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The Sound of Silence

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The sages say that words are not as important as deeds. Some famous man once said “’Well done’ is always a better compliment than ‘well said’”. Even if you can defend yourself with words, having done well is a lot better than having the right words. But more than that, the sages spoke about the virtue of refraining from speech. As Reb Shimon, the Mishnaic sage, said “all my life I grew among the sages and I found nothing better for the body than silence.”

But the Rebbe pointed out something very interesting: When Reb Shimon makes his statement about the value of silence, why did he preface it with a mention of his background growing up among the sages? Surely, he doesn’t need to convince us that his opinions are worthy of attention. None of the other sages do that.

The Rebbe explained that when Reb Shimon said “all my life I grew up among the sages” he wasn’t just talking about his background; he was talking about himself. He was saying “I’ve spent my entire life among the sages, but I never stopped growing.” Even as an old man, he was still growing and learning and never stopped being a student. He was saying “All my life I grew, and even at an old age I continued to grow and learn from the sages.”

And so, after a lifetime of growth among the sages, Reb Shimon tells us that the most important thing he learned was that there is “nothing better for the body than silence.”

But Reb Shimon wasn’t talking about just biting your tongue, Reb Shimon’s statement is cosmic.

What Reb Shimon discovered over a lifetime of learning was that there are two ways in which we are supposed to fix the world and elevate it to its godly potential.

One way is to recognize the value of physical life in the physical universe, but also to be conscious of the divine. With this method, one can recognize material pleasures while also acknowledging the value of Torah and Mitzvot. The second approach is to live with the attitude that the physical world is not really important at all. According to this approach, there is no value to eating, to money, to business. There’s no value to it at all unless it serves a divine purpose.

When God created the physical world, he did it with words. God said “Let there be” and there was. But even though those words continue to give life to the world, it is not apparent to human beings. When we see the world, we don’t see the word of God, we just see stuff. Changing this is precisely our job in the world. Elevating the world and perfecting it means to reveal the Word of God that is in everything. When we do that, the world becomes a godlier world. When the creation is conscious of its creator it’s a better world.

So the first method of fixing the world recognizes the importance of the world, but also acknowledges that it will be a lot better if it recognizes its creator, so we serve God in such a way that people will come to know and recognize “who said and the world came to be.”

When we do this, it’s called “Speech”. On a spiritual level, “speaking” means making the Word of God felt and known in the world.

The second method relates to a deeper way of understanding how God creates and sustains the universe. On a deeper level, God doesn’t speak the world into existence, he thinks it. For example, the universe of course exists on Shabbat, but it’s not as physical as during the week. This is because during the week God creates the world with words while on Shabbat God creates the world with thought. By keeping the world in his thoughts, the world continues to exist.

The difference between thought and speech is that thought is personal while speech on the other hand is interpersonal. Speech is for others. Thought is for yourself. That’s why thought is much closer to the soul than speech. When you’re alone, you don’t have to speak because speech is not for you. It’s only necessary when there’s someone else that you need to communicate with. But thought is closer to the soul. It’s for yourself. A “holy day” means, the universe’s existence is drawn a little closer to the creator.

The second way of elevating the world is by going into the level of thought. We don’t want to reveal the Word of God, we want to reveal the thoughts of God. God said “let there be light,” but we want to know what he was thinking. What does he need light for? What is God’s purpose?

It’s not enough to reveal to the world the Word of God that makes the grass and the animals. That’s good, but it’s not good enough. Looking at a sunset and saying “there’s the word of God!” is good, but it’s not enough. We want to reveal to the world God’s thoughts, God’s intention.

While functioning on the level of thought, words are not important, and that’s what Reb Shimon called “silence”. Reb Shimon was saying, “all my life I grew among the sages, and I discovered there are two ways to be holy. One is to see the importance of the universe and improve on it by revealing the Word of God, and the other is to see no importance at all in the physical universe, the only important thing being to ask ‘what does God want with his universe?’ the first level is called speech, the second level is called silence.’

What Reb Shimon was saying has cosmic impact. He’s not just saying “don’t talk!” He’s telling us to get to know “The Thought,” be busy with “The Thought.”

Reb Shimon teaches us that he grew up among the sages and found nothing better for the body than silence. Meaning, revealing The Word of God in the universe (the “body”) is good, but the best thing is to reveal The Thought of God.

In other words, to make this world great, it’s not enough to see how the world is connected to God’s words, we must know how we fit into God’s plan and the purpose that God has in mind.

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For The Love of God

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We are supposed to love god with all of our hearts. But is loving god possible? Is God lovable?

We are told that what took place at Mount Sinai was that God revealed himself. But what does that mean? Everyone already knew there was a God. Adam and Eve, Avraham, and others even spoke to God. So what was revealed at Mount Sinai that we didn’t know before?

Before Sinai, we knew there was a God, but we had no idea what he was. We had no idea that he cared. We had no idea that it bothers him if we do certain things and pleases him greatly if we do other things. God bared his soul at Mount Sinai. He showed us his innermost self.

The most romantic and dramatic phrase are the first words of the ten commandments: “I am god your god.” God was saying “I am yours. I identify with you, I belong to you. I’m yours!”

We have been studying that line for thousands of years, and the message is quite clear: God desperately needs us. He created the world because he needs us. He’s been begging all these years “be mine!”

So is god lovable.

If God reaches out to us and initiates a relationship and says “please be mine” how could you not love him?

