Not Just “Going Through the Motions”

One of the Commandments that Moshe Rabbeinu addressed again in Deuteronomy is that of returning lost property. In this week’s reading, the verse reads: “You shall not see the ox of your brother, or his sheep or goat, having wandered off, and ignore them; you shall surely return them to your brother.” [22:1] The earlier version of this Mitzvah was in the book of Exodus [23:4]: “When you come upon the ox of your enemy, or his donkey wandering, you shall surely return it to him.”

470_2601432There is a profound difference between these two versions of the same Commandment. In the first version, it says you should return your enemy’s property — isn’t it obvious that you’ll return your friend’s property too? But then the later one says the property is your “brother’s,” perhaps implying that you only really have to return the property when someone you love is involved. How should we resolve this contradiction?

Rabbeinu Bechaya says that the Torah is teaching us that this Commandment has another objective, even beyond the simple act of returning lost property to its owner. This act of giving to another person offers the opportunity to arouse feelings of love and generosity towards that person, and for reciprocal feelings of gratitude and love as well. It’s not just “great, I get to do a Mitzvah” — it’s that the deeper goal is to arouse feelings of love and brotherhood.

With some Commandments and opportunities, the heart is crucial to the whole process. For example, prayer said by just saying the words, with no concentration, is compared by our Sages to a body without a head.

The same can be said, and even more, about things like the Mitzvah of having guests. More than once recently I’ve heard people say something like “they only invite people over for Shabbos to make them religious,” as compared to inviting them over as “people.” But the whole warmth of a Shabbos meal would be lost if that were true. If you don’t care about the person, inviting him or her to be a guest is of little value.

This general principle applies to so many of the things that the Torah tells us to do. It’s not just about going through the motions, but the underlying training to be more godly in our actions and behavior — and feelings. It’s important to put our hearts into everything we do!

Everyone Makes Mistakes

Believe it or not, this week’s message was not inspired by the fact that the Catholic Church has chosen a new Pope; it just offers a convenient contrast. As you probably know, there is, in their beliefs, a doctrine of papal infallibility. When the Pope teaches the rules, he is always right.

It is natural to assume that Judaism has something similar. This is especially true, given the Torah’s demand that we listen to the Rabbis and Judges, and not deviate “right or left” [Deut. 17:11] from what they say.

We see from this week’s reading, though, that this is definitely not the case. The Torah prescribes special atonement for when the High Priest, the King, or the Sanhedrin [Lev. 4: 13-21], the High Rabbinical Court, makes a mistake. In other words, the Torah highlights for us that it is possible for the Sanhedrin to be mistaken.

This is not about a small matter, either. The commentaries say that the mistake described here is one in which the Sanhedrin teaches that it is permitted to do something, and the Sanhedrin later realizes that the behavior is prohibited — so much so that a person committing the act deliberately would suffer the punishment of Kares, spiritual excision [the exact definition of this is disputed, but severe]. Even in matters of religious law, where the Sanhedrin’s supreme authority is undisputed — even there, they could make a mistake.

So why, then, does the Torah tell us to listen to them? They could, after all, be leading us in the wrong direction!

One answer has to do with the power of unity. Different customs and practices are wonderful, but there has to be underlying agreement on “the basics.” One of the problems with calling different Chassidic groups “sects” is that a sect is “a dissenting or schismatic religious body.” Chassidic groups may be led by different Rebbes, but they don’t rewrite the rules. The disagreements of today are disagreements about shapes of branches on individual trees within a massive, unified forest.

And there is another answer, which requires still more humility. It is all well and good to say that everyone is fallible — but who is more likely to be making a mistake? The Torah gives leadership to people who dedicate themselves completely to Torah study, to learning the Torah’s “way of thinking.” Such people are inherently less biased by the latest news reports and the wise opinions of the chattering class, as we are. We recognize that it is much less likely that they will make a mistake, and that is why we trust their guidance.

