Tuesday, January 26, 2016

How do we Know that the Torah is True?

Life Lessons from the Rebbetzin’s Heart - Parashat Yitro
Our Unbroken Links Confirming National Revelation
Student Artwork: Mount Sinai
Pat answers always bothered me. “How do we know that we are not allowed to play the guitar on Shabbat?” “Because Hashem says so!” “But how do we know that Hashem really says that?” “Because it’s written in the Torah.” “But how do we know that the Torah is really true?” Because Hashem says so!” These are some of the dialogues I engaged in, when I was a newcomer to Torah. As much as I drove my teachers crazy, their answers also really annoyed me. They made me realize that I was on my own in my quest for truth and I had no choice but to investigate for myself. My search for truth actually began in my early teens. I flirted with newborn Christians, orange-clad worshippers of a certain Guru whose name I have luckily forgotten, even Hara Krishna. None of them gave me any satisfactory answers of why their religion would be true. Every single religion in the world except for Judaism is founded on the testimony of one ‘enlightened’ person who convinced his followers that G-d either spoke to him or fathered him. Yet in recent history we have witnessed how great, charismatic leaders have the ability to sway away masses to believe their story and follow them blindly to carry out even mass-murder. This fact greatly detracts from the credibility of religions that originated in the revelation or vision of a single person. Even if the ‘revelation’ was seen by more than one person, as long as it is still a small percentage of the population, such a claim can easily be questioned. This is not so regarding a national revelation. Rabbi Yehuda Halevi points out that in the giving of the Torah, G-d revealed himself to the entire nation of Israel consisting of three million people. All the people present at the revelation at Sinai passed their experience down to their children, who in turn passed it down to their children. This tradition has continued from generation to generation until recent history. All Jewry affirmed the unbroken tradition that their direct ancestors had experienced national prophecy at Mount Sinai until the peak of the ‘enlightenment period’ about two hundred years ago. Virtually every Jew alive today can trace himself back to relatives who believed with all their heart and soul that they were links in an unbroken genealogical chain going all the way back to Sinai.

Could Moshe Have Invented the Torah?
People are generally apt to tell their children and grandchildren about momentous occasions in their lives, such as a mass revelation from G-d. As the Kuzari affirms, it is very unlikely that parents would want to lie about important matters, such as the revelation at Sinai, to their children. Why would anyone make up a story that limits his own freedom of action, for example, to play guitar on Shabbat? Judaism is the only religion that claims national revelation. It’s interesting that no other religion has ever made such a claim, which would certainly strengthen their credibility to promulgate Divine truth. They do not make such an assertion, as they would be unable to sustain it. How would it be possible for any charlatan to convince an entire people that they experienced a grand divine revelation if it never happened? This is certainly true if this claim was presented to that generation itself, since it’s impossible to convince others that they experienced something they didn’t. They could easily deny the story any time during the first two or three generations after the alleged mass prophecy took place. Even if the claim was made later, regarding the experience of an earlier generation, if it was not actually true, people would question why didn’t anyone ever hear of it? Especially since the Israelites are a “stiff-necked people” (Shemot 32:9). This means that we are stubborn and it is hard to convince us of anything. We don’t take other people’s words at their face value unless we have checked out the matter carefully by ourselves. Moreover, if Moshe had invented the Torah why would he expose his own and his brother’s shortcomings so blatantly? Much has written about ‘The Kuzari Principle’ see for example the excellent articles by Rabbi Kelemen and Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb.

Who Can Negate that We Ourselves Were Prophets?

ספר שמות פרק יט (ט) וַיֹּאמֶר הָשֵׁם אֶל משֶׁה הִנֵּה אָנֹכִי בָּא אֵלֶיךָ בְּעַב הֶעָנָן בַּעֲבוּר יִשְׁמַע הָעָם בְּדַבְּרִי עִמָּךְ וְגַם בְּךָ יַאֲמִינוּ לְעוֹלָם:
“Hashem said to Moshe: ‘Behold, I come to you in a thick cloud, that the people may hear when I speak with you, and may also believe in you forever...’” (Shemot 19:9).

The Torah itself testifies that the purpose of the revelation at Sinai was to verify the eternal truth of the Torah of Moshe. There were among the Israelites some who doubted Moshe’s prophecy, and although it stated at the splitting of the Sea, “They believed in Hashem and in Moshe his servant,” it only stated, “Israel saw” but not “all of Israel saw.” Therefore, Hashem revealed Himself at Sinai, “In order that the people will hear when I speak with you” – the Ten Commandments, “So they may also believe in you” – that you are my prophet. From now on the matter of prophesy will be verified to them (Ibn Ezra, Shemot 19:9). Ramban emphasizes the importance that we ourselves were prophets and didn’t just receive the Torah through an intermediary. In this way, “They will also believe in you forever” – throughout the generations. If any prophet arises and tries to negate the Torah of Moshe, the Jews will refute him immediately; as they saw with their own eyes and heard with their own ears that Moshe reached the highest level of prophesy that no other prophet can ever reach. This is because all the Israelites heard Hashem’s words from within the fire, and they knew that Hashem was speaking with Moshe, as it states, “This day we saw that G-d spoke with a person who heard the voice of the living G-d speaking out of the midst of the fire and lived” (Devarim 5:21). This verified Moshe’s irrefutable prophecy that can never become “old” or outdated.

