Sunday, November 20, 2011

Taking Refuge in a Sukkah of Faith

Sukkot is the Festival of Joy. This holiday, which occurs during the harvest season, is a time to be thankful for the blessings our Creator has given us. According to our tradition, a hidden aspect of Sukkot is our celebration of faith in God. When we dwell under the shade of the Sukkah, we show that we live our lives under the shade of God’s protection.

On the holiday, we sit in the Sukkah not only during the day, when the sun is shining, but also at night, when it is dark and sometimes cold. On Sukkot, we acknowledge that God is with us not only during times of abundance – the sunshine – but also during difficulties – the times we feel a chill. Even then, we believe that His protection and care surround and shield us like a Sukkah. We trust that, “…He will hide me in His Sukkah on the day of evil; He will conceal me in the concealment of His tent…(Psalms 27:5)”

The synergy of joy and faith

What is the connection between these two themes of Sukkot, joy and faith?

Without faith happiness is elusive. The stresses of life will overshadow abundance, spoiling joy. Even if life proceeds smoothly, worries over the future will distract from appreciating the present.

Authentic faith leads to gratitude and joy. It enables us to revel in the gifts of our Creator, without letting challenges dampen our spirits; we acknowledge that difficulties are also gifts (in ways beyond our comprehension). With faith, we are not consumed with fears about the future. We relax in the knowledge that, “God is my shepherd, I shall not lack (Psalms 23:1).” Whatever we need to fulfill our purpose, our Creator will give us; whatever we need to handle our challenges, He will provide.

The mistaken view that life is random robs one of meaning and happiness. Because God created you, your life has value and purpose; just by being alive you fulfill a part of God’s plan for you. God is your Father in Heaven and guides each moment of your life for your highest good. He cares about you, loves you and wants you to come close to Him. When you realize this, you will be filled with deep peace and joy.

Our angle of perception plays a pivotal role in determining our happiness. Imagine two people living in the same Sukkah; one bemoans the creature comforts he misses, the other delights in the mitzvah. Each moment, we have the choice of either resisting what we do not like, or opening up to the opportunity and Divine love within every experience.

How to serve God

One might assume that the optimal way to serve God and build His Sukkah is by constructing a sturdy and weatherproof structure. Yet, such a Sukkah is invalid; there must be cracks in the roof for the rain to enter. Similarly, one might assume that the optimal way to serve God is from a place of abundance, e.g., health, wealth, a large family etc. Yet, if our lives are currently not that way, then right now, that is not how we are meant to serve Him.

The definition of a life well lived is when we take the pieces that make up our lives – especially the broken parts – and elevate them, building for God our unique Sukkah. By using our current situation to come close to God, we invite Him into our Sukkah – into our lives. It is through the cracks in our Sukkah – the jagged parts of our lives – that God’s glory, dwelling within, most intensely shines out of, illuminating the world.

Even if right now your life appears to be in tatters and resembles a patched together Sukkah, that too is for your good, that too is holy. Do not be ashamed or try to run away from your problems; be present in your Sukkah – in your life – and celebrate it for the joys it holds. By accepting your life the way it is, you unite with God, who gave you your present challenges. Then you will feel fortified by the strength of His presence and able to plan for a better future.

Worry or confidence?

We choose between two attitudes. One is filled with worry, where we ask, “What will be? Will I be able to handle it?” The other is filled with calm confidence, where we trust that God will be with us at all times, giving us whatever we need in each moment.

With faith, we anticipate and look forward to God’s help, which frequently comes in unpredictable ways. With this perspective, there is a relaxing of tension, a willingness to take judicious risks and leave our comfort zone. We are ready to face uncertainty fearlessly, with the courage that comes with trusting in God.

King David compares one who has faith in God to “…A suckling child beside its mother…(Psalms 131:2)” Imagine an infant resting after being nursed. How do you think the infant feels resting on its mother’s lap? When we realize our Creator is guiding our lives and we unconditionally accept His will, that peaceful feeling of complete reliance and contentment can be ours.

After making reasonable efforts – prayer included – trust that whatever happens to you will be for your eternal benefit. With faith, wherever you find yourself in life, you will be able to relax into your Father’s support, surrounded and protected by a Sukkah of faith.

The four species

On Sukkot we embrace and shake the four species: the Lulav, Etrog, Hadassim and Aravot. Like the Sukkah, perhaps the four species also symbolize the fusion of joy and faith. Joy is found when we let go of resisting the life our Creator has given us; when we accept and embrace every aspect of our lives, that which is pleasurable – symbolized by the Etrog which is tasty and fragrant – as well as that which is painful – symbolized by the Aravot which are neither tasty nor fragrant.

The Lulav comes from date trees which are tasty but not fragrant. The Hadassim, are fragrant but not tasty. The four species therefore contain four possible combinations and symbolize the four types of life experiences: Whether we are able to “taste” the benefits in the present or only “smell” the benefits which are down the road.

There are experiences which are like the Aravot, without taste or smell: We see no benefit in them, not now and not in the future. These moments are the true tests of faith: Will we become despondent and bitter? Or will we draw strength from the knowledge that God, in His infinite wisdom, is guiding our lives for our ultimate good?

Do not hold the Aravot by themselves – focusing only on the bitter aspects of your life. Join them together with the Etrog, Lulav and Hadassim. When you appreciate the blessings in your life, your difficulties will become easier to bear. In addition, when you focus on all the good that God has done for you, it will be easier for you to have faith that from God comes only goodness, that even your challenges are for your benefit.

Perhaps another reason we hold the four species – the four types of life experiences – together as one is to underscore our belief that every aspect of our lives, both the bitter and blessed, come from God. We shake the species in all directions, symbolizing our willingness to be led by God in any direction He chooses. Our will is to do His will, even when it’s difficult, even when it’s painful.

During the prayer service, while embracing the four species – and as we embrace life – we recite the verse from Psalms (118:1), “Give thanks to God for He is good, for His kindness endures forever.” Wherever we go, we go with God, and there, His kindness awaits us.

