Category Archives: Scripture

The Freedom of a Restrained Life

It turns out I am a week ahead on my blog for the weekly parsha, so last’s week post, Mattos-Masei, will be read this coming Sabbath. Rather than skipping a week, I decided to address the topic that I am asked about most frequently in my work as a chaplain: How can you live like this?The Freedom of a Restrained Life

Generally, the person is questioning how and/or why I do the following:

  1. Deal with all the food rules (keeping kosher).
  2. Pray all the time (three times a day).
  3. Do not watch television or drive on Friday nights and Saturdays (Sabbath observant).

Conceptually each of these is a mitzvah, a practice G-d has instituted through which I can create a relationship with Him. A simple metaphor is when, as a child, your mother asked you to make your bed. You had two choices:

  1. Make your bed, thereby demonstrating to your mother that you care about her.
  2. Neglect or refuse to make your bed, thereby demonstrating a lack of concern for her.

(Of course, the third option is to exhibit early onset OCD and make your bed, though your mom did not ask, because you have to have a neat room.)

The first behavior enhances your relationship with your mother. The second does not. Similarly with G-d and mitzvahs. You have free will. You can choose to strengthen your relationship with the Creator by following them or weaken it by not doing so.

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The follow-up question usually requires greater specificity. I tell them:

  1. Keeping kosher: Suppose you want to achieve peak athletic performance. One thing you would do is be very intentional about your diet, determining the optimum mix of foods and beverages and when they should be eaten so as to hit a zenith at the appropriate time. If your goal is obtaining the ultimate spiritual performance, the diet through which to do that is keeping kosher. Do I understand the “why” behind every aspect of it? No. But I have faith that G-d knows how I should nourish my body so as to best bolster my spirit.
  2. Praying: If you want to become a master it takes regular practice. As gifted as are Usain Bolt and LeBron James, their work ethic turned their raw skill into incomparable performance. Do I achieve a deep connection with the Almighty every time I pray? No. Especially during the week there are too many distractions. In a way, the 18-weekday prayers are preparation for the big game, Sabbath prayers, when there are far fewer hindrances to connecting.
  3. Sabbath observant: Ever more experts are recognizing the importance of rest in achieving excellence. No less than the aforementioned Bolt takes off six weeks each fall to eat whatever he wants and not train. As well, it is no coincidence that the forefathers and foremothers were shepherds. If you want to develop your spirit you need to create an atmosphere conducive to contemplation. Television, movies, driving, restaurants, indeed everyday life, impede such development.

Having the perspective of my earlier secular life, I now live with more focus and intention. What others view as constraints, even shackles, I have found liberate me from much of what negatively impacts so many in our society. Rather than being anachronistic, in the face of the complexity of modern life, these millennia-old practices are more necessary than ever.

Question – How do you build your relationship with G-d?

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Do You Get Angry When Someone Verbally Abuses You?

“. . . Pi Hachiros . . .” (Bamidbar/Numbers 33:7). The Israelites’ journeys are recounted, Pi Hachiros being one of the stops. It there anything to be learned from the places they encamped?

Do You Get Angry When Someone Verbally Abuses You?

The parsha for this Sabbath is a double one, Mattos and Masei. Mattos discusses the matter of taking a vow, the war against Midian and its aftermath including how to make utensils kosher, and the tribes of Rueben, Gad, and half of Manasheh asking to have their portion of land on the eastern side of the Jordan River.

Parshas Masei reviews the journey taken by the Israelites from Egypt through the wilderness and ending at the border of the land of Israel.  Also, it gives instructions on how the land will be divided and for designating cities for the Levites and Cities of Refuge as well as who is eligible to seek sanctuary in them.

The Sefer Glilai Zahav notes that Pi Hachiros is a form of idolatry observed with complete freedom of the mouth. A person said whatever he wanted no matter how insulting or slanderous his words.

Sadly, today many people behave this way under the guise of being honest or true to themselves. No matter how harsh or insensitive, they say whatever enters their heads unmindful of how much pain and suffering they cause others.

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Such behavior is antithetical to creating a relationship with G-d, since among the most important ways to do so is to take care of His children. Rather, no matter how someone else is behaving, you should take pleasure in holding your tongue and refraining from inflicting emotional harm. Such behavior will confirm to you that you are a kind person. The more brutal the verbal assault of you, the greater joy you should take in not responding in kind.

Sincere and useful criticism that is conveyed with empathy is appropriate. In such a case the recipient should be able to discern that you are motivated by love. To be able to compassionately re-direct another person’s behavior is to emulate the Almighty at the highest level.

What can you do about having had less than a self-controlled tongue in the past? From now on, go out of your way to give others strength and encouragement. When you elevate the way you use the gift of speech, you atone for prior mistakes.

Question – How do you develop self-restraint against making verbal attacks?

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Now, You Can Understand When to Be Aggressive

“Therefore say: Behold! I give to him my covenant of peace.” (Bamidbar/Numbers 25:12). Pinchas has just killed two people and he is given a settlement of peace. What sense does this make?

Now, You Can Understand When to Be Aggressive

The parsha for this Sabbath is Pinchas. It discusses Pinchas’s reward for his zealous act, the censuses taken prior to the Children of Israel entering the Land of Israel, the petition of Zelophehad’s daughters, the laws of inheritance, the appointment of Joshua as Moses’s successor, and the offerings that were brought daily, on the Sabbath and on holidays.

The Netziv, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Berlin observed that the kind of impassioned act that Pinchas did could cause a person to become aggressive all the time, even when it was not appropriate. To prevent this G-d made him a kohen, the covenant of peace, so that in all other areas of his life he would act with equanimity.

