Category Archives: Soul

Our Matriarch Who is Superlatively Kind and Scrupulously Honest

Vegam gemalecha ashke – and also your camels I will water (Beresheis/Genesis 24:14). Gam ligmalecha eshav ad im kilu lishtos – also for your camels I will draw until they finish drinking (Beresheis/Genesis 24:19). The typical English translations make these two phrases, the first by Eliezer and the second by Rivkah, seem more similar than they are.

This coming Shabbos we read Parshas Chayei Sarah and are saddened to learn that Sarah dies. Next. Avraham purchases a burial site for his wife and family and Eliezer searches for a wife for Yitzchak. After that, Avraham gets remarried. Then the Torah tells about his death and the death of Ishmael.

Consider what Avraham knows about humanity. G-d brought the flood because the world was filled with robbery and sexual immorality. He was alive at the time of the Dispersion after the Tower of Bavel when people challenged G-d’s authority. After she gave birth to a child, Hagar mocked his beloved wife Sarah for being barren. Efron the Hittite grossly overcharged Avraham for a burial site, while he was grieving over Sarah’s death.  Perhaps he had heard about the murder of Abel by Cain. Not a pretty picture. Is it any wonder that he gives his servant Eliezer very specific instructions about the proper wife for Yitzchak?

Notice the characteristic for which Eliezer is searching. First the young woman must offer to alleviate his thirst, then that of his camels. While deep sensitivity to animal welfare is not necessarily indicative of a similar attitude toward humans, someone who is responsive to the needs of a stranger and then even his animals is a paragon of kindness.

Don Yitzchak Abarbanel points out another quality of Rivkah that we can learn from how Eliezer framed his request to G-d and how Rivkah actually behaved. While he asked that the young woman who was worthy of being Yitzchak’s bride offer to water his camels, Rivkah was careful to say she would draw water for his camels, implying that she could not be sure they would drink. Her punctilious honesty, living as she did with Lavan who later we learn was one of the great prevaricators in history, shows her dedication to honesty and the strength of her character.

A student of the Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Shmuel Walkin gives the example of Rabbi Rafael of Bershid, disciple of Rebbe Pinchas of Koretz, who when asked if it was still raining outside when he came into his house would answer, “When I was outside it was raining.” He did not want to state it was still raining when it could have stopped after he came into the house.

Such meticulous attention to the truth in so small a matter should help us resist the temptation to lie in bigger matters.

Question – Do think it is ever okay to lie? Please leave a comment below.

Want to Be Decisive?

Pressure mounts. Information is rolling in but it seems impossible to make hide nor hair of it. Others are frantic but the leader sits calmly. And then, seemingly out of thin air she makes a decision. And when everyone hears it, they know it is right. How did she do it?

Want to Be Decisive?

 

I admire people who get more coolheaded as the tension builds up. Don’t you? Even more, I respect those who can quickly analyze the available facts and options then firmly outline a plan of action. For a long time, I thought people were born with this ability.

But six years in the military showed me that decisiveness is an outgrowth of knowing one’s values and having a clear objective. When faced with a challenge, if you have well-defined principles and you know where you want to go you can make good decisions quickly. Here is how to know if your values are clear:

  1. Make a list of your beliefs. For example, you may think it is important to be kind.
  2. For each of your beliefs, write down two to four very specific scenarios where the belief applies. Using the previous example, a scenario might be: dealing with my daughter when she wants something.
  3. For each scenario, think through how the value is relevant the situation. Better yet, write down your response. Let’s say my daughter wants a cookie. Is the kind response to always give her one? If I know my objective is to help her learn self-discipline and good eating habits in most cases it is probably unkind to give her a cookie since this teaches her to be indulgent and does not reinforce the idea of a healthy diet. The truly kind response is to say no and explain why, saving yes as a reward for a lesson well learned or a special occasion.

Undoubtedly you have many beliefs. But do you really understand their implications? If so, you are probably already decisive. If not, by going through this exercise you will develop the foundation with which you can decide how to respond to situations quickly and in a way that feels right because it is in concert with your deeply held values.

For setting clear objectives, see my previous blog posts on having a mission statement and setting goals.

Question – What ideas do you have for better understanding your values? Please comment below.

Creating Faith – Bereshis 5773

Bereshis bara Elohim – In the beginning of G-d’s creating (Bereshis/Genesis 1:1) or Hachodesh hazeh lachem – This month will be for you (Shemos/Exodus 12:2). Which is the more proper beginning for the Torah?

This coming Shabbos we read Parshas Bereshis, which relates the story of creation, how Adam and Chava (Eve) sinned and were thrown out of the Garden of Eden, the conflict between Cain and Abel, and the ten generations between Adam and Noah.

Previously, we discussed the core idea that Torah is not a history book. Rather it is Toras Chaim, an instruction book on how G-d wants us to live our lives. This being the case, why does it start with a lengthy narrative about the creation of the world? Surely Our Creator knew this story would become the basis of a bitter argument among His children as to whether it is to be taken literally or allegorically. The three mitzvahs in it could have been put somewhere else and the Torah could have begun with Shemos/Exodus 12:2, which includes several foundational Jewish beliefs.

