Monday, January 14, 2019

What is the Connection Between the Splitting of the Sea and Matching Soulmates?

Parashat Beshalach
Printable Version

Being “In Shidduchim
I personally never went out on a shidduch – an arranged date or a blind date. Actually, this is not exactly true. Before my first meeting with my husband of 38 years, there was a bit of arranging unbeknownst to me! My husband, who was then a single guy of 27, had arranged that I would be invited to the same Shabbat table as him. He had noticed me on my way to the Yeshiva lunch room, as he walked by when the men returned to the Yeshiva after finishing their lunch. Aware of the often-prolonged process of seeking a suitable marriage partner that many of my students and other singles endure, I’m grateful that I was spared this hardship by getting married young. The Talmud compares finding one’s soulmate to the splitting of the sea:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת סוטה דף ב/א אמר אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן וְקַשְׁיָן לְזִווּגִן כִּקְרִיעַת יַם סוּף שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (תְּהִלִּים סָח) אֱלֹהִים מוֹשִׁיב יְחִידִים בַּיְתָה מוֹצִיא אֲסִירִים בַּכּוֹשָׁרוֹת...
Rabbi Yochanan said, it is as difficult to match couples in marriage as was the splitting the Reed Sea, as it states, “G-d settles the solitary in a house; He takes the prisoners out into prosperity…” (Tehillim 68:7); (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 2b).

People who have waited long to find their soulmate can testify that finally standing under the marriage canopy feels like being released from prison. I always understood the comparison between the splitting of the sea and matchmaking as an inverted comparison. In Hebrew, the word מַיִם/mayim – ‘water’ is only found in the plural, as you cannot separate only an unconnected drop from the great waters. Thus, as difficult as it is to split waters which are always united, so is it difficult to splice two separate beings to become one. Yet, there are many more eye-opening parallels between matchmaking and sea-splitting.

Split and Splice
It is hard to understand that matchmaking and the splitting of the sea are considered asקָשֶׁה /kashe׳ – ‘difficult’ for Hashem. How can anything be difficult for the Almighty? The Chazon Ish explains that the word, קָשֶׁה /kashe׳ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘difficult,’ as nothing can be difficult for the Master of the Universe. Rather, קָשֶׁה /kashe׳ denotes Hashem’s intervention into the natural flow of cause and effect. When Hashem engages in overt suspension of nature, that is called קָשֶׁה /kashe׳ – ‘difficult.’ Both Shidduchim and the splitting of the sea are evident intercessions into the randomness of nature (based on an article by Eliezer Eisenberg). The continuation of the Talmudic passage quoted above describes the predestined nature of soulmates:

תלמוד בבלי מסכת סוטה דף ב/א ארבעים יום קודם יצירת הולד בת קול יוצאת ואומרת בת פלוני לפלוני...
Forty days before the formation of the fetus, a Bat Kol (Heavenly Voice) goes out and proclaims, “The daughter of so-and-so for so-and-so…” (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 2b).

Similarly, the splitting of the Reed Sea was predetermined as it states,

ספר שמות פרק יד פסוק כז וַיֵּט משֶׁה אֶת יָדוֹ עַל הַיָּם וַיָּשָׁב הַיָּם לִפְנוֹת בֹּקֶר לְאֵיתָנוֹ...
“So, Moshe stretched out his hand over the sea, and toward morning the sea returned to its strength…” (Shemot 14:27).

The word לְאֵיתָנוֹ/l’eitano – ‘to its strength’ can be unscrambled to לִתְנָאוֹ/l’tenao – ‘to its condition.”  Accordingly, the midrash explains that the Reed Sea was created on condition that it would split for the Israelites (Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 5:5). Thus, the splitting of the sea was preordained in the same way that soulmates are preordained from before birth. If these matters are predestined, then aren’t they part of nature? If so, why are they called ‘difficult’ suspensions of nature? The ‘difficulty’ is that, although they are predestined, Hashem withholds them until we are worthy to let them happen through our steadfast emunah, heartfelt prayer and hishtadlut (effort). We need complete faith that just because we still haven’t found our soulmate, and even if we have many strikes against us, we will indeed, ultimately find our soulmate, at the right time, that only Hashem knows.

Meeting with Matchmakers
Yet, emunah and prayer alone is not enough to find our soulmate.

ספר שמות פרק יד פסוק טו וַיֹּאמֶר הָשֵׁם אֶל משֶׁה מַה תִּצְעַק אֵלָי דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִסָּעוּ:
“Hashem said to Moshe, ‘Why do you cry out to Me? Speak to the children of Israel and let them travel’” (Shemot 14:15).

The Israelites had to make the sea split through their own effort and mesirat nefesh (self-sacrifice) by starting to walk into the water. So, what is the equivalent effort needed in order to find one’s soulmate? The answer is very individual and differs from person to person. It could mean working on ourselves by refining our character tobecome the ONE in order to find the ONE!as articulated by my friend, Bari Lyman. She further teaches, that there may be several blocks deriving from unconscious fear-filled ‘stories’ caused by a lack of emunah that peoples’ unconscious mind program them to think. Working on these blocks can be compared to releasing prisoners and freeing oneself from limiting ‘mind spins.’  I highly recommend working with a professional such as Bari. It states, “A prisoner cannot release himself from prison” (Babylonian Talmud Berachot 5b). Meeting with matchmakers and calling them monthly as a reminder is another vital, much needed effort. About ten years ago, I had two students who were both in their mid-thirties and eager to get married. One got a list of matchmakers and went to work making numerous phone calls and setting up meetings. The other relied on her emunah and prayer, believing that at the right time, Hashem would send her soulmate. Not surprisingly, the first student has been happily married for several years whereas, the other is still single. Another important aspect is the effort required to check references. Not everyone is as ‘lucky’ as I was – when, as a newly Torah-observant, inexperienced teenager, knowing nothing about the dating process in the Torah world – to find a wonderful man from an excellent family. I know several young women in their early twenties, already divorced from unstable men, with severe mental illness. I also know others who went out on uncomfortable meetings with men who had completely different lifestyles and goals from them. All this could have been avoided through the proper checking of references and talking with others who know the person (not necessarily on the list of references given out). 

