Nature is not natural, it’s supernatural. My middle school principal, famous for his aphorisms that helped us remember the messages of his parasha classes was especially excited about this one. While I no longer remember the lesson this saying was taught in connection to, I can say that the message stayed with me for years. So often, we see something beautiful and amazing in this world, and we express our awe and amazement. This saying reminds us to carry it one step further and thank Hashem for what we experienced. How many times have we seen a beautiful sunset, with streaks of orange, purple and red, and exclaimed over its beauty? But do we take it to the next level and remember that the beauty is a gift from Hashem and not just something that randomly occurs in nature? How often do people stare at a tiny newborn, awed by the perfectly detailed miniature, with functioning limbs and organs? We’ll often say things that express our amazement, but do we carry it one step further and thank the Creator?
We tend to remember Hashem’s involvement only when things go wrong. When something on that newborn isn’t perfect, we are startled into remembering just Who is the One running the world. Our job, in a world where Hashem is largely hidden, is to see His presence in all of nature. The Hebrew word סר (soor) means to turn. If a person commits to מוסר, to turning himself from the path of not seeing Hashem, he will have done his job. If not, Hashem will turn him around, יסור, in a process we call…Yissurim.
Tammuz is a month of particular ‘hester’, Divine concealment, and historically a month of Yissurim. Join us as we learn about this month and the מוסר it teaches.
A theme that we tend to come back to on this blog is the Jewish calendar and the concept of experiencing time cyclically. Let’s now dissect this and truly understand how time and space, two seemingly immovable aspects of nature and of our lives, fit into the lens of Jewish reality.
Time and space are considered objective, permanent things. When something is notarized, it is stamped with the time and date. Time, after all, is the ultimate proof! There is no going back and retroactively time-stamping something, and no true way to alter time.
Similarly, with any construction or design project, the most important details for the engineers and architects to work around are the measurements. Space, after all, is objective—the measurements can’t be changed, and even the smallest increment of error can upend a structure.
The lens through which we see the world is tinted with these realities. When we study an object, our first thoughts are typically about its size and shape. When we think about an event, we think about when it happened (or is set to happen) in the timeline of our lives. These are the laws of nature that our world is governed by.
However, in a spiritual sense, time and space are not objective realities. Instead, they are simply creations. And just like everything else created in the physical world by Hashem, they are subject to a shift in reality when applied to spiritual topics.
Let’s illustrate this point by examining what happens to our “objective” time and space when they start to infringe on the spiritual. We’ll see that the more spiritual something is, the less it is ruled by the physical laws of space. We’ll also see that the passage of time is ruled by spiritual realities.
Let’s start with space: The holier the space, the less the laws of space apply. Consider:
The holiest of all lands is Eretz Yisrael, which is referred to as ארץ הצבי, the Land of the Deer. The meforshim explain that just as the skin of a deer would seem to be too small to cover its body, but stretches to do so, the land of Israel stretches more than one would think is possible in order to accommodate all its inhabitants.
Within Eretz Yisrael, the holiest city is Yerushalyim. Chazal tell us that when the nation would travel three times a year to Yerushalyim for the regalim, there would be no complaints about cramped quarters or lack of space, even though it was fully inhabited, seemingly to capacity, throughout the year. Yerushalyim was able to defy the laws of space and accommodate the influx of travelers.
Within Yerushalyim, the holiest area was the Bais Hamikdash. On Yom Kippur day, B’nai Yisrael would fill the courtyard, standing shoulder to shoulder and filling all available standing room. And yet, when the Kohen Gadol would perform vidui and say the name of Hashem, B’nai Yisrael would all prostrate themselves on the floor, bowing down—and there would miraculously be room for them to do so comfortably. In a place so holy, physical laws don’t reign.
Finally, within the Bais Hamikdash, the holiest area was the Kodesh Hakedoshim, which contained the Aron. The Aron measured two and a half amos wide. The Kodesh Kedoshim measured 20 amos across. And yet, the measurement from each side of the Aron to the wall of the Kodesh Kedoshim was a full 10 amos: The Aron, holiest object on Earth defied all physical laws and did not take up any physical space. Read More
Wow. Amazing shiur.
What a Yom Kippur!
That was scary—a real wake up call!
I feel so uplifted, as if I’m a new person. I’m ready, I’m committed. This is it. A new me has be born.
