Prayer as a Privilege

30 04 2012
Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hershel Reichman

Although we often say that prayer is a weapon, we tend to forget that it is also a privilege. When we begin the shemonei esrei we ask, “Hashem sefatai tiftach.Hashem open my mouth to speak with you. Rav Soloveitchik would say many times that a person needs a license to pray. You have to go through a certain regimen and routine before beginning the quintessential tefilah. Whether it’s in the morning with pesukei d’zimra, birchat kriat shema, and ga’al yisrael, or ashrei in the afternoon, a person cannot just begin asking Hashem for whatever he wants. You have to get yourself ready and prepare the groundwork for your audience with Hashem.

Prayer is an opportunity. It’s not something we can take for granted. Therefore, it’s very important to feel humble when we begin to pray. As David Hamelech says, “Anochi tolaat v’lo ish.” I am a worm and not a person. We must stand before Hashem k’ani b’petach, like a pauper at a rich man’s door. We must know that we are imperfect and that only Hashem can help us.

Parshat Tazria and Metzora: Mirror Image

27 04 2012

Based on a shiur by Mrs. Shira Smiles

Why did the Torah specifically designate the kohen to determine the status of a nega (leprosy spot)?

Tzaraat was not a physical disease but rather a sign of a spiritual malady within the person. For that one needed to go to a spiritual source for help, to a kohen. The kohanim represent those who teach Torah. They are our spiritual guides. It’s difficult for a person to admit his faults. This is why the Torah says, “V’huva el hakohen.” The metzora is brought to the kohen. The kohen was meant to guide the metzorah on the path to repentance.

Rav Gamliel Rabinowitz explains the Targum Unkeles which describes the metzora as an adam segira, a person who is closed in. Often a person with a spiritual illness refuses to listen to other people. Haughtiness is the quintessential sign of an impure person. Therefore, the way to respond was, “V’huva el hakohen,” He must nullify himself before the tzaddik. He must recognize his need for guidance.

Rav Pliskin writes that the kohen would teach the person how to pray to the Almighty for help. In addition, he himself would pray for the welfare of the person. This is a lesson for all of us. When we are faced with challenges, we must seek out a spiritual guide. We must look for someone who can point out the areas where we need to improve. We must ask for advice about what to pray for and ask him to pray for us too.

The Shaarei Chaim explains that when the kohen pronounced the person tameh (impure), the pronouncement created the tumah (impurity). The moment the kohen pronounced the person impure, the laws of impurity were activated and he could begin fixing himself.

The Noam Elimelech notes that the kohen was the spiritual mentor of the people. The names of the different kinds of tzaraat wounds indicate the different desires people have to connect to Hashem. Se’eit a person who wants to connect with Hashem, sapachat is one who yearns for attachment, baheret is one who has a light within him that desires to connect to Hashem. They want to bond with Hashem but it’s only external. They don’t have the right intentions. These people would also go to the kohen to help turn their avodat Hashem into something deeper and more meaningful.

Parshat Achrei Mot / Kedoshim: Living Kedusha

26 04 2012

Based on a shiur by Mrs. Shira Smiles

In Parshat Kedoshim the Torah tells us, “Kedoshim tiheyu ki kadosh ani.” You shall be holy, for I am holy. How do we define kedusha (sanctity)?

The Mikdash Halevi notes that at the beginning of the parsha it says, “Daber el kol adat bnei Yisrael.” Speak to the entire assemblage. This is to emphasize that each and every one of us is commanded to be holy. We are all enjoined to strive towards kedusha by doing mitzvot. We don’t have to do something above and beyond the extraordinary. Specifically through our everyday encounters and interaction with Hashem and other people we can reach holiness.

At the end of the parsha it says, “Ushemartem et chukotai ani Hashem mikadeshchem.” If you keep my ordinances and do them, then I will sanctify you. The process begins with a person’s own efforts and culminates with Hashem lifting him up.

The Ramban maintains that the concept of holiness is not limited to the observance of any specific category of commandments. Rather, it’s an admonition that one’s approach to all aspects of life be governed by moderation, particularly with things that are permitted. Someone who only observes the letter of the law can easily become a naval b’reshut haTorah, a degenerate with the permission of the Torah. Such a person can observe the technical requirements of the Torah while surrendering to self-indulgence and gluttony. The commandment to be holy tells us, “Kadesh azmecha b’mutar lach.” Sanctify yourself by refraining from too much of what is permitted. Kedusha is about living a life of moderation.

