Parshas Shlach: Great man or great grasshopper?

Sometimes we come up against the opinions of others about ourselves. “you’re a lazy so and so”, “You won’t accomplish anything”. We take the words to heart, and they become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The first people on record to address that mistake were the spies. In their damning report of their expedition to Israel they recounted:
וַנְּהִי בְעֵינֵינוּ כַּחֲגָבִים וְכֵן הָיִינוּ בְּעֵינֵיהֶם (במדבר פרק י”ג פס’ ל”ג):
“And we were, in our eyes, like grasshoppers. And so we were in their eyes [like grasshoppers] (Bamidbar 13:33)

Rashi tells us that the spies had heard the giants talking among themselves about grasshoppers who looked like men, which they understood to be a reference to them.
Noted educator Rabbi Zechariah Wallerstien observes (in a shiur that can be accessed at https://www.torahanytime.com/#/lectures?v=19099) that the spies said ‘we felt like grasshoppers in our eyes, and therefore we were grasshoppers in their eyes’. In other words, they were admitting that it was their perception of themselves that affected the way the giants viewed them, and not the other way around.
As I’ve heard from one veteran teacher, the best way for a parent to help a child being bullied (in addition to telling him/her to tell his teacher and ensuring that the bully is dealt with appropriately) is to empower the child to choose what he/she thinks of himself/herself, rather than relying on the views of the bully. This equips him/her with a reservoir of resilience that he/she can draw on later in life.
We could extend the lesson taught by the spies to the way we view our life circumstances in general. Victor Frankl was a Jewish Psychiatrist who spent much of World War 2 as a prisoner of Auschwitz. He observed that those who survived the longest were the ones who lived for others, the ones who gave up their bread, the ones who supported the sick people on the death marches. Frankl summed up his conclusions in his famous book, Man’s search for Meaning:
Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.
We are not affected by our circumstances and other’s views of us. We affect our circumstances and other’s views of us.

Parshas Behaaloscha: We’re in His arms

This week, the Torah teaches us the laws of observing the Shabbos. The 39 types of labour that were done to construct and de-construct the tabernacle are the basis of the various prohibitions of Shabbos.

The Talmud in Tractate Shabbos (31b) has an interesting question. Among the prohibitions of Shabbos is the forbidden act of destroying something. We are taught that this does not apply if one intended to rebuild it again. But what if the destroyer planned to reconstruct what he’d taken down on a different spot? Would that be allowed?

The Talmud suggests that it should be permitted, since the Tabernacle was portable, and moved from place to place along with the people. But then it reconsiders, stating that the verse in the Torah said: ‘By the Word of Hashem they camped, and by the Word of Hashem they travelled”. The fact that G-D told them when to set up shop and when to move on meant that their dismantling of the tabernacle isn’t considered as such.

It begs explanation. The priests did have to dismantle and reassemble the building. What difference does it make as to Who told them to do it?

There are several answers. But perhaps the most inspirational one comes from the Maharal, who gives the following parable:

A mother takes a baby out to an appointment she has in another part of town. Holding her child in her arms, she walks to the station and takes the tube (a subway train in London) to another station, from where she takes another tube journey on another line. The final leg of the trip is a bus ride. They had to physically go from one place to another, passing through many different neighbourhoods en route, changing surroundings numerous times.

That’s not quite accurate. As the Maharal points out, the only one who had to walk from place to place was the mother. The child never moved anywhere. He stayed in the same spot all afternoon: in his mother’s arms.

‘By the Word of Hashem they camped, by the Word of Hashem they travelled’. G-D was the One guiding us in the desert, picking us up and carrying us from place to place.

This idea brought to mind an observation from the writings of renowned Jewish Chassidic psychiatrist and scholar Rabbi Dr Abraham J. Twerski.

