New Gemara Series

Good Elul to all of you.

Boruch Hashem, we have recently posted a whole new series of Gemara shiurim ( including a brand new section on Bava Metzia Perek 2) which demonstrate the methods put forward in “Vagueness Vanquished”. The shiurim systematically go through each sugya, from the Mishnah and Gemara all the way through to Rashi and Tosfos applying the tools of learning. I look forward to responding to any kashyas and heoros you may have.

Those of you who want to use the shiurim as a basis for learning through the sugyas and integrating the method into your daily learning, I strongly recommend you listen to the shiurim in conjunction with the book.

With blessings for hatlzocha and geshmak in learning

Peretz

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What is Teshuva

The cry of “Elul” used to send shivers down the spines of the pious. Not any more! That cry seems no longer relevant. The world that has lost its reverence for authority, has rejected the community in favor of the individual and has elevated the ego to being an ideal through the notion of self actualization and personal transformation. If we do relate to Elul, we look upon it as a training program that will help us up our game so we score big time on Rosh Hashana. What a distorted (perverted?) view of this powerful period of the year.

No, Elul is not a warm up for the Yamim Noraim marathon! Elul is a time to let go of our fragile selves, not to cling onto to them, under the guise of self improvement. The subtle goal is to dance upon the tightrope of accepting responsibility for all that I have done and relinquishing control over my life. Every bad decision that I made I accept culpability yet every situation that I found myself was perfectly orchestrated by Hashem.

In Elul we become aware of how we are essentially powerless. In doing so we discover the only real power we have, to let Hashem into our lives.  What does it all mean? Well, it works like this; I am lazy, angry and selfish and as hard as I try, I remain lazy, angry and selfish. And those traits drive me to all kinds of dodgy stuff, far from what Hashem wants from me. So what do I do? I admit that I can’t do it by myself, I admit that the problem is all mine, I am the only one responsible, and still, I admit can’t do it by myself. Then I feel compelled to cry out for help. And that sincere cry is the catalyst to letting go and yet owning the responsibility I have to live a life of greatness.

Let go, hang on and welcome Hashem into your world.

 

 

Green Leaf Purim

“What do you see?” I asked as I pointed to the deep green leaf, hanging assertively off a bold branch.  “A leaf ” he replied thinking I was a little strange.  “Ok, what else?”  He turned to face me, his dark darting eyes hovering between incredulity and impatience, ” I dunno…”.  I hate that phrase, say gobbledygook, make it up but don’t retreat into that evasive, “I dunno” that lets you off the hook of self and other awareness and robs of you creative and investigative thought.  “Look again” I rejoined, slightly emphatically, hoping my greying beard and demanding tone may produce some kind of response.  He turned and stared at the leaf, and then something magical happened, he saw it for the first time!  Now he was able to describe the many shades of green that adorned its’ surface, the intricate network of veins, the flowing organic shape and the superbly engineered stem that kept it connected and nourished. We could have sat and spoken about that leaf and explored its’ myriad dimensions, biologically, philosophically and symbolically for hours.  A simple leaf.

Purim teaches us the lesson of the leaf.  The miracle depicted in the historical landscape painted by the Megilah carefully avoids any mention of a miracle.  It doesn’t even mention G-d, not once!  Because the Megilah seeks to capture not only the theme of life but also the process.  The theme is that there is a bigger picture, a precise and immensely complex set of chain reactions which create the form of our lives.  The process is that you need to stop and look, take a deep breath and contemplate, otherwise you won’t see much, not the world, not yourself and certainly not Hashem.

So if you want to practice for Purim, don’t buy an extra beer, study a simple green leaf.

 

A New Learning Programme

Shalom uBrocha

 

The study of Torah is the only way that we can rewire the hard-drive of our brains.  Through familiarizing ourselves with the manner and content of the Torah we purify and elevate our basic process of cognition.

One of my deepest desires is to move ever forward in the process of the knowledge of Hashems’ wisdom.  However without a strategic and thorough approach, the Torah student’s ultimate enemy –vagueness- lurks in the background forever ready to pounce.

With this in mind we have uploaded a whole new series of shiurim focused on developing learning techniques and strategies.  The shiurim are recordings of my daily iyun shiur in the Center program and the style is quite interactive.

