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Rabbi's Corner

The Day After Yom Kippur

One of the most misplaced Torah readings of the year seems to be the section we read on the afternoon of Yom Kippur. In this portion G‑d enumerates a long list of sexual activities from which a human being should abstain, including intimate relations with one's parent or sibling, bestiality, homosexuality, adultery, incest, etc.

And the question is strikingly dramatic: You are standing in synagogue during the holiest day of the year. You haven't enjoyed a morsel of food or a drink for close to twenty-four hours. This is the day on which we are compared to angels and the one time during the year in which we attempt to transcend our bodies and become, for 24 hours, all soul. And what must your ears pay heed to during these most spiritually charged moments of the year? Not to cheat on your wife, not to violate your mother, and not to be intimate with your cow!

The answer to this question may be discovered in the very name of the Torah portion: "Acharei," which means "after." In Judaism, the name of each Torah portion embodies the soul and the inner message of the entire portion. What then, is the meaning of “after? And how does this relate to Yom Kippur?

Yet it is here where we come to observe one of the most meaningful lessons in the Jewish approach to morality and spirituality. You may be flying high in heaven; your heart may be melting away in celestial ecstasy; your soul may be ablaze with a sacred fire and your heart may be swelling with inspiration. Yet you must remember that in one day from now or in one month from now as circumstances alter, you may find yourself in the muck, tempted toward profane and immoral behavior. Thus, at this critical moment of an inner spiritual explosion, you must stock up the resolve and commitment to retain your integrity during your lowliest moments that may lay ahead.

The Torah is teaching us that no matter how sublime you may feel at a particular moment in your life, you must remember the moment "after," the brute and beastly temptations that might emerge at a later point, under different circumstances. Never believe that what you have now will be yours forever. The tremendous holiness of Yom Kippur is only real if it will effect the "after" (as the name of the Torah portion), if it will leave its mark on the days and months that follow that may bring with them abominable urges and cravings that you could have not dreamt of during your high moments.

So as we solidify our New Year’s resolutions and prepare for Yom Kippur, let us take the message of “after” and perpetuate and internalize the holiness of the High Holidays throughout the rest of the year.

Apples & Honey

We all know that ‘apples dipped in honey’ are proudly displayed on the Rosh Hashanah menu. Symbolically, these sweet foods are eaten to demonstrate our wishes for ourselves, our families, and community - that we be blessed with a sweet new year.

But there is a deeper dimension to the apple & honey dish:

There is a difference between the sweetness of an apple and the sweetness of honey. An apple is a sweet fruit which grows on a tree. There is nothing surprising about that - many fruits are sweet. But honey comes from a bee - an insect that is not only inedible, it actually stings. Nevertheless the honey that it produces is sweet. In fact, honey is sweeter than an apple!

Similarly, there are two types of sweetness in our lives: we have times of family celebration, successes in our careers, personal triumphs and harmonious relationships. These are sweet times like the apple is sweet. But then there is a different type of sweetness; a sweetness that comes from times of challenge. When things don't go the way that we would like them to, when tragedy strikes, when our job is in jeopardy, when we fail to reach the goals had aspired for, when our relationships are being strained and tested, when we feel alone.

At the time when we are facing these challenges, they seem bitter and insurmountable, like the sting of a bee. But if we are strong and withstand the difficult times, and overcome the obstacles to our own happiness, we reveal layers of our personality that we would never have tapped into if we weren't challenged. Something deeper is brought out when we are tested.

Tension in a relationship is painful, but there ' s nothing better than reconciling after that tension. Losing a job is degrading, but how often it is that we find bigger and better things to move on to. Loneliness can eat us up, but it can open us to higher levels of self-knowledge too. We have all experienced events in our lives that at the time were painful, but in retrospect we say, "Thank G‑d for the tough times - imagine where I would be without them!"

So we eat apples & honey on Rosh Hashana. We bless each other that in the year to come the apples should bring sweetness. And if, for some reason, we get ‘stung’ - may the bite reveal a more powerful sweetness from within us!

Let’s do a mitzvah today!

Free Choice – Who Needs It?

This week the Torah establishes one of the fundamental principles of Judaism – Free Choice: “See, I have set forth before you today life and goodness, and death and evil.” (Deuteronomy 30:15)

Often we wish that life were just a bit simpler. We wonder why our lives all filled with lack of clarity, tension, and duality. Couldn’t G‑d have designed a less complicated and more coherent path through life without the constant struggle of choosing between right and wrong?

