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Rabbi's Corner

The "High" that Dies

The story of the golden calf is well known to us all. Put in context, this biblical episode reverberates and resonates deeply within our lives today:

For the past twelve months G‑d had been courting his bride, the Jewish people: the ten plagues, splitting the sea, and redeeming them from slavery. Finally, following a year long engagement, the marriage occurs at Mount Sinai. G‑d and the Jewish People become husband and wife. Yet only 40 days after the wedding, before G‑d even has a chance to bring His bride into His majestic home, the land of Israel, the Jewish People turn to another – a golden calf.

How could they? Didn’t they have any sense of loyalty or commitment? After all G‑d had done for them, didn’t they feel some semblance of allegiance?

This story repeats itself, in one form or other, in the daily roller coaster ride of our lives. And the answer lies in the one liner: “Easy come – Easy Go”.

True, G‑d had lovingly reached out to a nation of slaves, imbuing within them a sense of right and wrong, and charging them with the mission of being a “light unto the nations”. Yet this inspiration was super imposed upon the Jewish People. G‑d lifted them to the greatest of heights, but they never actually climbed the stairs on their own. And therefore as soon as G‑d let go, even for a short 40 days, they plummeted into the depths of depravity and idolatry. It was a high that came and went.

Inspiration is like a fleeting shadow, like a spark. Unless we can hold on to it, internalize it, and turn it to action, it disappears as quickly as comes.

So when we get that moment of inspiration that tells us to become more committed to G‑d and Judaism, let’s try to hold on to the ‘high’. Let us take the spark and use it as the starter for our spiritual engine. By turning inspiration into action; by doing one more mitzvah, we will enjoy a true and meaningful relationship with our loving spouse – G‑d Almighty.

Shabbat Shalom,

Assimilation or Isolation

 

(adapted from Rabbi Y. Goldman) 

Today, the walls of the ghetto no longer sequester us from the rest of society. We fraternize and do business with non-Jews on a daily basis and have become fully adjusted to western culture. The contemporary question is: how do we strike a balance between retaining our Jewish identity on the one hand, while at the same time being citizens of the world.

In tomorrow’s Torah portion we read about the pure olive oil used to kindle the menorah in the sanctuary that our ancestors built in the desert The Rebbe once taught that it is oil that holds the secret formula for how we can successfully live proud Jewish lives in a non-Jewish environment.

Oil, you see, is a paradox. On the one hand, it spreads quickly and easily, seeping through and permeating the substances with which it comes in contact.

On the other hand, when mixed with other liquids, oil stubbornly rises to the surface and refuses to be absorbed by anything else.

Like oil, we too, will often find ourselves mixing in a wide variety of circles — social, business, civic, communal or political. At the very same time, though, we need to remember never to lose our own identity and dilute our own Jewish persona.

We often feel a strong pressure, whether real or imagined, to conform to the norms around us. Few among us enjoy sticking out like a sore thumb. The fact is, however, that others respect us more when we respect ourselves. If we are cavalier in our commitment to our own principles, then our associates might worry whether we might not betray them next.

Every once in a while I go out for lunch meetings in a kosher restaurant. There I sometimes find one Jewish business person at a table with many non-Jewish partners, clients, bosses, or would-be clients. They are all eating in this kosher restaurant because of this one Jew and they are quite happy to accommodate individual needs and sensitivities (especially since kosher dining is quite good!).

Many times our apprehensions about stating our religious requirements are often exaggerated and unfounded. Provided we do it honestly, respectfully and consistently, our adherence to a code of values impresses our associates and inspires them with greater confidence in our trustworthiness.

Compromising our values and principles is a sure way to lose the respect we crave from the world around us. Dignity, pride and self-respect earn us the esteem and admiration of those around us, whether Jews or non-Jews. It is a time-tested and well-proven method.

If we are able to reach the balance of "perfect oil"; if we are able to involve ourselves within our society as proud Jews – then we will have become a true Or La’goyim – a light unto the nations.

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Wealth is a Good Thing - Terumah

This week’s portion opens with G‑d’s  directive to Moshe that the Jewish People donate gold, silver, and many other valuable items to the "building campaign" – ie: to build a home in which G‑d’s presence would dwell among Israel.

In this spirit, allow me to share a few words about money and wealth: 

The story is told of a poor man who, despite his own poverty, would always invite strangers to come into his home and eat a home-cooked meal. His generosity was all the more special due to his own circumstances.