The sefer Sam Derech notes that the end of the Ramban gives us a deeper understanding of kedusha. The Torah often gives us specifics and then a general statement. In Devarim there are many different prohibitions of interacting with people. The Torah then says, “V’asita hayashar v’hatov.” You shall do deeds that are upright and good in the eyes of Hashem. Kedusha is about looking at the totality, the larger scheme. Our actions should be guided by a sense of what is fair and good in Hashem‘s eyes. How to do so in any given situation depends on the sensitivity of the individual, for it is impossible to spell out all alternatives and situations. “V’asita hasher v’hatov” means investigating and trying to understand what the Torah is really asking of us. Being holy means having an understanding of what Hashem wants from us. It’s easy to go through life following the strict letter of the law, but kedusha demands that we ask ourselves about the larger picture, the background, the sensitivity that Hashem wants us to develop.

The Torah is not just teaching us do’s and don’ts. It gives us a rubric on how to transform ourselves as individuals.

Chodesh Iyar: Love From a Distance

23 04 2012

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hershel Reichman 

According to the Zohar, each of the twelve months of the year corresponds to one of the twelve tribes of Yaakov. The month of Nisan corresponds to Reuven, the month of Iyar, to Shimon, and the month of Sivan to Levi.

The Shem Mishmuel explains the significance of these associations. Reuven signifies the concept of vision. Shimon connotes the concept of listening. Seeing creates a greater sense of awareness than just hearing. While listening is just hearsay evidence, visual observation is clear and precise.

In Nissan there is a close, firsthand awareness of Hashem and his connection to us. Iyar is a month of great distance. We mourn the tragic loss of the students of Rabbi Akiva and the loss of the beit hamikdash, which that terrible event represented.

Although it seems we are far from our beloved king, we shouldn’t in any way think that Iyar is really worse than Nissan. The period of Sefirat haOmer is a time of inner work and elevation. Hashem placed the soul in this world so that it would struggle to search and ultimately find its Creator. Overcoming difficulties unleashes untapped energies and causes a person to grow.

Sefer Micha states, “Ki eishev ba’choshech Hashem or li.” When I sit in darkness, Hashem is my light. In Nissan, the Shechina came down to us, turned night into day, and redeemed and uplifted us. In Iyar we must search for Him by rededicating ourselves to the yoke of Torah and mitzvot. Through our own efforts we can rise even higher.

Sivan is the month of Levi, who signifies connection. We rediscover our bond with Hashem, which is now stronger as a result of our struggle to come close to Him during Iyar. Once again, we re-accept the Torah, which binds every level of a Jew’s soul to Hashem.

There’s a symbolic representation of the three months in the mazalot, the astrological representations of the heavenly constellations. Nisan is a sheep, Iyar is an ox and Sivan is twins.

The sheep is a pampered animal, well cared for by its master. This represents our intimate relationship with Hashem in Nissan. In Nissan he redeemed us from Egypt, led us into the desert and provided for all our needs.

An ox is a hard working animal. Iyar is a time of struggle and difficult inner work. Although we may not see results immediately, we are enjoined to fulfill our duty. Accepting the yoke of Torah without necessarily feeling pleasure or satisfaction is such an important lesson. We must know that we have a commitment that is not based on good feelings. As difficult as it may seem, eventually we will reap the rewards.

Sivan is the month of twins. The verse in Shir Hashirim refers to klal Yisrael as “my perfect one.” The midrash rereads tamati, meaning my perfect, as te’omati, my twin. Hashem sings the praises of Israel. When we receive the Torah, we discover incredible spiritual wells of goodness and holiness within us. A personwho develops and perfects his tzelem Elokim according to the ways of the Torah becomes a twin image of his Creator.

The month of Iyar is a spiritually difficult month. It lacks the inspiration and glory of Nisan. We mourn the loss of falling from the heights of Nissan to the darkness of Iyar. But the commitment of the ox, the drive to achieve even in times of alienation, pushes us to stick with the Torah and do the mitzvot no matter how difficult. Hashem truly appreciates this hard work even more than the love and passion of Nissan. Then after all the hard work of Iyar, we enter Sivan, the month in which the Torah is given, when we connect as twins to our Father in heaven.

Builder of Her Home: Women and Communication #3

22 04 2012
Based on a shiur by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

When the Jews reached Har Sinai, the Torah writes, “Vayichan sham Yisrael.” (He (Yisrael) encamped there). Rashi explains that the singular word Vayichan is used because the Jews were like one person. When they were together in that place of true unity Hashem said, “Ko tamar l’beit Yaakov,” so shall you say to the house of Yaakov, “V’tageid l’bnei yisrael,” and tell the children of Israel. Hashem spoke to the men in the plural form but to the woman in the singular form because they signify the unifying force. Women are not meant to lose their individuality. In fact, the Talmud says one thousand women are a thousand individuals. Rather, they are supposed to use their inherent power of bonding to unite others.

