Friday, January 31, 2020

How to become a heretic

Brachos 29

The Maccabees were victorious in their battle against the Greeks.  Not only did they manage to drive out the oppressive regime, but they were able to awaken a Jewish cultural revival.  Their brethren rededicated themselves to traditional practice and there was a general feeling of both physical and spiritual tranquillity in the Land of Israel.

But, alas, it was not to last.  The patriarch of the Chanukah story, Matisyahu, had a grandson by the name of Yochanan, who inherited the High Priesthood.  A devout Jew and a dedicated leader of our people, he was one of the longest-serving High Priests.  Sadly, however, towards the end of his life, his religious observance took a nosedive.  What began with a little curious exploration ended with our beloved leader becoming lax in attitude and behaviour towards traditional Torah Judaism (Imrei Noam).

Do not believe in yourself until the day you die.  For the High Priest Yochanan served as Kohen Gadol (High Priest) for eighty years, and in the end, he became a Sadducee (heretic).

The Ohr Yechezkel explains how it is possible to stray after years of righteousness.  Most people believe that once a person has habituated themselves to a life of Torah and mitzvos and is secure in their observance, they can sit back and take things easy.  Now that their course is set, they can switch on cruise control for the rest of their lives.  That’s not the case.  As long as an individual is on this Earth, there are two paths before him.  The freedom to choose is a lifelong gift from Above.

In many ways, the path of tradition becomes the more natural, obvious choice.  After all, for an individual who has established himself and his household in a certain way of life, it would be disruptive to the entire family to reconsider the options.  Nevertheless, the options are always there.  And free choice must always exist in equilibrium, which means that as easy as it may feel to continue along a certain path, the temptation to experiment with the alternatives must be equally viable. 

The simpler it might feel to avoid rocking the boat and to sail smoothly down the river you chose decades earlier, the more on guard you must be for dangerous undercurrents lurking beneath the surface.  The yetzer hara (inner tempter) is always looking for ways to keep those two paths equal.  Sometimes he tries convincing you that, at this stage of your life, the children have all grown up and are leading the lifestyle you chose for them. What harm then could there be in you doing your own thing?

Or he tries to boredom approach.  If you’re wondering why you’re feeling uninspired and tired of religious practice, it’s the power of the tempter endeavouring to dampen your lifelong love of Judaism.  It’s perfectly normal to feel bored with your Judaism after doing the same thing for years and years.  The challenge is to find ways to constantly reinspire yourself, by discovering new Jewish texts to explore, and by never resting on your laurels with regards to Jewish knowledge and practice.

Judaism is like walking up a mountain on skis.  If you stop climbing for a moment, you will start to slide backwards.  There’s no stopping to rest.  If you’re not moving forwards, you’ll quickly start reversing. 

A simple demonstration of the truth of this idea is the concept of Torah knowledge.  Think about something you learned last week.  Hopefully, it’s still pretty clear in your mind.  Now, think about something you learned ten years ago.  Not very clear, right?  With each passing day, you’re gradually forgetting what you learned in the past.  And so every day you fail to advance your Jewish knowledge, it’s regressing.  If you haven’t learned a new pearl of Torah wisdom today, you haven’t remained static in your Judaism, you’ve inevitably slipped backwards down the spiritual mountain. 

That might not hurt so much when it happens for a day or two, or even a week or two, but if you continue in that mode for weeks, months, and years on end, the consequences can be devastating.  When you think about it like that, it’s no wonder you’re starting to feel distant from, and uninspired by, your Judaism.  It will inevitably begin to dry up and feel stale when we don’t engage with it in any serious way for a considerable period of time.

Yochanan wasn’t a bad person.  He merely fell into the trap of doing Judaism by rote.  That’s what happens after years of doing the same ‘old’ Temple service day-in day-out.  After a while, even the most righteous individual is guaranteed to get tired and grow bored of what they’re doing.  It doesn’t take any effort to become a heretic, it just eventually happens, when you allow your Judaism to slide backwards for a long enough period of time.

It takes a lot of effort to constantly seek new, fresh and exciting aspects of Judaism to discover.  But as long as you’re here on Earth, it means that the Almighty is challenging you and wants you to challenge yourself.  May you never stop growing in your Judaism! 

