Pirkei Avot 4:18

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Timing is Everything, Elana Mizrahi (from Chabad)

My son came home with a miserable look on his face. I knew what had happened even before he opened his mouth. I had warned him earlier in the morning when I saw the toy in his hand, “Don’t bring your new toy to school. It could easily get broken or lost.” Of course, he didn’t listen. So when I saw the look on his face, I knew. The toy was either lost or broken.

His story of woe spilled out like a gushing river. I was right. He had lost the toy.

What were the words on the tip of my tongue? What was the phrase I so much wanted to say? “I told you so!” I looked again at the sorrow on his face, at the tears in his eyes, and I kept my mouth shut.

“Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar said: Do not appease your fellow at the time of his anger; do not console him while his dead lies before him; do not question him about his vow at the time he makes it; nor attempt to see him at the time of his degradation.” (Ethics of Our Fathers 4:18)

In this teaching we have the secret to marital harmony; peace in the home; and happy, nurturing relationships. What is the secret? Timing. Timing is everything.

When a person is angry, rebuking him will only make him angrier. When a person is upset, giving her advice will only aggravate her further. With the timing of our words, we have the power to raise our loved ones up, or push them down still lower. As King Solomon teaches, “Everything has its season, and there is a time for everything under the heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). Timing is everything.

Your husband comes home from a terrible day at work. You have all the utility bills in your hand, armed and ready to pounce on him as soon as he walks in the door. You see the defeated look on his face, and put the bills down. They can wait until the morning.

Your teenager comes home with a failed test. She was unorganized and waited until the last minute to study. You fold your arms and give her a glare. “I told you weeks ago that you needed to start studying!” Before the words leave your mouth, before you fold your arms, stop. Think. Is this the right time for discipline? “Do not attempt to see him at the time of his degradation.” It is our job as parents to teach, to transmit, and yes, to discipline. But if your child is angry or upset, then it’s not the right time. At such a time, nothing will penetrate the heart.

A friend received another rejection. “Cheer up,” you want to tell her. “It’s not so bad. Another opportunity will come along.” Stop. Wait. Is this the right time? There are times when encouragement is not appropriate. “Do not console him while his dead lies before him.” Instead of talking, just hold her hand, or maybe leave her alone. Follow her cues, and let her guide you.

Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar is certainly not telling us that we should not appease, not rebuke, not console. In fact, the Torah teaches us that we are obligated to do so, but at the right time and under the right conditions. Timing is everything.

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Two Voices, Sara Yocheved Rigler

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Taken from the book Lights from Jerusalem:

According to cognitive psychology, all human actions are in response to an ‘inner tape’ that plays nonstop in the human brain. This tape is most often recorded by heredity and environment. It tells us what to do, and like automatons, we obey: “That person just insulted you. Insult him back!” “That driver just cut you off. Get angry.”

This is the Torah’s definition of slavery. This is the voice of Pharaoh; it brooks no disobedience, nor does it even occur to us to disobey. There is no such thing as a bad slave, because a slave has no viable choices. For most of our waking hours, it does not even occur to us to disobey or change our inner tape.

In a world driven by the survival instinct and the pleasure principle, the Torah mandated an alternative way of life driven by holiness and spiritual values. The ethics of the Torah have become so imbued in Western civilisation that we may not realise what a radical alternative they offered to ancient man – and continue to offer to us today …

With the giving of the Torah, a human being was no longer a slave to the imperatives of his/her desires. A second voice – the Divine Voice – mandated a different, sacred course of action. The human being was free to choose. The exercise of choice itself is freedom.

That freedom entails choice is obvious when we observe the elections held in countries ruled by dictators. All the accoutrements of free elections are there, such as voting booths and secret ballots. But if only one candidate is running, the election is clearly not ‘free’. Freedom requires choice.

When Hashem gave the Jewish people the Torah, He gave us 613 choices. Observe Shabbat or not. Love your neighbour or not. Gossip or not. Unlike Pharaoh, Hashem, as you might have noticed, brooks a great deal of disobedience. That’s why a person who violates a Divine commandment is not struck by lightning. Immediate punishment would limit our freedom of choice. The ability to make moral choices is a Divine gift. It’s the only true freedom humans have.

