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Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Appreciate and Enjoy your Wealth! (Shabbos 25)


Kalba Savua was one of the three wealthiest men in Jerusalem.  His wealth was matched only by his philanthropy and generosity.  He gained his appellation, which literally translates as the Satisfied Dog, because any poor person who visited, even if they were as hungry as a dog, would not leave the house until they were completely satisfied. 

Kalba had a daughter called Rachel, who was beautiful inside and out.  There was no shortage of calls from shadchanim seeking to match up Rachel with the finest young men in the land.  But Rachel wasn’t interested.  For many years, she had been watching the poor shepherd boy, Akiva, while he tended to the sheep.  His manner was so refined, and while he was illiterate, she sensed innate wisdom emanating forth from the lad.

‘Father,’ said Rachel one evening at the dinner table, ‘I’ve decided to marry Akiva.  But don’t worry, he has agreed to go off and learn Torah.’ 
Her father was furious.  ‘How dare you shame our family!  Get out of my house!’ he shouted, ‘I swear you shall have no portion in my estate, you ungrateful girl!’

Rachel was undeterred.  She married Akiva and encouraged him to travel off to yeshiva to learn Torah.  Twelve years later, he returned to town with an entourage of twelve thousand students.  As he was approaching his house, he overhead an old man saying to his wife, ‘How could he allow you to live like a widow while he’s off studying?’  Rachel responded, ‘If I had my way, he wouldn’t even return.  Let him go and study for another twelve years.’  Upon hearing her, Rabbi Akiva did an about face and returned to the yeshiva. 

Twelve years later, he came back to town accompanied by twenty-four thousand students. Rachel raced outside to greet him and fell on her face before him and began to kiss his feet.  Thinking she was a peasant, the senior disciples tried to push her away.  Rabbi Akiva quickly stopped them, declaring, ‘All the merit of my Torah and yours are all hers.’  Needless to say, Kalba Savua, who had come out to greet the leading rabbi of the generation was full of remorse for his earlier rejection of his daughter and the family was reunited.

תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר? — כׇּל שֶׁיֵּשׁ לוֹ נַחַת רוּחַ בְּעׇשְׁרוֹ, דִּבְרֵי רַבִּי מֵאִיר. סִימָן מטק״ס. רַבִּי טַרְפוֹן אוֹמֵר: כׇּל שֶׁיֵּשׁ לוֹ מֵאָה כְּרָמִים וּמֵאָה שָׂדוֹת וּמֵאָה עֲבָדִים שֶׁעוֹבְדִין בָּהֶן. רַבִּי עֲקִיבָא אוֹמֵר: כֹּל שֶׁיֵּשׁ לוֹ אִשָּׁה נָאָה בְּמַעֲשִׂים. רַבִּי יוֹסֵי אוֹמֵר: כֹּל שֶׁיֵּשׁ לוֹ בֵּית הַכִּסֵּא סָמוּךְ לְשׁוּלְחָנוֹ
Who is wealthy? Anyone who gets pleasure from his wealth, that is the position of Rabbi Meir. Rabbi Tarfon says: A wealthy person is anyone who has one hundred vineyards, and one hundred fields, and one hundred slaves working in them. Rabbi Akiva says: Anyone who has a wife who is beautiful in deeds. Rabbi Yossi says: Anyone who has a lavatory near his dining table.

Rabbi Meir teaches that material affluence does not bring happiness in life.  If you never get the opportunity to enjoy the financial assets you’ve amassed, then it’s all for naught.  Money is only a means to an end, not an end in itself.  So what is the key to a truly wealthy life, a life enriched with happiness and contentment?

Rabbi Tarfon says that diversification is the key to enjoying your wealth.  When he says a hundred vineyards, a hundred fields, and a hundred servants, he is using shorthand for ancient measures of asset management.  Once you have a diversified portfolio, you can breathe a little easier and enjoy the blessings the Almighty has given you. 

