Meaningful Prayer: Consistent Dedication

29 06 2012

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Herschel Reichman

Our sages teach that the prayers were enacted to correspond to the sacrifices. The korban tamid, which was brought daily in the beit hamikdash, signifies the idea of dependability and regularity. It is the concept of a continuous relationship, of absolute dedication to Hashem, which is a fundamental aspect of prayer.

We must maintain a continuous connection with our Creator. We are intrinsically bound to Him. We only exist because He wills us to. He supports us in every situation and is constantly providing for us. The Gemara says that a person should never cease praising and thanking Hashem for all that He gives us. Since it’s impossible for a person to pray all the time, the sages instituted a minimum of three times a day. We can also express our ongoing dedication to Him by involving ourselves in kindness and good deeds.

Although we don’t have the korban tamid any more, our steadfast readiness to serve Hashem day after day with dedication and love stands in its stead.

The Mystery of Death – Short Parsha Vort

28 06 2012

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Avishai David

Parshat Chukat begins with the verse, “Zot chukat haTorah asher tzivah Hashem.” The Targum translates the words zot chukat as, “This is the divine dictum.” The Torah refers to the enigmatic chok of parah adumah (red heifer) which purifies those that are impure and defiles those that are pure.

Rav Soloveitchik notes that chukat doesn’t merely refer to the performance of a ritual, but to the mystery of death. We see this later in the parsha where it says “Zot haTorah adam ki yamut ba’ohel.” This is the law when a man dies. Death defiles. It removes the Divine image and only the body remains.

Tumat hamet (the impurity of death) is not included in the list of all the other forms of tumah (impurity) in the Torah because there’s a radical difference. While all the other forms of tumah are aesthetically jarring, tumat hamet is even more. It’s not simply the cessation of an organism Death is the departure of the soul from the physical body. Aesthetic ugliness can be washed away by prayer and immersion in the mikvah (ritual pool). But tumat hamet needs haza’ah, sprinkling of the ashes of the parah adumah.

Death is a transition not a termination. The soul of a person is immortal. The incomprehensible ritual of parah adumah suggests that the human effort to comprehend death is futile without accepting the fundamental concept of Divine Providence.

The details of parah aduma are found in parshat Chukat because para aduma acts as a bridge between the rebellion of Korach and the travels of the Jews in the desert. The rebellion took place during the second year of the exodus. For 38 years there was hester panim; Hashem’s face was hidden. It was a long silent period. Rashi says this dark time was like the parah adumah. It was beyond human comprehension. Chazal didn’t try to rationalize parah adumah. They taught that there are certain areas that are chukim. There are times when man must suspend his own judgment and accept the inscrutable will of Hashem.

Forefather’s Merit: Magen Avraham

20 06 2012

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Hershel Reichman

We begin the Shemone Esrei with the words, “Hashem open my mouth so my lips can speak your praises.” In a verse in Ezra-Nechemya, Hashem is described as, “U’merom al kol bracha utehila.” He is more exalted than any blessings or praise we can offer. Our prayers are only a small token of what Hashem really deserves. To accurately and fully praise Him is beyond our ability. Therefore, we preface our prayers by pleading for assistance.

 The first blessing Magen Avraham takes us back to the very beginning of the Jewish people. The forefathers founded the people of Israel with prayer. Avraham’s essence was tefilah. He taught us that prayer is at the core of our relationship with Hashem.

Our forefathers showed us that the enormous distance between the Almighty and us can be bridged through tefilah. The Almighty lets us ascend the ladder to reach Him and He in turn lowers Himself to listen to our pleading. When we open our mouth to speak Hashem‘s praises and to thank him for his blessings, we create an intimate connection between ourselves and our beloved Creator.

Man has the ability to affect and influence Hashem’s way of conducting the world. We are not doomed to fate. We can change it and bring blessing into the world. We learn this from Avraham, who prayed for the wicked people of Sedom and was successful in saving Lot and his family. Therefore, we give him the seal of this first blessing, Magen Avraham, Hashem is the shield of Avraham. We pray that the way the Almighty protected Avraham, He will continue to guard us too.