My Contribution

5008885941_83fa4b319b_oWhen it came to constructing the Tabernacle, everyone was invited to contribute as much as he wanted. Since not everyone has the same financial portfolio, it’s obvious that some people ended up giving more than others. In fact, we are told that the leaders of each tribe made a mistake. They said they would cover whatever was lacking, rather than giving immediately — and then the Bnei Yisrael gave more than was needed. This is why the leaders came at the end to bring the Shoham stones, the precious gems on the breastplate worn by the High Priest. Everything else had already been given!

In this week’s reading, we find a different plan. For the annual upkeep of the Temple, each adult male gave a 1/2 shekel coin — exactly the same amount.

There is an obvious message here: every individual has something to contribute. Every member of the Jewish people is part of a greater whole, and no one should think he or she is irrelevant.

Our teacher R’ Shlomo Katz, in his HaMa’ayan class, points to a comment of R’ Moshe Feinstein zt”l. R’ Moshe says that a person can think that he doesn’t really know much, and can’t learn like a great scholar, so it doesn’t matter if he studies or not. He can think that he’s really not a powerful or influential person, so it doesn’t matter if he goes out of his way to do a good deed.

This, says R’ Moshe, is why the opening verse [Ex. 30:11] begins, “When you raise the heads of the Children of Israel according to their numbers…” By counting them, Moshe is told, you are raising their heads. Each person is significant, and has much to contribute. Each individual is obligated to learn and do good deeds, like everyone else. Tap your potential, and you’ll find you’ve been given more than you thought!

A Giving Nation

In this week’s reading, the Jewish nation is commanded to give the materials necessary to construct the Mishkan, the Tabernacle, and all the items within it. Unlike the annual contribution of a half-Shekel to the continuing operations of the Tabernacle and Temple, the amount of donations is not specified. On the contrary, it was up to the generosity of each individual.

The Medrash tells us that when G-d said to Moshe, “Let them make Me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell among them” [Ex. 25:8], Moshe thought this inconceivable. How could G-d, Who Created and fills the entire universe, “dwell” in a small building? Yet G-d said to him that He, G-d, would not even fill the Mishkan, but rest between the rods of the Aron, the Holy Ark. So the goal could be achieved, but required generous individuals to step forward.

And everyone did.

This trait of kindness and generosity was part of what set Abraham apart, and something which HaShem wanted to be still more firmly ingrained in every member of the Jewish people. Indeed we learn later, in the Torah portion of Vayakhel [36:5-7], that they brought enough, and more than enough!

There are different varieties of generosity. The commentary Osiyos D’Rebbe Akiva makes a comparison to the gold, silver and copper donated to the Tabernacle. When everything is going well and a person is generous, that is compared to gold. When a person is sick and needs G-d’s help, his donation is compared to silver. And if he only gives when the metaphorical noose is already on his neck, then it is compared to copper. Even so, every donation of every type is valuable!

One motivation, of course, is gratitude. The Jews gave in the desert not merely because the Tabernacle would glorify G-d, but also because it showed recognition of all the wonders He had done for them in taking them from Egypt. In that case, the Mitzvah is not only kindness and charity, but acknowledgment of what others have done for us!

In that vein, I cannot resist a small plug for our raffle, which, should you enter now, offers you a chance to win a Megillas Esther, as well as a grand prize of $100,000. I hope that if you enjoy the Torah provided to you by Torah.org each week, you will enter with your generous gift!

As always, we welcome your comments.

Good Shabbos!

