Friday, December 21, 2012

It´s Not WHAT You Do, But HOW You Do It

As the exciting story of Yosef in Mitzraim continues to unfold, we're brought to a very emotional scene. Yaakov comes down to visit Yosef after not seeing his precious son for 22 years. The background music begins to play softly, building up to a dramatic climax, where father and son walk toward each other, hearts pounding with excitement. 

Suddenly, the possuk tells us something, which gives us brand new insight to the meaning of the script. It says, VAYEIRAH EILAV... HE APPEARED BEFORE HIM. Whoa! We are blown away with the wording. 

Yosef wasn't going to see his father, but to be seen by him. 

Although Yosef was aching to reunite with his loving father, he was able to put his powerful emotions on hold, in order to be able to do this mitzvah of giving pleasure to his father, without ulterior motives. This is the concept of L'sheim shamayim, acting in the name of G-d, in its truest form.

Doing things L'sheim shamayim, for the sake of God, is a consistent theme throughout the life of Yosef.
After he met his brothers, he made the oddest demand a leader has ever commanded of his people, not including the 16 oz soda ban; he instructed everyone in Egypt to pack up their lives and move to different cities. Simple as that. 

Imagine if President Obama got up and announced that on January 14, 2013, everyone in LA will have to switch places with all the people in NY. How many of us will actually be having our mail forwarded? Would you listen to this senseless command?
But wait. Yosef wasn't finished with his strange new laws. Not yet. Not until each member of the male gender received a bris milah. Forget it, Mr. President- don't even go there.

But you know what? Everyone went along with this. Without a hafgana, no protest, no demonstration, no orange ribbons or bracelets... they got up and obeyed his commands.

So... what was his trick? Why did everyone listen to him?

Because they all knew, without a doubt, that everything he was doing was l'sheim shamayim. 
Because it always was. It was clear to everyone that nothing he did was for his own benefit or need.

When we do things l'sheim shamayim, and with sincerity, people realize the holiness and G-dliness in what we're doing. They sense the altruism of our actions. When we behave without selfishness, and without the need for attention or self gratification, there's a certain siyata dishmaya we receive which makes people admire and respect us for what we've done, and hopefully, a desire to follow our lead. That's why doing things for the right reasons is a guarantee for lifetime success.

I live in a community that is not yet fully in touch with its Jewish identity. Many times I feel uncomfortable, and even out of place, by often looking and behaving differently than many of my neighbors and associates, since G-d's Torah commands me to do so. Incredibly, though, after attending meetings or parties in non kosher homes and being consistent with the laws of kashrut, and being consistent with not dancing at mixed weddings, and being consistent by being different on many different levels, in various occasions, many people have  expressed admiration and respect at my family's sincerity and strict, uncompromisable adherence to what we believe is correct. 
 Actions that are done l'sheim shomayim, for the sake of heaven, can only be viewed positively, and will hopefully make a proper kiddush Hashem.

Wherever Yosef went people commented KI HASHEM IMO...HASHEM IS WITH HIM. It became a pattern, and everyone realized. Why was Hashem always with him? Because he was with Hashem. He was always focused on doing what He, with a capital H wanted. He didn't go out to see Yaakov for his own best interest, he withheld his own emotions in order to fill his whole being with what Hashem wanted.

It's not the actions that count as much as the motivation behind them.
 A musician who plays at weddings and other affairs for parnassah, livelihood, can have two different motivations, followed by two different results. 
 Either he can get up and go to his next wedding to play music, since this is his job, or, he can attend the next wedding with the intentions of being mikayem the mitzvah of being misameach chosson v'kallah, bringing joy to a bride and groom. The job is the same. The hours are the same. The paycheck is the same. But- the motivation is different, and therefore, the reward is different, and, most importantly, the person becomes different.

The difficulty in acting altruistically is the lack public recognition. But that same public actually works in a funny way. They have x-ray vision. They can see right through ulterior motives. We listen to and learn from people who are sincere, but fakers, or insincerity don´t stand a chance.
The irony of it all, is that by chasing after honor, the honor escapes...but by not pursuing honor, it actually follows and accompanies you. It practically stalks you.

Here´s to doing the the right things for the right reasons!

¨To be God's servant, you have to be your own master.¨

Have a great shabbos!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Greek Olympics

The disease of Chanuka is Competition. I´m only good if I´m better than you.

The Greeks were the founders of the Olympics. Their philosophy was that a person is only worth something in comparison to someone else. Life is all about competing and winning.

Looking the best, acting the best, being the fastest, the smartest, the prettiest. That´s all that matters.

The Parsha tells us that Yosef had chen, charm. He had a unique form of beauty and attraction that stood out. Yosef was also the only person that the Torah has ever referred to as a tzaddik. This is because he lived alone in Egypt, with no one to compare himself to. He was just, well, Yosef.

Humankind often projects women with flawless skin, big eyes, full lips, small nose, pure white teeth, smooth and shiny hair, curvy body, wearing size 0 designer clothes, and they portray them as being happy because of those qualities and possessions.
They portray men as tall, with smooth skin, six packs, perfectly square jaws, with any woman at their disposal, quite literally at their disposal, stepping into their luxury car of choice,  and they define that that is what makes a man happy.