After we awaken to God’s Kingship on Rosh Hashanah, and cleanse ourselves of sin on Yom Kippur, God invites us into His Sukkah.

The happiness we feel on Sukkot is much more than simple gratitude; our deepest source of joy is what God means to us and what we mean to Him.

Our repentance, prayers and acts of charity which prepared us to come closer to God and enter His Sukkah, bring Him tremendous satisfaction. In fact, the elation we experience on Sukkot stems not only from our joy over our closeness to God, but also from the awareness of His joy over our closeness to Him. To illustrate, when a husband senses the love and joy his wife feels over him, this intensifies his own love and joy over her. Each spouse nourishes the love and joy of the other, until their devotion merges and they become as one.

When repentance removes the spiritual barriers caused by sin, our sensitivity to God’s intense love and joy over us increases, which heightens within us those same feelings for Him. Embracing the will of our Creator enables the flowering of this love and joy; we become one with God, in a state of total devotion and utter surrender.

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Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Lessons From Chanukah: Clarity, Purity and Joy

Ever wonder why the Jewish New Year begins with three holidays one after the other, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, and then no Biblical holidays for another six months, till Passover?

Perhaps one answer is that God wants us to start off the New Year right. He created us to have a relationship with Him and at the beginning of each New Year, He gives us the tools we need to clear away obstacles to coming close to Him. These obstacles are a lack of clarity, purity or joy. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, each address a different potential barrier to our relationship with God.

Chanukah, the first Rabbinic holiday following Sukkot, celebrates the rededication by the Maccabees of the Temple, recaptured from the Greeks in the 2nd century BCE. As we will discuss, Chanukah teaches us how to have more clarity, purity and joy. In Chanukah, the lessons of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot coalesce.

The first obstacle to coming close to God is a lack of clarity. If we do not acknowledge who created us and why, how can we have a relationship with our Creator?

Crowning God as our King and Creator is a central theme of Rosh Hashanah. On the holiday, we ask ourselves, “How can I live my life as God intended when He created me?”

On Chanukah, we thank God for saving us from a spiritual threat. The Greeks wanted the Jews to assimilate and as the rampant assimilation of today makes painfully clear, identifying a spiritual menace is much more difficult than a physical one. The clarity of the Maccabees enabled them to recognize what was worth fighting for. We achieve clarity when we follow the example of the Maccabees and live our values, even at great personal sacrifice.

The second obstacle to coming close to God is a lack of purity. When a person sins, their connection to God weakens. Sometimes we become so sunken in impurity that we no longer feel God’s presence in our lives. Yom Kippur, through repentance, teaches us how to clear away accumulated impurities and invigorate our relationship with God.

After the Maccabees recaptured the Temple, which the Greeks had defiled, they were still able to find one ritually pure jug of oil to light the Menorah. The oil – only enough for one day – miraculously lasted for eight.

Each of us is a miniature temple housing the holy of holies, our souls. As in the story of Chanukah, our temple gets defiled by foreign influences. But even if we are covered in layers of filth, there will always remain a core of purity within – like that untouched jug of pure oil.

To access this purity, we must to do what the Maccabees did and clear away the contamination as best we can. Then we will discover an ever flowing wellspring of inner purity.

The third obstacle to coming close to God is a lack of joy. When life does not go as expected, we may get angry or bitter with God. This holds us back from having a close relationship with Him.

Sukkot, the festival of joy, occurs during the harvest season, a time of abundance. Part of the holiday’s festivity comes from our appreciation of the many blessings God has given us. A person is unable to feel bitterness and gratitude at the same time; the choice is therefore ours. Sukkot calls out to us, “Choose joy!”

In a study, Dr. Robert A. Emmons found that gratitude can increase our happiness by 25 percent. To increase your happiness, begin or end your day by expressing appreciation to God for at least one blessing in your life. Preferably speak to God out loud and in your native language. Elaborate on how you have benefited from the gift.

An alternative exercise is to ask yourself, “What has greatly enhanced the quality of my life?”

General categories include: Judaism, family, friends, emotional/physical health, a career, talents and abilities, money, possessions, food, shelter and clothing. After you have chosen something specific to focus on, read out loud the bold sentences below. Imagine a trusted confidante asking you the questions in quotes and pause after each question, tuning into the answer your body gives you. If one of the sentences does not resonate with you, leave it out for now.

I am God’s child. “How does it feel to be God’s child?” Out of His love for me, He gave me ___(say out loud the quality of life enhancer). This has enhanced my life by___(say out loud the benefits you receive from it). My Father gave this specifically to me, because He loves me. “How does it feel to be loved by your Father?” I am deeply grateful to my Father. “How does it feel to be grateful to your Father?”

Take a deep breath in, and as you exhale slowly through the mouth, allow yourself to completely let go of all stress and tension; do this for at least two exhalations. Then rest in the warm feeling of being loved and cared for by God.

You can repeat this process using different quality of life enhancers. You can do this exercise once a day or at least once a week. This exercise can help you have the insight that just as the clear blessings in your life are given to you by God for your benefit because He loves you, everything else in your life is also given to you by God out of His love for you. Although we do not understand how something specific is a manifestation of His love, the fact that God does love us is something we can see, feel and know.

Chanukah, a festival of thanksgiving, does not mark the end of the struggle against the Greeks; the fighting continued for another 22 years. Why didn’t the Jews wait until the end of the war to celebrate?

Perhaps to teach us the secret of gratitude: To savor and be grateful for every blessing, regardless of what else is going on. Even if your life feels like a warzone, like the Maccabees, find reasons to celebrate and be grateful.

Each day contains something to be appreciative of, a portal to joy and feeling God’s love for you. Every day, make a conscious decision to focus on and be grateful for what goes right. Savor and delight in life’s pleasures, enjoying them mindfully. When you notice something that benefits you, turn your attention to God and say to Him, “Thank you God!”