The key phrase here is ‘moral choice.’ … Only in the moral realm do you have free choice. When your inner tape says to give tit for tat, to respond to an insult with an even more lethal barb, you have the power to change the tape. You have the power to ask yourself, ‘Is this who I really want to be?’ The very act of choosing between your knee-jerk response and the Divine imperative to be kind is freedom.

Each of us at every moment is heeding the voice of Pharaoh or the voice of Hashem. The voice of Pharaoh commands us to do what is instinctive, automatic, and reflexive. ‘Doing what comes naturally’ is the ultimate bondage because we exercise no power of choice.

The voice of Hashem, on the other hand, offers an alternative to instinct. For example, by commanding us not to take revenge (Leviticus 19:18), Hashem in effect is saying: ‘Your instinct is to hurt those who hurt you. By commanding you to act otherwise, I’m offering you the ability to choose a different course.’

The exercise of choice is the essence of freedom. Forget the taskmaster’s whip and the massive bricks. Each of us is enslaved every time we act on automatic pilot, every time we react according to our instinctual programming.

To experience liberation … we need only to break the bonds of instinct, to learn to deliberate and decide what we shall do or what we shall say, based on who we want to become – a slave of Pharaoh or a servant of Hashem.

Separations Between People, Rebbetzin Tzipporah Heller

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The Maharal teaches that if we study the word shalom (peace) we can learn the deeper meaning behind it. The root of the word shalom is shalem (wholeness). Shalom is the complete picture. It begins with the letter shin which has three lines. The first line points towards the right which represents chesed, an outpouring of love and kindness. The second line leans towards the left which signifies boundaries, resistance, and overcoming evil. The bar on the bottom holds everything together. Anything that requires overcoming of the self is difficult to achieve. The shin tells us that the attractive pieces of the puzzle are no less part of the truth than the less attractive pieces.

 The next letter, lamed, is the highest letter of the aleph bet. It signifies the picture that joins together all the millions of pieces, namely Hashem‘s wisdom, which is above our wisdom.

 The last letter mem is closed. If the picture is whole, it is impregnable, it cannot be broken. If we live in peace we cannot be destroyed by our enemies, since there’s nothing for them to hold on to.

 Machloket (strife) gains its energy by latching on to what is lacking. When two people argue each has an agenda to prove that the other is missing something. This can go on and on. The nature of imperfection is to continually increase. A garment is hard to tear. Once it has even a small tear in it, it is easy to rip the rest.

People will always have flaws, because the good part of a person or group comes from the same root as the bad part. Anything with a good side has a potential bad side. You don’t have to focus on what’s lacking. You can choose to look at what’s there and see its beauty and integrity. If you hone in on what’s missing, it will become bigger and bigger until it overshadows the good.

 You can look at the same attribute from many angles. Let’s take the example of a husband and wife. She is more spontaneous and he is more pedantic. The flip side of spontaneity might be anger or talking too much. The husband could choose to focus on that until the good part of his wife’s nature is forgotten. He may be precise, honest, dedicated, and reliable. Yet she may choose to view him as boring or emotionless. Then it’s like the chet in machloket. The chet has a large opening on the bottom signifying endless descent.

 Machloket is very hard to get rid of. Once the words were said and the positions were taken, it’s difficult to go back. By nature, people enter easily into machloket because we all are different from one another. From that perspective no two people will get along. True shalom means coming together despite our individual differences.

 A person involved in machloket can sink so deeply that he’ll end up battling even against Hashem‘s presence. He may think the ends justify the means and commit evil in order to validate his side of the machloket. A person may go against his rav, which is tantamount to going against the Shechina. The mitzvah of U’bo tibdak teachesus to attach ourselves to a person who lives in ways that we aspire to. Studying how a tzaddik exemplifies good middot reveals an entirely different picture. This is how one can come closer to Hashem. Rebelling against one’s teacher is rebelling against the One Above.