Parents’ Involvement in Children’s Shidduchim
How involved should parents be when our children are in the marriageable age? In the secular world, as well as some very modern orthodox circles, children are left to stumble in the dark, finding or not finding their marriage partners on their own. In some Yeshivish and Chassidic circles, the parents spend months in cross-examination of references, and in police detective work before allowing their child to meet the prospective match. The meeting is then only with the escort of the parents, who wait in the adjacent room. Between these two extremes, there are many nuances of middle ground, depending on the minhag (custom) of each community. Torah observant, FFB children in their early twenties and especially if younger, need the guidance of their more experienced parents. How can we expect them to find out vital, often hidden information about a suggested date? Young people could rush into unfortunate marriages in their eagerness to join the ranks of their friends, who are already parents. Especially with the accelerating divorce-rate, it is the responsibility of caring parents to apply their greatest effort into supporting their children through the shidduch process. In addition, it is a special time of closeness with our children before they break away to start their own families. Still, everything must be in the right balance.

Soulmates – In Hashem’s Hand 
I don’t believe in going overboard with the hishtadlut of triple checking, or being overprotective, for which Ya’acov was greatly punished. See Midrash Bereishit Rabbah 77:9. Although, “Sometimes something worth doing is worth overdoing,” let us not forget that, ultimately, finding a person’s preordained soulmate comes directly from the Hand of G-d.

ילקות שמעוני בראשית פרק כח רמז קיז
רבי יודן בשם רבי סימון פתח אלהים מושיב יחידים ביתה מטרונא שאלה לרבי יוסי לכמה ימים ברא הקב"ה את עולמו א"ל לששה דכתיב כי ששת ימים עשה ה' וגו' מאותה שעה ועד עכשיו מהו עוסק אמר לה יושב ומזווג זווגים איש לאשה ואשה לאיש וכו' (ומאריך במדרש רבות קחנו משם) יש שהוא הולך אצל זווגו ויש שזווגו הולך אצלו...
Rabbi Yudan in the name of Rabbi Simon began, “G-d settles the solitary in a house…” (Tehillim 86:7). A matron asked Rabbi Yossi, “In how many days did Hashem create His world?” He answered her, “In six days, as it is written, “In six days G-d made [heaven and earth…]” (Shemot 20:11). “Then from that time and until now, with what does He occupy Himself?” He answered her, “He sits and makes matches, a man for a woman and a woman for a man etc.” Sometimes, he goes to his soulmate [as in the case of Ya’acov] and sometimes his soulmate comes to him [as in the case of Yitzchak... (Yalkut Shimoni 28:117).

The natural tendency, when working hard to accomplish a certain goal, is to forget that although Hashem wants us to make the effort, our final accomplishment is completely in Hashem’s capable hand. Perhaps matching soulmates is not only קָשֶׁה /kashe׳ – ‘difficult’ for Hashem. Rather the dichotomy between hishtadlut and emunah, which are both necessary in the shidduch process, is equally considered to beקָשֶׁה /kashe׳ – ‘difficult’ for us. Just as it is ‘difficult’ for Hashem, to withhold our preordained soulmate, in order to allow us to become worthy to find him or her through our own efforts, so is it difficult for us to apply the greatest efforts into finding our soulmate, while simultaneously retaining steadfast emunah, that at the end of the day, it is no one but Hashem, that ultimately will send our true soulmate.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Do We Have to Eat Meat on Pesach?

Parashat Bo
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Reducing Animals to Beef Stew and Schnitzel 
Almost every Ba’alei Teshuva (returnee to Judaism) has been vegetarian at one time or another. We are greatly bothered, even abhorred by the way animals are treated and made to suffer by the hands of the meat industry. Stuffing numerous pecking chickens in small cages, without room to flap their wings or breathe fresh air is inhumane, and so is keeping cattle in musty, dim pens without a chance to forage for juicy herbs or wag their tail in the sun. In fact, since 1900, it has been a practice for many dairy producers to cut off – or dock – their cows’ tails to avoid getting hit in the face by a dirty tail with manure. Since the poor and crowded conditions are breeding grounds for various bacteria, the animals receive multiple antibiotic injections as well as growth hormones and other ‘medicine’ that will increase their mass and therefore, their commercial value. Reducing animals to becoming rib steaks, schnitzel, beef stew, pot-roast, milk and egg producers for human consumption, without caring about their living conditions, seems to go against the Torah command which forbids causing unnecessary suffering to animals (tza’ar ba’alei chaim) as explained in Babylonian Talmud Baba Metzia 32b. According to Rabbi Yosef Albo, killing of animals is a cruel and furious act, ingraining these negative traits in the human character; in addition, the meat of certain animals coarsens the heart and deadens its spiritual sensitivity (Sefer ha-Ikkarim The Book of Principles, Article Three, Chapter 15). What, then, gives humans the merit to take the life of another being? Where is the respect for life and for Hashem’s creations?

