Parshas Tzav/Pesach: Gratitude training

If you’re astute enough, you’ll notice that each festival is usually hinted to in the parashah read the Shabbos before it.

Tzav discusses the laws of the various offerings brought by the Kohanim in the tabernacle (and later, the Holy Temple).

One of them is Korban Todah, a thanksgiving sacrifice. This offering is brought after safely travelling over an ocean, taking a dangerous land journey, recovering from an illness or being released from captivity (today this obligation is fulfilled by making the ‘hagomel’ blessing. Please consult your local orthodox rabbi for details of the laws regarding this blessing).

As a form of the Peace Offering, part of it is eaten afterwards by the one bringing it.

But here’s the strange part:

Unlike a peace offering, which is offered up and eaten over two days, a Todah must be offered up and consumed within 24 hours. And it must be eaten along with forty loaves of bread!

Why the short time span? And why so much bread?

The answer is that this was designed to maximise the opportunity to thank Hashem for saving him. The time constraints will force him to look for others to share the meal with. When the offerer asks his friends for help, he will have to explain to them why he is bringing the sacrifice. That way, he will be able to spread the word of his personal miracle and increase the praise of G-D.

If there is one theme that runs through the Passover Seder- which is next Friday night and next Sunday night (outside Israel)- it is the theme of gratitude to G-D. We are told to spend as much time as possible recounting the story of our Exodus. The Torah itself instructs us to run it with our children, in a way which encourages them to ask questions. The law is that one should read the traditional four questions to himself if he has no wife or children present.

Have you ever wondered why G-D even needs human beings to praise Him? He’s the Ultimate Being, for Heaven’s sake (excuse the pun)! He has no ego, no emotional need for any recognition!

The answer is that it’s not Hashem who needs this praise. He’s got plenty of Angels to do that!

It’s us who needs it.

We need to strengthen our sense of gratitude. We need to become people who automatically feel thankful for every small thing we have. That’s how we come to be deserving of blessing. The more we appreciate His kindness to us, the more Hashem showers on us.

And it’s not just G-D we need to thank. Even the bus driver or the Tesco delivery man, people who are getting paid to serve us, are opportunities to strengthen our gratitude muscles.

Jews are called ‘Yehudim’, people who give ‘hoda’ah’, gratitude. Let’s learn to live up to our name and become the people Hashem intended us to be.

(Special thanks to Rabbi Binyomin Denderovicz for the thought on the Parshah, and motivational speaker Charlie Harary for the additional inspiration!)

 

Vayikrah: Moshe – the giant who kept growing

 

“The more I learn, the more I realise how much I don’t know.”

Those were the words of one of the brightest people of the 21st century, Albert Einstein.

And like all inspirational quotes from famous people, there’s a source in the Torah for it.

ויקרא אל משה- And G-D ‘called’ Moshe (Vayikrah Ch. 1 V.1)

To answer the question, you probably have; no, that small alef at the end of the first word (‘Vayikrah’ was no technical glitch. It is written in the Torah that way by request of Moshe himself.

The Kli Yakar explains: In his immense humility, Moshe initially requested that the alef be omitted, so that the word read ‘vayakar’- and G-D ‘happened upon’ Moshe. Almost as if G-D had encountered him by accident, as if He had met Moshe in the supermarket (so to speak). Such was his humility that he didn’t feel worthy of G-D coming out to meet him. G-D, however, insisted on including the alef. Moshe acquiesced, on the condition that the letter is shrunk.

Rav Shach notes that the Torah actually praises Moshe openly for his humility elsewhere, calling him ‘the humblest of all men’. In his understanding, Moshe wasn’t just acting in the way he was accustomed to, but he was actively increasing his humility. This was a new level of humbleness, even for the man who stood head over shoulders above the whole world in this area.

Think about it. Moshe was 80 when he lead the Jews out of Egypt. He was an old man by now. And to have reached the level of humility that he had attained had taken him 8 decades.

And yet, he still felt that he could do better.

When a person has got to a certain point, there’s often a danger of complacency. We’re happy where we are and don’t feel the need to carry on growing.

And that’s where we often fall down. Because if we’re not constantly pushing ourselves beyond our comfort zone, we’re not remaining stagnant, but probably falling.