Famous last words, you might say.
Check back with this inspired person in just a few days, sometimes even a few minutes, and the inspiration is gone. Check back in six months and see if the topic of the shiur or source of inspiration can even be recalled. Inspiration, it seems, is mistaken for actual change and growth but the test of time proves this false.
Rabbi Kelemen of Neve Yerushalayim, a kiruv seminary, explains the misuse of inspiration to his class, warning them about its misuse as they begin to come closer to Torah. Some, he says, treat inspiration like drug they need to inject every so often: Rabbi! Help! I’m uninspired! Shoot me up! Please! And when the effect of the inspiration, the high, wears off, they come stumbling back in: Rabbi! Help! I can’t live with out it—shoot me up again! This, he explained, is not the correct usage of inspiration as it does not require actual work or growth.
It’s now about two weeks after Shavuos. Coming off of a whirlwind of spiritual inspiration, starting with Pesach, counting up through Sefiras HaOmer, and then Shavuos, we felt rejuvenated; refreshed in our relationship with Hashem; happy, committed and in love with the Torah. Full of inspiration, we launched back into our daily lives, bright and early Tuesday morning after Shavuos, sure that it would all be roses and sunshine…
…till the reality of the carpools, the overtired children who had to be sent off to school, the classes and exams that had to be made up, the too much time taken off of work that had to be explained and groveled over, and the reality of a sleep-deprived week where we were perpetually off a day (wait—tomorrow’s FRIday again??) hit us in the face.
Where has the inspiration of the Chag gone and what was its actual role, anyway?
Inspiration is a tricky thing. Let’s take a look the role inspiration played in a couple of key parts of the history of B’nai Yisrael and see what the message for us is.
Avraham Avinu knew his life’s work: he set out to attract the people around him to a life of monotheism. Through his acts of kindness and his teachings about the graciousness of Hashem, and by living an exemplary life, he hoped to influence the nations of the world. Indeed, the possuk refers to “ואת כל הנפש אשר עשו”, which literally translates as “and all the souls that they (Sara and Avraham) had made”. The commentaries here explain that these souls are the many people that Avraham Avinu and Sarah Imainu had attracted and brought in to Hashem’s service.
Oddly, we never hear about these souls, these people. As Sefer Breishis tracks the life of Yitzchak’s family, then later the travels of Yaakov and his family, we are not told explicitly what happened to those that Avraham had drawn closer. They are not mentioned in the story of the life of Yitzchak, nor do they descend to Egypt with Yaakov’s family. What happened to them? Read More
Walk through any Bais Yaakov elementary school this week and the halls will resonate with the same song: ‘Hashem gave us a present, do you know what it was, He gave us the Torah and we must keep its laws…’
It’s the second stanza of the song that we’ll focus on today. What exactly was being offered to the nations, and what was rejected by them and why?
The other nations of the world were offered the Torah, and each gave a different reason why they wouldn’t accept it. B’nai Eisav, Edom, said that they were not willing to accept it because of “לא תרצח”, the prohibition of murder. B’nai Yishmael rejected the Torah upon hearing “לא תגנוב,” the prohibition against stealing.
There’s a very big question that we can ask on this midrash. All goyim are required by the Torah and by Hashem to keep seven commandments, commonly referred to as the Sheva Mitzvos B’nai Noach. Some of these seven seem very simple, like establishing a community with law and order, and not eating from a live animal. It’s interesting to note that all seven of these laws carry a death sentence for the goyim. For example, a Jew who eats from a live animal is not deserving of the death sentence, but a goy who does the same is. Included in these seven are both the obligation not to kill and not to steal.
Our question should now be clear—how is it that Edom rejected the Torah because they wanted to be free to kill, if they anyways are not free to kill? And how did B’nai Yishmael reject the Torah because they wanted to be free to steal, if they anyway can’t steal, and m’dinay Shamayim, are subject to the death penalty, a harsher judgment than for a Jew who does the same? Read More
All things in life require preparation. Inspiration doesn’t happen on its own, and neither does spiritual growth. Matan Torah, as a world-changing event, required major prepation. As we discussed in a previous post (https://goo.gl/xwJu7k), the weeks of Sefiras Ha’omer were given as a guide of sorts, preparing us to reach Shavuos. This week is our last week of preparation before we celebrate Matan Torah, a time when we accept the Torah each year fully and unquestioningly. Let’s take a final look at the built in preparations of this week.
