Distance versus Effort

Distance versus Effort

We forget that every good that is worth possessing must be paid for in strokes of daily effort. We postpone and postpone, until those smiling possibilities are dead. -William James

distant-mountainsThere are goals that appear as mirages in the distance. We say to ourselves that we can never reach them. It’s not even worth the effort. Were we to make a mathematical calculation as to how far we think our efforts can take us, of how much ground we can cover in a limited amount of time, we are likely to give up before we even began.

The Sfat Emet in 5631 (1871) makes a statement that doesn’t conform to the standard laws of physics. He speaks about the study of Torah, that most fundamental and vital of our daily obligations. He explains that if one sees a study goal that is far, perhaps unreachably so, but commences nonetheless, he affects a change on the space-time continuum. Suddenly, the goal is much closer than you ever imagined. The metaphysical intention changes the physical reality. Your goal will be within reach.

However, if we don’t even take the trouble to start, that noble goal will remain infinitely distant, forever beyond our reach, merely for lack of real effort.

May we plan, commence and pursue noble goals, as ambitious as they may be, and may we see them fulfilled rapidly and fully, with great benefit.

Shabbat Shalom and Shana Tova,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the memory of Shimon Peres.

The Labor of Prayer

The Labor of Prayer

Whatever is your best time in the day, give that to communion with God. -Hudson Taylor

man-concentratingThere is a biblical command to give our first fruits to God. We till the earth. We plant seeds. We water. We clear the weeds. We watch them grow. We protect them. We pray for rain and the right weather. We invest all our time and effort to see the grain and fruit grow. And then, after significant investment, the first fruits grow and blossom. They are ripe. They are ready to be sold and eaten.

But then God says: “Hold on – not so fast. You need to give that very first fruit to Me. Bring the fruit to My Temple in Jerusalem and give it to the priests, my representatives on Earth.”

This commandment, amongst so many others, reminds us that everything is from God and thanks to God. When we pay Him homage (literally), we confirm and reaffirm that fundamental truth.

The Sfat Emet in 5631 (1871) states that our first hour of the day is like our first fruits. We must dedicate that time and give that time to God in prayer. We acknowledge that all our efforts, all our resources would amount to nothing without God’s active support. By consecrating our first hour of the day to the spiritual work of prayer, we ensure a greater likelihood that God will remain with us the rest of the day.

May we have and retain the capacity to pray earnestly and witness the resulting blessings.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Emergency Response Team of the Jewish Community of Uruguay. It’s great doing drills together and I pray we never have to use what we practice.

Returning the Sparks

Returning the Sparks

Force never moves in a straight line, but always in a curve vast as the universe, and therefore eventually returns whence it issued forth, but upon a higher arc, for the universe has progressed since it started. –attributed to “Kabbalah”

sparksThe commandment to return a lost object is legislated in Deuteronomy 22:1. Unsurprisingly, the Sfat Emet takes a mystical view as to a deeper meaning to what Moses is saying.

In 5631 (1871) the Sfat Emet states that every good action we do, that every commandment that we perform, in some fashion is akin to returning a lost object to God. In 5634 (1874) he explains that we are in fact returning divine sparks back to God. Every item in this world and every action taken have within it a divine spark. By having a positive interaction we release the spark from its material bondage and elevate it back to the spiritual realm where it belongs. We are in essence returning to God these divine entities He scattered and hid all around the world for us to find.

But we can only successfully return something to its rightful owner when we understand and acknowledge who that owner is. When we comprehend and accept that God is the source of All, that he is the Creator, the Boss, the Master of the Universe, only then do we have a chance of fulfilling the mission He entrusted to us of finding and freeing these divine sparks.

May we keep encountering and liberating spiritual entities and reuniting them with their proper divine proprietor, God.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Rafi, Ronit, Sarina and Nikki, the outstanding madrichot of Midreshet Torah V’Avodah on an incredible beginning to what is sure to be a divine year.

Shaking the Foundations

Shaking the Foundations 

If we do not maintain Justice, Justice will not maintain us. -Francis Bacon
scales-of-justice

There is an oft-repeated dictum of the Rabbis that the world is sustained by three things: Justice, Truth and Peace. (Pirkei Avot 1:18). Meaning, the institution of Justice, along with its companions Truth and Peace are three pillars that sustain the world. Harm one of the pillars, one of these foundations, and you threaten the very existence of the universe.

The Sfat Emet in 5634 (1874) takes this statement literally based on the verse “You shall not wrest (“thateh” in Hebrew) judgment.” (Deuteronomy 16:19). The literal word in Hebrew “thateh” can be understood to also mean to lean or to push in a way that will make something fall. Our unjust actions carry the danger of potentially toppling down the entire edifice of our world.

