shabbos reflection: Blessings Abound

This evening begins the month of Av, as well as the last nine intensive days of the three week period of mourning for the destruction of the Temple, leading up to the ninth of Av – the day when both Temples were destroyed about six hundred years apart from each other in history. The Rafael fire brought much consternation to the local residents of the many communities in Northern Arizona; and, seemed like a reminder to me of the tragic nature of the breach of the walls of Jerusalem, and its subsequent demise by fire about 1,900 years ago. As a result, even though the state of Israel has been reborn (see Isaiah 66:8), we are still in exile until the time that the third Temple is built. May that day arrive soon.

As erev Shabbos draws near, I take stock for the blessings in this life: tonight begins Rosh Chodesh. So, the coincidence of Shabbos and Rosh Chodesh, simply means that there are extra blessings derived from the day. By way of explanation, although we already receive an extra portion of shefa (divine flow) on Shabbos in and of itself, Rosh Chodesh also brings additional shefa. Traditionally, it is actually explained that each individual receives an “extra soul” on Shabbos. Otherwise, figuratively speaking, as symbolic of a boost in spirit on the day. The neshama yetera is like an extra portion of the spiritual side of the soul, elevating one’s sense of ruchniyos (spirituality) on the day.

A more detailed explanation can be found elsewhere; what seems important to me, is the connection of one’s soul to the day, through prayer, study, and festive meals. A day to nourish the soul; for when the soul is edified, for example, by reading a book that has to do with higher aspirations, the body also benefits. This opportunity for a heightened spiritual experience should not be squandered. Rather, we should feel inspired to pursue spiritual activities on a day where we cease from work. The Shabbos connotes, as a day of rest, a slower pace, where we can appreciate the countless moments of our lives, as opposed to letting everything pass us by in a flurry of activity. The frenetic pace of the week is set aside, and we welcome the Shabbos in joy and expectation of the even Greater Shabbos, when we enter into Olam Haba (the World to Come).

drash Pinchas 5781

 “Behold, I give unto him My covenant of peace.”

– Numbers 25:12, JPS 1917 Tanach

Pinchas, a grandson of Aaron, Kohein Gadol, nevertheless, had not been granted the status of a kohein (priest), at the time that Aaron and his four sons were designated as such. Rather, only the progeny of Aaron’s sons after their designation as kohein would also become kohein. Pinchas, having already been born at that time, did not automatically become one. Only the future born sons of Aaron’s sons would have that status. Yet, an exception was made, later on in the life of Pinchas, as shown from the narrative recorded in the Torah portions of Balak and Pinchas.

In spite of Balaam’s inability to curse Israel, he compels Balak to enact a devious plan. He explains to Balak that the way to bring malaise and judgment upon Israel is to weaken their kedushah (holiness) from the inside. Therefore, “through the counsel of Balaam,” given to Balak, King of the Moabites, both Moabite and Midianite women were sent to entice the people, “who began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab” (Numbers 25:1, JPS). Moreover, a leader of one of the tribes, Zimri, was seen with a Moabite princess.

Pinchas “rose up from the midst of the congregation” (Numbers 25:8, JPS). He followed the Israelite man into his tent, and executed both Zimri and his cohort. For this act, described as a zealous act for the L-rd, the plague that H’Shem inflicted upon the people for their harlotry ceased. Also, Pinchas himself was rewarded with H’Shem’s covenant of peace, an eternal covenant of priesthood, “‘because he was jealous for his G-d, and made atonement for the children of Israel'” (Numbers 25:13). This may sound like a conundrum, for how can he be rewarded with “a covenant of peace, for acting out of zealousness in such an aggressive manner?

Pinchas, was the only Israelite to take responsibility for the effrontery of Zimri and his cohort. For this outrage, of a Prince of Israel (Zimri) cohabiting with a Moabite princess, when he took her into his tent in full view of the congregation, could have set off sparks that would undermine the teshuvah (repentance) of the Israelites, and set an example of the worst kind. Moreover, Zimri’s very act is considered to be a challenge to the authority of Moses. When Pinchas acted, he brought peace between G-d and His people, thus compelling H’Shem to stop the plague that He had enacted as a punishment for the immorality of the people.

shiur Pinchas 5781

Discord was sown, when the advice that Balaam gave to Balak, was enacted upon the Children of Israel. Although Balak was not able to curse Israel, being compelled instead to bless, he still managed to set up circumstances in an underhanded manner, whereby the kedushah (holiness) and emunah (faith) of B’nei Yisrael would be diminished. He knew that the only way to bring about malfeasance upon Israel was to cause them to sin; as a consequence, G-d would have to respond to Israel’s transgression.