First, let’s ask: What is the danger of not preparing? Shavuos will come, whether we’re prepared or not, and the Yom Tov will pass, if uneventfully. What are we risking by hitting the figurative snooze button? Read More
The term ‘blood libel’ is one we are all familiar with. We’ve heard stories from all areas of the world, in generations past. The more recent stories and the ‘trials’ are recorded in history books and studied, while the more ancient stories are recounted in books that carry the tales of our leaders and gedolim of yesteryear. This past Pesach, one of my siblings reminded us of a story about my grandmother had referred to years ago, the story of her father and the blood libel and pogrom that he and the city of Shiraz faced.
You might say that even before my brother mentioned this, I had blood on my mind. My cousin made a Bris the day before Erev Pesach. As we repeated the possuk “ואומר לך בדמיך חיי” I was struck by the many connections between Bris Milah and Pesach. This week, the week of Pesach Shaini, we will study the connection and see what message and lesson of Pesach we can apply.
Pesach Shaini is a day when those who had been impure and unable to partake in the Korban Pesach were given a chance to make the Korban and partake of it. Chazal teach us that this even applies to those who were there and were pure but did not partake in the mitzvah for other reasons (legitimate or not). In and of itself, this is very unique: The power of teshuva and repentance are well known, and we even know that sins can turn into merits if teshuva is done correctly. But it’s not often that we are given a chance to change an action that was not done—missed opportunities, time wasted, are minutes we cannot usually regain. It seems that we are now given a path to correct a sin of omission.
Let’s examine Bris Milah and Korban Pesach, retell the story of the 1910 Blood Libel in Shiraz, and see what message and power from Pesach we are being given a second chance to tap into.
A Brief Explanation Of Genetics
Genetics are a sensitive subject, made touchier by some general confusion on the subject. When something is wrong with a child, on top of all the serious fear and confusion, the idea of people attributing it to ‘genetics’ and ‘family problems’ (their mistaken idea of genetics) adds an entire element of shame and fear. I’d like to share an amazing story that happened during one of Temima’s genetics appointment, but I’m going to preface it with a quick explanation of what genetic does and does not mean. Read More
I have to start by admitting that only recently did I start baking my own challos (the picture in the heading is actually of one of my first attempts). However, even before, I did try to make just one yearly effort to bake for this Shabbos, the Shabbos after Pesach. In many communities, women will gather this week for an evening of inspiration and challah baking. Not only because our freezers are empty of previously baked batches of challah, and not only because we are craving soft and warm challah after a Pesach full of matzah, but there is also a minhag that some have of making a key challah this week.
The reasons for this minhag are many, with different seforim talking about what this segula is for and what the source is. The Karbon Omer, pessukim in Shir Hashirim, and the cessation of the manna at this time are all reasons brought down for this minhag. In this article, we’re not going to focus on the minhag of the key challah specifically, but will focus instead on challah in general and its connection to the time we now find ourselves in.
Challah, of course, is one of the three mitzvos that are primarily in the domain of women. Although men are equally obligated to separate “challah”, customarily this is seen as a woman’s mitzva. (A couple of years ago, while in a pizza store with my third-grade class, the baker called me, as the only woman in the store, into the kitchen to separate challah and to make the bracha. He told me he rarely makes it himself and has both the Sephardic and Ashkenazi versions of the bracha ready, so he can accommodate whichever woman he drafts to fulfill this mitzva. Of course, he knew that he could make the bracha himself, but he took pride in reinforcing its true ownership.)
This Shabbos, we will read Parashas Shemini. It is also Shabbos Mevorchim, where we will bentch the new month of Iyar. Sefiras Ha’omer, has of course started, entering us into a period of mourning, introspection, and of planning and preparation. Let’s examine each of these topics to help us understand more about Challah.
There’s a common question that’s asked regarding the coming of Moshiach: How can it be that our generation can possibly bring Moshiach when so many other, greater, generations have failed? Previous generations were unquestionably greater than us. Their prayers were purer and they were closer to Hashem. If the tana’im, amora’im, rishonim, and achoronim and all the gedolim who succeeded them couldn’t bring Moshiach, how can we?