Society is extremely successful in being able to brainwash people into believing they should look a certain way, act a certain way, or be a certain someone, when in reality every single one of us is diferent. People are born to be different; no two of us are the same. We have different mindsets, different personalities, different emotional makeups, different intellectual capacities, different needs, different desires, different backgrounds, different strengths and weaknesses, different opinions, and different experiences. Even identical twins are different from one another.
There´s only one way in which we´re all the same: We´re all flawed human beings. We have defects and flaws that were given to us to improve and perfect them, in order to help us each fulfill our own individual missions in life.

Society likes to categorize people, with the intention of causing us to believe that we have fewer rights to be happy because we do not fit into the idealistic lifestyle. This is the reason that so many men and women hide away from society, and grow up thinking that there´s something wrong with them. This is also why a disproportionate amount of men and women carry the number of their local plastic surgeons in their back pockets.
Comparing ourselves to others is a sure way to knock our self esteems down to the ground, trample on them, and hose them down the drain.

There will always be those who are ´better´than us, and those who are ´worse´than us. Denying this, and trying to live the life of the subject of our envy,  will cause us to start wishing we were different people, causing thoughts of worthlessness and hopelessness.

Here´s the main problem I see evolving from this. By trying to parallel or match another person, I still come up short of being them, but at the same time I´m coming up short of being ME. I´m not living their life, and I´m not living my life. So, am I even living? Breathing doesn´t mean I´m living. It means I´m alive. There´s an entire world of difference between being alive, and actually living.

Weighing ourselves against another, takes us nowhere, wastes a lot of time and energy, and puts us in an emotionally and psychologically awful place. As Albert Einstein so wisely quoted, “Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.”

Contrary to  Greek ideology, Judaism teaches that the result of something is not what´s important, but rather the effort and motivation put into the act.  Pirkei avos explains: ¨L´fum tzaara agra¨ The harder the effort, the greater the reward.
A parent  who´s interested in teaching their child to be confident and healthy, will never tell them ¨I´m proud of you because you´re the best in your class¨, but rather, they´ll tell them ¨I´m proud of you because you really tried your best¨.

We all have intrinsic value as individuals. We´re not only good just in comparison to others.
The proof of this is another lesson from our sages: ¨Lo Alecha Hamelacha Ligmor¨, It´s not up to you to finish the task. What is up to me is to start it, and to give it my absolute best.

The Miracle of Chanuka is not just that we were a tiny army who won over a much more powerful one. It was an internal war that we won. It was a battle of  confidence and assurance. The Greeks tried to remove everything we stood for; everything that made us unique:

Shabbos, kashrus, bris milah, limud Torah, and rosh Chodesh.

These are five Mitzvos that are absolutely unique to the Jewish people. To replace these spiritual activities, they tried enticing us with their external enterprises fueled by competition and vanity.  But we didn´t fall for it! We stood up to fight! We fought against a life of externality! We fought against a life of competition! We fought against a life of emptiness!

And we won.

So when we celebrate Chanuka, we´re embracing our uniqueness. We´re recognizing our individuality and accepting the essence of who we are.

It´s no coincidence that the main character of the parsha this week is Yosef, who had reached spiritual perfection, being the solitary person to earn the title tzaddik. He achieved that by having no one to compare himself to, and therefore being able to use his own potential by being true to himself.

Chanuka means that the only person I need to be better than, is the person I was yesterday.

Have a beautiful shabbos, a happy Chanuka, and a chodesh tov!

Friday, December 7, 2012

When I Grow Up I Wanna Be An Ant

Someone actually asked me the following question: "Why does Yosef make the same mistake every year. He tattles on his brothers and then they end up selling him. Doesn't he learn his lesson?"
 So what exactly was it that he told his father? Three things:
1-He caught them eating from an animal without previously slaughtering it.
2- They were behaving immorally with women.
3- He heard Leah's sons calling the sons of Bilhah and Zilpah, 'servants'.
Now, have in mind that the accused offenders were talmidei chachamim (Torah scholars). They were people who listened to the word of G-d. So something seems wrong with this picture. The truth is, there are some pieces missing from the story.
The shvatim (tribes) had in their possession a special book on kabbalah which was handed down from Adam Harishon. This book is called SEFER HAYETZIRA. Through various kabbalistic methods brought down in this book, they were able to create beings that appeared to be real, but were mere, human-made copies. Cloning, perhaps. 
Two of the activities the brothers had done: They had created an animal, which they were able to eat from alive since it wasn't authentic, but man made. 
And, they had built a woman, which is the woman Yosef had seen them with. But she, too, was a fake. Bring it on, Mr. Potter!
(As a side point, this is the sefer (book) that was used in Prague to create the famous Golem.)
Well, the young sons of Bilhah and Zilpah saw some action over on the side where Leah's older sons had been huddling, and curiosity overcame them. So they went to assess the situation. As soon as the delinquents approached however,  the older brothers shut them out, calling them 'servants', indicating that they were too young to be involved with learning kabbalah. They were not on the same spiritual level as the older shvatim, or even as Madonna, and therefore, studying the depths of kabbalah was beyond them. 
So the problem was that Yosef was so quick to do his self appointed job as Family Mashgiach, that although his intentions were righteous, he tattled on his brothers before looking at the whole picture. He should've looked deeper at the situation before jumping to conclusions.
Then, what else did Yosef do incorrectly? He knew his brothers hated him. It was no secret. And yet, he wasn't fazed. He thought it would pass. Therefore, notwithstanding their animosity toward him, he went and told them his second dream, once again threatening them with his power over them. That was very inappropriate. Not to mention that he felt the need to repeat it yet a third time.
Obviously, this was coming from a place of naivete, and his problem was that he was completely unaware of what the long term effects of his actions will be.
HE WAS ONLY LOOKING AT THE SMALL PICTURE. The here and now. He failed to realize the long term consequences. He carried the attitude "If they feel threatened by me, it's their problem", when in reality, he was guilty of causing their jealousy and hatred.
There's a reason the Torah refers to Yosef as a  naar, a young boy. In other words, immature. A mature person looks ahead. He takes the whole picture into consideration. He tries to understand what the consequences of his actions will be. 
One who makes an impulsive decision without taking into account the results of his choice, allows us to believe he's acted immaturely.
When I was 17 years old, I decided to take Drivers Ed. I thought that a crash course in driving wouldt be a great idea so I opted for the regular lessons. There are a few things I'll never forget about my driving teacher. The most important of all, is that he was a diabetic. Which is why it confused me to see him constantly eating Entenmans sugar coated donuts with sweet coffee. Then of course, a pack of Marlboro light to help with digestion. So when I asked him why he's not being more careful about his health, his response shocked me, but left  a lasting impression. "I can't think about the future- it won't let me enjoy the present".  He died soon after.