Balak and Balaam conspired against Israel; and they sent out Moabite and Midianite women to entice Israel. “And the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab. And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods; and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods. And Israel joined himself unto the Baal of Peor; and the anger of the L-RD was kindled against Israel” (Numbers 25:1-3, JPS).

The kindling of H’Shem’s anger resulted in the form of a plague. Although the guilty were hanged after a makeshift court was held with the leaders of Israel residing, and a follow up by the judges of Israel further eliminated those who sinned in this incident, apparently, the plague continued to spread. The children of Israel were weeping, signifying teshuvah (repentance) outside of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Moses and Aaron were present at the Mishkan, when an Israelite prince brought a Midianite princess into his tent, in full view of everyone present outside the Mishkan. What an affront to the dignity of the nation, and an insult to H’Shem. Such effrontery was condemned in one swift action by Pinchas.

His response was born out of zealousness; Pinchas executed the Israelite man and his cohort. “So the plague ceased from the people of Israel.” For this zealous act, Pinchas was rewarded with a covenant of peace. As the Talmud explains, “The Holy One, blessed be He said to Moses, ‘Be the first to extend a greeting of peace to him,’ as it is written, wherefore say, Behold, I give unto him my covenant of peace; and this atonement [that Phinehas has made] is worthy of being an everlasting atonement” (Sanhedrin 82b). Pinchas atoned for the sins of Israel, and reconciled the people to G-d.

Omer: Day 19 Hod shebbe Tiferes – A Sure Peace

Hod shebbe Tiferes: Splendor within Beauty

(Otherwise rendered as humility within harmony). Thus, one “role” of acquiring humility, in relationship to “peace of mind” is as follows:

Humility may serve to temper a false sense of harmony within, by compelling a soul to recognize that any sense of inner peace is often fragile, especially if that peace is not drawn from a higher source. Are we willing to admit to ourselves, that we are dependent on many circumstances, needs, and expectations to maintain a sense of peace? To think otherwise may be an overestimation of one’s own ability to secure sure peace of mind with self and others.

Yet, if we would like to be able to transcend our dependence on the requirements that we set for ourselves, in order to bring us a peace that may actually be a fragile peace, then, through recognition of our limitations to secure this peace, we may humble ourselves before G-d, in acknowledgment of the everlasting peace that can provided through Him. “The L-RD will bless His people with peace” (Psalm 29:11, JPS 1917 Tanach).

Omer Count: Day 3 – the Harmony of Kindness

18 Nissan 5781

March 31, 2021

Omer Day 3 – 5781
tiferes within chesed (beauty within love)

The nature of tiferes, in terms of its expression as a middah (character trait), can best be designated as “harmony.” Therefore, one question for today could be construed as whether or not one’s acts of loving-kindness are performed in a way that denotes a harmonious balance to all concerned in the endeavor. Moreover, in our own personality makeup, where is the harmony within that can promote feelings of kindness to others? For, is it not so that sincere kindness should ideally flow from a peaceful, harmonious place within our very selves?

Tiferes also represents balance; by contrast an imbalance in the personality could be rectified through tiferes. Are you able to envision your heartfelt acts of kindness bringing harmony to the lives of others? Or do you think of your kindnesses only as a small drop in the bucket? If so, consider that the ripple effect may be greater than you can imagine. Otherwise, further reflect upon the realization that your answer as to how potent an act of kindness may be, reflects your own perspective on self worth, and how efficacious your efforts may be for the sake of others.

Tiferes also has to do with “centeredness;” therefore, if we are not in harmony with ourselves, we may not feel inclined to show kindness towards others. Sometimes, moving past any hesitancy to give of ourselves to others, will help to transcend our egos, our personal limited selves, thereby surpassing any need in the moment to remain constricted. An act of kindness in and of itself may lift our hearts up in joy as the resultant feeling of performing that act. This can be understood in the adage, “change the behavior and the feelings will follow.”

Furthermore, consider the commandment to love G-d with all of our heart, soul, and might. Being commanded to love may seem like a conundrum, if we only perceive love as a natural felt feeling that we either have or do not have. However, the Hebrew word for love is “ahavah,” and has the connotation of giving. To give of ourselves to G-d, based upon the commandment of our responsiblities to do so, will increase our love towards Him over time.