Search for blessings even within the painful aspects of your life. Do they contain a silver lining, positive aspects or opportunities? Could circumstances have easily been worse? What are signs of God’s help amidst your challenges?

In Rabbi David Ashear’s excellent book, Living Emunah, he suggests keeping a record of times God helped you in some way. You can keep the entries short and include even seemingly minor incidences. You will likely notice that the more you write down events, the more you recognize God’s hand in your life.

Many of us struggle with maintaining clarity, purity or joy. Pick the area which you feel most motivated to address. Choose one concrete step or change you will make to enhance that area. This way, the light of Chanukah will continue to guide you during the coming months.

A hidden world

The Hebrew word for world is olam. This is related to the Hebrew word, helaim, hidden. The Creator of the world is hidden. Life’s essence and purpose are hidden.

But God wants us to find Him – that’s why we’re here. So right away, at the start of each New Year, with the holidays of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, God gives us the tools we need to find Him.

These holidays enable us to peel away the layers concealing life’s essence. Rosh Hashanah leads us past the distractions – to clarity; Yom Kippur, past the forbidden desires – to purity; Sukkot, past the disappointments – to joy.

When everything extraneous has been removed, what is left at life’s core?

What is life really about?

Love and Joy. The love our Creator has for us and the joy of gratitude and closeness to Him.

On Chanukah, as we bask in the warm glow of the candles and recall the miracles of the past and present, we sense the love and feel the joy. 


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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Abraham + Isaac + Jacob = You

In, “Lessons From Chanukah: Clarity, Purity and Joy,” we explored how these states help us come closer to God and to living a meaningful life. We can all access these states because their potential exists within our spiritual DNA; we inherited them from our Forefathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

Abraham: clarity and kindness

Abraham, the first person to independently discover God, embodied clarity. He also taught us the importance of kindness (Micah 7:20). Clarity together with kindness forms a potent synergy. Here are some examples how:

We are naturally more compassionate to those whom we know went through tough times. With clarity comes the realization that we all have struggles; we all deserve attention, consideration and love. This is especially true for those who are frequently marginalized by society, e.g., orphans, converts, singles, widows, widowers, divorcees, senior citizens, those with disabilities, and children from single parent homes. Pick at least one person or family, and make guiding them your personal project (if you realize the person is not open to your assistance or mentoring, choose someone else). As the Sages teach, (Ethics of the Fathers 1:14), “…If I am [only] for myself, what am I?”

When we think of acts of kindness, we frequently only focus on the “big” acts: Visiting the sick, delivering meals to the needy etc. With clarity, we do not forget the “small” acts of kindness – the daily opportunities to be friendly, helpful and show interest in others. Other examples of acts we frequently consider small are having someone over for a meal, calling to see how someone is doing, giving a person a lift or sharing your expertise. The acts we may think of as small, frequently make a world of difference to the recipients.

Those without clarity may hyper-focus on the big acts of kindness while in other areas of their lives be hurtful and cause distress. With clarity we ensure that we are a force of goodness in all areas of our lives, including with our family, business associates and employees.

Those without clarity do acts of kindness that they feel like doing or that they would like done for them, but they may neglect to think about the unique needs of the recipient. With clarity, we show others empathy and find out what would be most helpful to them.

With clarity, comes the awareness that the opportunity to do acts of kindness is one of the key purposes of this world; in the Next World there are no sick or needy people. Every act of kindness we can do is a priceless opportunity, one which will only be available for a limited time.

Do kind acts with a smile and an open heart, without expecting anything in return – even a thank you. When we act with clarity, we are kind because that is God’s will; that is what we are here to do.

Isaac: moral strength

Isaac embodied purity and moral strength, his prime trait according to our Sages. To live with purity is to live with the awareness that we are before God always. We humble ourselves before Him and surrender to His will.

It is impossible to maintain a constant state of purity without occasional lapses. We have to frequently assess how we are doing in following the will of our Creator, seek guidance from others and make corrections as needed.

One lesson I have learned from writing is that unless you review your work multiple times and ask others for guidance – your writing is suboptimal. If you do not review your life regularly and ask others for guidance – your life is suboptimal, no better than a rough draft. Imagine the shame of handing in to your Creator a rough draft of your life – full of errors and omissions. Life’s goal is to hand in to God your masterpiece, the one you were meant to live.

Ask yourself, “When I meet my Creator and we go over the life I lived, are there any behaviors I will be ashamed of? What can I do now, while there is still time to correct those mistakes?”

The Sages teach, that when we go to Heaven, the sins we repent will not even be mentioned; we will have wiped them clean from our record.

Sometimes, we hold ourselves to an unreasonably high standard, continue to berate ourselves after we have already repented for a sin, or think that repenting for a sin will be too difficult. Seeking guidance from your spiritual mentor can help you avoid these common mistakes. Also, see “Debunking 5 Myths about Repentance.”

Jacob: happiness and integrity

Jacob embodied joy and distilled the essence of gratitude: Not to take anything for granted (Genesis 32:11). Another one of his attributes was truth (Micah 7:20). Integrity is the foundation for lasting joy; a dishonest person's happiness in this world is compromised by fear of being caught and pangs of guilt. In the World to Come that person's bliss will also be limited; ill-gotten gains, unless returned, create an eternal blemish. In contrast, honesty leads to joy, in this world – enjoying the fruits of hard-earned labor – and in the World to Come – eternal reward.

The Sages teach that God brought a flood during the times of Noah because of rampant theft. Even though the people of that generation committed far heinous crimes, it was theft which sealed their fate. Why?

The seal of God is truth (Tractate Yoma 69b). Everything God creates has an aspect of this seal within. When a person is dishonest, they violate creation at its core and bring destruction upon themselves and the world. In contrast, when a person is honest, they strengthen themselves and the world.

The prophet Micah summarized the whole Torah when he said (Micah 6:8), “…What does Hashem require of you but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God.” Each of the Forefathers parallels the three points Micah made. Doing justice – integrity – that is Jacob. Loving kindness, that is Abraham. Walking humbly with God and maintaining the awareness of His presence in our lives, that is Isaac.

