Archive | D’var Torah

The necessity to create joyful noise

Posted on 14 February 2019 by admin

The theme of this week is noise.
When we are productive and feel good about ourselves, life is easier. When we feel we messed up, life becomes more difficult. An unfulfilled soul, plagued by regrets, detects a resounding static coming from within.
Spiritual noise and silence symbolize two states. Noise reflects the process of repentance, the cry of those feeling distant from God. Silence, on the other hand, reflects a feeling of closeness. When one is content and progressing smoothly, there is no inner-conflict. The soul is calm. But attempting to change — amidst the struggle to leave behind sins — creates a restless noise inside, which must be expressed.
Between the lines of the recent Torah passages appears an interesting dialogue about these two states. In one of the most pivotal scenes, the High Priest — the Kohen Gadol — dressed in his eight specific garments, enters the holy place in the Temple as a messenger of the Jewish people. Each of these garments is crucial, symbolic, and possesses a special power in achieving atonement.
Here, we will examine one garment — the robe — and its broader significance. When describing the robe, the Torah relates the following: “And on its bottom hem you shall make pomegranate [shaped balls]…all around, and golden bells in their midst…It shall be on Aaron when he performs the service, and its sound shall be heard when he enters the Kodesh, the holy chamber, before the Lord…so that he will not die.” (Exodus 27:33-35)
Bells and Pomegranates
When examining the verse, there is a disagreement between two primary biblical commentators as to where the bells should be placed. The divergence stems from the Hebrew word b’tocham, which can mean either “between them” or, more literally, “within them.” Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki), the foremost commentator on the Torah and Talmud, understands the phrase as “between.” Nachmanides (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman) disagrees and believes that the bells were literally placed within the pomegranates.
Inserting bells inside the rounded ornaments — to bang against their walls — makes sense, given the instruction to make the pomegranates hollow. But, according to Rashi, the ringing was generated from the clappers within the bells, and thus the hollow pomegranates were purely decorative. For this reason, Nachmanides takes issue with that approach: “Having hollow pomegranates served no function then,” he writes. “And if they were only for beauty, they should have been made like golden apples . . .”
While his argument about functionality is compelling — why bother making each pomegranate hollow if nothing was placed inside them? — his additional comment about golden apples is cryptic, prompting investigation by later scholars.
And why, according to Rashi, was the robe beautified with pomegranates?
Noise is necessary
Let’s examine the following: “Its sound shall be heard when he enters the holy place…” Why was it so important to hear the bells jingle — to the point that the success of the High Priest depended on this noise? Seemingly, in such an intimate setting, designed to achieve atonement, “a still silent voice” (Kings 19:12) would be more appropriate.
The commentaries explain that sound shows respect for the moment, ensuring that entrance into a holy site doesn’t take place mindlessly or unannounced. The jingling bells are similar to a visitor asking permission to enter the king’s chamber. The more profound explanation relates to the overall function of the Kohen Gadol, seen as a messenger of the Jewish people, taking with him the entire nation into the holy chamber.
In this sense, the jingling of the bells is symbolic of those people engaged in an ongoing struggle to improve — to come closer to God while in a dark and confusing world. Consequently, when approaching the holy place, seeking to gain atonement on behalf of the entire Jewish people, it was essential that the Kohen Gadol provide an accurate symbolic representation of the entire spectrum of the community.
The beauty of struggle
With these images in mind, we can discover a more profound dialogue between Nachmanides, who favors apples, and Rashi, who prefers pomegranates. Both the golden apple and pomegranate describe the Jewish people throughout the Bible. However, while the apple represents Israel in the most virtuous state, the pomegranate refers to the “empty ones amongst you.”
So, is true beauty in the struggle to improve, or in attaining excellence?
Rashi chooses to emphasize the external aspect of the human being, marked by complexity, but full of goodness. Specifically, those who face an inner void, and are regarded as being on the lower spiritual level, are represented by the hollow fruit shape, on the bottom hem. Yet even they will go with the High Priest into the holy chamber. Indeed, there is an advantage in the tension over smooth spiritual progression and contentment. The rise and fall, the consistent effort needed to improve, eventually breaks barriers and exposes the limitless power of the soul.
Nachmanides, who incorporates more esoteric mystical ideas into his commentary, focuses on the deeper dimension within the person — the pristine and unblemished state, removed from all sin. “If for beauty, and not functionality,” he argues, “make them like golden apples, full and sweet.”
Applications for today
These days, we are bombarded by negative noise of the outside world, screaming for our attention at every turn. This, in turn, adds to the inner noise and makes it harder to hear to what’s going on inside. These distractions mean that the soul’s needs often are unnoticed and neglected. Likewise, the depth and richness of Judaism are quiet.
In previous generations, there was not as much need to create positive noise. These days, however, we must learn to generate more beautiful noise, raising the sound of holiness by showing more creativity and enthusiasm in our love for Torah, the remarkable land of Israel, and in celebrating Jewish life.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit


There are many ways to know God is among us

Posted on 06 February 2019 by admin

This week’s Torah portion, Terumah, is for me a somewhat difficult one. It’s all instructions — in excruciating detail — on how to make the sanctuary. But for one verse, Exodus 25:8, I have a hard time relating to it. In that verse, God commands Moses:
“V’asoo li miqdash v’shachanti b’tocham. Let them make for Me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them.”
Why in the world would God want a physical building constructed? Sixteenth-century commentator Alshech expressed this incredulity best:
“The message is mind-boggling! Who can imagine that God’s Presence can be contained on earth, much less in a man-made structure!”
I share Alshech’s incredulity. God is infinite. God is everywhere. How could God be limited to one particular place or building? And yet, the mystical Kabbalists believed it was possible for God to “fit in” to the Sanctuary through tsimtsum, God’s willful self-contraction, the same contraction that allowed for Creation. I, however, am not a mystic, so I continue to search for why God would want us to build a miqdash, a sanctuary.
I believe that the key phrase to look at is the continuation of the verse, “v’shachanti b’tocham, that I may dwell b’tocham, among them.” Not b’tocho, within it, the sanctuary.
But that still leaves me with the question what does it mean to have God dwelling “among them?” I would like to examine how two commentators look at this question.
Sforno, the 15th- and 16th-century commentator, asks, why does God need a sanctuary now in order to dwell among them when previously God dwelt among them without a sanctuary? The answer according to Sforno is found in the sin of the Golden Calf. What Sforno asserted is that when the Jewish people turned to idol worship after their miraculous redemption, God withdrew the Shechina. Only through the agency of the miqdash was God willing to dwell “among them” again.
In contrast, Abravanel, who lived at about the same time as Sforno, argued that: “The Divine intention behind the construction of the miqdash was to combat the idea that God had forsaken the earth and that His throne was in heaven and remote from humankind.”
Thus instead of being the only way for God to be among the people who sinned with the Calf, the sanctuary is actually a symbol of God’s constant immanence, constant presence among all people.
Personally, I think that Sforno and Abravanel get it right when you combine them together. It’s really hard to believe in God, when we’re told that God is everywhere, but invisible. And God doesn’t talk to us with words anymore. Not even visions or dreams. That’s a hard sell. Even for our ancestors who experienced God’s miracles and wonders coming out of slavery in Egypt, that’s a hard sell. We needed a tangible, visible sign that God is really here. Perhaps that’s why our ancestors resorted to the Golden Calf. They needed a physical, visible, tangible sign of God here on earth. As Abravanel said, we needed to know that God isn’t up in heaven, inaccessible and unknowable. And as Sforno said, we needed a legitimate physical, tangible, visible sign of God’s presence among us that was NOT the Golden Calf, for us to feel God’s presence. We needed a sanctuary, for God to dwell among us.
And today when we no longer have a Temple in Jerusalem? For me, going out into the natural world and marveling at God’s creation reminds me of God’s Presence. The loving, caring, personal relationships I have, show me God is here. Getting lost in the study of God’s word connects me directly to God. We don’t need to have a physical dwelling to recognize that God among us.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.