Rabbi Yaakov Menken
Director, Project Genesis – Torah.org

It’s Normal to Question

When the Chofetz Chaim himself, the saintly Rabbi Yisrael Meyer Kagan, was bemoaning how people were losing their faith and attachment to Judaism, it was the Rosh Mesivta (high school principal) who helped him feel better. The principal pointed out that even back in Egypt, when the Jews still remembered their forefathers and G-d’s promise, and knew the length of the exile, they still lost hope. “But they did not listen to Moshe, because of their fallen spirits and the difficult work…” [6:9]

The Mishnah tells us that we should say a blessing when we get exceptionally good news, or exceptionally bad news. These blessings are different, and the blessing that we say is based upon how we feel right now, regardless of future effects. For example, if a river floods a field, the farmer knows that the fresh sediments and nutrients will make his crops grow better for years to come. But emotionally, he sees that his current crop is ruined – and thus he says the blessing for bad news.

How is that consistent with the rabbinic teaching that everything which G-d does is for the best? That’s also part of the Mishnah! G-d is watching out for us, taking care of us, and meeting the unique needs of each individual – every minute of every day. So how can there be such a thing as “bad news?”

The Torah also knows that there such a thing as human nature. It is normal and human to feel happy in some situations, and sad in others. It is even unhealthy for a person not to feel a variety of different emotions in different situations. It is a sign that something is wrong with the person, and that is certainly not what the Torah expects of us.

So to be faced with doubts and questions is, in fact, totally normal, especially in trying times. The key is to remember that, indeed, G-d is watching out for us, and to use that knowledge to persevere and move forward. Thus the question is not whether we have doubts, but how we face them!

Finding Happiness

When Yaakov blesses Yehudah, he says that Yehudah will be “red-eyed from wine, and white-toothed from milk.” [49:12]

In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan offers a homiletic interpretation of this verse. [Kesubos 111b]. He says that one who smiles graciously at his friend is even greater than one who gives him physical nourishment — a change of a vowel turns “white toothed” to “whitens his teeth,” which is “from”, or greater than, milk. One of the greatest things we can do for a person, he says, is to help him or her to be happy.

Last year I spoke about spreading happiness. But what is happiness, anyways? We think we know, but consider the following.

In our day, we are “blessed” with an industry whose sole purpose is to make us happy: entertainment. The dictionary tells us that entertainment is “something affording pleasure, diversion, or amusement,” and people clamor for the opportunity to work in an industry where their job boils down to making others happy — whether through acting, singing, professional sports, acrobatics or anything else that people will pay in order to come and be entertained.

There is also an industry whose practitioners seem chronically unable to be happy. An extraordinary number of them escape into drugs or even suicide. They are unlikely to maintain stable relationships. They often entertain themselves with unhealthy, harmful and illegal activities. And what industry is that? Why, the same one: entertainment.

You might also have thought that I was speaking of psychologists, because many of these things are true of them as well. The very therapists that people see when they are unhappy are themselves “at least as troubled as the general population.” People pay thousands of dollars for therapy to help them be happy, yet the practitioners themselves are miserable.

Does this make sense?

Yaakov said that Yehudah will be able to share happiness. I believe this is tied not merely to recognition of Yehudah’s leadership, but in the way it was expressed. When Yaakov prepared his family to descend to Egypt, he sent Yehudah on ahead “to guide the way to Goshen,” [46:28] which the Medrash explains to mean that he sent Yehudah to establish a House of Study.

Karl Marx wasn’t entirely wrong when he said that religion “is the opiate of the masses.” It does make people happier, but that happiness isn’t a drug or an escape. Recognizing that we are not alone, and rejoicing in our connection to G-d, makes us happier — but in the healthiest of ways. King David said it first: “were it not for your Torah, my consolation, I would be lost in my sorrows” [Psalms 119:92].

If a person has a true psychological issue, then indeed, a professional therapist can help. But if a person is just feeling a general malaise, then an escape into movies, books, and performances is of far less value than a visit to the House of Study. And by that, I don’t mean (only) eternal value, I mean what will be most helpful and enduring in the here and now.

Where We Must Work

In this week’s reading, the time for Yosef’s redemption finally arrives. Pharoah has dreams, his sommelier (wine butler) suddenly remembers Yosef, and Yosef is hastily pulled from jail, given a haircut, and sent to interpret the dreams of Pharoah.