The same is true in our relationships with others. For example, as youth, everyone remembers being asked to take out the garbage or do some other chore that our parents asked of us. To perform that chore is to willingly accede to the requirement of “love,” that is to “be giving.” Although, unwillingness to give may precede an act of giving, the feelings may follow, whereas one will feel better for doing so. This may also be seen in the adage that “it is better to give than to receive,” because the giver actually does receive the positive feelings that result from giving.

[These are my personal reflections on the implications of today’s combination of middot (character traits). These reflections are not meant to be comprehensive, inasmuch that they are not based upon any one particular system. Nor, may these ideas be characterized as authoritative, because I profess to being a student, not a teacher. I hope to inspire others to delve into an exploration of their personality, for the sake of tikkun hanefesh (rectification of the soul)].

Omer Count: Day 2 – the Boundary of Kindness

17 Nissan 5781

March 30, 2021

gevurah within chesed

What follows consists of my personal reflections on the implications of today’s combination of middot (character traits). These reflections are not meant to be comprehensive, inasmuch that they are not based upon any one particular system. Nor, may these ideas be characterized as authoritative, because I profess to being a student, not a teacher. I hope to inspire others to delve into an exploration of their personality, for the sake of tikkun hanefesh (rectification of the soul).

The middah (character trait) of gevurah may be expressed as a measure of strictness. Therefore, one way of conceiving of gevurah within chesed could have to do with applying a measure of strictness to the quality of kindness. Placing a limit on our kindness, in response to the awareness that not every situation is best suited to respond in kindness involves a dash of wisdom. Therefore, chesed may require the use of discernment, in order to ascertain how much kindness would best benefit the recipient. Too much kindness might appear as ingratiating. Elsewise, being overly kind in order to please others could result in our resentment, when we give in to others demands. Placing a boundaried response on others requests, gives us a sense of acting from our center being, keeping our needs in mind, without overextending ourselves.

Consider how G-d’s chesed, His sense of kindness may be purposely limited at times for a specific reason, actually for the sake of the recipient. He is known to test the faith of those who have a certain level of trust in Him, by delaying a response to one’s tefillah (prayer) requests. This would be enacted on His part to test the strength of our faith. Also, He may not respond in the manner that one expects, because the specific request if answered in the way that the prayer was framed, would not best benefit that individual. In like manner, we should also be cautious, and excercise discernment in regard to how we respond to others who may seek our time, attention, or help.

Additionally, it might seem counterintuitive at the time; yet, a withholding attitude may be required at times, for the sake of another person’s personal growth. Refraining from helping someone too much may serve to encourage that person to do more for him or herself. So, often there needs to be a balance between chesed and gevurah in our responses to others; so, that the demands of the situation may be met in the most beneficial way to all concerned. An extreme version of applying a strong measure of gevurah to chesed would be the case in certain rare circumstances, to apply the notion of “tough love.” In this case, an act perceived as severe by the intended recipient might actually be more of an expression of sincere love, than giving in to another person, thereby enabling the other to perpetuate an undesirable behavior.

Utlimately, finding the right balance in any situation is not easy. Often our response depends upon our own personality; for example, whether or not we are a chesed person, naturally demonstrating loving-kindness or whether we are more of a gevurah person, who is inclined to be more reserved and circumspect in responding to others. This example may best serve as a segue towards tikkun hanefesh (rectification of the soul), the precise purpose of the forty-nine day spiritual journey. To take an honest look at ourselves includes evaluating our character. If we withold kindness from others when we should be kind, this may denote an imbalance in the personality. Conversely, if we routinely find that being too nice to others has negative consequences for ourselves, then there may also be an imbalance of these qualities in our personality.

The task at hand is to reflect upon ourselves, in a manner that will bring the greatest level of shalom (peace) to our souls, as well as the lives of others on this journey. Moreover, in like manner that the Children of Israel had the opportunity to prepare themselves along the way to Sinai for receiving the Torah, so may we refine ourselves for the sake of our relationship to G-d. The first five commandments have to do with our connection to G-d, while the second set of five commandments are in regard to our relationship with others. Both are necessary on the journey of life; so, to shape our personalities in accordance with G-d’s will has the potential to bring the greatest overall benefit to our self and others.