Honoring your parents same as honoring God

Posted on 24 January 2019 by admin

This week, we read about the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, beginning with the declaration of the Ten Commandments — the building blocks for moral societies and religion.
We often take these commandments for granted, regarding them as the most straightforward and elementary precepts. However, their concise wording opens a sea of discussion in the attempt to define the parameters of each instruction and dig into its reasoning. How does one “remember” the Sabbath? In thought? A verbal recollection? What constitutes murder, and adultery?
We have one Torah scroll, but two classic tablets. The division into two tablets conveys the prime categories of commandments. The first five focus on one’s relationship with God; the next five relate to the rights and welfare of humans.
Some people are more inclined to be careful with the second group, emphasizing kind behavior toward people in their personal value system, but forgetting to nurture the first set of laws. Others are careful to perform the private rituals that enhance their consciousness of the divine, the quiet spiritual component of life, but neglect to show a pleasant face to the world — their fellow man. Both tablets are vital in Judaism.
Out of place?
The above categorization into two groups is clear, except for one commandment, which doesn’t seem to belong among the first five: “Honor your father and your mother” (Exodus 20:12).
What is the quality of honor? Showing someone honor generally entails humility and admiration of specific virtues or deeds. Jewish tradition outlines the specific guidelines as it pertains to one’s parents — in thought, speech and action — and how to fulfill this important mitzvah.
It’s not always easy, especially when there is cause for resentment, as people tend to trace every personal struggle or psychological complexity to some form of neglect and damage by a parent during early childhood. And even when there is a smooth and loving relationship, the Talmud describes this as the most overlooked and hardest of all commandments to fulfill properly.
The next step in Torah study, after defining the parameters of each command, is seeking its basis and rationale: In this case, why should we honor our parents?
The biblical commentators, noting the placement of the fifth commandment, offer various interpretations. Nachmanides, in his commentary on this Torah portion (Yisro 20:13), explains that the command to honor parents rightfully belongs in the first group because honoring one’s parents is equivalent to honoring God. “For the sake of honoring the creator, someone is commanded to honor parents who contributed to his or her creation.”
Rabbi Aaron Halevi, however, in his Sefer Hachinuch (“Book of Education”), expounds on the logical basis for the mitzvah. There is a foundational principle in Judaism called hakarat hatov (acknowledging the good that someone has done for you) and expressing gratitude by acting kindly toward them. In this case, he explains, when someone considers that the parents are the cause for being and contemplates the toil and investments that parents made throughout one’s youth — how they clothed and fed, nurtured and cared, provided a home, an education and more — the natural inclination will be to express gratitude. It is only fitting to act toward them in the most respectful manner and help them in any way possible. Too often children grow up, get married and, in their preoccupation with their own ambitions, quickly forget all the years their parents toiled for them.
He continues to explain that when a person practices and instills this attitude of gratitude, they will naturally recognize the good that God has done for them. “For, by the same logic the creator is the ultimate cause for his existence, and that of his parents, and all his ancestors throughout history.” Internalizing these ideas enables one to be more attentive to a relationship with God.
Parents as partners
The two explanations of the rationale have subtle distinctions. If the basis is, as the latter suggests — instilling the trait of gratitude and applying it to God — the connection between honoring parents and honoring God is indirect. Nachmanides, however, implies an actual equivalence: The basis for honoring parents is purely because they “contributed to your creation.” This statement is reminiscent of the Talmud’s simplified yet profound statement: “There are three partners in the making of a person: the Holy One, the mother and the father. When someone honors his or her father and mother, the Holy One says, ‘I consider it is as if I am dwelling among them and they are honoring me.’”
Becoming “a partner” with the Creator is reserved for conceiving — not child rearing — because providing love and sustenance, emotional and physical support, to one’s child is more an act of independent will and skill. Bringing a child into this world, however, is not dependent on the parents’ effort and abilities, but rather taps into a transcendent force, which carries the breath of life, the human soul, to each child.
Bringing a new being into existence is perhaps the most wondrous ability that we possess among natural phenomena. Paradoxically, within the most physical lies a gateway to the infinite, very essence of the soul infinite.
The bridge
The rationale for the fifth commandment thus comprises two distinct aspects: There is a more perceptible reason entailing gratitude for all the good that our parents did for us. But even when this doesn’t apply, there is an underlying recognition that, regardless of their human frailties and flaws, these individuals put themselves in a position to “join” with God to bring us into this world. From a different angle, we honor God granting us life through acknowledging those who exercised the immeasurable power instilled in them, and in “partnership,” brought us into being.
This unique commandment is situated — both conceptually and visually — in the middle of the Decalogue; it serves as a bridge between the previous four precepts and the latter five because it relates to both groups. It is as much a spiritual practice as it is a social one.


Be happy having only what you need

Posted on 16 January 2019 by admin

With the Ten Plagues and the other great miracles that God wrought to bring us out of slavery in Egypt, I will admit that the miracle I’m fascinated with in this week’s Torah portion, B’shalach, is not as spectacular. It’s kind of a quiet, unpretentious miracle that I am drawn to examine and understand.
Once we escaped Egypt, crossed the Sea of Reeds on dry land and began our journey through the wilderness, God spoke to Moses (Exodus 16:4): “I will rain down bread for you from the sky, and the people shall go out and gather each day that day’s portion…”
That God provided manna for us in the wilderness, miraculous as it is, isn’t what fascinates me the most. Rather, I am drawn to verses 15-18 later in the chapter: “…And Moses said to them, ‘That is the bread which the Eternal has given you to eat. This is what the Eternal has commanded: Gather as much of it as each of you requires to eat, an omer (a unit of dry measure) to a person for as many of you as there are; each of you shall fetch for those in his tent.’
“The Israelites did so, some gathering much, some little. But when they measured it by the omer, he who had gathered much had no excess, and he who had gathered little had no deficiency: they had gathered as much as they needed to eat.”
There it is, a small, quiet miracle: Gather much or gather little, everyone had as much as they needed. The fascinating part is that some wanted to gather more and some wanted to gather less, but what they actually got was precisely what they needed.
The entire episode gets me to thinking: How much does a person need, as opposed to how much does a person want? The simple answer is we almost always want more than we need.
I have a personal finance book called “Uncommon Cents” and quoted within it is a study that asked people of four different income levels if they had “enough.” They all answered no. When asked how much more they would need to feel comfortable they all answered “about 10 percent more.” Whether they made a little or a lot, all groups wanted more. It doesn’t matter how much you might make, the desire for more is there and our wants outstrip our actual needs.
Ben Zoma understood this basic truth about human nature when he asked in Pirkei Avot (4:1): “Who is wealthy? The one who is happy with their portion.” It is not possible to be happy with your portion if your portion doesn’t meet your basic needs. But once your basic needs are met, your happiness is up to you. Will you be satisfied with what you have or will you be perpetually unhappy that you don’t have more?
Furthermore, when you are out gathering for yourself, don’t forget about the people left behind in the tents who are unable to gather for themselves. We are commanded also to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves. There is sufficiency for all of us, if we look out for each other.
Only you can answer the final question: Whether you gather much or gather little, will you be happy with what you have?
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.