Focusing on the here and now can end up with a problematic there and then. A mature person takes in the whole picture, and tries to understand what the consequences of his choices will be.

Shlomo Hamelech writes in mishlei, LECH EL NEMALA, ATZEL...,GO TO THE ANT, YOU  LAZY GUY.  What could we possibly learn from an ant?  What does he do that's so worthy of comparison? The ant is mature. Every season, he works long and hard gathering and setting aside enough food for the following season.  He looks ahead. And that's maturity. (Most of his merchandise is collected from your counter top, by the way.)
So, when you have an unbeatable urge to yell at someone, even if the person deserves it,  it may feel like a big relief in short term... but focusing on the long term, it destroys the relationship.

"There are two types of people: Those who stop to think; and those who stop thinking."
Have a great Shabbos.

Friday, November 30, 2012

My son, the Doctor

¨Vayehi li shor V'chamor¨, I have oxen and donkeys...
This was Yaakov talking.
The Medrash Rabba explains that the oxen refer to his son Yosef, and the donkeys represent his other son,Yisaschar.

Yaakov sent a message to his troubled brother,Esav, informing him of his vast wealth, in order to impress him and gain favor in his eyes.
If Yaakov's reference to his ox and donkey as a metaphor for Yosef and Yisaschar is his way of proving himself, he´s got a lot to learn about kissing up.
If Yaakov's intention is to impress Esav with his strength and power, wouldn't you think he'd send the child who's the most physically built? Or the ones who are the most outwardly impressive? Like the doctor, or the lawyer, or worse comes to worst the accountant? How 'bout Yehuda or Levy- the strong ones?

But, no. Yaakov decided to show off by sending the two sons who symbolized spiritual greatness. These two sons represent the spiritual dimensions of the 12 tribes. Yosef is famous for being a Tzadik, and Yisaschar is the epitome of Limud HaTorah.
This Medrash teaches us that when one wishes to impress the wicked by being pretentious and acting like them, speaking their language, dressing in their manner, feigning agreement with their misguided philosophies.... he is fooling only himself. Even the most corrupt individual won't be impressed by an impostor. Nobody likes a wanna-be. The opposite, actually- these actions will only alienate him.

Case in point, during the horrific period of the Holocaust, the Jews learned an invaluable lesson: You can run, but you can´t hide. No matter how perfectly a Jew tried to camouflage himself into his non Jewish culture, he never integrated and was never accepted. He was dragged out of his dream and into the nightmare of the rest of his nation.
Yaakov is not only showing us how one speaks to a less-than-good person, but he is also teaching us the secret of the immortality of the Jews. He was trying to let Esav realize that their lifestyles are vastly different, and through his way of living, by consistently following the Torah, with confidence and conviction, he hoped to allow Esav to see his honesty and straightforwardness and find favor in his eyes.
 By having self respect, one achieves the respect and admiration of others. That's all we need.

"Always remember you are unique... just like everyone else"

Have a great Shabbos.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Yitzchok, Rivka, and Sandy

Imagine the holy son of a saintly Rebbe marrying the daughter of a renowned atheist, straight off a socialist commune. Pretty far-fetched, ya think?

This week's Torah portion talks of a very similar shidduch. Yitzckok and Rivka come from such opposing backgrounds, that I can´t begin to understand how that marriage can work. Why did Eliezer facilitate such a strange shidduch?

Over a week has passed since Sandy had arrogantly crashed through our peaceful shores. Anyone of reasonable age, who was conscious on Tuesday, October 30, 2012, has heard about the devastating Superstorm that ripped across the East coast, destroying millions of people´s lives, both physically and emotionally. Such vast lost is impossible to describe, because it is beyond human comprehension.

Though I haven´t experienced the devastation myself, I have family and friends, and friends of friends, who have experienced irreplaceable loss and unrepairable damage from the storm. The extent of these losses are unfathomable.

The morning after the hurricane, I sat comfortably at my computer, looking at pictures of homes, once elegant and cozy, that are now hollow and skeletal, resembling survivors of a war. I saw businesses that have been flooded out or collapsed to the ground, leaving thousands of families not knowing how they will regain all their losses, or how they will put bread on the table tomorrow. Oh, wait. What table? That one? The one in the middle of the flooded street, broken in half, with a staircase on top of it?