Thursday, January 30, 2020

CCTV makes it hard to sin

Brachos 28

When Rabbi Yocḥanan ben Zakkai was on his deathbed, his students went to visit him. When he saw them, he began to cry. His students asked him, “Lamp of Israel, the right pillar, the mighty hammer, the man whose life’s work is the foundation of the future of the Jewish people, for what reason are you crying?”

He said to them, “If they were leading me before a flesh and blood king who is here today and in the grave tomorrow, if he were angry with me, his anger is not eternal.  If he were to incarcerate me, his incarceration is not eternal. If he were to kill me, his killing is not for eternity.  I am able to appease him with words and bribe him with money, and even so I would cry.  

Now they are leading me before the supreme King of Kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, who lives and endures forever and all time.  If He is angry with me, His anger is eternal.  If He incarcerates me, His incarceration is eternal.  If He kills me, His killing is for eternity. I am unable to appease Him with words and bribe him with money.  And I have two paths before me, one to the Garden of Eden and one to Purgatory.  I know not to which they are leading me.  Should I not cry?”

They said to him, “Our teacher, bless us.”
He replied, “May it be His will that the fear of Heaven shall be upon you like the fear of mortal man.”
The students asked, “But only that much?”  
He said to them, “If only a person would attain that level of fear!  Know that when one commits a transgression, he says to himself, ‘I hope that no man will see me.’”

What were the students of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai thinking?  Didn’t they realize that most people tend to fear being caught by their fellow men much more than by G-d?  After all, G-d sees everything, and yet people sin.  But if that same person would know he was being caught on CCTV, he would desist from acting inappropriately.  What part of their teacher’s cautionary blessing was difficult for them to comprehend?

The Chesed L’Avraham explains their bewilderment in light of the previous thoughts offered by Rabbi Yochanan.  He had just told them that heavenly punishment is much worse than earthly punishment.  The former is eternal, the latter temporary.  Why then would people fear Heaven only to the extent of their fear of mortal man?  The fear of spiritual retribution should be far greater!

Rabbi Yochanan replies that fear of sin should not be about fear of retribution.  It should be about fear or embarrassment of the sin itself.  When an individual commits a transgression, his greatest fear is that he will be found out.  In other words, the worst immediate consequence is the embarrassment of being caught in the act of acting inappropriately.  And so he desists from sin.  Thus, he fears the act itself and the embarrassment it might bring, rather than any consequences. 

Likewise, Rabbi Yochanan blesses his students that their fear of sin be not the fear of Divine retribution, but embarrassment of the sin itself.  We should be simply embarrassed of standing in the presence of G-d and acting inappropriately.  Maybe He’ll punish you, maybe He’ll have mercy on you and let you off.  But that’s irrelevant.  The main reason to avoid sinning is how embarrassed you should be feeling in His presence.  He’s watching you and that should be enough reason to do the right thing.

The Baal Shem Tov explains the verse in Song of Songs (2:9), “He looks from the windows and peers from the cracks,” as a reference to the irrational fear that often overcomes a person before he sins.  He’s about to act out of line, when he suddenly starts imagining people watching him from the adjacent window or through a crack in the wall. 
‘Did anyone see me?’ he wonders, ‘I could have sworn I saw some eyes peeking out of the dark crevice!’ 

That feeling, says the Besht, is a manifestation of the Divine power in the world.  Fear of Heaven expresses itself through various physical vehicles.  The person who feels someone is watching him is actually feeling the ‘eyes’ of G-d upon him.  It is the fear of Heaven that has been sent down to assist him in resisting temptation.  Thus, says the Baal Shem Tov, Rabbi Yochanan’s blessing is that we should recognize that the fear of mortals peeking at our misbehaviour is really Hashem watching us and keeping us safe from ourselves.

Our Father in Heaven loves you.  He’s not watching you to catch you out.  He’s watching over you to assist you along the challenging journey of life.  May you always see His guiding hand and may you sensitise yourself towards HIs presence such that it would feel embarrassing to engage in inappropriate behaviour!

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Why does the Rabbi face the congregation?

Brachos 27

“Forget that she sometimes wore a diamond crown and that I’d flown to London on the presidential jet; we were just two tired ladies oppressed by our shoes. I then did what’s instinctive to me anytime I feel connected to a new person, which is to express my feelings outwardly. . . I couldn’t have known it in the moment, but I was committing what would be deemed an epic faux pas.”