Perhaps the reason Micah ordered these three the way he did and not in the chronological order of the Forefathers, is to teach us the order we have to address these areas. First, ensure that you are honest and ethical. If you are not, your acts of kindness and Divine service will be tainted. Then make sure you are charitable and kind. Once you have met basic standards in how to treat God’s other children – avoiding harm and doing good – then strengthen your observance of the commandments between you and God, the ways you walk humbly with Him. (This is speaking in general terms. Talk to your rabbi or spiritual mentor for personalized guidance.)

The foundation of all three

Underlying clarity, purity and joy is the recognition that we are children of the Almighty. Try the following exercise to assist in feeling as a visceral experience that God is your Father in Heaven. Read out loud the bold sentences below. Imagine a trusted confidante asking you the questions in quotes and pause after each question, tuning into the answer your body gives you. If one of the sentences does not resonate with you, leave it out for now.

I am God’s child. “How does it feel to be God’s child?” My Father loves me. “How does it feel to be loved by your Father?” My Father is always by my side. “How does it feel to have your Father always by your side?” My Father is the all-powerful King of the world. “How does it feel to have a Father who is the King of the world?” I am a prince/princess, the son/daughter of the King of kings. “How does it feel to be a prince/princess, the son/daughter of the King of kings?” My Father has given me awesome abilities. “How does it feel to have awesome abilities?” I can handle my difficulties. “How does it feel to know you can handle your difficulties?” I can rise above my challenges. “How does it feel to know you can rise above your challenges?” I can triumph. “How does it feel to know you can triumph?”

If you don’t feel like a billion bucks and your heart isn’t soaring, then you’re not there yet. With practice, your ability to tap into the positive feelings will grow. This exercise will help give you the clarity to act with purity, befitting your Divine and royal lineage. These thoughts will fill you with confidence and joy, lifting you up when you need encouragement.

The next time you lack clarity on how to act, feel yourself weakening in the face of temptation, or feel weighed down by life’s difficulties, do the above exercise. Then ask yourself, “How does the son/daughter of the King of kings act? How does the royal prince/princess act? How does my Father, the King, want me to act?” These questions will help you honor your values (clarity), maintain your self-respect (purity) and know your innate worth (joy).

Our Creator gave us awesome potential. Key tools to help us reach our Divine potential are clarity, purity and joy. As a descendant of the Forefathers, you have these states waiting within. Come claim your inheritance and become the person you were meant to be.

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Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Hidden Side of the Ten Commandments

On Shavuot, we celebrate God giving us the Torah, represented by the Ten Commandments. We will explore each one through a broad lens, showing how they apply to our daily lives.

Looking over the commandments, you will notice that some are phrased in the positive, e.g., keep Shabbat, while others are phrased in the negative, e.g., do not steal. For the seven commandments phrased in the negative, which tell us what not to do, we will discuss both sides: The negative – avoiding what God hates – and the hidden side, the positive – doing what He loves.

The Ten Commandments start off utilizing this pattern of polar opposites. The First Commandment, “I am Hashem your God… (Exodus 20:2)” is the positive formulation and the converse of the Second Commandment, prohibiting idol worship. Perhaps this dual formulation teaches us to consider both sides of the rest of the commandments.

The First Commandment
is where God introduces Himself to us in order to have a relationship. Developing a relationship with God includes getting to know Him (Torah study), talking and listening to Him (prayer and observances), and helping His children (acts of kindness).

The Second Commandment, prohibiting idol worship, is applicable even today. In excess, material goals and desires become modern day idols, compromising our relationship with God. Ask yourself, “How can I minimize the distractions in my life and make my relationship with God a priority?”

The Third Commandment: Prohibition of vain oaths with God’s name. This also includes any form of desecrating His name (chilul Hashem). The converse is sanctifying His name (kiddush Hashem). Ask, “What can I do or refrain from doing, to bring more esteem to my people and my God?”

The Fourth Commandment: Keeping Shabbat. By setting aside mundane pursuits, Shabbat is an opportunity for spiritual renewal, through song and celebration, Torah study and prayer. It is a time to deepen our relationships with our families and with our Creator. Ask, “What can I do on Shabbat that will enable me to tap into the exalted holiness of the day?”

The Fifth Commandment: Honoring our parents. We honor them by speaking and acting respectfully, offering assistance, promptly fulfilling their reasonable requests, and calling and visiting. To illustrate, bring to mind someone for whom you have the utmost respect. Now imagine the way you would speak and act toward them. That is the way to speak and act toward our parents.

Sometimes our parents’ behavior – in the past or present – makes this commandment very challenging. When in doubt, seek guidance on how best to honor your parents in your unique situation.

When we recognize that we can never do enough for our parents, we will realize that we can never do enough for our Creator. Whatever He asks of us – for our benefit – is nothing compared to the gift of life and blessings He gives us.

We honor God in similar ways as we honor our parents: By speaking respectfully (praying with concentration and refraining from talking during the service), acting respectfully (with humility and modesty), fulfilling His requests as best we can (outlined in His Torah), and visiting Him (in the synagogue, study hall, or in His land – Israel – or by moving to Israel to be closer to our Father). Ask, “What can I do to show my devotion to my parents and to my Father?”

The Sixth Commandment: Prohibition of murder. The Sages teach that embarrassing a person is a form of murder. When we apologize after causing someone emotional pain, we invigorate them, giving back the life we took. The converse of this commandment is to give life, bringing children into the world and teaching them – especially by example – to care about God and His Torah.

There are other ways we give life. Have you ever noticed that after giving someone a sincere compliment, encouragement or help, they stand a little taller? You have just infused them with life. Ask, “Whom can I apologize to, compliment, encourage or help? Whom can I mentor and guide? How can I be a better role model to my children, and/or friends and relatives?”