How can years and years of hard work and dedication, a lifetime of memories, and every personal belonging down to a toothbrush, be washed away like that, gone forever, in just a few hours?

Every radio station and TV channel reported excessively about this hurricane, warning the targeted locations for days before it actually hit. 
Yet even with all the capabilities, capacities, and competency of living in the new millenium, and even though the United States of America is arguably the most powerful and efficient country in the world, and we live in a generation of technology and science so advanced, that we can barely keep up with the developments, and despite all of the geniuses and endless talent we have in our midst, there has not been even one individual who was able to prevent this disaster. It was so clearly being controlled by a force way beyond even the most powerful of humans, in the most powerful country.

To be honest, rather than reflecting on it, it would be a whole lot easier to close my eyes, thank God that I wasn’t affected, and run on out to get ice cream. 
But I realize that each situation I encounter in life, whether physically experiencing it, or just as a casual onlooker, has been put in my path for a reason. To not be affected by it means to live a life of denial and stagnation. Is that even living?

Watching the force of the rain, the powerful surges of water, and listening to the speed and strength of the wind has instinctively put a prayer on my lips:

Mashiv haruach, Umorid hageshem
He (God)blows the wind and causes the rain to fall

Okay, seems quite obvious. But during this storm, there was a complete distortion of this! The water wasn´t blowing down, it was blowing upward! And as it ascended, it destroyed everything it came into contact with! Instead of the wind blowing high and the rain falling down, the water washed up, with the wind blowing down!

So I think the meaning of these words are deeper than just the obvious. The root of the word ruach, wind, is the same as the word ruchniut, spirituality. And the root of the word geshem, rain, is the same as the word gashmiut, materialism. The personal message I received from this historic disaster, was Mashiv haruach, Umorid hageshem! Blow the spirituality upward, and lower the materialism!

When there´s a distortion between the physical and spiritual, we can destroy everything we come in contact with.

Mesilas Yesharim teaches that certain activities belong to realm of materialism/ yetzer hara, but when we do them with pure intentions, to serve Hashem, we remove them from the realm of yetzer hara and into the territory of the yetzer hatov. So instead of those actions making us more materialistic, they turn around and make us more spiritual. The opposite is true, as well. If one does a mitzvah, but fulfills it with the wrong intentions, he removes it from the territory of the yetzer hatov, and it now belongs to the other side, causing it to lose its status as ´holy´.
 Mesilas Yesharim continues in Shaar Hanekius and and explains that even while you keep the mitzvos you can still remain completely gashmiusdik, completely involved and enveloped by materialism.
I consider myself a Torah observant Jewess, and I try to keep the mitzvos and adhere to halacha, but yet, without doing anything actually assur, I am at times allowing my lower self to take over, causing my gashmius to be on top of my ruchnius.

What is it that drives me in life? What excites me? What do I live for? What do I look forward to? Is it all materialistic? Is it clothing? Money? Nice vacations? Fancy cars? Most delectable restaurants?

None of this is wrong. But when that becomes the center of my life, it means I´m a materialistic person, and at the end of the day, the ultimate purpose of Torah was not fulfilled by me. The purpose of Torah is to transform man from a semi animal to a semi God. It means to take my very strong sense of physicality and develop it into a strong sense of spirituality. To mold myself into someone dominated by my animal drive, like all my fellow physical beings, into someone dominated by my spiritual drive. To become someone capable of putting my neshama before my guf.
Many of the mitzvos we were given are meant to break the hold that gashmius has on us, like tzedaka, kosher, Shabbos, maaser…they put limits on our desires.

Back to the parsha, the marriage of Yitzchok and Rivka is a metaphor for our mission in life. We are all Eliezers. And our mission is to affect a shidduch even stranger than the one which Eliezer facilitated.

We are sent to this world to bring together in holy matrimony the eminent groom, God Almighty, and the reluctant bride, this mundane world. Seemingly, no two greater opposites exist: God radiates selflessness and spirituality, while the world exudes egotism and the primacy of materialism. Yet, we are expected to unite the two in perfect harmony by living spiritual Godly lives in this hostile environment, thus revealing within the world its truest, but deeply buried, nature -- its Godly essence. We can infuse our every act, even the most mundane ones, with spirituality and meaning; we can bring together Mars and Venus.

Finding perfection in life means emulating God. In this matrimony with Him called life, spirituality leads and materialism follows. As long as the ruach is above, the geshem will be below. And then we will be building worlds instead of destroying them.

The marriage of Yitzchok and Rivka didn´t just work; it created the entire Jewish nation.

 Have a beautiful shabbos!

Friday, October 19, 2012

Not Much Of A Compliment

The Possuk tells us that Noach was a good man. 
Oh, wait. He was a good man... in his generation
What kind of compliment is that? Imagine if I told you how young and beautiful you look... compared to my grandmother! This is a back handed compliment. What does the possuk mean by expressing that Noach was a tzadik, but only when compared to the men of his generation? If he had lived in Avraham's time, what would he have been considered?

So Rashi gives two contradictory views. There are those that view Noach favorably, and claim that in a more righteous generation, he'd have been more righteous. Others feel that since his generation was so corrupt, and were occupied excessively with adultery and thievery, and he was a straight man, comparatively, he was head and shoulders above them. But had he lived with people that were holy and straight, he'd have been considered worthless.

