Friday, August 28, 2009

Ki Seitzei - Tasting the tree

Why does the Torah give the field worker the right to eat the fruits as he works? What is the meaning of the statement of our sages that the taste of the tree and the fruits were originally the same? What does it mean that it will return to that state when Moshiach comes?

Find out in this week's Parsha Podcast.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

6000 year calendar & Moshiach's Torah

Here is the fourth episode of the 'Understanding Moshiach' podcast.

This is the description from Itunes:

We start with a vital understanding of the Six Thousand year calendar our sages speak about, and how the years 4000-6000 are the period of Moshiach. We also explore the concept of Rebbe Akiva as Moshiach ben Yosef. Also discussed is the Torah of Moshiach ben Yosef, and his job of bringing us to a true connection with our fellow man, devoid of jealousy and competition, filled with the love that is a prerequisite for our relationship with Hashem.

V'zakeini L'gadel

Last night, we celebrated the wedding of my Brother-in-law Yonoson Sanford in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. My son Moshe Dov and I sang this beautiful song, composed by Baruch Levine.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Washington, DC is Rome?

Someone shared this with me, and I thought it to be quite interesting. Here is the link to the actual wikipedia article.

Rome, Maryland, was the original name of a community within Prince George's County, Maryland, which would eventually become Washington, District of Columbia. Specifically, Rome was the original community name of Capitol Hill, upon which the United States Capitol Building sits.

In 1663, the property that would become the Capitol's site was inscribed in the Maryland property records as “Rome,” its owner a man named Francis Pope. The southern boundary of this property was shaped by a river named for the river that runs through Rome, Italy, the Tiber.

The community was part of the ten mile square tract of land which would become the American capital Washington, D.C., and its owner, Daniel Carroll, transferred the community to the federal government after the amendment to the United States Constitution sanctioning the building of the new United States capital city was ratified.

Daniel Carroll was the chairman of a three-man commission appointed by President George Washington to find a suitable location for the capital city. A signer of the Declaration of Independence, Daniel Carroll was a Roman Catholic educated by Jesuits in Maryland and France. His brother John Carroll became the first Catholic bishop in America, presiding over the See of Baltimore, which included Washington, D.C. John Carroll also founded Georgetown University.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Why are Jews in America?

Over the last two weeks, and for another week or so, I am visiting the United States for a family Simcha. I have not really had much of a chance until now to write any serious posts, but my thoughts have been rolling as always with ideas that beg expression. So, here I begin.

Before we left Israel for this visit to the US, my son, who is six years old, said that he does not want to go to America. When questioned as to why, he explained that his rebbe told him that one who lives in Eretz Yisrael is constantly getting mitzvos, and therefore, he does not want to go to a place where he is missing that.

On a different occasion, my son asked me, with incredulity, Why would anyone want to live in America?

I thought I would share some of the thoughts I shared with him.

This question really goes deeper, and the question really becomes, Why are Jews outside of Israel at all? What is the purpose of Jews being dispersed all over the world? How does this help accomplish Hashem's materplan? How do Jews in America, Europe, Asia, Africa, etc. help bring Moshiach?

The answer is that in order for Moshiach to come it is essential that Jews be in these countries! What? Essential? Don't we all need to be back in Israel?

Rav Kessin explains, based on the Ramchal, that the reason the Jew enters another nation is in order to draw out the sparks of holiness that are entrapped in that nation. There are two entities that vie for the sparks - the Jewish people and the Satan. If the Jewish people sin, the sparks are given to the Satan, and he in turn gives them to the nations of the world. Then the job of the Jewish people is to release those sparks of holiness and bring them back to the side of Good. This can only be accomoplished in three ways. One, is by keeping mitzvos despite being embedded in the host nation. The second way of releasing the sparks is by doing teshuva for the aveiros. The third way is through yisurin, difficulties.

When all the sparks have been completely redeemed, we reach the days of Moshiach.

This is precisely what occurred in Egypt. The job of the Jewish people was to stay strong in their mitzvah observance. As they lost their Jewish identity, they began to be enslaved and experience hardships. The greatest hardships came at the very end as the geulah fast approached. But who was exempt from the slavery? The Leviim who kept on learning the Torah! They were able to remove the sparks that way, while their brethren unfortunately had to remove the sparks through hardships.

Thus, the purpose of the Jewish people being spread throughout the world is to redeem the sparks that are entrapped in these far-flung places.