How do we Know What the Tefillin are?
Some people may accept the Divine origin of the Written Torah but have a much harder time accepting the Oral Torah. When you buy a new washing machine or computer, in addition to the written manual someone explains to you orally how to best use your new device and protect it from damage. When Hashem gave the Jewish people His written manual of how to achieve our purpose, He included a dynamic oral explanation about how to adapt the manual to various times, places and situations. There are endless examples in the Written Torah that cannot be understood without its Oral explanation. For example, have you ever seen anyone wearing round, purple, plastic tefillin? The only references in the Written Torah to tefillin are, “It shall be for a sign to you upon your hand, and for a memorial between your eyes… (Shemot 13:9), “It shall be a sign on your hand and totafot between your eyes (Shemot 13:16), “Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a frontlet between your eyes” (Devarim 6:5-8). Without the Oral Torah, how would we know that the tefillin are supposed to be two, small, square, black, leather boxes with black leather straps attached to them? The Torah makes it clear that it was being transmitted side by side with an oral tradition. Many terms and definitions used in the written law – for example, the laws of shechita (Kosher slaughtering), divorce and the rights of the firstborn – are all assumed as common knowledge and are not elaborated on within the Biblical text. Rambam explains, “All the mitzvot that that were given to Moshe at Sinai were given with their explanation. As it is written, ‘I will give the tablets of stone, and the Torah, and the mitzvah’ (Shemot 24:12). ‘The Torah’ – this is the Written Torah. ‘And the mitzvah’ – this is its explanation. He commanded us to fulfill the Torah in accordance with the mitzvah. This ‘mitzvah’ is what is called the Oral Torah” (Rambam, Introduction to Mishnah Torah). The Written and the Oral Torah are inseparable, as no text can have any authoritative meaning without an accompanying tradition as to the principles that govern its interpretation. Often I hear claims such as, “The Rabbis made up this and that for their own convenience.” Actually, the Oral law includes many more inconvenient rules- not convenient shortcuts such as those we have seen recently in the Reform movement. If the Rabbis made up the Oral Torah, why did they have to make it so complicated for themselves and the rest of us? Perhaps the author of these intricate laws is no other than the Eternal G-d Who knows exactly why each detail of observance is necessary for us to fulfill our Jewish potential?

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Miracles, Money Matters, Manna and Emunah

Life Lessons from the Rebbetzin’s Heart - Parashat Beshalach
Why is it so Important to Believe in Miracles?
Herbal Workshop
Most of my students at Midreshet B’erot Bat Ayin are mystically inclined and have no problem with believing in Hashem and His Torah. However, I have also taught very rationally oriented students in other places, who have a much harder time believing in the miracles recounted in the Torah. I recall teaching such students about Sarah’s miraculous conception and birth at the age of ninety, and encountering considerable opposition. “How do we know this really happened in historical reality? Perhaps the Torah is not to be taken literally?” were some of the questions they asked. In the Western World, we grew up believing in only what can be proven scientifically. Miracles don’t fit into that category and it is the very fact that we can’t explain or prove a certain phenomenon that defines it as a miracle. Believing in miracles are central in Judaism, because they are windows of light within the darkness of the world testifying to the belief in One Creator. If Hashem can create a new miraculous reality beyond nature, then He can also create the original nature. Giving birth when it is naturally impossible, proves the divine nature of even natural births. All religions are based on emunah (faith), as the existence of G-d cannot be proven. Yet, it also cannot be scientifically disproven (Rambam, The Guide). I always intuitively felt that there was more between Heaven and Earth than the naked eye can fathom. Just the fact that we have a soul with a yearning for something more than the physical world makes us believe in an otherworldly reality.

Emunah from the Exodus
The more we believe the more we attract Divine Providence and miracles to our lives. This is why the belief in the super-rational is so central in the Torah. On Chanukah, we place our candles in the doorway or window of our home and inside of the Synagogue in order to “publicize the miracle” (Beur Halacha 671). The Exodus from Egypt was replete with miracles that attested to the existence of G-d. Therefore, remembering the Exodus is one of the Six Remembrances, we are supposed to recall every day. We mention the Exodus in Kiddush on Friday night and the entire seven-day holiday of Pesach is devoted to commemorate the miracles of the Exodus and inculcate its lessons, for experiencing miracles strengthen our emunah:

ספר שמות פרק יד (לא) וַיַּרְא יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַיָּד הַגְּדֹלָה אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה הָשֵׂם בְּמִצְרַיִם וַיִּירְאוּ הָעָם אֶת הָשֵׁם וַיַּאֲמִינוּ בַּהָשֵׁם וּבְמשֶׁה עַבְדּו:
“Israel saw Hashem’s great hand in Egypt, and the people feared Hashem and believed in Hashem and in Moshe His servant” (Shemot 14:31).

