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Thought for the Day: Prayer Epilog -- תפילת נדבה/Bringing a Prayer as a Donation Offering to HaShem

I want to have a relationship with my grandchildren.  (There are lots of people with whom I'd like to have a relationship, actually, but I feel I have a chance with my grandchildren.)  When they are very young, I develop that relationship by finding things they like and providing that.  Ice cream, tickles, rides on my shoulders; whatever it takes.  When they get a little older, I look for games and books they they like.  They are interested in the book or game, I am interested developing the relationship with them.  At some point, they also become interested in having a relationship with me, so they will look for things I like; artwork and divrei Torah, for example.  They know with 100% clarity that I love them and want a relationship with them (they have never, after all, experienced anything different from me).

At this point, you may ask (ok, probably not... but I wondered to myself) why we still need those games/books/artwork/divrei Torah?  The answer (likely obvious to you, bu…

Thought for the Day: Learning Leniencies and Stringencies from One Area of Halacha to Another Is Fraught with Danger

Here's a rule: Never, ever -- not even once -- try to understand anything in halacha by comparing actions.  Reasoning such as "Men count in a minyan, so therefore women should count in a minyan" is as ludicrous as "Salmon has scales, so cows should have scales."  The correct approach is to consider the reasons for the actions and then asking if those reasons apply to the other situation.  Why do fish have scales?  Try Wikipedia or for more fun try mocomi for kids.  Do those reasons apply to cows?  Nope.  Why do men count in a minyan?  Start with this TftD; let me know if you want more.  Does that apply to women?  Nope.

A recent TftD an interesting leniency concerning bakery bread; namely that even if I am stringent to only eat פת ישראל, I am allowed to each regular bakery bread if I have guest who are not stringent about bakery bread and the bakery bread is better than the פת ישראל.  (Note: Not all bakery bread is better than all פת ישראל; it just happened to b…

Thought for the Day: When Better Physical Quality Beats Better Spiritual Quality to Improve Spiritual Health

That title may end up being nearly as long as the whole post.  We'll see...
A summary of every Jewish holiday: They tried to kill us, we won, let's eat!
 -- Alan King, American Jewish comedian As most stereotypes, woefully shallow, but indeed captures the essence of some truth.  They have tried to kill us, time and time again.  (There are deep reasons for that, but out of scope for now.)  We won and we will always ultimately triumph.  (Again, there are deep reasons for that, but out of scope for now.)  We always have a food associated with that victory.  Ok... let's talk about that.

What gives our life meaning?  It the ability to exercise our free will; to choose to do mitzvos or not; to refrain fom sinning, or not.  We are composed of a physical body and a spiritual soul, neither of which is can exercise free will.  The soul is entirely spiritual, and therefore outside of the bonds of time.  The soul therefore knows nothing of past and future; only the now what is always.…

Thought for the Day: Adjudication in Jewish Law -- Removing T'fillin Before Mussaf on Rosh Chodesh

Today's TftD is a bit long, so I'll mark the sections in case you want to skip.

Mussar/Hashkafa:
Let's be absolutely clear as day: That 93 million miles distant ball of energy and light that we know as the sun powers all life on our planet.  There is no drama in that statement; it is simply the facts.  Yet, for all that, the sun receives absolutely no reward for coming up at the right time each and every day.  It is, after all, simply doing what it was designed and designated to do by the Creator.  Free will is irrelevant; even if it has free will, it never exercises that will to do anything other than what the Creator commanded.  It is the same with us.  If I do big things, such as donate lots of money to worthwhile charities or help those who cannot help themselves -- even if that help literally saves their life -- I get no reward for those actions if they are nothing more than inevitable consequences of my nature; the nature implanted into me by the Creator.

For what do …

Thought for the Day: Prayer V -- Expectations and Benefits

When it comes to mitzvos, we nearly always deflect the question of "so what do we get out of it?"  At a very basic (and, as it turns out, a very deep) level, the answer is simple: What kind of question is that!?  In the first place, HaShem brought you into and continually sustains your existence.  That in itself is enough to require us to do whatever He asks.  For us Jews, though, there is also the fact that He asked if we wanted the Torah and we enthusiastically affirmed that we wanted the Torah and would do our utter best to fulfill all of its mandates.  Finished.