The Seventh Commandment: Prohibition of adultery. This also includes other forbidden relations. God calls us a holy nation (Exodus 19:6) and we maintain our purity by avoiding forbidden behavior and thoughts. By sanctifying the most intimate act – through the laws of Family Purity – we bring holiness to our very core. Ask, “What can I do or refrain from doing, to bring more holiness into my life?”

The Eighth Commandment: Prohibition of stealing. Theft includes taking or damaging what is not ours, borrowing without permission, being late in agreed upon payments or withholding monies belonging to others. The converse of this commandment is to be charitable and generous, not being petty and insisting on getting everything we might be entitled to.

The towering sage, the Chafetz Chayim, writes sobering words about theft in his Sfat Tamim (quoted from www.chafetzchayim.org, bracketed sections are mine). “If it is apparent that a particular man is committing these crimes (lying and deceiving) yet his wealth remains intact, with absolute certainty his wealth is only being preserved to his detriment, as the pasuk [verse] states (Devarim [Deuteronomy] 7:10) “and He pays back to His enemies right to their face to destroy them,” and in his end he will be despicable in Olam Haba [the next world]. He will knash his teeth, and his children will beg for food, because when money acquired illegally is intermixed with money legitimately obtained, one annihilates the other…”

A common misconception is that if a person is able to get his or her hands on money, without getting into trouble with the law, then that money is de facto legitimate and kosher. Not so. If a person violated Jewish law to get those funds, that money is still treif. Treif money burns like hot coals – both in this world and the next. The longer people hold onto ill-gotten gains, the more damage they do to themselves and their families.

In contrast, there is tremendous satisfaction in being impeccably honest and knowing that our integrity has not been sullied. When we do the right thing, as defined by Jewish law, regardless of whether anyone compels us to do so, we show God that His will is our primary focus. Instead of asking, “What can I get away with?” Ask, “What is the halacha, Jewish law? How does God want me to act in this situation?” To find out, talk to a rabbi who is an expert in Jewish law.

The Ninth Commandment: Prohibition of testifying falsely against each other. This also includes other forms of harmful speech, e.g., making hurtful remarks to people or gossiping about them. Not only is gossip forbidden, even listening to gossip is sinful. Once we realize someone is about to speak poorly about another, we can employ one of the following three strategies: (1) Change the topic, (2) tell them, “Let’s talk about something else,” or (3) end the conversation, e.g., “Gotta run. Talk to you later.” With practice, we can become adept at spotting gossip and steering clear of it.

The converse of this commandment is to be truthful and keep our word. In addition, to use our words not to tear people down, but to build them up by encouraging and complimenting them.

The opposite of being “against each other” is to avoid conflicts, whenever possible. We can do this by apologizing for our share of a disagreement and giving in a little, for the sake of peace. In addition, many times a neutral third party – a rabbi or Bet Din (Jewish court) – can resolve even a long standing dispute.

Another opposite of being “against each other” is to be for each other – to look out for the interests of others. Ask, “Whom can I help this week?” Some examples: Giving emotional, financial or physical support, advice, or helping someone find a job, a spouse or a needed resource.

The Tenth Commandment: Prohibition of coveting. This includes pressuring a person to sell, or give a gift or loan.

There are other forbidden forms of harassment, e.g., bullying and intimidating people with words, threats or lawyers to get them to do what we want. Even if we have altruistic intentions, the ends do not justify the means.

Harassment of others frequently takes place with people we would not consider our competitors. Often, we do not realize the effect we have on others – especially subordinates, employees or family members – who may feel coerced by us to do things they do not want. Those who are stubborn, strong willed or have aggressive tendencies, are especially at risk of engaging in this type of sinful behavior.

The converse of coveting is appreciating what we have, and asking ourselves, “What has God already given me that I will thank Him for?”

The Ten Commandments are broad categories of the entire Torah. Many of us struggle with at least one category. Perhaps the opportunity to strengthen and repair that area is a key reason God sent our souls from Heaven into this world; it is our moment of truth. Ask, “Which commandment and its subcategories will I focus on being better in?”

Imagine a society where everyone observed the Ten Commandments; we long for such a peaceful and spiritual world. This and more will happen when the Messiah comes. By becoming living examples of the Ten Commandments, we illuminate the world with His glory, ushering in a time when, “…The earth will be full of the knowledge of God, as the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9).”


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Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Longing for the Redemption

The Three Weeks is a time of national mourning for the Jewish people. Of the numerous tragedies which occurred throughout history during this period, the central one we grieve is the destruction of both Temples; they were destroyed on Tisha B’Av, the culmination of The Three Weeks.

Many of us can compile a long list of what we feel is missing in our lives. However, the loss our souls most acutely feel is of a clear Divine Presence in the world. The Divine Presence is the aspect of God when He manifests Himself in this world. When the Temple stood, God’s glory and providence were visible; we basked in the glow of His love and guidance. In exile, heavy clouds surround us; the guiding light of God’s presence is hidden.

According to Rashi, the foremost commentator on the Bible and Talmud, the Third Temple already exists in Heaven (Tractate Sukkah 41a). When the time comes, God will return it to us. This raises a question. The Torah teaches that we are obligated to return a lost object. Is God not bound by His own law? Why has He not yet returned the Temple and the Divine Presence to us?

Perhaps, the answer is alluded to in Deuteronomy (22:2), where God outlines a scenario when lost objects are not returned right away. “If your brother is not near you and you do not know him, then you shall bring it inside your house, and it shall remain with you until your brother’s seeking of it, then you shall return it to him.”

We can interpret this verse with God as the subject, the Jewish people as the brother who lost the item and the Temple as the lost object. “If Your brother is not near You” – if our relationship with God is distant, “and You do not know him” – because we do not share with God our struggles and needs, “then You shall bring it inside Your house and it shall remain with You” – the Temple will remain with God in Heaven, “until Your brother’s seeking of it” – until we realize how lost we are without the Temple and the Divine Presence which rested in it. Then, we will plead with God to return the Temple and His Divine Presence to us. When we do this, God, “shall return it to him.”