Imagine being trapped between the vast, raging Mediterranean Sea and the ferocious, violent Egyptians with their brutal, murderous spears, and then experiencing being miraculously saved by Hashem’s hand splitting the sea at the split second when you were hanging between life and death. No wonder that after this experience, the Jewish people were strengthened in their emunah. The more we notice the small miracles in our lives the more we too can strengthen our emunah, that there is a G-d in charge, and our lives have meaning. Some people’s rational mindset prefers downplaying the miracles. I remember learning as a child in school that the splitting of the sea was not a miracle in itself as it was incorporated within the nature of the world that the sea was going to split every thousand years or so. The miracle was only that it split exactly at the moment of need. Even according to this watered down version of the miracle, it is impossible to explain away the belief in the Creator behind the scenes Who directs what’s going on at the stage.

The Four Categories of Emunah
Cultivating emunah is the main principle of the Torah.
There are four categories of emunah:
1. Believing in G-d who created the world and continuously keeps the world going.
2. Believing in the prophets and accepting their teachings. This includes keeping all the mitzvot mentioned in the Torah of Moshe, our greatest prophet.
3. Believing in the World-to-Come where the righteous receive their reward. The main thing that convinced me to believe in the World- to-Come is the notion that there needs to be a place to fill every lack and need.
4. Believing in the Redeemer (Mashiach), a fundamental principle in the Torah. Having emunah empowers us with great merit as it states, “He believed in Hashem, and He attributed it to him as righteousness” (Bereishit 15:6). It is through emunah that we merit the Garden of Eden and the World-to-Come. “A tzaddik lives by his emunah” (Chabakkuk 2:4). Those who don’t believe in all this do not merit redemption (Rabbeinu Bachaya, Shemot 14:31).

Why Do We Need to Believe in Mashiach?
One of my students recently asked me, why we need to believe in the Mashiach. Why is believing in the final redeemer so fundamental in the Torah that Rambam enumerates it as one of the Thirteen Principles of Belief? The Torah teaches us that everything in our lives is for a purpose- to refine ourselves and become the very best we are created to be. Not just to develop our talents and land a lucrative job but to refine our character to become loving, giving, humble, happy and grateful etc. Likewise, the entire world needs to become rectified in order to achieve the purpose for which it is created. The purpose of Creation is to reveal G-d who is hidden in the world. This is why the Hebrew name for world is עוֹלָם/olam, which means concealed. The light of G-d is obscured behind the darkness of hunger, disease, war and terrorism. All this pain makes us ask, “Where is G-d? Why does G-d allow such suffering to exist?” The Ramchal answers that Hashem created us to earn our eternal blissful existence by engaging in holy actions that bring light into the dark reality in order to rectify the evil in the world. The Mashiach is a person of flesh and blood who will bring about the culmination of this rectification of humanity and the entire world. After having refined his own character to the best of human ability, he will renew the Kingdom of the House of David, build the Eternal Temple, and gather the dispersed exiled Jews back to Israel. He will restore a government built on Torah laws, including the laws of the land. He will then bring the entire world to serve Hashem together (Rambam, Laws of Kings 11:1,4). When the world achieves its final purpose with the help of Mashiach there will no longer be hunger or war: no more jealousy or competition, and the main occupation of all humanity will be only to know Hashem (Ibid. 5).

Amen and Emunah
Rabbeinu Bachaya explains that since emunah is such a fundamental principle in the Torah, our Sages taught us about the importance of saying ‘Amen’ – derived from the same root as emunah. The word אמן/amen is in itself an acronym for אל מלך נאמן/El Melech Ne’eman – G-d, the faithful King. When we answer amen to a blessing, we verify our belief in Hashem Whose Name is the central part of the blessing. According to the Torah, a matter can be established only by means of two witnesses (Devarim 19:15). The one who answers amen, thus becomes the second witness who establishes the true belief in Hashem. Therefore, “The person who answers amen is greater than the person who makes the blessings” (Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 53b). One who answers amen loudly with all his strength is rewarded that the gates of the Garden of Eden will be opened for him as it states, “Open the gates, that the righteous nation that keeps אמונים/emunim – faithfulness may enter in” (Yesha’yahu 26:2); (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 119b). It is interesting that the word אמן/amen has the numerical value of 91 – which equals the value of the four lettered name of Hashem yud-key-vav-key representing miracles (26) plus the way we pronounce it Ado-nai (65), (26+65=91). As we come closer to redemption, where the belief in Hashem will permeate the world, the ‘Amen Party’ has become very popular. We bring foods and drinks for each category of blessing: wheat crackers (mezonot), wine (hagefen), fruits (ha’etz), vegetables (ha’adama) and something with the blessing (shehakol). Each of the participants takes a cracker in her hand and we pray for people who need parnassa (money), then each one in turn recites her blessing and the remaining guests recite amen. We continue with the rest of the food in the order mentioned above, praying for people to find their soulmate before drinking the wine/grape-juice, for children prior to eating the fruits, for health followed by eating the vegetable and for anything before reciting the last blessing. Our students recently enjoyed such an ‘Amen Party’ and emerged strengthened in their emunah. I highly recommend it!