The network makes it hard to keep secrets

Posted on 13 December 2018 by admin

This week in Parashat Vayigash, Joseph finally reveals his identity to his brothers before reconciling with them. He then asks them to bring his father and their families to come live in Egypt, where Joseph had risen to such prominence.
At the emotional climax of this revelation, we read in Genesis 45:1-2: “Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, ‘Have everyone withdraw from me!’ So, there was no one else about when Joseph made himself known to his brothers. His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear, and so the news reached Pharaoh’s palace.”
If Joseph thought that he might keep his news private, he was badly mistaken, as confirmed in Verse 15: “The news reached Pharaoh’s palace: ‘Joseph’s brothers have come.’ Pharaoh and his courtiers were pleased.”
Secrets have a way of getting out, no matter the precautions or methods one takes to prevent them from doing so. I love what Benjamin Franklin had to say in Poor Richard’s Almanac about the keeping of secrets: “Three may keep a secret if two of them are dead.” Joseph’s hope of keeping his news private was doomed from the start, which is an important reality for us to keep in mind.
Information passes from person to person, whether we will it or not, through a network of friends and acquaintances. It can also be surprising how extensive those networks are. It’s fun to play Jewish geography, that social game when you meet someone for the first time and try to see if you have any connections within your overlapping Jewish networks. But, it is also illustrative of how far and wide information may flow.
I remember distinctly how surprised I was the first time I visited Israel. My friend and I took a Pan Am tour (which gives you an indication of just how long ago it was) of Israel over winter break during our sophomore year in college. We had a day to explore the Old City in Jerusalem and saw a sign in the Jewish Quarter for free tours. As college students, free was important to us, so we took the tour.
Before we got started, the guide asked us where we were from. “The United States,” I answered. “Yes,” he scoffed, “I know. Where are you from?” “New York.” “Yes, where are you from?” “Long Island.” “Where on Long Island?” “Syosset.” “Where in Syosset?” “‘Miller Boulevard,” I said, getting frustrated. “Oh, by the railroad tracks.”
It turned out he had had a girlfriend in Syosset and took the train out to meet her, and so he knew Miller Boulevard. I was astonished, though today I wouldn’t have been. A few weeks ago, I was honored to officiate at a wedding in New Orleans and met two different people at the reception whom I had a connection to through two different synagogues where I had served as rabbi. I know now that it is a small world and we are all connected in one way or another.
We live in a time when division and discord seem to be sky high. It would be better for us to remember how deeply connected we actually are, even when we aren’t aware of it. We should be careful of what we speak about and how we speak because what we say will be repeated farther and wider than we might believe to be possible.
We should also remember that we have far more connections and similarities than we have divisions. When we remember our connections, our differences begin to fade and we can live in a more harmonious world.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.


Acknowledging struggle peacefully brings biggest gain

Posted on 05 December 2018 by admin

When facing obstacles, whether internal or external, there are three general approaches to undoing tension. One approach is to disengage — try to avoid any feelings of conflict. Another is to try to defeat the challenge, and the third way is to accept the situation, engage it and eventually elevate it. This final approach demands the greatest inner strength, but is the most fulfilling victory.
To loosely illustrate these three approaches, let’s take the example of a psychological obstacle, a social interaction and a spiritual victory.
Inner challenges: In personal growth, we encounter challenging times when it’s hard to resist negative feelings — resentment, pain, anger, anxiety and so forth. The natural inclination is to detach from the uncomfortable feeling (escape).
The second response opts to tackle things head-on. Staying aware of what’s going on inside, struggle ensues. The inclination is to resist or overpower negativity by arousing extra willpower.
The third (and often most difficult) approach is not to view struggle as a teaching device — to look inside oneself and ask, “What is this feeling trying to tell me?” In this vein, I once heard someone remark, “So much good suffering is wasted [by ignoring or fighting it, instead of uncovering the lesson].”
Social interaction: An example from the realm of human relations is when we inevitably encounter people who make hurtful comments, or narrow-minded teachers whose main approach in the classroom is punitive rather than education, or people who we see are trying to harm us. The disengagement approach is to “take the high road” — to walk away, leaving the situation alone in order to keep peace — reasoning, “It’s not worth my time.”
The second approach is to size up the perceived opponent and shift into conquer mode, to confront the person, or try and win the battle (or debate by putting them in place — feeling a responsibility to defend, set the record straight or ensure justice).
The third approach is to take a step back, acknowledge what you’re feeling inside, then try to sort through it — to set aside a critically injured ego, listen and learn from any criticism and grow from it. And in the event that an honest discussion arises, make sure to communicate an alternative approach without any animosity.
Applying these three methods to a spiritual philosophy involves the inherent tension between the material and spiritual worlds. In the first approach, the person may desire to escape the responsibilities of what they view as the nonsense, or trappings, of a materialistic world. In the second approach, there is battle, the need to assert priorities. In the third and most comprehensive approach, a person embraces the uncomfortable challenge while recognizing that there must be a hidden purpose — “this is the situation I was given” — then tries to work through it and eventually transform it.
Depending on the circumstances, one of these three approaches — to avoid, overpower or elevate — may be the most appropriate or inevitable. Each has its advantages. Healthy escape, for example, is the most comfortable (in the short term) because you never engage and truly overcome. As a result, the negative emotion or opposition may easily resurface. The second approach can be risky and rough because you need to confront the situation. The third approach likewise has hazards, but the tangible benefit — on all the parties involved — is long-lasting.
In general, these approaches correspond to the biblical characters that appear over the past few weeks’ parshiyot: the forefathers, the 12 tribes and Joseph. The tribes were “shepherds tending to their flock.” In the mystical tradition, this phrase symbolizes the desire to remove tension and discomfort, escaping so that materialistic life does not interfere with spiritual pursuits. On this level, investing mental and physical energy in worldly affairs is viewed in opposition to the momentum of an upward journey toward godliness.
In contrast, the forefathers are the classic example of the chariot, wherein all their limbs and actions are so perfectly in tune with divine purpose that material affairs cannot affect their focus to achieve an eternal mission. They were bold and persistent, and the surrounding nations recognized their enormous spiritual stature and royalty. “And the sons of Heth answered Abraham, saying to him, ‘Listen to us, my lord; you are a prince of God in our midst’” (Genesis 23:5-6).
But the highest level of divine service — uplifting — is epitomized by Joseph, the protected child, the “dreamer” and visionary whose forced descent into a foreign culture and heavy material concerns became a harsh and fierce test. Upon his arrival, he was a servant, promoted to overseeing all matters of his master’s house. At the same time, these occupations never steered him away from his spiritual heights.
“And his master saw that the Lord was with him, and whatever he (Joseph) did the Lord made prosper in his hand” (Genesis 39:3). Wherever he went, “the Lord was with Joseph, and extended charisma to him; He gave him favor in the eyes of the warden of the prison” (Genesis 39:20), which Joseph always attributed to a godly gift, even as he stood before the king of the land.
It is within the story of Joseph that we find the culmination of what Israel, over the generations, has stood for. Ironically, it was the brothers selling him into slavery, an event that seemed undeniably destructive, that eventually allowed him to become a leader over all of Egypt, distributing sustenance to the entire land.
On the one hand, the entire episode of this lonely journey into Egypt was a fall from grace, both in leaving his family and spiritual comforts. On the other hand, he ended up bringing light with him and causing others to recognize it. The most compelling lesson and theme in the current Torah sections, then, is how amid exile comes prosperity. What appears to be the most difficult situation can evolve into a blessing that penetrates unforeseen areas and people.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit


Caught in a land mine, no escape from reality

Posted on 14 November 2018 by admin

Movies and song are intertwined with our daily lives and attitudes, our memories and legends. The recent biographical film “Bohemian Rhapsody” tells the story of British rock band Queen, their music and their lead singer, Freddie Mercury. The title of the movie is taken from the first legendary six-minute single from their album “A Night at the Opera.”
Widely considered one of the best songs of all time, the form is intensely rich — a cappella, a ballad, an opera and rock mixed into one — as the composer takes these contrasting sections and creates a symphony with them. The ambiguous content likewise conveys a blend of dark sadness, silliness, regret, courage and indifference.
As with all good lyrics, the ballad section puts intense emotions into words, capturing the complex human condition so the listener can empathize with the narrator’s inner turmoil. After expressing his shame, in the peak of the confession, the narrator declares, “I don’t wanna die. I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all.”
If we briefly freeze that snippet for inspection, at first glance, the two lines (and emotions) may appear contradictory. If you don’t want to die, you must want to be alive. Why then do you wish you’d never been born?
I’ve heard people resolve the simultaneous, yet apparently conflicting, thoughts in different ways. Not wanting to die may simply be prompted by fear of the unknown. This fear or pain associated with leaving the world, however, would never be felt if there was no birth, leaving space to squeeze the meaning of the latter verse within the former. The emotion of wishing you’d never been born may sometimes be an expression of failure, the regret at having caused damage to others, or simply a desire to escape the suffering that comes within life.
From a less self-centered perspective, fearing death may be a concern for all your leaving behind in this world — a deep sense of responsibility to be available for the people who love and depend on you. At the same time, had you not been born, the situation would have never come into existence in the first place.
In the sacred text of Jewish guidance, Ethics of our Fathers (4:22), the Mishna addresses these discrete emotions, likewise expressed in paradoxical phrasing, except in the reverse order — first the desire not to be born (and live), then a feeling of not wanting to leave this world:
“Let not your heart convince you that the grave is your escape…for against your will you are born, against your will you live and against your will you die.”
Viewing these two opposing desires in the broader context of the soul’s journey — rather of the individual voice — the esoteric texts explain an existential tension in a spiritual framework. And here too, there seems to be a contradiction: Saying “against your will you live,” suggests that the inherent longing to leave the confines of the physical. On the other hand, saying “against your will you die,” reflects the person’s wish to remain alive.
What’s so bad about being born? Each neshama (soul), before being born into a body, is comfortable, a spiritual being in a spiritual world — no struggle, no tests of faith or moral dilemmas, no suffering. It resides in a high place, with a storehouse of souls and wants to remain basking in the glory of divine radiance. Suddenly, it’s sent down into a body and physical existence, which attempts to make it forget its origin and mission.
What, then, is so bad about dying? Beyond the natural fear of the unknown, the soul comes to understand the unique opportunity for accomplishment that only this physical world presents. Uniting the spiritual and physical through mitzvahs is more powerful than any insight, experience or revelation. Contrary to other religions and forms of mysticism, our physical world — the most removed, completely concealing divinity — is paradoxically the most connected to the source.
So, amid the journey, there is a shift. The soul begins to detect just how precious the opportunity is. Then another desire, to remain, kicks in.
Through years of labor, trials and the risk of getting lost in a spiritual abyss, a person must develop the mind, guide the body to act and attempt to rectify a portion in the world, through taking care of family, having a career and giving back to community. When the soul departs, it experiences a full revelation of its potential and the realization of what could have been achieved in this world, but can no longer be, is the deepest possible anguish.
The underlying message is that as long as you’re still alive in this world, there is a chance to rewrite one’s story. Hence, “a single moment of repentance and good deeds in this world is greater than all of the World to Come (Pirkei Avot 4:17).
The book of the Tanya explains that the ideal state of mind is when there is a proper balance between the inspirational thirst of the soul and the ability to stay conscious of a higher purpose and act accordingly. In kabbalistic terminology this is called the experience of “run and retreat” within the soul.
The desire to break free of physical limitations (run) is an inherent quest of a healthy soul. But in the grand purpose, the aim is to uplift this world instead of trying and escape it. Initially, a spiritual person experiences a longing to transcend, yet must embrace the challenge to find the discipline, trust and focus (retreat) — against your will — to reside within a less ideal environment, for the sake of transforming it.
At the same time, while being occupied with rectifying the world through positive actions (tikkun olam), there needs to be an underlying sense of the soul’s sojourn in a foreign land. In other words, the soul is born, placed down here against her wishes, but for a specific purpose.
Connection to this week
This week’s parasha opens by repeating where we ended off last week — the lonely journey of our forefather, from the spiritual ambience of the Holy Land, the shelter of his home, to cross the border into Haran, headed for his uncle’s home: “And Yaakov went out from Beer-Sheva and went towards Haran.”
The explanations for the name Beer-Sheva signify a state of tranquility. The name of the destination, Haran, indicates the opposite — fierce anger (charon af) of the world. There are multiple layers of interpretation to each word of the Torah, and moving from Beer-Sheva is often seen as a metaphorical journey, moving from a place of peacefulness and sanctity into a lowly corrupt environment.
On the surface, the verses relate a challenge for the individual who feels insignificant in a giant world: On a mystical level, it’s the journey each soul takes into a “world of falsehood”; on a global level the verses foreshadow the long exile that Yaakov’s descendants, the Jewish people, will endure throughout history, forced from their homeland and scattered throughout the globe.
The common theme is that precisely through Yaakov’s grit and resilience, perseverance within a coarser hostile spiritual place — not simply by staying home in the Holy Land — will he ultimately merit building the House of Israel.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit


Listening is the key during a conversation

Posted on 09 November 2018 by admin

At the very beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, Sarah dies in what is now called Hebron and Abraham enters into negotiations to buy the Cave of Machpelah as a burial place for his beloved wife.
Ephron, the Hittite, owned the Cave of Machpelah and first offered it as a gift to Abraham, but Abraham refused. He wished to buy the cave outright and asked for the price. Ephron replied, naming an outrageous price, “My lord, do hear me! A piece of land worth 400 shekels of silver — what is that between you and me? Go and bury your dead.”
Abraham paid the asking price without haggling and “thus the field with its cave passed from the Hittites to Abraham, as a burial site.” Why didn’t Abraham haggle, as would be expected? Why did he simply pay the outrageous asking price?
I am reminded of how I purchased my backgammon set in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem when I was a graduate student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion the first year I was studying to become a rabbi. I was poor, but desperately wanted an inlaid wood backgammon/chess set and decided to see what was available one morning when I was going to the Kotel with a friend. We entered a shop on the narrow street deep in the market and looked at a beautiful set. “Inlaid with genuine mother-of-pearl,” the shopkeeper claimed, and while there was no way that claim was true, it was, nevertheless, a beautiful set. “Only 400 shekels.”
For me, a poor graduate student, 400 shekels was a couple months of my food budget and far more than I wanted to spend. “It is a beautiful set, but I can’t afford it,” and I started to back away. “How much will you pay for it?” “I’m sorry I bothered you, I just can’t afford it.” “200 shekels?”’ “400 or 200, it’s more than I can afford.” “How much did you want to pay?”
At this point, I was a little ashamed at my poverty and just wanted to get out of the shop, but he wouldn’t leave me alone. “I only wanted to spend 50 shekels.” “This is worth far more than 50 shekels.” “I know. I’m sorry I bothered you.” “100 shekels.” I tried to leave the shop. “70 shekels.” “Come on, Ben, just buy it and let’s go,” my friend urged me. “It’s only an extra $5.” So for 70 shekels, I bought a beautiful backgammon set with fake mother-of-pearl inlay and a great story thrown in free.
The shopkeeper and I were in the same conversation, but speaking about two different things. He thought I was bargaining politely, praising his wares while claiming poverty as an excuse to get the price down. I thought I was trying to get out of an embarrassing situation. Ephron thought he was providing an opening bargaining position, stating an outrageously high price. Abraham was trying to establish legal ownership of the Cave of Machpelah without any future claims against it that the sale was coerced or at too low a price.
Sometimes, when we’re talking with people it seems like we’re talking past each other and not even having the same conversation. That’s because we aren’t. We need to listen to each other, trying to understand what they are saying from their perspective before we can truly have a conversation, rather than talking at cross purposes.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.


