our mashal to someone bending over a fire?  Certainly even if they will continue their damaging behaviour just to prove a point, I should make every effort to warn them!  Right?

Yes, but with a caveat; an important and serious caveat.  Imagine a slightly different situation: a child playing with a sharp knife.  So if the child is in a good mood and you have a good relationship with him, you can ask for the knife and he will give it to you.  On the other hand, if the child is not in such a good mood right now or does not have a lot of trust in you, yelling at him or even lunging at him could be disastrous.  Even if he is actively hurting himself, you need to tread carefully and not make the situation worse.

That is why givin…

Thought for the Day: The Reality of Spirituality

Many times when we talk about spirituality our tone of voice/thought is that we are talking about something not quite real.  In fact, of course, the spiritual realm is actually much more real than anything physical.  Residing in a physical world, but living up to the reality of its spiritual foundation is arguably the main nisayon (test) that we face.  However, I think that those of us living in the so-called atomic age have an easier time than previous generations.

While in grad school, I worked in a radiation lab.  Radiation is an interesting phenomenon.  It cannot be experienced directly by any of our senses.  Even the famous and frightening chatter of a geiger counter is not a direct experience; it is an amplification of the submicroscopic havoc wrought in the aftermath of radiation passing through a carefully fabricated detection tool.  The radiation itself is long gone by the time we hear anything.  If you knew nothing of radiation and had walked into my lab, you would have thou…

Thought for the Day: Giving Tochacha

If, chas v'shalom, I saw a friend leaning over a stove and his tie dangerously close to the flame, I would shout out immediately that he should move back.  If it was on fire already, I wouldn't hesitate to even grab him away from the fire to save him.  So why am I not to zealous when it comes time to stop lashon hara or point out that a certain hechsher is suspect?  Somehow whether my friend will be upset with me is such a big factor, when it was not even an issue with the burning tie!  Aren't the fires of gehinom much hotter and more damaging?

I think that often when I give tochacha or mussar, I am really showing off how much I know rather than saving my friend from those fires.  If I were to focus more on really feeling myself how dangerous and painful a transgression is then my reproof would come out differently.  My friend, feeling that I am truly protecting his well being will also take it differently.  Of course, the best proof that I have my friend's best intere…

Thought for the Day: Grieving and Consolation

The gemara in Bava Kama, 38a describes how Ulla consoled Rav Shmuel bar Yehuda on the loss of his young daughter.  This is not the place to delve into the gemara, but it is brought as halacha by the Rema in Yora Deah 376:2.  What made this all the more powerful is that my chavrusa and I just "happened" to learn this today in our normal seder.  First, the Rema brings: "Do not say to the avel, 'What can you do, the situation can't be changed." That is blasphemy as it implies that you would change things if you could.  Rather accept the decree of HaShem Yisbarach with love."  The Taz on the spot emphasizes that the Rema is l'halacha.

Ulla's consolation was (in my own words): You must not grieve that this young person had so much to life left, for if there were anything left that her neshama needed to accomplish, it is impossible that she would have left this world.  Ulla was emphasizing again that this world is for nothing except as a preparation …

Thought for the Day: Silence

When Nadav and Avihu were killed because of an error in judgement, Aaron had one response: "v'yidom aaron"; Aaron was silent.

We read through the stories in the parashiyos, often thinking, "yeah, yeah, heard this a hundred times".  Then an event brings terrifying life to what was before "just a story".  Aaron was a father who lost two sons because they made a bad decision.  They knew it was wrong, but felt it would be ok this time.  They were wrong.  Chazal bring several reasons for their death.  Moshe, although he knew all those reasons and more, said only one thing to Aaron, "They were greater than you and I".  And Aaron was silent.

Thought for the Day: Perfection Takes Time and Patience

Today's thought may seem a bit more random than most; its been an interesting day/week/month/year/life :)


When I was in school, we got homework to practice what we were supposed to have learned.  Of course, the real learning comes when you actually put into practice the concepts and ideas you have heard.  The more difficult the topic, the more homework.  As much as we'd grumble about how much homework, we appreciated all that practice when we got to the test.  We appreciated it even more when we needed it in our career.  Practice makes perfect, as they say.