As the sparks are redeemed, the Jewish people can return more and more to Israel. It is extremely interesting that there is a tremendous amount of Aliyah (courtesy of Nefesh b'Nefesh) from the US, Britain, etc. This would seem to indicate that Esav is getting sucked out of the sparks, allowing for the sparks to be returned to the Jewish people, and allowing them to be rejoined with their Holy Land.

So what do the Jews in Israel do then? The answer is that they are pulling the sparks out of the Erev Rav, which is the last place the sparks will reside. As the sparks are sucked out of Esav, they end up trapped in the Erev Rav.

Both of these jobs are necessary and essential in order to bring Moshiach.

It is interesting to think about which job is greater. On one hand, removing the sparks from Edom is the first stage, one we have been 'working on' for close to 2000 years, or more. On the other hand, pulling out the sparks from the Erev Rav is the final stage before Geulah. Each of these entails difficulty and challenge.

Something interesting that bothered me was that we know that one of Moshiach ben Yosef's jobs is to destroy Edom - to completely remove the sparks from the Western world and return them to the Jewish people. It seems on the surface, however, that the Arabs are doing this job. They are slowly taking over the Western world as they have more and more children.

I was thinking that the fact that they are able to do this is actually a clear sign that we, the Jewish people, are successfully completing our job of removing the sparks from Esav. As long as Esav has the sparks, he is dominant and powerful, and Yishmael can not take over. As we suck out the power from Esav, however, Yishmael can easily come in and take over, because Esav is powerless to stop them.

The bottom line of it all is that no matter where we are, we have an important job to do in order to bring Moshiach closer. My instinct is that the greater feat is to be in Eretz Yisrael, finishing off the job, but this does not take away from the importance of those outside of Israel who are helping as well.

Our job is accomplished as we dedicate ourselves to Torah, striving to come close to Hashem and be in sync with who we really are. As we do that, we give new strength to the Jewish people. Our job is to do teshuva and repent the sins we have done, thereby further bringing back the sparks to our people. And finally, if Hashem must bring us difficulties, we can accept them with love, knowing that ultimately He is giving us the opportunity to take part in the Moshiach process, hastening the day that all will be able to intimately experience Hashem's closeness.

One final thought I had is that Elul is a tremendous time for releasing the sparks from Esav. This is the month that we rededicate ourselves to our Avodas Hashem, really being strong in learning, studying mussar, and thinking about Teshuva. I think it was not a coincidence that it was in Elul last year that the Economic downturn began. As we draw the sparks out, all the false ideals of Esav come crashing down. This is the greatest sign that we are indeed succeeding in our efforts to bring the downfall of spiritual blindness, and raising the banner of Moshiach.

Shoftim - Spiritual battle preparations

Why is the merit for Hashem being on the side of the Jewish people simply saying Shema? Why are all the things the Jews are told not to fear related to sound? Why is the Kohen who speaks to the Jewish people specifically anointed with oil?

Find out in this week's Parsha Podcast.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Re'eh - climbing spiritual mountains

What is the significance of mountains in the ceremony at Mount Gerizim and Eval? Why does a mountain play such a crucial role in the giving of the Torah? Why is a mountain the place where the Temple stood? Why are the Avos referred to as mountains?

Find out in this week's Parsha Podcast.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Ekev - Understanding Fear of Hashem

What is the concept of fear of Hashem in Judaism? Why is it the gateway through which we enter into a relationship of love with Hashem? What is the fundamental relationship of this concept to the concepts of Unity and Disparity, and Kindness and Restraint?

Find out in this week's parsha podcast.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Understanding Moshiach - part 3

I have recorded a third episode of the Moshiach podcast. Again, there is a lot of new material that has not been posted here from the Kessin brothers and running time is about a half hour.

Here's the description from Itunes:

In this podcast we continue to explore the Jewish nation's role in bringing the ultimate redemption of Mankind. We accompany them in their journey through the exile and understand how their mission is completed through their observance of the commandments, through repentance, or Heaven forbid, through difficulties. This theme plays itself out quite clearly in the current exile in the Western/Christian world, which has replaced Rome, the descendant of Esav. We also see clearly how whenever the Jew sins, the sparks of Holiness are given to the side of Evil. We also explore the duality of the verse in Isaiah 60:22 that speaks of two possible times for Moshiach's advent - either 'in its time' or 'hastened.'

