Friday, March 18, 2016

Purim, Unity and Positive Peer Pressure

One of the major themes of Purim is Achdut, Jewish unity. The wicked Haman approached King Achashveirosh with the idea to annihilate the Jews, indicting them by calling them:
יֶשְׁנוֹ עַם אֶחָד מְפֻזָּר וּמְפֹרָד בֵּין הָעַמִּים
There is a certain people scattered and separate among the peoples

“Scattered” is a geographic description of the Jews. “Separate” is explained by our Rabbis as referring to the Jews’ lack of cohesion and unity at that time.

Queen Esther understood the danger posed by the absence of Achdut. When Mordechai asked her to intercede with the king on behalf of the Jews, Esther agreed with the condition that the people renew their commitment to Jewish unity:
לֵךְ כְּנוֹס אֶת כָּל הַיְּהוּדִים
Go, assemble all the Jews
Because the Jew’s answer Esther’s call, they merited to be able to defend themselves and to be saved. Towards the end of the Megillah we read (9:16):
וּשְׁאָר הַיְּהוּדִים אֲשֶׁר בִּמְדִינוֹת הַמֶּלֶךְ נִקְהֲלוּ | וְעָמֹד עַל נַפְשָׁם
And the rest of the Jews who were in the king’s provinces assembled and protected their souls

The Sefas Emes offers a beautiful interpretation to this verse, which provides a deep insight into what unity is supposed to mean. When the Jews “assembled” in unity, they were able to combine the positive forces contain within each individual and learn from each other. Their assembling together enabled them to create positive peer pressure. This positive peer pressure allowed them to overcome their more primitive and negative character traits (referred to in Kabbalah as the “nefesh”) thereby bettering themselves and the nation as a whole.

Oftentimes when children (or adults) gather together as a group, their behavior can deteriorate to the lowest common denominator. This is what we normally think of when we hear the expression “peer pressure” ie people doing the wrong thing because everyone else is doing it. In Judaism, peer pressure is supposed to encourage people to do the right thing. Let us learn from the Purim story to seek out a Jewish unity whereby we learn from each other and create positive peer pressure.

The Sefas Emes also explains that this is the essence of the Purim mitzvah of Mishloach Manot. The technical mitzvah is fulfilled by giving one person two gifts of food. However The Sefas Emes points to a passage in Tractate Megilah (7b) to explain:

Rabbah sent to Mari b. Mar by Abaye a sackful of dates and a cupful of roasted ears of corn…….The other [Mari] sent him [Rabbah] back a sackful of ginger and a cup full of long-stalked pepper. Said Abaye: Now the Master [Rabbah] will say, I sent him sweet and he sends me bitter.”

Why should we care what these Rabbis sent to each other for Mishloach Manot? The Sefas Emes explains that the Talmud is teaching us that the essence of the mitzvah is to share with others that which you have, and the other person is lacking. One Rabbi was “sweet” while the other one was more “spicy”. Through their demonstration of unity both were enriched. As we prepare to celebrate Purim let us appreciate the lesson of unity that it teaches: To be united means to share with and learn from others, thereby creating positive peer pressure to the benefit of everyone.

Friday, March 11, 2016

100 Sockets and 100 Blessings: Critical for Keeping Things Together

One hundred talents of the silver were used for casting the sockets of the Holy and the sockets of the dividing curtain; one hundred sockets out of one hundred talents, one talent for each socket.

כזוַיְהִי מְאַת כִּכַּר הַכֶּסֶף לָצֶקֶת אֵת אַדְנֵי הַקֹּדֶשׁ וְאֵת אַדְנֵי הַפָּרֹכֶת מְאַת אֲדָנִים לִמְאַת הַכִּכָּר כִּכָּר לָאָדֶן:
The Chidushei  HaRim explains that just as there are 100 sockets that are needed to hold up the Mishkan, so too every Jew should strive to reciet 100 blessings each day, as indicated by the Gemara in Brachot:
It was taught: R. Meir used to say, A man is bound to say one hundred blessings daily, as it is written, And now, Israel, what doth the Lord thy God require of thee? On Sabbaths and on Festivals R. Hiyya the son of R. Awia endeavoured to make up this number by the use of spices and delicacies
The word “What” , “Mah” is similar to the word “Me’ah”, meaning 100.

We are constantly in need to inspiration in our lives. Often we overlook the obvious avenues for such daily inspiration. One such avenue is through the recitation of blessings, before and after we eat, after using the bathroom, and at many other junctures. Reciting blessings does not require going anywhere special. You don’t need a minyan to recite blessings. All you need is awareness and some concentration. Blessings can be an exercise in mindfulness.

If we are seeking opportunities to recite blessings then we can become transformed into “blessing seeking individuals.” Such a worldview will enable us to not only seek out opportunities to recite ritual blessings, but also be in a mindset more amenable to seeing all of the blessings that surround us in our lives.

 Just as the 100 sockets help up the Mishkan, so too can our search for 100 daily blessings spiritually support us and provide that much us with much  needed inspiration.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Enough - And Then Some

And the work was sufficient for them for all the work, to do it and to leave over.

זוְהַמְּלָאכָה הָיְתָה דַיָּם לְכָל הַמְּלָאכָה לַעֲשׂוֹת אֹתָהּ וְהוֹתֵר:

This is the concluding verse of the description of the building campaign for the Mishkan. But after reading this verse, the question I’m left with is this: Did the campaign bring in just enough: דַיָּם?
Or was there an excess of materials donated to the campaign, as inferred by the word וְהוֹתֵר?

The Shelah Hakadosh focuses on the first term, and explains that the building campaign did not raise enough materials to construct the Mishkan and all of its vessels. The term דַיָּם hints at the miracle that occurred that enabled the construction of the Mishkan with less than the amount of materials naturally required.

The Ohr Hachayim focuses on the word וְהוֹתֵר. He also believes that a miracle is being alluded to in this verse. According to his approach, the people brought more materials than what were needed. There was a surplus, which accordingly to the natural order of things would not have been used in this phase of the building campaign. However a miracle occurred so that the excess material was incorporated into the Mishkan construction at this time.

At first this might seem like a waste of funds. Those surplus materials could have been used in the future instead of miraculously being “swallowed up” and included in this building campaign.

I think that the Ohr Hachayim is teaching us an important lesson about the role of the individual within society. In a large society one might feel as if his/her contributions are unnecessary or superflous. If we ever feel that way we should look to the Mishkan building campaign to remind us that every contribution is necessary. Every contribution is holy. Every contribution is included in the totality of the Mishkan.