But prayer seems different.  After all, it is framed as a series of requests.  If HaShem wants me to ask for stuff, isn't it reasonable to for me to get that stuff?  If I have no expectation of my prayers being answered, then the whole exercise turns into a quite sterile recitation of words.  Moreover, the halacha (see TftD on intent in prayer) tells me that my attitude during prayer is as a petitioner standi…

Thought for the Day: Prayer IV -- כוונה/Attitude/Intent

Finally... there you are standing before the Creator, ready for a serious conversation, text in hand.  What should be your כוונה/attitude/intent?  After all, we started this whole series noting how ludicrous it would be to approach your boss at work and speak out the same canned speech to him three times a day.  Yet, here we are with a fixed text we are required to recite thrice daily in the Divine Presence.  There has just got to be more than a simple recitation!

The Shulchan Aruch (O. Ch. 98), though, seemingly does decree a simple recitation: When one prays, he must direct his full concentration to the meaning of the words coming out of his mouth.

But here's the rub.  You are not standing in front of your boss, you are standing in front of the King of kings -- the Holy One, Blessed Be He -- who sees straight into you and delves into the thoughts and intentions behind each word expressed by your lips.  If you make a misstep with your boss, there are other ways to get the resourc…

Thought for the Day: Prayer III -- What?

Quick recap: HaShem has ordained that we should pray and the Torah tells us (by context and example) how to pray.  Now we need content and format.

Let's begin with format.  This is meant to be a serious conversation with the Creator.  Just to set the bar, consider what is required to even be allowed to present a case to the US Supreme Court.  I found the following description in Wikipedia:
Before oral arguments, the parties to a case file legal briefs outlining their arguments. An amicus curiae may also submit a brief in support of a particular outcome in the case if the Court grants it permission. Formal rules govern every aspect of these briefs; Chief JusticeWilliam Rehnquist described the rules thus: The rules direct what information must be included in a brief, describe the size of paper and type of print, and limit the number of pages. Even the colors of the covers of the briefs are specified: the petitioner's brief must have a blue cover and the respondent's must have…

Thought for the Day: Prayer II -- How?

Now that we know that the obligation to pray is nothing more (nor less!) than a divine decree, we are going to also need instructions from heaven on how to implement that decree.  I cannot stress enough how important it is to have instruction from heaven how to implement heavenly decrees.  One only needs to look at the shambles that one modern ism has made of the very important Torah principle of תיקון עולם/improving and fixing the world.  They have taken words out of context and used them to support their own nefarious schemes.  (To the point that Google Translate actually translates -- not transliterates -- תיקון עולם as Tikkun Olam.  Amelia Bedelia would be proud; we are not amused.

The Torah teaches us how to pray in two complementary fashions.  One is the way in which the concept is presented as an obligation, the other is by giving us examples of how to practically implement those instructions.

The obligation is introduced in the second paragraph of "sh'ma" -- וּלְ…

Thought for the Day: Prayer I -- Why?

As a physicist, one of the first things we learn is that physics never answers "why" questions.  Nonetheless, people do ask perfectly reasonable questions that are phrased as "why" questions -- "Why is the sky blue?", for example.  What they mean, of course, is: "how/by what mechanism does such and such happen".  Where does one go to get his "why" questions answered?  The stock physicist answer is "religion"; by which physicists actually mean to say that asking why is meaningless, so feel free to shop around for any answer you like.

Prayer seems like such an integral part of religion that one may never think to ask, "why pray?"  (Besides, obviously, the anti-religious crowd who aren't asking at all, but are making a snide commentary on the entire institution.)  I have learned a lot, though, by asking questions no one thought to ask.  So... why pray?

To make the question more concrete, imagine I were to walk over…

Thought for the Day: Live Life As If Your Time Were Rationed -- Because It Is

I had the opportunity recently to enjoy getting to know a couple who have lived their entire life in a very small town in Iowa.  Very, very nice people.  Mid-seventies, married almost 60 years; he was a lineman for the power company and she did daycare in her home and took in ironing.  You just can't get more salt of the earth than that.