I think I understand the problem. I live in a mostly secular community. There are only a handful of observant Jews in my extended neighborhood. Being the 'Rebetzin' here, I often attend various events and affairs. While very elegant, and beautifully prepared, these parties are not quite what Im accustomed to. 
For example, the smoke filled room, the immodest dress, the mingling of genders, and a racket of contemporary rock music screaming into the room throughout the evening. I usually don't stay long. Although I want to be there to support the host, I dream of  returning to my secure little home- where its only ME and MY people and MY things. My own makom kodesh, where I listen to MY music and eat MY food and wear MY clothes.
And at this point, the self righteousness kicks in. 
Look at me, and look at them. They´re partying and smoking and sniffing, listening to  percussion based Latin rap, while I'm baking challah and listening to Yeshiva Boys Choir. And if I´m in an especially righteous mood, I may even turn on a shiur!  
That's the problem. When we compare ourselves to people of a lower spiritual stature, of course we're better!  We follow the Torah and that´s the ultimate. I should be comparing myself to my friends in Eretz Yisrael! And to my friends in New York! And to anywhere where there's a thriving Jewish community, and then ask myself "AM I A TZADIK COMPARED TO THEM TOO?" Possibly not. I have to look at myself relative to who I am, where I come from, and who I can be. Average isn't good enough. I can be much better. And I can be a positive influence on everyone around me.
Noach worked for 120 years building his boat. Get that- 120 years! And no one- not one person- was brought under his positive influence. Its no coincidence that the name Noach means comfortable. He was just plain comfortable with life. He was content with his spiritual level. He was satisfied with himself. He was feeling self righteous. 
And THAT was the problem.
 The only person I have to be better than, is the person I was yesterday.

Have a beautiful shabbos!

Friday, October 12, 2012

Extreme Bullying

I recently read an authentic note that a small child had written to G-d:

"Dear G-d, maybe Cain and Abel would'nt have killed each other so much if they had had their own rooms. It works for me and my brother."

Talk about sibling rivalry. We all wanna kill our brothers sometimes, but not as literally as they seemed to have taken it. What could've caused such an extreme reaction? What could have led one brother to actually remove the other permanently from this world?
In this weeks Parsha, Bereishis, the torah speaks about the creation of the world. The very first concept mentioned was the creation of dark and light. Upon their arrival into the world, Hashem made a clearly defined statement. VAYAVDÉL ELOKIM BEIN HAOHR UBEN HACHOSHECH. Keep the dark and the light separate. Just as you would when sorting laundry. 

The darkness that we speak about is symbolic of the dark side of life. The yetzer horah. The sins we do. Our insecurities and anxieties. 
The light refers to our mitzvot. To the nisyonot and challenges we pass successfully. To our perseverance and endurance.  
The world is a safe and secure place as long as our darks and lights are separate from one another. As long as we have clearly defined boundaries.
This specific action I'm about to do, or reaction I'm about to have, does it belong to the dark side? Or does it fit in with light? As long as the differentiation is clear in our minds, there's no need for machlokes. When would an argument ensue? Only when the lines are blurred or undefinable. 

For example, the first argument to ever take place in the world:
When G-d created day #2, He said to separate the waters (on bottom) from the waters (on top). And then, this is the only day that He didnt follow up with "Ki Tov"- "this is good". 
 Midrash Rabba explains that the reason KI TOV was left out was because on this day, gehennom  (hell) was created, due to the machlokes- the separation of two bodies that share the same essence. The waters of heaven and the waters of earth.

Why was there a fight regarding the separation of heaven and earth, but not between light and dark? 

Because the boundaries between light and dark are so clearly defined, and so noticeable, that we instinctively separate the two and set each one up on their own turf. In contrast, the earthly waters and the heavenly waters remained equal and their boundaries aren't clearly defined because they share the same essence. Therefore, their separation was a cause for devisiveness, for argument, and for jealousy. 

Reading through the verses in the Torah, it's obvious that Kayin (Cain) consistently feels inferior to his younger brother Hevel (Abel). From the fact that the latter was born with a triplet, and himself only a twin, to Hevel's offering of choice fruit as opposed to his meager one... and he was so full of jealousy, that at one point it actually led him to remove his brother from the world. 

With clearly defined boundaries, when I know who I am and I'm content with what I find inside myself, there's no need to constantly compare myself to others. She is she and I am me. 
With apologies to Thomas Jefferson, all men are NOT created equal. Nor are all women. If two women are found wearing the same outfit at the same party, each one can suddenly be capable of first degree murder! I could only imagine any further forms of equality. 
We each have our own goals and we were each given our own individual tools to help us reach those goals. If I'm not content with myself, or with my own tools, and I covet what the other person has, then I've got a problem with the One who gave me what I've got! The root of jealousy is being unhappy with G-d's decision. 

So that little note-writing kid from the beginning of the article has a valid point. When people have their own defined boundaries, they get a clearer perception of self, and they are better able to accept and appreciate what they find inside.

"If you dont get what you want, you gotta want what you get".

Have a great Shabbos!