Rabbi Twerski once observed a child at a doctor’s surgery. The toddler was left to play with some toys while the mother waited for their appointment. He was old enough to recognise the man in the white coat who suddenly disturbed his playing. Knowing what this man planned to do to him, the child began to scream in protest. Rabbi Twerski followed the child, who was escorted by his mother and the doctor to a separate room. Rabbi Twerski watched as the child was placed on the table, and kicking and screaming in terror as the feared doctor plunged the sharp needle into his skin. Meanwhile, the mother not only failed to defend the child but actively assisted the ‘tormentor’ by holding him down!

And yet, Rabbi Twerski observed, when the child cried after his traumatic experience, he turned to his mother, the accomplice in the doctor’s actions, for a hug!

The child didn’t want to be subjected to that painful experience. But subconsciously, he knew that if his mother, the human he loved the most, was behind this, it will ultimately benefit him somehow.

Whatever happens to us in life, we know that it is our Father, Hashem, Who is behind it. Even if we’re consciously hurt, we know on a deeper level that He sees far more than we do, and does everything for our good. We don’t go anywhere. Hashem does the walking. We, his children, just sit in His arms and trust our Father’s judgement.

(with thanks to my brother in law Rabbi Eli Rowe for the idea)

 

 

 

Parshat Nasso

Parshas Nasso discusses a difficult situation: a wife who is suspected of cheating her husband. She is put through the rather humiliating experience of having to strip naked and drink the ‘Sotah’ waters, special water containing the full name of G-D (which is a lesson in and of itself, as it goes to show just how much holiness there is in a good marriage). If she is guilty, she simply explodes. If she is found to be innocent, she is promised to have beautiful children.

Even if the woman is found to be innocent, she will find the experience to be rather humiliating. Couldn’t the Torah have found a more dignified way to judge her?

The answer is a lesson in Hashem’s belief in us.

Any woman could avoid that situation by ‘owning up’, even if she never sinned. She could have solved the problem more respectably by other means. The fact that she agreed to undergo such humiliation bears testimony to her willingness to be raw and truthful for the sake of her marriage. And G-D knows that he is able to expect that of his Jewish daughters.

It shows the confidence that Hashem has in His People. He knows that Jews have the strength to go through any difficult situation to serve Him.

G-D has rules. But those rules are meant not to punish us, but to strengthen us. He sets the bar high. But never high enough that we can’t jump over it, albeit with some difficulty.

I have in my inbox a ‘letter’ penned by none other than the Yetzer Hara (evil inclination) that expresses this point

(If anyone knows the identity of the real author, please let me know. I, for one, owe him a debt of gratitude!):

 

To my star pupil,

I am writing this letter to let you know what I think of you. Up here in Heaven, things are not like they are down on Earth. Over there, people only know what they can see. If they see a person is “successful”, they think that he is the greatest guy. When they see somebody struggling, they think he might be one of the weaker elements.

Let me tell you something. Hashem gives every person certain abilities that nobody knows about down where you live. Some people are capable of tremendous things, while others were put there for much smaller purposes. Only Hashem in His infinite wisdom is able to give every person exactly what he needs, to reach his potential.

I am very misunderstood. Most people hate me, and I don’t really blame them. Most people think that my job is to make sure that they fail in all aspects of Mitzvos, and that I rejoice every time they sin. This is the furthest thing from the truth. Did you ever watch a boxing coach train his student? It is really a funny sight. The coach will put on gloves, and fight against his student. At first, he won’t hit him so hard or throw his best punches. But, as the student gets better and better, the coach will start to fight him harder and harder. He does this so that the student will improve his skills and become the best boxer he can be.

This is where it gets strange. Every time the coach knocks down the student, the student gets yelled at!! But finally, when the coach threw everything he has at his student, and not only does he withstand the beating, but he knocks the coach down, there is nobody in the world happier than the coach himself! This is exactly how I feel. If you fail right away, and don’t even try to fight back, I see that there is not much talent to work with, and so I take it easy on you. But if you get back up swinging, I realise that I may have a real winner here, and so I start to intensify the beating. With every level that you go up, I increase the intensity of the fight. If you finally deal me a blow that knocks me out, I will get up and embrace you and rejoice in your success.