Chazal tell us that even though there is no Torah among the nations, there is wisdom.  In fact, there is a Torah obligation to stand when anyone over 70 -- Jew or non-Jew -- walks into the room.  Chazal explain that even without Torah, someone who has lived that long has seen miracles and has thereby achieved some measure of wisdom.  My ears therefore really perked up when she said that there was something she had a lesson from her parents that needed to be shared with the younger generation.

Her older sisters had been born during the Great Depression (she had been born during WWII).  During the war, in a beautiful (to my mind) show of patriotic u…

Thought for the Day: Build a Relationship With HaShem Joyously

One of the highlights of my week is when I get a phone call from my first born granddaughter on erev Shabbos.  Sometimes she has a d'var Torah to tell me, and she always asks for a d'var Torah from me.  I always try to have a d'var Torah for her that will elicit a giggle... then I know I've been successful.  I was particularly motivated the Friday of parshas Toldos; a young man I knew had been taken from the world suddenly and I was full of uncomfortable questions.

I asked her if she knew what character trait Yitzchak Avinu exemplified and represented his whole life.  "Of course!  Yitzchak is דין/strict measure of law."  Very good... and then I asked if she knew what the name "Yitzchak" means.  "Um... he will laugh?"  Right again!  So I asked her it that seems like the right name for him.  Of course it didn't.  So I told her that the great Torah sage for whom her brother is named -- R' Alter Chanoch Henoch Leibowitz, ztz"l -- …

Thought for the Day: You Can Ignore Kedusha, But You Cannot Destroy Kedusha

I love expressions like "there nothing cooler than..."  Really?  You are willing to categorically state that whatever follows that ellipsis is not only the coolest thing you have ever experienced, but is actually cooler than anything that has been or could ever been or even can in the future experienced by anyone in the world?  Really?  I would say that tells you more about the one make that wild assertion than the coolness of the experience itself.

There are few things cooler than randomly opening a sefer before davening on Shabbos morning and seeing a reference to that week's parsha completely out of the blue.  There is an extra dimension of coolness when the reference itself is only tangential.  It feels like a whisper in your ear from the Creator saying, "Just wanted to say hi, dude."  (He talks to me in language I can understand; what can I say.)  Not only did that happen, but it corrected an important detail in a story I had heard.  Not only do I now have…

Thought for the Day: The Question Is -- How Can You *Not* Make Brachos!?

Among the first words we teach our children are "please" and "thank you".  Usually by the time they are three we are no longer honoring requests that are not preceded by "please"; and "thank you" is expected upon delivery.

The Pele Yoeitz, in his chapter on eating and drinking, spends significant time on that idea.  First of all, he notes, it's common decency to say please and thank you.  Automatically, then, it should just be common decency to say a bracha.  At this point -- and please don't take this the wrong way -- he begins to sound like something from the home shopping network.  When you eat or drink something, you have just received the most incredible gift; quite literally life saving.  Of course you are going to want to say please and thank you.

But there's more!  You get extra credit -- i.e., a mitzvah -- for exercising that normal, decent behavior.

But there's more!  The Creator of the world lets you use His holy and i…

Thought for the Day: Want to Learn Chumash? Help a 4th Grader with Homework

I had the wonderful opportunity to help my granddaughter study for her chumash test last night.  25 verses and about seven Rashi's.  Let's see... I do שניים מקרא ואחד תרגום/Hebrew text twice followed by Targum Onkelos once and all the Rashi's every week.  I can do that in an hour or a bit more.  So let's do the math.  Assume an average of 150 verses in a parasha =>  450 verses per a bit more than an hour => 25 verses in 3.5 minutes.  I am also doing 150 Rashi's in that same bit more than an hour => seven Rashi's adds another three minutes.  She might need help with a word or two in Rashi, so a generous estimate puts this at a 10 minute commitment; maybe 15 because she's so cute and I'll want to tell her that a few times.