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A Weird Story

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I gotta tell you this amazing story true story that has had a huge impact on how I think about the world. One day, a mother called me up and told me that her 14-year-old son had attempted suicide and was placed in the state hospital for 48-hour observation. I knew that hospital, and I knew the place was dangerous. I thought this poor kid must be scared out of his wits and must be desperate for company, so I went as soon as I could.

But when I got there, i went into his room and saw him lying back on in his bed reading a comic book, completely relaxed. Even when he heard the screaming from the other patients it didn’t seem to bother him. So i tried to make some conversation with him, but he was not interested at all, he didn’t even look up. I said “your mother asked me to come see you, she’s worried about you, what should i tell her?” but he completely ignored me. I kept trying to start a conversation but he just kept shrugging me off. Finally, he looked up and said rather rudely “why don’t you go home? The chaplain has already been here!”

I said “What did the chaplain say?”

“Something stupid” he said.

Now I was curious. “What did the chaplain say that was stupid?” I asked.

He said “The chaplain said i shouldn’t kill myself because god loves me.”

“That’s stupid?” I asked.

He said “Yes.”

I said “I agree! I can’t imagine god loves you, you’re not very pleasant to be around.

Now he looked up.

“What’s your point?” he asked, clearly curious.

I said “God created you, so obviously he needs you. There must be something you can do for him that nobody else can, otherwise he wouldn’t have created you. So i think he’s stuck with you whether he likes you or not.”

He said “well, what if i don’t want to do what he created me for!”

So I told him that that’s called freedom of choice. That’s the choice we all need to make.

The conversation didn’t go much further than that, but i learned something really amazing that day. The chaplain’s answer was stupid for a very simple reason: This kid tried to kill himself. What message does that send? It means that he saying to the world that he doesn’t feel like he’s necessary. Now the chaplain comes and says “no, no don’t kill yourself, god loves you! ”But what the kid heard the chaplain saying was “fine, you’re right, you’re not necessary, but don’t kill yourself because god loves you.” When he hears that he thinks “wait a minute. If i’m not necessary, but you love me, that’s why i should live? What am I, your pet?”

For a gerbil that would work. Nobody needs a gerbil, but they’re cute. But that’s what the chaplain seemed to be saying to him. “You’re not necessary, but god finds you cute so hang around for his entertainment.”

That’s not a good deal for a human being

For me, the lesson of the story was: We need to be needed much more than we need love. I need to be important to you more than i need you to take care of me. Because if you need me, then i have a purpose. If you’re just taking care of me, all you’re going to give me is an existence and that’s depressing.

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When The Afterlife Is Evil

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Is religious moderation a good thing?

These days everybody seems to be in favor of “moderation” and against “extremism,” but what does that mean? If the religion we are part of is a good and righteous one, why moderate? If your cause is just, if you are on the right side, what is wrong with being an extremist? Is there really too much of a good thing?

If something is good, how does more make it bad? More should be better. Do we spoil our children with too much love? (Sometimes we use the phrase “too much love” when we mean “not enough discipline.” Actually, inadequate discipline is usually a sign of not enough love.) How about too much money? A lot of money is only bad if that’s all you have.

So why are we condemning religious fanaticism? That which is wrong in big scale is wrong in the small scale. It may not be as detrimental but it is equally wrong. We need to get to the root of the problem, to the moral issue that separates the good from the bad. Let’s not condemn “fanatics” and “extremists”, that serves only to distract us from the heart of the matter. Rather, let’s talk about the root, the subtle beginnings of the evils that can come from religion.

The subtle beginning of this evil is the belief that when you die you go to a better place. That is Evil. It may sound noble, spiritual, heavenly, religious and comforting. It also causes these believers to fly airplanes into large buildings.

What about the virtues of martyrdom? Isn’t this a noble act?

Of course this was not noble and it was not martyrdom. When I trade in my old car for a newer model, is that an act of self-sacrifice? If you give up your life because you believe that you will get a better one, is that martyrdom or just plain narcissism? Or perhaps the worst possible form of narcissism.

True martyrdom is when you give up your life precisely because life on earth is important enough and necessary enough to give up your own life for it. Is Heaven a better place? The answer must be “No.” Easier? Yes. Better? No.

We want to remain on earth because this is where we serve G‑d. This is where we make a difference. The belief that heaven is a better place is an evil and it leads to unthinkable horrors.

G‑d wants a world of people diverse in culture, in style, in appetite, in opinion — maybe even in religion; but not in morality. There cannot and may not be two moralities. This is what we mean when we say, “G‑d is one.”

You can have two of everything else and it’s okay. Have two religions or five or fifty. Have sixty different versions of heaven. Pray twice a day or five times. On a carpet, on your knees, standing up. Whatever. But when it comes to morality there is only one G‑d.

You don’t want to eat fish on Friday or work on Sunday? Gezunterheit. As long as the diversity doesn’t include differences of opinion on “Thou shall not kill.”

When we all agree on the definition of that one commandment, then and only then will there be peace in the world.

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Why Do Bad Things Happen To Good People?

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Why do bad things happen to good people?

 

It’s a very old question and a very good question that deserves careful examination.

We often assume that “bad” means “painful.” But “bad” and “painful” are not the same thing. When someone dies at a ripe old age surrounded by a loving family, it’s painful, but it’s not bad. We don’t expect to live forever. We have got used to the idea of mortality so we don’t call death at an old age “bad.” But when a young person dies (g-d forbid,) that is bad, and that bothers us deeply. Childbirth is very painful, but it is not bad, while false labor pain is bad.