There are two ways of asking God for our needs. The first is formal prayer found in the prayer book. These holy and powerful words were composed by the Sages through Divine inspiration. The second, said in addition, is informal prayer, often called Hitbodedut. This is where we speak out loud to God in our native language and share with Him what is weighing on our hearts. When we engage in both forms of prayer, then our relationship with God will no longer be distant; it will be close and nourishing.

If God only knew you based on what you told Him about your struggles and challenges, how well would He know you?

To deepen your relationship with God, each day, spend some time – even if only a few minutes – and speak to God, unburdening yourself to Him.

The Sages teach (Bereishit Rabbah 56:5; 65:10) that when Abraham bound his son Isaac to offer him as a sacrifice, the angels pleaded with God to save Isaac. They cried bitter tears and those tears fell into Isaac’s eyes. On Tisha B’Av, we cry over our long and bitter exile. Our tears though, are not only our own; the angels cry with us. Their tears fall into our eyes, mingling with our own, as they ask God to redeem His people.

We cannot rely on the angels alone to plead our case, we must do so ourselves. We must yearn for and seek out the Temple. We must say to God, “We have not forgotten, we have not despaired, and we will not relent. Please return the Temple and Your Divine Presence to us.”

May it be today.

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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Wikileaks Meets Torah's Ways

This article appeared on Israelnationalnews.com, December 10th 2010.

On November 28th, 2010, WikiLeaks, an organization that exposes otherwise inaccessible material, began releasing on the internet what they called the largest-ever disclosure of confidential information.  These stolen American diplomatic cables reveal information vital to American interests and blunt assessments of foreign leaders.  Analysts fear they may compromise US security and sow international hatred of America.  At the heart of this incident is the role of privacy in our lives.  

A day before the cables went public, on Shabbat, the Torah reading in the synagogue was parshat Vayeshev, which tells the story of Joseph and his brothers.  Joseph spoke badly about them to their father and revealed his dreams of domination; both, the commentators explain, sowed hatred of him and would have been better kept private. 

Additionally, the same week the cables were posted online, we celebrated Chanukah.  The holiday commemorates the rededication by the Maccabees of the Temple, recaptured from the Greeks in the 2nd century BCE.  In one attempt to Hellenize the Jews, the Greeks constructed gymnasiums in Jerusalem, where unclothed men engaged in sports.  The Greeks exposed the sacred, treating the human body as a beautiful animal to be publicly displayed.  This drive, to reveal what needs to be private, continues to this day.

The more divine something is, the more its essence is hidden.  To illustrate, by examining the outside of a stone, the lowest level creation, you have a good idea what is inside.  An animal, a creation with a living spirit, is on a higher level; the internal components are hidden.  Yet, animals live by instincts and act in predictable ways.  A human being, the creation closest to the Divine, is even more opaque.  By looking at people, you have no idea what they are thinking, nor can you predict their behaviors.  On the highest level and almost totally concealed from our understanding is the Divine Himself.  Out of His love for us, He uncovers a fraction of His glory, the Torah, which we delve into over the course of a lifetime. 

Our private nature is a badge of honor; a sign of godliness.  In contrast, animals live naked and show little modesty.  When we publicize the private, we downgrade our divinity and bring ourselves closer to the animal kingdom, as the Greeks did.  This causes G-d tremendous pain.  He went through the process of creating a world, populating it with animals and vegetation, all for our benefit; so that we could actualize our divine potential and come close to Him.  Sadly, sometimes people act as if they said to G-d, “Thanks, but no thanks.  I don’t want to be like You, I want to be like him,” pointing to their dog – who lives a totally materialistic life.

The Talmud (Sotah 49b) states that the generation preceding the Messiah will have the face of a dog.  One explanation given is that the generation will be shameless – like a dog.  With the advent of the internet, where some people share the most personal lurid details with thousands of strangers, indecency has reached epidemic levels.

Revealing parts of our lives with others can deepen relationships; the question is to what extent and with whom?  Some conversations are only appropriate with close friends; some modes of dress, only in one’s home; some behaviors, only in private with one’s spouse. 

Our culture glorifies exposure, whether in tell-all memoirs or reality shows. It is very easy to be influenced by this total disregard for modesty.  Despair not, G-d loves us too much to let us be lulled to sleep at the wheel and lose sight of our goal in life.  He therefore sends wake up calls, reminding us that we are His children; to act godly and reclaim our mantle of holiness (Deuteronomy 14:1; Leviticus 19:2). 

In my article on this website, “Spiritual Oil Spills, Flotillas,” I discussed one such awakening.  The WikiLeaks saga is another; stolen classified cables brazenly made public on an unprecedented level to millions of viewers worldwide.  Our shock at US Government secrets laid bare for all to see, reminds us that as godly creations, our need for privacy/modesty is woven into the very fiber of our being.  With the proximity of the cables’ release to Chanukah, perhaps G-d is highlighting the connection between WikiLeaks and the ancient Greeks; alerting us to follow the example of the Maccabees and repel any attempt of society to rob us of our holiness and closeness to G-d.

In addition to our divine nature, there is another reason for modesty – G-d’s indescribable majesty.  To the extent that we recognize our Creator’s exaltedness, to that extent we will live modestly.  Orthodox Jewish males wear a kippah, not leaving their heads exposed, as a reminder that we are always before the King of kings.  When we live with purity, we declare, "I have set G-d before me always...(Psalms 16:8)"

The prophet Micah (6:8) urges us, "...walk modestly with your G-d."  If we don’t want to be alone, if we want to walk with G-d, then we must live modestly – acknowledging His constant presence.  Current events make clear how lost we are without Divine direction.  Those who refuse to follow the herd and open their eyes to G-d’s messages, will see the wisdom of following His Torah.  When we awaken to our need for G-d, we will be filled with an intense longing for our Father and His redeemer, who will teach the world to live as our Creator intended. 