Responsibility Towards Others

19 06 2012

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Michael Taubes

In Parshat Bechukotai, the Torah tells of the disasters that will befall the Jewish people if they fail to observe the laws of the Torah properly. It says that people will panic and trip over each other. The Gemara in Sanhedrin comments on this phrase, one Jew will trip over the sins of his brother. “Melamed shekol yisrael areivim zeh lazeh.” This teaches us that each Jew is responsible for another.

In Parshat Nitzavim it says, “Hanistarot l’Hashem Elokeinu v’haniglot lanu u’levanenu.” The hidden things are in Hashem‘s domain, but that which is revealed is for us and our children.” The Torah tells us that if Jews won’t observe the mitzvot, the whole community will be punished. Rashi asks, how can one person be held responsible for what another thinks? He answers, that which is hidden is not our obligation. However, we have responsibility to stop that which we have the power to stop.

There is a dot on top of the words lanu u’levanenu to teach us that our obligation to another Jew didn’t go into effect immediately. It only began when the Jews entered Israel with the covenant that was made at Har Grizim and Har Avel.

The Mishna in Rosh Hashana takes the concept of arvut further. You can perform a mitzvah on behalf of someone else, provided you are also obligated in the mitzvah. Therefore, a cheiresh (deaf mute), a shota (a deranged person), and a katan (a minor) cannot perform a mitzvah for others.

The Gemara says, even if one has already discharged his obligation he can still perform the mitzvah for someone else. Rashi explains that this is because of the rule of “Kol yisrael areivim zeh ba’zeh.” However, this does not apply to birchat hanehenin (blessings on food and pleasant smells) because the concept of arvut is only for a mitzvah that one has a responsibility to fulfill. Eating is an optional activity.

Rava asks, can you be motzi someone (fulfill someone’s obligation) with a blessing on food, when there is an obligation to eat? For example, can one person recite a blessing for someone else when eating matzah at the seder? The Rambam answers that you can. The Shulchan Aruch rules that one can recite Kiddush for others, even if one will not be eating the meal together with them. However, to be motzi someone with Hamotzi, one must eat some of the bread too.

Does the concept of arvut apply to a biblical mitzvah or to a rabbinical mitzvah or to both? The Tzlach writes in his commentary on Gemara that it only applies to biblical mitzvot. He brings proof from the Gemara in Sota that the law of arvut only took affect at Har Grizim and Har Avel. Tosfot comments that that they took upon themselves the 613 biblical mitzvot. The Tzlach infers that since at the time that arvut was introduced they only took upon themselves the biblical mitzvoth it does not apply to rabbinic mitzvot.

He brings another proof from the Rambam, who rules that if an arev did not specify an amount the arevut is worthless. He points out that while there’s a fixed body of 613 mitzvoth in the Torah there is no set amount of Rabbinic laws. Therefore, arvut does not apply there.

The Chida, the Birkei Yosef, and the Ktav Sofer disagree and maintain that the principle of arvut does apply to rabbinic mitzvot. In fact the Shaagat Aryeh says that the rule of arvut only applies to mitzvot d’rabbanun and not to d’oraysa.

How does the halachic mechanism of arvut work? Although one has already discharged his obligation, since there is another Jew who needs help, it is as if one has not fulfilled his complete obligation yet. The Chikrei Lev explains that when you do a mitzvah for someone else you connect to the person on such a deep level that in a sense his obligation becomes your obligation. According to Rav Akiva Eiger, the maximum you can do is what you were originally obligated. According to the Chikrei Lev, one’s level of obligation is irrelevant, as arvut applies in whatever way the person needs that connection.

Optimal Environment – Appreciating Eretz Yisrael: Holy Land, Holy People #3

18 06 2012

Based on a shiur by Mrs. Shoshie Nissenbaum

The Arizal taught that the place where one lives has a spiritual effect. A society builds its unique aspects based on the physical place where it is located. This in turn influences the nation on a spiritual level. Chazal tell us that each land has an officer in heaven that guards it. The officer of Eretz Yisrael is Hashem himself. A Jew who lives in Israel receives his spiritual nourishment directly from Hashem. One who leaves the land is like a fetus straining the cord to move far away from its mother.