I try to remember that when things that I find particularly annoying (whoops, I mean "challenging", of course) just keep coming up.  Its happened more than once that I think that I am doing pretty well, but there is just this one thing that is so difficult for me.  Very difficult.  I keep thinking I'd be fine except this thing that keeps happening -- over and over!  Sometimes I'll ask, "HaShem!  Pleas…

Thought for the Day: This World Serves Only One Purpose

Rabbi Yaakov says: olam haze is like an antechamber before olam haba.  Fix yourself in the antechamber before entering the palace.  (Avos 4:16)

This mishna has bothered me for years because it isn't balanced.  Either say "olam haze is an antechamber", or say "olam haze is like an antechamber before a palace".  I would like to propose that this wording means something a little different than usual.  Usually this wording would mean the object being compared have a similar relationship; that is, that olam haze compared to olam haba is like an antechamber before a palace.  In this case, however, it should be read. "olam haze is like an antechamber, but not completely".  But what is incomplete about the comparison?  The Rabbeinu Yona says that the mishna means to say that olam haze is nothing except a vehicle to merit olam haba.  That is, if you take olam haba out of the equation, olam haze has no meaning nor function nor value at all.  An antechamber, on …

Thought for the Day: Who Girds Yisrael Heroically

One may ask, what exactly is so heroic about wearing a belt?  The Achas Sha'alti brings from the Munkacher that this bracha does not refer to the act of wearing a belt, but rather to the heroism and strength displayed by making a separation between our higher (intellectual) faculties and our lower (animal) faculties.  This separation allows the intellect to remain the master who directs the animal and not a slave to serving the animal.

Lest you think that is being a little "over the top", please note how Chazal understand Bilaam's famous blessing, "How goodly are your tents, O Israel". (Bamidbar 24:5).  Rashi there brings two explanations.  One is that Bilaam was praising klal yisrael for not aligning their tent openings, thus avoiding even accidentally seeing a neighbor in the privacy of their home.  Alternatively, Bilaam was referring to Shilo and the Bais HaMikdash where korbanos were to be brought to atone for our sins.  Chazal are saying that averting …

Thought for the Day: Admitting Mistakes

Bilaam, after being sneaky and "tricking" HaShem into letting him go to curse Bnei Yisrael (Bamidbar 22:20, Rashi there), seems to have a change of heart and says (22:34): Chatasi!  Yet, we see that Bilaam continues on his nefarious mission   The Malbim explains that Bilaam was not really admitting he was doing anything wrong.  Bilaam was more "noting" that had he been paying more attention, he also would have seen the malach.

How strange!  He knows that HaShem didn't really want him to go, and then an angel was sent to stop Bilaam from continuing his trip, and finally the malach finally reveals himself to Bilaam -- sword drawn -- and Bilaam basically says, "Oops!  I didn't see you standing there."  Bilaam is so bent on doing what he wants that all the hints (and more) in the world cannot get him to face the simple fact that he is sinning against G-d and needs to stop!  In fact, since his donkey did see the  malach, Bilaam is really saying that if…

Thought for the Day: Frustrated? Maybe You are Heading the Wrong Direction

The K'dushas Levi wonders why the malach (an angel of mercy) got angry with Bilaam for hitting his donkey.  After all, Bilaam had not seen the malach it is is perfectly natural to hit a donkey if it is not doing what it is supped to be.  The K'dushas Levi answers that when a person heads off to do (what he thinks is ratzon HaShem) and then something strange happens out of the blue, it means that HaShem doesn't want him to continue.  Therefore, when the donkey just stopped in its tracks (something it had never done before), a person should take notice.  He should stop and contemplate what he is doing and whether its really what he should be doing.  Bilaam, on the other hand, just got angry and started beating the poor donkey who was actually trying to save his life.

Most of us are not as bent on doing evil as Bilaam, so maybe we deserve a more subtle hint than Bilaam.  When an invisible angel of mercy throws a monkey wrench in the works, stop a moment and be sure you really…

Thought for the Day: Keeping the Main Thing Main

The Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim, simanim 155-6 says that after davening in the morning a person should go to learn, then to eat, and finally to work.  Why do you need to work?  Says the m'chaber: because not working leads to sin.  The m'chaber then continues, "but be sure your parnassa does not become your main occupation but is kept secondary".

What is this like?  Imagine you are an accountant in a large firm.  The boss sees you have some extra time and asks you to keep track of everyone's birthdays and whatnot because he wants you to post a note/email about the event and get donuts for the office on those days (its called "investing in employee satisfaction").  Now you are certainly expected to do an adequate job on that, but imagine the fallout from an annual review that goes:
Boss: So... how do you feel you did this year?
You: I kept track of everyone's birthdays, was sure to get several kinds of donuts, and even used color flyers!
Boss: True, b…