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May 2014

Pet Peeves: Just Words?

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Example: Government leaders who say, “We have the right to defend our citizens.” Is it really a ‘right’? Or do they mean ‘responsibility’? Every government is obligated to defend its citizens from threats domestic or foreign. Should a government feel that they are incapable of such defense, they must resign and let someone else govern. Is it just words? Or is it wrong-headed?

Example: Rabbis who equivocate, “We believe G-d spoke to our ancestors at Mt. Sinai.” We believe? Who’s we? Believe? Do you or don’t you know? It’s been 3,000 years and you still don’t know? And you’re a rabbi!

Did G-d create the world – yes or no? You believe he did? Maybe you should take up knitting! Is it just words or does it reveal a lack of conviction – the conviction that every Jew should have?

Example: Teachers who say, “G-d wants your Mitzvahs but doesn’t need them.” Let me understand this: G-d wants what he doesn’t need? He’s too perfect to need but not too perfect to want?

He wants every Jew to keep kosher yet not every Jew does; is He still perfect? He creates the world with a purpose – an important purpose – yet whether this purpose is achieved doesn’t matter to Him?! He doesn’t need it?

G-d says “I am a jealous G-d” but He is not really jealous?! He says non-kosher animals are an abomination, but thier not His abomination?!

We call Him “Father and King” but He doesn’t need His children or Hispeople?! He doesn’t need Pharoah and the Egyptians to know Him – even as He gives that as His reason for ten plagues of human suffering?!

Wants. Needs. Is it just words or does it trivialize Him to claim that He demands what He does not need?

Example: Calling intimacy “Making love.” Does one ‘make’ love? Love is a feeling. Does one make feelings? Love means attraction. Does one make attraction? I know you can feel love; I don’t think you can makelove.

Love is a very nice feeling and is often apropos to important relationships. But how can you compare it to intimacy? Love is personal; intimacy is interpersonal. Love can’t be regulated; intimacy must be regulated. Love can’t turn ugly; intimacy can. Love can not produce a baby; intimacy can.

So calling intimacy ‘love’ is degrading and vulgar. It reduces the sacred to a feeling; the spouse to an object of one’s mood; the baby to an intruder on a personal experience. Is it just words or we losing sight of all that is holy.

Example: People say “I doubt that”. Often they really know nothing at all about the subject. So what is doubt? What’s wrong with saying, “I really don’t know?”

“Do you think there is life on Mars?” “Nah, I doubt it”. Is that supposed to mean that you know something about Mars that makes you doubt it would support any kind of life?

How old do you think the world is? Do you think the Torah is Divine? Who do you think wrote the Zohar? Are you not sure or are you sure you don’t know? Is it just words or do we have a hard time being honest?

How do I know Torah is True?

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Dear “Unsure”,

You are torturing yourself unnecessarily. As a fifteen year-old, why would you expect to ‘know for sure’ all the truths of Torah? How are you supposed to ‘know’ who created the world?!

You don’t how an airplane flies or how an antibiotic works. You’ve never seen a germ or a virus, and probably don’t know where your spleen is or what it looks like. Does any of this matter? No, you live your life based on knowledge received from the past without need to reinvent the wheel.

G-d created the world and gave the Torah on Mt. Sinai unless you have witnesses to the contrary.

The best and wisest minds among our sages, every one of them smarter than Einstein, studied the Talmud for three thousand years without doubt of its origin and you are not sure!

So you feel guilty as if you are responsible to prove or confirm cosmic truths! Get real. Relax. It’s not your job. Your job is to elevate yourself to a more productive, noble, respectful life every day.

Work on that. I guarantee you won’t regret it!

What is God’s part in my day to day life?

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I recall a particular afternoon some years ago, in the early 1960s, when thirty Jewish scientists from various Eastern universities attended one of the Rebbe’s Shabbat afternoon gatherings (called farbrengens.) The scientists sat among the Chassidim and listened while the Rebbe spoke in Yiddish, which they did’nt understand. During the break for singing, one of the Chassidim gave them a synopsis in English of what the Rebbe said. Even in English it didn’t mean much to them.

When the Rebbe resumed the discourse, he dedicated the next portion of his talk to the visitors, and for the next forty minutes he described the mystical Chassidic view of the universe. During the next break, the Chassid again translated the Rebbe’s words; “The Rebbe said that all matter is behavior, and we can see this behavior by observing nature closely”.

“Did he really say that?” one scientist asked. “Physics also defines nature as “observable behavior patterns.” The scientists who had come as curios observers began to wonder if the mystical and physical are compatible after all. Certainly, in the Rebbe’s world, the two are one. Of course, there are significant differences between the scientists’ view and Chassidus’ view. The scientist saw a mechanical universe. The Rebbe saw a warm, responsive universe with a beating heart.

Chassidus’ view of creation sheds new light on the phenomenon of miracles. The Rebbe pointed out that the miraculous events described in Torah are G-d doing what He always does, only varying the routine.

For instance, G-d usually tells water to flow downward, an instruction so familiar that we call it natural law. Then one day, somewhere in the Sinai, G-d told water to stand still: The water behaved like a wall to their right and to their left. This instruction happens so infrequently that some people call it a violation of natural law, and others call it a miracle. In truth, both standing still and running downward are miracles.

The Talmud tells the story of the sage, Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa, who arrived home one Friday evening, just as the sun was setting. As always on Fridays, he found the table set and his daughter preparing to light the Shabbat light. But something was amiss.

“Why do you look so unhappy?” he asked.

She answered that she had accidentally added vinegar to the oil in the Shabbat lights. “The vinegar will surely extinguish the flames,” she said.

“He who tells oil to burn will tell vinegar to burn” her father answered.
That Shabbat evening, vinegar burned.

Was it a miracle? We assume that oil burns because of its chemical properties, meaning, “I don’t know why, that’s just how it is.” Although we can see oil burning, there is no reason that oil must burn. The Rebbe, a mystic as well as a man of science, said that oil burns because G-d tells it to.

The same is true of all natural laws. We know that aspirin relieves a headache and we may even know how it does the job. Yet we’ll never know why. The Healer of all flesh instructs aspirin to subdue pain, usually. And usually, He tells water to flow downward and oil to burn. It’s all the same to them.

How do I live a Happy life?

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Here’s a thought that came up in a conversation the other night:

The simple truths in life are what brings happiness. This means focusing on simple realities: life is good, being a Jew is good, having my family is good, etc. This enables you to be happy. However we need to distingush happiness from contentment. To be content is different from being happy in the following ways. Contentment must be earned – happiness is free. Happiness is related to gratitude – contentment is related to satisfaction. Happiness is the absence of doubt – contentment is the successful resolution of doubts.

Therefore, simple truths will produce happiness, but only achievement will bring contentment.

So I am happy to be what I am, to be included in G-d’s vast eternal plan. A part of the chosen people, able to serve Him at any time. But if I don’t actually serve Him and accomplish some good in my life I will not be content. Contentment is measured by effort. The harder I try the more content I will be.

What do you think?