Every year when the parsha of Pinchas was read, the Lev Simcha would emphasize the greatness of the parsha, which describes the settling of the tribes in Israel and the different portions of the land that were given to each shevet. Zevulun was allocated territory near Haifa. Yehuda received the area of Yerushalayim and to the south and west. Each tribe received the portion of land that would bring them closest to Hashem.

The Baal Haturim quotes the Sifri, which says that Hashem showed Moshe all of Israel, the tunnels, the caves, and the buried treasures of silver and gold. Why did Hedo this? On a simple level it was to assure Moshe that He would fulfill the promise He made to the Jews to give them a bountiful land. But there’s a deeper explanation. When the Torah mentions treasures it refers to the heart of Eretz Yisrael. Kesef, silver, comes from the root word kisufim – longing. The treasure hidden in Israel is the yearning to serve Hashem.

The Shla Hakadosh wrote that a Jew should have an innate love for Israel and a deep desire to settle there just as a child longs to sit in his mother’s lap. Tisha B’av was given to us because we didn’t appreciate the land. The Jews rejected eretz chemda, the land of desire. The tikun (rectification) is to long for Eretz Yisrael with all our soul. “Ki ratzu avadecha et avaneha.” For your servants desired her stones. To appreciate the land one must yearn to kiss its dust.

Sefer Otzar Hayirah states, all the holiness of Klal Yisrael is in Eretz Yisrael. When a person purifies himself, it is as if he conquers a portion of the land. The evil inclination tells us, “Listim atem,” you are thieves. Israel doesn’t belong to you. Spirituality is beyond your grasp. You can never achieve perfection. Therefore, Hashem begins the Torah with Bereisheet and Rashi says, “The strengths of his deeds he told his nation.” Hashem assured us that the land would be given to us. Israel, and its associated spirituality, is our destiny.

Bilam, Balak, and Amalek attacked the Jews at great personal risk. They knew that if klal yisrael would come into Eretz Yisrael and keep the mitzvot haelyut b’aretz (commandments connected to the land), they would radiate holiness to the whole world, which would affect them too. Therefore, they risked their safety to prevent it.

A person who succeeds in coming to Israel, the source of holiness, has achieved victory over the yetzer hara. He accomplishes this through brazenness and stubbornness. The Shulchan Aruch says a person must be bold to serve Hashem. The Almighty has tremendous joy in us when we stand strong and don’t let anything move us away from sanctity.

The verse in Tehillim says, “Yerushalayim harim saviv la.” Yerushalayim is surrounded by hills. There are constant ups and downs. “V’Hashem saviv l’amo.” Hashem encircles us. He gives us the strength to overcome all obstacles.

Finding Our Place In This World

17 06 2012

Based on a shiur by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

Parshat Shelach tells the story of the spies who were sent to spy out the land of Israel. Although Yehoshua and Kalev remained faithful to Hashem, the rest of the group did not, and the mission ended with disastrous results.

After Moshe’s death, when Yehoshua took over leadership of the nation he sent spies again. This seems perplexing. You would think he would have learned his lesson from what happened.

To understand this, we must study the crucial difference between the first and second mission. The spies Moshe sent didn’t think they deserved Hashem‘s direct assistance. The Torah records their statement of self-doubt, “We were like grasshoppers in our own eyes.” They wanted to see if the land could be conquered without Divine intervention. In one sense, this was reasonable thinking. Miracles are not Hashem‘s way of conducting the world. Why then were they held accountable?

Certainly a person must maximize his efforts but there is one exception, in the case of a Divine promise. The spies were wrong for assessing the land in a natural fashion because Hashem pledged He would give us the land. When Yehoshua sent spies again, he didn’t do so to find out if they would succeed. He wanted to better formulate his strategy. His question was not, “Can Hashem conquer the land?” His question was, “What is my role?”