The woman is the force that enables connection. This exalted power unites each individual with all the different aspects of his personality. It also unites all of klal Yisrael. Unity doesn’t mean becoming something other than oneself, but rather working towards a shared goal.

Even Jews who are very far from Torah still sense a deep inner drive for something higher. Women retain this power to unify people on this meaningful search.

Mishlei states, “The wisdom of a woman builds her home.” Her task is to unite the members of her family with a sense of purpose. When a woman takes disparate parts and joins them together using the wisdom of her heart, she turns all of the stray threads into strands that are fine and beautiful. She does this by being connected (kesher) and having a relationship (yachas). Being connected means offering real understanding. Having a relationship means giving the other person a sense of belonging to something greater. A woman’s wisdom involves weaving together people’s lives. She begins by making cords of connection, extending threads that connect her and her husband so that all the disparate people in her home become like one person.

The Torah is compared to a woman because it too unifies all the different forces within us. The Torah is called the tree of life. When a person dies, his limbs and organs are still there, but there is no longer communication between them. A person is alive when all of the parts of his body and soul are connected and are working in synch. In order to create kesher (connection), there has to be commonality. The woman’s task is to find that common goal within her home.

The relationship of the woman and her husband, their willingness for kesher and yachas, enables experiential possibility for making a true kesher with Hashem. Through a woman’s ability to make connection, she makes kesher with herself and with the godliness within her.

Even her seeming disadvantage of wanting to charm her husband has purpose. The Gemara says, “There’s no purpose for a woman other than for beauty, children, and feminine jewelry.” These powers enable a woman to make connection. Her beauty allows her to create a bond with her husband. Her role as the mother of their children gives them commonality. Her regality gives her husband a sense of how much he desires her. These gifts draw both the husband and wife to their home. The woman can make her home a place of meaning and significance.

Kol kevuda bat melech penima.” One of the ten names of the soul is kavod. A woman’s glory is expressed within her. The home is the place where a woman senses her inner beauty. The environment she creates, the kesher she nurtures within her home, becomes her crown.

In today’s modern culture, women are brainwashed to avoid the home. We’re told that real life is where you’re achieving something out in the world. This way of life diminishes the home as a place of significance. The idea that a home communicates to its inhabitants a sense of their own value and chashivut (importance) is completely lost. Cooking a warm, satisfying, meal encourages communication, bonding, and a relationship. Straightening up the house so it looks orderly and pleasant creates a sense of kavod (honor).

Judasim teaches, “A woman of valor is her husband’s crown.” Granted that she is dependent on him and it puts her in a weaker position, but this enables her to receive and it enables him to provide. Together they can achieve shleimut (wholeness).

A woman is in a position of continued choice making in her home. Her choices are very deep and touch the roots of the inherent good and evil that live in every human heart. The framework a woman creates can either bring forth her hidden higher self that will in turn engender a positive kesher and relationship or the opposite. A woman’s ability to build or to destroy has no parallel.

The root of all evil is separation and divisiveness. The Hebrew word for trembling, falling apart, is ra’u’ah, from the root word ra, evil. Evil is disintegration. There’s no greater place than marriage where the choice between giving life or causing death, creating unity or disunity, has such a lasting impact. When you choose between unification and separation, between connection or disintegration, it’s not just about you or your home, but about the very root of good and evil.

Sefirat Haomer Part I: The Special Event of Kabbalat Hatorah

20 04 2012
Based on a shiur by Rabbi Eliezer Miller

The days of sefirat haomer are days of spiritual preparation for the holiday of Shavuot.

The Netivot Shalom notes that the order of the moadim: Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, are a way for a person to come closer to Hashem. It starts with Pesach and peaks at Shemini Atzeret. Pesach and the period of sefirah represent the engagement of a couple. In Mitzrayim, Hashem chose klal Yisrael as a nation. Shavuot corresponds to the wedding. The Torah represents the ring and through that gift we became mekudeshet (sanctified) to Hashem.

Shir Hashirim says, “Heviani hamelech chadarav.” (The king has brought me to his chamber). On Sukkot, Hashem brings us into his home, the sukkah. Sukkah is the numerical value of ninety one, which equals the two names of Hashemyud keh and adnut. On Shemini Atzeret there’s a yichud ila’a, a higher union between Hashem and klal Yisrael.

The Rashash writes, “The days of sefirat haomer are the root of the whole year.” The way a person prepares himself for the spiritual marriage with Hashem that is the way his connection with Hashem will be during the year. This is why it’s so important to prepare ourselves properly. Depending on how much a person solidifies his connection with Hashem and desires to be close to Him, that is how much light he will be able to receive on Shavuot.