Rabbi Akiva teaches that the key to happiness has little to do with how much you have in the bank or how you spend it.  He knew only too well that if you are fortunate to have a good spouse, the two of you will be able to withstand any challenge in life. Rabbi Akiva’s wife, Rachel, was born into one of the wealthiest families of the time.  And yet, she gave it all up to be with the love of her life, Akiva.  Together, they built an amazing life of devotion to one another.  She brought out the best in him, and he became one of the greatest Sages of our people.  When you have a virtuous spouse, you never feel alone, even in the most challenging times. 

The third idea is offered by Rabbi Yossi.  His suggestion literally sounds like wealth is defined by whether or not you have indoor plumbing.  It seems, however, that he is employing an ancient euphemism, just like some people today refer to their own personal plumbing issues.  A lavatory near the dining table is a nice way of saying that all your bodily functions are in good operating order.  According to Rabbi Yossi, the most important measure of wealth in life is good health.  All the money in the world cannot buy health. And as Rabbi Meir says, if you can’t enjoy your wealth, then you’re not truly wealthy, regardless of the size of your pension fund.

What, in your mind, is the key to happiness in life?  If you were granted one wish, what would it be?  What’s the one thing that you desire more than anything else in the world?  It is an abundance of material resources?  Is it a faithful, loving, and supportive partner? Is it good health? 

Sometimes we don’t realize how rich we are until we’re no longer able to enjoy our ‘wealth’.  Ask a person who is ill how much they’d be prepared to pay to get better.  In the face of a cure that has yet to be found, all the money in the world becomes meaningless.  If you want to test how wealthy you are personally, think about like this: Let’s say an uber-wealthy individual was about to have their leg amputated and needed a leg transplant.  How much would you be prepared to sell your leg for?  A thousand dollars?  A hundred thousand?  A million? 

Okay, so you wouldn’t give up a leg for less than ten million, you say.  Are you sure?  Remember, you now have a hundred million, but you only have one leg for the remainder of your life.  Wait a second.  The phone’s just rung again and another amputee needs a leg.  How much for your second leg?  Fifty million?  Okay, well that’s sixty million, so far.  What price will you take for your arms?  Eyes? Ears?  Chances are, your number is now in the billions, if there’s a number at all.  So when you think about it, you are actually richer than a billionaire! 

Likewise, ask someone who has recently lost a dear spouse what they wouldn’t give to have their loved one back.  A good spouse provides their other half with the strength and support to weather the storm through the greatest challenges in life, including even painful and complicated health issues.  All the money in the world can’t spare a person from getting ill, but a good spouse can lift your spirits and carry you through the storm.  And that’s priceless.

Wealth may be defined in many different ways.  As Rabbi Meir points out, the greatest tragedy is the person who has wealth and doesn’t even enjoy their wealth.  Sometimes that happens simply because they never realized what they had until they no longer have it.  May you always appreciate the wealth in your life!

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Living the Good Life (Shabbos 23)


On his way to shul, Rav Huna would often pass by the home of Rabbi Avin the carpenter. Noticing that Rabbi Avin would habitually kindle a multitude of lights in honour of Shabbat, he declared, “Two great men will emerge from this household.”  Sure enough, two of our greatest Sages came from the family: Rav Idi bar Avin and Rav Chia bar Avin.

On his way to shul, Rav Chisda would often pass by the home of Rav Sheizvi’s father-in-law.  Noticing that they were similarly habitual in their kindling of a multitude of lights in honour of Shabbat, he declared, “A great person will emerge from this household.”  Sure enough, their daughter eventually married Rav Sheizvi.

