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Saturday, February 22, 2020

Let's Discuss it at the Committee

Brachos 51

Our matriarch Sarah had just died and Avraham needed a burial plot for her, as quickly as possible.  Having received a tradition concerning the resting of place of Adam and Eve, he was determined to bury her in those hallowed grounds, the Cave of Machpelah.  By that time, our patriarch’s fame had spread far and wide, and so when he approached Ephron the Hittite, the plot’s owner, Ephron was only too happy to reach an agreement.

“A great person such as yourself, how could I take a penny?” said Ephron, “Please, it’s yours as a gift.”
“No, I insist on a bona fide purchase,” replied Avraham, “Give me your best price.”
“How about four hundred silver shekels?” was Ephron’s response, an exorbitant sum by anyone’s standards.

עוּלָּא אִקְּלַע לְבֵי רַב נַחְמָן. כְּרֵיךְ רִיפְתָּא, בָּרֵיךְ בִּרְכַּת מְזוֹנָא, יְהַב לֵיהּ כָּסָא דְּבִרְכְּתָא לְרַב נַחְמָן. אֲמַר לֵיהּ רַב נַחְמָן: לִישַׁדַּר מָר כָּסָא דְבִרְכְּתָא לְיַלְתָּא. אֲמַר לֵיהּ: הָכִי אָמַר רַבִּי יוֹחָנָן: אֵין פְּרִי בִטְנָהּ שֶׁל אִשָּׁה מִתְבָּרֵךְ אֶלָּא מִפְּרִי בִּטְנוֹ שֶׁל אִישׁ, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר ״וּבֵרַךְ פְּרִי בִטְנְךָ״. ״פְּרִי בִטְנָהּ״ לֹא נֶאֱמַר, אֶלָּא ״פְּרִי בִטְנְךָ״. תַּנְיָא נָמֵי הָכִי, רַבִּי נָתָן אוֹמֵר: מִנַּיִן שֶׁאֵין פְּרִי בִטְנָהּ שֶׁל אִשָּׁה מִתְבָּרֵךְ אֶלָּא מִפְּרִי בִּטְנוֹ שֶׁל אִישׁ — שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״וּבֵרַךְ פְּרִי בִטְנְךָ״, ״פְּרִי בִטְנָהּ״ לֹא נֶאֱמַר, אֶלָּא ״פְּרִי בִטְנְךָ״. אַדְּהָכִי שְׁמַעָה יַלְתָּא, קָמָה בְּזִיהֲרָא, וְעַלַּת לְבֵי חַמְרָא, וּתְבַרָא אַרְבַּע מְאָה דַּנֵּי דְחַמְרָא. אֲמַר לֵיהּ רַב נַחְמָן: נְשַׁדַּר לַהּ מָר כָּסָא אַחֲרִינָא, שְׁלַח לַהּ: כֹּל הַאי נַבְגָּא, דְּבִרְכְּתָא הִיא. שְׁלַחָה לֵיהּ: מִמְּהַדּוּרֵי — מִילֵּי, וּמִסְּמַרְטוּטֵי — כַּלְמֵי

Ulla was once at the house of Rav Nacḥman. He ate bread, bentched, and gave the cup of blessing to Rav Nacḥman. Rav Nacḥman said to him, “Sir, would you please send the ‘kos shel bracha’ (cup of blessing) to (my wife) Yalta.”  He responded to him, “This is what Rabbi Yocḥanan said: The fruit of a woman’s insides is blessed from the fruit of the man’s insides, as it is stated: “and He will bless the fruit of your insides”.  ‘The fruit of her insides’ is not stated, but “the fruit of your insides.” (For a woman to be blessed, it is sufficient to give the cup to her husband).” When Yalta heard this, she stood up passionately, entered the wine-cellar, and broke four hundred barrels of wine.  Rav Nacḥman said, “Sir, would you please send her another cup.” Ulla sent Yalta a message saying, “All of the wine in this barrel is a blessing.”  She responded, “From itinerant preachers come words, and from rags come lice.”