We must ask ourselves, “Who am I meant to be at the moment?” If you think that it’s all up to you then essentially you are removing Hashem from the picture. Conversely, relying on Hashem with closed eyes, is taking away His purpose in creating us. We’re supposed to demand from ourselves to figure out our role. “What am I meant to do?” and “Where’s my place?” are questions we should ask ourselves. But at the same time we must have complete trust in the One who ultimately makes it all happen.

Meaning of Trust: Obligation For Effort #7

10 06 2012

Based on a shiur by Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller

We live within the realm of cause and effect. Our choices affect us both in this world and the next. To what degree should we see ourselves as part of nature and to what degree should we see ourselves as something separate? Are we natural beings or are we on a different higher plane?

Man always wants more than he already has. This subtle longing existed before the sin in Gan Eden in the form of Adam’s deep desire for attachment to Hashem. Hashem placed Adam with all his yearnings into a physical body, which he was meant to express through his deeds and creativity.

Hashem looked in the Torah and created the world. When He began the creative process he fashioned an idyllic environment in Gan Eden which reflected His will and wisdom. It was designed to be a place in which His sanctity and exaltedness would come forth. But Hashem made the possibility of not seeing his unity an inherent part of the plan too.

It is possible to see Hashem‘s wisdom even without his involvement. By choosing not to see the fragmented picture, but to view Him as one and every creation and event that takes place as stemming from that one source, we draw closer to Him.

Before the sin, everything in the world was there as it should be. Man’s role was l’avdah ul’shomrah, to work and guard the world. The Ohr Hachaim says l’avdah means to uplift things, to make everything into an avoda (service).You can admire a beautiful orange, gaze up at the blue sky, inhale the fresh air, and turn it all into avodat Hashem (service of Hashem). Adam’s physical body found expression in the performance of the will of Hashem through the positive mitzvot. L’shomra was later manifested in the negative mitzvot.

Hashem responded to the sin of the tree of knowledge by bringing curses upon the world. Adam was cursed, “By the sweat of your brow you shall eat bread.” Only after the sin were we forced to become physically involved in the earth’s actual bounty and physical productivity. We moved from being on a level that was more spiritual to a level that was more physical.

The Mesilat Yesharim says bitachon means relying on Hashem completely. David Hamelech wrote, “Hashlech Al Hashem Yehavcha V’hu Yechalkeleka. Throw your burden upon Hashem and He will provide for you.” The Gra says yahav means feeling an absolute emotional reliance on Hashem. We’re supposed to invest our physical effort but we are not supposed to rely on the consequences of it.

What is hishtadlut (effort) about? The Leshem says the only way something can become your identity is through choice and action. Adam was created with absolute knowledge. He was able to see from one end of the world to the other. However, none of his wisdom was integrated through choice. Therefore, Hashem presented him with a test. If he would have done more of l’avdah ul’shomra, his ability to deal with the fruit of goodness and evil would’ve been different. Therefore, the consequence of the sin had to be consciousness, so that he would now make better choices.

He was cursed with the sweat of his brow. When you work, there’s a conflict to view what you have produced as yours or to recognize that these are your actions and choices, but the consequences belong to Hashem. Sometimes we outright sin, sometimes we decentralize Hashem.

How much effort do we really have to put in? The Maharal’s view was that you have to maximize your hishtadlut because it is the catalyst through which a person utilizes his talents for tikun olam and tikun atzmi (rectifying the world and himself). But the results are always dependent on Hashem.

Rav Zundel Salanter held that the necessity to expend effort is because we are not worthy of revealed wonders. Any minute level of hishtadlut, as long as it conceals the miracle of our sustenance, is enough. The Michtav M’Eliyahu maintained that one should do whatever the natural cause and effect demands of us.