Parshas Pinchas shows that your normal state should be one of peace. You will, at times, find it appropriate or even required to be aggressive. But because you can do so much harm when acting this way, you must be very careful not to let it become a part of your nature. Behavior molds you: for good or for bad. To direct your character properly, whenever you have to be combative you should go out of your way to be very kind and caring in all other areas of your life.

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Strive for the ideal of the Chazon Ish who was supremely gentle and always avoided quarrels. Even when he had to be stern, inwardly he was calm. Thus his aggressive behavior was always under control and available to be called upon only when absolutely necessary.

Life will sometimes demand that you act aggressively. The best course of action is to train yourself to do so out of kindness and with self-control. In this way, you can be sure that you will be quarrelsome intentionally and for the good of you and the other person.

Question – How do you act outwardly belligerently while remaining inwardly calm?

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6 Questions for Overcoming Bad Habits

“On this the poets will say: Come to Cheshbon; let it be built and established, city of Sichon.” (Bamidbar/Numbers 16:28). The Torah reflects on the history of Chesbon. History is nice, but why this lengthy elucidation?

6 Questions for Overcoming Bad Habits

The parsha for this Sabbath is a double one, Chukas and Balak. Parshas Chukas discusses the mysterious commandment of the red heifer, Miriam’s death and the subsequent stopping of the well of water, Moses’s and Aaron’s error and punishment for disobeying G-d when supplying water to the people, the death of Aaron, the attack of the Amalekites, and the wars with Sichon and Og.

Parshas Balak details how Balak, the king of Moab, attempted to have Bilaam, the greatest non-Jewish prophet of all time, curse the Children of Israel. Included is the wonderful story of the talking donkey, my wife’s and my favorite in all of Tanach. The Parsha ends with the somewhat frightening event in which Pinchas spears Zimri, a prince of the tribe of Shimon, and his Mindianitess lover in public at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.

The Talmud (Bava Basra 78b) interprets the above verse as, “‘the poets’ refers to those who rule over their impulses. ‘Come to Chesbon’ means come and make a calculation of your behavior.” Indeed in everyday parlance, a chesbon is an accounting of your behavior.

Rabbi Chaim Luzzatto noted that a person should work on overcoming negative habits and traits. Just like a businessman carefully tracks his investments, so too a person should make an accounting each day of his behavior so as to improve himself.

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Ask yourself these questions:

  1. What did I accomplish today?
  2. How far have I come in meeting my long-term goals?
  3. What are my strengths and weaknesses
  4. Did I accomplish what I intended?
  5. How am I going to improve for tomorrow?
  6. What is holding me back from growing or what will help me grow more?

It need not take a long time. I spend about 10 to 15 minutes making my daily accounting. Having done so for about a year now, I find that I am repeating mistakes less often. While it is not as rapid as I might like, nonetheless I am improving.

Most importantly, when you identify your progress be joyful about it. Find encouragement in your ability to improve, to reform your character despite whatever faults you have and mistakes you repeat. By focusing on the positive you will motivate yourself to ever greater accomplishment and refinement.

Question – How do you motivate yourself to keep improving despite setbacks?

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Right and Wrong Way to Express Caring – And How to Tell Them Apart

“If like the death of all men’s deaths, will be accounted on them [Korach and his co-conspirators] the accounting of all men, it is not G-d who has sent me.” (Bamidbar/Numbers 16:28). Moses lets Korach and his followers know that they will soon die unnatural deaths; harsh language from the most humble of all humans.Right and Wrong Way to Express Caring – And How to Tell Them Apart

The parsha for this Sabbath is Korach. From the infamy of the spies we now go to the rebellion of Korach and his 250 followers against Moses and Aaron. Unlike the complaining for food, water, and other things that went on before, Korach, a cousin of Moses and Aaron, sought to depose them and assume their roles. He tried to take advantage of the Israelite’s unhappiness with Moses over the decree that they would wander in the wilderness for 40 years. As a result of their rebellion, the 250 insurgents were consumed by fire and the earth swallowed their households. Indeed, a severe punishment.

The great Kabbalist, Rabbi Moshe Alshich, brings the analogy of a doctor who needs to amputate a hand or foot in order to prevent the spread of a disease. Although such a cure may seem cold-hearted, even cruel, it is actually the kindest course of action since it will save the person’s life.

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Moses saw that Korach had already infected 250 people with the spirit of rebellion. In an act of compassion for the rest of the Israelites, he had to take severe steps to stop its spread. Yet Moses was not hasty in this action. He pleaded with the conspirators to change their ways. He “fell on his face” (Bamidbar/Numbers 16:4), pleading that G-d would not punish them and the people the way He had the spies. His entreaties were to no avail. Only then did Moses act so strictly.

When you find yourself in an intractable situation, especially with your children, you must try every technique to convince them to do the right thing. But no amount of love or compassion should prevent you from imposing stern measures for the recalcitrant. This is the true meaning of Proverbs 13:24, “spare the rod and spoil the child.” Frequently taken as a license to strike a child, rather it is an adjuration not to shirk from using strict discipline when necessary.

Moses took a tremendous risk when carrying out G-d’s commands that led to the destruction of Korach and his followers. The Israelites might have rejected him, ceased loving him. Yet his love for them was so great he did what was necessary to save them. In the final analysis, this is the truest test. Will you risk losing love in order to save a loved one?

Question – Should spanking be among the punishments used to discipline children?

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