Archive | D’var Torah

Iyar: an opportune month to heal your soul

Posted on 19 April 2018 by admin

The current month of Iyar, the second month in the Jewish calendar, is commonly referred to as the month of healing. This idea is reflected in its name, whose letters form an acronym for “Ani Hashem Rofecha” — “I am God your Healer” (Exodus 15:26).
The above allusion in the title of this month implies not only that this period is opportune for healing, but that there is a special type of healing flowing directly from God. In other words, even though all blessings share a common source, they go through different channels, sometimes demanding investigation to find cures.
Healing, in general, is a rectification process applicable in many contexts. The common theme is to restore something damaged to its original state of health and functioning. In this sense, people speak metaphorically about repairing a relationship or healing a broken heart. Or when the mind becomes wounded, psychological healing involves changing one’s perceptions, shifting from a destructive outlook to provoke more positive thoughts and happiness. In Jewish literature, prescriptions for healing the soul relate to a deeper process called teshuva. But the health of all these elements — body, emotions, mind and soul — are intensely intertwined.
For this reason, when the Torah states in Deuteronomy chapter 4, “Guard yourself and guard your soul scrupulously,” it is interpreted as referring to the mitzvah of protecting one’s physical health. Likewise, “a small hole in the body causes a large hole in the soul” is a statement emphasizing the necessity of maintaining a strong body, the physical receptacle for the soul’s energy to flow. At the same time, the relationship is bidirectional: Spiritual healing — when the soul is nourished and strong — opens the channel for mental and physical wellbeing.
Types of healing
The Talmud discusses various forms of healing. First, there is a preventive remedy, a healing that comes before any harm can be detected. Then there is healing in the form of recovery, where a remnant of the illness lingers to some degree. The highest form of healing not only removes the illness but brings additional strength to the body.
Stemming from the context of the verse, the unique type of healing in this month, coming directly from God, mainly takes the form of prevention — saving a person from illness in the first place. But in the event that some ailment exists, it brings potential for the highest healing — renewed vigor that retroactively removes all trace of illness. This means that even if a person’s conduct leads to poor health, healing from God comes in a completely novel manner, different than through a doctor — as if nothing had happened.
Healing the soul
Maimonides explains that just as the body has different sicknesses and remedies, so too does the soul. An ailing soul means that someone is “not in a good place.” More specifically, in one’s personal rapport with God, an accumulation of poor decisions can lead to feeling disconnected, or some spiritual insensitivity. The nature of this pain as well as the recovery process shares features of both a scarred relationship which needs mending and rehabbing from a physical injury.
There are two general approaches in healing bodily illness: to heal the particular organ that is sick or weakened, and to strengthen the healthy organs and faculties so that they can overcome and heal the sick one. The parallels in the soul are the two approaches in spiritual service — teshuva and good deeds.
Losing time
Even after someone has repaired mistakes, through feelings of regret and resolve, there is another common quest for healing, one that relates to lost time. As we develop in years and wisdom, the consciousness of life’s fragility becomes greater. In the end, there is often a discrepancy between aspirations and accomplishments. Along with this reflection, comes the pain of slip-ups or wasted opportunities. If only I hadn’t said that to her; if only I hadn’t worked such long hours, had spent more time with the family, etc. The famous gnawing dilemma is: Can we heal the past, make up for wasted time?
The first step in the rectification process, the simple formula for teshuva, is acknowledging what went wrong — healthy regret. The next movement is reshaping sadness over previous shortcomings by using that emotion to harness extra energy for the future — the ability to carry out your new vision with intense vigor and productivity. More specifically, one formula for healing the past is living with a present sense of urgency, the desire to do more mitzvahs, to maximize your remaining time on earth.
This sense of urgency may be confused with carpe diem or making the most of every day. But there is a distinct difference in flavor. In an attempt to soothe their tangled mind and a shaky conscience, a person whose motto is “seize the day” may attempt to remain joyful and energized. They may decide to travel places and take in as many serene sights and colorful experiences as possible. In contrast, someone who lives with a sense of urgency has a specific fire inside. They see a fragmented world in front of them, and rush to play a small role in mending it. Quality of living is tied to purpose and to the ability to give back.
And because this urgency and productivity is born from a bitterness which pushed the person to fight harder, those past mistakes are retroactively redeemed and sweetened.