I invite you to join in the shiur and travel with us through the choppy waters of the Talmudic sea.

The shiurim can be found under the “Gemora Tools – Learning How to Learn” section.  All feedback, kashyas, heoras and tiyuvtas are very welcome.

With heartfelt blessings for a ksiva vchasima tova.

Peretz

Origin of Species – Pesach and Darwin

When Dan lent me his book From Darwin to Hitler by Richard Weikart, I really had no idea it would clarify, for me, the weight and importance of the Jewish focus on the Exodus from Egypt in general and the Seder Night in particular.

“There is a moral or metaphysical part of nature as well as a physical.  A man who denies this is deep in the mire of folly.  Tis the crown and glory of organic science that it does, thro’ final cause, link material to moral; … You have ignored this link; and, if I do not mistake your meaning, you have done your best in one or two pregnant cases to break it.  Were it possible to break it, humanity, in my mind, would suffer a damage that might brutalize it, and sink the human race into a lower grade of degradation than any into which it has fallen since its written records tell us of its history.”

This is how Adam Sedgwick, Darwin’s former mentor in natural science at the University of Cambridge,  expressed his fear of the moral consequences of Darwin’s famous work Origin of Species.  He found the idea of a man whose ancestors were apes a terrifying prospect for the ethical future of humanity.

The Hagadah is our version of Origin of Species.  Through the narrative we trace  the evolution of our people.  The story begins not with some prehistoric humanoid, grunting his way between the trees but with our patriarch, Avraham.  He who asserts monotheism and in the ultimate iconoclastic act smashes his father’s idols along with the pantheistic ideology of the time.  He champions the ideals of caring, kindness, justice and truth and the concept of a Supernatural Being that unites all and values those very same ideals.

His descendants perpetuate his morals. On the verge of becoming lost in the sands of history, a people of slaves to the mightiest empire of the time, they are miraculously rescued.  The One that fashioned the world, intervenes to save those that adhere to His ideals. There they are charged to be a beacon of light to all people for all times.

The events that precipitated their redemption, totally sabotaged the natural order and affirmed the notion of nature as a mask, designed to allow our inner knowledge and convictions to be a choice and not a compulsion.  We have cherished this lesson, this way of seeing the world, ever since.  We have relived this event, as families and communities, across the wide expanse of the globe and through the long millennia, on the 15th of Nisan, at night.  Then we eat the same food as they did and re-experience the slavery and the rescue.  And we declare, “Our ancestors were men and women of spirit and  fortitude, kind and upright, a people who devoted their lives to supplant the mistaken notion that we are accidents of nature.  We will carry that ideal with us, this year we may still be a minority, a small and unheard voice but next year our call will echo through the world.  This year we are here next year in Jerusalem.”

 

 

The Real Me

I wrote this about 15 years ago as I was surfacing from a deep, black hole of self denial and confusion.  This last Friday I used it as an opening for a Ner L’elef class that I teach.  So many of the members of the class felt it connected to a similar experience in their lives that it made me think that it may be valuable to share- here it goes:

Someone that hasn’t experienced the feeling of absolute alienation that baalei teshuva experience, cannot empathize with the intensity of the emotional pain of feeling completely estranged from anything familiar, and perhaps mostly, from one’s self.

The alienation was, in my own experience, intensified by the fact that the self I grew up as, and what defined me in every facet of my life, had now become forbidden territory. It’s not that I no longer knew myself, it’s that I had been denied access to ME!

Let me try to explain how that process occurred. I became inspired. In that phase of inspiration, everything was magical, every dvar Torah was sweeter then honey, every Shabbos meal an explosion in harmony and every davening a heartfelt connection to the Creator. All of a sudden everything in life was absolutely clear, and all that wasn’t Torah by default was wrong, empty and meaningless.

It was a stage of absolutes, black and white. All Torah and anything associated with Torah was snow white. Every Rabbi a saint and every frum child a cherub. Torah was the panacea that presented utopia here and now.

At that point I leapt in. Everything else became secondary, my passion for Torah was all consuming and all my spare time was spent devouring everything which could be described as Torah. I was amazed how my friends were oblivious to the revelation of that which was so blindingly clear!