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Stalker Wins

Imagine sitting in a class in high school, on the first day of school, waiting to meet your new main teacher for the year. The principal walks in the door with another man and introduces him as the teacher for this semester. As if rehearsed, the entire class bursts into tears, sobbing bitterly about the prospect of having this lousy teacher, right in front of his face. Emily post would needed oxygen. How rude is that??
A similar situation takes place in the parsha this week. Moshe Rabenu is niftar, passes away, and Hashem  introduces the new leader of klal yisrael to them.  From deep in the hat, He pulls out...none other than [drum-roll please]... Yehoshua Bin Nun!  Thousands of jaws dropped noisily to the ground as the place stared in disbelief. Then, as if rehearsed, they all burst out crying.
Helloooooo, people, that's RUDE. Was Yehoshua so scary looking? Living without Norelco or Colgate, I'm sure they've all seen worse. 

How can we possibly  understand what had just transpired?

Without the Chasam Sofer's insight, Id be up all shabbos bothered by this. But he says something so deep and so encouraging.

Yes, the Jews cried when they found out their new leader was Yehoshua. No, it was not because they were upset that it was him. Their tears were made up of a few combined emotions. Regret, awe, and inspiration. And, possibly happiness, too.

I'm thinking back a bit to remember who Yehoshua was. He was the shlockshames, he was the janitor, and he was also Moshe's stalker. He was the one who cleaned up the shul and stacked the sidurim. He followed Moshe around the neighborhood 24/7. He was never hired as a lecturer or a rebbe. Not even as a kashrus mashgiach. He was just... Yehoshua. And yet, out of all the teachers and michanchim, and principals, and businessmen of any trade...He was chosen. And that's because he came from nothing and was soooo determined to reach greatness and to achieve holiness, that he did. He consistently served Moshe, learning from his every gesture. No matter what the weather, he was by his side with utmost respect and dedication. And he internalized it all, and grew... becoming the man who was most worthy of leading the Jewish nation.

So why did they cry? Because they thought  "If he could do it, why couldn't I?"  It didn't take a rocket scientist, or a huge talmid chochom , or anyone with any incredible talents or creativity to become the new gadol hador. Any one of them could've acquired that position. And they realized that. And that's why they cried.

The same thing goes for all of us on our own individual levels. Whatever we set our minds to doing, can be done. Whatever or whoever we want to become,  we will become, as long as the determination, consistency, and dedication is there.

Take a look at the greatest Torah teacher that ever lived. Rabbi Akiva. Did you know that he was the son of a simple convert? Did you know that he was not exceptionally bright, but scored average?
Did you know that he was already applying for senior citizen's discounts when he finally caught on to the Aleph bais? Did you know that he could've been a welfare recipient?
Why would G-d have picked someone with everything against him to be the greatest Torah teacher of all time?
Because otherwise, once he had become the great person he was, we all would've said "Of course he's a great rabbi. He's the son of Rav Yaakov..." or "... He was valedictorian of his class..." or ".. his father is the prime benefactor of the community..." or "...he had a great spiritual upbringing..."
And we could have every excuse in the book for not wanting to reach greatness, and why those who do become great have a 'reason' for making them more capable of reaching that level of greatness. So by making Rabbi Akiva the top Torah teacher of all time, Hashem is proving to us that there is no possible excuse for every single person not trying their utmost to be the greatest person they can possibly be.
1...2...3... grow.

"No sense in being pessimistic; it wouldn't work anyway"

                     CHAZAK CHAZAK V'NISCHAZEK.
Have a great shabbos

Monday, September 24, 2012

Confessions Of a Shopaholic....During Aveilus

Has it ever taken you so long to get dressed that you missed the event you were dressing for? This may or may not have happened to me. What I will admit to, however, is being guilty of misunderstanding the connection between clothing and happiness.

This week, I got up from my year of aveilus. I don´t know if getting up is the correct term to use, but it sure feels like an appropriate description. The laws of mourning a parents´ death prohibit us from partaking in joyous affairs, from listening to music, and from purchasing new clothing for a full year, allowing us to focus on and feel our loss.

Well, mission accomplished. Missing out on a whole years´ worth of new CD releases and newly discovered singers, sharing in familial and friends´ special occasions only by viewing their photos on Facebook, and watching all the up and coming style trends breeze by, waving, teasing, are all circumstances which create loneliness, isolation, disconnection, and sadness.
 I´ve experienced these, and many other difficult emotions during this year. Some were expected and even anticipated, but others triggered certain reactions from me that made me wonder if I was possessed by a canine; mentally barking, chasing after, and leaping at my prey. ´How could all those families publicly and insensitively celebrate Fathers´ Day in front of me, when I DON’T HAVE A FATHER?!´
 I know they´re not doing it to spite me, because I don´t have the word ¨Fatherless¨ tattooed into my forehead. So why am I reacting this way? What is wrong with me?

Living across the ocean from my family and friends has aggravated my grief. Losing a loved one heightens your awareness of all the other people you love, and helps you appreciate the ones you still have. Because of my geographical challenge, this heightened awareness worked against me. It created within me a desperate longing to be close to my loved ones, but didn´t allow me to satisfy that need.
So once again, I became possessed. The dog was replaced by a martyr: ´She just throws out her money and goes out to eat with her sisters whenever she feels like it…she lives right next door to her mommy like a clingy, immature child… she sees her friends more often than I look in the mirror…what a spoiled brat!´
 Now, I know she´s not guilty of any crimes. She has every right to enjoy her wonderful life. So, why does it bother me? Is she not allowed to have it just because I don’t? Or is it because she has all this stuff, without recognizing that I don´t? That might be it. Sometimes I feel like interrupting any random, irrelevant conversation in my home with ¨Oh, by the way, my father died. More tea?¨ Yes, it´s my own problem and not hers. She´s not being insensitive; I´m being too sensitive. But admitting that intellectually is a whole lot easier than feeling it emotionally.
The year of mourning for a parent allows for a lot of time to think and feel. Having all that physical time to focus on so many different emotional dimensions, I have been able to clarify many muffled aspects of human nature and Torah concepts.