We all have weak links; fertile ground for spiritual growth.  Ask yourself, “In which area of my life, am I acting in a manner unbecoming of G-d’s child?  When do I act as if G-d is not watching?  What is the first step to bringing more modesty and holiness into my life, bridging the gap between me and G-d?”  Know, that your Father yearns to bring you close to Him; to raise up your soul into His embrace.  How long must He wait?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

When the Only One Left is the Puppeteer: A Spiritual Perspective on the Gulf Oil Spill

This article was published in the Jewish Press, July 2nd 2010 edition.



The ongoing crisis in the Gulf of Mexico has been declared the worst oil spill in American history. It occurred when an offshore drilling rig exploded on April 20, killing eleven crew members and causing an oil pipe, 5,000 feet below the ocean's surface, to rupture. BP, the oil company responsible for the spill, is the fourth largest company, of any type, in the world. Shockingly, BP's efforts, backed by America, have not stopped the flow.

Although God's ways are beyond us and each individual bears responsibility for his actions, God uses life events to teach us what we need to learn. Let us not add to this tragedy by remaining unchanged by it.

Two possible lessons may be derived from this disaster. The first is that we can't do anything without God's help. As I watched images of the oil gushing out of the pipe and read reports of the resultant economic hardship and environmental damage, I felt a sense of helplessness. Even though we believe in God, there is still some part of us that usually thinks we can manage on our own. When our experience belies that, we feel helpless.

The truth is that with God's help we are never helpless; without it, we are always as helpless as a crying infant. Unlike an infant who realizes his powerlessness and cries out for help, many of us deny our total dependence on God. We sometimes think, especially with all the breakthroughs in medicine and engineering, that we can go it alone. It's humbling to discover that while we can split the nucleus of an atom, without God's backing we can't even fix a broken pipe.

Everyone relies on something to feel secure. Before 9/11, we relied on our military might. Before the economic downturn, we relied on our financial institutions. Before this oil spill, we relied on our sophisticated technologies. Now there is nothing material left to rely on; all pretenses have been stripped away; all the puppets are gone. The only one left is the Puppeteer Himself.

We are now at a pivotal crossroad. Will we try to fashion new puppets in our search for security? Or will we find that security in God's guidance and assistance?

God is our Father in Heaven, and just like a parent wants to hear from children regularly and not only sporadically, God wants to hear from us every day. He does not want to be the option of last resort. He is the only option, as nothing can help us independent of His will. As King David says in Psalms (127:1), "If God will not build the house, in vain have its builders labored on it."

The oil emanating from the bowels of the earth, traveling many miles to distant shores, is perhaps God's dispatch to us, saying, "You need Me and I want to be needed by you."

The second possible lesson is the importance of boundaries and how they relate to theft. What is unusual about this environmental disaster is that the polluting agent - the oil - is natural; one natural element contaminating another. The oil was a precious resource when it was kept separate; it only became a menace once its barrier was breached inappropriately. Although the investigation is ongoing, the chief mechanic on the rig testified that shortcuts had been insisted on from the top, despite workers' concerns.

Everything God creates has innate holiness and needs to be treated with respect and care. Things only become evil when they are misused. The Torah, God's instruction manual for life, teaches us how to mine the holiness in everything without overstepping our bounds and causing a breach. Sin is in essence a breach - a breach of the trust God has in us, His creations, to follow His will, and a breach in the guidelines God set as to how things He created may be used.

Our Sages say it was the sin of thievery that caused God to flood the world during the time of Noah. When people breached the separation between what was theirs and what was not, God acted in kind. He unleashed His wellsprings, which were ensconced deep in the earth and unknown to humanity, and that water then joined with their oceans and rivers. The combined waters, together with the rain, flooded the world.

There are eerie similarities between the flood and the oil spill. According to one opinion in the Talmud, the flood started during the month of Iyar - the same month this oil spill began. Both the flood and the oil spill were triggered by something unleashed from deep below the surface. And, considering the rampant fraud and theft plaguing our society, the reason given by our tradition for the flood is cause for reflection.

As mentioned above, it is very possible that the use of illegitimate means to hasten the oil extraction led to the broken pipe. Using illegitimate methods to gain something is a form of theft. The image of oil washing up on our shores is also symbolic of theft - something dark and foreboding encroaching upon an area where it does not belong.

Though we strive to be honest and ethical, most of us could stand at least some improvement in those areas. We can utilize the anger and frustration we feel over the oil spill as motivation to focus on these areas.

To get started we can ask ourselves, (1) "Am I doing anything that, though I can rationalize why it's OK, is against the law?" and (2) "What is a gap in my life in this area and what can I do to plug the hole?"

After we learn the first lesson - reliance on God and seeking His help - the second lesson - respecting boundaries - follows naturally. When our chief priority is having God's guidance and assistance in our lives, we will never want something He has forbidden. All we will ever want is what God, out of His deep love, wants to give us.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Spiritual Oil Spills, Flotillas

This article appeared on Israelnationalnews.com, August 18th 2010.

We watched in horror as the Gulf of Mexico filled with oil.  Then in June, near the Red Sea in Egypt, oil was discovered washing ashore.  In July, a pipeline exploded in China causing torrents of oil to gush out.  Two world powers, America and China, during the same time period have experienced their biggest oil spill; what is going on?!

Rav Shmuel Brazil, the head of Yeshiva Zeev HaTorah in Jerusalem, in his article, “BP,” quoted a passage from the Talmud that can change the way we view these events.  The Daf Yomi cycle, followed by thousands of Jews around the world, focuses daily study on a page of the Talmud.  On May 21st, the day BP launched a live webcam of the leaking oil, the Daf Yomi reached page 98a in Tractate Sanhedrin.  The Talmud there, interpreting a prophecy of Ezekiel, states that we will know the Messiah is coming imminently when waters will be like oil and masses of fish will die, leading to a shortage.

Why did G-d choose such an unwelcomed harbinger of the Messiah’s coming? 