We ask why bad things happen rather than why painful things happen because the word bad has a very particular meaning. It’s the bad that disturbs us and grates on our conscience, not pain.

When we use the word “bad,” we are implying that something happened that should not have happened. It is wrong; it shouldn’t be. That disturbs us terribly. When something bad happens it’s particularly disturbing because of what it means about the world. If this can happen when it shouldn’t happen, what else could happen? Then anything can happen. Then there is no rhyme or reason. There is no plan; there is no judge; there is no justice. The world is a jungle that we cannot tolerate. That goes against the green. A human being is orderly and purposeful, and when the world doesn’t follow a purpose and doesn’t seem to be orderly, we can’t handle this.

So what is the worst thing that makes us upset and depressed? Senselessness.

If things happen for no reason, that disturbs us most deeply. When we know what to expect, we can handle almost anything, but if things can happen that shouldn’t happen, that’s disturbing. And in terms of our belief in God, It is also alarming that something can happen that shouldn’t, because who’s making it happen? Since there’s only one God, if it’s meant to happen, then it happens. If it’s not meant to happen, then who’s making it happen? It’s almost like suggesting that there are two gods: the good God and the bad God, the big God, the little God. It threatens not only our stability, our sense of security in the world, it also threatens our faith. Is there one God? Well, then what is he doing? Is he good, or is he not good?

With this definition – bad means that which should not happen, we have two considerations.

Number one: We have no way of knowing what should or should not happen?

When our favorite team loses the Super Bowl, we think that shouldn’t have happen! It shouldn’t have happened because we like to win. So, anything I don’t like, anything I don’t want, anything I don’t enjoy shouldn’t happen. But there are two teams. If I win, then the other team loses and their fans will say that that shouldn’t have happened. So how could we know what should or shouldn’t be?

Since we don’t have the information, we don’t have the evidence, don’t have history, don’t know what came before, and don’t know what’s coming down the pike, can we state with any authority that “this should not have happened?” How often have we experienced something awful that we were sure should not have happened, but then a few weeks later, sometimes even a few hours later, everything changes, and we realize that it was pretty good.

There was a good thing that happened, and it should have happened. So, before we decide what should not have happened, we need a lot more information which we don’t have.

The second thing is: Anything that should not happen, cannot happen.

Nothing moves, nothing shakes, nothing turns, nothing happens unless there’s an instruction from god. Everything happens by divine plan, which means everything happens when it’s told to happen by the Creator, who is the only mover and shaker in the world. To think that something can happen without God is idolatry. It’s implying that there is another master to the universe who is mischievous and makes things happen that shouldn’t happen. That is Greek mythology, not Judaism.

Nothing happens if it shouldn’t. And only because it should, does God make it happen, and if he makes it happen, then it should. Either something is meant to be, or it isn’t meant to be, it can’t come out of anywhere. If nothing that shouldn’t happen, can happen, then nothing bad can happen, since “bad” means something that shouldn’t happen. So, do bad things happen to good people?  No, bad things don’t happen even to bad people. Bad things don’t happen.

But painful things do happen. There is a lot of real pain in the world. Tragic things happen. Yes, there are things to grieve about. But if we were to be open to the idea that bad things could happen, which means that things that shouldn’t happen, do happen, what would it do to our respect for life? If people could die when they shouldn’t, where is the sanctity of life? Where is the significance of a person, of a human being, if it can be snuffed out for no reason, if they can die when they shouldn’t?

It is disrespectful to life itself to think that someone I loved and cherished died when they shouldn’t have died, that their death was unnecessary and meaningless.’

The thing that destroys us, beyond pain, beyond grief, is the assumption that what had happened was not supposed to happen. Its like the rug is pulled out from under our feet. We have no way of predicting what’s coming next, and we can’t live like that.

So now we must rephrase the question: Bad things don’t happen, but painful things certainly do. Why? Why does god make painful things happen? We believe that the pain is part of God’s plan, but that doesn’t make it okay! Why can’t God make the pain stop?

There’s a profound, wonderful exchange Elie Wiesel had with someone who asked Wiesel why God had allowed the Holocaust.

Wiesel said to him “I’m sorry, but I’m not allowed to tell you.”

The man was surprised by this statement and said “are you saying you know why there was a Holocaust, but won’t tell me?”

Wiesel said “that’s right because when I tell you, you will become a Nazi.”

The man said “I’m Jewish! How can I become a Nazi? I’m a Jew!”

Wiesel gave an amazing answer. He said “look, you’re coming to me all distressed, hurt by the incredible tragedy of six million Jews losing their lives and all the suffering of the Holocaust. It disturbs you that there was so much suffering and so much pain, and you’re asking me why that happened which means you want me to explain to you how a Holocaust is a necessary and good thing so that you could sleep better at night. Now imagine, if I give you a satisfying answer, and I say to you ‘the Holocaust happened for this and this reason,’ and it all makes sense. And you say, ‘oh oh okay, good now I understand now I can sleep better, now it doesn’t bother me so much.’ You’ve become a Nazi.”

So, when we ask particularly about the Holocaust, do we want an answer? Or is it the height of chutzpah to even try to answer. How are we going to justify the death of six million Jews? That can’t be, that mustn’t be. So why haven’t we found an answer to bad things happening to good people? Because we don’t want an answer.

We’re complaining; we’re not asking. We’re objecting; we’re saying this is painful, this is terrible, don’t give me an answer, don’t make it sound good. When we see injustice, we don’t want to understand it, we want to end it.