The Spiritual Awareness of Animals During Temple Times
When I first landed in Diaspora Yeshiva in the spring of 1980, the vegetarian students were explained that the animals would stretch out their neck to be sacrificed on the altar in the Temple. They desired to be offered up because they knew that it was an elevation for their soul. If this is true, the animals demonstrated an extremely high level of consciousness. Understanding secrets about soul elevation and being willing to sacrifice one’s life for Hashem supersedes the spiritual awareness of most people today. How can we then munch up such spiritual beings for our own gluttonous pleasure? Actually, we cannot, as the Torah does not permit eating meat, unless, we are going to use its energy for Torah: “The unlearned may not eat meat as it states, ‘This is the Torah concerning animals and birds’ (Vayikra 11:46). Whoever is involved in Torah is permitted to eat meat and chicken but whoever is not involved in Torah is prohibited from eating meat and chicken” (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 49b). 

Are We Aware of Who We Eat When Eating Meat?
Living close to nature and having a relationship with animals engenders an awareness of the preciousness of all living beings. Eating the meat of animals that we raised ourselves is a spiritual experience, which many shun. My neighbor kept two male goats who were constantly and unhappily bleating. When she had one of them slaughtered and got the remaining buck a female, his bleating subsided. Yet, my neighbor couldn’t get herself to eat the goat meat of the animal that she had tended and remembered fondly. One of my students, Laura, once told us about her experience taking a 5-year-old child, Sarah, who lived in the city, to the zoo. Sarah oohed and aahed at the colorful chickens there. When Laura explained to Sarah that the main course for their last Friday night dinner was chicken just like these, Sarah wouldn’t believe it. “No no,” she said, “what we had for dinner never ran around and cackled. It was frozen packages that my mother bought in the supermarket.” This estrangement from the realization that of what we are eating is accentuated by the separate words in Hebrew: for a live chicken – תַּרְנְגֹלֶת/tarnegolet and for a ready to cook or cooked chicken – עוֹף /of.  My husband and I raise home scale chickens mainly for eggs. Every year, we have extra roosters who fight and could kill each other if left in the cage together. It is, therefore, a service to the fowl to remove the extra rooster. Since most chicken owners don’t need additional roosters, the natural thing is to have the extra roosters taken care of by our local, ritual slaughterer. I recall the first time when, with great awe, I served our organic rooster for Shabbat. We remembered the rooster with every delicious bite and did our best to channel its energy into Oneg Shabbat (the mitzvah of Shabbat enjoyment) and words of Torah.

Does the Torah Permit Vegetarianism?
Midreshet B'erot Bat Ayin: Holistic Torah for Women on the Land attracts many vegetarian students. These sensitive, caring, spiritual seekers, who endeavor to live in harmony with nature, do not want to infringe upon the animal kingdom. In a Jewish environment, where chicken or meat, prepared one way or another, is typically the centerpiece of the Shabbat, holiday and wedding table, the question arises whether it is desirable or even permitted to be vegetarian according to the Torah. I remember back in my early ba’al teshuva days that we were told that everyone had to eat meat at least once a year on Pesach, as it states in Parashat Bo:

ספר שמות פרק יב  פסוק ח וְאָכְלוּ אֶת הַבָּשָׂר בַּלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה צְלִי אֵשׁ וּמַצּוֹת עַל מְרֹרִים יֹאכְלֻהוּ:
“On this night, they shall eat the flesh, roasted over the fire, and unleavened cakes; with bitter herbs they shall eat it (Shemot 12:8).

Today, without our Holy Temple, we are not permitted to eat broiled or roasted meat or chicken on the Pesach Seder night (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 476:2). This is in order not to appear as though we are eating sanctified meat outside of the Temple. It is the practice to roast a shank bone, the day before Pesach, and place it on the Seder plate, to commemorate the Pesach sacrifice (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 473). Nowadays, people often use a chicken wing or neck. According to Rambam, this roasted meat of the Seder plate may not be eaten on the Seder night itself (Hilchot Chametz u’Matzah 8:11). The actual commandment to eat meat on Pesach pertains specifically to Temple times:

רמב"ם יד החזקה הלכות קרבן פסח פרק ח (א) אכילת בשר הפסח בליל חמשה עשר מצות עשה שנאמר ואכלו את הבשר בלילה הזה צלי אש ומצות על מרורים יאכלוהו: (ג) ואם לא אכל אלא כזית יצא ידי חובתו וכן אכילת בשר פסח שני בלילי חמשה עשר לחדש אייר מצות עשה שנאמר בו על מצות ומרורים יאכלוהו:
Partaking of the meat of the Pesach sacrifice on the night of the fifteenth of Nisan is a positive commandment, as it states: “You shall eat the meat on this night, roasted on the fire. With matzot and bitter herbs shall you eat it…” (Shemot 12:8).  Even if one does not eat more than an olive-size portion, he fulfills his obligation. Similarly, partaking of the second Pesach sacrifice on the fifteenth of the month of Iyar is a positive commandment, as stated: “Eat it with matzot and bitter herbs” (Bamidbar 9:11); (Rambam, Hilchot Korban Pesach 8:1,3). 

Until the Temple is rebuilt, may it be soon, it is not an obligation to eat meat- even on Pesach. Contrary to what I misunderstood, as a new ba’alat teshuva, Jews are not required to eat meat at the Pesach Seder or any other time. “Our Rabbis taught: A man is obligated to make his children and his household rejoice on the holidays… How does a man make them rejoice? … When the Temple was in existence there could be no rejoicing except with meat and wine… But now that the Temple is no longer in existence, there is no rejoicing save with wine…” (Babylonian Talmud Pesachim 109a).