No less a personage than Rashi asks this question in his first comment on the Torah. The Maharal of Prague notes Rashi is not questioning Bereshis’s inclusion in Tanach (the Hebrew Bible) as a statement of principles of faith and lessons in history, rather he challenges its inclusion in the Torah, the source of mitzvahs. Surprisingly Rashi answers that Bereshis provides proof of the Jewish People’s title to the Land of Israel. And as the Maharal points out, since the mitzvas and the land are interdependent, it is crucial to establish this claim.

Yet, we are still left with a fundamental question: was the world created in six 24-hour days or over billions of years? We see here another first principle of Judaism: the question is more important than the answer. Within this aspect of Bereshis, we find the genesis of one of the most crucial elements for establishing our relationship with G-d. Faith. No matter the time period of creation, we are challenged to have faith in the eternality and omnipotence of the Master of the World. After all, He could have created the universe in six days or six billion years, the difference is indistinguishable to Him.

Question: Which do you find a bigger challenge to your faith: scripture or science? Please leave a comment below.

Linking Heaven and Earth + G-d to Us – Ha’azinu 5772

Ki cheilek Hashem amo; Ya’akov chevel nachalaso.” “For Hashem’s portion is His people, Jacob a rope of his possession.” (Devarim/Deuteronomy 32:9)

This week we read Parshas Ha’azinu. It is the song G-d commanded Moses to teach to the Children of Israel at the end of the previous parsha. Heaven and earth are called to be a witness to all of the disasters that will befall the Nation if it strays from the path that G-d has set. Then it describes the joy that will come at the time of the final redemption.  At the end of the parsha G-d gives Moses his last mitzvah.

On this Erev Yom Kippur, we receive a timely reminder that we are G-d’s people. But why is Jacob compared to a rope?

Rashi notes that as the third of the patriarchs, Jacob had the merits of his grandfather Abraham, his father Isaac, and his own. He is like a rope made of three strands. In each of the services we will invoke his memory, and that of our other forefathers, partly in the hope that his triple merit will redound to us.

In his seminal work on mysticism, the Tanya, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi compares a rope whose upper end is bound above and whose lower end is bound below to the soul: its upper end in Heaven and its lower end clothed in the body.

The notion of rope has many applications to our lives. Its many strands are reflective of the numerous interwoven middos (character traits) that make up our personalities. As we pray this Yom Kippur, perhaps we can strengthen the positive fibers while beginning the laborious process of unraveling the negative ones.

We, as a people, are like a rope in that one of us may be so delicate we snap, but together we form a virtually unbreakable bond. It is this strength we seek with our tefilos (prayers) this Yom Kippur and every time we come together in prayer.

Finally, harkening back to Rav Zalman’s image, each of the 613 mitzvos is one filament of the broader rope connecting us to G-d. If we neglect performing one or more of them, some of the filaments will disconnect, weakening the rope. Whatever we do on earth that tugs on the rope, it inevitably impacts G-d. If we fall, we drag down the Master of the World too.

Sad as it may seem that we can pull G-d down with us, joyfully we find that even at our lowest point, the rope still connects us. Infinitely caring parent that He is, we are never alone. Though deeply pained as we jerk the rope all around, patiently, eagerly He awaits our return.

Question – What other images does a rope bring to mind? Please leave a comment below.

Exercising Your Faith

“Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” So said Thomas Edison, and he would know. Until 2003 he held the most patents of any individual in the world.

“With ordinary talent and extraordinary perseverance, all things are attainable.” Working his entire life on social reforms, brewer and abolitionist Sir Thomas Buxton did not attain them all. But he became an expert on determination.

“Practice makes perfect.” So goes the saying that many of us learned as children. Want to hit home runs? PRACTICE!

You may already be convinced that persistence leads to success in athletics or business (the physical realm) and academics (the mental realm). Have you considered applying it to the spiritual realm?

Exercising Your Faith

Ever wondered why most religions recommend or require daily prayer? The best answer I have heard to this question is if we attempt to connect with G-d often, we stand a better chance of doing so sometimes. When I started becoming more committed to my faith, I was challenged to pray three times a day. At first, the effort seemed wasted. But over time, as my “prayer muscle” grew, so did my spiritual resiliency.

Perhaps the most important metaphysical skill we can work on is faith. Given how important conviction is to our success, you would think we would have long since adopted a daily regimen to cultivate it. Yet it seems most people have the attitude that when they need it their faith will be present. Can you imagine Kobe Bryant saying to his coach, “I don’t have to practice my free throw shot, it’ll be there when I need it.” Ridiculous, no?

We must exercise our faith if we want it to be available on demand. Here are some suggestions:

  1. Decide in whom you wish to develop faith: perhaps G-d, yourself, your spouse, or your children.
  2. Determine what aspect of faith you want to grow: G-d gives you everything you need, your ability to effectively direct your life. The choices are virtually limitless.
  3. Choose an exercise that challenges the area of faith in which you are working: Daily prayer to G-d for insight, strength, or another quality; working toward a goal that has many steps to attain it.
  4. Work out what you will do when your scheme goes awry: You did not realize something about a situation at the beginning that with better insight would have helped you avoid a problem. What will you tell yourself about G-d answering your prayers? Could He have said no, for now, necessitating harder work on your part?

Martha Graham, arguably the Picasso or Frank Lloyd Wright of dance, said, "Practice means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection desired."

Question: Do you think deeper faith can be developed through practice?

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