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Sensing Kedusha - part two

In a previous post, I spoke about the idea of sensing the holiness of Eretz Yisrael, and quoted the story I heard about the Rizhiner. In it, the rebbe implied to his chossid that the lack of sensitivity to the holiness of Eretz Yisrael was due to a certain lack of spirituality akin to a person who is dead.

So what do we do if we don't feel it?

And by the way, even if we 'feel it,' do we really? My wife once mentioned to me that when she was in seminary, one of her Rebbeim (who happens to be extremely spiritually in tune) turned to the girls and said to them that if he would blindfold them and plug up their ears, then bring them to rechov Ben Yehuda and the Kotel (lehavdil), they would not be able to tell which place was which.

It's clear that even if we do 'feel it,' it is quite likely that it is completely emotional and/or psychological.

So what is the correct approach?

I would like to share a true story with you, and I have changed the identities of the people involved and some of the minor details. I heard this directly from the people involved, so even if it seems a little 'far out,' I truly believe its veracity.

A family friend, David, was going through a mid-life spiritual renewal. He had experienced a number of different things that took him in his new direction, and although he started late, he felt that it was better late than never. While he had been growing in ruchniyus, his wife Sharon had lagged behind somewhat. She still wore pants and did not cover her hair, and preferred a good movie to a discussion of Rebbe Nachman's stories. Nevertheless, he did not pressure her, and their marriage remained solid.

At a certain point, David had decided to go on a spiritual Shabbaton retreat, and naturally assumed that his wife would not be interested. He booked a room for one.

At the same time, he was involved with spiritual healing, and a couple came to him who had been trying to get pregnant for a long time, and they had finally succeeded. Despite their success, they were nervous about the strength of the pregnancy, and came to him for help.

As David worked with them, the fetus actually began to communicate with him, via the fetus' mother. The fetus told them that it had tried to come into the world a number of times, but each time had been unsuccessful for whatever reason. This time, however, all would be well. The fetus then began to speak to David about his spiritual journey. He was quite surprised when he was questioned as to why he was not including Sharon in his spiritual growth. He responded by saying that he did not think she was interested at all. The fetus recommended that he invite Sharon to join him on the retreat. Still a bit doubtful, David assured the fetus that he would indeed do so.

Apprehensively, David asked Sharon if she would come on the retreat with him. Sharon smiled and said that she would love to join him.

And so began their journey together, each one growing at their own pace, but growing together nonetheless.

Sometimes we look at ourselves and think that we are not capable of sensing spirituality, that our physical side is just not interested, and that we are spiritually inept. Sometimes our physical side seems downright defiant when it comes to anything spiritual. If we look down on that part of ourselves, however, we do ourselves a great disservice. We do not give ourselves the chance to grow.

If we leave ourselves some emotional space, however, allowing it to be okay if there are times where we lack spiritual connection, we release the emotional pressure that would otherwise prevent any potential growth from taking place. Once the pressure is off, we can check in once in a while on ourselves (or the ones we love, for that matter) and offer the opportunity to come along for the spiritual ride. Doing otherwise just creates needless barriers and stunted growth at best.

In fact, if we see others who may not be on our spiritual level as being inferior to ourselves, we just pull ourselves down with a festering pride that is the greatest enemy of spirituality and is just a trick of the yetzer hara. This is especially ironic if our perceived advantage is nothing more than a psychological game we are playing with our own minds.

Looking at ourselves and others in a positive light - acting as a non-judgmental model, without making demands - this is what will ultimately see success.

I believe that this is why the Jewish people do not try to make converts, in fact, we push them away. Judaism is the only religion with such an approach. This shows us that the only path to true spiritual growth is by choice. Coerced growth is false. We act as a 'light unto the nations.' When people are drawn to our light and are sincere in their desire, we accept them.

This is the Torah approach to spiritual growth, both in guiding oneself along that path, as well as helping others. If we apply force to ourselves or others, it will only lead to destruction. If we look down on ourselves and others, even if it is only in our thoughts, it is impossible for us to cover up our true feelings. It is always apparent from how we hold ourselves and interact what is going on inside our minds. At best, this just causes a sense of that same pressure, albeit in a covert way.

The only truly effective path is to change our thoughts and attitudes, and know that if we are sensitive and are proper models, we can begin a healthy spiritual ascent both for ourselves and others.