The Beit Yosef expresses surprise that despite this conclusion in Talmud Pesachim Rambam includes the requirement of eating meat for rejoicing in the holiday (Hilchot Yom Tov 6:18); (Beit Yosef, Orach Chaim 529). Rabbi Yosef Karo accordingly rules the halacha of rejoicing on the holidays without reference to the obligation to eat meat (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 529:2). Thus, today there is no obligation to eat meat in order to fulfill the mitzvah of simchat Yom Tov (rejoicing on the holidays).

Will Animal Sacrifices be Reinstated?
The question remains, will we be obligated to become carnivores when the Third Temple is rebuilt? (May it be soon!). The answer to this question depends upon whether animal sacrifices will be reinstated during Temple times. If so, then we have a Torah commandment to partake in the Pesach sacrifice (Shemot 12:8). In his commentary on the end of the Shemone Esrei, “Then shall the offering of Yehuda and Jerusalem be pleasant to Hashem as in the days of old and as in the ancient years” (Malachi 3:4), Rav Kook wrote: “In the future, the abundance of knowledge will spread to and penetrate even animals… and the sacrifices, which will then be from grain, will be as pleasing to G-d as in days of old [when there were animal sacrifices]…” (Olat Reiyah, vol. 1 p. 292). This view coincides with Rav Kook’s description of the rarified world at the end of days when the human moral condition will abhor [eating] the flesh of animals, because of the moral loathing inherent in that act. Then you surely will not have the urge to eat meat, and you will not eat it (The Vision of Vegetarianism and Peace 4). Without doubt, Rav Kook held that when the world will reach its final perfection, humanity will return to G-d’s original plan to be herbivorous. Although, in our pre-messianic time, we experience a movement towards the return to the vegetarianism of the first human beings in the Garden, there is a dispute among modern commentaries whether according to Rav Kook animal sacrifices will be reinstated during Third Temple times. Rav Kook’s vision of the ultimate perfected ideal world, with only vegetarian sacrifices, may possibly be referring to a far distant future, following Third Temple times and techiyat hameitim (the resurrection), when the nature of the world will change, and animals will be on a human level. Then, no sacrifices will be brought from these highly conscious beings. At that time, the Torah dealing with korbanot will be interpreted on a mystical inner level (Rabbi Simcha Paltrovitch (d. 1926; Simchat Avot 7-8). So it is still possible that Rav Kook did agree that animal sacrifices would be reinstated during Third Temple times Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivotofsky.

Channeling the Vitality of the Animal into Divine Service
In conclusion, whether we are vegetarian or not, we must ingrain a heightened respect for Hashem’s creatures, and do our very best to avoid eating animals that were raised in cages or crates, without having the ability to stretch their legs. Moreover, let us work on refraining from eating any created being in a gluttonous way. Since eating meat is not necessary for survival, and can cause a more materialistic and coarser nature, let us only eat meat when we will be able to accomplish more with the meat than we would be able to with vegetation. Arizal explains that the sacrifices were a way of elevating the matter and vitality of this world to a higher plane (Arba Meot Shekel Kesef p. 57). Similarly, on a smaller scale, any mitzvah we do elevates some aspect of the material world. Thus, before biting into that scrumptious flesh, let us recognize that the meat on our dinner plate was once a living creature with emotions and consciousness. Let us be mindful that the life of the animal was taken in order that we raise up its sparks through channeling its energy into Divine service.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

What Can I Learn from My Personal Plague?

Parashat Vayera
Printable Version

My Personal Garden Struggle

One of the wars I wage is with the mole crickets in my garden. A mole cricket is one of the ugliest, most disgusting creatures I’ve ever seen. It kind of reminds me of an enlarged, monstrous cockroach. An adult mole cricket is about 3–5 cm (1.2–2.0 in) long, with small eyes and shovel-like fore limbs, highly developed for burrowing. Most mole crickets live in tunnels – that they dig underground – and use to eat the roots of plants. Sometimes, they also somehow manage to eat the tender seedlings above ground. Needless to say, they are the most devastating and aggravating garden pests I’ve ever encountered. I really don’t know why the mole crickets like my garden so much. Their persistence is also unbearable. I’ve suffered from their presence for almost 20 years, in spite of trying everything possible to get rid of them. When my son was in kindergarten, I recruited him and some of his friends to help. They were equipped with rubber boots and two sticks each to catch the mole crickets, and throw them in the buckets I provided. I promised to pay 1 shekel for each mole cricket they caught. In hindsight, that was quite generous!  I had heard that if you pour soap water on the mole crickets’ suspected locations, they will surface from under the ground. That’s exactly what happened, to the boys’ great glee! They earned many a shekel and the chickens got fed good protein that day. Too bad, that was not the end of them. Also, in my eagerness to rid myself of the detested pests, I forgot to think about the effect of the immense amount of soap water on the soil. 

Giving Up or Trying to Grow?
Over the years, we have dug up tons of soil and replaced it with balanced garden mix. We have destroyed mole-cricket tunnels and caught dozens of them.  We have starved them during shemitah (sabbatical) year. I have cried and prayed in my garden for them to disappear. One year, I even succumbed to applying regular non-organic poison, but the mole-crickets are still here. The week that I finally gave up and decided to extend my small patch of synthetic grass to cover the vegetable garden, the gardener, finally delivered the sand and peat-moss which I had ordered two years previously, to make my garden less attractive to mole crickets. The encouraging gardener insisted that keeping my vegetable garden was an important mitzvah to settle the land. So, my gardening struggle was still not over. With all of its problems, my vegetable garden served as a teaching garden for children in the Yishuv and B’erot students alike, who were also earning a small salary for their work in my garden. Despite the mole crickets, and the death of countless plants as a result thereof, we somehow managed to grow a little celery, Swiss chard, beet leaves, arugula and some unknown Chinese mustardy greens. Still, we were a far cry from growing numerous, healthy, lush garden greens. So I was thinking, what is the lesson Hashem is sending me through this mole cricket plague? How can I learn and grow from my struggle with the garden pest?