What this means, as it relates to Justice, is that if we don’t make sure that Justice is done, or if we are involved in an injustice, somehow we are eroding the basic building blocks of civilization. Fair play breaks down. Trust disappears. All human cooperation would come to a standstill, or be enmeshed in so many legal strictures as to make working together with anyone else almost impossible. That is how important the aspect of Justice is in our lives. Without a basic and sustained system of justice in society, it is very difficult to have functional and productive lives. The world would descend into anarchy.

The Sfat Emet concludes that just the act of veering from the laws of God, from what He determined is just, puts not only us, our families and our communities in danger – but it also threatens the entire world.

The converse is even truer. When we uphold justice, when we follow and strengthen God’s laws, we support, not only our world, but the entire universe.

May we merit to always be on the side of Justice, Truth and Peace.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To my nephew Saadya Epstein on being sworn in to the Armored Corps of the IDF.

 

 

Surviving Calamity

 

Surviving Calamity 

To live is to suffer; to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering. -Roberta Flack 

sufferingContinuing his farewell speech, Moses declares that God places before each of us blessings and curses. The blessings are stated as rewards for what we do right. The curses are punishments for what we do wrong. They both come from God. There are a multiplicity of ways and explanations as to how to understand divine reward and punishment and the related age-old question of why bad things happen to good people.

The Sfat Emet in 5635 (1875) advises us to understand our personal mishaps as messages from God. God is trying to get our attention. Hence, once we understand and incorporate the divine message into our lives, the “curse” has done its job. However, if we wallow in our suffering, if we blame God or the world for the undeserved ill that befalls us, if we don’t learn the lesson, if we don’t move on – the likely outcome is that the curse will continue to run its course, or in some cases become more severe.

But if we accept God’s will, the Sfat Emet continues, if we understand deeply that both the good and the bad come from God, if we seek to improve ourselves after our calamities, then there is a higher probability that we will grow due to our misfortunes, that we will gain the compassion, the empathy, the resilience that we may have been lacking.

May we withstand our trials and get through them stronger, wiser and kinder.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication 

To the memory of Gene Wilder.

 

 

 

God is in the Details

 

 Show me a man who cannot bother to do little things and I’ll show you a man who cannot be trusted to do big things. -Lawrence D. Bell

detailsThe name of this week’s parasha, Ekev, besides meaning “because” can also be translated as “heel”. The Kabbalists state that this alludes to the small or minor commandments that one is likely to trample on with their heel.

There are an abundance of commandments that have not made it to the general awareness of our day. For example:

  • “Shatnez”: A prohibition to wear any garments that mix wool and linen.
  • Shaving: Cannot use a razor on your face/neck.
  • Haircuts: Cannot shave the hair over the mandibular joint.
  • Tattoos: Prohibited.
  • Horoscopes: Prohibited.
  • Castration: Prohibited to castrate any being.

Besides the lesser-known commandments, even amongst the more widely known ones such as the Sabbath or eating Kosher, there are countless details and minutia that people choose to remain ignorant about or to be less than careful about.

The Sfat Emet in 5631 (1871) states that every single object – including the smallest detail or act – has a divine aspect to it. Hence the almost obsessive compulsion of Jewish law with the minutest details of our existence. By taking care of the small items, we merit to connect their divine sparks to the highest spiritual levels.

May we take the small stuff seriously.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the arrival in Montevideo of Rabbi and Rabbanit Kruger.

 

 

Getting without asking

 

Getting without asking 

All through nature, you will find the same law. First the need, then the means. -Robert Collier 

gift-boxGod knows what we want. Luckily for us, He also knows what we need. Nonetheless, we are commanded to pray to Him on a daily basis. Our sages of the past even formulated specific prayers that we repeat every morning, afternoon and night. After a while, these prayers can appear monotonous.

However, at the end of the silent prayer (known as the “Amida” or “Shemona Esre”) there is space that is set aside for personalized individual prayers. This is the place where we can break free of the formal, highly structured liturgy composed by our Rabbis of old. This is the place to pray specifically for success in our upcoming deal, test or challenge. It is the place to pour our hearts, our innermost private thoughts to God, our wishes, hopes and desires.

The Sfat Emet for parashat Vaetchanan in 5633 (1873) turns this paradigm on its head. He suggests that if we feel that we truly need something, we should focus on the established generalized liturgy as opposed to our specific personal requests. God knows what we want, knows what we need and knows why we are coming to pray. But by concentrating on the prescribed formulas; which include praise of God, general communal and national requests, and thanking God; we will merit fulfillment of our personal needs.

What the Sfat Emet recommends is counterintuitive. Don’t ask God directly for what you need in your prayer. Stick to the standard millennia-old text. He knows what to do. Somehow, acknowledging Him, honoring Him, thanking Him and thinking of the wider community and the world, opens up a channel for God to then demonstrate that He can in fact do anything. He then bestows some of that capacity and blessing on the petitioner who follows the correct sequence of words and thoughts.

May we appreciate the power of our ancient prayers and use them to our benefit.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To our son Akiva on his birthday. May he continue to have his prayers and needs gracefully fulfilled.