Emunah over Money
The pursuit of money is something that easily entices us away from emunah. When we think of all the expenses we need to pay, we may be enticed to working harder in order to make more money at the expense of Torah learning. Often people leave the Holy Land for the Goldene Medinah in order to increase their monthly salary. What they forget to consider is that the expenses also increase in North America especially for the most important thing in life: Jewish Education. This week’s parashah teaches us to have emunah that when you keep Hashem’s mitzvot, the Almighty will take care of you and provide you with the material blessings that you need to live a quality life. During the forty-year wilderness wandering, Hashem fed us daily with the heavenly manna. We had to live from hand to mouth, picking only as much as we needed for that very day, in order to develop emunah that Hashem would provide for us again tomorrow. If we tried to save up for the future it would become wormy (Shemot 16:19-20). The one exception was when Hashem specifically instructed Moshe to save a small jug of manna to teach emunah to the future generations:

ספר שמות פרק טז (לב) וַיֹּאמֶר משֶׁה זֶה הַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה הָשֵׂם מְלֹא הָעֹמֶר מִמֶּנּוּ לְמִשְׁמֶרֶת לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם לְמַעַן יִרְאוּ אֶת הַלֶּחֶם אֲשֶׁר הֶאֱכַלְתִּי אֶתְכֶם בַּמִּדְבָּר בְּהוֹצִיאִי אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:
“Moshe said, This is the thing which Hashem commands, fill an Omer of it to be kept for your generations, that they may see the bread with which I fed you in the wilderness, when I brought you up from the land of Egypt” (Shemot 16:32).

Rashi explains, “In the days of Jeremiah when he was rebuking the people saying, “Why do you not engage yourselves with the Torah? They answered him. If we leave our work and occupy ourselves with the Torah, how will we be able to make a living?” He then, brought out to them, the cruse of manna and told them, “O Generation, see the thing of Hashem (Yermiyahu 2:31). He didn’t say, “hear the word” but “see the thing!” This thing is what your fathers were fed. The Almighty G-d has many messengers to provide food for those who fear Him” (Rashi, Shemot 16:32). This lesson is pertinent today more than ever, when many Jews exchange the slavery to Pharaoh in Egypt with the slavery to money. When we work on doing Hashem’s will and chose emunah over money then we will never lack in Hashem’s bounty, just as we recite in the Grace after Meals, “…a righteous person will never be forsaken.” Manna actually has the same last two letters of amen – the root of emunah. Furthermore, money and manna sounds alike and have many things in common. Just as the manna sustained us, so do we need money for our sustenance. Just as the manna would taste like whatever you wanted, so can you buy many different things that you want with money. As long as we have manna we don’t need money. Reading the section about the manna in this week’s parasha, this Tuesday is a segulah (spiritual remedy) for receiving money! Just as Hashem provided the Israelites with manna in the desert so will He provide us with all the money we need as long as we keep up our steadfast emunah!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Is there any Spiritual Difference between Jew and Gentile?

Life Lessons from the Rebbetzin’s Heart - Parashat Bo
My Non-Jewish Goy Friend
When I was a teenager in Denmark, the name of my best friend who lived across the street was Goy! We had lots of fun together making recordings, interviews and our own made-up youth programs. I was not surprised when she became a journalist with a high position in Denmark’s Radio. We later laughed about the meaning of the name ‘Goy’ as she was my only non-Jewish friend who actually made it to my very Jewish wedding at King David’s Tomb. In my group of nature loving friends, who played guitar, read Herman Hesse and Carlos Castaneda, it made hardly any difference whether or not you were Jewish. We all connected together in our mutual adoration of the Native Americans and the spiritual saints of the Far East. When I moved to Israel and embraced the Torah lifestyle, I became separated from my old non-Jewish friends in Denmark. I still care about them and respect them, but our lives have grown apart. One of the things that actually brought me to Torah is my own experience of the inherent spiritual difference between Jews and non-Jews. As I was hitchhiking alone through Europe at the age of 19, I was naturally vulnerable and sought security among other travelers. That’s when I realized that I felt most safe in the company of fellow-Jews. I learned to spot other Jews in a crowd wherever I travelled. I instinctually felt a difference when I looked into their eyes. It was as if the eyes of a Jew were deeper – the mirrors of a deeper soul.