The Midrash Eliyahu (BY) explains that Yalta broke the seals of the four hundred barrels and distributed the wine to poor people for the purposes of Kiddush and Havdallah.  Throughout the Torah, the number four hundred symbolizes disingenuousness.  For example, when Yaakov is on the way back to the land of Canaan, his brother, Esav, comes to ‘greet’ him, accompanied by four hundred men, armed for battle.  Esav pretends to approach Yaakov with graciousness and friendliness.  And yet our Sages perceive a lack of sincerity on the part of Esav, to the extent that the Torah contains dots over the word “and he kissed him.”  They explain that he was actually attempting to bite him, but his plot was foiled.

Similarly, when Hashem tells Avraham about the exile of his descendants into Egypt, He tells him they will be sojourners in a foreign land for four hundred years.  And indeed, while we were invited to Egypt as guests of Pharaoh, that generosity was short-lived.  Before long, all the niceties melted into slave labour.  And then, of course, returning to the story of Ephron, had he truly wanted to be generous with Avraham, he would not have charged him the exorbitant price of four hundred silver shekels.  His final offer demonstrated that his original offer to gift him the cave was far from sincere.

In each situation, we find an interaction where one of the parties offers airs of graciousness and munificence, but it ultimately becomes clear that they do not truly mean what they say.  Likewise, when the Gemara here refers to four hundred barrels, the meaning is deeper than the basic reading suggests.  Obviously, she didn’t go around with an axe, literally smashing four hundred barrels of wine!  The word used for barrels is ‘danei’, which is related to the Hebrew word ‘din’, meaning judgment.  The Midrash Eliyahu explains that Yalta broke the negative spiritual judgments against Rav Nachman and Ulla.  But what had they done wrong?

It is customary to bentch over a cup of wine, which is termed the ‘kos shel bracha.’  That cup is considered holy, and partaking of it is a special omen that brings blessing into one’s life.  Many families pass the kos shel bracha around, so that everyone can benefit from the cup’s unique powers.  You see this practice particularly at Sheva Brochos, after the bride and groom have had a sip from the two cups of blessing.  

After Ulla and Rav Nachman had finished bentching, Yalta would have liked to partake of the kos shel bracha.  And so the two rabbis began to debate whether it was necessary for her to have some of the wine.  After all, since Rav Nachman had already taken a sip, why would Yalta need to drink?  If they were intrinsically bound together as husband and wife, all their blessings were already intertwined.  And so if he was blessed, she was automatically blessed!  It’s akin to the question of whether everyone on an aeroplane needs to recite Tefillas Haderech (The Traveller’s Prayer).  If the ship goes down, they all go down.  Therefore, presumably as long as one person had uttered the prayer, they would all be protected!  Likewise, if Rav Nachman was blessed, so was Yalta!

‘Actually, that’s all irrelevant,’ says Yalta, as she storms off in the direction of the wine-cellar.  ‘If you think that blessing is what happens in the Beis Medrash (study-hall), you learned men have missed the point.  I’ll show you how to transfer blessing.’  And with that, she distributes her husband’s entire wine collection to the poor.  Now that’s how you share your ‘cup of blessing’!

Yalta’s message to the rabbis was that if they truly cared about blessing, they wouldn’t be sitting there debating how blessing flows into the world.  They would become agents of Heaven’s blessing.  If you’re stuck in a dispute regarding the spiritual mechanism of the cup of blessing, while others are waiting desperately to receive their physical blessing of tangible sustenance, you’ve muted your power to be a conduit for Hashem’s blessing.

And that’s what she meant by her sharp message.  You can preach about blessing all you like, but it’s empty words unless you are able to bring tangible blessing into other people’s lives.  By the time you get around to distributing your blessings to those who need them, the food will be rotten and infested. 

Yalta’s message to the two rabbis was ‘Stop talking about blessing.  And start blessing.’  How do we start blessing?  By making blessing.  By doing blessing.  And indeed the rabbis conceded to her that she was right – the entire barrel had become a blessing.  Because she had made it into a source of blessing by virtue of her actions. 