Two weeks ago, I spoke about the need to make our own efforts, while knowing that in the end it is G-d who determines the results. But I closed with a question: what was wrong with Joseph’s efforts? Why was he punished for asking the sommelier to remember him?

It’s clear that that is what happened. Last week’s reading concludes with the verse, “and the sommelier did not remember Yosef, and he forgot him.” Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki explains that he did not remember him that day, and forgot him afterwards — because Yosef had placed his trust in the sommelier rather than G-d. That is a startling indictment of the only one of Yaakov’s sons who was the forefather of two tribes. For someone of his exalted standard, we are told, what Yosef did was wrong. But why — what was wrong with trying?

I saw an interesting explanation attributed to Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a world-renowned religious leader who passed away barely 25 years ago. He said that Yosef’s high standard was very much part of the issue. Yosef, being who he was, should have recognized immediately that the peculiar circumstance of his being imprisoned together with Pharoah’s personal sommelier and baker, and them having dreams, and him knowing exactly what to tell them — all of that was clearly not coincidence. It should have been obvious to him that G-d’s Plan was already in motion. As we see this week, he was rushed from prison to tell Pharoah that fat cows mean times of plenty, and starving cows mean times of starvation, and was instantly appointed second in command over the whole country. With “20/20 hindsight” it’s obvious that this was all planned out — and enough signs were there that Yosef should have seen it coming.

But we, alas, are not Yosef. Very rarely could we be confident that we are in a situation where our efforts aren’t needed, before the gift of hindsight. We always have to do our best. When should we be idle? When we have done everything humanly possible.

And among the fascinating comments which I received, I would like to respond to the one from Esty who said it is difficult to understand how much effort a person needs to put in, especially in terms of self growth. To her I would say, this is the area where our efforts are actually most crucial! The Talmud says that everything is in the hands of Heaven — except fear of Heaven. This is the exception to the rule that we make our effort, but G-d determines whether there will be success. In this particular area, when we make an effort, G-d will give us success. “Open for me an opening like the eye of a needle, and I will open it for you the size of a hall.” There is truly no limit to the effort a person should put in, when it comes to self-growth towards G-d.

We are now in the closing days of Chanukah, when the miracle of the burning oil testified to the miracle of the recapture and rededication of the Holy Temple. This is when G-d brought extra light to the world, and as the verse says — “the Commandment is a candle, and the Torah is the light.” This is an ideal time for us to increase our efforts to attach ourselves to G-d and Torah.

No Blind Faith

I remember, more years ago than I care to disclose, traveling to Israel for a summer program of study in a yeshiva (rabbinical school) for the first time. I planned the trip carefully; given that the university I was attending ended its year later than most, there were some logistics to enable me to get the group rate discount on my travel expenses.

When I arrived at Ben-Gurion airport, I met an individual who turned out to be headed to the same school. But instead of signing up for a summer program, he had done little more than confirm that he would be able to study there and purchased a ticket. Unlike me, he had no idea what transportation would meet him at the airport. He simply knew that “G-d would provide.”

Now admittedly, it wasn’t such a dramatic “leap of faith” to determine that he was likely to find transportation. But I, quite new to international travel, found his attitude quite disconcerting.

If we look in this week’s reading, we learn that we are not expected to simply utilize blind faith as a substitute for our best efforts. Yaakov does not simply prepare himself for his fateful meeting with his brother Esav — who had presumably harbored hatred against him during all their years of separation — by praying. On the contrary, he sent gifts to his brother, and prepared for war, which included dividing the camp into two parts in case one was lost. He did not simply trust that “everything would be okay.”

To invest our own energy to ensure the success of an effort, while remaining cognizant that what results will be only in accordance with G-d’s wishes, is part of the challenge of living in this world. We are required to make the necessary efforts to provide for our financial security, while knowing that the amount of money each person will have is determined by G-d. We must seek out the best medical advice, while knowing that doctors ultimately do not determine when a person’s time has come.

