Sunday, September 8, 2013

Aseres Yemei Teshuva - Love Oneself

I've been inspired to write something small in honor of Aseres Yemei Teshuva. This is a time when we need to scrutinize our ways and strive to better ourselves. 

Today's topic, I want to write about "Love." Love plays an important role in Judaism. We say several times a day in Kriyat Shema, "Veh'ahavta es Hashem Elokecha - You shall love Hashem, Your God." The Torah also tells us, "Veh'ahavta leh'raeicha kamocha - And love your friend like yourself."  We see the importance of Love of Hashem, Love of oneself, and Love of your friend. 

The Torah automatically assumes you love yourself and so you should love your friend the same way. The question is: If  the Torah automatically assumes that, then why don't we? There are many indications of people lacking in self-love: Some people do hazardous things to their bodies, some people don't treat themselves with respect and dignity, and some can't even fathom the concept of love.

We need to wake up. If Hashem loves us, then why don't we... -- let me rephrase that, then why can't we love ourselves? We are all valuable and important children of Hashem. It's time to realize this. I know, it's easier said than done, but the first step is being conscious of it.

Gmar Chasima Tova,

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Rosh HaShana and Parashas Ha'azinu - Lite Feathers Vs. Tainted Feathers

Rosh HaShana and Parashas Ha'azinu
By Nisso Stein

The Zohar in Parashas Metzora says, "The prayer of one who speaks loshon hora will not come before the Holy One, Blessed is He, for a ruach tamei hovers over it."

Imagine this: When someone learns Torah and prays to Hashem with concentration, his words are like a feather floating up into the air. With every word of Torah or tefillah, a gust of wind carries the light feather higher and higher floating it's way up, in a smooth motion. However, when someone speaks loshon hora, that pure, lite feather gets dipped into a bucket of black paint before attempting to float. That feather isn't going to get too far. Those words of Torah and tefilla are now tainted.

On Rosh Hashana, most of the things we do are done with our words. It's about doing teshuva for the sins one have done throughout the year, hoping we will be written and signed in the Books of Life, Health, Parnassa, etc. Another thing we do during Rosh HaShana is Tashlich and Simanim. There's a minhag to eat certain foods and to say a Yehi Ratzon to help get a good decree for the year, etc.

The Rambam asks, "How does one repent? The petitioner says: Hashem, I have sinned before You... I have done this and this sin... I am embarrassed and I will never do it again!" And this is the prominent. [1] We see in the Rambam that one needs to verbalize his regrets of sins as part of his teshuva process.

During the Rosh HaShana davening we cry out, "Teshuva, Tefillah, Tzidaka, ma'avirin es ro'ah gzira!"
Tzidaka is easy to do; just find a poor person and give them money.
Tefillah; anyone can read out of a siddur.
However, regarding (proper tefillah and teshuva,) how can someone do proper Teshuva if the words he pleads are tainted?

Perhaps we can now understand why the Torah says a metzora (someone who's afflicted with tzaraas for having spoken loshon hora) calls out to those who pass by, "[I am] contaminated, contaminated!" He's asking others to pray for him since his own prayers will not be accepted Above, therefore the Torah advises him to request that others pray on his behalf. [2]

I think it's very appropriate when Rosh HaShana and Parashas Ha'azinu falls out on the same week because, the parasha starts with, "Listen, O heaven and I will speak; and may the earth hear my mouth's saying. Let my instruction drop like rainfall, may the utterance flow like dew, like storm winds upon vegetation... When I pronounce the Name of Hashem, give greatness to our God."

If you notice the way Moshe Rabbeinu expressed himself, it was similar to the example I gave above with the feather. He pleads saying, "Hear my words. They aren't tainted in any way. Let them flow like rainfall or drip like dew," in a pure and smooth fashion. Moshe davened for Klal Yisroel many times because he was able to! His words weren't 'weighted down' because he knew how important the gift of speech is.