A possible answer is that this sign warns us of the challenges leading up to the redemption.  The Jewish people are compared to fish and our Torah is compared to water (Midrash Rabbah, Genesis 97).  Fish only thrive in pristine waters and the Jewish nation can only thrive when immersed in the pristine waters of Torah.  Oil can symbolize spiritual estrangement (Deuteronomy 32:15).  When foreign influences – the oil – mix with and supersede our Torah – the water – we see consequences to the fish and symbolically to our people, who have been severely diminished due to rampant assimilation.  What is the essence of our nation, and why is the Torah so essential to our survival?

G-d calls us a holy nation (Exodus 19:6); we are close to the source of all holiness, G-d Himself. Although we have this exhilarating connection, specific acts outlined in His Torah intensify or damage our bond.  The laws and guard-rails in the Torah act as filters, keeping pollutants out and the sanctity of our people in.  Assuming that one does not need all the guard-rails is like BP deciding for themselves that they can safely breach guidelines without causing a blowout.

In my article on the BP oil spill, available at JewishPress.com, I discussed parallels between the spill and the flood during Noah’s time.  A significant difference – the fish survived the flood whereas oil spills devastate their numbers.  Rabbi Elie Munk in his The Call of the Torah writes that a main sin preceding the flood was immorality.  Even the animals copied people’s sinful behavior with unnatural coupling; except for the fish, and that was why they were unaffected by the flood.  As mentioned above, fish can be symbolic of our people and oil can exemplify spiritual pollution.  Our Rabbis have pointed out that in the present generation, even some fish – committed Jews, have been affected by the “oil” that floods society.  G-d is alerting us to this danger, by choosing fish threatened with oil as a sign of the Messiah’s forthcoming arrival.  The message is clear; the Messiah is fast-approaching and we need to prepare.

The essence of our people is sanctity.  When we allow impurity into our lives, it is a form of unnatural coupling; an existential threat to our raison d’ĂȘtre.  Therefore, we need to check if our mantle of holiness, that cloaks every Jew, has become sullied.  Have we allowed defilement into our homes?  Perhaps in the things we look at, listen to, or read.  Have our standards of modesty in dress or behavior lapsed?  Do we occasionally stoop to the dog-eat-dog business practices that are beneath us?  For centuries, our crowning glory has been our morality and ethics which stood in stark contrast to the conduct around us.  Yet, recently we have witnessed disturbing breaches in our sacrosanct values.  The words of the Prophet Jeremiah have acquired new meaning (Lamentations 4:16), “The crown of our head has fallen…” 

We are among the select few in the entire world who embody G-d’s teachings given on Mount Sinai.  The sacrifices we make to uphold His Torah are very precious to Him; more precious than we can ever imagine.  As children of G-d, we can and must reach higher, achieving even greater closeness to our Father by not letting anything dampen that connection.

The Vilna Goan, a renowned eighteenth century scholar, quoted by Rabbi Yechiel Weitzman in his book, The Ishmaelite Exile, discussed the period before the Messiah.  He wrote that the number of people who are of average conduct will decrease.  Slowly, two camps will emerge, those unconditionally committed to G-d and His Torah, no matter the challenge, and those who reject limits on their behavior.  A question to ask ourselves, with possibly frightening implications, “Am I among those moving ever closer to G-d?”

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai and saw Jews worshiping the Golden Calf, he wanted those who had shielded themselves from sin to pledge total allegiance to G-d.  He cried out, (Exodus 32:26), “…Me LaShem, A-loy!”  “Whoever is for the Lord, come to me!”  This was not a one time plea; he is speaking to each one of us, every day of our lives, encouraging us to flee from contamination and cling tenaciously to G-d and to the Torah of Moses our teacher.  Perhaps the Messiah will also cry out, “Me LaShem, A-loy!”  Those who answered Moses’ call will be ready.

With the High Holidays rapidly approaching, now is the time to ask ourselves, “Is there an area where I, or my family, have been tainted by ‘oil’ – spiritual impurity?”  If yes, then we must strengthen our commitment to the guidelines of the Torah that addresses the issue with which we struggle.  When we stay within the Torah’s guard-rails, we spread holiness everywhere we go and we feel G-d’s pride when our Father says (Exodus 3:5), “…The place upon which you are standing is holy ground.” 

A goal of life is to achieve deveikus, closeness with G-d.  The above verse shows us how.  The Hebrew word used in this verse for “The place” is “Ha-makom,” also a name of G-d.  If we translate “Ha-makom” as “G-d”, the verse now reads, “G-d, upon which you are standing, is holy ground.”  We are nothing without Him; anything we accomplish is because He lifts us up and we stand on our Father’s shoulders.  This state of oneness, of standing with G-d, is constant; if we were separate from Him we would not exist, as Moses said (Deuteronomy 4:35), “…There is nothing besides Him.”  How do we integrate this awareness?  The previous part of the verse explains how, “…Remove your shoes from your feet...”  The first step is to remove our shoes, symbolic of impurity which makes us feel separate from G-d, upon whose shoulders we are standing.  Then, we can come to the realization that we are one with G-d and always standing on, “holy ground.”   

Oil continues to infiltrate miles of coastline around the world; a different type of menace is occurring simultaneously as Israel struggles with flotillas attempting to infiltrate her borders.  We all realize the extreme danger of letting unfiltered supplies into an enemy territory.  An even greater threat is posed by the unfiltered lures of society, slowly seeping in and eating away at the moral fiber of our people.

Israel has been steadfast in opposing the flotillas; so to must we be in our own lives, never surrendering our mantle of holiness or love of Israel, even if the entire world clamors for us to do just that.  We must be, as King David says in Psalms (103:20), “…Mighty warriors, who do His word...”  When we show G-d that we are willing to fight for His land and to protect the sanctity of His people, then G-d will say to us as He said when redeeming our nation from Egypt (Exodus 14:14), “The Lord will fight for you…”  G-d is ready, are we willing?