Although the holidays repeat themselves, a new aspect of Hashem is revealed every year. There’s something unique in each yom tov that will never be again. This should give us strength to start anew.

When dough starts rising and one isn’t ready to bake it, one gives it a smack and knocks it down. Every year the yetzer hara rises higher and when Pesach comes Hashem knocks it down and gives us protection. On Pesach we turn ourselves away from the domination of the yetzer hara and start setting our minds towards Hashem. The work of sefirat haomer is to begin connecting to Hashem, to sanctify ourselves, to correct our souls, and to refine our spiritual nature.

The Chiddushe Harim notes that the days of sefirah are an auspicious time for spiritual growth because during this period our ancestors were redeemed and we were elevated from lowly slaves to the level of receiving the Torah.

The Sefer Torat Chaim comments on the word of the verse, “Usefartem lachem.Lachem is rashei tevot, Kdai l’tahreinu miklipasenu.” The essence of sefirah is to purify ourselves. The Ohr Hachaim says that Usefartem comes from the same root as sapir v’yahalom, a sapphire stone. Through the counting, one polishes oneself like a sapphire stone. Every year klal Yisrael go through the forty nine days when Hashem weakens the power of the evil inclination so we become worthy to receive the Torah.

The Shem Mishmuel says that even if a person doesn’t feel any purpose in counting at all he has to believe that his soul is being purified. This gives a person strength to start anew.

Sefirah is a time to work on kedusha (sanctity) and tahara (purity). Every person has their portion in Torah and if a person doesn’t purify himself he cannot receive his portion.

Rav Pinchos Koritzer notes that the or haganuz , the hidden light that Hashem created at the beginning of time, is hidden in the thirty six tractates of Shas. Baal Haturim says et ha’or has the numerical value of 613. Every mitzvah a person does reveals another aspect of this hidden divine light.

May the Torah and mitzvot engendered through our inner work during sefirah bring us to new levels of sanctity in serving Hashem. May we merit to receive our full portion in Torah.

Bringing Torah To Life: Making Pesach Meaningful #15-Part III

2 04 2012
Based on a shiur by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

The last topic to discuss with middle grade kids is the plagues. Show them the pictures in the Hagadah. Talk to them about what happened and help them visualize it in their minds. Emphasize the concept of midah kneged midah (Hashem repays a person according to his conduct). When you get to makkat bechorot point out the concept of beni bechori yisrael. Just like a firstborn son turns his parents into parents, we bring Hashem into the world. Point out that the plagues came from Hashem and that they were supernatural.

With older children and teens, it depends if they are willing to listen to you. At the seder, they may be more open to discussion. So as you are cleaning and preparing for Pesach, try to give them a sense of the simcha (happiness) of the holiday. Find a few quite moments as you are preparing for yom tov together to talk to them. Explain that true joy is being part of something larger than yourself. The simcha of getting married is moving on to something better and bigger and building something greater. When the Jews left Mitzrayim they grew spiritually. They became a people for whomDivine Providence and miracles are common.

Older children might ask,” If Hashem sent us to Mitzrayim, what’s the big deal that he took us out?” At this point, you should explain the continuum of galut (exile)and geulah (redemption). You can talk about people who survived the Holocaust and rebuilt their families. Explain that growth involves overcoming your limitations. You have to experience first-hand what you don’t want to be in order to know what you do want to be.

 Talk about geulah. “If you were in Egypt and Moshe came, would you start packing or would you think it wasn’t going to happen? If someone told you, Mashiach had arrived, would you believe him?” Often they may answer that they wouldn’t believe. Then you have to say, “Life is full of unexpected curves and Hashem can do anything.” Share with them surprising occurrences in your own life. Teach your children that all possibilities are in Hashem‘s hands.

When you talk about the plagues, emphasize how Hashem demonstrates his love through hashgacha pratit. Hashem won’t perform open miracles like he did in Mitzrayim because he wants us to attain our sense of faith on our own. Your goal should be to get them to understand that Hashem is there, that he cares and can do anything. It is especially important to teach them to be truly happy to be a part of His nation.

Create an aura of happiness at the seder. Think about what would make your family happy. Encourage your husband to tell stories of the exodus. Invite the children to sing.

I find that Chol Hamoed can easily disintegrate to externals. Let the Pesach spirit flow into the week. At least when you are eating together, mention something about yetziat mitzrayim, infuse a bit of simcha, sing, help your kids feel Hashem‘s goodness.

Discuss Hashem‘s malchut (kingship)and try to make your children feel important. Older kids need this desperately. Throughout the year, the feeling of being a link to something bigger than oneself is hard to latch on to. Pesach could be a big tikun (rectification) in connecting us to the joy and majesty of being a part of the chosen people.