Let me introduce myself.

I am a music lover. My connection to music goes beyond my appreciation for meaningful lyrics or for a captivating melody. My primary means of self-expression is through music; through composing and singing my own music. I relax with a guitar in hand. 
Have you ever been able to find better balance and focus in your life after listening to a certain song? There were days I urgently needed to hear my feelings in my ears, not just feel them in my heart. But I couldn´t; I needed to mourn. And mourn, I did.

Having spent my year completely music free, I learned that self-expression itself is the pinnacle of art. Up until now, music has been my medium, and guitar, my instrument. But this year has allowed me to find ways of creating art, through means of self-expression, using my fingers as my medium, and my voice as my instrument. The lack of instrumental sensation in my ears has showed me that inspiration and motivation must be available through other venues. Don´t deaf people ever feel inspired? I tried to replace the melodies with Torah classes, helping me advance in my learning and growth, allowing me to find the balance and motivation I would have found from a song. I also threw myself into poetry, both reading and writing it. Joining poetry blogs has done more than just introduce me to my inner hippie, it has helped me find the balance and mood lift I normally would have felt from a song of choice.

Another thing about me: I´m a vigorous extrovert. I´m outgoing, I´m social, I´m a leader, and I thrive in the presence of people. Needless to say, being banned from parties, events, and certain social gatherings has been challenging.
I recall a conversation between my sister, a classic introvert, and myself about our fantasies. With a dreamy look in her eyes, she began describing her vision of living alone in a big house on top of a mountain, overlooking the ocean, without a human being in sight, no cell phone reception or internet connection, just she and her books and a cup of tea. With each detail of her dream, she became more and more energized, more animated, and was completely brought to life. But, with each detail of her nightmare, I was experiencing shortness of breath and heart palpitations. 
Without even wiping my rapidly perspiring face, I asked ¨But who will you talk to? What will you do all day? Who will even know you exist? How will you feel connected to the world? Who will you be friends with?!¨ I could hardly breathe.
 ¨No one. Nothing. I won´t. That´s the whole point!¨ 
Introversion tasted nauseating to me. But surprisingly, with some introspection and self- reflection, I´ve discovered that although human beings have dominant personality traits and characteristics, there isn´t anybody in the human race who is solely one-dimensional. Though, for some reason, which I have yet to explore, extroversion is celebrated and honored while introversion is not.
Being extroverted is in my comfort zone, and I discovered how healthy and even refreshing it has been to go beyond my point of certainty and to get to know and embrace my introverted side. Know what I´ve noticed? Introverts aren´t nearly as boring as us extroverts assume! Introverts do have a life! I even decided to join an Introvert Club, but when I got to the meeting, I saw it was canceled due to lack of attendance…
Getting better acquainted with my pensive side, having an opportunity to listen instead of speak, and learning to enjoy my own company has proven to me that a quiet leader is not an oxymoron. Between you and me and cyber space, extroverts are overrated.
But one challenge during my year of mourning surpasses the others. It has also taught me the most valuable lessons of all.

Hello, my name is Yaffa, and I´m a shop-a-holic. When I hear individual oddities so extreme like  complaining about the sufferment of shopping, or how deeply someone despises going to the mall to purchase new clothes, those convictions actually carry me beyond the limits of human cognition. How could you not like shopping? The glamour, the color combos, the accessory building, the shoes… the shoes! THE SHOES! To not see this as a tremendously enjoyable activity feels completely unnatural and outside the realm of possible.
Now, don´t misunderstand me. I´m a spiritual person. I´m attentive to God´s unwavering presence, and I´m aware of His constant involvement in every minute detail of my day. I pray, I soul-search, I contemplate, I meditate. I even try to teach others how to better connect with God and spirituality. ¨Perhaps¨, I subconsciously muse, it´s not only permissible to be enamored with fashion, but it should even be applauded! After all, I need to be presentable to do God´s work!¨
Well, this year of official forbiddance of buying new clothing, new accessories, new shoes, or any type of new awesomeness, has led me to develop a deeper understanding and distinction towards materialism, even materialism l´shem shamayim.

Over the past 12 months I´ve given more thought to life after death than ever before. My fathers´ departure from the physical world created a deep and inexplicably painful reality; I will never see my father again. I will never hear his voice again. He will never see me again. The sadness was overwhelming. The longing was excruciating. And so, my mind became obsessed with the finite and the infinite, internal and external struggles, and how to find the proper balance between the physical and spiritual worlds in which we live.