I think it was then that I rejoiced in throwing out my old life. It was a part of the Evil Empire that had stolen earthly paradise from me. With glee I rushed to throw everything which had made me – me – overboard. No need for all that extra luggage, I was free to be a whole new person!

The obvious next step was to travel to that idyllic place where the pious become saints, yeshiva. Off I rushed to the Holy Land to pursue my Holy endeavor.

I landed with a bit of a bang. Everything was so BLACK, so intense. The first rays of reality started to pierce my fantasy world, yet the first subtle beginnings of the process of loss of self had begun.

But I quickly managed to block out those initial interruptions in my dream. I settled down and thirstily drank in the many Rabbis’ vitriolic diatribes describing the blatant evils of ‘the world out there’ and painting the perfect picture of the glorious ‘us’.

I loved it.  ‘More’ screamed that insecure self. I ditched my life; I threw away the old me. ‘Yeah’ cheered the Rabbis, ‘that dirty perverted excuse for existence, good riddance’. They encouraged my efforts, spurred me on, ‘throw out more’, they said, ‘leave no trace of the Evil Empire within, chalilah, be pure!’

So I called in the removal crew and shipped out the rest of me, (or so I thought!) And now I could rejoice in the new me. I had the hat, my jacket was sable black and shirt a snow-white fleece.

I looked at the frum people around me as paragons of humanity, no faults could there be within their shining lives, ‘yeah’, rallied the Rabbis, ‘perfection and purity.’

And then I returned home after my yearlong stint. My hat stayed glued to my head. I was astonished; my old world stood almost where I had left it.  I was convinced that it too must have vanished like the rest of my life. That encounter left me slightly shaken. And deep deep down a small almost inaudible voice called out to me, ‘Are you there Perry, are you still there?’ ‘Silence!’ came the reprimand, ‘Perry has gone, he was taken away by the removal van, you can call me Peretz.’

But the voice would not remain silent, in a quiet moment he would call out, sometimes a soft scream other times I could barely even hear a voice, it was only a feeling.

But then I returned to my sanctuary, and the Rabbis chided the ‘voice’, Oh yes, it’s called the Yetzer Hora. You have to fight him. ‘Silence’ I would now scream in righteous indignation, ‘you have no right to speak, pestering voice, you are but an illusion, and I will not hear your screams, neither listen to your call. I will be a tzaddik and not fall prey to your cunning manipulations!’

I fought on. I would not budge nor acknowledge that part of me that had been decreed taboo. My path was that of perfection. I fought and fought, struggled and strove on, until I had convinced myself that the voice was no longer there. He had gone, I had crossed the bridge of change and the path of the pious lay before me.

And all this time from the sidelines, the Rabbis cheered.  At every victory, they celebrated the demise of the Evil opponent. I became enveloped in my new persona but it was only ‘cloud” of change, a thin wispy layer that has no real substance. Between the gaps in the clouds I saw a world, a person and a life – and it terrified me. Because the world was mine, the person me, and the life mine.

The power of the shock shook me until I crumbled as a shattered vessel on the Holy ground upon which I stood. And all that was left of me was the person I had fought to destroy. Myself. He hadn’t gone anywhere. All those battles I thought I’d won, all those struggles in which I thought I had triumphed were all illusionary. The old, perhaps REAL me had not budged. He was still there unchanged – and angry. ‘Why did you leave me behind’, he screamed. ‘You never let me share in your journey, you kept me outside and silenced my cry to join in your quest. Well now you will pay the price. Because I am the only life you have, the only personality. You can’t leave me behind anymore than you can your mouth or your ears. You can pretend I don’t exist, but I’ll always be there.’

I sat there crying. ‘But you are the Yetzer Hora, you are the evil one. You embody everything I have rejected, why have you come to haunt me?’ ‘No!’ screamed I, ‘not evil, but you, if you want to bring me into the world of Torah, don’t be afraid, I’m happy to come along. But please don’t leave me outside. I realise that I will have to change. I’m willing to adapt, but please involve me, don’t ignore me, don’t discard me. Because if you discard me, you will be discarding yourself.’