This year, maybe we can take upon ourselves to guard our speech. The new cycle for Chofetz Chaim starts on Rosh HaShana! If you're interested [current Bais guys], I am willing to give you the sefer for free on condition you do it everyday for one year. You can choose to do it either in Hebrew or English. Please see me as soon as possible so that we can get you started. And please forgive me for anything I might have done or said which might have hurt you in any way.

Ksiva VChassima Tova!

[1] Hilchos Teshuva 1:1
[2] Vayikra 13:45

Friday, August 30, 2013

Parashas Nitzovim - A Swear Within a Swear... It Happens More Than You Think!

It says in this week's Parasha, "I am not only making this covenant with you, but I am also making it with whoever is standing with us today in the presence of Hashem, our God, and with those who are not here with us today. For you know how we lived in the land of Egypt, and how we passed through the nations which you passed through. Where you observed the abominations and their loathsomeness [idols] - wood and stone, silver and gold, that they owned."[1]

Rashi explains what the Torah meant by, "For you know how we lived in the land of Egypt." He says that since we have observed the idolatrous Gentile nations, perhaps someone among Bnei Yisroel may have been tempted to follow them, therefore, Hashem needed to compel us to swear and keep His mitzvos.

I had a couple questions while reading this:

1) The Torah says, "For you know how we lived in the land of Egypt." I understand there might have been temptations to follow the other nation's abominations, ie. idol worshiping, but why would we have contemplated worshiping idols after witnessing the great miracles Hashem performed for us by yetzias mitzraim? Even the magicians of Pharoah admitted the miracles were "Yad Elokim - the Hand of God!"

2) "Therefore, Hashem needed to compel us to swear to keep His mitzvos?" We just read last week all the curses and blessings; after hearing that, why would swearing to keep His mitzvos be more effective?

To answer the first question; it comes to show how strong the yeitzer hara is for worshiping idols. Perhaps it's one of the reasons why Hashem listed it as One of our Ten Commandments! Alternatively, even though we having something amazing going for us, sometimes we feel it's not enough. We'll always want what the other person has. A familiar example is, "I'm jealous of this guy, he doesn't have to worry about money. If I were rich, I would be so happy!" However, it's not true. Even rich people have their own issues.

Regarding the second answer; I'd like to answer with a personal story: This week I tried to access my online banking. Upon signing on, I got an error message saying, "You have been denied access and must call (xxx) xxx - xxxx. We apologize for the inconvenience." When I called, I had to go through a series of security questions to make sure the person they are speaking to was really me. After going through the whole process, the rep explained to me that someone tried calling in on a burner cell phone to get information about my account. Since the number was unfamiliar, they decided to close all my credit cards and temporarily close my account. In addition, they asked me to set up a "Verbal Password" so that the next time I call, only I would know the verbal password and be granted access - as a preliminary measure.

We heard the curses and brachos as an incentive to keep Hashem's mitzvos, but as a preliminary measure Hashem also made us swear. Even though we've heard the curses and blessings, at times it can be hard to keep. Sometimes we feel it helps if we 'swore' we weren't going to do a specific sin, as a boost to help us keep 'our word'.

That doesn't mean, however, we'd be able to use this 'measure' [tactic] and swear for our own personal use. In addition to 'not worshiping other gods' in the Ten Commandments, there's another commandment of, "You shall not take the Name of Hashem, your God, in vain, for Hashem will not absolve anyone who takes His Name in vain."[2] Hashem forbade us to swear. We say in Hataras Nedarim (as you'll see in a few days;) "Any vow, or oath, or prohibition... for which we have accepted to perform good deeds... we regret only the acceptance of these matters with an expression of vow or oath... And therefore we ask for annulment of them all, etc.
We see from here, that even though you want to swear for good reasons, ie: You've just eaten meat and you now have to wait six hours to eat this luscious dairy cheesecake. You know it's too hard to keep, so to help yourself refrain, you swear you won't eat this cheese cake for the next six hours. That is forbidden.