We believe that nothing bad happens because everything that happens is a necessary part of God’s plan. But when it comes to the pain, we don’t want to understand, we want the pain to stop right now.

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What Intimacy Feels Like

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I think we can all agree that in our society today there is an intimacy crisis. We have a problem with intimacy. We’re afraid of intimacy, yet we agonize over the lack of it. What better indication of this than our use of euphemisms to describe what should be very intimate relationships.

It used to be that “dating” described intimate relationships. But we don’t call it “dating” anymore. That sounds too much like something out of a geology class. “I am dating Lucy.”

So then it became “going out.” Remember when people used to go out? Again, that was often used to describe an intimate relationship. Everybody was “going out.”

The ultimate euphemism is the one in vogue today. Today, intimate relationships are “seeing someone.” It’s part of casual conversation: “Are you seeing anyone?” “I’m seeing someone…”

Why the euphemisms?

It’s probably because if you identify the relationship as an attachment, if you think of this as an investment of yourself in a relationship and then the relationship ends, it will hurt too much. You will have to say to yourself, “This relationship fell apart.” But that’s too painful, so instead, what we say is, “Oh, I’m seeing someone.” Should this not work out — “Okay, so I’m not seeing him.” It sounds a lot less painful. We put this buffer around our relationships to keep a distance and to prevent it from becoming too painfully intimate.

Now obviously, intimacy implies vulnerability. If you’re going to be intimate, you’re going to allow someone to see parts of yourself that you’d rather not have people see. You’re going to allow someone into that part of your existence, into that part of your mind and heart that you yourself are not exactly comfortable with and you don’t know how the other person is going to treat it. You don’t know how it’s going to feel to have someone else scrutinize that part of you that you’re a bit ashamed of. But that is the whole meaning of a relationship.

The whole idea of a relationship is that we stop being alone. And the only way to stop being alone is if all of you, particularly that part of yourself that you’re sensitive about, is no longer alone. If you can share that with another person, you have ended your loneliness. As long as that part of you is still alone, then you’re alone. Intimacy is supposed to be the antidote to loneliness, and I think it would be safe to say that with all of our social skills and with all of our partying, we are basically a lonely people.

Intimacy means that you become attached. You become joined. You belong together. Sure, there are difficulties. There is embarrassment. But it’s a shared embarrassment. Whatever happens after that connection takes place, it’s shared together. It brings you closer together, not further apart.

Sexuality, properly understood, is connected to intimacy. Intimacy means that you put aside this fear of exposure, that you overcome this resistance to being known, and you allow a person into that part of your life that is maybe not so comfortable. Then you have entered into an intimacy.

Learn more about the intimacy experience with Doesn’t Anyone Blush Anymore? with Rabbi Manis Friedman

If you don’t believe in God, are you still Jewish?

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If you ask someone coming out of church on a Sunday, “Do you believe in G‑d?” the worshipper is shocked. “What type of question is that? Of course I do!” If you then ask him, “Do you consider yourself religious?” what will the answer be? “Certainly. That’s why I’m here!”

If you go to a mosque on Friday and you ask the average person there, “Do you believe in G‑d?” what will the answer be? “Definitely.” “Do you consider yourself religious?” “Well, obviously.”

This is normal. These conversations make sense.

Now go to a synagogue on Yom Kippur. Ask the Jew sitting in the synagogue on Yom Kippur, fasting, “Do you believe in G‑d?”

You cannot get a straight answer. “Umm, it depends on what you mean by ‘G‑d’.” That’s if they’re the philosophical type. Otherwise they’ll simply say, “What am I? A rabbi? I don’t know.”

So then ask them, “Do you consider yourself religious?” Have you ever asked an American Jew if they’re religious? They crack up laughing. And they assure you that they’re the furthest things from religious. “Are you kidding? Do you know what I eat for breakfast?”

Then every one of them will say, “I had a grandfather, on my mother’s side, oh, that was a religious man. But me . . . ?”

So you ask what appears to be a logical question. “Then why are you here?”

For some reason, this average Jew, who doesn’t believe in G‑d and is very not religious, will look at you like you’re crazy and say, “What do you mean? It’s Yom Kippur!”

This is not normal.

Let’s analyze this for a moment. What is this Jew actually saying?

You asked him if he believes in G‑d, and he said “No.” Or “When I was younger, I used to.” Or “When I get older, I’ll start to.”

“So you don’t believe in G‑d?”

“No. I don’t.”

“Are you religious?”

“Furthest thing from it.”

“So why are you here?”

“Because it’s Yom Kippur!”

What he’s saying is this: “Why am I here? Because G‑d wants a Jew to be in the synagogue on Yom Kippur. So where else should I be?”

So you say: “But you don’t believe in G‑d.”

He says, “So what?” and he doesn’t understand your problem.

He is saying: “Today is Yom Kippur even if I don’t have a calendar. This is a synagogue even if I don’t like it. I am a Jew even if I’m not religious, and G‑d is G‑d even when I don’t believe in Him. So what’s your problem?”

Now that can be dismissed, and unfortunately many of us do dismiss it, as sheer hypocrisy. We say, “You don’t believe in G‑d and you’re not religious—don’t come to the synagogue. Don’t come here just to show how Jewish you are.”

The Lubavitcher Rebbe has a different approach. This insanity is what makes us Jewish. This is what shows how special we are in our relationship with G‑d.

That’s called truth. It’s not about me. I don’t want to be religious. I don’t want to believe in G‑d; I don’t want to hear about this. But He wants me here, so here I am.