So I tried to start picking up those broken shards and slowly put the pieces together. Hashem sent me a teacher who gave me the confidence to build and the power to accept.

I was deaf by now to the other Rabbis chanting, ‘kill him, maim him, destroy him’.  I knew I had to build the vessel. I needed time, I needed patience, and I needed to share those years of change with the closest thing in the world to me – myself.

So at first it was uncomfortable. The relationship was stiff and formal. I hardly trusted him and him me. But we made progress, we talked, he’d ask me, ‘why do you this?’ I would shake my head, shrug and say ‘I dunno’, ‘well, I want to know’ and together we would search for answers and when we found them, together we would rejoice.

Our relationship blossomed and I understood more and more. Torah began to touch me to the core, like it had never done before. And then I don’t know exactly when it happened, it was a process, an imperceptible change, but I suddenly realised there were no longer two of us, I was ME!

I danced, I rejoiced, I sang until my voice was hoarse and my eyes were dry from tears of joy. And I hugged the Torah that was now a part of me, and I sang out to Hashem from the core of my being. I felt the blissful joy of experiencing REALITY and not the artificially produced ‘frum speak’ ersatz reality that had been sold to my naive soul.

The struggles of course, have not disappeared. Still I struggle, I fail and I triumph. There is pain, sometimes intense, and joy. But the struggle is real and the person involved is me. There is no imposter stealing away the crown of living from my head. And sometimes it’s much harder to fit the real me into Torah, so it takes patience and cunning but at the end of it, win or lose, I’m living my own life.

And now I cry for all those out there that still are playing a game of hide and seek with their real selves, too eager to shut them out.  And live out a scripted role, for which they never auditioned and never got the part. And on judgement day who will answer for the life they failed to live?

The Purpose of Life

It was a mid-morning on a Friday and I’m sitting behind a desk, a memo pad with Cyrillic and Hebrew text in front of me and a keyboard and screen on my right. No, I am not a Russian accountant working in Israel, I am a moderator. I know that sounds quite moderate but it’s not, at least not when I am given the job. My task as a moderator is to critique Rabbinical candidates on the content and style of a prepared speech. It forms a part of a Rabbis training programme and (I rationaliise) rather let me be cruel so that he can be kind to the people in the pews.

That morning was a Friday about three weeks ago and the speakers’ topic was “The Purpose of Life”. They had given us an office that housed an outreach organisation for Russian Jews (hence the Cyrillic and Hebrew memo pad). The space was haphazardly arranged with desks and chairs scattered around the vaguely octagonal room. Not the ideal setting for a practice session for a public speech.

Let’s face it, the topic isn’t the easiest. I ventured that the answer may be 42, but it was quickly dismissed as being either heretical or mystical. So I sat back,my pen armed to note all logical and technical faults. He started off provocatively, “If a person has no clear purpose he is a nothing”, I made a note on the inappropriate beginning, thinking to myself, these rookies just don’t get it, do they! But he made a fantastic comeback, “imagine if a person was sitting in his office, at his desk, with no clue what his job was. (Sitting behind that desk, not quite knowing what I was doing, I related). Every day he would go into the office and just sit there until six and then he would go home. Isn’t that a waste? Well” a sly smile crossing his face, “if we don’t know what we are doing with our lives, are we any better?” I liked it, maybe a little too strong, but it got the point across.

I leaned forward, keen to hear his approach. “No, no, he’s missed it” I thought. “Our entire purpose in the world is to build a relationship with Hashem”. “Stop” my interjection was confident, “What about your mission, your specific goal, what you can add to the world, your unique role? Having a mission as a focus is very different from building a relationship” I concluded with a mildly patronising tone, (and what about that great job analogy that he began the whole talk with? I felt he was changing route mid drosha, I noted it).

The talk came to an end and he came back to argue with me. And I have to admit that he did knock me a bit off balance. He kept on insisting that he was simply quoting the Ramchal in his famous work The Path of the Just. I opened up the Mesilas Yeshorim and tried to see his point of view. It jumped out of the page at me. I was amazed that I’d missed it until now(I must have learnt that first chapter over 100 times) . He was right, well almost.