 The next letter is kuf. It’s tail goes all the way down. This teaches us that the end of machloket is descent to gehinom. Gehinom is the absolute absence of Hashem. A baal machloket’s direction takes him to greater and greater separation from Hashem.

 The Midrash notes that the Torah does not say “ki tov” (this is good) on the second day of creation, yom sheini. Sheini comes from the word shoni – different. Being different is good when used well, when it is part of a something complete. Rav Yosi bar Chalafta said that gehinom (hell) was created on the second day. Gehinom is the tragic mixture of ego and shoni – affirmation of self above all others. Rav Chananya said machloket was created on the second day. Gehinom and machloket are one.

 The Zohar writes that Korach had a very great soul. Had he not become a baal machloket, he could have been the leader of the levi’im. He didn’t try to discern Hashem‘s picture of the puzzle. He only felt his personal frustration. Viewing things from his place of personal agenda, he claimed Moshe wasn’t big enough. He felt he could lead better. The truth, which he may not have been aware of, was that these feelings only came to him after Elitzafan was appointed nasi. What drove him to rebellion was the mistaken notion that someone had taken away what was coming to him.

 The last letter taf symbolizes ordinary day to day machloket. It is the conflict within ourselves when the different aspects of our personality war against each other. It is the battle of the heart and mind of the body and conscious. There’s also machloket within the family, where a person’s sense of self is so big that there’s no room for other people to have a role. When Hashem is removed from the picture, one’s ego takes over. A machloket in the home can lead to collapse of the family unit unless something stops it. Likewise, machloket within oneself can lead to disintegration of the personality unless something intervenes.

 Machloket usually burns itself out. The hot issues of yesterday are no longer significant today. The further a person descends to gehinom the less truth there is and the more ridiculous the machloket becomes. It does stay with the baalei machloket, whose whole identity is tied up in the machloket. Resolution is impossible for them. However, the issue itself will be forgotten and the baalei machloket will be stuck spending their life committed to an irrelevant issue.

 The fine line between defending truth and being a ba’al machloket is something we don’t negotiate very well. When you find yourself arguing against people who have a different opinion than yours, or battling yourself, consult with people who are uninvolved.

 May Hashem bless us to discern the truth in ourselves and other people. May He protect us from all our enemies within and without.

Women of the Book

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Noah

 

So, I’ve stumbled across this wonderful site which just fills me with enormous joy. It’s called ‘Women of the Book‘ and it’s a project dedicated to women artists and their visions of the Torah. I have so enjoyed looking at the profiles of these incredible artists and reading about how they define themselves as Jewish Women.

The diversity of these works is awe-inspiring!

Rewards for your mitzvot?

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We’ve spent quite a bit of time discussing how the mitzvot that we do will be rewarded in the world to come. Sara Yocheved Rigler outlines a beautiful analogy to explain this issue: “Two women would regularly collect charity for the poor of their community. The two friends agreed that whoever died first would come back and tell the other what the Next World was like. After some time, one of the women died. A short while later she appeared to her friend in a dream and reported: ‘Do you remember the time we were searching for the home of a certain rich man? Suddenly I saw the street number. I pointed at it and said, ‘There’s the address.’ Well, here in this world I’m being rewarded for lifting my index finger and pointing to the address!’

It is the will of the Compassionate God to give us infinite spiritual reward for every mitzvah. To do this, every good action of ours is divided up into its component nanoseconds, and reward is conferred for each one.

For lighting Shabbat candles, you are rewarded for:

–          Looking for the candles in the supermarket aisle

–          Putting them into your shopping cart

–          Lifting them out of your shopping cart onto the checkout counter

–          Paying for the candles

–          Carrying the candles home

–          Taking out your candlesticks before Shabbat

–          Putting your candles into the candlesticks

–          Getting the box of matches from the drawer

–          Lighting the match

–          Lighting the candles with the match

–          Saying the blessing

An awareness of this can invest the most humdrum life with significance and turn the most mundane action into a spiritual experience.