The same thing happens on Passover. Every Jew sits by a Seder. Ask the average Jew at a Seder, do you believe in G‑d? Leave me alone. Are you religious? He chokes on the matzah laughing. So you’re celebrating the Exodus from Egypt 3300 years ago? History is not my subject. Then why are you here? Where should I be? It’s Passover! That’s what’s so magnificent about the Jew.

Now, let’s put it all in context. Three thousand, three hundred and twenty-six years ago, G‑d asked us if we would marry Him. We had an extraordinary wedding ceremony, with great special effects—we were wowed. After the wedding He said, “I have a few things I’d like you to take care of for Me, so, please . . . I’ll be right back.” He hasn’t been heard from since. For more than three thousand, three hundred years. He has sent messengers, messages, postcards—you know, writing on the walls . . . but we haven’t heard a word from Him in all this time.

Imagine, a couple gets married, and the man says to his new wife, “Would you make me something to eat, please? I’ll be right back.” She begins preparing. The guy comes back 3300 years later, walks into the house, up to the table, straight to his favorite chair, sits down and tastes the soup that is on the table. The soup is cold.

What will his reaction be? If he’s a wise man, he won’t complain. Rather, he’ll think it’s a miracle that the house is still there, that his table and favorite chair are still there. He’ll be delighted to see a bowl of soup at his place. The soup is cold? Well, yes, over 3300 years, soup can get cold.

Now we are expecting Moshiach. The Rebbe introduced this radical notion that Moshiach is going to come now. What makes that so radical? It means he’s going to come without a two-week notice. We always thought there was going to be some warning, so that we could get our act together before he comes. Moshiach, coming now? But now I’m not ready. I don’t want to be judged the way I am. I need a little bit of a notice.

If Moshiach comes now, and wants to judge, what’s he going to find? Cold soup?

If Moshiach comes now, the Rebbe tells us, he will find an incredibly healthy Jewish people. After 3300 years we are concerned about being Jewish, which means we are concerned about our relationship with G‑d.

Yes, if Moshiach comes today, he’ll find that our soup is cold. We suffer from separation anxiety. We suffer from a loss of connection to our ancestors. We suffer a loss of connection even to our immediate family. The soup is cold. The soup is very cold. But whose fault is that? And who gets the credit for the fact that there is soup altogether?

We are a miracle. All we need to do is tap into it. We are the cure. Not only for ourselves, but also for the whole world. Through us the healing is holistic, it’s natural, it’s organic. Our relationship with G‑d is organic. It’s not a religion that we practice—it’s us, it’s who we are, it’s what we are.

So the Rebbe tells us that the way to go is straight to G‑d. Skip all the steps, skip the Kabbalah, go straight to G‑d and be in touch with your purpose. The purpose is not Kabbalistic. The purpose is personal. G‑d needs you to do a mitzvah. He sent you into this world to be who you are, because only you can do this particular kind of mitzvah. True, the mitzvot are the same for all of us. But when you do it, it’s different, because it’s holistic. It’s with your emotions, with your past problems, with your family background, with your knowledge and with your ignorance. All that comes together and makes your mitzvah holistically unique.

So, let Moshiach come now and catch us here with our cold soup, because we have nothing to be ashamed of. We are truly incredible. When G‑d decided to marry us, He knew He was getting a really good deal.

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The Monthly Marriage

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There are two kinds of human love: the intrinsic, calm love that we feel for people to whom we’re related by birth; and the more intimate, fiery love that exists in marriage. This is why the husband-wife relationship is very different from the parent-child relationship.

The love within a family, between relatives who are born of the same flesh, is innate. The love between a mother and child, a brother and sister, two brothers, two sisters, comes easily. Since they’re related by nature, they feel comfortable with each other. There’s an innate closeness between them, so their love is strong, solid, steady, predictable and calm. There’s no distance that has to be bridged, no difference that has to be overcome.

The love between a husband and wife isn’t like that. Their love wasn’t always there; they didn’t always know each other; they weren’t always related. No matter how well they get to know one another, they aren’t alike. They are different from each other physically, emotionally and mentally. They love each other in spite of the differences and because of them, but there isn’t enough of a commonality between them to create a casual, calm love. The differences remain even after they are married, and the love between them will have to overcome these differences.

After all, husband and wife were once strangers. Male is different from female, so in essence they must remain strangers. Because of this, the love between them can never be casual, consistent or calm.

This acquired love is naturally more intense than the love between brother and sister. When love has to overcome a difference, a distance, an obstacle, it needs energy to leap across and bridge the gap. This is the energy of fiery love.

Because the gap between husband and wife will never really close, their love for one another will continually have to reach across it. There will be distance, separation, then a bridging of distance, and a coming back together, again and again. This sense of distance intensifies the desire to merge.

To come together, man and woman have to overcome certain resistances. A man has to overcome his resistance to commitment, and a woman has to overcome her resistance to invasion. So, in coming together, husband and wife are reaching across great emotional distances, which intensifies their love. The absence of innate love actually makes the heart grow fonder.

If a brother and sister were to have a fiery love, their relationship would suffer. It’s not the appropriate emotion for a brother and sister to have. Their love thrives when it’s unbroken, unchallenged, constant, and calm. Not that they can’t have disagreements, but those disagreements don’t disrupt their love. On the other hand, if a husband and wife develop a calm love for each other, their relationship will not thrive. If they are too familiar with each other, too comfortable with each other, like brother and sister, their love will not flourish. True intimacy in marriage—fiery love—is created by constant withdrawal and reunion.