אָמַר רַב הוּנָא: הָרָגִיל בְּנֵר הָוְיִין לֵיהּ בָּנִים תַּלְמִידֵי חֲכָמִים. הַזָּהִיר בִּמְזוּזָה — זוֹכֶה לְדִירָה נָאָה. הַזָּהִיר בְּצִיצִית — זוֹכֶה לְטַלִּית נָאָה. הַזָּהִיר בְּקִידּוּשׁ הַיּוֹם — זוֹכֶה וּמְמַלֵּא גַּרְבֵי יַיִן. רַב הוּנָא הֲוָה רְגִיל דַּהֲוָה חָלֵיף וְתָנֵי אַפִּתְחָא דְרַבִּי אָבִין נַגָּרָא. חֲזָא דַּהֲוָה רְגִיל בִּשְׁרָגֵי טוּבָא, אֲמַר: תְּרֵי גַּבְרֵי רַבְרְבֵי נָפְקִי מֵהָכָא. נָפְקִי מִינַּיְיהוּ רַב אִידִי בַּר אָבִין וְרַב חִיָּיא בַּר אָבִין. רַב חִסְדָּא הֲוָה רְגִיל דַּהֲוָה חָלֵיף וְתָנֵי אַפִּיתְחָא דְּבֵי נָשָׁא דְּרַב שֵׁיזְבִי. חֲזָא דַּהֲוָה רְגִיל בִּשְׁרָגֵי טוּבָא, אֲמַר: גַּבְרָא רַבָּא נָפֵק מֵהָכָא. נְפַק מִינַּיְיהוּ רַב שֵׁיזְבִי

Rav Huna said: One who is habitual in the kindling of lights on Shabbat and Chanukah will be rewarded with children who are Torah scholars. One who is meticulous in performing the mitzvah of mezuzah will merit a beautiful house.  One who is meticulous in performing the mitzvah of tzitzis will merit beautiful garments. One who is meticulous in performing the mitzvah of kiddush of the day will merit to fill many jugs of wine.

אָמַר רָבָא: דְּרָחֵים רַבָּנַן, הָווּ לֵיהּ בְּנִין רַבָּנַן. דְּמוֹקִיר רַבָּנַן, הָווּ לֵיהּ חַתְנָווֹתָא רַבָּנַן. דְּדָחֵיל מֵרַבָּנָן, הוּא גּוּפֵיהּ הָוֵי צוּרְבָּא מֵרַבָּנַן. וְאִי לָאו בַּר הָכֵי הוּא, מִשְׁתַּמְעָן מִילֵּיהּ כְּצוּרְבָּא מֵרַבָּנַן

Rava said: One who loves Sages will have children who are Sages. One who honours Sages will have sons-in-law who are Sages. One who reveres the Sages will himself become a Torah scholar. And if he is not capable, his statements will be received like those of a Torah scholar.

Rav Huna offers a number of sensible recommendations. They all seem very straightforward.  But a careful reading reveals the difference between those who adhere to his extraordinary guidelines and those who take the path of least resistance.  Going the extra mile produces results that are above and beyond.

Let’s begin with the advice to be habitual in the kindling of Shabbat and Chanukah lights.  In some homes, 6:03pm candle-lighting time means that the candles have been lit and are shining bright by 6:02 and a half.  Like clockwork. Often even earlier.  So that when people pass by their homes on the way to shul, an aura of tranquillity and sanctity emanates from the house.  You can tell that Shabbat has arrived.   That’s what Rav Huna and Rav Chisda felt when they passed by the homes of Rav Avin the carpenter and Rav Sheizvi’s in-laws respectively. 

Other homes, 6:03 is code-word for 6:21, because everyone knows that there’s really an additional 18 minutes until Shabbat!  And so at 6:20, they’re fumbling around looking for candles and shouting at one another about whose job it was to get it all ready.  If that sounds at all familiar, it’s really not difficult at all to switch gears.  It’s all about the habits we keep.  If you simply get into a pattern of getting ready earlier – don’t think 18 minutes, think a half hour – you’ll find the entry into Shabbat a whole different experience. 

When children see that, they feel the warmth and embrace it.  Hence, the merit of the children and children-in-law who emerged from those homes.  And that’s why Rava talks about begetting righteous children-in-law.  The examples we set for love, honour, and reverence of Torah and its scholars permeate our lives, and impact the minds and hearts of our family members, influencing the lifestyle decisions they eventually make.

What is the difference between fulfilling the mitzvah of mezuzah and being meticulous in the mitzvah?  Many people seek to minimize the ‘damage’ of their mezuzah bill, by finding the cheapest scrolls available and finding leniencies for which doorways actually require the affixing of a mezuzah.  Sure, they’ve executed their duty of placing a mezuzah, but at the same time, they’ve done whatever they could to avoid paying any more than absolutely necessary.