The Ten Plagues Embody Lessons for the Jews
My personal garden struggle certainly feels like a plague. Perhaps by learning about the Ten Plagues, I may gain insights to help me deal with my personal plague. The plagues in Egypt stand as the centerpiece of Parashat Vaera. In contrast to the traditional understanding, that the plagues were primarily a punishment for the wicked Egyptians who enslaved and afflicted the Jewish people, Rabbi Eliezer ben David explains that the main purpose of the plagues was to teach the assimilated Israelites vital lessons. “All the miracles done on behalf of the Jews were brought by G-d to awaken them to the peril of their moral condition and to illuminate the decadence and ugliness of the Egyptian way of life. Thus, each plague accentuated a different aspect of Egyptian depravity” (Out of the Iron Furnace p. 36). Through the lessons of the Ten Plagues, the Israelites rose from the 49th gate of impurity to the 49 Gates of Understanding, while simultaneously atoning for the wrongdoings of prior generations. In this way, the Ten Plagues are guides for how to avoid the pitfalls of history. Each plague held its own lesson to the Israelites. For example, the first one, the Plague of Blood is called “wonders” (Devarim 26:8), as it states וּבְמוֹפְתִים זֶה הַדָּם/uv’moftim zeh hadam – “with ‘wonders’ this refers to the [plague of] blood (Hagaddah of Pesach). The Plague of Blood is a greater wonder than the rest of the plagues, not only because it is the first, but because it is completely beyond nature; whereas, the rest of the plagues reflect an extended natural phenomenon. On a smaller scale, frogs, vermin or locusts etc. do sometimes infringe upon humans. However, water never turn into blood, even on a smaller scale. Thus, the first plague, “Blood,” established Hashem’s transcendence over nature. The Plague of Blood which was beyond nature came to atone for worshipping nature or science which can be traced all the way back to the sin of the Generation of the Tower, who misused their great knowledge and tried to compete with G-d.

Gaining Life lessons Through Personal Plagues
I’ve been meditating and thinking about what I can learn from my personal plague of mole crickets. I have always been an organizer. I guess I have it in my blood from generations of Yekkim (German Jews) on the side of my mother’s mother. While “cleanliness is a way to godliness,” keeping everything neat in its’ particular place and file is also a way of feeling in control. The first lesson of my garden struggle is that I’m totally out of control. It’s an important lesson and a constant reminder that everything – really everything – is in G-d’s hand, even when it seems that our choice and actions can change reality. When we experience how we can have an effect on others and on our environment, we mustn’t forget that our only power is because Hashem empowers us. The fact that mole crickets live under the ground may be coming to teach me to check into what’s going on down deep in the recesses of my psyche, in those places where repressed emotions may reside. Perhaps being busy saving the world, could be an escape from digging deep into the tunnels of our soul. Finally, the fact that mole crickets kill plants by eating their roots, reminds me of the importance of my roots. No matter how ‘new – agey’ we become, by embracing cutting edge spirituality and connecting it to Kabbalistic concepts, being rooted in traditional mainstream Judaism and tracing ourselves back to Torah from Sinai must always take precedence. In conclusion, who says we have to win every struggle? Can I learn to accept that, whether I finally prevail over the mole crickets or not is completely up to Hashem? If He decides that they belong in my garden, then, that too, is for the good. Even if our crop may be diminished, gaining life lessons through our personal plagues and struggles is the greatest growing process.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

What’s in a Name?

Parashat Shemot
Printable Version

Your Name is Your Soul Root
I’ve always been Chana – that is its Danish version which is Hanne. Although I liked my name, it is known that changing your name can change your destiny as it states:

Four things cancel a person’s negative decree, namely, charity, crying out in prayer, change of name and change of conduct…Change of name, as it is written, “Your wife Sarai, you shall not call her name Sarai, for Sarah is her name” (Bereishit 17:15). It continues, “And I will bless her, and I will give you a son from her” (ibid. 16); (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashana 16b).

I thought to add a second name, after suffering secondary infertility for many years. So, I sent my husband to Dayan Fisher z”l, who was known for helping people choose the right name, due to his deep kabbalistic knowledge of the essence of names. He told me to add another name that ended with the Hebrew letter ה/heh, which is known in the Torah to be the letter of fertility (Sefer Likutei Torah, Parashat Vayetze). He gave me two options: Bracha – ‘Blessing’ or Penina – ‘Pearl.’ Needless to say, I easily made my choice- to add more blessings to my life. Since becoming Chana Bracha and answering only to this name, my life has become filled with blessings: First of all, I was blessed with a second son. Hashem also blessed me to establish Midreshet B’erot Bat Ayin and to publish books. Guiding new converts in choosing their Jewish name is a great privilege which I enjoy, but also an immense responsibility, as each letter in their name can impact their destiny. It is interesting to note, that people sharing the same name have certain personality similarities. The Magid Mesharim (the book that documents the information revealed to Rav Yosef Karo by an angel) explains that whoever is called Avraham tends towards doing kindness, and whoever is called Yosef is either a master of self-control, or supports others in the way that Yosef supported his father and brothers. I experienced this in the names of my father and his brothers. My father’s name was Shlomo הכ"מ. He always was the person who was wiser and who knew better, while his brother Abraham was always mild and kindhearted. His other brother, Moshe, was always humble. 