And here’s the bottom line: Once you turn on the tap of blessing, Hashem will turn on His tap of blessing.  You don’t lose blessing because you’ve distributed blessing.  It’s like the hot water tap in your kitchen: when you open the faucet and receive hot water, new cold water immediately enters from the other side and begins to warm up, and the entire time the tank remains full!

We are all engaged with bringing blessing into the world.  And every positive initiative requires planning and discussion.  But sometimes we find ourselves investing too much effort in the conversations about the charitable work, with little time and resources left to devote to the actual charitable endeavour.  We’re so worried that we’ll allocate the resources efficiently, but meanwhile, those who need the allocations are desperately waiting to receive the services already.   And we keep talking about the best way to distribute the blessing.  And talking.  And planning.  And debating.

We have a responsibility to provide the blessing as quickly as we can.  When we do so, the Almighty will provide all the resources we need to continue to be conduits of blessing. When we turn on the tap, the blessing in the tank is immediately replenished.  The more blessing we distribute, the more blessing we are given to distribute.

We don’t say a bracha, we make a bracha.  Blessing means doing.  May you become a constant and unlimited source of blessing for all!

Friday, February 21, 2020

Resilience breeds Leadership

Brachos 50 

The first monarch of Israel was King Saul.  Prior to becoming king, he was a paragon of excellence.  A righteous Jew, he was learned in Torah, and a natural leader.  A well-liked person, he was also tall and handsome.  But he didn’t make it.  He wasn’t long in office when he snapped.  By the end of his life, he was a paranoid, depressed, worn-out individual, a shadow of his former self.  What went wrong?

Chief Rabbi Mirvis contrasts King Saul’s beginnings with those of his successor, David.  Kind David’s origins were humble and not without challenge.  He was the youngest member of the family and was treated disparagingly by his older brothers.  As a shepherd, he had to fight off bears and lions.  And when his brothers were drafted into the royal military, he was left at home.

That, however, was the secret to his success.  King Saul had never experienced challenges in his life.  And so the first difficulty that came across his throne crushed him.  One challenge after another made him weaker and weaker, until he was no longer able to serve as King of Israel.  David, by contrast, was no stranger to challenge.  His treatment at the hands of his family members and the beasts of the wild prepared him to face any difficulty in life.

הָיָה רַבִּי מֵאִיר אוֹמֵר: מִנַּיִן שֶׁאֲפִילּוּ עוּבָּרִין שֶׁבִּמְעֵי אִמָּן אָמְרוּ שִׁירָה עַל הַיָּם — שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: ״בְּמַקְהֵלוֹת בָּרְכוּ אֱלֹהִים ה׳ מִמְּקוֹר יִשְׂרָאֵל״.

Rabbi Meir would say: What is the scriptural source that even babies in their mothers’ wombs recited the song at the Red Sea? As it is stated, “In assemblies, bless God, the Lord, from the womb of Israel.”

Why were the Egyptians drowned in the Red Sea?  Our Sages explain that the Almighty was punishing them measure-for-measure, in retribution for the decree that “every baby boy shall be cast into the river.”  While G-d had told Avraham that his descendants would be strangers in a foreign land, He never mentioned genocide.  Once the Egyptians crossed the line between ruling authority to murderous nation, G-d sealed their fate.  They too would drown, as they had decreed upon the Hebrews.

Based upon this idea, the Minchas Yitzchok explains why the babies in the womb also sang upon experiencing the miracles at the Red Sea.  Had the Children of Israel remained in servitude in Egypt, they stood the most to lose.  Under the Egyptian regime, they would not have made it to their first birthdays!  While they may not have witnessed the miracles with their own eyes, they were the biggest winners, for their very lives were spared.

The problem with the Minchas Yitzchok’s explanation is that the equation should have been expressed the other way around.  Rabbi Meir should have taught, “Not only did the babies in the womb sing, but even the already-born Israelites also sang, despite the fact that their salvation was not as great.”  Why does he teach that even the babies sang?

Ever noticed the way children play with one another?  They are constantly fighting.  But amazingly, five minutes later, they are best of friends, playing together as if nothing ever happened.  Children are the epitome of resilience.  They don’t get stuck on their pride and feelings of personal offense.  They simply ‘get over it’ and move on.  Once again they’re best of friends, and it’s as if nothing ever happened.