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Week of different Parshat, but one People

Posted on 05 April 2018 by admin

This week’s Torah portion is…well…actually that’s not an easy thing to determine, because the true answer is: it depends. It depends on where you live and what branch of Judaism you belong to.
In Israel and in the Reform Movement, Pesach is observed for seven days. Outside of Israel, other than the Reform Movement, Pesach is observed for eight days, because of second day Yom Tov in the Diaspora. What does all that have to do with the Torah Portion? Well, if you observe seven days of Pesach, the Torah Portion is Shemini, but if you observe eight days, then the Torah Portion is for the last day of Pesach. This makes the Diaspora out of sync with Israel until Parashat Bamidbar, when the two communities once again align. If you were wondering, they do this in Israel by spreading the double portion Behar/Bechukotai over two weeks instead of one week, as in the Diaspora.
But wait. There’s more. There always is. Many in the Reform Movement don’t like being out of sync with the rest of the Diaspora and so they split the baby, or the portion in this case, and do the first half of Shemini this week and the second half of Shemini the following week. Within a week, they are back to the same Diaspora schedule as everyone else, though still out of sync with Israel. My own congregation observes the Israeli calendar, so for me, the portion is Shemini.
This is a problem. And it is more of a problem than simply which part of Torah should I write about for my column this week. It is a problem of the divisions we create between ourselves. We are in the middle of Pesach right now, putting aside whether Pesach ends on Friday night or Saturday night, and one huge division we create among ourselves is on the subject of kitniyot.
There are five grains biblically forbidden during Pesach, except in the form of matzoh: wheat, barley, spelt, oats and rye. Rice, millet and legumes are nowhere on that list, yet they became similarly forbidden in the category of kitniyot because they can be used like a forbidden grain, or a forbidden grain might be accidentally mixed in during storage. But only for Ashkenazic Jews. Sephardic Jews are allowed to eat rice and other kitniyot during Pesach.
Which leads to my being gobsmacked when I went grocery shopping during Pesach when I lived in Israel. Above the rice was a sign that said: “For sale only to Sephardim.” “How would they know?” I thought to myself. Do people carry Sephardi Identity Cards? Yet the division exists.
You want to know what’s not important? It’s not important which part of the Torah we read this Shabbat. What is important is that all of us stood together at Sinai to receive Torah as one Jewish People. It isn’t important to focus on the differences in food customs we observe during Pesach, but rather to acknowledge that we are all observing Pesach together. It is too easy to focus on the myriad ways we can think of how to divide and separate us from each other. What we need to do, what can sometimes be harder, is to focus on what unites us as one Jewish People.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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Spiritual growth precedes ability to accept Torah