Because when it comes to personal growth, the sky’s the limit.

(Sefer Talelei Orot)

Vayakhel: Holy Mirrors

One of the vessels in the tabernacle was the kiyor- the basin that the priests used to wash their hands and feet before doing their service.

You might be surprised to learn that it was made from the mirrors donated by the women. Understandably, Moshe was quite hesitant to accept gifts with such mundane origins for the house of G-D.

But G-D insisted that Moshe accept it. In fact, The Ibn Ezra says that he was not allowed to leave out a single mirror that was donated. All of them were used to create a giant sink.

Because those mirrors were special. Rashi tells us that the wives used them to adorn themselves so that their worn-out husbands would be attracted to them. And as such, the Jewish nation lived on.

Here’s one lesson that I took out of it.

We tend to paint things black and white. We teach our children that some things are good for us and some things are bad for us. But perhaps this isn’t always the case. Technology has its place. Money has its place. Music, art, literature, food…they all have two sides to the coin.

And it’s not just physical objects. Character traits go on the same principle. There are times when it’s not appropriate to be kind. Sometimes laziness can be utilised for good things.

It’s not so much about changing ‘bad’ character traits or getting rid of ‘bad’ devices. It’s simply about ensuring that we use what we have for the right purposes. of course, if unharnessed, these things can turn against you and bring you down. But if they’re seen and used primarily as a means to a spiritual end, they can bring you to places you never thought you could reach.

Parshas Ki Sisa: A sinful parent is still a parent!

This week the focus of the Parsha is the tragic sin of the Golden Calf. After Moshe Rabbeinu went up to Heaven to receive the Torah, the Jewish people miscalculated the date of Moshe’s return. They built the calf initially as a replacement for Moses. Ultimately, they started worshipping it as a god in its own right. When Moshe came down Mount Sinai and saw the Jews dancing around the calf, he smashed the tablets. Hashem announced to Moshe that He wished to destroy His people and start again from scratch. But after much pleading and praying from Moshe, G-D agreed to forgive the Jews.

There’s an interesting observation made by the Chiddushei HaRim:

Each Parshah in the Torah is split into 7 parts. On Shabbos, when the Torah is read in shul, the custom is to call up a different person to the Torah at each of the 7 intervals. That person makes a blessing, then stays with the Torah for the duration of his ‘aliyah’ while it is being read and finishes this honour with another blessing. The first two are allotted to a kohen and Levi respectively.

Usually, the aliyos are roughly even in length. Each one is around 13-15% of the portion’s total verses.

But this time it seems a bit uneven. The kohen receives 44 verses, while the Levi receives 46. They cover 90 verse between them. There are then 47 verses left to split between the remaining 5 aliyos.

In other words, Kohen and Levi take up a good 70% of the Torah reading.

But what really makes it interesting is that the first two sections are the ones that speak about the Jews’ downfall with the golden calf. The 2nd Aliyah finishes just before G-D forgives His people.

It’s as if, when Torah was split up, it was done in a way to make sure that the only people to read about this incident would be the descendants of the tribe of Levi, who didn’t participate in the sin.

The Chiddushei HaRim explains that this was indeed deliberate. The sages who did it did not want the evildoers’ descendants to read about the sins of their fathers. To do so would be disrespectful to them. It was more appropriate to ensure that the offspring of the innocent Levites be given this honour.

Such is the value we place on honouring one’s parents.

Today, it’s not en vogue respect one’s parents. Their ‘old fashioned’ views don’t make sense to younger people, as we live in a culture of entitlement.

This is just one reminder of how false that notion is. All parents, at the bare minimum, deserve our respect for simply bringing us into this world. And most parents go far, FAR beyond that.

And it goes beyond that too. Our Rabbis teach us that the love and respect that one is expected to have for his parents is the model for his relationship with G-D. Modern day studies indicate that children who learn to obey their parents fare much better socially and emotionally than those who don’t learn those skills. They learn to respect others in their lives and gain vital social skills.

Learning to love our parents is learning to respect others and ultimately love Hashem.

It’s a lesson not only to teach our kids but ourselves too.