If a husband and wife are never separate, their love begins to sour because they are not creating an environment appropriate to that love. The environment of constant togetherness is not conducive to man-woman love; it’s the environment for brother-sister love or parent-child love.

That’s why the ideal blessing for a married couple is, “Your honeymoon should never end.” A honeymoon—when two people who were once separate come together for the first time—should never end, because that’s what a marriage thrives on.

The love between a man and a woman thrives on withdrawal and reunion, separation and coming together. The only way to have an environment conducive to that kind of relationship is to provide a separation.

There are many kinds of separations. A couple can live in different places, have differences of opinion, or get into arguments and be angry at each other. Often the arguing isn’t for the sake of arguing, but for the sake of creating a distance so that husband and wife can feel like they’re coming together. That’s not a very happy solution. Making up after an argument may be good for a marriage on occasion, but not on a regular basis. It isn’t a good idea to go looking for arguments, especially since separations can take a more positive form.

The physical separation given to us by G‑d for that purpose is a much happier solution. That separation is created by observing a collection of Torah laws deriving from Leviticus 15, called “the laws of Family Purity” or “the laws of mikvah.” The word mikvah refers to the ritual bath in which traditional Jewish women, since the days of the Bible, have immersed themselves following their monthly period and before renewing sexual relations with their husbands.

According to these laws of mikvah, during the time that a Jewish woman is menstruating, and for one week afterward, she is physically off-limits to her husband. For those days, the physical separation is total: no touching, no sitting on a swing together, no sleeping in the same bed.

Through the ages, all sorts of explanations have been given for these laws, but all of them have one thing in common: separation protects and nurtures the intimate aspect of marriage, which thrives on withdrawal and reunion.

This understanding is not unique to Jews. In most cultures throughout the world, the ancients practiced varying degrees of separation between husband and wife during the woman’s menstrual period. Some, such as certain tribes of American Indians, actually had separate living quarters, menstruant tents, where a woman would stay during her period. Later, these customs deteriorated into myths, taboos, fears, superstitions, hygienic arguments and other rationalizations, in an attempt to make sense of a delicate and sensitive subject. But separation was such a universal practice that I wonder if human beings knew instinctively that male-female love thrives on withdrawal and reunion, on coming together following a separation. The body is actually respecting an emotional state. Just as the love between man and woman cannot be maintained at full intensity all the time, but needs a certain creative tension without which it will not flourish, the body has a similar need.

As far as Jews are concerned, we know these cyclical changes were created for that very purpose. This is much more than a coincidence: it is how the body reflects the soul, how the body is created in the image of the soul.

Like everything else that exists in our lives, the cycle of withdrawal and reunion that exists in marriage is meant to be a reflection of our relationship with G‑d. The two kinds of love, calm love and fiery love, exist not only among human beings, but between ourselves and G‑d.

When we refer to G‑d as our Father, it’s an innate and intrinsic relationship. We don’t have to work for it; it’s just there. It’s a steady, constant love, an indestructible love, a love compared to water-calm love.

But we also talk about how G‑d is infinite and we are finite; G‑d is true and we are not; G‑d is everything and we are barely something. Because of these differences, we feel a great distance from G‑d and the need to create a relationship with Him. Establishing a relationship in spite of the differences, in spite of the distance, is more like a marriage. That’s a stormy relationship—fiery love.

More precisely, our soul loves G‑d like a child loves a parent, because our soul is of G‑d. That love is innate and calm. When G‑d tells this soul to go down into a body, that’s a separation. Then our soul loves G‑d with a fiery love, which, like the love between a husband and wife, does not come automatically. Acquired love is by nature intense and fiery.

Eventually, the soul will be reunited with G‑d more intimately than before, just as the intimacy between a husband and wife is deeper when they come together following a separation. Therefore, when G‑d says that a husband and wife have to be modest with one another, that they may be together and then separate, come together and separate again, according to a monthly cycle, it’s not an artificial imposition. It may produce discipline, which is nice. It may keep the marriage fresh, which is important. But there’s more to it than that. It is, in fact, the natural reflection of the type of love that must exist between husband and wife. In order to nurture that stormy, fiery love, our way of living has to correspond to the emotions we are trying to nurture and retain.

If there’s going to be a separation—and there needs to be one—consider the following: rather than wait for a separation to develop, where a husband and wife get into a fight or lose interest in each other, let’s take the cue from the body and create a physical, rather than an emotional, separation. Everyone is saying, “I need my space.” It’s true. Keeping the laws of mikvah, when they apply, is one way of creating that space.

Learn more about Marriage with our Marriage Course! 

What If I Mess Up My Marriage?

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Why does G‑d tell you how to get divorced, if He believes in marriage?

Not only does He believe in marriage, He believes that you should be married, and He wants you to be married to the person you are married to.

Why, then, does He allow you to get divorced? Not only allows it, but tells you how to do it?

As with all G‑d’s instructions in the Torah, getting divorced is a mitzvah, a divine commandment. In fact, His instructions on divorce are very explicit. But why?

Because, having said what His instructions for marriage are, G‑d doesn’t abandon you when you get in trouble.

Because He is merciful and compassionate, kind and considerate, He gives you a second set of instructions, in case you can’t follow the first set.

That’s like a cookbook that tells you what to do if you ruin the recipe. Two of my children were once following the instructions on a package of cookie mix. One of them read the instructions aloud, while the other prepared the mix. The child who was reading said, “Now you’re supposed to stir the dough fifty times.” The other one exclaimed, “But I’m already up to a hundred! What do we do now?”