Some people investigate all possibilities, commit themselves emotionally, and do everything they can. They wage war against their competitors and drive themselves to achieve to the max. This is a whole other level. These people feel vulnerable, they compete, they are scared. If you ask this kind of believer why are you doing this? He’ll answer with religious clichés such as, The Torah says, “Sheshet yamim ta’avod” (work six days) and the Gemara says that one who supports his family is continually involved in charity. In reality, hishtadlut is not a mitzvah but a consequence of bad choice. Although the Gemara says that supporting your family is charity it doesn’t say going to the extreme will earn you more money. Your responsibility is to do the hishtadlut but Hashem‘s responsibility is to support your family. There are people who expend enormous effort and fail and there are people who make little effort and succeed. It’s not in our hands completely.

The real test is to ask yourself when you are doing hishtadlut, “Are my intentions to fulfill a mitzvah? Am I making myself into a vessel to draw down Hashem‘s bounty or am I just thinking business deals and office politics when I should be talking directly to Hashem?” Taking Hashem out of the picture means worshiping ourselves. The popular mantra is, “I must be realistic and competitive, I can’t be a fool and leave it all to chance.” The Torah way is, “I’ve done what I can. Now I let it go. It is in Hashem‘s hands.”

Besides being control freaks, some people hide under the guise of laziness. They don’t have the courage or the will to make the necessary effort or sufficient control of their body to get themselves going. It’s easy to call that bitachon. Hashem is not in the picture any more for a person who’s not actively involved because of laziness than in the heart of someone trying to control everything.

Sometimes the evil inclination will tell us to overdo hishtadlut and sometimes he will tell us not to. How do we know what the truth is? One approach is to learn to see Hashem in the world. Ask yourself, “What am I learning about myself and Hashem as I walk through life?” The more aware you are of Hashem, the more honest you can be. The more you see yourself as a creation of Hashem, the more you can see the events in your life as being arranged.

The Midrash describes how Hashem assigned Adam to give names to all of creation. When he was finished he asked Adam, “Who are you?” He answered, “I am Adam.” I am earthly and even my spiritual essence is meant to be expressed through physical reality.” And then Hashem asked, “Who am I?” And he said, “You are Adon, the master.” Hashem is absolutely involved. Everything is a consequence of His providence. When a person learns to think this way, to walk through the world with open eyes, then all worries about earthly matters will fall away.                                                       

Parshat Beha’alotcha:Ultimate Eternity

8 06 2012

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Avishai David

In this week’s parsha, the Torah records a dialogue between Moshe and Yitro. Moshe invites Yitro to join the Jewish people on their journey to Israel. He assures him that only good will come of it. However, Yitro categorically rejects the offer. Moshe implores him again, “If you will accompany us, you too will receive the good that Hashem has promised for us.” The Torah does not tell us Yitro’s second response. There is a disagreement among the sages whether he acquiesced or not. Assuming he did, which is the position of the Rambam and other commentaries, why was offer one summarily dismissed and offer number two accepted?

The Rambam notes that the first time Moshe promised Yitro material possessions: gold, silver, and cattle, but he rejected them. The second time he offered him a portion in Eretz Yisrael. The Rambam derives this from the additional language the Torah uses, “Vayaha hatov hahu asher heitiv Hashem.” Moshe assures Yitro that he too will acquire a portion in Israel. Yitro fully understood the value of the holy land. Moshe wasn’t offering him something transient but ultimate eternity.

This should be our perspective too. Undoubtedly all of us have a need for sustenance, but that shouldn’t be our focus. Our goal should be to tap into spirituality and infinity that the land of Israel represents.

Fear of Heaven

7 06 2012

Based on a  shiur by Rabbi Yitzchak Cohen

In order to reach the lofty heights of yirat shamayim (fear of Heaven), one must first acquire the attributes of zehirat (watchfulness), nekiut (cleanliness), tahara (purity), and perishut (asceticism).

There are two levels of yirat shamayim, yirat ha’onesh and yirat ha’romemut. Yirat ha’onesh is fear of retribution. This is easier to reach than yirat ha’romemut (fear of His exaltedness), because man loves himself so much that he doesn’t want to hurt himself. This is only the first level.