Sometimes my job is very disappointing I see a person with lots of potential, and I start right in on him. He fights back for a while, but when the fight gets too tough, he quits and just remains on whatever level he was on. (And he usually ends up going down!) I feel like yelling at him, “Get up you fool! Do you have any idea how much more you could be accomplishing?!” But I am not allowed to do so. I just leave him alone and go try to find another promising candidate.   If I have chosen you to be the target of my more fierce battles, it was not for no reason! You have tremendous abilities! You were born into a very special family, you have Rabbeim (teachers) who really care about you, and parents who would help you grow in Torah and Mitzvos. You are a very respectful and kind person.

I am writing to you now because I have a very serious request to ask of you. Please don’t stop fighting! Don’t give up! I have been beating too many people lately, and I am losing patience, Believe in yourself, because I would not be involved with you as much as I am if I didn’t think you could beat me. Know what your strengths are! A great Rabbi once said: “Woe is to he who doesn’t know his weaknesses. But, ‘Oy Vavoy’ to him who doesn’t know his strengths – for he will not have anything with which to fight.”

Always remember one thing: you have a secret weapon at your disposal. I shouldn’t really be telling you – but I will anyway. Hashem himself is watching our “training” sessions very closely. I’m pleased to inform you that He’s rooting for you! If things should ever get tough, almost too tough to bear, just call out to Him with a prayer, and He will immediately come to your aid. I wish you the best of luck, and I hope that after 120 years when your time is up in that world of falsehood, you will come up here to the world of truth. There I will be waiting for you with open arms to congratulate you on your victory and personally escort you to your place next to the Kisey HaKavod (throne of glory).

Sincerely, and with great admiration, I remain,

Your Yetzer Hara

Parshat Acharei Mot/Kedoshim: when the ‘mundane’ choice is the spiritual choice

Is it ever appropriate to forego spiritual opportunities?

Surprisingly, yes!

In this week’s Parashah, we learn about the service of the Kohen Godol on Yom Kippur. Part of it includes selecting two goats, one which is offered as a sacrifice while the other is thrown off a mountaintop in a desert (La’azazel) as an atonement.

The Mishnah in Yoma mentions that the person to deal with the goat designated for the ‘azazel’ is escorted by the ‘Yakirei Yerushalayim’- the ‘dear ones of Jerusalem’. The Bartenura explains that these people were stationed at the 10 posts between Jerusalem and the cliff so that there will always be someone to accompany the goat. He calls them the ‘chashuvei Yerushalayim’- the ‘important ones’ of Jerusalem.

Interestingly, as the Torah commentary book ‘Kemotzei Shalal Rav’ (literally meaning ‘as someone who finds a great fortune’) explains, there is no explanation as to who these people were. We only know that they were the ones to accompany the goat to the azazel site.

And yet we call them the ‘dear ones’ and the ‘important ones’.

You see, the public gallery in the temple was open to the masses on Yom Kippur. Naturally, everyone took advantage of it and came to be inspired by the services.

And it certainly was a very inspiring experience for everyone.

Yet a group of people chose to forgo the opportunity to accompany someone to throw a goat off a mountaintop.

And they are called ‘precious ones’, ‘important ones’

Presently, we’re in the ‘omer’ period, when it is customary to take on some restrictions, e.g. not shaving, not listening to music, etc. We are taught that 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva died suddenly in this period. These were some of the greatest men of their generation. And yet, they were all punished for not considering the feelings of others (on the level of spirituality they were on).

Our job isn’t just to learn Torah, but to give to others. To be there for our fellow Jews, even at the expense of personal spiritual growth.

Because serving others is in itself a form of spiritual growth.

(As heard from Rabbi Daniel Staum. Click here for the original lecture.

Appologies

My sincere apologies to my readers this week.

I did hear an idea today and wrote it up, only to discover that it pertained to Parshas Nasso, to be read in 7 weeks time!

Look out for next week’s post. Hopefully I’ll be organised enough to have it before Friday (yeah, right!)

Good Shabbos/Shabbat Shalom.

Parshas Shemini: The power of responsibility

Our mistakes are OUR responsibility!