If you think about it though, you don't even need to swear that you won't eat this cheesecake for the next six hours because you already swore to Hashem that you will keep His Torah and Mitzvos! So when you feel you need to swear to help yourself keep Hashem's mitzvos, DON'T - because you ALREADY did.

Have a wonderful Shabbos,

[1] Devarim 29:14-17
[2] Shemos 20:7

Friday, August 23, 2013

Parashas Ki Savo - Curses or Blessings - That Is the Question

In this week's parash, the Torah gives a list of commandments and whether one would be cursed or blessed for doing them. For example: Cursed is whoever curses his father or his mother... Rashi explains, "One who denigrates [their parents.]" "Cursed is whoever accepts a bribe to kill an innocent person, etc." Then it says, "And when you hear and obey Hashem, your God, to keep all His mitzvos... You will be blessed.. your fruits.. your offspring.. You will be blessed upon your arrival and blessed upon your departure." And if you deviate from My commandments... Cursed are you upon your arrival and cursed are you upon your departure." [1]

I asked myself the following questions:
1) What does "You will be blessed upon your arrival" mean? Upon entering this world, as a newborn? Why would we be blessed? What merits do we have as newborns?
2) The same question can be asked in reverse: What does the Torah mean when it says, "...cursed are you upon your arrival?" What sins do we have as newborns which justify our being cursed?
3) Why is it grouped as blessed upon arrival and departure and cursed upon arrival and departure - why can't you be blessed upon arrival and then cursed upon departure, and vice versa?

I think I can answer all three questions with the following passage from Sefer Chovos Halevavos [2]: On the day of judgment, many people will find themselves credited with meritorious deeds which they did not do. "These are not mine!" each one will declare. They will be told, "These are the deeds of those who spoke disparagingly of you [and thereby caused their merits to be transferred to your account]." And the ones who spoke disparagingly will be told, "These deeds were taken from you when you spoke against So-and-so." Conversely, some will find acts of guilt on their account which they never committed. When each one will protest, "These are not mine!" they will be told, "These were taken from the account of So-and-So, against whom you spoke..."

Sefer Chovos Halevavos is teaching us that one may spend days trying to earn mitzvos and blessings, however, with one action, that can all be taken away. That's the power of speaking Loshon Harah - now that you've spoken about someone else, they accumulate all your mitzvos and you accumulate all their sins. That's how it's possible for us to be blessed/cursed upon our arrival and departure - because retroactively, it's as if you have no sins/merits recorded.

Above we mentioned an example and Rashi's explanation: One is cursed if he curses his parents. I don't think it's dakfa denigrating through words. It can also mean through actions.

R' Yochanan said in the name of R' Yossi ben Zimra: Whoever speaks loshon hara is considered as if he had denied the existence of Hashem...[3] The Midrash [4] states: R' Mona said, "Whoever speaks loshon hara causes the Shechinah to ascend from this world. Regarding the gossiper, Hashem says, "He and I cannot dwell together in this world."

The action of speaking loshon hara is what causes Hashem's Shechina to leave. It's no different than your flesh and blood parents telling you, "If you do this, I will leave!" Doing something which would ultimately lead to your parents [kol sh'ken Hakadosh Baruch Ho] to leave, chas vShalom, is considered denigrating and cursed are those who do that. Loshon Hara is 'cursing' Hashem in a sense. The same should also apply to any actions deviating from Hashem's commandments.

Have a wonderful Shabbos,

[1] 27:16 - 28:19
[2] Sha'ar Hakaneh Ch. 7
[3] Arachin 15b
[4] Devarim Rabba 5:10

Friday, August 16, 2013

Parashas Ki Seitzei - But I Didn't Mean to Hurt You...

Scenario 1: (actively hurting someone) Yankel #1 went to the store to buy a pack of dollar gum. He gave the shop owner $20 but realized later he only got back $18 in change. For those who majored in Mathematics (or who've gone to first grade,) they know Yankel should have gotten back $19. Yankel always suspected the shop owner of being a dishonest guy, so... "The next time I go to the store, I'll just take two extra packs of gum. If he's not honest with me, I won't be honest with him!" he says.