That’s why Rabbi Meir says ‘even the babies sang.’  He’s teaching us a powerful lesson.  After we’d been saved from the raging Red Sea, we were all still thinking about the pain and anguish of Egypt, but they’d moved on.  While we were all still looking backwards, they were looking ahead to a brighter future.

Did they sing?  Yes, they did, but only because they were part of our nation and everyone else was singing.  From their perspective, however, they had left Egypt, crossed the Red Sea, and had their sights set on the Promised Land.  No looking over their shoulder.  No worries about the past. 

How do we develop the resilience of children?  It doesn’t just happen.  Unfortunately, as we mature, so do our egos.  Something difficult happens to us, someone says something offensive to us, and our egos are bruised.  We convince ourselves that we can’t move on, because we feel so hurt by what’s happened.

In Tehillim we read, “Many are the thoughts in the heart of a person, but the advice of Hashem, shall [be] stand.” Literally, the verse means that G-d has a plan and we must trust that He knows what’s best.  According to one interpretation, however, the verse should be understood: The advice of Hashem is: Stand up!  When you feel you’re getting stuck with all your anxieties around the hurt you’ve experienced and you’re tempted to wallow in your sorrow, you must ignore the bidding of the yetzer hara (inner tempter).  You need to get up and move on with your life. 

Hashem gives us tests in life in order to build our resilience.  Most people don’t become kings overnight.  G-d tried that with Saul and it didn’t work.  If you want the blessing of greatness, you need to master the smaller trials and tribulations He sends your way.  Once He sees you’re able to overcome those challenges and develop your resilience, He will throw greater challenges your way. 

Hashem has plans of greatness in store for you.  But it won’t happen overnight. It will happen when you build your patience and resilience with each smaller challenge in life.  May you respond to each test with strength of character and develop your resilience to a level of unparalleled maturity and wisdom.  And may He entrust you with the leadership role He has prepared for you!

Thursday, February 20, 2020

It's time for us to brush up on our algebra

Brachos 49

One of our most memorable and beloved prophets was Yeshayahu (Isaiah).  His words have brought comfort to the world as we look forward to a future of peace and global brotherhood.  Isaiah famously prophesied that at the end of days, “they will beat their swords into ploughshares,” and the “wolf shall live with the lamb.”  While Yeshayahu came from an aristocratic family, he had a unique ability to connect with all the people.  Never standing above them, he felt their pain, and always included himself in the collective of the nation of Israel.  Unsurprisingly, he is the prophet we have turned to, throughout our centuries of persecution and challenge, for hope and strength.

When the situation of the Jews of Persia appeared bleak, Mordechai was looking for a sign of hope.  Walking down the street feeling completely downtrodden, he encountered a group of schoolchildren leaving class.
“What did you learn today?” he inquired of them.
“We learned the verse in Isaiah, ‘They contrive a scheme, but it will be foiled; conspire a plot, but it will not materialize, for Hashem is with us.’”  

Moments later, Mordechai met Haman.
“Why are you so happy?” the wicked Persian minister demanded to know.
“Hashem is with us,” replied Mordechai with the confidence imparted to him by the great Yeshayahu generations earlier, a prophet who was always, first and foremost, a man of the people, from great to small.

מַתְנִי׳ כֵּיצַד מְזַמְּנִין? בִּשְׁלֹשָׁה — אוֹמֵר: ״נְבָרֵךְ״, בִּשְׁלֹשָׁה וָהוּא — אוֹמֵר: ״בָּרְכוּ״
 בשלשה והוא אומר ברכו דהא בלאו דידיה איכא זימון וכן כולם
גְּמָ׳ אָמַר שְׁמוּאֵל: לְעוֹלָם אַל יוֹצִיא אָדָם אֶת עַצְמוֹ מִן הַכְּלָל
אל יוציא את עצמו – אע"פ שבארבעה הוא רשאי לומר לשלשה ברכו טוב לו שיאמר נברך ואל יוציא עצמו מכלל המברכים

MISHNA: How does one lead the zimmun? With three people, he says, “Let us bless (the One from whose food we have eaten).” If there are three plus him, he instructs them, “Bless (the One from whose food we have eaten).”
Rashi: If there are three plus him, he instructs them, ‘Bless’ – For even without him, there is a quorum
GEMARA: Shmuel said: One should never exclude himself from the group.
Rashi: Even though in a group of four, the leader could declare to the other three, ‘Bless,’ it is preferable that he say ‘Let us bless,’ for one should not exclude himself from the group of people that is blessing.