So the first child said, “I don’t know. I’ll go back and see what it says to do.” He checked the box, but the instructions didn’t say anything about stirring the dough too many times. The two of them came to me and asked what they should do. “Should we throw it out? Should we start all over? The instructions don’t tell us what to do if we mess up.”

G‑d isn’t like that. That’s not how Torah—His set of instructions—is written. He tells you what to do if you ruin the recipe.

It’s as though G‑d says to you, “This is the person I have selected for you. This is the person I want you to be married to. You can’t? It hurts too much? Then don’t. Leave. But when you do, please shut the door behind you.”

So He not only tells us we may get divorced, He tells us how. “Here is the divine commandment for how to get in, and here is another divine commandment for how to get out.”

G‑d talks to us that way because He’s married to us.

Like everything else that exists in this world, marriage is a reflection of what exists in the spiritual world. There is an absolute marriage that exists between G‑d and us.

Marriage requires that something which you take seriously and strictly upon yourself, you are very lenient and accommodating about with your partner. G‑d is married to us, and that He takes very seriously. He is committed to the relationship. Therefore, He is lenient and accommodating when we don’t always live up to His expectations.

G‑d says to us: “You messed up? Then try again. You blew it? Then here is what you have to do. You forgot? Then next time, try to remember. You forgot a second time? Try a third time.” That’s how we know that He’s committed to the marriage.

Sometimes G‑d does even better than that. He asks us what our intentions were. For instance, He tells us not to mix meat and milk. What happens if we do? “Well,” He says, “it depends on how much milk there was, and how much meat there was. And did you do it on purpose? Or was it an accident? If it was an accident, this is how you fix it. If it was on purpose, try not to let it happen again.”

G‑d expects you to be married, and to the person He has chosen for you. But He is compassionate and understanding when you tell Him that it’s just too difficult.

Maybe He intended for you to get married and then get out; maybe the laws for divorce are your “escape clause.”

No.

G‑d intends for you to stay married. But if you can’t, if it’s too difficult for you, He understands, and He will help you out.

Does that mean your marriage was a mistake? You took a gamble, you lost, now admit it and get out? You made a mistake, so G‑d is telling you how to fix it?

Wrong again.

Your marriage wasn’t a mistake. It was intended since the beginning of time. When G‑d created your soul, six thousand years ago, He created your “intended” along with you.

Saying that you married the wrong person is like saying you gave birth to the wrong baby. Could you have somebody else’s baby? A woman once said something like that to me. “You have how many children?” she asked, incredulously. I don’t remember how many we had at that time, maybe ten or twelve.

“Don’t you know there are some people who can’t have children?” She was indignant. It was as if she were saying, “Give somebody else a break. Share a little. Don’t have so many kids; let other people have a few.” It doesn’t happen like that. You don’t give birth to someone else’s children. The children that you have were meant to be yours.

As Einstein said, “G‑d doesn’t play dice with the universe.” If G‑d doesn’t play dice with atoms or molecules, then He doesn’t play dice with hearts or minds or souls.

You are married to the person you are intended to be married to. G‑d arranged it. He set it up; He predestined it from the beginning. In other words, His mind is made up that that’s the way He wants it.

You don’t want it? Fine. Since He is married to you, He says, “Whatever you want.”

Will it spoil “some vast eternal plan,” as Tevye asks in Fiddler on the Roof? The answer is yes. Yes, if you get divorced, you will spoil some vast eternal plan—G‑d’s plan. But will He let you? Will He help you? Yes, He will let you, and He will help you.

The reason that G‑d allows divorce, and commands divorce, is because by doing so, He is teaching you how to be married.

So even though G‑d has rules, even though He has laws, even though He has divine commandments, when you sin, He tells you: “You messed up? Try again. You made a mistake and you admit it? Don’t worry about it; you’ll do better next time. You did it ten times already? Ask for forgiveness, and I’ll forgive you ten times.”

That’s exactly how you should be married—by treating your spouse the way G‑d treats you. With that much mercy and compassion, that much kindness and consideration.

Your wife did it to you again? Forgive her again. She did it ten times? Forgive her ten times.

Be as committed to making this relationship last as G‑d has been committed to making His relationship with you last. The moral is, by offering to help you get divorced, G‑d is helping you stay married for all time. The way He has stayed married to you.

 

 

The Morality of Weakness: Defining Sexual Harassment

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Our first dilemma in dealing with this issue is clarifying exactly what constitutes sexual harassment. Let us look at the following two scenarios:

During a coffee break at an office, a man puts his arm around a woman by the coffee machine and says: “How is it going?”

She responds: “Please take your hands off my shoulder.”

“Lighten up,” he says with a smile. “It’s only a friendly gesture. We’re in a friendly office and we want to keep a friendly atmosphere here.”.

“Do you want me to report you?” She asks angrily.

“Lady, you’ve got a serious problem. You’re overreacting. Lighten up!”

Scenario #2:

A woman walks into a man’s office after hours, closes the door, and says:

“There’s nobody else here now.”

The man very nicely requests:

“Excuse me, please, but could you please leave the door open?”

She says: “What are you afraid of?”

If either of the above ever reached a courtroom, the judge would have a hard time deciding. Is this harassment? Maybe he was just having a bad day. Maybe her imagination was working overtime. Maybe they should both be seeing therapists for their problems.