Rabbi Shimon Schwab famously answered this question. He writes that if our generation has one zechus, one merit with which we can come before Hashem and say that we deserve the geula it is this: that we, after thousands of years of galus and its hardships, still want Moshiach and still wait for geula. It’s a mental avoda– that we want it, and that we hope for it and aspire to it. After all, says Rabbi Schwab, we say daily in Yigdal:
ישלח לקץ הימים משיחנו.
Hashem will send at the end of the days our Moshiach;
To save who? Who will be the ones worthy to of seeing Moshiach?
לפדות מחכה קץ ישועתו –To save those who waited for the end of His salvation.
(In galus Mitzrayim a large number of Yidden perished during makas choshech. We know that those who were redeemed were on the brink of the deepest levels of impurity and needed to be given mitzvos to earn their redemption. What, then, differentiated them from those who perished? The midrash tells us there that those who died were the ones that didn’t want to be saved, who had found contentment in the land of the Egyptians and had managed to gain their favor and had no desire to be saved.)
An old joke is told of a simple Jew who rushes home after hearing the Rabbi speak and tells his wife excitedly that the Moshiach is soon coming to redeem them and take them to Israel, where they’ll be given land to start anew, safe and free from the evil goyim who persecute them. The wife thinks for a minute and says, “Our crops are doing really well…we’ve just fixed up the house…I don’t really want to move…can’t this Moshiach fellow just take the goyim away instead?!” Read More
Like many kids, I hated high school. I was shy and something of an outsider–being the oldest daughter of new-to-America immigrants had its challenges, specifically that I didn’t know a lot of social “rules”. I had my circle of friends, but I still felt out of place.
Then there was the academic aspect. I had little-to-no interest in my secular studies, pulling in decent grades with little-to-no effort. I was cruising, without even one iota of care for my secular classes. I did care (a lot!) about my Jewish classes. I listened to every word and took detailed notes. I took “yahadus” as my only elective (si, no habla Español and I’m just fine!), and memorized the schedule of the Rabbi who taught that class so I would know where to find him when I ducked out of math or science for 20-minute breaks. (He grew used to seeing me walk in and would say, in his heavy accent, things like: “We were going to learn something else now, but thanks to Miss Hakakian who has joined us, I will tell you what I said in shul this week. It is something so amazing that if this the only thing you learn this year, your father’s tuition would not be wasted. You can thank Miss Hakakian later…”
I ended up not attending 12th grade at my high school and going to a local Seminary instead, but as I spoke my dilemma out with my parents over and over and over and over (my poor siblings still recall the late night “discussions” that got rather loud) my father often recalled for me the story of Hagar when she fled from Avraham’s house. She’s met by a malach who asks her why she has left. Hagar replies that she has left because of the actions of Sara Imainu. The malach accepts this answer—this is, after all, a reasonable excuse for leaving–but poses a follow up question: to where do you now plan on going? Hagar replies that she is returning to her father’s house. The malach doesn’t find this acceptable at all and sends her back. The key, my father said, was not only to have a valid reason for leaving, but to have a good destination.
This message is a central message in the story of Yetzias Mitzrayim as well…
Throughout the day and life of a Torah-observant Jew, it seems that there is a great emphasis on Yetzias Mitzrayim. Kiddush on Shabbos and Yom Tov, Teffilin, Shavous, Succos, Shema, Pesach…All these mitzvos (and more!) have the added reason given that they are done as a זכר ליציאת מצרים. At times, it doesn’t even seem to connect, yet we stick that phrase in still. For example, Kiddush on Shabbos night. Shabbos commemorates and witnesses the fact that Hashem created the world and remains its sole Master. Why must we add in זכר ליציאת מצרים? What makes this so integral to our observance?
As we’ve discussed in other articles, the Jewish calendar is full of mystical hints and messages. One of the hints in our calendar is that the first night of Pesach will always be on the same day of the week as…Tisha B’av. Indeed, this connection is found in Chazal as well. The possuk in Eicha (read on Tisha B’av) says:
השביעני במרורים הרוני לענה
Hashem has sated me with marrorim, bitterness, and has given me wormwood (another bitter herb) to drink.
The Midrash there explains that the beginning of the possuk refers to the marror of Pesach night, and the ending refers to Tisha B’av itself. On the surface it would seem that no two nights could be further apart in tone and feeling, but as we learn further, we will see what connects these two nights.
