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!

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)

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)

 

Parshat Bo: Let Him in!

When all the gates are locked, humility tunnels you under them…

Throughout the saga of the ten plagues, the narrative remains the same: G-D inflicts the chaos, Pharaoh begs Moshe to ask G-D to stop, G-D ends the nightmare, Moshe orders Pharaoh to release the Jews, Pharaoh’s heart hardens, Pharaoh refuses, G-D is angered, and the cycle repeats itself.
Pharaoh’s refusal makes him deserving of punishment. It makes sense, at least on the surface.

But, as the Torah tells us from the beginning, it was G-D who hardened Pharaoh’s heart.
Pharaoh had ZERO control over his free will. He couldn’t repent of his wickedness even if he wanted to.

And yet, G-D punished him over and over, in a series of escalatingly intense plagues, with the ‘grand finale’ at the Red Sea.

Doesn’t that seem unfair?

A Rabbi of a Synagogue noticed something rather odd that happened once a year. One of the shul’s members was a man who only came to services on Rosh Hashanah. He would walk in, pray for a few minutes quietly, and then leave. And for those few moments, his face showed that he was concentrating very intensely. One year, the Rabbi couldn’t control his curiosity. He called the man over and asked him what he was praying for.
“Every year” he replied “I have this request:
“G-D: I have a great marriage, a financially rewarding career, all the cars and luxuries I want, kids who are doing well in school. One thing I ask of You: Please, stay out of my life!”

This sad joke is indicative of the type of person Pharaoh was. We mentioned that Pharaoh was beyond the point of no return. But that wasn’t entirely true. He had a ‘backdoor’ option.

The Talmud tells us that there are sins for which the gates of repentance remain closed. But the commentaries stress that even in these situations there is an answer. If one calls out to G-D, He will dig a tunnel (so to speak) under the gates for you to go through.

That, says the Chofetz Chaim, was an option that Pharaoh had all along. With a sincere expression of submission before his Creator, he could have changed his life. But like the poor fellow in the story, he lacked the desire to have Hashem in his life. Pharaoh’s lack of humility prevented him from bridging the gap between him and G-D.

A man came to the Steipler and told him that he was concerned about his difficulty in maintaining faith in G-D. the Steipler’s ‘diagnosis’ was clear. “Haughtiness” declared the sage. “If you’re too concerned about yourself to think about others, you have no room in your heart for Hashem either!”

A humble person knows that he isn’t the master of his destiny; G-D is.

(Based on a lecture from Rabbi Fischel Schachter. Click here to watch the lecture video)