But a mezuzah is a mezuzah!  Why should you pay £50 when you can find one for £30?  To answer that question, think about the price of an automobile.  Why pay £200 grand on a Lamborghini when you can get by with a £10k Kia? They both get you from point A to B!  Rav Huna’s advice is wonderful: In our tradition, it’s not a question of either/or.  You don’t have to sacrifice physical and material comforts for the spiritual.  You can have it all, because everything is intrinsically connected. 

You don’t really need a home with beautiful furnishings.  All you really need is a roof over your head.  But Judaism is entirely comfortable with the pursuit of the good life. God wants you to have the nicest home possible.  Hence, Rav Huna’s advice: Value your spiritual home-furnishings, and you will merit a gorgeous home.  Nice mezuzos will bring both spiritual and material blessing into the home. 

Let’s talk about tzitzis.  Strictly speaking, if you happen to own a four-cornered garment, then you are obligated to tie tassels onto the corners.  But nowadays, who owns a four-cornered garment?  Theoretically therefore, there should be no need for tzitzis anymore.  But with that attitude, nobody ever would have worn tzitzis.  Even in ancient times, when they cloaked themselves in large four-cornered robes, an easy way to opt out of the obligation was to cut off or round one of the corners. Hence the expression ‘cutting corners’!

But when you think about it, we don’t really need to wear fancy brand-label clothing either.  We could get by buying our suits off the rack at Walmart.  So it doesn’t fit perfectly, and it is last decade’s style.  Does it really make a difference?  But that’s not Judaism’s view of matters.  You are a prince and a princess of the Supreme King of Kings.  Your Father wants you to look like royalty!

We wear tzitzis despite not really needing to in order to demonstrate our love for mitzvos.  We’ve deliberately chosen to don a four-cornered garment and obligate ourselves in the mitzvah.  We’re not looking to cut corners.  We want to wear the finest spiritual garments available.  And with that, we merit wearing the finest physical garments.

And finally, let’s turn to Kiddush wine.  I marvel at how often we have Shabbat guests who are surprised when I open a nice bottle of wine and proceed to pour it into the becher (cup) for Kiddush. ‘We never knew you could use real wine for Kiddush,’ they exclaim, ‘We always thought it had to be sweet sacramental wine.’  And so all week long, they’ll partake of the fanciest wines.  But comes the great mitzvah of Kiddush on Shabbat, and they’re drinking sweet wine or grape juice.  Not that they really like the taste, but ‘that’s what we’ve always done.’ 

The truth is, we didn’t always drink sweet wine for Kiddush.  It’s not clear when or how it happened, but somewhere along the line, Jews forgot the art of fine winemaking.  In Talmudic times, we loved good wine.  In the medieval ages, we loved good wine.  And then, as we were no longer able to own agricultural property, good wine became a scarce commodity in the Jewish community.  Nowadays, thank God, we have returned to our glory days, with some of the world’s finest wines coming out of Israel and kosher wineries around the world.  If you secretly dream of owning a nice liquor collection, Rav Huna suggests using only your best wines for the mitzvah of Kiddush.

Judaism teaches that you can have it all.  The secret to the good life is to value material blessing and utilize it for spiritual pursuits.  Since the physical, material, and spiritual are all intertwined, all you need to do is turn on Heaven’s tap and the blessing will flow to every area of your life.  May you offer the very best of your material blessing to Heaven and enjoy the good life that will then flow to you!

Comfort the Afflicted and Afflict the Comfortable (Shabbos 22)

Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and exiled the Jewish people from the Land of Israel.  Many of the captives were put to work for the Babylonian king himself, including four young men, called Daniel, Chanania, Mishael, and Azaria.  These four lads were from aristocratic families and Nebuchadnezzar was impressed by their wisdom and charm.  He appointed them to ministerial positions in the palace, where they maintained their incredible faith and righteousness, in the face of great pressure to conform.  They adopted a strict vegetarian diet and abstained from wine. 

One morning, the king awoke in a baffled state.  He was bothered by his dream which he could not recall.  Daniel managed to help him remember and make sense of the perplexing vision.  As a result, he was promoted as a special adviser to the king.  Even so, as we all know, despite the prominence of his post, eventually Daniel would be cast into a lion’s den.  Nevertheless, the Almighty was with him and he was able to befriend the hungry beasts and survive the ordeal.