“The price of greatness is responsibility” is one of Winston Churchill’s many famous quotes.

And unsurprisingly, there is a precedent for this in the Torah.

The priests were on the last day of the 8-day inauguration of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. Now their service in the Mishkan begins in earnest. Hashem instructed Aharon to bring the first sacrifice; a sin offering made up of a calf, an Eigel. Rashi comments that this is to atone for the sin of the golden calf.

The question is that this has already been achieved. The Torah tells us in Parshat Tetzaveh how Hashem commanded the Jewish people to offer up ‘one bull and two rams, unblemished’ (Shemos/Exodus 29:1). Rashi over there tells us that that sacrifice was also an atonement for the incident with the golden calf. Why did Aharon have to atone a second time?

 Rabbi Yehoshuah Leib Diskin answers that it is a lesson in responsibility. Aharon certainly had good intentions when he instructed the people to take their wives’ jewellery and create the golden calf. He knew that resisting was futile, as they would have killed him and built the calf anyway. His idea was that this would stall the process, as the wives would surely resist their husbands. In that time, Moshe would be back and the Jews’ perceived need for a replacement would disappear. He certainly didn’t imagine that the people would be so riled up by the troublemakers that they would have the gold in a few hours!

Nevertheless, good intentions notwithstanding, Aharon had played a part in the people’s spiritual downfall. And he, as their second in command, was required to take full ownership of his role in the wrongdoing.

In my humble opinion, this is what separates men from boys.

I’ve yet to hear of a great person who got to where he or she was without making mistakes. Nor have I heard of any great people who achieved their greatness by blaming other people for their failures. If anyone knows of such people, please introduce me to them!

We all fall. It’s part of the process. But the idea is to learn from our mistakes. To take ownership of them.

 

Pesach/Passover: What is freedom anyway?

Ask anyone what the theme of tonight’s Passover seder is. You can bet that the answer will be one word: freedom. The Jews were oppressed by the Egyptians for two hundred years, G-D came along, destroyed Egypt with ten plagues, split the sea for us, washed out the entire Egyptian army. Then we were free from Egypt’s tyrannous stranglehold and could now do whatever we wanted.

Well all that was certainly true. Apart from the last part. We couldn’t just ‘do whatever we wanted’. “For you are slaves to Me” said Hashem. You are under my jurisdiction now. You still have to answer to Someone. And that Someone is infinitely more powerful than your previous master!

So is ‘freedom’ really the right word to describe the Jews’ status upon leaving Egypt? Sounds more like they just found a kinder more patient Boss!

I believe the answer is that Judaism defines freedom differently.

In general western thinking, we’ve come to believe that retirement is an ideal. No more stress, no heavy workloads or deadlines to reach. More time to just relax, play golf and take it easy.

Another example of our ‘progressive’ mindset is the way we all work to earn our first million, or ten million, thinking that the ability to earn enough to give our families the best that the world has to offer.

If you’re one of the (shrinking group of) people who still believe in those worldviews, you’d be shocked by these studies:

The Institute of Economic Affairs found that the chances of depression shoot up by 40% after retirement.

A survey in the BMC Medicine Journal showed depression rates in 18 countries. The lowest rating came from… China, one of the poorest countries on the list. First place was taken by France. And the goold ol’ US of A? They came second (If the UK were included, us Brits would have beaten ’em hands down!)

Physical pleasure is great. But it doesn’t last. Certainly not beyond the grave!

In Judaism, freedom is the ability to strive for the type of things that we take with us to the Next World. Those are the things that really stay with us forever.

Physical entities are important. Retirement and wealth can be wonderful tools. But that’s just it: they’re tools, means to achieving Spiritual accomplishments that remain with us for eternity. It’s when our physical means become ends in themselves that we begin to limit ourselves.

It’s a paradox. Laws like observing Shabbat and Kashrut, restricting ourselves physically, are in actual fact liberating. Because they are what takes us to a lifetime which is limitless in The Next World.

True freedom is a choice we make every day. We get to decide whether to expand our Horizons or limit ourselves.

Wishing all a happy and meaningful Passover!