Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Why Get a Job when you can Be a Schnorrer? (Shabbos 53)

A woman once died in childbirth, but the baby survived.  The father, however, did not have sufficient funds to hire a wet-nurse.  But a miracle occurred and he was able to nurse the child himself!

Why did God need to alter the laws of nature?  Why didn’t He simply provide the father with the financial means to hire a woman to nurse his baby?  

תָּנוּ רַבָּנַן: מַעֲשֶׂה בְּאֶחָד שֶׁמֵּתָה אִשְׁתּוֹ וְהִנִּיחָה בֵּן לִינַק וְלֹא הָיָה לוֹ שְׂכַר מְנִיקָה לִיתֵּן, וְנַעֲשָׂה לוֹ נֵס וְנִפְתְּחוּ לוֹ דַּדִּין כִּשְׁנֵי דַּדֵּי אִשָּׁה וְהֵנִיק אֶת בְּנוֹ. אָמַר רַב יוֹסֵף: בֹּא וּרְאֵה כַּמָּה גָּדוֹל אָדָם זֶה שֶׁנַּעֲשָׂה לוֹ נֵס כָּזֶה! אֲמַר לֵיהּ אַבָּיֵי: אַדְּרַבָּה כַּמָּה גָּרוּעַ אָדָם זֶה שֶׁנִּשְׁתַּנּוּ לוֹ סִדְרֵי בְרֵאשִׁית. אָמַר רַב יְהוּדָה: בֹּא וּרְאֵה כַּמָּה קָשִׁים מְזוֹנוֹתָיו שֶׁל אָדָם, שֶׁנִּשְׁתַּנּוּ עָלָיו סִדְרֵי בְרֵאשִׁית. אָמַר רַב נַחְמָן: תִּדַּע, דְּמִתְרְחִישׁ נִיסָּא וְלָא אִבְּרוּ מְזוֹנֵי

Rav Yosef said: Look how great this person was that a miracle of that magnitude was performed on his behalf. Abaye said to him: On the contrary, how despicable that person was that the order of creation was reconfigured on his behalf. Rav Yehuda said:  Look how difficult it is to provide for a person’s sustenance, for the order of creation had to be changed on his behalf. Rav Nacḥman said: Know that it is so, as miracles happen often; and yet food was never miraculously created.

The Vilna Gaon explains the difference between altering the man’s anatomy and biology versus providing the funding to hire a wet-nurse.  The former ensured the baby would be fed.  The latter would have left the spending decisions up to the father and would not have guaranteed that the baby would receive sufficient sustenance. 

That’s the meaning of Abaye’s sharp criticism of the fellow.  If he had been a good person, Heaven would have simply provided him with the extra cash he needed.  Clearly, he couldn’t be trusted to use the funds for their intended purpose.  And so the sole solution to the child’s feeding problem was to change the laws of nature. 

Rav Yehuda responds to Abaye’s criticism and points out that it’s not that easy to make a living.  Our Sages have declared (Sotah 2a) that “the provision of a livelihood is as complicated (for God) as the splitting of the Red Sea.”  Now, for God, nothing is difficult.  The point is that from our perspective, the parting of the Red Sea was a supernatural event.  Likewise, we should never take our sustenance for granted.  A steady income is a blessing from Heaven. 

Proof of the appreciation we must have for our parnassah (livelihood) is that, in this case, it was ‘easier’ for God to alter the laws of nature than to find this fellow a better-paying job. Why that was the case, the Gemara does not say.  Perhaps the man was physically or otherwise impaired.  Perhaps he was overwhelmed by his new role as father and sole-provider.  Who knows how many other children they had at home?  Altering the man’s biology was the quickest solution to the problem.

Actually, Rav Nachman responds, the quickest solution would have been for food to magically appear in the house.  But that never happens.  Every miracle requires a conduit to draw down Heaven’s bounty.  Even when the Prophet Elisha provided an abundance of oil for the poor widow, she still needed to gather pots and pans to become vessels for the blessing.  Even winning the lottery requires the purchase of a lottery ticket! 

Most of the time, of course, the vessel for God’s blessing is one’s occupation.  Yes, God will provide.  But unless you find gainful employment, there will be no conduit through which He can provide Heaven’s bounty.  And if this individual had no earning capacity, all the potential heavenly bounty is worthless.  One needs a vessel to capture the blessing.

Have you ever received a knock at the door from a schnorrer (beggar) and been tempted to tell them to get a job?  Who do they think they are, sponging off the hard work of others?  Isn’t it time they got up and engaged in a hard day’s work, like the rest of us?