On one occasion, the king decided to build a large statue in the Valley of Dura and commanded all his subjects to worship the graven image.  Shocked to hear that the four young men had refused, Nebuchadnezzar decided to make a public example of them.  As the king’s adviser, Daniel was spared, but his three friends were cast into a fiery furnace.  So hot was the fire that those that had escorted them to the furnace were burned alive.  As for Chanania, Mishael, and Azaria, they emerged unscathed, having received angelic protection.  The king was awestruck and elevated them to further positions of prominence in his royal court.

וַיֵּלֶךְ יוֹסֵף אַחַר אֶחָיו וַיִּמְצָאֵם בְּדֹתָן׃ יחוַיִּרְאוּ אֹתוֹ מֵרָחֹק וּבְטֶרֶם יִקְרַב אֲלֵיהֶם וַיִּתְנַכְּלוּ אֹתוֹ לַהֲמִיתוֹ׃ יטוַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל־אָחִיו הִנֵּה בַּעַל הַחֲלֹמוֹת הַלָּזֶה בָּא׃ כוְעַתָּה לְכוּ וְנַהַרְגֵהוּ וְנַשְׁלִכֵהוּ בְּאַחַד הַבֹּרוֹת וְאָמַרְנוּ חַיָּה רָעָה אֲכָלָתְהוּ וְנִרְאֶה מַה־יִּהְיוּ חֲלֹמֹתָיו׃ כאוַיִּשְׁמַע רְאוּבֵן וַיַּצִּלֵהוּ מִיָּדָם וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא נַכֶּנּוּ נָפֶשׁ׃ כבוַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם רְאוּבֵן אַל־תִּשְׁפְּכוּ־דָם הַשְׁלִיכוּ אֹתוֹ אֶל־הַבּוֹר הַזֶּה אֲשֶׁר בַּמִּדְבָּר וְיָד אַל־תִּשְׁלְחוּ־בוֹ לְמַעַן הַצִּיל אֹתוֹ מִיָּדָם לַהֲשִׁיבוֹ אֶל־אָבִיו׃ כגוַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר־בָּא יוֹסֵף אֶל־אֶחָיו וַיַּפְשִׁיטוּ אֶת־יוֹסֵף אֶת־כֻּתָּנְתּוֹ אֶת־כְּתֹנֶת הַפַּסִּים אֲשֶׁר עָלָיו׃ כדוַיִּקָּחֻהוּ וַיַּשְׁלִכוּ אֹתוֹ הַבֹּרָה וְהַבּוֹר רֵק אֵין בּוֹ מָיִם
So Joseph followed his brothers and found them at Dothan. They saw him from afar, and before he came close to them they conspired to kill him. They said to one another, “Here comes that dreamer! Come now, let us kill him and throw him into one of the pits; and we can say, ‘A savage beast devoured him.’ We shall see what comes of his dreams!” But when Reuben heard it, he tried to save him from them. He said, “Let us not take his life.” And Reuben went on, “Shed no blood! Cast him into that pit out in the wilderness, but do not touch him yourselves”—intending to save him from them and restore him to his father. When Joseph came up to his brothers, they stripped Joseph of his tunic, the ornamented tunic that he was wearing, and took him and cast him into the pit. The pit was empty; there was no water in it.

וְאָמַר רַב כָּהֲנָא, דָּרֵשׁ רַב נָתָן בַּר מִנְיוֹמֵי מִשְּׁמֵיהּ דְּרַב תַּנְחוּם: מַאי דִכְתִיב ״וְהַבּוֹר רֵק אֵין בּוֹ מָיִם״? מִמַּשְׁמַע שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר ״וְהַבּוֹר רֵק״ אֵינִי יוֹדֵעַ שֶׁאֵין בּוֹ מָיִם? אֶלָּא מַה תַּלְמוּד לוֹמַר ״אֵין בּוֹ מָיִם״ — מַיִם אֵין בּוֹ, אֲבָל נְחָשִׁים וְעַקְרַבִּים יֵשׁ בּוֹ
Rav Kahana quoted Rav Nasan bar Manyumi citing Rav Tancḥum: What is the meaning of the scripture, “and the pit was empty, there was no water in it”? By inference from that which is stated: And the pit was empty, don’t I know that there was no water in it? Rather, why does the verse say: There was no water in it? Water, there was none of it, but there were snakes and scorpions inside.