Let’s go back to our first question: what makes Yetzias Mitzrayim connected to so many mitzvos in the Torah? The possuk (which we quote at the seder) tells us:
והגדת לבנך ביום ההוא לאמור בעבור זה עשה ה’ לי בצאתי ממצרים And you should tell your son that day [on the day that he asks about observing the laws of Pesach] that for the sake of this did Hashem take me out of Egypt.
Rashi comments there: בעבור שאקיים מצוותיו כגון פסח מצה ומרור הללו—in order that I should keep His mitzvos, such as this Pesach, Matzah, and Marror [did Hashem take me out]. When our children question our observance, our answer to them is that it is only for this observance that Hashem took us out of Mitzrayim. Giving this over and shaping our children with this belief is the one of the central obligations of the Seder: We did not redeem ourselves, nor were we even worthy of Hashem’s redemption. He took us out amidst miracles and wonders for this–that I should keep His commandments. We mentally accept and put ourselves in the mindset of having left Egypt ourselves, and we accept the obligation of keeping the mitzvos. For this reason, there are so many seemingly unconnected mitzvos that come back toזכר ליציאת מצרים.
The specific possuk cited above refers to the question of the Rasha-the wicked son. (There are four sources in the Torah for teaching our children about Yetzias Mitzrayim, and they are attributed to four different sons. This possuk is attributed to the Rasha.) In laying our answer out as such we are showing him that there are two options in life, Pesach or Tisha B’av. Let’s explain.
It all really goes back to the beginning where it all started: with Avraham Avinu, who chose the path of recognizing Hashem and filling the world with Kiddush Hashem. All of Avraham’s actions were for the purpose of spreading the ways of Hashem in the world. When Avraham’s children called out to Hashem for salvation, Hashem saved them so they could continue Avraham’s task: בעבור זה עשה ה’ לי. Read More
Nissan is the month of renewal and rebirth. Nature, all around us, is starting to come alive again, with the blossoming greenery and the gentle showers that smell of summer. Inspirered by nature’s awakening, it’s a time when we too seek to refresh and renew: Out with the heavy, dark winter wardrobe, bring in the light and cheerful florals! We clean the house not just for Pesach, but we insist on a full Spring Cleaning, seeking still to renew ourselves and our households. We want to shed the extra layers-of clothes, of dust, and of general weariness, and be rejuvenated in our lives, physically and spiritually. It’s time for some change….
This past shabbos was Rosh Chodesh Nissan. In a nod of deference to all of the lovely women (myself included) who are still in Pesach denial mode and are blissfully going about their daily lives, I thought I’d dedicate this post to understanding Rosh Chodesh and the Jewish Calendar in its entirety, rather than something overtly Pesach related.
For those who don’t know, I teach third grade in a boys yeshiva. Years ago, I started including what we call the “whys” in our telling time unit: we ask why there are 24 hours in a day, why there are 365 days in a year, why there are 30-31 days in a month, why there are 7 days in a week, and so on. (Of course, every year I have a few boys who try to insist that the answer to all the whys is “that’s the way Hashem created it” and are quite content with that alone!) Over the years, this unit has expanded considerably and is now a comprehensive math, literature, and science curriculum that covers the solar system, the planets, and understanding the workings of the both the English and Jewish calendar.
As I built this curriculum the first year, I didn’t know what direction it would go in and didn’t have the science and literature material available. I taught the material as it came up and let the questions and flow of conversation in the classroom guide the direction. What was interesting to me was that I found I knew the information in bits and pieces but, as is often the case, as I taught the material, especially as I answered the questions about the Jewish calendar, it all came together for me. With that in mind, I’m going to run through the basic workings of a Jewish calendar before we start, just to lay a foundation for what is to come.
Let’s start with the whys:
The English year is solar–it has 365 days (and six hours, necessitating an extra day every four years as those extra 6 hours days add up to a whole day) because that’s how long it takes for Earth to revolve once around the sun.
A Jewish year is an accumulation of the 12 Jewish months, which are lunar—based on the cyclical waxing and waning of the moon. Each month is 29-30 days, based again on the moon’s cycle. If there is a 30th day in the month, that day is the automatically the first day of Rosh Chodesh for the following month.