Posted on 29 March 2018 by admin

Personal growth necessitates self-awareness, then some change to the “self” we most identify with. The change may take the form of renewal, “getting back in touch with a vision, value or ideal that we’ve somehow lost or neglected.” Other times, it’s more about creating a new identity — “reinventing myself.” Focusing on performance, people speak of “being the best version of yourself.” Then, in rare situations, the ambition is to undo “the old self” and become a different creature altogether.
Last month’s theme was breaking internal barriers through increased joy and laughter; this month we reach the heights through faith, freedom and miracles. A miracle, in general, consists of an alteration within the natural direction of the universe. The title of the current Hebrew month, Nissan, from the word nes (miracle), provides extra power to create another type of miracle — to transform our personal “nature.”
Simply put, our nature is the innate unrefined character, our specific emotional constitution, or the way we operate. In the same context, to tap into “higher than nature” means activating a deeper chord inside the soul with the force to override our ordinary way of operating.
One of the essential teachings from the Baal Shem Tov, the founding figure of the Chassidic movement, is that any significant growth or transformation involves a three-stage process in consciousness: submission, separation and sweetening. This process may be applied to many types of improvement, whether in the physical, mental, social/emotional or spiritual arena.
In general, Stage 1 requires a person’s submission: getting into a calm and focused state, emptying the mind, setting aside the ego and self-monitoring that interferes with progress, to become ready and receptive. Stage 2, the separation stage, is more active, requiring personal input and analysis to distinguish the matter at hand. By clarifying which elements belong, verses which need to be discarded, one is able to personalize a plan. This stage, a filtering process, aids in our ability to later make strong choices.
Finally, in Stage 3, once the work of the other two stages has been completed, a person is able to “sweeten” their being and reach a new place in life. This final stage is the ability to be “myself,” regardless of the environment. In a nutshell, it’s true freedom — living, as opposed to existing.
This three-stage process of transformation can be applied to the current holiday. A common understanding of Pesach — “the time of our freedom” — embraces physical sovereignty, no longer being enslaved, able to enjoy comfort on our own terms. But the holiday commemorates a more profound change — the creation of a new Jewish identity, becoming essentially bound with the Torah.
The process opened with leaving the land of Egypt — the birth of Am Yisrael — but culminated at Mount Sinai. The miraculous redemption brought faith and submission, a readiness to accept what came next. But going from a group of slaves, individuals with common ancestry called “the children of Israel,” to becoming “a Torah nation” was no typical transformation. It was an unfathomable jump.
The challenge in making this shift, from one extreme to another, is amplified by the Zohar’s explanation that right before fleeing, the souls of the Jewish people (kneset yisroel) had sunk to 49 gates of impurity, about to reach the point of no return from Egyptian exile, assimilated and irredeemable. For such a people, emerging from the cultural furnace, then reaching a state of becoming suitable receptacles for the giving of the Torah — when a potent influx of holiness, the kind of which the world itself had never absorbed, would take place — necessitated a period of intense preparation, a 49-day countdown.
Preparation involved separation: undoing attachments to acquire an elevated perspective; a steady spiritual climb toward purification. The “sweetening” was a disproportional leap — when we gained a precious heavenly gift, described throughout our literature as the “Torah of light” and the “secret treasure” of life.
The three stages can also be applied to establishing individual Jewish identity: Even though we may be aware our identity, our natural tendencies and preoccupations cover it up. So, in the moment, we act contrary to what we believe. To bring that identity to the forefront — to get it into our consciousness — we must go through these developments. The first quality is to become silent, adopting a genuine humility when seeking connection with God.
Receptiveness to a grand purpose, something beyond “self,” is the prerequisite to progress. The opposite trait, a subconscious sense of “I don’t want anyone telling me what to do,” is the most natural barrier to spiritual development, as noble action revolves around personal gratification.
Next comes the grind. Nothing meaningful and holy is achieved without steady effort and sacrifice. The “separation” process here involves understanding through learning Torah, internalizing what is beneficial to the soul and what is harmful. Like a spiritual detox, implementing this stage is never enjoyable. It tests one’s commitment and resilience to withstand previous tendencies and natural temptations.
But each moment we stick it out leads us closer to the “sweetening” — a breakthrough where you discover a changed person. From one angle, this result is a product of effort insofar as you need to work to get there. On the other hand, it’s a transformation out of proportion to the work, a gift from above.
Each year, the Jewish calendar cycle provides the opportunity to revive this growth process. On Pesach we strengthen faith, beginning with the matzo (“the bread of faith”) on the Seder night and recollecting the past miracles. It’s that time of year, when trying to reach a higher level, that we feel as if we’ve been set in motion — the taste of freedom we didn’t yet earn. After that boost comes a period of effort, the counting of the Omer, mystically meant for character refinement. Finally, we arrive at the 50th gate — the festival of “giving of the Torah” — where we reach a level far beyond our strength.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit www.maayanchai.org.

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Passover the time to break free from our chains

Posted on 22 March 2018 by admin

Next Friday night, Jews all around the world will be celebrating the holiday of Passover with a traditional Seder. During the Seder, we observe various rituals and traditions such as eating matzo, drinking four cups of wine and, of course, listening to the children ask the Four Questions and look for the afikomen. All of these commemorate the Exodus of our ancestors from Egypt some 3,300 years ago.
One of the central themes of the Seder is listening to and then answering our children’s questions. In fact, the bulk of the Haggadah is structured as an answer to the Four Questions. In the spirit of answering questions, perhaps the biggest question that needs answering is: What relevance does the holiday and all of these rituals have to us so many thousands of years after the Exodus — especially in a country as free as ours?
We read in the Haggadah that in each generation, each of us must see ourselves as personally leaving Egypt. The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim, the etymological root of which is meitzar, meaning constraint or limitation. Leaving Egypt then means breaking free from any negativity that is constraining us in our own lives. The truth is, slavery can take on different forms and appearances. For our ancestors, it was forced labor. For us, it may be that negative trait or bad habit that we are trying to kick.
The Seder then is no ordinary holiday meal, but rather a rich tapestry of melodies, visuals, prayers and stories, along with different tastes, smells and things to touch, that are designed to teach us about the true meaning of freedom and help us break free from the limitations in our lives, in pursuit of true freedom.
With this in mind, as we get ready to experience the Seder, let us remind ourselves that, thank God, we are blessed to be living in a time and place where there are no real external challenges to us living proud and committed Jewish lives. This Passover, as nature experiences its own season of springtime renewal, let us resolve to transcend any limitations we may be experiencing in our pursuit of true spiritual freedom. Let us remember that it is only a matter of setting our goals high enough to meet the challenges and opportunities of these times. If we are determined, the opportunities are limitless.
Rabbi Levi Gurevitch leads Chabad of Arlington & The Mid-Cities.