Deliverance from Spiritual Assimilation
Whenever Jews live assimilated lives in a non-Jewish society for an extended period of time, the difference between us becomes blurred as we take on the non-Jewish lifestyle, fashion, menu and culture. The root and beginning of such assimilation took place in the Egyptian exile, where we were absorbed for 210 years. Therefore, Hashem needed to use signs, wonders and plagues in order to extract the Jewish souls from our non-Jewish society, not only physically but also emotionally and spiritually. The miracles that Hashem performed in Egypt were not only to punish the Egyptians but especially “to awaken the Jews to the peril of the decadence and ugliness of the Egyptian way of life. Thus, each of the plagues accentuated a different aspect of Egyptian depravity. Far from simply being punishments for their misdeeds, the Ten Plagues focused a radiant bright light on the Egyptian culture from which the Jewish people had to be liberated. The redemption from bondage to false ideas and immoral practices is not as easily accomplished as the breaking of physical chains and shackles. This liberation is the truly great story of The Exodus, which is sadly so often overlooked” (Eliezer Ben David, Out of the Iron Furnace p. 36). All future assimilations are included in the way we were absorbed in Egypt, as a nation within a nation.

ספר דברים פרק ד (לד) אוֹ הֲנִסָּה אֱלֹהִים לָבוֹא לָקַחַת לוֹ גוֹי מִקֶּרֶב גּוֹי בְּמַסֹּת בְּאֹתֹת וּבְמוֹפְתִים וּבְמִלְחָמָה וּבְיָד חֲזָקָה וּבִזְרוֹעַ נְטוּיָה וּבְמוֹרָאִים גְּדֹלִים כְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לָכֶם הָשֵֹם אֱלֹהֵיכֶם בְּמִצְרַיִם לְעֵינֶיך:
“Or has G-d ventured to go and take Him one nation from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, and by wonders, and by war, and by a mighty hand, and by an outstretched arm, and by an awesome power, according to all that Hashem your G-d did for you in Egypt before your very eyes?” (Devarim 4:34).

From this verse, Rabbeinu Bachaya learns that “the Israelites had become similar to the Egyptians. They would walk in their ways, worship their gods and wear the same hairstyle.” We are still awaiting Hashem’s mighty hand to shake us out of our current assimilation.

Lessons of Morality from the Plagues in Egypt
The lessons of each of the Ten Plagues that liberated us from one of the aspects of our assimilation, into which we were absorbed, are still pertinent today. This week’s parasha contains the last three culminating plagues through which we were able to emerge from Egypt. The lesson of the Plague of Locust is to rectify our sense of seeing that may have been influenced by the secular media. We need to learn to free ourselves from the misuse of our eyesight that easily becomes prey to petty enticing externals. This lesson is alluded to in the Plague of the Locust described as blocking the human eyesight.

ספר שמות פרק י (ה) וְכִסָּה אֶת עֵין הָאָרֶץ וְלֹא יוּכַל לִרְאֹת אֶת הָאָרֶץ:
“They shall cover the face of the earth so no-one can see the face of the earth…” (Shemot 10:5).

The lesson of the Plague of Darkness is to teach us proper parameters of relationship. During this plague “they did not see one another, neither did anyone rise from his place for three days” (Shemot 10:23). This was a “time-out” for reflecting on whom to associate with, as each person leaves a mark upon our character. Which family members, friends, close or casual, acquaintances, colleges etc. help strengthen us in serving Hashem, and which distance us from His service? During these three days, each person was completely cut off from his fellow. The message was clear: When the light once again returns and you set about to reestablish your relationships, do so in the bright light, not in the darkness of the Egyptian influence (Eliezer ben David, ibid p. 136).

The Plague of the Firstborn was the culmination of the deliverance of Israel from within Egypt. The firstborn symbolizes the very best. The Egyptians took the best that they had – their great wisdom, creativity and industry and dedicated it to the forces of evil. In contrast, Israel must dedicate all the Firsts to Hashem (Ibid p. 140). This final distinguishing plague was the only plague in which Israel had to actively participate, as it states,

ספר שמות פרק יב (ז) והְלָקְחוּ מִן הַדָּם וְנָתְנוּ עַל שְׁתֵּי הַמְּזוּזֹת וְעַל הַמַּשְׁקוֹף עַל הַבָּתִּים:
“They shall take of the blood, and put it on the two מְּזוּזֹת/mezuzot – side-posts and on the lintel, upon the houses…” (Shemot 12:7).

The holiday celebrating our Exodus is called Pesach to commemorate that Hashem פָּסַח/pasach – skipped over the houses of the Israelites, “when He smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses” (Ibid. 27). The fact that Hashem had to “skip over” the Jewish homes during the Plague of the Firstborn, testifies that the Israelites had become so assimilated that they lived among the Egyptians – in the very hearts of their neighborhoods. Taking the blood of the ram worshiped by the Egyptians and smearing it on their doorposts became the sign of a Jewish home. It is interesting that to this day, the mezuzah graces the homes of some of the most assimilated Jews, distinguishing their houses from their gentile neighbor’s and reminding them of their Jewishness.