The English year is divided into 12 months with 30-31 days in each month, basically for convenience in dividing the year. The division we use now hasn’t always been used. As I point out to my class, the prefixes of various months easily prove this—sept means 7, oct means 8, deci means 10, but September, October, and December are not the 7th, 8th, and 10th months.
Though we call the English year Solar, we can’t quite call the Jewish year Lunar. Calendars that are fully lunar, like the Arabic calendar, are not consistent with the seasons. If you cycle around a 354 day lunar year, as the years pass the holidays fall behind the solar year and come out in the wrong season. If the Jewish calendar were fully lunar, we’d often have Pesach in the winter and Chanuka in the summer. We therefore have a solar correction instituted into our calendar to keep the Yamim Tovim on track with the season that the Torah wants them in. This solar correction is, of course, Adar Shaini.
Back to the whys: A day is 24 hours because that’s how long it takes for Earth to rotate once on its Axis. And finally, the only answer that’s non-scientific, pleasing the little smart-alecs in the class, is that a week is 7 days because that’s how Hashem created the world.
With the basics down, let’s start understanding the significance of Rosh Chodesh in a novel way. In keeping with the Pesach spirit, we’ll break it down into four questions: Read More
In my family, when we consulted with my parents about important decisions, the constant refrain was a phrase in Persian. I’d phonetically write it out in Persian, but it would basically just serve for a laugh as y’all would try to sound it out. Translated literally, it means that Hashem’s will should be your will (okay, fine, I’ll transliterate, too: reza berazay Chodah), and it’s used as an expression of using your faith in Hashem and making the right choice, despite your fears. Do what’s right and what is Hashem’s will, and let Hashem take care of the outcome. Growing up hearing this evoked deep within us a love for pessukim that talk about turning to Hashem and submitting to His salvation, such as “השלך על ה’ יהבך” from Tehillim.
[Side note: True, embarrassing nerd story: while in Seminary in Israel, I followed the rite of passage of going to Geula to get a silver necklace engraved with “my” possuk. Most girls, as I recall, got “Ashira Lashem B’Chayay”–a nice, uplifting possuk. Others got the more sentimental “Im Eshkachech Yerushalyim”. I told the unsuspecting lady there that I wanted either ‘Hashlech Al Hashem’ or ‘Harchev Picha V’almalayhu’ (both pessukim that relay the theme mentioned above). Her reaction was priceless: a blank stare, an open mouth, a slack jaw, a long pause, and then a firm, resounding “Lo.” Yes, this really happened. No, I don’t think I was unbearably pretentious all the time. Yes, I did get what I wanted. No, I never wore it, it was weird. ]
Many times, faced with a tough decision, or just a hard undertaking, my parents would tell me that if I know it needs to be done, I should forge ahead and let Hashem take care of the details…and of me. Choosing a seminary, a husband, and a house…this phrase followed me.
A few years ago, when hearing a hard diagnosis, I forgot it. Hashem sent a messenger, a malach, to remind me….
We’re now at an odd time of year. I remember the first year I was married, heading to the Jewish grocery store on my corner on Shushan Purim morning. I was shocked to see that the more than half of the aisles were cleared and ready for Pesach products. My mind was blown–are we supposed to live in suspended reality where we don’t need to eat for the next 4 weeks??
And yet, this is the reality we all swing into right after Purim. Pesach is coming, and despite shiur after shiur that we’ve heard telling us that “Pesach cleaning is not Spring cleaning”, we feel a need to truly give it our all and search every crack and crevice in our homes. Beyond that we also start making arrangements, planning menus, outfitting the family for Pesach, and generally taking care of a million and one details. It’s 4 weeks of running frantically towards a finish line.
While we tend to think of this time solely as preparation for Pesach, we are still in Adar, and something quite significant happened during this time, way back when B’nai Yisrael were in the midbar: On the 23rd day of Adar, the inauguration for the mishkan, the ימי המלוים, began. This seven-day consecration process did not have to be in the month of Adar. In fact, we are clearly told that the construction of the mishkan was finished in the month of Kislev. Moshe waited to do the inauguration in Adar, so that the 8th day, the first day of real service, would be the first day of Nissan. (This is, of course, the infamous 8th day when Nadav and Avihu died–ויהי ביום השמיני) Coming off of Purim, and going into Pesach, what message can we take from these ימי המלוים? Read More