If I were to spend the day on a NYC street, asking each of the thousands of passersby whether they thought they were a body or a soul, it´s highly probable that the majority would answer “soul”. But yet, if I were to follow some of them home, and shadow them around for a day or two, and not get arrested for stalking, I’m pretty sure I’d find that although they do believe they’re a soul, it doesn’t mean they live like one.
It’s not easy to be a spiritual being living in a physical world. Communication with my body is simple: I wanna eat. I wanna sleep. I wanna play. I wanna eat. I wanna party. I wanna chill. I wanna eat. But understanding the needs of the soul is close to impossible, and often misinterpreted. I often can´t remember if I bentched after I ate, but have I ever forgotten to eat?
Oh, how pleasant life would be, and how many mistakes would be spared, if only we understood the soul better. I know I can learn to speak Soul, probably by learning to develop a relationship with it, and by understanding where I stand in relation to it. Am I a body with a soul, or am I a soul with a body? Which one is the horse, and which is the rider?

At the time of Abba´s passing, I had a newborn baby, which put me in a complicated position. I´m not permitted to buy new clothes, but yet nothing in my closet fits over my expanded frame. Ordinarily, even without extras, I´m a size bigger than One size fits All. Who do they use to measure the One Size anyway, an elf? But now, as my woes gave birth to woes of their own, in more ways than one it became obvious that my body was the horse. The silver lining is that being banished from joyful affairs gave me no reason to remove my pajamas and force myself into ill-fitting garb.

This unpleasant experience has led me to recognize that the body serves two main purposes. It clothes the soul, and it functions as a tool to assist the soul in doing its job. The ultimate way to enhance the physical body is to wear custom made clothing. Paralleling that, the ultimate way to enhance the soul, is to make its ‘clothing’ a perfect fit. Forcing myself to wear a size that’s too small, or vanishing inside a size that’s too big, would bring out the worst in my body. Actually, that’s exactly what I'm doing when I let my body lead the way, and force my soul to fit into it.

So, if my soul leads and my body follows, does this mean the body has none or little significance? 
In reality, my body has the most important job in the world: It houses my soul. It houses God.

So here’s the balance. The great significance of the body due to the role it plays with the soul versus the realization that the significance of the body is limited by that same role it plays with the soul.

The function of clothing is to beautify my body. My body must operate well, and it also must be attractive since it shows my true essence, deep inside. The body also must be maintained. If a tool in my shed goes without oil treatments and maintenance, it will not do its job well. If a taxi driver buys a brand new car, its maintenance and upkeep is crucial for his work. But, if he spends an unreasonable amount of time cleaning and waxing his vehicle, he will never get to use it. If I spend a disproportionate amount of time getting dressed for an event, I can miss the whole reason for my primping up altogether! The key is balance.

When I hear the word modesty, I immediately picture knees. Or collar bones. Sometimes I imagine a certain behavior, or lack of. I have come to recognize an important aspect of modesty that seems to be greatly disregarded. It has nothing to do with inches or colors or textures. Nor is it about body parts. Traditionally we´re taught that modesty means reserve or propriety in speech, dress, or behavior. It also means a lack of pretentiousness; simplicity.

We live in a time of great affluence, and this has led to a sense of entitlement. I undoubtedly expect to live a lifestyle far beyond what my grandparents, and even my parents ever dreamed of at my age. Being mistapek b’muat (satisfied with less) is a forgotten concept for many.
Let’s face it: Most people spend way too much money on things they don’t really need. As the saying goes, ¨We spend money we don´t have, on things we don´t need, to impress people we don´t like¨. Is there anything objectively normal about that?!
The more money we make, the more we tend to spend. This endless cycle of materialism has led us to confuse the word “need” with the word “want.” As in, “I need a luxury car.” Or, “I need a new pair of shoes to go with my new outfit.”
Breaking free from the materialism trap means understanding the difference between “need” and “want.”
Our needs are relatively few, even from birth. We don’t need a lot of stuff, toys, or gadgets. We need shelter from the elements, clothing, food, love and understanding. We need friends and family around us.
We do not need baby carriages that cost as much as half a years´ tuition, brand new luxury cars which don´t even fit into standard parking spots, 5,000-square-foot homes in exclusive neighborhoods, lavish ski vacations, and smart phones that do everything but think for us. I´m positive that if I look at my monthly phone bill it´ll tell me that buying a dumb phone would have been smarter. 

 There is nothing wrong with wanting these things. But by buying impulsively or excessively, I get rid of the guilt that that purchase has caused by rationalizing my want into a need.

I´m an avid window shopper. Both by browsing in actual store windows, and by browsing through Windows 7 on my lap top. But mostly what we´re all shopping for is happiness. 
This year of restraint and of boundaries has taught me what true happiness is. Being mistapek b´muat is not only an integral part of Jewish philosophy, but it’s the key to happiness and success. Simplicity. Being able to live with less, with smaller, with fewer things. Material objects do not make us happy, in and of themselves. Happiness is the inner peace that emanates from living in harmony with your true self, your conscience, and your principals; having convictions and sticking to them, choosing right over wrong, practicing self-control, and maintaining self-discipline.

 I learned that I can appreciate and even enjoy something beautiful without having to buy it. I can be attracted to something without having to own it. I can live without music. There are other avenues of inspiration to drive down, roads I never would have taken otherwise. Reaching out of familiarity and touching hidden aspects of myself have made me feel born again. I learned to recognize how important it is to maintain and adorn my body and soul, but to distinguish the difference between what they need, and what they want. And, the tranquility and peace of mind that come from relying less on materialism to define success indisputably leads to a greater and deeper happiness. 
Now, that´s a bargain I can use, at a price I can´t resist.