A decade or so ago, President Obama and the First Lady paid a visit to the Queen at Buckingham Palace.  Upon meeting Her Majesty, Mrs. Obama threw her arms around the monarch in a welcoming embrace.  The tabloids were horrified.  In Britain, it is well known that one may not extend one’s hand to a member of the royal household unless they do so, let alone touch them in any more intimate a manner.  Indeed, protocols and norms dictate how the Queen may be addressed and one must wait for her to initiate a greeting.  The initial response must be ‘Your Majesty,’ and subsequently, she should be called, ‘Ma’am’.

Rav Yehuda quoted Rav: A person should never pray alongside the rabbi, nor behind the rabbi.  And it was taught: Rabbi Eliezer says, one who prays behind the rabbi, or one who initiates a greeting to the rabbi, or one who returns a greeting to the rabbi irreverently, or one who challenges the rabbi’s authority, or one who misquotes the rabbi, causes the Divine to depart from Israel.

Jewish tradition accords honour to various categories of leaders.  The Prophet Jeremiah (2:8) speaks of priests, shepherds (kings), prophets, and Torah teachers, a clear example of the Torah’s traditional belief in the separation of powers.  No human being is infallible and leadership of the community is never invested in one group or individual.  Nevertheless, all of these holy leaders must be treated with the utmost respect and reverence, for the Divine presence has been manifested in them.  What makes our tradition so special is that while many of these leadership categories are either inherited or Divinely-inspired, Torah leadership is attainable for every individual, regardless of their family status or upbringing. 

How must one act towards Torah leaders?  “A person should never pray alongside his rabbi,” which is why most synagogues have a dedicated space for the rabbi.  The actual meaning of the Gemara is that, in recognition of the Torah accomplishments of the rabbi, he is not just ‘one of the guys.’  Rashi explains that praying alongside is an expression connoting the treatment of the rabbi as an equal.  Throughout all interactions, one must behave with appropriate reverence. 

At the same time, however, one may not “pray behind his rabbi”.  Tosfos suggests that praying behind the rabbi might offer the appearance that one is bowing down to the rabbi.  The meaning of these cautionary words is that, while one must have due reverence for the rabbi, it must not reach a level of deification.  Only G-d is Divine.  The rabbi is a human being, capable of making mistakes.

Why does Rabbi Eliezer limit our exchanges of greetings with the rabbi?  The Pnei Yehoshua offers a reason more profound than mere comparisons to royal protocol.  In Hebrew a greeting is ‘Shalom’, meaning ‘peace,’ and it is also one of the names of Hashem.  The Talmud teaches that “Torah scholars increase peace in the world.”  Through the power of Torah, one is able to draw down Divine energy into this physical world.  In fact, that’s the reason why in most synagogues, the rabbi faces the congregation.  While the congregation look into their siddurim (prayer-books), he looks at his “siddur” – the holy and cherished people sitting before him in the pews – to construct his prayers around their needs.  His role is to focus on each individual and pray for their shalom, their welfare, health, and prosperity in every aspect of their lives.

For someone less versed in Torah, it would be hubris to initiate an offering of ‘shalom’ to a practitioner of shalom.  It would be like offering medical advice to a doctor.   Once one has received the blessing of shalom, however, one may respond with appropriate reverence, says Rabbi Eliezer.

Rabbi Eliezer’s latter two issues deal with the flow of ‘shalom’ that one would not want to interrupt.  It’s one thing to respectfully ask a question of the rabbi.  It’s quite another to challenge his authority.  He is the conduit for shalom in the world.  He works hard to maintain the constant flow of Divine energy through the veins of the universe.  Who would want to disrupt that flow in their lives?  Who would want the Divine presence to depart from their world? 

Likewise, misquoting the shalom professional is as perilous as misquoting other professionals.  To continue our earlier analogy, let’s say the doctor told you to give your child three pills a day.  Thinking you know better, you tell your spouse that the doctor said ten pills.  Your conceit, G-d forbid, could have dangerous consequences for your child’s health.  In a similar manner, one must be very careful to follow the spiritual advice of the rabbi, to ensure that the Divine energy flows unabated.

There was a time in history when our tradition was referred to as Rabbinic Judaism.  We are the heirs to those Jews who recognized the centrality of the role of our rabbis in Judaism.  They are the arbiters of Halacha (law), they are the conveyors of the Torah from generation to generation, and they are the ‘peacemakers’ who strive to increase shalom in the world.  May you always be a supporter, and never a detractor, and may you merit a never-ending flow of Divine energy, translating into blessings of health, prosperity, and eternal nachas!