We are all charged with a mission that only we can perform, but the end point, the reward and the goal is to get a connection with Hashem. The mission may involve using every gift I’ve been given to change the world, but ultimately it all has one direction, connection with the Creator. So here I am still processing what that means for the way I live my life within the framework of Mitzvos and the study of Torah, all just means to the end – dveikus.

Big goldfish in small bowl

“What’s that neighbourhood there on the left?” my voice was slightly strained, the taxi drivers’ creative driving technique left me just a little on edge,

“Kiryat Menachem, it was one of the poorest neighbourhoods in Jerusalem, in fact my mother almost bought an apartment there”.

“Really” it was the polite South African in me speaking,

“Yes, and then I would have probably been a drug addict.”  He said it matter of factly. He caught me off guard,

“No, I don’t believe it for a second” said I, not quite sure if did or I didn’t.

“It’s like the goldfish in the fish bowl” he continued, ” Do you know what happens if you put a big goldfish in a small bowl, before he’s fully grown?” I didn’t, “he will only grow to fit the size of the bowl, the big fish will remain small!” Triumphant, the message was clear – if goldfish would stay small he would have been a drug addict.(He’s actually wrong and goldfish can actually grow to 40cm and should live for 20 years.  It’s just that most goldfish owners are very bad at the job and land up killing their fishy friends.  But forget the facts for the moment and enjoy the relevance of the analogy if it would have been true!!)

We continued our slightly harrowing journey as he whizzed and dodged through the peak hour traffic, and in between focussing on deep breathing, mouthing confessions and saying the shma, I thought about his message.  The influence of our surroundings.  It is jarring what a powerful effect our environment has on the molding of our selves.

Oxana tragically demonstrates this idea.  Oxana Malaya was neglected by her alcoholic parents and was adopted by a pack of wild dogs.  It sounds like a fable, but Oxana is now in a home in the Ukraine, and the tragic reality is that she behaves completely like a dog.  She walks on all fours and barks and shies away from all human contact. Psychologists have tried to rehabilitate her, but haven’t succeeded in even getting her to begin communicating with other humans.

When I heard her story, the point that shocked me the most, was the indelible impression that her “environment” made on her.  She was raised by dogs and she became almost completely dog-like in everything she did and I would imagine in her thoughts as well.

So I suppose we don’t really need the false goldfish analogy, to figure out that the influence of environment, especially at a young age, is terrifying in the power that it wields.

Strolling with the Mind

 

I want to talk about spiritual walking.  I can walk on the ground, I can perhaps grasp “walking through life” but spiritual walking what could that be?  And the verse says it “If you will walk in my statutes”. How do you go for a walk in a statute?

 

My feet crush the fresh blanket of leaves, I breathe in the air that oozes the vitality of an early winters’ day, the icy wind brushes my face as I take another step along the well trodden path.  The path comes to an abrupt end and I start to push my way through the knee high bushes, making a new path in undergrowth.  I push on until the bushes become impenetrable.  I turn around and retrace my steps along the rough path that I had just made and try another route.

 

Spiritual walking is done in the land of the mind, no fresh leaves or winter wind.  Walking is moving closer to the destination, traversing the distance between the point of departure and the destination.  Spiritual walking is making the conceptual journey from my original understanding to a completely new one.  The statute becomes the landscape that I explore, ever deepening my comprehension in a never-ending journey.  The walk becomes the purpose.  I will never reach my destination.  Walking towards a new look at life becomes the  ongoing experience of my inner world.  Yes, that’s it.  Without the poetry, the metaphors and new leaves on the ground.  That is life, walking towards a new view of life with intent and focus.  And learning so much every step of the way.

Walking the Think

Richard Long is a different kind of artist.  His art works are records of his walks.  Yes, I know that may sound a little strange, but it pushed me into a new world, the world of the walk.   This is what he writes, “Nature has always been a subject of art, from the first cave paintings to twentieth-century landscape photography. I wanted to use the landscape as an artist in new ways. First I started making work outside using natural materials like grass and water, and this led to the idea of making a sculpture by walking. This was a straight line in a grass field, which was also my own path, going ‘nowhere’. In the subsequent early map works, recording very simple but precise walks on Exmoor and Dartmoor, my intention was to make a new art which was also a new way of walking: walking as art.