This week’s parasha urges us to spring into action

Posted on 25 October 2018 by admin

The current Torah readings discuss the life of our patriarch Avraham, referred to as the first Jew. Last week, the section of “Lech Lecha” opened with Avraham receiving a command to journey from the comfort of his birthplace to the unknown, “the land that I will show you.” This week opens with “Vayeira,” in which G d reveals Himself to Abraham three days after his circumcision.
The soul — loosely defined as the bridge between our experiencee of the body and the physical world around us, and our experience of divinity — has three main modes of expression: thought, speech and action. Simply put, our personality is reflected in how we think, what we feel and what we do.
In the very first Torah portion about creation, the commentaries explore the defining feature of a human. The natural selection is superior intellect and wisdom. Indeed, thought is potent — our mindset has a powerful influence on the outcome of any action.
But in the Holy Tongue (Hebrew), a human being is called a medaber (a speaking being), indicating that, more than any other trait, the faculty of speech reflects our primary distinction. The esoteric commentaries explain that the natural willingness and ability to share thoughts and feelings with another is sublimely rooted within the soul, stemming from a place inside that recognizes no boundaries — no separation between one individual and another.
When someone is precise with language, capturing images and fleeting reality in words for the sake of transferring light (wisdom and information) to uplift another person, then he or she has utilized this garment of the soul on the highest level.
Then comes action — what we choose to do — which seems to be the most external feature of our personality, largely removed from the intense color and vitality of the inner world. At the same time, action is the garment with the most tangible impact on the environment.
For us to be whole, we must continually sort through and upgrade how we use these three modes of expression, often deciding where to place priority.
When it comes to the emotion of love, for example, people may assess it in different ways. Is love primarily measured by one’s experience or displays of emotion? Or is it measured more simply, by whether someone adheres to the other’s wishes through action?
In relationships and marriage, a deficiency in one type of expression may result in dissatisfaction. Some may want the other person to think and feel more, not just to “do what’s right.” They want their partner to be interested, able to understand them and recognize what makes the other person special. Or the partner may turn around and say, “Don’t just love me in your way; it’s great that you appreciate and feel for me so much, but I want you to do more — show, don’t tell.”
In the spiritual arena, the notion of “a covenant” focuses mainly on doing, regardless of what’s experienced in the moment. Indeed, the real test of commitment within any relationship is what you do when you aren’t enthused or inspired, or even when you are pulled in the opposite direction.
With this idea, we can return to answer a common question about why, despite all the great accomplishments of Abraham, the Torah begins with the command of “go from your land, your birthplace, your father’s house…”
When beginning to study, a Jewish child encounters a series of rich stories within our tradition, relating Avraham’s growth — progressing from an idolatrous upbringing into a profound intellectual investigation, arriving at the recognition of a singular Creator, showing the courage to stand against the prevalent culture of the time and sharing his insights with the multitudes.
We often take the above episodes for granted. It’s strange, however, that within these passages of the Torah, there is no mention, not even a brief introduction, about Avraham’s character. Our first encounter is the divine instruction (and his submission) to “leave your land…” Moving into this week, the style of the Torah is rarely to describe his thoughts, disposition and emotions. All this is reserved for accompanying commentaries and midrashim, while the scriptural verses focus on action, self-sacrifice and withstanding tests.
One explanation of this omission of literary content is that the Torah is sending a message for all generations: Notwithstanding the merit of individual elevation, contemplation and spiritual experience, the starting point of Judaism is listening to “lech lecha,” being able to take the personal journey that is not always comfortable or understood. While knowledge and inspiration vary from one individual to the next, the connection to God through the simple fulfillment of a mitzvah is in a distinct category.
Like the first instruction, each mitzvah we encounter is an opportunity to unite divine desire with human action. The essential quality that fuels action is commitment. Commitment is the ability to dependably override what you may feel for the sake of what you believe is right — adhering to a purpose or principle beyond your immediate desires.
Similarly, the characteristic that surfaces in the continuation of Avraham’s life is blind loyalty, which may be taken as a deficiency. But there’s another way of viewing the simplicity: as a virtue and the foundation of a relationship. After having determined one’s beliefs, ideals and purpose, there will always be temporary moments of darkness, where the inner resolve to move forward — to act despite any lack of enthusiasm — must be employed.
The term for this quality in Jewish literature is “kabalat ol” (acceptance of the commandments), a commitment that joins faith to action. This quality demands (and evokes) more strength than any other. When implemented, that power also flows into other faculties to provide an internal boost.
If, for example, using only the intellect will take a person to a certain level, by tapping into the energy of commitment, the mind is able to function more smoothly. That’s one reason why somebody who is motivated in a certain area will automatically grasp it better. Or, on a lower level, why discipline in a craft can paradoxically generate more creativity.
A clear message from this week, then, is that God values buy-in. He wants us to trust Him and sincerely try, for a while, to get in the habit of not demanding endless miracles in return on a timeline that we dictate. But whether in one’s own experience or that of the Jewish people, once we take enough sincere steps in that direction and stop thinking about the quid pro quo, we receive opportunities to see the divine hand at work, when we least expect it.
Returning to our opening theme, Avraham first recognized his Creator (thought process), then he spread his teachings (speech) and finally performed circumcision (deed). Ever since the Torah was received, however, the spiritual development of a Jew moves in the reverse order: from action (refinement of the body), to speech and, finally, study (thought).