In the merit of these acts of kindness, he was blessed with riches and soon found himself in a large mansion. Now, a change started to occur. Slowly, the poor were no longer welcome in his home. First it was a hint, then a suggestion, finally he would not even let then into his new home lest they spoil the hand-woven white carpets. He was dismissive of their pleas for help, suggesting to them that they should work harder.

As news of his mean behavior spread, he soon found himself shunned by his former friends and colleagues. In despair, he called upon a wise old rabbi.

As they were talking in the mansion, the rabbi pointed to a huge mirror situated on the wall facing the street, feigning ignorance. "What a strange window! All I see is myself! Where are all the people on the street?"

The man laughed. "Rabbi, it is not a window it is a mirror." "But I don't understand", said the rabbi, "it is made of glass, like a window." "If it were only glass you would be able to see the other people. But this is a mirror. It has a layer of silver added to it. Now you only see yourself."

"Aha!" said the wise rabbi. "Now I see the problem. When you add the silver, all you see is yourself!"

So is wealth something negative? Not at all. As Jews, we do not frown upon wealth, prosperity, or material success. In fact, the great Rabbi Yehuda (135-188CE) who recorded our entire tradition, paid special respect and accorded honor to the wealthy among Israel .

Why did Rabbi Yehuda do this? Because of a golden rule in Jewish teaching: G‑d gives each of us the precise tools, talents, and abilities necessary for us to fulfill our mission in life. If someone has been blessed with wealth and success, that is a sign from heaven that this individual is endowed with the strength to utilize this wealth to fulfill an extraordinary mission.

In the 1950s, the Rebbe visited Gan Israel summer camp (now the largest chain of Jewish summer camps) where he saw a notice in the office saying, "Money is the root of all evil." The Rebbe commented that the sign was incorrect. Money can – and should – produce tremendous good. It all depends on the person using it.

Each of us has wealth in one form or other. Let us remember that we’ve been given these gifts to use and build a "home for G‑d"; to ensure that the mitzvahs we do are "first class": not just a simple mezuzah - beautiful scrolls, not just a simple candlestick - but a beautiful silver pair. Our material wealth is just a tool; a tool to make our family life and community life one that is infused and permeated with a higher sense of meaning and purpose.

Shabbat Shalom,

Dealing With Negative Emotions

 

(adapted from Rabbi Y. Y. Jacobson)
Here’s an interesting sentence from this week’s Torah portion: “If you see the donkey of someone you hate lying under its burden, and you might refrain from helping him - you shall surely help him.” (Exodus 23:5)

Let us analyze this sentence for a moment. Why does the Torah see it important to discuss the possible thought that you may not wish to help your enemy? Why doesn’t the Torah state the law succinctly: “If you see the donkey of someone you hate lying under its burden, you shall surely help him!”?

The answer is both simple and profound. The Bible is making a point of acknowledging the instinct to refrain from helping one’s enemy’s donkey as legitimate and human. It is perfectly normal to feel that you care not to assist the person you loathe, even if his animal is suffering.

Yet notwithstanding this natural emotion, the Torah is calling on us to challenge our instinct and assist our enemy’s donkey regardless. This perfectly human instinct need not dictate our actions.

There are two significant lessons here, pertinent particularly for generation; an age dedicated to the dissecting of one’s emotional persona.

1) The fact that our emotions are not always in sync with our ideals and values does not reduce us to moral failures. The fact that we don’t want to do the right thing doesn’t make us bad people. To be human is go through inner struggle and turmoil.

2) On the other hand, the Bible is informing us that not every emotion is holy. When somebody’s animal is suffering you must extend your hand, notwithstanding your negative emotions toward the owner of the donkey

One of the problems unique to our age is that for many of us emotions have become the sole barometers that determine right from wrong. We have turned our emotions into deities, worshiping them as though they embodied absolute, timeless truth, a new god. Hence, to suggest to somebody that they might overlook an emotion, subdue a feeling, disregard a mood is thud a form of idolatry. Our emotions have become gods and we must obey them at all costs, even if this may be detrimental for our relationships, our marriages, our children, and our long term visions

In the Biblical ethos, there is a critical distinction that must be made between acknowledging your emotions vs. allowing them to dictate your behavior.

So the next time you come to a fork in the road where you must choose between “what I want to do” and “what the right thing to do is”, remember: 1) It’s only human nature to want to do that which is most convenient and that which requires the least amount of effort. 2) Acting as a Jew means transcending and overcoming those mortal emotions and doing the right thing.

May we take the strength from this week’s Torah portion to challenge our instincts and rise above them. Though the struggle is a difficult one, the liberation we experience once our shackles of selflessness are lifted is tremendous.

Let’s do one more mitzvah today!

Shabbat Shalom 

 

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