Your Name Calls Out the Essence of Your Soul
Studying the layered meaning of our Hebrew names is fascinating. Our name is the vessel that holds the essence of our soul. The word שֵׁם/shem – ‘name,’ is actually the center of the word נְשָׁמָה/neshama –‘soul.’ Our mission in this world is determined by our name (Ba’al Hashem tov, Bereishit 135). According to Ramban, every person has his name hinted in the Torah. Our deeds, work, nature and character is based upon the place in the Torah where our name is alluded.

The name that one is called in Hebrew is a conduit for the life-force that is condensed into its letters... (Tanya, Sha’ar Ha’Yichud Ve’ha’Emunah, Chapter 1, p. 77a).

This is because, the numerical value of the word שֵׁם/shem – ‘name’ is identical with צִנּר/tzinor – ‘channel’ (340).  Therefore, it is important to call a person by their full Hebrew name rather than by a shortened nickname, or their secular name. It is something to keep in mind when naming children. If the name we choose is too long, it will be hard for people to call the full name. Although the names of both my sons have altogether five syllables, now, decades later, I recommend to give your children a name no longer than four syllables, since most people don’t call my sons their full two names, because they are a bit too long. Certainly if someone has more than two names, it will be nearly impossible to be consistently called by his or her full name. I’ve heard that at the very least, we must ensure to be called by our full Hebrew name once a day. So if our spouse and or child(ren) have multiple names, we can ignite their soul by calling them their full name at least once every day. My daughter-in-law consulted with Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu before naming their first daughter. She reported that the Rav said to use just one name. I understand now that this was to ensure that she would always be called by her full name. The names that our parents give us are inspired by Ruach Hakodesh (prophetic insight) so that the name given matches our soul root. My first granddaughter is called Shira (song), and she truly loves to sing and praise Hashem in prayer! Based on his name as revealed in gematria and acrostics, the Vilna Gaon knew where the Torah hints at the name of every Jew, and his destined role in the redemption of Israel. “Every Israelite has a root above in his name, in accordance with his soul-root and family merit. For it is known that the name a child is given when born is not by accident. Rather, it is placed in the parents’ mind from heaven, in accordance with the soul-root of the child (Kol HaTor, Chapter 3, Paragraph 10). I definitely felt as a channel for Hashem’s will, when I was guided to choose the names of our sons.

The Nameless Parasha Called ‘Names’
This week’s parasha is called שֵׁמוֹת./Shemot – ‘names.’ It is interesting to note that most of the people described in Parashat Shemot are nameless. For example, when it comes to Moshe’s family, everyone is anonymous as it states,

ספר שמות פרק ב פסוק א וַיֵּלֶךְ אִישׁ מִבֵּית לֵוִי וַיִּקַּח אֶת בַּת לֵוִי:
“A man went from the house of Levi and took a daughter of Levi” (Shemot 2:1).

In the following verse, the “daughter of Levi” – Moshe’s mother is simply called, הָאִשָּׁה /ha’isha – “the woman.” Moshe, himself, is merely called, הַיֶּלֶד/hayeled – “the child,” his sister, Miriam, is only called, “his sister,” and his adoptive Mom, Bitya, is never called anything other than “daughter of Pharaoh’ (see Shemot 2:2-5). Even the names of the Jewish midwives, Shifra and Puah, are nicknames connected with proliferation, as Rashi states, SHIFRA- This was Yocheved, because she used to put the babe after its birth into good physical condition (משפרת) by the care she bestowed upon it (Sotah 11b). PUAH- This was Miriam, because she cried (פּוֹעָה), talked and cooed to the newborn infant in the manner of women who soothe a crying infant. פּוֹעָה is an expression of crying out, similar to Like a travailing woman will I cry (אֶפְעֶה)” (Yesha’yahu. 42:14); (Rashi, Shemot 1:15). Scripture used these nicknames in order to emphasize that they did not doubt the approaching redemption, and for that reason they refused to heed Pharaoh’s command. Puah refers to Miriam who spoke in prophesy as it said, “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aharon...” She prophesied saying: In the future my mother will give birth to a son who will redeem Israel.  Shifra is Yocheved because she was transformed to a beautiful (shofra) young girl when she was 130 years old. This miracle was a sign that she would give birth to the redeemer of Israel, because a miracle is never performed without a reason (Kli Yakar, Shemot 1:15).

Love of life and Procreation Create True Identity
Parashat Shemot opens up with no-names as a result of the Egyptian strategy, to deprive the Jews of identity. The Jewish response was to insist all the more upon identity expressed by their Hebrew names: “The Children of Israel were redeemed from Egypt because they would not change their names…” (Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 32:5).  Pharaoh wasn’t concerned about the birth rate. He wanted to kill only the males. He feared only personalities with individual identity expressed by their names – a people that might rebel against servitude. The Egyptians were willing to absorb numerous women because they believed they would be pliable and easy to control. Although Pharaoh was able to demoralize the men, he had totally underestimated the women, who dedicated their lives to raising numerous Jewish children. It was their commitment to life that brought redemption. By omitting the names of important people in the parasha called “Names,” the Torah teaches us that there is no contradiction between reproduction and individual significance- for Israel they are interdependent. The Torah definition of individuality is closely linked with love of life and procreation. It was the women whose passion for new life provided Israel’s identity. Despite the intensity of the exile and the despair in seeing children thrown into the Nile, there was not a single person in Israel who was willing to abort an unborn fetus. This was the reason they were delivered out of Egypt (Zohar part 2, 3b). It takes love and passion for life to create true identity. The greatness of the unique contribution of the individual is interdependent on his/her commitment to the general passion to fruitfulness and multiplication. The names in Sefer Shemot exist only by virtue of that passion (Rabbi Matis Weinberg).