parashas: Zealousness

B”H

Shiur for parashas Pinchas 5780

Discord was sown, when the advice that Balaam gave to Balak, was enacted upon the Children of Israel. Although Balak was not able to curse Israel, being compelled instead to bless, he still managed to set up circumstances in an underhanded manner, whereby the kedushah (holiness) and emunah (faith) of B’nei Yisrael would be diminished. He knew that the only way to bring about malfeasance upon Israel was to cause them to sin; as a consequence, G-d would have to respond to Israel’s transgression.
Balak and Balaam conspired against Israel; and they sent out Moabite and Midianite women to entice Israel. “And the people began to commit harlotry with the daughters of Moab. And they called the people unto the sacrifices of their gods; and the people did eat, and bowed down to their gods. And Israel joined himself unto the Baal of Peor; and the anger of the L-RD was kindled against Israel” (Numbers 25:1-3, JPS).
The kindling of H’Shem’s anger resulted in the form of a plague. Although the guilty were hanged after a makeshift court was held with the leaders of Israel residing, and a follow up by the judges of Israel further eliminated those who sinned in this incident, apparently, the plague continued to spread. The children of Israel were weeping, signifying teshuvah (repentance) outside of the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Moses and Aaron were present at the Mishkan, when an Israelite prince brought a Midianite princess into his tent, in full view of everyone present outside the Mishkan.
The response was swift: Pinchas executed the Israelite man and his cohort. “So the plague ceased from the people of Israel.” For this zealous act, Pinchas was rewarded with a covenant of peace. As the Talmud explains, “The Holy One, blessed be He said to Moses, ‘Be the first to extend a greeting of peace to him,’ as it is written, wherefore say, Behold, I give unto him my covenant of peace; and this atonement [that Phinehas has made] is worthy of being an everlasting atonement” (Sanhedrin 82b) .

Pinchas demonstrated remarkable zealousness towards H’Shem; yet, the action that he took was an exceptional case. Today, H’Shem would like us to show our devotion to Him through our avodah (prayer of the heart), and our ma’asim tovim (good deeds). Shabbat shalom.

parashas Pinchas 5780

reflections: Redemption

B”H

17 Tammuz 5780

“And Moses said unto the people: ‘Fear ye not, stand still, and see the salvation of the L-RD, which He will work for you to-day.” – Exodus 14:13, JPS 1917 Tanach

Is the time drawing near for the sea to part? Is the Geulah (Redemption) at hand? The sages, in all of their sharp acuity, draw a parallel between the First Redemption, and the Final Redemption: akin to plagues that devastated Egypt, before the exodus of the Children of Israel, so will many plagues, even more than those inflicted upon ancient Egypt, precede the final redemption. This is gleaned from the following verse: “As in the days of thy coming forth out of the land of Egypt, will I show unto him marvellous things” (Micah 7:15, JPS). Could the modern day plague of the coronavirus be a foreshadowing of the Messianic Age?

The current exile (galus) of the Jewish people began almost two thousand years ago, when the second Temple was destroyed by the Romans. We were dispersed amongst the nations, as we still are today to some degree. Even though the state of Israel was renewed in 1948, without the Third Temple, we are technically still in exile. This is one reason why we proclaim every year, at the end of our Passover seder, “Next Year in Yerushalayim.” In essence, this does not refer to having the opportunity to fly to Israel via El Al Airlines, in order to make aliyah to our Biblical homeland. Rather, this alludes to the Geulah (Redemption), when Moshiach will reign from Jerusalem.

At that time, “peace on earth,” in all of its splendor will prevail over the unruly forces, that have no interest in recognising G-d’s sovereignty. Needless to say, we are only witnessing the beginning of these forces to potentially impact society in an unprecedented way; the road has been paved ever since the Age of Enlightenment, when the Deity of Reason was worshipped, to the diminishment of a focus on G-d, and religious values. This set the background for the French Revolution.

Behind the facade of a higher cause, these forces hold sway over any godless movement, whose roots are deeper than its claims to higher ideals, human rights, or “power to the people.” It is interesting to note, that as a result of the Bubonic plague of the 14th Century in Europe, “some historians believe that society subsequently became more violent as the mass mortality rate cheapened life and thus increased warfare, crime, popular revolt, waves of flagellants, and persecution” (Wikipedia). As far as I know, excepting self-flagellation, this seems to ring true today, in the face of COVID-19. “If we do not learn from the past, history will repeat itself.”

Am I overconcerned with the state of affairs in the world, and, more specifically, in America today? Others are apparently even more concerned. “In a normal month [Nefesh B’Nefesh] receives several hundred to a few thousand calls,” yet, this past June the Jewish organisation that promotes aliyah from the U.S. to Israel received 25,000 calls (VosIzNeias). For myself, I would only take that step, if and when I would hear the call from H’Shem, as has been mentioned by several fellow Jews in the not so recent past, concerning intuition from Above. Yet, the call to teshuvah, in and of itself, is primary; and, may be viewed the in light Hillel’s adage, “It’s not where you are, but how you are.” And, “if not now, when.”