Now, take a step back, and think about a day in the life of a schnorrer.  They get up early to do the shul rounds.  Some shuls allow them to collect throughout the service.  Others make them sit there and wait until the conclusion of the service.  They manage to get a couple of quid before running off to try their hand at another shul.  After shul, they start to pound the pavement.  Most people look through the keyhole and don’t open the door for them.  Of those that do, many slam the door in their face.  And others give them a few dollars, dismissively.

If you think that’s an easy way to make a living, try it one day.  The effort one must make to earn a living as a schnorrer is quite something.  You don’t go into the schnorring business because you’re lazy.  Presumably, the only reason schnorrers engage in their line of work is that they could not find a job in a more honourable occupation. Some may by physically or psychologically impaired.  Others may have spotty records or backgrounds that are impeding their employability.  And yet others are struggling to the extent that they have no fixed address.  How do you apply for a job without an address?

It’s not easy for anyone to earn a living.  Every human being must be treated with the utmost dignity and honour.  Next time you get a knock on the door, may you take a moment to ask yourself what motivates a person to spend their days and weeks knocking on doors, and thank Hashem who has provided you with alternate means to earning a livelihood!

Why are there so many Jewish radicals? (Shabbos 52)

Why are there so many Jewish radicals? (Shabbos 52)
As Jews, we are innately attuned to spirituality.  When we appreciate that idea, it’s no longer surprising that so many of us are tempted to reject the values of our parents.
Dama ben Nesina lived in Ashkelon. Once, the Sages sought to purchase precious stones from him for the breastplate of the High Priest for six hundred thousand gold dinars’ profit. But the keys to the chest holding the jewels were placed under his sleeping father’s head, and he would not disturb him.  So they lost out on the sale.
The following year, a red heifer was born in Dama’s herd and the Sages of Israel approached him, seeking to purchase the cow. Dama said to them, “I know that if I were to ask all the money in the world, you would give it to me. Now I am requesting from you only that amount of money which I lost by refraining from waking my father.”
Rabbi Eliezer exclaimed (A”Z 24a), ‘If this non-Jewish fellow was willing to sacrifice so much to honour his father – even if it meant not disturbing his sleep – we must constantly ask ourselves how our behaviour towards our parents matches up in comparison!’
אִתְּמַר: רַב חִיָּיא בַּר אָשֵׁי אָמַר רַב: בֵּין לְנוֹי בֵּין לְשַׁמֵּר — אָסוּר. וְרַב חִיָּיא בַּר אָבִין אָמַר שְׁמוּאֵל: לְנוֹי — אָסוּר, לְשַׁמֵּר — מוּתָּר. מֵיתִיבִי: קְשָׁרָהּ בְּעָלֶיהָ בְּמוֹסֵרָה — כְּשֵׁרָה. וְאִי סָלְקָא דַעְתָּךְ מַשּׂאוֹי הוּא, ״אֲשֶׁר לֹא עָלָה עָלֶיהָ עוֹל״ אָמַר רַחֲמָנָא! רָבָא אָמַר: שָׁאנֵי פָּרָה דְּדָמֶיהָ יְקָרִין
שאני פרה דדמיה יקרין. במס' ע"ז בפרק אין מעמידין בהמה (דף כ"ד) אמאי דמיה יקרין הואיל ושתי שערות פוסלות בה
(Background: Just like man must cease working on Shabbat, so too must his animals. Thus, an animal may not carry into the public domain.  But is a strap considered carrying?)
Rav Chiya bar Ashi quoted Rav: Whether the strap was placed for adornment, or whether it was placed to secure the cow, it is prohibited. And Rav Chiya bar Avin quoted Shmuel: For adornment, it is prohibited; however, if it was placed to secure the cow, it is permitted. The Gemara raises an objection from the following law: If its owner tied a red heifer with its reins, it remains fit for use in the purification ritual. And if it should enter your mind to say that a strap is considered a burden, why does a red heifer remain fit for use? The Torah explicitly stated: “Speak to the children of Israel, that they bring you a red heifer without defect, in which there is no blemish, and upon which never came a yoke”. Rava said: A red heifer, whose monetary value is high, is different.
Rav Nissim Gaon: In Tractate Avoda Zara, chapter Ein Maamidin (p.24), the Gemara states, “Why is a red heifer expensive?  Because if it displays so much as two white hairs, it is invalidated.”
Rav Nissim Gaon offers the story of Dama ben Nesina in Tractate Avoda Zara as evidence of the expensive price of a red heifer.  The Gemara tells the story above and then proceeds to describe the process of procuring a red heifer, which combined elements of nature and nurture.  Nevertheless, the Gemara concludes that only certain herds had the genetic qualities to issue red heifers, one of which was owned by Dama’s family.
