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Thought for the Day: Stolen Property -- Return the Object or Return Its Value?

If you take something that doesn't belong to you, you have to return it; right?  Well... not always.  The Torah reveals to us some interesting details in what are the appropriate actions to be taken in case one has erred and taken something that doesn't belong to him.

As an important aside, I'd like to take this opportunity to explain a detail in how I phrased that introduction. It is a mistake to say that the reason stealing is wrong, or eating pork is wrong, or tying a permanent knot on Shabbos is wrong is because the Torah says so.  Rather, we do them because HaShem -- our Creator, who therefore has the right to tell us what to do and how to do it -- told us not to do those things.  How do we know Ratzon HaShem?  HaShem has revealed that to us via His Torah.  How do we know that the Torah (Oral and Written) that we have today is an accurate revelation of His Will?  That's another question for another time.  The point is that the Torah is the medium by which we know…

Thought for the Day: Bilaam -- An Epic Tradgedy

I guy at the locker room was singing a couple of bars of "I feel pretty" from West Side Story.  (It's guy/locker room humor.  I don't why people say that girls mature faster than boys; men pretty much reach their emotional maturity by three years old -- long before women.)  I noted that West Side Story was basically Romeo and Juliet done right.  The best Shakespearean tragedies follow the tradition of classic Greek tragedies in which the hero/heroin start high on the wheel of fortune (sigh... no, not the game show) and are lead to fall to the ultimate low (death) by some small character defect.  The deaths in Romeo and Juliet are due to stupid accident (a lost message).  West Side Story fixes that an remains (in my book) a classic; telling an epic story beautifully and being the only musical drama.  (I am not counting opera as music.)

I think we tend to picture Bilaam as an amalgam of Rasputin, Charles Manson, and the Wicked Witch of the West; but not that friendly. …

Thought for the Day: No G'zeira l'G'zeira

I once attended a workshop for Motorola employees on interpersonal relationships in the work place.  The speaker wanted to make an impression on us that it is very important to consider how you say things as well as what you say.  His example to demonstrate the difference in how the same message will received was:

Honey, you have a timeless beauty.You have a face that could stop a clock. I bring this up because it is oft said that Chazal don't gozer g'zeiros l'g'zeiros (do not make safety precautions on top of safety precautions).  Yet, when confronted with examples that appear to be just that, the answer is usually, "Well... that's included in the original g'zeira."  Is that just a way of saying the same thing in a more palatable format?  (Hint: No; but we'll need to do some work to understand why not.)
One classic example is with respect to meat and milk.  The Torah assurs cooking meat (cow/sheep/goat) with milk.  Chazal made two g'zeiros: On…

Thought for the Day: Mah Bein Rasha la'Tzadik? Rasha is Always Right; Tzadik is Always Wrong

The world says a stopped clock is right twice a day.  That's not true, of course.  It's simply that twice a day that time on the clock is no different than the actual time.  A running clock, on the other hand, is nearly always wrong.  Any clock runs slightly fast or slow or uneven; even the most advanced atomic clock will lose or gain as much as a few nanoseconds per century.

Bilaam was riding along on his donkey, his favorite donkey, who inexplicably and suddenly pushed Bilaam's foot into a wall (bamidbar, 22:24-...).  Rashi, right on the spot, tells us: generic walls (geder) are made of stone.  Umm... ok... and therefore?  But Rashi is not finished.  Whew!  Rashi adds a proof text from Mishlei.  Oh, well, then; that clears things up. (Do you detect the faint hint of sarcasm?)  A few p'sukim later the  angel heading Bilaam off at the pass tell him to proceed to his destination (and, as it turns out, destiny).  Rashi now tells us that "from hear Chazal demonstrate…

Thought for the Day: From Bilaam ha'Rasha to Moshe Rabeinu

When I first started to learn sefer Chafeitz Chaim, I found that there was another sefer at the end: Sh'miras ha'Lashon.  It turns out that sefer Chafeitz Chaim is the halachos related to lashon ha'rah, and sefer Sh'miras ha'Lashon is the mussar about how bad it is to say lashon ha'rah.  Since I was starting from zero, I wondered which to learn first.  Fortunately for me, I had a rabbi who told me that when it comes to s'farim, it is always important to learn the introduction first.  Even more fortunately, the introduction to sefer Chafeitz Chaim addresses my precise question.  He answers firmly that one must learn halachos first and mussar second.  It doesn't matter at all how motivated you are to do the right thing if you don't know how to do the right thing.  (On the other hand, if you have no thought to actually do the right thing, it might be worth spending a bit of time on that so you'll actually pay attention to the halachos.)

Last Sunday…

Thought for the Day: Klal u'Prat u'Klal, Oh My!