 

Each walk followed my own unique, formal route, for an original reason, which was different from other categories of walking, like travelling. Each walk, though not by definition conceptual, realised a particular idea. Thus walking – as art – provided a simple way for me to explore relationships between time, distance, geography and measurement.”

 

Torah also presents walking as a form of art.  The Hebrew word “Halacha”, which is used to means “law” in Judaism, actually means “walk”.  So Jewish walking is more than the Bocher-shuffle (a unique walking style practiced by Yeshiva bochrim of all sects), in a way it defines the way we view the relationship between law and life.  Of course it all begins with our legs.

 

The Torah refers to man as a tree.  Trees are planted and grow, they don’t move, they don’t have legs.  Surely we could grow like trees do.  We could have roots and stay in the same place and slowly over the course of a life time, through thought and contemplation, speech and actions, we could live, so why the legs?

 

In the realm of nature our legs are our mode of transport.  They move us from one place to another, they follow a path or they can even forge a path.  We can head towards a destination or go wandering in the fields. In the realm of the spirit they are our vehicle of change.  In the following post I would like to explore how the legs of our soul walk forward along the path of change.

 

Sounds of Silence

A few of the thoughts that have been flowing through my mind.  The struggle of the artist as he tries to capture the dimensions of life on the two dimensional surface of the paper or canvas.  How can he portray movement, depth and the fullness of the form.  It has to be a dialogue.  The viewer has to join the artist in finishing off the work.  This throws the onus of the power of the work as much as it is on the artist as on the viewer.  With an ignorant viewer the painting remains unfinished.

The beauty of the Chanuka lights. So small, strange to think of a modest light.  But that’s what these candles are.  If they get any bigger they lose their status as Chanuka lights.  The biggest and proudest Menorah will have the same size flame as the ten shekel version.  That seems to be one of the powers of Torah, the strength of the small and the power of modesty.  You don’t have to be big to be strong, long-lasting and relevant.  But the problem will be that you may go unnoticed.  But maybe that doesn’t matter.  Maybe we have become obsessed with noise, the louder the better.  What about the power of silence.  Why don’t I learn to hear the sound of what hasn’t been said?  I remember thinking a lot about silence.  Trying not to desecrate communication with too many words.  But soon I drowned myself in yet another unnecessary sentence.  Why can’t I stop and listen to the silence.  Maybe I’ll do that right now….from my breath my life starts to unfold.  Years fly by in my mind, people I knew and know appear and disappear.  The scratch on my head sounds loud in the silence.

Chanukah – Loving Peace or Fighting in Battle?

The epic triumph of spiritual survival of the Jewish people through the hands of an army of untrained priestly scholars is as much of a mystery as it is a miracle.  Needless to say it was the Hidden Hand of Omnipotent One that assured that the cry of victory would be issued from the lips of the humble Cohanic conquerers, but why were they chosen to fight the battle?  Aren’t they the embodiment of the traits of Aharon, loving peace and pursuing it, yet here they charge on to the battle field?

The riddle is resolved by peering beyond the outer layer that shrouds the priestly order. The G-d given duty of the Cohen is to create unity between Hashem and His people, and amongst the members of the nation themselves.  The Cohen looks to resolve the seeming disparity in the world by bringing together its’ disjointed pieces and forming a unified whole.  There is no conflict between heaven and earth, they are united on the altar and there is no disunity within the folk as they all stem from a single source.  The spiritual and the physical, the weak and the strong, the rich and the poor, the mundane and the holy all are united under the banner proclaiming the oneness of the Creator.

 

It is now simple to understand why it was the high priests who took battle against the Greek oppressors.  The Greeks came to strip the community of their mantle of purity, bring discord to the harmonious relationship between the G-d of Israel and His children and dismantle the structure of a unified universe.  And the Cohen knew that his priestly charge must move him to respond, even if it meant that his life would be lost, for the loss of life upon the altar of Hashem is the ultimate claim to life.