At this point, you are probably either thinking, "seems reasonable" or "boy oh boy... did this guy ever do homework with his kids?!"  I did, actually, do some homework with my children; but you forget, ya…

Thought for the Day: Science is Just Fine; Please Be an Educated Consumer of Information

Here is a real pet peeve of mine.  When people ask: Was is suppose to rain today?  My usual answer is along the lines of, "Given that it is raining, I am going to go with -- yes."  Their question is really "did my weather app predict this rain?"  If the answer is no, it is a question on the app, *not* on the rain.  (Yes, I am fully cognizant that this is the reason I don't have many friends.  Your point?)

What prompted this little mini-rant was a link to an article sent to me the other day.
Science (from Latin scientia, meaning "knowledge") is a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe.People with a religious bent are wont to complain about how science is wrong about Creation and evolution.  I respectfully -- albeit vehemently -- disagree; see here for a more correct approach.  Or here for an explanation that evolution is bad science... it's relationship to reli…

Thought for the Day: The World Always Needs Healing and Each Remedy is Unique

Three angels "dressed", as it were, as human beings visited Avraham Avinu on the third day after he circumcised himself at 99 years of age.  When they finished their "visit" and went to S'dom, we only find that only two angels actually made that trek.  Rashi explains that every angel can perform only a single mission, and that each mission is executed entirely by a single angel.  Therefore, three angels were needed for the visit to Avraham Avinu; one to heal Avraham Avinu, one to deliver the good news that Sara Imeinu would be bearing a son the next year, and one to destroy S'dom.  Only two were needed in S'dom; one to destroy the S'dom and one to save Lot.

Why the angel whose mission it was to destroy S'dom needed to also visit Avraham Avinu is beyond the scope of this TftD (grist for a future TftD).  There was one angel who both visited Avraham Avinu and also went to S'dom: Rafael.  I was careful not to write "and continued on to S…

Thought for the Day: Higher Perspective Brings Broader Understanding

As you may know, I have a new grandson.  (To be precise, he was quite new when I wrote this; I have no idea how old he is now that you are reading this, as blogs in the cloud go on and on and on....)  In any case, you can learn more about his birth in another blog post (hint: follow this link).

His two oldest siblings were just a bit disappointed (until they met him, or course; then their hearts melted).  His oldest sibling was disappointed because she was hoping for another sister.  His next oldest sibling was disappointed because he had noticed a pattern -- girl, boy, girl, boy -- and thought it obvious that the pattern should continue.  They both learned big lessons from this experience.  She learned that you don't always get what you want.  He learned that thinking something is obviously true doesn't make it true.  Truthfully, all I can say is that they had those lessons presented to them.  Did they learn?  Only time will tell.

I, of course, was not disappointed at all.  F…

Thought for the Day: Coming Into This World for Torah, Avodah, and Acts of Loving Kindness

This TftD is so self-serving that I should be embarrassed.  But I am not... talking about grandchildren is always off budget.  I have, bli ayin hara, a beautiful new grandson; born at 6:11 PM CDT last Friday night.  The secular (aka -- by me, anyway -- slave) date is October 20, 2017 CE.  The Hebrew (aka Real) date is certainly Rosh Chodesh חשון/Cheshvan and certainly in the year 5778 since Creation.  The date, you ask... good question!

Sundown on Friday night was 6:01 PM CDT, which means he was born either at the end of the last day of תשרי or the beginning of the first day of Cheshvan; a period know as בין השמשות/twilight.  What's the big deal, you ask... I am so glad you asked.  We all deal quite handily with בין השמשות every week and every holiday; we're just stringent.  We start Shabbos and the first day of Yom Tov before בין השמשות; that is, before sundown.  Likewise, we end Shabbos and the first day of Yom Tov after בין השמשות; some 42, 50, 60, or 72 minutes after sundo…

Thought for the Day: Repairing the Damage We Incurred with That First Mistake; Dying to Live

I noticed odd wording in HaShem's decision to banish Adam and Chava from Eden.  The verse says that they were banished and the entryway blocked lest they now eat from the Tree of Life.  "Lest"?!?  I would have expected "before" or "so they couldn't".  The word "lest" implies that they likely wouldn't eat from the Tree of Life, but Let's just make sure they don't.

