Friday, January 29, 2016

Keys to Matan Torah- And Half Marathons

Preparation and Stick-To-It-Tiveness: Keys to Success

Upon reaching Mt Sinai, the Torah tells us that Hashem had a message for Bnei Yisrael:
“And now if you (Bnai yisrael) will listen to Me well, and you shall be for Me the most beloved treasure of all nations….then you shall be to Me a Mamlechet Kohanim and Goy Kadosh (A Kingdom of Priests and a Holy Nation).

Before giving them the Torah, Hashem wants the Jewish People to be aware of the responsibility and opportunity associated with this pivotal moment in history.
The Medrash makes an intriguing comment on Hashem’s statement at this time:
“If you make the commitment now - then from this point on “ye’erav lachem”- it will be good for you- Shekol Hatchalot Kashot- because all beginnings are difficult.

An intriguing Medrash, since the words in the verse make no mention, nor even allusion, to the idea that Bnei Yisrael were somehow experiencing any sort of difficulties at this stage. The Medrash is teaching us something fundamental for anyone looking to accomplish a goal in life: The most worthwhile goals are those that 1) require a long term commitment and 2) begin with difficulties and setbacks.

Last Sunday I completed the Miami Half Marathon. This was my third time finishing and the one lesson that has been highlighted to me each time is the importance of preparation. The more I prepared for the race, the better I would perform on race day.

Kol Hatchalot Kashot: when trying to achieve a goal- whether it be a half marathon or Matan Torah, the beginnings are difficult- but stick-to-it-tiveness is key.  We need to be committed for the long haul if we want to accomplish big things in life.

When told of the long term nature of what it meant to accept the Torah, Bnei Yisrael immediately respond: Naasah: we will do. We are committed to the importance of the Torah,are willing to accept the initial difficulties and stick with it.

Hashem then teaches Bnei Yisrael one of the most important ingredients for achieving any long term goal: preparation:
“Hashem says to Moshe ‘go to the people V’kidashtem, and sanctify them, today and tomorrow….. let them be prepared for the third day- the day of the Revelation at Sinai.

Rashi explains that in this context “V’Kidashtam” means Vzeemantam” Moshe should prepare Bnei Yisrael. Preparation is a necessary component in achieving one’s goal. The choice of the word Kidashtam for preparation teaches us something more: preparation and effort put into a goal are holy and valuable in their own right.

This is what Hashem is teaching the Jewish People: Preparation is a necessary step in achieving long term goals. But remember: Kidashtam- that the preparation and one’s ability to stick with commitments; at Matan Torah and for all life goal, can be valuable in their own right.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Mon and Shabbat- Their Flavor Is Up To Us

The Taste of Mon, The Taste of Shabbat

In Beshalach we are introduced to the miracle of mon- the bread from Heaven that would sustain the Jewish People during their time in the wilderness (they don't know it yet, but it will end up being 40 years.) There are many miracles associated with the mon. One of the miracles is that everyone could only collect what they needed for that day- except on Friday. Friday they collected a double portion, for the mon did not fall on Saturdays.

Chazal tell us that on all other days of the week, if the Jews would try to hoard any mon for the next day, it would spoil overnight. Shabbat, however was different. On Saturday, the mon did not fall. It would appear then that on Fridays one was allowed to save mon for the next day.

It emerges then that Shabbat is the day most associated with the mon for the Jews as they leave Egypt. Their first taste of freedom and their first observance of Shabbat as a nation are tied into an extra taste, an extra amount, of mon. What is the relationship between mon and Shabbat?

I'd like to focus on just one of the miracles associated with the mon. According to some, mon tasted like whatever you wanted it to taste like. All you had to do is think about what flavor you want and the mon miraculously would acquire the your desired taste

Shabbat is so linked to mon because it shares this quality. Our Shabbat experience "tastes" like whatever you want it to taste like. Shabbat can be a day indistinguishable from the rest of the week. It can be a day that we sleep all day. It can be a day that we rue all the things that we are prohibited from doing.

Or it can be a day of family and friends, Torah study, relaxation, appreciating what we have and re-charging our batteries and souls for what is yet to come.  Shabbat can be a day on which we unplug from our cell phones and reconnect with others, ourselves and Hashem.

The Torah teaches us that on Shabbat we had extra mon- because they share an important lesson:  Like mon, Shabbos is experienced based on how we want it to taste.

Perhaps this is what it means when we say that Bnai Yisrael were tasked with:
 "V'Shamru Bnei Yisrael et Hashabbat,- to guard the Sabbath
 And also "La'asot et Hashabbat"- to make the Sabbath.

What does this mean for us to “make the Sabbath”? I thought God made the Sabbath!
V'Shamru includes the “do’s and don’ts”, the fixed, rigid contours of Shabbat commanded by God in the Torah.

La'asot et Hashabbat- refers to how each of us experiences the taste of Shabbat. Just like the mon, how Shabbat ultimately tastes for us and our family is entirely up to each of us.