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Posted on 15 March 2018 by admin

When I was studying to be a rabbi at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, one of the requirements for students was that we had to read Torah on Monday and Thursday mornings at Shacharit services. I vividly remember one morning when the reader took out the Torah to read and couldn’t find his place. Perhaps he hadn’t checked the scroll to begin with, perhaps someone had rolled the scroll to practice from but hadn’t rerolled it. I will never know. I just remember that the pause seemed to go on forever and one of the professors called out from the back, “Just read anything; it’s all good.”
This week’s Torah portion, Vayikra, would be extremely easy to find because it is at the very beginning of the Book of Leviticus. Whether it is good, however, is a matter open for debate.
The entirety of this week’s portion describes the procedures for conducting some of the various animal and plant sacrifices that were offered at the Temple in Jerusalem. As a Reform Jew, I don’t believe in the sacrificial cult, nor do I want it restored, which makes this week’s Torah portion somewhat problematic. Rather, I am in agreement with Isaiah (1:11): “‘What need have I of all your sacrifices?’ says the Eternal.” No need whatsoever, as far as I am concerned, which makes this week’s portion so hard.
Yet God is speaking to us through the text, even the problematical ones, and I look to Hosea for understanding (6:6): “For I desire goodness, not sacrifice; obedience to God, rather than burnt offerings.” I just don’t believe that God wants us to slaughter rams and goats and oxen, dashing the blood about and burning up the carcasses. I believe that God desires personal sacrifices from each one of us, leading to better behavior.
We need to sacrifice our egos. We like to think that we are masters of our own destinies, in command of our own lives. Yet we are not. We might build beautiful homes to live in, yet floods, fires and windstorms can quickly destroy the illusion that we are completely in control of our own safety and comfort. We are not even in complete control of our own bodies, subject as we are to disease and aging. Why, all I have to do is miss a meal to find myself losing control over my own emotions, becoming more irritable and easily angered. We must sacrifice our egos and accept that we are not in complete control of our own lives.
We need to sacrifice our own selves. We live in community and have an obligation to self-sacrifice for the good of the community. We cannot always get to have things exactly as we would want them, but rather must compromise for the common good. And we must support the wider community with our personal resources, giving tzedakah generously to support those in need, as well as communal efforts. We must sacrifice of our own selves to lend support to each other.
We need to sacrifice our time. We live in an age of instant gratification, yet I suspect it would be more accurate to say we live in an age of the illusion of instant gratification. Have you ever eaten an instant soup? Can you honestly say that instant soup is as gratifying as homemade that took hours to prepare? Have you ever had a text conversation? Can you honestly say that quick text messages are as satisfying as spending time and talking with the ones you love? So, too, we cannot expect a real relationship with God in an instant. There is no just add water, stir and enjoy a relationship with God. There are many ways to be in a relationship with God, but one commonality is that they all take time. So we must sacrifice our time to be in a gratifying relationship with God.
I may not believe that we need animal sacrifices anymore, as outlined in this week’s Torah portion, but I do believe that we need to sacrifice our egos, our own selves and our time to be in relationship with God.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Congregation Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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Today’s sanctuary is wherever we receive the holy