Lost in Traffic

“That’s a chutzpa!”  I barked as I saw one of those non-descript, silver Kia/Hyundai type cars pulling into a turning only lane -the lane was clear of cars – with no intention of turning.  He then barged back into the busy (no-turn) lane a few meters later.  And for what?  So he could gain a bit of distance and save himself (possibly) a couple of minutes.  “It’s pathetic how people will behave like animals on the off chance that they’ll  save a bit of time on the trip to work”, I complained to myself in righteous condemnation of the motorised sinners’ wanton act of moral ineptitude.

Thoughts of composing a book on road ethics crossed my mind as I meandered leftwards and towards the lights ahead.  “Oops, it looks like a long wait” I said to myself, as I saw the line of backed up cars.  “Why don’t I fly ahead until near the lights and then I will gently sidle up to one of the cars in the front and delicately slip in and save all that silly time waiting in line”.  I knew that if I stayed in the right lane the wait may be a long one. And that is exactly what I did.  Without even a second thought, I cruised ahead, slithered smoothly into the turning lane and saved myself minutes of wasted time.

Only later, much later, after thinking about my morning did I notice the glaring hypocrisy.  I had managed to duplicate the chutzpa of the silver sedan within minutes of my own internal ethical tirade.

The thought that bothers me the most is not that I pushed in line during peak hour traffic – mortals are frail and I am formed of flesh and blood – it’s that I did so while internally vilifying the same behaviour in another. Furthermore, it is my suspicion that this kind of double standard is not the exemption to my view on myself and life, but the rule!

The Mishna puts it beautifully, it says that after one shuffles off his mortal coil and has to stand up for trial in the heavenly court, he will have to give “din vecheshbon” for his actions. Din is judgement but what is cheshbon?  (Literally translated as reckoning).  The Balei Mussar explain that judgement is a ruling on what a person did, right or wrong.  In this process he can defend himself by citing extenuating circumstances, eg.  I didn’t have enough liquid assets to give charity.  What reckoning does, is it measures the consistency of his actions, in the above case, the fact that he spent a nice chunk of his income on a new ipad, will undermine, his “no liquid assets” claim.

Consistency in space and time is a goal for life – and the afterlife

Love on The Blade of a Sword

John Donne said it well “Love built on beauty, soon as beauty, dies”.  True, not all love is built on beauty but it’s dying pretty quickly all over the world.  In the USA, 40% to 50% of marriages end in divorce.  Dying love is not only a romantic downer; it leaves crumbled homes, scarred spouses and broken children in its trail.

So where do we learn to build a love that lasts?

It’s upon the blade of a sword!  The Talmud, (Sanhedrin 7) uses the following imagery; “when our love was strong, me made our bed upon the blade of a sword; now that our love has grown weak a bed of sixty cubits is not large enough for us”.  Now as roomy as a sixty cubit bed is, a sword is cramped, how do the loving couple squeeze onto it?

The force of attraction that pulls those who love together (that is love – the magnetism that pulls one towards the beloved), opens you up to let the other into your “space”.

Let’s talk a bit about emotional space.  Emotional space is created by the fences we erect around ourselves, in the form of selfish wants and desires which separate us from those around us. Eg. I can’t sit next to him he’s boring, smelly, too different from me etc… How did she dare say, do, think that etc…  Those fences keep people at a distance, even those closest to us.

What love does is, it melts down those emotional walls until the barriers are gone and the blade of the sword is plenty wide enough for the both of us.  When the love weakens, the walls come right up again and a bed of sixty cubits isn’t big enough.

The way to keep those walls down is only through a commitment to change, flexibility and a willingness to be different.  Through this, waning love can be strengthened and distance can be dissolved.

 

Plunging Towards Death

My chest was visibly moving as my heart pounded against it. I dragged my heavy leather boots up the last three steps and up to the ledge.  I made sure that I had my back towards the steep drop because I knew if I would look down into the ravine I would never have the guts to jump.  The harness that Bill had so enthusiastically tied around my shoulders and waste, rubbed against me and underneath the thick cords my clothes were drenched from nervous perspiration.  The wind brushed against my face but I barely felt it, I was way too terrified. My hands were shaking so hard that I could barely steady myself on the steel railings that lined the side of the platform.