And what about the punishment for sins, for those actions that hurt others and/or distance us from our Creator? The good news is that good actions are recorded with indelible markers; no subsequent action can erase them. Sins, by contrast, are recorded with washable markers. They can be erased …”

The Message of Megillat Ruth from jewishspectacles

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Ruth Shows Us Importance of Threshing: discarding bad, retaining good

In Megillas Rus, we see the account of Rus gathering the stalks of grain in order to keep herself and her mother-in-law alive.  The first day of work was done, and the Megillah tells us: “Va’tachbot es Asher Leekaytah” she beat out what she had gathered(Chapter 2, verse 17).  Bearing in mind that Torah never contains a superfluous word or sentence and that each line has a meaning for our lives, we must ask ourselves, ‘what do we learn from Rus sitting there threshing out her day’s haul?’

 Many are the hours of our life, crammed with many experiences.  Much is the knowledge we pick up, from formal teachers and from society around us.  Many are the things we hear and see.  Some of what we gather is pure gold.  Some of it is just trash, plain and simple.

My father, may he be well, taught me that verse from Rus when I was at the point of graduation from elementary school, and he instructed me I must sit there, reflect on past years, and thresh it all out, separate the good from the bad.  Let the chaff fall away so I’d be left with only nutritious kernels.   Sift through the teachings I’d recieved.  Leave behind those which didn’t ring true to G-d.  Retain that which would help me become a better person.  Do my work of sorting and categorizing, deciding what of the past years was important to take along on my journey in life.

There would be no reason for Rus to exhaust herself hauling home chaff with the kernels.  It would be foolish to carry the weight of garbage.  So, too, must we, as we go through life, divest ourselves of garbage.  Look back upon your life, separate out good from bad, leave bad behind and carry only the small parcel of good with you.

This is especially helpful for those who have gone through trauma.  No, I’m not saying to ignore the trauma – those who repress and ignore trauma cause themselves huge emotional repercussions.  I AM saying sit and thresh it out.  Take the time to separate out the parts of trauma from the other parts of your life.  Then leave the trauma behind, just as one would leave the chaff behind.  No need to haul huge amounts of emotional garbage throughout our lives.  Deal with it, beat it out, then move on past it.

We learn from Rus how our obligation is to take the time to sit down and do our work of sorting out good from bad, leave bad behind and move on with only good.

May we merit to be wise enough to carry only the nutritious emotional baggage in our souls and hearts.

Taking Challah, Sara Yocheved Rigler

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I am reading a BOOK. And I don’t just mean any sort of book. I am reading something unbelievably inspiring and motivating and soul stirring. I have written elsewhere about Sara Yocheved Rigler’s book Holy Woman and it inspired me to read further – anything by this incredible woman whose life story is so vivid and striking. So, I am reading Lights from Jerusalem and I just had to share:

TAKING CHALLAH

I have been religiously observant for 18 years. Three months ago, a woman started giving a course in our neighborhood on the mitzvah of taking challah. In the Torah, God commands that once we enter the Land of Israel, when we bake bread, we should separate off a small piece of the dough and put it aside. This is one of the three mitzvot that are considered specifically given to women.

Not being the earthy type, I have never felt inclined to bake bread from scratch. With my bread maker, yes. With my husband (a pianist who loves to exercise his fingers by kneading) making the dough, and me just saying the blessing and breaking off a piece of dough, yes. But to take a ten-week course in the single mitzvah of separating challah, no thanks.

When a friend asked me why I wasn’t taking the challah course, I replied glibly that I’m all air signs, and I’m not the earthy, bread-baking type. My friend looked at me aghast. “Don’t you know that all the blessings of physical abundance come down into the world through the performance of the mitzvah of taking challah? The mitzvah also brings blessings of health and healing, emunah and protection.”

I enrolled in the course, wondering how there could be so much to say about a single mitzvah.

“The mitzvah of challah is cosmic in its effect,” the teacher proclaimed. Every week my jaw dropped lower as she expatiated on the mystic ramifications of this one mitzvah.