Scenario 2: (passively hurting someone) Yankel #2 loved to dance. When he went to weddings, he'd always 'break out his moves'. Being so engrossed in his dancing, he'd accidentally hit someone in the face. "Oh, I am SO sorry! It was an accident - I didn't see you! Don't worry, your kallah will never realize the discoloration on your face... I am so sorry, mazal tov though! Again, I am so sorry!" he'd exclaim.

Scenario 3: (passively hurting someone by means of his property) Yankel #3 loves to ride his skateboard. The problem is, when he gets back after skateboarding all afternoon, he's so exhausted he leaves the skateboard wherever it is most convenient. Meanwhile, his brother comes home carrying a load of boxes, unable to see the skateboard, he steps on it and falls. He yells at Yankel about how negligent that was and Yankle replies, "Listen, I'm sorry you got hurt but obviously you were supposed to get hurt. That was Hashem's plan. I was just the shliach! Don't kill the messenger."
The third aliya in Parashas Ki Seitzei starts off by saying: When you build a new house, you should build a fence for your roof. And do not place blood (ie. Become responsible for others' blood) in your house, for someone who should fall, may fall from it. Rashi explains: The guy who falls deserves to fall, but even so, let his death not come about through you.

I thought this Rashi is amazing! Above I mentioned three scenarios scaling from severe to not: (a) Actively hurting someone, (b) passively hurting someone, and (c) passively hurting someone by means of his property. Rashi's teaching us that there's 'passively hurting someone by means of your property', (which some people would understand isn't so much different than walking by a couch and stubbing your toe,) and then there's an action you can take to preempt passively hurting someone by means of your property. If you're intentionally hurting someone, which the Torah specifically warns us not to do in Parashas Kedoshim, “Don't bear a grudge and don't take revenge,” then it's even worse.

We are amidst Elul - a time to work on ourselves and do teshuva. I felt it was appropriate to suggest, in honor of this week's Parasha, that we have extra kavanas during Hamapil in Shema baMita. We mention every night, "I forgive anyone who angered or sinned against me, whether against my honor or anything that's mine. Whether he did it accidentally, willfully, carelessly, purposely, through speech, actions, or thoughts... I forgive all of Bnei Yisroel and may they not be punished because of me..."

Have a wonderful Shabbos,

Friday, May 10, 2013

Hashem's love for Bnei Yisrael

Shalom all. I have a good friend who just came out with a sefer called, "Journey of Faith" on Sefer Bamidbar. He has worked on it for over five years and it's finally complete! He worked exceptionally hard on this sefer; It's filled with lots of wonderful commentaries, explanations, etc.

You may purchase the sefer at your local book store or online:

Below is a dvar Torah from the Arthur, Rabbi Yonasan Arenias.

Have a wonderful shabbos,

Hashem’s love for Bnei Yisrael.  

