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.

 

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 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)

 

YOU can be like Moshe

This week aside from Moshe Rabbeinu ( Moses our teacher), we read about his brother Aharon. The first time the two of them were mentioned together, Aharon is discussed first. Rashi points out that the order in which they are mentioned in one verse keeps changing throughout the Torah. Most of the time Moshe comes first. Sometimes Aharon’s name precedes Moshe’s in verse. Rashi explains that each one was as great as the other.
But is that true? Wasn’t Moshe the greatest Prophet to ever live? How could Aharon be compared to his brother like that
The Rambam goes a stage further. He asserts that anyone can be like Moshe Rabbeinu!
How do we understand Rashi and the Rambam?
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein OBM (or ‘Rav Moshe’ as he was known) explains that Moshe Rabbeinu was born with a tremendous abundance of gifts. And he used those talents to the full. He lived up to his potential. In that sense, Aharon was able to match his brother. Aharon, too, used the gifts that Hashem had granted him to become the best person he could be.
And that, says Rav Moshe, is what the Rambam meant. We can all achieve greatness in the areas we were destined to grow in, using our Heaven-endowed gifts. Just like Moshe, we too can live up to our potential and achieve great things.

(As heard from Rabbi Nosson Scherman https://www.torahanytime.com/#/lectures?v=54678)

Vayechi: The blessed disagreement

Don’t try to change anyone –
except yourself!

You find yourself disagreeing with your spouse, clashing with your business partner, arguing with your child.
You know you’re in the right, and you’re desperate to get the other person to see that.
What do you do?
Yaakov Avinu is on his deathbed. Yosef takes his two sons, Ephraim and Menasheh, to get their Grandfather’s blessing. Yaakov will be blessing both boys simultaneously, placing one palm on each head. Jewish tradition considers a person’s right hand to be the stronger one spiritually. As Menasheh is the firstborn, with more significant privileges and responsibilities, Yosef wants him to receive the more prominent blessing. He intentionally places Ephraim on Yaakov’s right-hand side and Menasheh on his left.
But Yaakov sees things differently. Through prophetic vision, he realises that Ephraim is destined to become greater than his older brother. Thus, Yaakov feels that the more prominent blessing would benefit Ephraim rather than Menasheh.
But rather than switching them around, Yaakov does the unexpected: he stretches his right arm over his left arm in an X shape!
Rabbi Menachem Mendel Mendelsohn of Komemius, gives a beautiful explanation for Yaakov’s behaviour:
Yaakov had no wish to change his son’s position. He merely wanted to do what he had to do without fuss. Yaakov’s response to the conflict was to change his way of doing things. To do what he felt was right while respecting Yosef’s position.
It’s a lesson for all of us. Disagreements aren’t about changing other people’s views. On the contrary; they could be springboards for own growth. It could be a matter of understanding the different viewpoint while still disagreeing, strongly even. It could mean overhauling our perspectives completely. Or it could be a case of just choosing our battles wisely. But when interacting with others with opposing views, the goal must be about changing ourselves. For the better.

(As heard from Rabbi Shimon Semp)