Take a step back and ask yourself what Dama was thinking.  Here, he was presented with the opportunity to make a small fortune with the sale of the precious stones his family had in their possession.  Logically, if you were the father, would you not have desired to be woken in such a situation?  He could always go back to sleep later.  Was it really so wise and honourable to forego such a profitable transaction just to catch a few extra winks?
The Maharal explains (Kiddushin 31a) that the Gemara uses a non-Jewish young man as the gold standard of parental honour for good reason.   In our people’s tradition, the honour accorded to biological parents does not always come so naturally.  Given our focus on the spiritual dimension of life, biological connections may be superseded by spiritual connections.  The Maharal offers an extreme example: If you were to see two people drowning – your father and your Torah teacher – who would you save first?  The Gemara dictates that the Torah teacher takes preference, because “your father gave you life in this world, but your Torah teacher gives you eternal life in the World to Come.”
In fact, continues the Maharal, who is the epitome of parental honour in the Torah?  Not Yaakov, but his brother, Esav.  The child who does not follow the spiritual heritage of his parents is nonetheless the model of the mitzvah of honouring parents.  But, in fact, that is the reason for this role-reversal.  If you are focused on this world, then respect for one’s biological parents who gave you the gift of this world is paramount.  If, however, this world is but a “corridor” preparing us for the World to Come, then your biological parents were merely participants along the way, but not necessarily the key players in your spiritual journey.
Given the logic of such reasoning, the Torah must go to great lengths to emphasize the mitzvah of honouring one’s parents.  It’s so important that it appears in the Ten Commandments.  Not only does it appear on the Tablets of Stone, but the mitzvah features on the side dealing with our relationship with the Almighty.  It is precisely because honouring our parents might not happen organically that the Torah gives the mitzvah such prominence and emphasis.  
The moral of the story of Dama is that we must honour our parents even when it seems illogical.  The Gemara uses this non-Jewish fellow as the epitome of such an attitude, because parental honour is more organic for those who are focused on this world.  The punchline of this particular episode is that the young man demonstrated that the transaction and exchange was a two-way street.  While we were learning parental honour from his dedication, he learned how dear mitzvos and spiritual pursuits are to us.  And so, at the end of the story, he declares that all the money in the world is not worth the mitzvah that he performed.  In other words, he would prefer to be rewarded in the World to Come, as the God promises His people for fulfilling this mitzvah, “in order that you should prolong your days.”  Our length of days refers to the prolonging of eternal life. 
The Sages assumed that this fellow would have chosen financial reward, hence his name Dama (from the Aramaic word for money) ben Nesina (giving) from Ashkelon (the city of shekels).  But Dama showed himself to be motivated by more than the temporary rewards of this world.  He understood that parental honour must be more than just an organic certainty. It’s a mitzvah, a Divine, non-negotiable commandment.
It’s not always easy to honour your parents.  They might be difficult or even abusive.  But we don’t respect our parents because they’re nice to us.  We honour them because Hashem commanded us to do so.  If it doesn’t always feel natural, there’s a reason for that.  As Jews, we are innately attuned to spirituality.  When we appreciate that idea, it’s no longer surprising that so many of us are tempted to reject the values of our parents.  It also explains why so many Jews have been at the forefront of radical ideologies and movements.  By our very nature, we seek to progress to a sense of self-fulfillment beyond mere accident of birth.
The challenge is to balance our natural and supernatural tendencies.  We must honour our parents and utilize their values as a foundation for our own personal spiritual journey.  True, they may not necessarily hold the keys to the World to Come, but had they not brought us into this world, we would not have made it to the starting line!  If you have any appreciation whatsoever for what this world has to offer, then you remain eternally indebted to your parents for providing you with those opportunities.  Whatever pain they have caused you comes nowhere near outweighing the gift of life they have given you!
Every mitzvah is a challenge and an opportunity.  If it came naturally, then there would be no need to make it a mitzvah.  Just like Dama, may you be an inspirational example of parental honour!

Choosing the right spiritual environment (Shabbos 51)