Posted on 08 March 2018 by admin

The main focal point of the book of Shemot (Exodus), which we conclude this week, is the Mishkan — the traveling sanctuary for the Jewish people (later replaced by the Temple in Jerusalem). Hearing the word “sanctuary” may bring associations with peacefulness, such as finding a place of quiet refuge, listening to the soothing sounds or admiring the beauty and harmony in nature. A holy sanctuary, however, suggests something more precise, with guidelines and requirements to create the ideal channel.
The Hebrew word for “holy” connotes “separate, designated and distinct.” In order for holiness to enter our physical arena, it has to descend or be “drawn down” through selfless human action. The famous instruction came in the second year (of wandering in the wilderness): “Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell in your midst.” This construction entailed specific materials (multicolored curtains, loops of blue wool, acacia planks covered in gold, red ram’s skins, silver sockets, etc.), measurements and ornaments (the Ark, the menorah, the table); only then did the Jewish people merit an exceptional elevation.
In later years, a magnificent edifice stood upon a Jerusalem hilltop, the point of contact between heaven and earth. So important was this house of worship to Jewish life that nearly two-thirds of the mitzvot (commandments of the Torah) are contingent upon its existence. Its destruction is regarded as the greatest tragedy of our history. The remaining stone wall has become as sacred site for millions of visitors. The anticipated rebuilding, throughout our daily prayers, marks the ultimate redemption — the renewal of complete unity within creation. What did this physical structure accomplish?
From Sinai to sanctuary
The main purpose of the Mishkan (dwelling) and Temple, according to Nachmanides, was to serve as a resting place for the Shechinah (the Divine presence). And the secret trigger, among the vessels, was the mysterious Ark of the Covenant, sheltered within the innermost chamber. “As it states (Exodus 24; 22), ‘I will arrange my meetings with you there, and I will speak with you from atop the Ark cover’ … From here, the same presence which originally rested among the children of Israel at Mount Sinai would remain with them inside the sanctuary.”
The commentaries explain that in the original natural order, before the Torah, the luminous heavenly realm was disconnected from the earthly life. There was no possibility of bridging the two worlds, like a travel restriction between countries. With the grand event on Mount Sinai, the barrier was broken. The influx of holiness — where a higher reality entered our material realm — is regarded as a novelty within the system of creation. Unlike prophecy or divine insight, usually restricted to an individual’s superior capabilities, this divine manifestation was an inclusive occurrence.
Highlighting the Hebrew symbolic images of “cloud” and “glory,” Nachmanides points to the precise phraseology (and meaningful repetitions) at the end of this week’s Torah reading, illustrating the parallels between the rare revelation on Mount Sinai and the mystical level within the sanctuary: “And the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan.” Likewise, “Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud rested upon it and the glory of the Lord filled the Mishkan.” The only difference, he explains, was that on Mount Sinai the divine presence was open and temporary, while in the holiness pervading the sanctuary stayed and resided more covertly.
Then and now
While the temple stood, divinity was revealed. Love for mitzvot came easily. A heavy dose of holiness drifted through Jerusalem. But after the dreaded destruction, during an extensive bitter exile forcing Jewish communities to be scattered across the world, often among hostile neighbors, this spiritual ambiance has become more like a detached tale. But our current deficit, where enjoyment and passion in mitzvot has largely diminished, carries with it the opportunity for the virtue of effort, the exercise of independent will, to unveil itself.
While we no longer see a grand sanctuary, the central station of Jewish life, we still have the ability to establish our own special place, a stopping point during our daily travels, a platform to rise above the daily grind and plug into a higher perspective. Each synagogue, for instance, is termed a “miniature temple.” Then there’s our personal sanctuary. Here too, we must actively construct it. The solid foundation — the trigger for holiness to rest — is the mitzvah; “Blessed are you…who has sanctified us with His mitzvot…” That’s why, before praying, there’s a custom to drop a coin in a tzedakah box, a small gesture to set the tone for both reflection and connection. Being surrounded by a selection of holy books calms the mind.
These simple acts create the setting. The absorption and integration of holiness comes from mindfulness during that designated space and window of time, like Torah study, approached with humility and a desire to connect to sacred wisdom. Constructing our own personal sanctuary — in our house, office or wherever we designate — sanctifies a corner of our individual world. It’s an easy yet vital substitute for the sanctuary we read about and remember.

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In today’s world, Purim-like chaos displaces order

Posted on 01 March 2018 by admin

Depending on when you are looking at your TJP, this is either right before or right after Purim. Depending on your idea of a fun time, you either rushed to your nearest congregation or JCC for a night of loud, crazy dress-up fun, or you stayed far away.
Every year, communities prepare for the retelling of the tale of Haman, Esther, King Ahasuerus and Mordechai. This story of almost certain Jewish annihilation transformed at the last minute into a miraculous victory is accompanied by screaming children, loud noisemakers, goofy plays, bad puns and, in some communities, much drinking.
Purim turns our world upside down. We act out at temple. We run through the sanctuary, we make as much noise as possible and barely hear what others around us are trying to say. Purim has been called many things, but never a quiet holiday.
One of the commands of the day is to make so much noise that when the name of the villain, Haman, is called out, we cannot hear it above the clamor. In some Jewish communities, his name is written in chalk on the ground to stomp out or erase his memory.
It is an understatement to say that thoughtful communication is not the goal of the day. And yet, I confess that Purim was always one of my favorite Jewish holidays. Something about having permission to turn the temple into the set of an old Marx Brothers movie always excited me. Purim suggests that creating chaos can be a sacred act.
But, of course, Purim ends, and we begin to count the days until Passover. Passover tells a different tale of deliverance. Instead of the defeat of wicked Haman, we read of God’s deliverance of our people from Egyptian bondage to freedom. We tell the tale around a dinner table at a service called a Seder. Seder means order. Every sip of wine, every bite of food and every moment of the storytelling follows an intentional plan.
Our tradition teaches us that chaos is fun for a time, but our mission is to return to order. Perhaps that is why I am a little less excited about Purim this year.
Our society seems to be living in a nonstop state of Purim. Just turn to any news station, Twitter account or Facebook page that delves into the problems of the world and you will be confronted by the deafening sound of escalation. Problems of the day are presented not with the goal of beginning a dialogue, but with the intent to drown out the other side. Dialogue has been replaced by screaming and invective. The goal is chaos 24/7. It’s all very entertaining until we realize that nothing is getting solved and no one is listening.
Purim only works as a reaction to order. In an environment of constant turmoil, it loses its power. And so this year, I seek the order of Passover, the quiet of thoughtful communication and the embrace of family around a dinner table surrounded by conversations.
My hope is that we find ways to speak to each other once again, that these never-ending diatribes will finally exhaust us and give way to a year of true and thoughtful dialogue. I wish this because there are pressing and complex problems that we need to join together and solve, because our communities are in desperate need of healing, and because someone needs to demonstrate the art of listening to our children. But mostly, I wish it because I miss Purim. It’s just no fun celebrating chaos when every day feels like another Purim shpiel.
Rabbi Brian Zimmerman is the spiritual leader of Beth-El Congregation in Fort Worth.