Nevis Bridge spans a ravine, desolate and rocky, and when I had looked down on my way up to the bungee site, I felt so queasy that I almost fainted.  The few bushes scattered amongst the boulders down below, looked so tiny, that I could barely make them out, small little green specks amongst a sea of tiny rock-dots.  The drop was the height of a 43 story building.

I teetered on the edge of the wrought iron plate as I began the count down.  My voice quivered as I spoke, the veins  on my forehead pushed against the sweat drenched foam on the inside of the helmet and I heard the word “five” leave my shaking lips. “four” and I squeezed my eyes closed  behind the goggles, “three” the wind was pushing against me, teasing me, “two” my breath was short and staccato “one” I pushed back from the edge and fell.

I was falling faster and faster and all I could see were the rocks below shooting up towards me, from tiny little dots they became huge sharp edged mini mountains.  The sheer terror of free falling towards what seemed to be certain death, gripped me by the throat.  I forgot about the harness and the ropes and I surrendered myself to the paralysing dread.

Bungee jumping is just one of the many fear inducing activities that we are lining up to do.  What is it about fear that we find so enticing? From roller coasters to horror movies we pay good money to get scared out our wits.  It doesn’t seem to make much sense.

Well, not until you really think about it because, in truth, fear is the strongest confirmation of life. Let me explain what I mean.

Nothing much happens to things which are dead.  Death brings about the end of all change and the end of choice.  Death is the end of affecting the world and being affected by it.  There are no consequences and there is no danger.

Life is quite the opposite.  Being alive means that I am relevant.  Every moment produces consequences, either good ones or bad ones.  It’s the bad ones we fear and in the good ones we rejoice.  Having those options of good and bad consequences is essentially what allows us to be a part of the living.  A life which has no fear is a life which has no consequences – which is death.

The first step we can make in our spiritual journey is to be scared of making the wrong choice.  That trepidation is the very emotion that will enhance the joy of living

Shavuos – Giving the Soul a License to Speak

Carla Lynch was in her early thirties when her voice became hoarse.  Now this happens to us all at some point, but Carla’s hoarse voice never went away.  It was only after years of ENT visits and other specialists that she received the shocking news; she had invasive cancer of the vocal cords.  She needed surgery if she was to survive and that would mean removing her vocal cords.

No vocal cords means no voice, no voice means no speech.  The words would form in her mind and that’s where they would remain. Forever.

The Neshama, the ultimate gift from Hashem, yearns to speak, to communicate, to share and to act. It has immense spiritual energy, yet no medium to appropriately express that eternity of depth.  The Neshama is a voice without vocal cords.  Or at least it would be without the 613 mitzvos. The mitzvos allow the Neshama to have a voice.  Then the voice can ring clearly through air.  One can hear that voice speaking through the hands that help the poor.  One can hear the voice calling out in prayer and singing in praise.  One can hear that voice articulating the wisdom of the Torah.

The joy of Shavuos is not only a confirmation of national purpose; it is also a license for the soul for to speak.

Carla survived the surgery and can now speak with the aid of a tracheoesophageal prosthesis.  But her voice will never sound the same.

Shavuos

Tumbling out of bed he finds his balance by steadying himself on a chair.  It’s Tuesday right? Yes, or at least I think so…  In a semi – conscious state he gets dressed simultaneously checking messages on his phone. While he buttons his shirt he replies to an email, sees who the missed calls were from and sets an alarm to remind himself to eat, or was it to breathe? Or was it to live?

Today more than ever, without a focus on mission, the acts of life threaten to drown us in the tide of technology.  We will be spat up on the shore of living, rarely having being a witness to that which lies beneath the surface of the mundane.

Stop for a moment, listen to the silence and ask the most penetrating of questions, why? Why this body?  This land?  These friends?  These talents?  This job? And ultimately all those “whys” will end up in a search for the purpose of life itself.

For a Jew, this is called preparing for Shavuos.  Shavuos is the day that we become charged with a mission – national and individual. National, to reveal the way of Hashem to the world; and individual, to reflect that light through the prism of our beings.  The build up to that day requires us to hold up our lives to the light of the Torah and see if we are reflecting it; or are we caught up in the net of living never giving the “why” a thought.