(with thanks to Rabbi Meir Rappoport for this idea)

Parshas Tetsaveh/Purim: Need motivation? Create it!

 

It’s the month of Adar. Purim is less than a week away. And we are instructed to increase our joy in this month.

Actually, the Torah commands us to be happy all year round. In fact, in the book of Devarim, Moshe tells the Jewish people explicitly that much of the suffering they endure is a consequence of not serving G-D with happiness.

But doesn’t that seem unfair? Am I really responsible for my mood? I’ve got to work late after being stuck in traffic for half an hour. My boss screamed at me for 10 minutes. My day went downhill from there. Why do I deserve to get punished for shouting at my kids after such a disastrous day?

In Parshas Tetzaveh, the Torah continues discussing the Mishkon (tabernacle). It talks about the clothes for the kohanim (priests), for the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and the regular priests, the oil for the Menorah, and the Ketores (incense) offering brought on the altar.

And each of these is discussed in great detail. The clothes require exact measurements, from the hat to the trousers (‘pants’ for my US readers!). The oil needs to be as pure as possible. And the Ketores needs to be sweet smelling.

Why were all these details so important?

The Torah tells us that the kohen’s clothes were designed for ‘honour and dignity’. The Rambam and the Sefer Hamitzvos write that this was the reason for the oil and the Ketores as well.

But why are dignity and glory so essential?

Because it inspires us. It sets the mood.

But it required action. A team of kohanim had to sew the clothes, construct the vessels, prepare the oil, maintain and coordinate everything…

The Sefer Hachinuch teaches an idea that suggests that ’emotions are created by actions’. The actions of beautifying the tabernacle create an atmosphere that inspires others.

The principle comes into play when one does a mitzvah. As Chazal teach us, one mitzvah causes another. Doing good things motivates us to do more good.

So yes, one can change one’s state of mind.

By forcing ourselves to do things we might not want to do, we create the mood that motivates us to continue. However bad your day was, if you force a smile long enough you can change your emotional state for the better (another scientifically proven fact!). It’s a case of ‘faking it till you make it’.

Don’t wait for your mood to change. Change it yourself!

(As heard from Rabbi Nissan Lifschitz. Click here for the original lecture. Special Thanks to Rabbi Binyomin Denderovicz for his contribution)

 

Parshas Mishpotim: Who’s the Boss?

Lets remind ourselves of our priorities.

We have just been given the Torah at Har Sinai. Now it’s time to get down to the fine details…

Interestingly, the Torah begins by discussing, of all things, the laws of owning a Jewish slave.

Why did the Torah feel it important enough to begin discussing its laws with this?

The answer, as explained by Rabbi Leibel Eiger (a grandson of the famous Rabbi Akiva Eiger), is a guideline in priorities.

The first mitzvah in the Torah is to recognise that ‘I am Hashem, your G-D’. That recognition is a prerequisite to fulfilling the Torah. Similarly, the principals of the laws of an ‘Eved Ivri’ are based on the premise that Hashem considers us to be ‘slaves to me’ and not to others. By discussing the laws of Eved Ivri at this introductory stage, the point is brought home again: to be able to accept the Torah, one must first know with Whom his first commitments lie.

As Rabbi Eiger explains, while the laws of Eved Ivri do not apply to our generation, everything in the Torah is eternal. He writes that we are to free ourselves from all types of slavery. Moreover, just as an Eved Ivri goes free in the seventh year, a Jew who finds himself enslaved goes free on the 7th day, i.e. Shabbos.

Rabbi Eiger wrote this in 19th century Poland. Yet anyone could think that he was writing it in 21st Century America. We all know the distractions that distract us from our priorities. Technology, work, addictions. When we think of servitude to G-D, we think of the common mitzvos (commandments) that are done ‘Bein Adam LaMakom’- ‘Between man and G-D’. Commandments like Teffilin, prayer, Shabbos, keeping kosher. However, let’s not forget that servitude of Hashem also means loyalty and commitment to our nearest and dearest.

Hard work is important. Technology is wonderful. But our challenge is to keep things like these under our control, establishing them as our servants rather than our masters. We have other people to answer to. Especially our own Master.

(Based on the thoughts of Rabbi Elimelech Biderman)