Even in more obvious cases, it’s difficult to reach a point of clarity about the exact nature of sexual harassment. Remember the Thomas-Hill case that engrossed the entire country in 1991? Every time you turned on the TV, glanced at a magazine or read a paper, someone, somewhere was asking: Is he telling the truth? Is she lying? Is he covering up? Are they both lying? Yet for all the debate, it was difficult for people to figure out exactly what crime had been committed. Under which category in the Ten Commandments did it fall? Did it belong under the category of “Do not covet your neighbor’s wife”? What if she were single? The episode seemed to indicate that society was not as intimidated by harassment itself as much as it was terrified by the fact that it didn’t know how to categorize harassment.

What is Morality?

In order to gain a better understanding of what harassment is, one must first have a clear picture of what morality encompasses.

In simple terms morality emerges from the conscious realization that, “Although I may be bigger than you, I may not use this to take advantage of you. The fact that I am rich and you are poor, or that I am strong and you are weak, healthy while you are sick, does not entitle me to take advantage of your disadvantage.”

G‑d created a world in which no two people are equal. Each has some advantage over the other, be it in size, speed, intelligence, material wealth or connections. And whenever two people get together there exists always the temptation for one to take advantage of the other. G‑d deliberately created a world of imbalance and expressly commanded us not to take advantage of that fact. It is precisely the restraint that we, as human beings, are called upon to manifest that sets us apart from the animals and endows us with our morality. In a world of equal wealth, equal size and knowledge, there would be no crime, but also no morality.

As a rule, human beings try very hard to act with the kind of dignified morality that distinguishes man from beast. They take pride in the fact that although their physical needs are similar to those of animals, they do not live solely by the dictates of the body, but also by the dictates of their intelligence. And while humans have certain physical limitations, they can rise above them when called upon to do so. A mother may be exhausted, but when her baby cries, she finds the energy somehow and rushes to comfort her child. It is this ability to go beyond the confines of our own physicality, to regulate it according to the specific circumstances, that makes us human. As we grow and learn, we shift the center of gravity from our physical needs, to our mind and soul, toward our ultimate purpose.

Respecting Vulnerability

Seen in these terms the nature of sexual harassment takes on a new light.

Unlike other assaults, the sexual assault makes us victims of our own sexuality. For this is a weakness we all have. We are sexual beings, and our sexuality came to us long before we knew what was happening. It’s inherent. It’s part of us now, and we spend a good part of our existence trying to master this thing, to control it. Most of us learn how to integrate our sexuality into the overall structure of our beings which allows us to get on with the business of living. But it’s still an area of considerable weakness — a center of vulnerability. If I’m sitting in my office late at night, and a fellow female worker appears in the doorway, enters the room, gently closes the door, that person is messing with my head, creating a forced intimacy that is not called for. She’s trying to stir up something she has no business stirring up, because here I am trying to keep it all under control so that I can get on with my work and go on home to my spouse. Now if she persists, smiles with a little hint of suggestion in her eyes, and ventures a little closer. . . I’m probably going to end up in one of two situations, both of which are uncomfortable — disgusted with myself or pretty hot under the collar. Neither is where I want to be at this particular moment in time. My response is my business either way, but the person who came through that door, whether or not he/she intended to elicit some kind of sexual activity, is nevertheless guilty of sexual harassment.

Taking advantage of another’s weakness in this manner is an insult to their intelligence, an assumption that they are living by the dictates of the body alone, and it demonstrates a total lack of respect for the human condition.

A commonplace scenario among teenagers further illustrates the boundaries that are all too often crossed in cases of sexual harassment. “Come on,” the guy says. “Don’t tell me you don’t enjoy it. You like it just as much as I do.” (Taking this to its extreme, the rapist says the same thing to the victim: “You enjoy it.”) It’s true that she may enjoy it. But why? Because the body is a physical entity which enjoys any attention, contact or experience it receives. That’s the nature of the physical body which remains sexual from the moment it comes into being until the moment it ceases to breathe. If we were bodies alone we would be full-time sexual beings. And if we say no, it’s not because the body can’t handle it, but because the soul can’t live with it. It may feel good to the body, but not to the soul. The teenage girl might think “Why do you continue to look at my body and ignore my soul?”

A human being, the way G‑d created him or her, is always a sexual being. What we do individually with our sexuality depends on who we are, what we were raised to believe, and what our society has taught us. Yet all of us, regardless of upbringing or background, have that common thread of sexuality running through us. G‑d did not create it so that we would suppress it to the point where we could no longer feel it, but He did provide us with a series of commandments which act as guidelines so that we do not abuse it in ourselves or others, so that we do not cross over those boundaries into the arena of harassment.

In conclusion, harassment indicates a lack of understanding of and respect for human sexuality. We can’t just turn it on or off whenever we wish. It’s always there just under the surface. We keep it there under the surface. And when someone comes and tries to force it to the forefront of our beings, when we don’t want it, or are not ready — that’s harassment.

The antidote to sexual harassment is to understand that being a sexual being is not abnormal, but extremely normal. That’s why we need the Torah‘s commandments. Without commandments we would be lost. What was the crime in the Thomas-Hill fiasco? The crime was the essence of immorality. It was not any specific sin, but the total lack of morality. The solution is to be sensitive to the feelings of others, to other people’s sensitivities, meaning, be respectful of the weaknesses you perceive in others.

Everyone is entitled to their weaknesses. We work on overcoming them. But you have to respect the space that others create around themselves. Morality says: when you see a weakness in someone, don’t take advantage of it. Respect it, go around it, don’t disturb it; don’t enter where you are not invited. When we understand this, I believe, it would make us all better people.

 

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