Signs of Distinction Shaking us out of Assimilation
It seems to me that during the archetypal exile which included all future exiles, Hashem taught us eternal lessons to help inculcate within us the inherent difference between Jews and non-Jews throughout all our future exiles. Thus, each of the Ten Plagues distinguished between the Children of Israel and the Egyptian society – from the blood of the first plague to the blood of the last plague of the firstborn. The midrash states that during the plague of blood, the only way the Egyptians could drink water was when they purchased it from a Jew. Even if they tried to drink from the same cup of an Israelite, the water in the cup would turn to blood only for the Egyptians (Midrash Rabbah, Shemot 9:11). Thus, each plague distinguished between Jew and non-Jew as for example in the plague of darkness, which did not affect Israel one bit.

ספר שמות פרק י (כג) וּלְכָל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הָיָה אוֹר בְּמוֹשְׁבֹתָם:
“…But all of the children of Israel, had light in their dwellings” (Shemot 10:23).

Knowing our Jewish Difference while Respecting the Greatness of Gentiles
I am one of the many Jews who grew up side by side with gentiles, wearing the same fashions, reading the same books, using the same smartphones and dancing to similar music. It is sometimes hard to believe that there is any inherent difference between a Jew and a non-Jew. When we look so similar on the outside how can there be any substantial difference on the inside? From the Zohar, the Kuzari to the Tanya, the Torah is replete with teachings about the spiritual difference between Jews and gentiles. According to Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi, only a Jew has the capability to become a true prophet (Kuzari 1:115). There is a fine line between knowing our Jewish difference while still respecting all humankind. Rav Kook teaches us about the importance of loving all humankind, “despite all variations of religions, opinions, and faiths, and race…” He condemns “the narrowness that causes us to regard other nations as ugly and defiled,” and calls it a terrible darkness “that brings general destruction upon all building of spiritual good, for the light of which every refined soul hopes” (Mussar Avicha p. 58). Rambam even credits every person including gentiles with the ability to reach the greatest holiness. “Not only the tribe of Levi, but every single person from all inhabitants of the world (מכל באי העולם/m’kol ba’ei ha-olam) whose spirit guides him, and whose intellect leads him to understand… know G-d and walk straight as G-d created him… he is sanctified with the greatest holiness (קדש קדשים/kodesh kedoshim)… (Mishna Torah, Laws of Sabbatical and Jubilee Years 13:13).

The Unquestionable Distinction of the Jewish Soul
As Rambam teaches, not every non-Jew is an evil oppressor, like Pharaoh, Haman and Hitler. Parallel with our cruel and murderous enemies, there is a growing non-denominational new-age movement including many righteous gentiles, who believe in one G-d, mindfulness, kindness, and Tikun Olam (repairing the world). Many of them such as Louise Hay, Carolyn Myss, Wayne Dyer, and Neal Donald Walch seem to have reached very high levels of consciousness, as well as being involved in righteous deeds for the sake of the betterment of the world. People like these, make it hard to believe that non-Jews possess only an animal soul, whereas Jews exclusively have a Divine soul. The Zohar teaches that there are five parts to the Jewish soul: nefesh, ruach, neshama, chaya and yechida (Zohar 1:267a, hasmatot). Without going into the nature of each of these soul levels, I believe that the reason why we may often feel spiritually similar to high-level gentiles is that we Jews are still not manifesting the many levels of our spiritual capacity. Most of us may only be operating on the lowest nefesh level, which we surely share with all humankind. I believe that righteous gentiles may reach at least the level of ruach as the midrash teaches that every person can receive ruach hakodesh. If gentiles have the ability to become divinely inspired with ruach hakodesh, their soul certainly has the potential to operate not only on the level of nefesh but also on the level of ruach:

ילקוט שמעוני שופטים - פרק ד  

המשך רמז מב מעיד אני עלי את השמים ואת הארץ בין גוי בין ישראל בין איש בין אשה בין עבד בין שפחה הכל לפי מעשיו של אדם רוח הקדש שורה עליו:
“May heavens and earth stand witness, be it a gentile or a Jew, be it a man or a woman, be it a male-servant or maid-servant, according to a person’s actions is he worthy of ruach hakodesh” (Yalkut Shimoni, Shoftim 4).

The Jewish soul,however, has an even higher potential than reaching ruach hakodesh. Encoded within the yechida level of the Jewish soul is the eternal bond that makes us incapable of being separated from G-d. Only when we obtain the spiritual recharge of the Temple in Jerusalem, (may it be soon!) will we Jews be able to access this hidden soul level that gives us the capacity to once again become prophets. At that time, the spiritual distinction of a Jewish soul will become unquestionable.