Pure joy comes when you give from the heart

Posted on 04 October 2018 by admin

The theme of Sukkot and Simchat Torah, the eight-day festival we just concluded, is “simcha,” happiness and joy. To be sure, there is an experience of joy within every Jewish holiday. The difference, however, is that other emotions are usually mixed into the picture, such as the recent days of awe and the sense of freedom provoked during Passover, whereas Sukkot is permeated with pure joy. In our prayers, we refer to it as “the time of our rejoicing.”
Every culture has its own way of celebrating. In some settings, the inner mood of happiness is softer, more contained, even rehearsed. Other times, the expression of joy is set free, more spontaneous and explosive. During Sukkot, and specifically the dancing of Simchat Torah, our celebration with the Torah spills into the streets in front of synagogues as we pull down buckets of blessings and carry the images and memories into the year.
There is an aphorism about the effect of happiness — “simcha breaks through barriers.” The surface interpretation of this phrase is that when this uplifting feeling flows through you, it helps overcome personal inhibitions or perceived limitations. A person who feels genuinely happy can slip off the chains of logic and act in a way that defies the normal mode.
It also removes external obstacles, even heavenly decrees. Commenting on the verse “the Lord is your shadow” (Psalm 121:5), the Baal Shem Tov interprets the word “shadow” (usually taken to mean protection) to indicate that just as a person’s shadow corresponds to his movements, so too G-d relates to us according to our behavior and our attitudes.
Simply put, there is an ongoing relationship whereby our actions (or emotions) cause a mirroring effect above. When a person is happy down here, it creates a corresponding joy within the heavens. And just like the internal experience transcends the usual limitation/restrictions, so too above, at the time of happiness, all barriers and restrictions/limits are nullified/removed.
On a deeper psychological level, “simcha breaking barriers” means that most barriers we perceive are often illusions. And through feeling happiness, the illusion that these barriers exist falls away.
The boundless quality of joy does not stem from any reasoning, but rather a deeper force inside us, an unexpected fortune or sense of gratitude beyond what the heart can contain.
Any fulfilment based on condition or reason — success, accomplishment or desire — is limited. But when based on commitment, motivation about doing what’s right, connecting to above, mitzvah — then it taps into unlimited energy, which in turn affects that which rises above limitations, which is true joy.
Genuine joy stems from commitment, the motivation to move beyond one’s comfort and connect to a higher purpose.
In the Jewish cycle, the themes behind the full month of holidays are not incidental; they are specifically the commitment we established on Rosh Hashanah, reaching to the source of all life, then the introspection and cleansing on Yom Kippur, that allows for the true experience and expression of happiness that plays out during Sukkot.
As it applies to the rest of the year, happiness must penetrate into the three spiritual pathways — “Torah study, prayer and acts of kindness.” And here too, we must seek to break limits.
When it comes to balancing the obligation to give — the desire to make a difference in somebody else’s life — and the counter voice inside calling to look after oneself, a common approach is “first take care of yourself, then you’ll be in a better position to give to others.” A similar view sparks the overused counsel of “you can’t really love others if you don’t first love yourself.”
The problem with the above mentality is that while you’re striving to make progress in the first stage, the second stage usually suffers — once you start focusing on improving or loving yourself, there is no end to the “self’s” demands. It often results in a bourgeois outlook, a measured giving aimed at feeling good. But true wisdom and spiritual growth comes only through sacrifice.
On the other hand, it is difficult to give happily when you are busy, feeling weak or overwhelmed.
One approach to resolving this tension begins with changing our perception of the conflict and division between these two. The key comes through internalizing how, through connecting with someone else, a person refines himself in a way that could never be achieved while alone and focused inward.
In other words, helping another is an essential part of fixing oneself and should never be completely pushed aside or delayed. It’s only a question of how many calculations are made. Indeed, the Hebrew word for tzedakah shares a root with (tzedek) “just” — a moral requirement, not simply an altruistically inspired act.
More practically, when a person designates a fixed time in the schedule for giving to others, knowing that during this part of the day they must go against the grain and give more, this sacrifice of personal advancement for the sake of uplifting another in turn benefits the giver immeasurably. This sacrifice also includes “spiritual tzedakah” — being charitable with one’s time, breaking away from one’s busy schedule to be with, teach, share wisdom or advise another.
The fifth Rebbe in the Chabad dynasty, known as “the Tzemach Tzedek,” once guaranteed that the merit of giving tzedakah will lift the person to the extent that the mind and the heart are, in the process, refined thousandfold. The result is that a project or business deal, for example, which would have taken the person 1,000 hours to complete, due to challenges, hindrances or insight, will end up being accomplished in only an hour because the internal faculties of the person, and the outside world, have been enhanced.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit


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