Rabbi Leon of Modena (Haboneh) elucidates Shmuel’s message: One must never exclude oneself from a message directed towards the collective, whether the message is positive or negative.  Excluding oneself gives the appearance of arrogance.  Our Gemara provides an example of a positive instance whereby one should avoid excluding himself.  If the leader were to instruct the others to bless Hashem, it might sound like he is suggesting that they must bless, but that he is above such obligations.  Therefore, he must always say, ‘Let us bless,’ in order to include himself in the group.

Rabbi Leon then expands upon Shmuel’s teaching with an incredible presentation of the other side of the coin.  Not only must you include yourself in a positive declaration, the same is true regarding words of criticism.  He offers two examples where our greatest prophets included themselves in their rebuke of the nation.  Prior to their entry into the Promised Land, Moshe declared to the Children of Israel (Deut.12), “You shall not do all the (idolatrous) things we are doing here today.”  Similarly, Yeshayahu chastised the people (Isa.1), “Like Sodom we were, like Gomorrah, we appeared.”

Maybe you’re a business manager.  Every boss needs to critique the performance of their employees on occasion.  One approach is to point fingers and chastise them for their shortcomings.  But it would only leave everyone feeling upset and under-appreciated.  An alternative approach is to include yourself in the message.  “Dear members of this awesome firm, I come before you today to share some of my personal misgivings.  I’ve been feeling a little frustrated with myself lately.  Our productivity has slowed a little in recent months, and I’ve been thinking that we could all be doing just that little bit more to increase our overall output.  What do you all think?”

Think about some of the conversations you have with your children.  How should you approach the topic of their dedication to homework and scholastic performance?  One approach is to give them a long lecture about how they’re not spending enough time studying, because they’re always on their phone or watching TV.   Another approach is to talk to them about striking the right balance between work and play.  “I’ve been thinking about the amount of time we all spend on our phones each evening.  I know that, as a family, we’re smarter than the average Joe.  How about we have a phone-free and TV-free zone each evening from seven to nine.  During that time, we can study, or read a book, or just talk to one another.  What do you think about that?”

Let’s take the matter a step further.  It’s vital that our children feel that we take their subjects as seriously as we claim.   When your child comes over to you for help with an algebra problem and you respond with a dismissive, “I have no idea,” what message does it send to them?  You might be thinking, “Boy, it’s been a long time since I studied mathematics.”  But what they hear is that the material is not important enough to sit down and take the time to figure out.  If it’s not important to you, why should it be important to them?  The right response is, “That’s a really good question.  Let’s try and figure it out together.  I might not recall exactly how to solve the problem, as it’s been a while since I dealt with this particular area of mathematics.  But it’s really important to me.  If we can’t figure it out between the two of us, let’s get a third person to help us with it.”

And if that should be our attitude towards algebra, it goes without saying that it should be our attitude towards our children’s Jewish studies.  You know how strongly you feel about giving your children a solid foundation in Judaism.  But it’s important that they know how you feel as well.  It can be challenging to get them out of bed on a Sunday morning and into cheder (Sunday school).  But if it’s a family experience, then they’ll respond more enthusiastically.  “Jewish education is an important value to our family.  When you get home, we can’t wait to hear what you’ve learned today.  And you kids might not realize it, but we haven’t ever stopped our Jewish learning.  One of the important parts of our day is learning a little lesson for life from the Daf Yomi!”

When the critique is about ‘us’, not only does it make things gentler and more likely to be accepted, it also makes us think about the areas of our life that we could also do with a little improvement.  May we always work together to grow in every area of our lives!