If there were snakes and scorpions in the pit, then how could the Torah say that it was empty?  Ramban explains that the brothers didn’t realize that there were serpents inside.  Had they known that they’d thrown Yosef into a dangerous pit and he’d survived, they would have realized how holy he was and refrained from selling him into slavery.  Just like Nebuchadnezzar, who treated Daniel, Chanania, Mishael and Azaria like royalty after their miracles, Yosef’s miraculous feat of surviving a snake-infested pit should have transformed their attitudes towards him.  The fact that their enmity remained suggests that they had no idea of his close call and miraculous escape.

The problem with a simple reading of Ramban is that if the brothers didn’t know about the serpents, and the serpents didn’t affect Yosef, then what difference did their existence make?  It’s like the proverbial tree that falls in the forest!  Why would the Gemara point out an irrelevant fact, of no consequence to the plotline?  

Rather, Ramban is imparting a powerful message.  Of course they knew there were snakes in the pit.  According to the Zohar, they deliberately chose a pit lacking water, but containing serpents so that they would not harm him directly.  Throwing him into a pit of water, they would have been guilty of drowning him.  But in a pit of serpents, it would be up to God to decide whether to allow the creatures to attack, just like Daniel in the Lions’ den.  If he died, they figured, it would have been Heaven’s decree.

So if indeed he survived, why did they then sell him into slavery?  At that point, it became clear to them the spiritual threat he posed to them.  Here, living amongst them, was a paragon of virtue and goodness.  So righteous was he that God was prepared to perform miracles for him.  If he’d survived poisonous snakes, then they could sleep at night, knowing that Hashem would protect their brother wherever he might end up. 

And they didn’t really care where he ended up, as long as it wasn’t anywhere near them.  Now that his threatening presence had been removed from their midst, they could breathe a collective sigh of relief.  No more dreams about agriculture and farming when all they wanted was the carefree nomadic life of a shepherd.  No more suggesting to them to dream for the skies, the sun, stars and the moon, they were happy, thank you, with their simple life.  And no more little brother preaching to them about their religious life and practice.  They could live life the way they chose without his virtuousness constantly showing up their relatively laidback attitude.

In the early twentieth century, an adage was borrowed from the print-media by American clergy and adapted to describe the role of religious leaders.  They must “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comforted.”  The man of the cloth is not in situ to make people feel good about themselves.  That’s what your favourite internet echo-chamber is for.  A good spiritual leader says the right things to bring comfort to the flock when they are in pain.  A great spiritual leader is not afraid to challenge their comfortable flock to leave their comfort zone and grow spiritually.

While the above phrase may have been coined by a newspaper columnist around the turn of last century, the concept has always existed in the Jewish tradition.  In the nineteenth century, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter summed it up as follows, ‘A rabbi who does not find favour in the eyes of his congregants is a bad rabbi.  But a rabbi who finds favour in the eyes of all his congregants is a terrible rabbi.’  The rabbi who always tells people want they want to hear is not fulfilling his Divine mission.  An effective rabbi constantly challenges his balabatim (members) to think more, do more, and grow more, even to the point of making them feel uncomfortable.

In the aleinu prayer, we praise “Hashem who is God in the heavens above and in the earth below.”  A chasidic adage quips that human nature is to look up to the person with greater material prosperity and wish for what they have, but to look down upon the person who is less religiously observant and gloat over our higher level of spiritual commitment.  In fact, the proper approach is “in the heavens” – when it comes to religion, I should be looking “above.”  And “in the earth” – when it comes to worldly pursuits, “below” – I should be looking at all the people worse off than me materially.    May you never be afraid to surround yourself with people you can look up to religiously, and may they inspire you to strive for ever-higher spiritual levels!