I am always tickled when someone tells me they don't read all my emails.  I usually response, "Neither do I." My reason for not reading them is simple: I'm lazy.  I am not sure why other people read them at all, to be honest, so figuring out why they don't read them all would seem to be an exercise in frustration.  Being neither a stranger to exercise nor frustration, I am undaunted.  My guess is that it is because I write on a lot of different topics, basically anything that strikes my fancy that day; what strikes my fancy doesn't strike yours.  Today is probably worse than usual.

My morning chavrusa and I were having a lot of trouble with the gemara in Bava Kama regarding which stolen goods are included in the requirement to pay double (keifel) if caught and sentenced by a beis din (as opposed to when one admits his crime).  The basic answer is that rule applies to moveable objects that have an instrinsic monetary value; ie, not land (ain't moveble), sl…

Thought for the Day: Chillul HaShem in Private

In case you haven't heard, let me be the first to bring your day down just a bit: on June 5, 2012 (27 Sivan, in case you want commemorate the yahrtzeit), 100 or so yeshiva students were kicked off an AirTran plane because they did not follow the instructions of the flight crew to turn off cell phones and to sit down, both violations of Federal Air Regulations.  A terrible chillul HaShem no matter how you spin it.  My question: what, exactly was the chillul HaShem?

You may think that is a crazy question, the chillul HaShem is obvious, isn't it?  I respectfully submit that the chillul HaShem is not obvious at all.  The mishna in Avos (4:5) quotes R' Yochanan ben B'roka as making two startling statements about chillul HaShem:

One who makes a chillul HaShem in private will be repaid in public.There is no difference whether it was on purpose or by accident. Wait... what is a chillul HaShem in private?  The Rambam says that when one averts his eyes from seeing something inapp…

Thought for the Day: A Tiny Introduction to Aninus

My wife is out of town, so I do not have the sheimus that comes from daily personal contact with my eishes chayil.  Long distance may be the next best thing to being there; but it's a distant second, to be sure.  I therefore decided to "chahp ah rhain", as they say, and attend a Sunday morning shiur by R' Fuerst.  Today's topic was aninus.

Aninus is that twilight zone between the p'tira and k'vura of one of the shiva k'rovim (seven very close relatives); father/mother, brother/sister, son/daughter (rachmana latzlan), and spouse.  During that time, one is expected to be entirely consumed with the needs of the meis.  There is a general rule of "oseik b'mitzvah, patur min ha'mitzvah" that everyone knows, but that usually has little more effect than delaying one thing or another by a few minutes.  In the case of aninus, the person is considered not only oseik b'mitzvah, but totally absorbed in the single mitzvah of preparing for the …

Thought for the Day: Brachos and S'firas HaOmer

Just to recap, we have an interesting sh'eila on the table:
An Ashkenazi bas yisrael (who counts s'fira with a bracha) was getting married during s'fira to a S'fardi ben torah.  Since S'fardi women are not allowed to make brachos on mitvos asei sh'zman grama (time bound positive mitzvos), should she start counting with a bracha? First we need some facts.  I know, I am no fun.  There are several interesting issues relevant for this sh'eila.

The first issue is whether this is a mitzva asei sh'zman grama.  At first blush, that seems to be a no-brainer.  After all, the counting starts on the 16th of Nissan and continues through the 5th of Sivan.  How much more z'man grama can you get?  It turns out, though, that this is a machlokes rishonim.  The Ramban holds that the counting does not depend on time; rather it depends on hakravas ha'omer (the bringing of the omer offering).  Hakravas ha'omer certainly is time dependent, but the Ramban holds tha…

Thought for the Day: Doing Mitzvos Without Brachos, Particularly Regarding S'firas haOmer

Imagine Ed McMahon knocking at your door and saying, "You've won $10,000,000.00 in the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes!  However, due to certain circumstance, we will never be announcing your name as one of our winners.  The money is your's to keep, we just won't be announcing that."  First of all, yes, I know he is dead; honestly, though, unless your initials are "J. C." and you are not the head of some religion, how much does that change the odds of that happening?  Secondly (just humor me, please), how likely would you be to say, "You won't announce that I've won?  Harumph!  In that case, I refuse to take the money!"  (At this point, if you answered anything other than "slim to none", then you can skip the rest of this post, as you are patur from mitzvos anyway.)

Yet, that's pretty much the situation ("sitch", for those of you who don't know who Ed McMahon is) when people find out that they can no l…

Thought for the Day: A Time to Cry, A Time to Rejoice

As far as I know, Shlomo HaMelech is the only author of kisvei kodech whose work made it to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.  I am quite confident that none are jealous of that fact.  None the less, The Byrds did infuse the American pop scene (and, by extension, us Americans) with a small taste of wisdom from the wisest of all men.