This week’s parashah begins with Hashem commanding Moshe and Aharon to count Bnei Yisrael. Rashi explains that Hashem wanted to count them in order to express His love for them. Just as a person frequently counts his money because it is precious to him, so, too, by counting Bnei Yisrael for the third time, just seven months after the previous count, Hashem showed that He cherished every one of His people (Bereishis Rabbah2:19Rashi, according to Gur Aryeh and Maskil L’David).
            The timing of the count was particularly significant. Although Hashem had rested His Presence upon the Mishkan when it was erected on the first of Nissan (Shemos 40:1, 34), one month earlier, He did not count them then. Rather, He waited thirty days, until the“first day of the second month [Iyar]” (1:1). Thirty days is the time it takes (according to Jewish law) for a dwelling place to acquire the status of a permanent residence. Thus, only at this point, when the people saw that Hashem had come to dwell among them on a permanent basis, did it become clear how much He loved them, and He marked the happy occasion by counting them (Kli YakarRashi, according to Maskil L'David).
Hashem used a very specific language in his command to Moshe. He said, שְׂאוּ אֶת רֹאשׁ, “take a head count” (verse 2) of Bnei Yisrael. The expression literally means, “Lift up the head.” It communicated Hashem’s special love for His people by alluding to His desire to elevate them above the other nations of the world and bestow upon them greatness (Tanchuma 1, 5, 8). He accomplished this by resting His Presence exclusively among them, on the Mishkan and, as we will see in Parashas Nasso, throughout the entire camp (see RashiShemos 33:16–17).
            The series of events that led to this momentous occasion began on the day Hashem gave the Torah to Bnei Yisrael. Chazal compare that event to a marriage engagement — Hashem betrothed the Jewish people to Him by giving them the Torah in place of a ring. Then, on the day the Mishkan was set up, they were like a bride entering the bridal canopy. Finally, now, at the end of their first thirty days together, Hashem gave them a kesubah (marriage contract) (Kli Yakar; see Rashi, 7:1).
            This is why the Torah details in verse 1 the exact time and place of the census. It can be compared to a king who, after a long search, finally found a suitable marriage partner. He wished to commemorate the happy occasion by giving a kesubah (marriage contract) detailing the exact time and place of the marriage. Here, too, the Torah publicizes the exact time (“on the first day of the second month”) and place (“in the Sinai Desert”) that Hashem sealed His relationship with the Jewish people and elevated them above the nations of the world (Tanchuma 5).

Friday, April 19, 2013

Parashas Acharei Mos - Being Helpful Can Easily Be Un-Helpful

In Parashas Shemini [10:1,] the Torahs tells us the story of Aharon's sons, Nadav and Avihu, whose lives were taken for bringing a sacrifice. The Toras Kohanim explains that their actions were motivated by their overwhelming love for Hashem. When they witnessed the Heavenly fire descend, they felt the urge to contribute a fire of their own to express their love for Hashem. Despite their pure motivation, immediately a Heavenly fire emerged from the Kodesh Kedoshim and consumed them.

Why were they killed for bringing a sacrifice? It seemed like a noble thing to do, didn't it? “After all,” they thought, “Hashem did write in His Torah that the sons of Aharon, the Kohen, shall place a fire on the altar...” [Vayikra 1:7]

The problem: This 'noble' sacrifice was unauthorized. Regardless of their intentions, it's not what Hashem wanted from them. There were “rules” about bringing a sacrifice and they disobeyed those rules.

The question is; why is this episode mentioned again in this week's parasha? It says, “And Hashem spoke to Moshe after the death of Aharon's two sons, who brought a korbon before Hashem. Hashem spoke to Moshe: Speak to your brother Aharon that he not come into the Holy Sanctuary at all times, so that he won't die.” Why wait four parashiyos later to say this?

I think the answer is a big lesson in life. I will first give an example and then explain the lesson.

Sometimes my kids want to be helpful, so they “help” out around the house; what they call 'helpful', we call unhelpful. For example, they take upon themselves to clean and organize the house. The problem: Sometimes, it's easier if they didn't organize the house, because the items we knew where they were are now nowhere to be found! And when we find them, we have to put them back to where they really belong. It was nice and thoughtful, however, unhelpful and time-consuming.

The lesson: When we want to help someone, perhaps it's a good idea to do it the way they want it done. Otherwise it's really the opposite of helping. Nadav and Avihu, too, could have had every good intention on Earth, but they failed to inquire from Moshe Rebeinu whether this is what Hashem wanted.

It's wonderful to want to do an act of kindness for someone else. The question is whether you're really helping them by doing so. The fact that Hashem re-told Moshe to warn Aharon about the gedarim of bringing sacrifices, shows how important it is to do it in the right time, right setting, and the right way – the way the receiver would want it done – and not your way.

Have a wonderful Shabbos,