Choosing the right spiritual environment (Shabbos 51)
After his brother died in Ur Kasdim, Avraham took his nephew Lot under his wing.  Treating him as if he were his own son, they travelled together to the Land of Canaan.  In Avraham and Sarah’s home, Lot developed his character traits, including his dedication to hospitality.  Eventually, however, as a result of a rift between their shepherds, Lot parted company from Avraham, and chose to settle in Sodom.  Even there, however, he continued to live by the ideals he had learned in our patriarch’s home. 
And so when the two men – later, he discovered they were angels – appeared on his doorstep, he did not hesitate to invite them inside, despite the protestations of the townsfolk. It wasn’t easy, the commotion outside grew ever louder.  The mob pounded on his door, demanding the blood of the visitors.  Lot was undeterred.  “Behold, I have two unmarried daughters.  I shall let them out.  Do unto them as is pleasing in your eyes.  But please do not do anything to harm these men who have arrived to take shelter under my roof.”
Does that make any logical sense?  On the one hand, Lot was concerned for the safety and welfare of his unfamiliar visitors. On the other hand, he was willing to sacrifice his own flesh-and-blood to the mob outside!  What was he thinking?
אֲמַר לֵיהּ רַב נַחְמָן לְדָרוּ עַבְדֵּיהּ: וְאַיְיתִי לִי מַיָּא דְּאַחֵים קַפִּילָא אֲרַמָּאָה. שְׁמַע רַבִּי אַמֵּי וְאִיקְּפַד. אֲמַר רַב יוֹסֵף: מַאי טַעְמָא אִיקְּפַד? דְּאָמַר רַב שְׁמוּאֵל בַּר רַב יִצְחָק אָמַר רַב: כֹּל שֶׁהוּא נֶאֱכָל כְּמוֹת שֶׁהוּא חַי — אֵין בּוֹ מִשּׁוּם בִּשּׁוּלֵי גּוֹיִם. (הוּא) סָבַר אָדָם חָשׁוּב שָׁאנֵי
אדם חשוב שאני - שהרואה אותו שהוא מיקל עומד ומיקל יותר
Rav Nacḥman said to Daru, his servant: Bring me water that a heated by a non-Jew, as the prohibition to eat food cooked by a non-Jew does not apply to water. When Rabbi Ami heard this, he expressed concern. Rav Yosef said: What is the reason for his concern? Indeed, Rav Shmuel bar Rav Yitzcḥak quoted Rav: Anything that may be consumed raw is not subject to the prohibition of bishul akum (food cooked by non-Jews). Since water is commonly drunk unheated, one may drink it even if it was boiled by a non-Jew. Nevertheless, Rabbi Ami felt that an important person is different (and should maintain a higher standard).
Rashi: For one who sees him being lenient will get up and be even more lenient.
Every single one of our actions impacts not only our own spiritual lives but the lives of those around us as well.  Just as we have people we look to as our spiritual examples, we all have people who look to us as examples.  Most of the time, we’re not even aware of our ‘followers’.  And on the flipside, we are often unaware of who we are following.  We unconsciously adjust our behaviour based on the actions of those around us.  Therefore, the best way to maintain and maximize one’s spiritual success is to situate oneself in an environment of peers who have the same spiritual goals. 
Rabbi Yosef Hurwitz (242) discusses the importance of keeping good company.  Inevitably, we are all influenced by those around us.  Even if you believe you are leading the way and providing positive spiritual leadership to those with whom you keep company, your environment is bound to have an effect on your personal behaviour and outlook.  Think about a pet dog, says Rabbi Hurwitz. It walks down the road believing it is leading the way.  In fact, if Martians landed, they too would assume the dog was leading its human.  After all, which one is in front and which is behind?  Of course, as we all know, the owner has the ability to redirect the dog at any moment.  Likewise, we may think that we are leading the way amongst our peers, without realizing that we are being directed along a certain path by others who are leading from the rear.
In the Shema, we read, “You shall teach them to your children and speak of them as you sit at home and when you go along the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”  Rabbi YN Kornitzer explains that the Torah is demonstrating that our conduct throughout the day serves as a continuous lesson to our ‘children.’  Children, in this context, as Rashi reminds us, does not refer only to biological offspring.  Rather, any Torah disciple becomes your spiritual child.  The net result of these two teachings is that you are constantly on show with the power to influence your spiritual children. 
Lot knew what a charitable and hospitable individual he was.  He thought of himself as spiritually head and shoulders above the moral decadence of Sodom.  After all, he lived by the values he’d been brought up with in Avraham and Sarah’s home.  In many ways, he saw himself as a role model for the people of Sodom.  At the same time, however, he didn’t notice that their moral values had slowly seeped into his psyche, to the extent that we look at his actions with shock horror.  The lifestyle in Sodom was so ‘normal’ that the irony and hypocrisy of his behaviour was entirely lost on him.  And sadly, we need only look to the next chapter to see how such contemptible moral attitudes had affected his children.
We are all products of multiple elements, from nature to nurture to the decisions we’ve made consciously, as well as the heavenly opportunities we’ve been blessed with.  One of the most important decisions in life you get to make is the question of environment.  Once you’ve made that decision, however, much of what happens is path dependent on that initial choice.  Many of the values and patterns of behaviour that you and your family members live by will be dictated by the norms of your social circle.  You and your children will observe the actions of those around you, and whether consciously or unconsciously, adjust your behaviour accordingly.
Choose the environment that will provide you with the best chance to live by the values you seek to embody. Once you’ve made the right environmental decision, all subsequent bridges will be much easier to cross.  May you forever aspire to values that are consistent in the eyes of your loved ones, your peers, your acquaintances, Hashem, and most importantly, yourself!