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Why is Blessing so Important in Judaism?

Parashat Vayechi
Printable Version

“You Shall be a Source of Blessing”
“I bless you to find your soulmate and establish a Torah home in Israel!” Words like these often emanate from my lips to students, clients and acquaintances alike. This blessing is also directed at you, dear reader, if applicable. Giving blessings is important in Judaism. It is one of the best ways to elevate our unique power of speech through prayerful communication with others. The ability to bestow blessings is integral to the very essence of the Jewish people. The very first Divine communication to Avraham, our father, established his mission to become a ‘blesser:’

“I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you…and all the families of the earth shall be blessed by you” (Bereishit 12; 2-3).

“Until now blessings were in my power. I blessed Adam and Noach - but from now on you shall bless whoever you wish” (Rashi, Bereishit 12:2). Ever since Hashem entrusted the power of blessing to our father Avraham, we, Jews, bless Hashem, each other and everything on the earth. Through bestowing blessings, Avraham and the Children of Israel, after him, have the power to elevate the world. Rather than being separate from others, the role of being the chosen people entails bringing down G-d’s blessing to one and all. Yosef was a blessing to the whole of Egypt and when Ya’acov blessed Pharaoh the famine ceased. (Rabeinu Bachaya, Bereishit 12:3). We start in small ways by recognizing our own blessings and verbally thanking Hashem for them. We then look for every opportunity to bless others with health, happiness, safe travels, inspiring learning, good sleep,  peace etc. Accustoming ourselves to constantly bless each other and ourselves is a way to see the good points in life and expand them. I trained myself and my children to say, “Baruch Hashem!” (Blessed be Hashem) for whatever comes our way. When I ask my granddaughters, “How are you?” and they answer something like, “fine,” I wait silently until they remember to add, “Baruch Hashem!”

The Blessing of Children
Whenever we have the privilege to have our son home from Yeshiva, or when graced by a visit from our married son and family, including our three granddaughters, I look forward to blessing them. It is a beautiful custom to bless our children every Friday night before Kiddush, and I treasure this enchanted, eternal moment of love and connection with our children and grandchildren. The origin of the custom can be traced all the way back to the Torah, Parashat Vayechi, when Ya’acov blessed his children and grandchildren.

ספר בראשית פרק מח פסוק יד וַיִּשְׁלַח יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת יְמִינוֹ וַיָּשֶׁת עַל רֹאשׁ אֶפְרַיִם וְהוּא הַצָּעִיר וְאֶת שְׂמֹאלוֹ עַל רֹאשׁ מְנַשֶּׁה... פסוק כ וַיְבָרֲכֵם בַּיּוֹם הַהוּא לֵאמוֹר בְּךָ יְבָרֵךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר יְשִׂמְךָ אֱלֹהִים כְּאֶפְרַיִם וְכִמְנַשֶּׁה...
“But Yisrael stretched out his right hand and laid it on Efraim’s head, though he was the younger, and his left hand on Menashe’s head… So he blessed them that day saying, ‘By you shall Israel invoke blessings, saying: G-d make you like Efraim and Menashe…’” (Bereishit 48: 14, 20).

בְּךָ/becha – “in you” has the numerical value of 22, corresponding to the Hebrew letters of the Torah. Ya’acov blessed them to merit Torah. Whoever merits Torah will lack nothing. All the goodness, blessings, redemption and healing including all the needs in the world are in the Torah, because it is the life force of everything Through it the world was created (Be’er Mayim Chaim, Bereishit 48:20). This blessing endures forever because it is given through the attribute of justice, by means of the divine nameאֱלֹקִים /Elokim. Throughout the century’s, we have been repeating Ya’acov’s blessing, “G-d make you like Efraim and Menashe” when blessing our sons. For daughters, we say, “G-d make you like Sarah, Rivkah, Rachel and Leah” (Rabbi Chaim Yair Bachrach, late 1600s, Germany). We then bless both boys and girls with the blessing of the Kohanim:
ספר במדבר פרק ו פסוק כד
יְבָרֶכְךָ הָשֵׁם וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ: פסוק כה יָאֵר הָשֵׁם פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּךָּ: פסוק כו יִשָּׂא הָשֵׁם פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם:
Yevarech’echa Hashem v’yismerecha. Yair Hashem panav elecha vichuneka. Yisa Hashem panav elecha, v’yasem lecha shalom – “May Hashem bless you and watch over you. May Hashem shine His face toward you and be gracious to you. May Hashem bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace” (Bamidbar 6:24:26).

Afterward, it’s nice to whisper a personal message to the child, praising some accomplishment in his or her week. It’s our special moment with our child – let us use it as a way of connecting in our own personal way. Lori Palatnik shares how she continued to give the Shabbat bracha even after her children moved away from home. “Friday morning, we call our younger daughter and I give her a bracha. Later in the day, we do the same for our elder daughter in Manhattan” (Lori Palatnik, Friday Night and Beyond). I am inspired to take up this practice.