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The month of Adar is the time for us to learn how to increase happiness

Posted on 15 February 2018 by admin

Each new month in the Jewish yearly cycle brings a unique energy, opportunity for growth and responsibility. This week we entered a new month called Adar.
Aside from the obvious association with the holiday of Purim and all the festive vigor that surrounds it, there is a flavor that immediately strikes at the onset, as expressed in the Talmud (Taanit 29a): “When Adar arrives, we increase in simcha (happiness).” We find similar biblical commands saying, e.g., “you shall rejoice in your festival (Deuteronomy 16:14)” — there are joyous dates on the calendar, but none of them affect the entire month.
When looking at the Torah, a clear, action-related directive makes sense. Instructions to experience specific emotions are more puzzling. In the famous daily declaration of the Shema, for example, we encounter the verse “You should love the Lord your God with all of your heart, with all your soul and with all your might.” Telling someone what to experience seems like a vain instruction — either you feel it or you don’t.
Dealing with this famous dilemma regarding love, the commentaries explain that properly fulfilling the first verse — “Hear, O Israel” (mindful meditation on the pervading oneness of the Creator, within all details of the universe and beyond) — will automatically lead to the following verses, arousing a sense of closeness. But what about telling someone to be happy (and, furthermore, increasing that feeling)?
Simcha versus ‘being happy’
The ongoing quest for happiness in our lives has never been so widely discussed. During more difficult periods in history, people just plowed forward; minds were more occupied with simply surviving. Today, in the age of the millennials, with all freedoms, privileges, efficiency, spare time and luxuries, there seems to be more awareness of this inner void, which can create an obsession with finding purpose and how to achieve happiness in our life. Speakers and books on the topic are in high demand.
Before getting into how to increase in happiness, let’s first examine this discrete emotion — simcha. The intent here, in a short piece, is not to offer a superficial definition or recipe, but to explore the emotion as it appears in Jewish literature.
While pop culture offers step-by step recipes, “The Five Stages of Happiness,” the actual emotion of simcha may be less contrived, more natural and simple. Culturally, it’s often expressed in spontaneous dancing, singing, drinking, eating and the continuum of celebrations in Jewish life.
From Jewish perspective, happiness is a necessity, but not a mitzvah per se. To be sure, there are famous statements and songs like “serve Hashem with simcha,” but Jewish joy, positivity and gratitude are set components of daily life, a must-have if you want to have a successful spiritual life.
There is a simple gratitude that begins immediately upon awakening — “Modeh ani lefanecha” — the short phrase uttered immediately as we open our eyes each morning. As we shift from dream state into consciousness, sensing our soul re-invigorating the body. It’s a humble gratefulness for receiving life — experiencing the start of the day like a newborn baby entering the world. Then, as we move through the day, our mental faculties more alive, we can experience a gratitude born of reflection — e.g., the wonderment of the underlying intricacy and harmony in the human body, realizing how every organ must function perfectly, just for us to breathe, walk around and digest.
But the feeling of gratitude is not simcha, though it can definitely open the door for that emotion to evolve. Put differently, gratitude and peacefulness are more like calm water; they are reflective sensations. Eastern philosophies and popular guides preach techniques that create this inner calmness. The person seems to be wise, controlled and at ease in a turbulent world. But is that happiness? True happiness is more like igniting a fire inside, an electric energy, aliveness as the soul springs up and expands inside us. It doesn’t give clever answers to hypnotized listeners — but it heals them.
Happiness can be hard work
That definition of joy may not be as easy to picture, or as appealing. People often only want a warm bath to stop the soul from shivering. This superficial notion of “happiness” or tranquility is more like an attempt to soothe the chaotic self, covering struggle with a soft, smooth energy, like a spiritual sedative marketed with a nice smile. Simcha is something else entirely. It often requires focused strength and toil, effort that other paths may not require.
There seems to be an inherent clawing and agitation in Judaism, that actualization of self and world which is inherent in our mission statement. Hasidic sources view happiness more like a prerequisite for divine connection, a battle tool against the inner opponent that seeks to weaken and distract us from our purpose, rather than a pleasurable drug, or an end in itself. It’s not enough just to “be,” or to make a list of what you’re grateful for. Simcha is of a different anatomy — our war on complacency — where happiness and status quo are mortal enemies.
There is a certain fight of the spirit than comes after battling darkness, bursting through concealments to connect with God regardless of surrounding circumstances. (This form of joy, a light shining from darkness, is connected to Purim.) The culmination of joy in this month is a perfect dialogue between soul and body. Usually, the emphasis on eating is a most base instinctive desire, a lack of refinement that pulls one away from spiritual sensitivity. But on Purim, the two opposites merge: The body celebrates the soul’s victory.
Takeaway
The feeling of simcha that permeates this entire month may be general and undefined — unlike the day of Sukkot, or celebration of freedom during Passover. The upshot is that everyone must ask themselves, since now is the season of happiness, how do I increase it?
For some, it may be studying extra subjects in Torah that are particularly uplifting. For others, this may mean treating themselves to a certain pleasure that they don’t normally have an opportunity to embrace. Or, they give extra effort to be in a better mood for the sake of the environment, such as making others smile. But the simple awareness of this time period means that we have to position ourselves to dig within to find that increase in joy.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is the director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. He hosts the Sinai Cafe, a series of weekly Torah study at the Aaron Family JCC and in the community. For more information visit www.maayanchai.org.