“And thou shalt bethink thyself among the nations, whither the L-RD thy G-d hath driven thee, and shalt return unto the L-RD thy G-d.”

– Deuteronomy 30:1-2, JPS 1917 Tanach

Reflections: A Balancing Act

B”H

When our environs do not bring us peace and contentment, what is the proper course of action? Where is the remedy to be found? I believe that within the midst of our nisyanos (troubles), G-d must be sought out for solace; otherwise, our peace of mind would be relative – dependent upon ever changing circumstances. What other resource is as potent as the Omnipotent?

There is a maxim, expressed in various forms, that happiness is to be found within ourselves. Yet, I prefer to reframe this adage, “true contentment is found within our connection to G-d.” This becomes more apparent, considering the overall inability of anyone to remain completely stable, having a disposition of equanimity towards all things, in every situation.

At least, I can certainly speak for myself, inasmuch that it is not within my own power to be the cool, calm, and collected kind of person that I once used to be. Hence, I seek out G-d in every moment, in order to connect with His higher wisdom. I also seek out lesser means, such as good music to comfort the soul, journaling to express my emotions and inner feelings about this, that, and the other in life; and, additionally, I make sure to exercise, in order to work out the stress that manifests in my body.

My own personal discontent with certain circumstances in my life, may only be a reflection of my spiritual impoverishment. Perhaps, in the past, before my religious, aka, “spiritual journey” began, I may have been more content with worldly endeavors and creature comforts. Yet, as is demonstrated by Moshe’s own personal encounter with G-d, as well as other scriptural narratives, the way to ruchnius (spirituality) is opposed to gashmius (materiality), despite any attempt to reconcile the two; otherwise, the endeavor is compromised, and the soul remains in stasis, along with the status quo.

Case in point, if there is a constant struggle between the yetzer hara (literally, evil inclination) and the yetzer tov (good inclination), each inclined towards its corresponding realm of preference, then the soul is subject to one or the other at any given moment; those who are unaware of this battle, nor the presence of these two inclinations, are at a disadvantage, as dominance is given to the yetzer hara by default, otherwise known as the “animal soul.”

Chassidism teaches that there needs to be a balance between the “godly soul,” and the “animal soul;” yet, this seems like a compromise to me; besides, I have never been able to find that balance. Rather, I am compelled to make a sharper delineation between the two, than is often mentioned in certain chassidic sources.

The balance to be found is then relegated to the peace of mind that results, by staying focused on H’Shem; also, to look towards Olam Haba (the World to Come), instead of becoming entangled in Olam HaZeh (This World), to the extent that we can not see the forest for the trees.

weekly reading: Vayikra

B”H

Shiur for parashas Vayikra 5780

“When any man of you bringeth an offering unto the L-RD.”

– Leviticus 1:2, JPS 1917 Tanach

The Hebrew word for offering is korban. The shoresh (root word) of korban is KRV, meaning “to draw near.” Therefore, the act of bringing an offering has the connotation of drawing near to H’Shem. According to Akeidas Yitzchak, the olah offering, in particular represents prayer from the heart, because the olah completely ascends to H’Shem. Therefore, in like manner that the entire animal brought as an olah offering is consumed on the mizbeach (altar), so too, will our prayers of the heart ascend to G-d.

Interestingly enough, the name associated with the korbanot is H’Shem (YHVH), the name that denotes H’Shem’s Attribute of Mercy. Since the korban is not associated with the name, Elokim that represents the Attribute of Justice, the implication is that an offering permits us to draw near to H’Shem, because of His mercy towards us: for, although the world was first created with the Attribute of Justice, denoted by the name Elokim (the name of G-d that first appears in the Creation narrative), later, the name H’Shem (YHVH) appears, because the world could not survive without Mercy (see Rashi, Genesis 1:1).

H’Shem’s Attribute of mercy makes an allowance for reconciliation through atonement, by way of a korban. The first offering was made for mankind by H’Shem, for the sake of Adam and Chava, when they disobeyed Him and ate from the Tree of Good and Evil. Furthermore, He covered them with clothes derived from the offering (see Genesis 3:21). That an offering was indeed made is alluded to by a particular commentary that speaks of the mate of Leviathan being slayed by G-d, in order to clothe Adam and Chava (Chizkuni, R. Bachya, commentary on Genesis 3:21).