The Blessing of Children in Halacha
The custom of blessing the children Friday night is first mentioned by Rav Chaim ben Betzalel, the brother of the Maharal of Prague, who writes, “It is a worldwide custom that the father blesses his son and likewise the rabbi, his student during this holy day, when the channels of blessings are open. Do not take a blessing of a commoner lightly.” The minhag (custom) to bless our children Friday night is in the secret of the extra soul we receive then, which makes us more conducive to both give and receive blessings. Furthermore, the accusers have no power on Shabbat” (Ma’avar Yibuk, Siftei Rananot, chapter 43). Rabbi Aharon Barchia (17th century) writes, “One shall put his hand on the head of the child being blessed, as it states, ‘Yisrael stretched forth his right hand and laid it on Efraim’s head…’ For our hand has 15 joints (the 14 joints of the fingers together with the palm). This corresponding to the 15 words in the blessing of the kohanim.” The Vilna Gaon would place only the right hand on the child. He held that the blessing given with both hands should be reserved for the kohanim” (Siddur HaGra). Rabbi Ya’akov Emden, however, instructs us to place both hands on the head of the child. Using all ten fingers when giving the blessing is beneficial, for kabbalistic reasons. In addition, blessing with only one hand appears as if one is being ‘stingy’ with his blessing (Siddur Ya’avetz 150:7). A tangible reason for blessing the children is that sometimes during the week, the parents may inadvertently curse their children out of anger. The Friday night blessing reverse that. Even the negative angel is forced to answer, “Amen,” when he hears how the father rectifies his relationship with his children at this auspicious moment (Siddur Ohr Zarua l’tzaddik). Almost every family concludes the blessing with a kiss or a hug. No matter what conflicts occurred during the week, at the moment of blessing, the child cannot help but feel very special and very loved.

May Mothers Bless their Children Friday Night?
Throughout the generations, the traditional blessing of sons and daughters Friday night has been a privilege reserved mainly for the father. In the Torah, it was Ya’acov and Moshe who imparted blessings. Besides Avigail, who blessed King David, “the soul of my lord shall be bound in the bundle of life with Hashem your G-d” (I Shemuel 25:29), I cannot recall any reference to a woman in the Bible bestowing blessings. The halachic sources regarding the blessing of the children, quoted above, only mentions fathers and rabbis. It is, therefore, not surprising that when our first son was born, my husband alone would give him his Friday night blessing, since that was the most prevalent custom. Many years later, when our second son was born, I too desired to bless him Friday nights. It seemed obvious to me that there could be no restrictions on bestowing a blessing, since anyone is allowed to bless anyone. I inquired, anyway, and learned that, indeed, in some communities, it was the tradition for also the mother to impart the Friday night blessing to her children. According to Rav Yitzchak Yosef, both parents should always bless their children, particularly on Shabbat eve, and, on the night of Yom Kippur (Yalkut Yosef, Honoring Parents, pp. 431-432). Among Sephardim, there is a widespread custom for children to kiss their parents’ hands on Friday night and then receive their blessing. As we quoted above from Siddur Ohr Zarua l’tzaddik, children may perhaps have angered their mother or father during the week. Therefore, they should receive the blessing from both their father and mother on Shabbat eve (based on Rabbi Jacob S. Kassin, Daily Halacha). In fact, the Arizal teaches sons to kiss their mother’s hand upon arriving home Friday night, in order to prepare it for bestowing the blessing (Arizal, Sha’ar Hakavanot, Aravit Leil Shabbat, drush 2). My daughter-in-law, of Iraqi descent, reported that in her family, the grandmother blesses the grandchildren Friday nights, so I’m happy to continue her family tradition.

Why Efrayim and Menashe?
In Parashat Vayechi, on his deathbed, Ya’acov called all of his sons for a final blessing. The first ones to receive his blessing were Yosef’s two sons: “On that day Ya’acov blessed them. He said, ‘In time to come, the Jewish people will use you as a blessing. They will say, May G-d make you like Ephraim and Menashe” (Beresishit 48:20). Rashi explains that when one wishes to bless his sons, will bless them by reciting the formula: a man will say to his son, “G-d make you as Efraim and Menashe.” From that day forward, they would become role models for Jewish children everywhere. What were their special qualities that make them worthy to emulate and be mentioned in the blessing of parents throughout the generations?  Unlike the patriarchs and the rest of the tribes, Efraim and Menashe grew up in exile – in the decadent Egypt. Yet despite great odds, they still remained faithful to Judaism. We cannot always guarantee that our children will not be exposed to a negative environment. We, therefore, give them the blessing to be like those who were not tempted by their immoral surroundings and maintained their distinct Jewish identities (Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, 19th century Germany). Moreover, in contrast to their ancestors, Efraim and Menashe, were the first brothers among our forefathers to live without rivalry (Rav David Ish-Shalom). Menashe did not harbor jealousy when Ya’acov bestowed his younger brother, Efraim, with the double blessing, and Efraim did not become arrogant (Sefer Derech Pekudecha 55). By blessing our children to be like Efraim and Menashe, we strive to bestow upon our children the legacy of peace and harmony between brothers –that ultimately leads to redemption. The ability to maintain Jewish values in a non-Jewish environment and having a loving, noncompetitive relationship with siblings became the benchmark for raising Jewish children for millennia later.

My Father’s Last Blessing
Since, I did not grow up in a Torah-observant environment; I never merited receiving this Friday night blessing. However, as an adult, when I would visit my parents in Denmark, they were happy to keep the Shabbat meals together as a family with Kiddush, handwashing and everything. During one of the last Friday night meals together with both of my parents, I had the idea to ask my father to bless my sister and me with the traditional blessing of children. As he was not fluent in Hebrew, I recited each word very slowly for my father to repeat. The blessings took a very long time, but receiving my father’s blessing that Friday night was one of the most memorable moments in my life. I felt the intensity of my father’s effort in reciting the blessing as if the light of that one blessing included all the Friday night blessings throughout the years and made up for all the blessings I had missed as a child.