To make this more interesting, I will point out a somewhat contradictory passage at the end of next week’s reading. Yosef, in jail, interprets the dream of the wine butler, determines that he will be returned to his post, and requests that the wine butler remember him. The sages say that the reason why the butler thoroughly forgot Yosef was because Yosef went out of his way to ask for help. He should have relied upon G-d.

What, then, is the difference? As I begin my research into this topic, I encourage you to please share your thoughts and what you have read or heard, in the comments!

The Light Within

When Lemech named his new son (at the end of last week’s reading, Gen. 5:29), he called the boy “Noach”, saying “this shall comfort us (yeNaCHameinu) from our work and the difficult labor of our hands.” But the name Noach was prophetic in a different vein, as the name also means to be at rest (“NaCH”). The Zohar, the fundamental work of the Kabbalah, of Jewish mysticism, says that “Noach” is thus a hint to the Sabbath, the day of rest. “Shabbos” is derived from the word “SHeVeS,” which also means to be at rest: “for in [the seventh day] He rested (“SHaVaS”) from all His work.” [Gen. 2:3]

In this week’s reading, Noach is commanded to make sure there is a light in the Ark, using the unusual word “Tzohar” (found nowhere else in the Bible) to indicate brightness like midday (“Tzaharayim”). The Avnei Azel writes that when we combine the numerical value of “Tzohar” with that of the Ark, “Tayvah,” the sum is the value of “Shabbos.” The Sabbath encapsulates both the Ark, the shelter from the flood, and the brightness within it.

We live throughout the week with work and other responsibilities, building up (and sometimes crashing down) around us. Shabbos is quite literally a shelter from the storm, and opportunity to withdraw from all the distractions and focus upon what is truly important. It is the busiest executives who, when they decide to fully observe the Sabbath, and stop using all electronic devices and not do business on that day, frequently remark that they don’t know how they survived without it.

Viewed correctly, the Sabbath isn’t about restrictions, but is the opportunity to focus upon the light within.

Another Chance to Change

Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, gave us a chance to reflect upon the past, and perhaps make some New Year’s resolutions for the future. So why do we celebrate Yom Kippur, the Day of Repentance, ten days later?

First and foremost, our Sages teach us that the Judgments made on Rosh Hashanah are not finalized until Yom Kippur. G-d is waiting, as it were, to see if we will give up our misdeeds and change course.

There is another idea, related to repentance itself. Sometimes the full measure of regret is only possible once we have improved our habits. Only after we have done better for a while can we look over our shoulders and say, “I should’ve done this a long time ago! Look what I missed because I didn’t!” So on Yom Kippur, having attempted to be on “our best behavior” for ten days, we express our regrets with a more complete understanding of the opportunities we missed along the way.

And there is yet another thought – that human nature being what it is, sometimes we make resolutions and find that all too soon we have failed to keep them. At that point a person can conclude that he or she can never improve, and give up hope.

The Chassidic Masters teach that that feeling of hopelessness is itself a terrible thing, to be avoided at all cost. The Evil Inclination’s ultimate goal, they say, isn’t merely that we sin, that we diverge from the path that G-d has set out for us. It is that we give up hope! Once there is no hope, not only will the past be repeated, but new misdeeds will be added as well.

Yom Kippur drives home the message that even the Day of Judgment isn’t final, that we always have the opportunity to truly put the past behind us. Yom Kippur gives us the power to go back and change the verdict. We are taught that the sanctity of the day itself absolves us from some minor transgressions; that is how powerful the day is, and that power is given to every one of us.

So what do we do with those resolutions which we made on Rosh Hashanah, only to break afterwards? We pick them back up, and try again. We do not give up hope, we don’t say that we simply can’t improve. On the contrary — we add new ones, we take the additional day to do an accounting and find paths to change ourselves for the better.

May we all be sealed into the Book of Life for a year of health, happiness and growth!