The following story might shed some light and insight:

A teenager once visited The Rebbe, Rabbi Schneersohn, expressing anguish that his life contained much struggle and disappointment. "Why can't it just be simple and easy?" the boy asked sorrowfully.

"Because human beings are not angels," the Rebbe replied. "Angels are flawless, always on target. Human beings, on the other hand, are fragmented and dualistic, vacillating between extremes and shaken by conflicts. Because of man's multi-dimensional and dichotomized personality, he must struggle throughout his entire life in order to come to terms with his soul.”

The teenager continued to probe the heart of the master. "But why did God create us in such a complicated fashion?" he asked. "Would God not have enjoyed us far more if we were like the angels?"

Apparently, this teenager had a knack for drawing. He loved art and made it his hobby. As a good educator, the Rebbe responded to the pain of the young adult by drawing on a reference from the student's own world.

"Let me ask you a question about the difference between a photograph and a painting," The Rebbe began his response. "A photo captures any given scene far more accurately than a painting can ever hope to. Yet while a photo will cost you a few dollars, the inaccurate painting of the identical scene may sometimes sell for millions of dollars. Why?" 

The boy explained to the Lubavitcher Rebbe that most photographs were inanimate and lifeless items, capturing the technical properties of a particular scene, yet lacking a soul. A painting, on the other hand, in which a scene is relegated to canvas via the mind and soul of the artist, contains the depth of human emotion and creativity, and the subtleties of human imagination. That is what gives a painting its value.

"Very well said," came the Rebbe's reply. "Here you have the answer to your question as well. Angels are photos; human beings are pieces of art," the Rebbe said with a smile.

Angels are flawless and faultless creatures, perfect shots of the spiritual realities. Yet it is precisely the fluctuating drama of human existence, our ability to choose between right and wrong, and the human void searching for meaning and truth -- that can turn our life into a piece of art.

Only in the inner chambers of the human heart can God discover genuine, awe-inspiring artwork. It is the goodness and spirituality that emerge from human doubt and struggle that bestow upon humanity a dignity and splendor that the highest of angels can never attain.

When we overcome a challenge and make the right choice we create a priceless masterpiece – let’s do a Mitzvah today!

Shabbat Shalom,

Gmailcom

Someone once sent the following email to a Rabbi:

Why does the Jewish religion seem to obsess over insignificant details? I was at the Seder this week and the Rabbi was stressing the importance of having a specific exact measurement of Matzah.

I mean, who cares how much matza I eat, or which spoon I used for milk and which for meat? It seems to me that this misses the bigger picture by focusing on minutiae. Is this nitpicking what Jews call spirituality?

(I actually already sent you this question over a week ago and didn't receive a reply. Could it be that you have finally been asked a question that you can't answer?!)

Here was the Rabbi’s answer:

I never claimed to have all the answers. There are many questions that are beyond me. But it happens to be that I did answer your question, and you did get the answer. I sent a reply immediately. The fact that you didn't receive it is itself the answer to your question.

You see, I sent you a reply, but I wrote your email address leaving out the "dot" before the "com". I figured that you should still receive the email, because after all, it is only one little dot missing. I mean come on, it's not as if I wrote the wrong name or something drastic like that! Would anyone be so nitpicky as to differentiate between "gmailcom" and "gmail.com"? Isn't it a bit ridiculous that you didn't get my email just because of a little dot?

No, it's not ridiculous. Because the dot is not just a dot. It represents something. That dot has meaning far beyond the pixels on the screen that form it. To me it may seem insignificant, but that is simply due to my ignorance of the ways of the web. All I know is that with the dot, the message gets to the right destination; without it, the message is lost to oblivion.

Jewish practices have infinite depth. Each nuance and detail contains a world of symbolism. And every dot counts. When they are performed with precision, a spiritual vibration is emailed throughout the universe, all the way to G‑d's inbox.

If you want to understand the symbolism of the dot, study I.T.

If you want to understand the symbolism of Judaism, study it.

May you be inscribed and sealed in the ‘book of life’ for a joyous, healthy, and prosperous sweet new year

Wishing you and your entire family a Shabbat Shalom!

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