The third perek of Koheles notes several pairs of opposite activities and emotions, declaring that each is in this world for a purpose and has a time.  One of those is a time to cry.  On that Rashi says, "zo tisha b'av" -- this is Tisha b'Av.  Rashi does not say "k'mo tisha b'av" -- like Tisha b'Av.  Not "there are times to cry and one example is Tisha b'Av", but "Tisha b'Av is that day to cry".  I had always thought that our illustrious ancestors had infused sorrow into this day by crying for nothing when the m'raglim returned with their damaging report.  However, R' Shlomo Zalma…

Thought for the Day: Nisyonos for Great People

We can make a mistake and think that our g'dolim are past any sort of challenges that would allow them to understand our situation.  "They don't understand what it is to work in a company and have to deal with the kinds of struggles I face on a daily basis."  However, Chazal tell us that "gadol mei'chaverio,yitzro gadol hemenu" -- the greater a person is, the greater are his challenges.  Not only do the g'dolim understand what we are experiencing, they are themselves be challenged daily in ways that would paralyze us with fear.

The Torah gives us a prime example, Korach and his attack on Moshe Rabeinu.  We all know, as Rashi tells us clearly, that Korach made his mistake because of jealousy and a desire for kavod.  Moshe triumphed simply be being humble and doing what was right.  Simple.  Easy to understand.  Practically boring.

Before you fall into slumber, however, please note: No one stood up for Moshe Rabeinu.  If it was just Korach talking behi…

Thought for the Day: Preparing For Davening

As I am sure you remember, there is a particular isha chashuva who occasionally asks me questions that give one (ie, this one, ie, me) pause.  She has been less actively asking questions (to me, anyway) as she more actively directs her energies to other areas of avodas HaShem, but I am still zoche to field her questions from time to time.  Recently (she may think it's not so recent... but, I needed time..), she asked:
In terms of getting ready in the morning- showering, brushing teeth, doing hair (if a girl), etc... Is there a preference to do them before or after davening? Is it preferable to get yourself physically ready first, so as to be properly presentable before our Creator, or is it more important to address HaKadosh Baruch Hu ASAP in the morning? The crux of the answer lies in the beautiful phrasing of the question.  We want to address the Creator of the world.  On the one hand, making Him wait (so to speak) seems at least rude and at worst reckless.  On the other hand, s…

Thought for the Day: Managed Growth in Avodas HaShem

The G"ra is reported to have made detailed investigation of the first eight chapters of M'silas Yesharim and not found a single extra word.  I don't believe that meant that the G"ra found that the first word of the ninth chapter was extra; rather that the G"ra felt that was enough checking to be confident that the rest of the sefer followed suit.  As, in fact, R' Avigodor Miller, z"tzl, notes in his introduction to the Feldheim edition.  One has a right/responsibility to analyze and understand the precise wording of each topic presented.

A topic that comes up several times in various guises is that one cannot make progress in avodas HaShem without careful analysis of one's current position: one needs to be changed, what needs to be strengthened.  The mashal used is one of a businessman.  One must take stock of the current situation, do an inventory from time to time.  Look at the profit centers and look for places that are causing losses.  When chan…

Thought for the Day: Reading the Signs of Where You Are Headed

One of favorite parts of Megilas Esther is when Mordechai is discussing with Esther whether or not to go to the king.  Esther is hesitant, and Mordechai responds (4:14), "Who knows?  Maybe it is for a time as this that you were elevated to royalty!" Maybe?!?  Who knows?!?  Isn't that the point of this whole story?  Yes, they are in the middle of things, but Mordechai had been watching this story unfold for 10 years.  Moreover, Mordechai was on the Anshei K'nesset HaG'dolah (The Men of the Great Assembly), which was made of or prophets and near prophets.  If anyone was in a position to know what was going on, it was Mordechai.  And he didn't.

Lesson learned: Never say, "Oh, I know why that happened."  No; you don't.

But sometimes you do get an indication from Heaven that you should change your ways.  Chazal tell us that the parasha describing the punishment of the sota is next to the parasha describing nazirus to tell you that anyone who sees a s…

Thought for the Day: Opposites That Divide/Opposites That Unite

You can't have Superman without Lex Luthor.  You can't have Batman without the Joker.  You can't have good without evil.  A poor, misguided Jew once tried to convince me that similarly a supreme being needs us,  a people who need him.  That's not true, of course, and how HaShem is above both good and evil, why He chooses to make Himself known to us principally via His One-ness, and so forth takes up the lion's share of Da'as T'vunos.  None the less, HaShem did create a world that is a balance of opposites.

There are also opposites that complement and complete each other; Ricky needs Lucy.  Male and female are as opposite as you can get, but the oppositeness is a cry for unification.  One has what the other lacks; together they make a whole.  As it turns out, the concept of male-ness and female-ness runs quite deep; much beyond the obvious physical manifestation throughout the plant, animal, and human kingdoms.  The G"ra, in his pirush on  Mishlei, note…