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True meaning of Shechinah

Posted on 25 January 2018 by admin

One of the popular mystical and intriguing buzzwords these days is Shechinah, simply defined as the indwelling of divine presence, as seen in the biblical verse: “Make me a sanctuary and I will dwell amongst them (Exodus 25:8).” The term Shechinah is used to describe a hovering holiness that enters into a lower reality.
It begins with a famous verse in Song of Songs: “I came into my garden, my sister my bride…”
In this metaphorical allegory by King Solomon, depicting the love between God and Israel, the possessive form — “my garden” — is used, implying an intimate setting, similar to the chamber where the union of groom and bride is consummated. The commentaries explain the context of the verse, whereby the voice of the Creator reminisces about the Shechinah, distant for ages, finally returning to this world with the construction of the Mishkan, Sanctuary.
Jungle or garden?
“This world is a jungle,” people often declare. To succeed, especially in the marketplace, you need thick skin and resiliency. Wherever you turn, there are challenges. While destructive pleasures and decisions come naturally and easily, most meaningful and fulfilling accomplishments are the result of a steady grind.
Nevertheless, the verse relates a simple message — life on earth must be viewed as a potential garden. By sifting and sorting through moral muddiness (spiritual growth), planting seeds (career), and bearing fruit (raising children), one can leave an enchanted legacy for generations.
From a mystical viewpoint, this physical world in which we live — “the world of action” — is at the bottom of a vast system, a chain of endless and intertwining universes. This world is, however, unique in its physical composition, a mixture of goodness and immorality, providing concealment of divinity altogether.
The natural order of the world, although blinking from being to non-being, appears solid and self-sufficient.
The reason for creation
What was the reason for creating such a world? It seems a profound yet basic inquiry for any believer who ponders our existence. Yet when asked this question, many religious figures flounder for answers, or draw a blank. Test it out. To be sure, you could find explanations speaking of companionship between Maker and children, or fashioning our world out of compassion. But a truly infinite being is not lonely, and certainly doesn’t need anything.
Jewish philosophical texts provide various reasons for our world — in order “to become known,” or as a kind gesture “for our benefit,” or to “display the range of His boundless abilities.” But those accomplishments can easily be fulfilled, even more so, by upper worlds filled with celestial beings with heightened perception. Creating a coarse concealed physical existence isn’t necessary.
Yet, “the Holy One had an essential desire for a home in the lowest realm,” to dwell with complete comfort here below (Midrash Tanchuma, Bamidbar Rabah, Tanya). Furthermore, God has a longing that we, the prime features of this lowest dimension, should be the facilitators for creating that home, bringing in a further influx of light, the Shechinah. The main method to accomplish this — our spiritual craftsmanship — involves effort and free choice in “subduing” and “transforming” our nature. The Zohar explains that when we toil to change our character, a transcendent light — beyond the peak of all creation — floods the entire spectrum of worlds. The real accomplishment takes place in our world.
Highest within lowest
Paradoxically, at the onset of time, this lowest of all worlds was a fit place to contain the most intense revelation of the Shechinah. The deepest and most precious within the Creator penetrated into the lowest dimension of creation, analogous to deep pleasure pervading one’s entire body.
Then sin came onto the scene. Being the opposite of divine desire, this act inherently repels the presence of holiness and the primordial fall (of the tree of knowledge) pushed away the Shechinah. Successive iniquities drove it further upward, into the heavens, until seven righteous warriors, tzaddikim — beginning with Abraham and culminating with Moses — brought it back. Thus, despite the original human fall, each generation, with its individual inhabitants, has the potential to bring down the Shechinah further.
“Every fall is for the purpose of reaching a higher level at a later stage.”
This principle applies on a grand scale, from the unraveling of worlds until our physical existence, to the fall of the soul into this world in order to accomplish something greater. The same rule applies to each person’s story within this world, wherein even sins, the opposite of divine desire, are intended to eventually lead us to a higher accomplishment.
The broader personal takeaway is that what may appear as a dark stage in a life process, even a result of our own mistakes, is for the purpose of ultimately seeing a stronger light. The fall will lead to a higher rise. Or from another angle, there is a secret benefit within the delayed path — a maturing process, a lesson learned, wisdom gained during that time — that we can extract for constructive use.