Monday, January 4, 2016

The Challenge of Communication

Life Lessons from the Rebbetzin’s Heart - Parashat Vaera
An Aggravating Misunderstanding
Communication is everything. I remember a traumatic day of my life on my way to one of my annual North American tours. The taxi was supposed to arrive at 8:30 to take me to the airport. I was busy with last minute tasks, making sure my iPhone was 100% charged, answering my last emails and deleting them from the inbox, so I only noticed when it was almost 9 o’clock that the taxi was late. All my phones were charged and ready to receive the call from the driver announcing that he had arrived. As I continued doing yet another dish and wiping my phones spotless, I nervously gazed out the window, but no taxi was in view. Now, as I began to get worried about missing my plane, I tried to call the taxi-company but was unable to get through. In panic, I ran up my driveway to the top of the street, dragging my suitcase, but there was still no taxi waiting there. As I ran down the street, passing two houses to my right, I finally spotted him – the taxi driver, relaxingly smoking a cigarette, while reading the newspaper. “Finally you arrive,” he reprimanded me. “I have been waiting here for 40 minutes.” Needless to say, this was not an easy start of a challenging speaking tour. When I asked the driver why he hadn’t called, he retorted that I was supposed to call him! Many similar miscommunications happen all the time. People only hear the part of the story most beneficial to themselves, or even worse, sometimes you feel that they don’t even hear you at all. One of the hardest things in life is when you open yourself to someone with whom you are close, but the person totally ignores you and what you shared with her. People don’t always have the capacity to process what you are communicating or it brings up something too painful for them to deal with. Effective communication is challenging. In Western culture, we are encouraged to speak up, voice our opinion and express our feelings. However, we need to learn to think before we talk. “There is time to keep silence and a time to speak” (Kohelet 3:7). It may be worthwhile asking ourselves before we communicate, “Is my message sensible? Is the person ready to hear my message? What would be the most appropriate time and the best way of communicating in order to get my message across?”

Body Language and other Signs that Accompany our Communication
Communication problems are highlighted in this week’s parasha, which opens by Moshe telling the people that G-d will redeem them. Yet, they cannot hear it:

ספר שמות פרק ו (ט) וַיְדַבֵּר משֶׁה כֵּן אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ אֶל משֶׁה מִקֹּצֶר רוּחַ וּמֵעֲבֹדָה קָשָׁה:
“Moshe spoke thus to the children of Israel but they did not listen to Moshe because of their shortness of spirit (or breath) caused by hard work (Shemot 6:9).

Pharaoh can’t hear Moshe, either. The Torah tells us numerous times, וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֲלֵהֶם /velo shama aleihem –“He [Pharaoh] did not listen to them [Moshe and Aharon].” G-d brings a new method of communication to these hard-of-hearing folk, one based not on the subtleties of words but on the clearer medium of the אוֹת/ot – the “sign,” a physical visual event that defies the ordinary laws of nature. To such signs both the people of Israel and Pharaoh must eventually listen. This teaches us that we too may need to use signs for effective communication. Such signs might be our body language, the tone of our voice, or a cup of coffee and cake to accompany our conversation. As people grow older, often their hearing weakens, requiring greater face-to-face communication. Thus, our dwindling sense of hearing may actually engender deeper levels of communication, through the closeness of eye contact, reading facial expressions, body movements and other signs.

The Pitfalls of Internet Communication
We spend an increasing amount of time at the internet and social media, often at the expense of face-to-face communication. Some of us are so addicted to our smartphone that even when meeting with a loving family member that we haven’t seen for a while, we each sit with our smartphone, messaging and multitasking while hanging out with each other. I personally spend most of my day at the computer, and write an average of 30 emails daily. The advantage of email is certainly speed. We can communicate with people across the world at the blink of an eye. Yet, big blunders happen more than once when we quickly press the send button forgetting to delete prior communication at the bottom of the email, not meant for this particular recipient. Fast email mode lends itself to misunderstandings. Often people don’t take the time to read what they write before clicking ‘send.’ In the long run, this causes wasted time to clarify or, worse, unfriending and negative feelings as a result of email misinterpretation. Another pitfall of email is when we use it in place of a proper conversation. Many miscommunications take place because email recipients cannot see each other, and the emails do not have any voice inflection or emotion that can help with accurate interpretation.

Beware of one Letter Email Mistakes
The following joke highlights the havoc caused by one tiny careless email mistake: A Minneapolis couple decided to go to Florida to thaw out during a particularly icy winter. They planned to stay at the same hotel where they spent their honeymoon 20 years earlier. Because of hectic schedules, it was difficult to coordinate their travel plans. So, the husband left Minneapolis and flew to Florida on Thursday, with his wife flying down the following day. The husband checked into the hotel. There was a computer in his room, so he decided to send an email to his wife. However, he accidentally left out one letter in her email address, and without realizing his error, sent the email. Meanwhile, somewhere in Houston, a widow had just returned home from her husband’s funeral. He was a minister who was called home to glory following a heart attack. The widow decided to check her email expecting messages from relatives and friends. After reading the first message, she screamed and fainted. The widow’s son rushed into the room, found his mother on the floor, and saw the computer screen which read:

To: My loving wife
Subject: I’ve arrived
Date: April 6, 2006
I know you’re surprised to hear from me. They have computers here now and you are allowed to send emails to your loved ones. I’ve just arrived and have been checked in. I see that everything has been prepared for your arrival tomorrow. Looking forward to seeing you then. Hope your journey is as uneventful as mine was.
P.S. it sure is hot down here!!!!!