Strange, no?  After all, if someone had just discovered that they had ingested poison, wouldn't they run to get the antidote?  Especially if the antidote was just to eat a piece of fruit from a tree in their yard.  I asked a few people; they admitted it was odd, but then just shrugged it off.  They had better things to do with their time then worry about odd wording in the minor part of the story from last week's Torah portion.  I (apparently) did not have anything better to do with my time; so I did some research.

Rabbeinu Bachya makes an observation that wa…

Thought for the Day: Darkness/Light, Body/Soul, T'shuvah/Shabbos

This world is tailor made for one purpose: to enable the triumph of good over evil.  I know... drama, drama, drama; but sometimes reality really is drama, drama, drama.  If you prefer -- and, in fact, the traditional kabbalistic writings do prefer -- we can change the wording to "light infusing -- and thereby illuminating -- the darkness."

One may ask, "If HaShem wanted a world of good/light, why not just create that?"  The question (usually asked by those who want to demonstrate how silly and naive it is to believe in a Creator) really has a very simple answer.  HaShem didn't/doesn't want a world of good/light.  What He wants (and what He has created) is a unique and purpose built world for each and every human being to wage his own uniquely crafted battle against evil, triumph, and thereby achieve immortality via his own bond with the Creator.  Drama, drama, drama... and true.

We are critters (that is, a created being) and therefore cannot really understa…

Thought for the Day: Why The Torah Should *NOT* Begin with Creation Narrative

Opening lines are certainly important.  Case in point, I always spend way too much time working out how to begin a TftD.  Typically I have a thought I want to convey; that's the body.  I try to end with a nice tag line that summarized the main point in a memorable way (with varying success).  The first line/paragraph is really meant to pique the reader's interest in reading more.  I typically do that with either a cute story (often involving my grandchildren), or an interesting fact (often drawn from my physics background), or a straight up question on a Chazal (often based on a Rashi).  The cute stories and interesting facts are meant to seem irrelevant, but they always exemplify some dimension of the topic expressed in the TftD.

Walking around pregnant in one's ninth month, they say, is like carrying a 16 lb bowling ball with you every place you go.  (Having never been pregnant, I can neither confirm nor deny that statement.)  Try this: When said pregnant women comes hom…

Thought for the Day: תשובה Is Making New Mistakes

For all that Rosh HaShanah is and represents, the blast of the shofar is its spokesman.  Women with small children who don't have the luxury to daven, those small children who can't even talk/let alone daven, and the sick and elderly who are exempt from davening all want to hear the shofar blast; and we accommodate all of them.  Times, places, and messengers are scheduled, assigned, publicized, and eagerly anticipated.

And why not?  After all, the shofar blast represents our acceptance of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.  That sound that pierces to the core of our soul harkens back to that day of awe when all of Creation stopped to wait for Klal Yisrael to answer נעשה ונשמע/We will do whatever it takes to have an eternal bond with our Creator and we will make deepening that bond our only priority!  It celebrates the marriage, as Chazal describe it, between the Creator and His beloved Klal Yisrael.  Wow!

There is also the daily shofar blasts the entire month of Elul leading up to Rosh H…

Thought for the Day: Battling the Evil Inclination on all Fronts

Yom Kippur.  When I was growing up, there were three annual events that marked the Jewish calendar: eating matzos on Passover, lighting candles on Chanuka, and  fasting on Yom Kippur.  Major news organizations around the world report on the "surreal" and "eerie" quiet of the streets in even the most secular neighborhoods of Israel.  Yom Kippur.

As you know, I am observant of Jewish law.  Some have even called me "ultra orthodox" (not in a kind way).  Given that, I have a question.  How likely do you think that I would be tempted to eat on Yom Kippur, that most holy day of the year?  Let's make the scale zero to ten, where zero is "as likely as driving through McDonald's on Shabbos and ordering a Big Mac with extra cheese." and ten is "as likely as breathing regularly".  Take your time.  If you answered "zero"; thank you, but -- sadly and penitently -- no.  The answer is more like nine; I'd like to say lower, but i…