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Confusing passages in Torah: Interpret —and remember

Posted on 18 January 2018 by admin

Parashat Bo contains several strange and confusing passages that require interpretation in order to make sense.
Among them is Exodus 12:11. It explains that the Israelites, who are about to leave Egypt, should eat the Passover offering with their loins girded, their sandals on their feet, their staff in hand, and they should eat it quickly. One might say, well, of course — they were about to leave Egypt and they had to be ready. That’s very reasonable — except for the fact that other passages seem to indicate that the Israelites didn’t leave right away or they didn’t know they would be leaving. For example, they are instructed to burn any leftovers of the Passover offering in the morning (Exodus 12:10).
We’re also told later that they didn’t prepare any provisions so they had only unleavened bread (Exodus 12:39).
So if they didn’t have to dress up and eat it quickly because they were about to leave, why does the Torah create a ritual around eating the Passover offering? And why are they already practicing the ritual even before they have left Egypt? It’s actually amazing to think about — even before the Israelites are free, we are told that we’re going to celebrate the moment that’s about to happen by eating special foods and dressing up a certain way. It not only describes the early ritual of Pesach; the Torah also explains what to say when our children ask why we are doing these strange things (Exodus 12:26-27). That’s a lot of chutzpah!
I don’t know why the Torah was written this way, although I think it speaks quite clearly to the importance of remembrance. It hits us over the head with the message that we are supposed to remember the Exodus from Egypt. This shouldn’t come as a surprise because the Torah reminds us about lots of things. We remember the Exodus on Passover. We remember the Exodus on Shabbat. We remember Shabbat. We are constantly asked to remember that we were slaves in Egypt. We see the fringes on the tallit and we’re supposed to remember the mitzvot/commandments. We joke about how Jewish mothers offer constant reminders of things we’re supposed to do or things that we should have done, but they’re only following after the Torah.
What I love about Judaism is that as important as remembrance is, we don’t just stop and remember. We are instructed to allow that remembrance to guide our actions. From the celebration of Passover to actually stopping and living by a different set of rules on Shabbat — it matters what we do. We’re supposed to remember the mitzvot so we can do them.
We’re supposed to remember that we were slaves in Egypt because that reminder is supposed to have an impact on how we act. Don’t oppress the stranger — care for people as people. Remember that each individual, no matter their background, deserves to be treated with dignity and beauty. Remembering our struggles is supposed to inspire us to extend our hand in compassion, understanding and friendship.
We know what it’s like to be feared and hated. Unfortunately, there’s far too much of that still going around. It’s not like we have to remember back to the Torah to think about how poorly we’ve been treated as a people. All the more reason to live our Judaism. This means that we study and remember and we allow those teachings to guide our actions and better our world.
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville.

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