Moshe’s Speech Defect
Many great demagogues in the world manipulate others with their charisma and oratorical skills. They can make people agree to things and act against their own interest. Our greatest teacher and the giver of the eternal Torah can never be suspected of such vices.

ספר שמות פרק ו (יב) וַיְדַבֵּר משֶׁה לִפְנֵי הָשֵׁם לֵאמֹר הֵן בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא שָׁמְעוּ אֵלַי וְאֵיךְ יִשְׁמָעֵנִי פַרְעֹה וַאֲנִי עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם:
“Moshe spoke before Hashem saying, ‘They, the children of Israel did not listen to me and how then will Pharaoh listen to me who am of uncircumcised lips’” (Shemot 6:12).

Moshe’s speech defect clarified that it was not his eloquent orations that swayed the people away, but rather the truth of his doctrine – the eternal Torah. The imperfection of the ‘messenger’ testifies to the perfection of the ‘message.’ The Sefat Emet offers a different interpretation of our Torah verse that sheds light on the nature of communication, “Because the children of Israel did not listen, therefore he was of uncircumcised lips…” Communication is a two-way street. Speech is in exile as long as the recipients are not ready to hear the words of Hashem. To the extent that the listener is unavailable, the words are hidden. The more ready and willing the recipients are the more open and revealed the message will be (Shefat Emet, Parashat Vaera, year 5659). I definitely experience this principle in my teaching. On a day when the students are tired and unfocused, my words are stuck and I am unable to teach a good class. On the other hand, when the students are excited and attentive, my words flow effortlessly with new insights that I hadn’t even prepared. Sefat Emet further explains, “Just as there is a foreskin in the opening of the limb of circumcision – the covenant of the flesh, the covenant of speech is also incased by a foreskin of blockages. These two covenants are the only openings in our body to the inner dimensions. Wherever there is an opening to the inner dimensions, there are also blockages and concealment. Therefore, the Israelites had to go through all the difficulties in the Egyptian exile in order to merit removing the foreskin of the mouth, to be worthy of the covenant of the tongue and the Torah. By mentioning the Exodus from Egypt, we too can merit the opening of our mouth” (Sefat Emet, Shemot, Parashat Vaera, year 5654). Thus, when we experience miscommunications, it is possibly due to these blockages caused by the exile of speech, and we need a merit by means of Torah learning, prayer or other mitzvot to open these spiritual blocks.

Conversations with G-d
While good communication is vital at the workplace, with family and friends, the highest kind of communication is communicating with Hashem. Twenty years ago, Neal Donald Walsh published Conversations with God (CwG), which became a publishing phenomenon, staying on the New York Times Best-Sellers List for 137 weeks. The succeeding volumes in the nine book series also appeared prominently on the List. At the lowest point of his life, Neal wrote a letter to G-d asking why nothing in his life was working. After writing down all of his questions, he heard a voice say, “Do you really want an answer to all these questions or are you just venting?” Neal felt answers to his questions filling his mind and decided to write them down. The ensuing dialogue became the Conversations with God books. What made this gentile merit to hear Hashem’s voice and receive divine messages? I believe that because we are heading toward the final redemption, the exile of speech is beginning to dissolve as the entire world is becoming prepared to hear Hashem’s message through his final redeemer – the Mashiach. It is funny because I have been exposed for many years to Rabbi Nachman’s teaching about hitboddedut – talking with Hashem. However, after hearing an interview with Neal Donald Walsh about his conversations with G-d, I was inspired even more to have my own conversations with Hashem. Rather than speaking to G-d as if He is a friend, I began pouring out deep questions to Hashem about what I should do in a certain situation, and then I was silent, and just listening in. I had this amazing experience of hearing Hashem’s soft reassuring answer reverberate inside of my own neshama, and His answer to me was, “You do not have to do anything, just let go, and everything will work itself out, trust Me and be happy!” In the beginning of this week’s parasha, Moshe makes a Kal v’Chomer –fortiori, “If the children of Israel didn’t listen to me how will Pharaoh listen to me?” I like to make the inverse fortiori, “If this non Jewish person, as righteous as he may be, was able to have a true meaningful conversation with Hashem, how much more so may we, the children of Israel communicate with G-d.” Why not try it out? Just cry out expressing your most desperate burning questions to Hashem, and then listen and tune into His answers for you!