Learning Torah or performing mitzvot in order to get reward or avoid punishment is called lo lishma. Doing so without thought of remuneration or punishment is termed lishma. Torah and mitzvot must begin shelo lishma. The beauty of Torah is then revealed through practicing it.

The second level is yirat ha’romemut. After a person has distanced himself from sin, he won’t be able to bring himself to go against the will of Hashem. This is no longer simple yirah. It requires knowledge, intelligence and love to contemplate the majesty and greatness of Hashem.

The Shaarei Teshuva explains daaga (worry) on three levels. The first level is due to fear of punishment. The second level is worrying that even if one has already repented, the yetzer hara may come back again. The third level is fearing that maybe one didn’t repent completely.

Rav Solomon explains that the purpose of daaga is for a person to find a way to avoid punishment. The mitzvot he will do will be instead of retribution. If a person adds to his Torah learning at the expense of enjoying the pleasures of this world, it’s a form of atonement. Taking money he would have spent on luxuries and instead giving it to charity is also a form of suffering. Eat less, relax less, limit your desires, and devote more time to Torah and mitzvot. These are the best ways to achieve atonement.

Yirat ha’romemut relates to performing mitzvot. It’s trembling before the honor of Hashem. Yirat ha’onesh is not just fearing sin when the yetzer hara tells you to transgress, but worrying all the time about going against Hashem’s will. Then a person will always be careful as it says, “Ashrei hadam mefached tamid.” Happy is the man who always fears.

May we be inspired to elevate ourselves to greater levels of yirat Hashem.

Priorities in Paying Wages

6 06 2012

Based on a shiur by Rabbi Beinish Ginsburg

The Chafetz Chaim writes that if you hire two workers and you only have enough money to pay one, you must pay the more impoverished worker first. This is hinted at in the Torah, which mentions the word ani (a poor person) in connection with the commandment of paying a worker on time.

If both workers are equally poor and one of them is a relative, the relative does not take precedence. If you don’t have enough money to pay both of them, you must split the money you do have between them. Then when you have the rest of the money, you can make it up to them.

If you hired a worker the day before and could not pay him on time and then you hired a second worker the next day and you now have a chance to pay him on time, which worker takes precedence? Jewish law dictates that one should pay the second one first to in order to avoid violating bal talin again.

You shouldn’t hire a worker if you know you won’t be able to pay him, unless the worker agrees to wait. If the minhag hamakom (custom) is that a worker gets paid on the pay day determined by the employer, then you can hire a worker and not pay him right away because it’s assumed that the worker has agreed to be paid later.

If you hire a worker and you know you will not be present on pay day, you should set aside money to pay him so the money’s there when the work is completed.

One who holds back the wages of a worker is considered as if he has killed him. The Alshich says that one must be very careful in this matter. If a worker who hasn’t been paid returns home to his hungry family and they cry out to Hashem, He will listen to them because He hears the prayers of those who suffer. Not only has the employer then violated bal talin and gezel (stealing) but also lifnei ivir (not placing a stumbling block), because he has caused Jews to pray to Hashem to hurt another Jew

The Arizal says that whoever fulfills the mitzvah of paying a worker on time receives great reward in this world too. This is in addition to the reward awaiting him in the world to come. This is hinted to in the verse, “B’yomo titen secharo.” On that day you shall pay his wages. The first letters are bet, taf, shin, which spell Shabbat. When a Jew keeps Shabbat he receives a neshama yeteira (an extra soul). This also occurs when a person pays his workers on time.

One should set the price before the work begins to avoid questions of gezel. It’s very common for a worker to argue over compensation. Even if he forgives you to avoid further argument, deep down he may not forgive you completely and there may be a question of dishonesty.

In the event a set price wasn’t established, the wage is calculated according to the norm. It is very hard to calculate exactly what that is, and if you pay your worker less it could be gezeila. If you want to avoid this, you’ll have to end up giving more. Therefore, one should always set the price first. A Torah scholarshould be extra careful to do this in order to avoid a chilul Hashem (profaning Hashem’s name).