Then she announced that the following week a Rabbi Elozor Barclay would be coming in to teach us about the mitzvah’s specific requirements in Jewish law. This would take two hours.

Two hours? I couldn’t imagine how he could fill up two hours. And, of course, I already knew how to do the mitzvah.

I went to the class anyway. I discovered that I had been doing the mitzvah wrong.

The following week, our teacher announced, she would be demonstrating how to make challah. I came prepared for a Pillsbury lesson that I didn’t need because my husband has the world’s best recipe for whole wheat challah.

The demonstration was a life-changing event.

Now I make challah once a month, and it’s the spiritual highpoint of my month. I start by turning off the phone and announcing that no one is permitted into the kitchen until I’ve finished; this mitzvah requires total concentration.

Then I give tzedakah, so that all my prayers will be favorably accepted. Then I say a chapter of Tehillim, to open up the gates of heaven.

While sifting the flour, I sing, because joy is the foundation of all spiritual success. Then I add each ingredient consciously: sugar for the sweetness I hope to see in my family’s life; yeast so that each member of my family will grow and expand; water represents Torah; when measuring salt, which represents rebuke, I fill two tablespoons, then shake some back into the salt container because we should always give less rebuke than we think we should; and as I slowly pour in the oil, I “anoint” each member of my family by name, praying for his or her specific needs.

Kneading is the time to pray. My teenage daughter and I take turns, each of us thinking of people to pray for by name: single friends that they should get married; childless friends that they should have babies; sick people and terror victims that they should have a speedy and complete recovery; people struggling financially that they should have livelihood. My daughter reminds me to add the names of Israel’s missing soldiers and of Jonathan Pollard. On and on we knead and pray, with such spiritual focus and intensity, that the kitchen becomes charged.

Now the dough is ready to take the hallah, but the spiritual preparations to perform the mitzvah properly continue. Reading from a laminated sheet prepared and distributed by two Israeli sisters, I pray fervently that my performance of the mitzvah of hallah will repair the primeval sin of Eve. That just as she brought death into the world, I will bring life into the world, nullifying death, erasing the tears from every face.

Now the dough is ready to for challah to be taken, but the spiritual preparations to perform the mitzvah properly continue. Reading from a laminated sheet prepared and distributed by two Israeli sisters, I pray fervently that my performance of the mitzvah of challah will repair the sin of Eve. That just as she bought death into the world, my intention in the performance of this mitzvah is to bring life into the world, nullifying death, erasing the tears from every face.

Now I am ready to perform the mitzvah. I break off a small piece of dough, recite the blessing over the mitzvah, and with both hands lift the piece of dough above my head and proclaim: “Behold, this is challah!”

My hands are quivering with the spiritual intensity of the moment. With my hands still raised, I utter two more prayers — one that my taking challah should be considered as if I had brought an offering in the Holy Temple, that it should atone for all my sins and be as if I am born anew, and the other for the complete and final redemption of the whole world.

After all the prayers and intentions, it has taken me over an hour to perform this one mitzvah. I feel exalted, tremulous, ecstatic as I used to feel after hours of meditation.

For 17 years, I sporadically (and incorrectly) performed the mitzvah of challah, while having no idea of the profundity and spiritual potential of the mitzvah. I slid into second base, recited the blessing, broke off a piece of dough — and felt nothing. It did not connect me to God, except on the most rudimentary level.

The lack was not in the mitzvah. The lack was not in Judaism. The lack was in me.

The mitzvot are an unparalleled spiritual feast. Most Jews have barely tasted their sumptuousness. Connoisseurs know the difference between eating and dining. The latter takes time — and concentration on the taste of every bite. A connoisseur dining in a five-star restaurant will not complain at how long the food takes to prepare. Nor will he assess the quality of the restaurant by how full he feels when he leaves.

Connecting to Hashem through the mitzvot takes time, constant learning, and a commitment to moving ever deeper. Judaism is not a fast-food religion.