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Prohibition of Chametz- While Enjoying Our Challah

The Gemara in Brachot states that Rabbi Alexandri would end his daily prayers with the following supplication:
“Master of the Universe, You know full well that it is our desire to act according to Your will. But what prevents us? The “Se’or She’ba’isa, the yeast in the dough.
Rabbi Alexandri equates Chametz with our yetzer harah, our Evil Inclination. The Baalei Mussar took note of the physical characteristics of Chametz and related them to bad character traits. For example, dough will only begin to rise after a period of time has elapsed. This corresponds to the trait of sloth and laziness. Similarly, with the help of yeast, dough is able to rise; a phenomenon that the Mussar Movement related to the attribute of haughtiness.
In Parshat Bo we read about the prohibition of Chametz on Pesach. The punishment for eating (or even possessing) chaemtz on Pesach is sever- karet.          The question is: If chametz is so bad, why do we eat it all year? Throughout history (putting aside, Atkins-type diets), bread has been a staple of nourishment. When the Pasuk says (Deutoronomy 8:3)
“Not by bread alone does man live, rather by everything that emanates from G-d’s mouth does man live”.

The Torah is effectively telling us that in terms of nutrition, human beings can and do subsist on just bread. How are we to make sense of eating our daily bread the other 51 weeks of the year if it is associated with such negative connotations?

The answer is that Chametz is not evil. During the course of our lives, most of the time bread, as a food and as a symbol, is appropriate and necessary. It is in regards to our commemoration and celebration of Pesach that chametz has no place. Let’s take another look at chametz and try to understand why this is so.
Bread is the result of adding yeast to dough. Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin, the Netziv, writes,
“Leaven is a human invention used to modify through ingenuity the world that G-d created.” The Netziv utilizes this construct to understand why leaven (and honey) are forbidden to be brought on the altar in the Temple. He explains that an encounter with G-d at the altar is not the time to demonstrate our ability to innovate. Rather, bringing a Korban is a time to reflect on G-d as Creator and the Cause of all human ingenuity and achievement. Chametz represents man’s ability to use his intellect in conquest of the world around him. Although an important and necessary perspective for our lives, there is no room for Chametz on Pesach. Pesach commemorates the birth of the Jewish People. At that moment of Exodus we were passive, as Hashem tells Moshe at the Splitting of the Sea:
“Hashem yilachem Lachem V’Atem Tacharishun” – “You remain passive and God will fight for you”

Our celebration of Pesach focuses on what Hashem did for us. Matzah, the natural product of bread and water without any human ingenuity, is aptly suited to be the Passover symbol. Acknowledging the role of Hashem within the realm of human creativity is a theme that Pesach shares with Shabbat, when we are commanded to rest from work and recognize G-d as creator and cause of all. This helps us understand why the Torah, in describing the the Mitzvah of Sefirat Haomer, refers to Pesach as Shabbat:

“Usefartem lachem mimacharat Hashabbat.” We begin counting the Omer the day after ‘Shabbat”- (we begin counting the day after) Pesach, the time in which, like Shabbat, we remember our total dependence on G-d. There is nothing wrong with chametz, just not the message of Pesach.

As we enjoy our challah over Shabbat Parshat Bo, let us remember the importance of both chametz and matzah: human ingenuity and humility in our relationship with Hashem.

Friday, January 8, 2016

God of The Universe and God My Universe

Parshat Va’era begins with God identifying Himself to Moshe:
I appeared to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob with [the name] Almighty God, but [with] My name YHWH, I did not become known to them.

גוָאֵרָא אֶל אַבְרָהָם אֶל יִצְחָק וְאֶל יַעֲקֹב בְּאֵל שַׁדָּי וּשְׁמִי יְהֹוָה לֹא נוֹדַעְתִּי לָהֶם:

Maimonides notes that it is impossible to comprehend the essence of God. All that we are able to understand of the Almighty is the manner in which He interacts with us and the universe. The Vilna Gaon explained that when we say a beracha we begin with Baruch Ata Hashem (YHWH name of God ) to indicate that on the most fundamental level we are unable to comprehend the Divine.

Immediately thereafter we invoke the name Elo-heinu, which according to the Vilna Gaon represents the Personal God, the God who plays an ongoing role in our personal lives. The third and final mention of God at the beginning of blessings is Melech Ha’Olam, Master of the Universe, which declares our belief not just in Hashgacha Pratit, ie God’s role in the life of the individual, but Hashgacha Klalit, God’s role in the big picture of history, humanity and the universe.

We invoke the personal God first and only afterwards do we mention the Universal God. Perhaps this is so because living with an awareness of a personal God is the more difficult task. It can sometimes be easier to talk about God in the abstract compared to appreciating God in the realm of practice. It is easier for many to believe in the God of The Universe, than it is to believe in the God of My Universe.

Every time we say a blessing it is an opportunity to cultivate and nurture this more relevant, yet challenging, personal relationship with Hashem.