Divrei Torah

by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – April 20, 2020

The Torah portion of Tazria begins with a small section on the procedure to be followed pursuant to the birth of a child: “When a woman conceives and gives birth to a male, she shall be contaminated for a seven-day period … On the eighth day, the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised.  For thirty-three days she shall remain in blood of purity … If she gives birth to a female, she shall be contaminated for two weeks…and for sixty-six days she shall remain in blood of purity.  Upon the completion of the days of her purity for a son or for a daughter, she shall bring a sheep within its first year for a burnt-offering, and a young dove or turtledove for a sin-offering … But if she cannot afford a sheep, then she shall take two turtledoves or two young doves, one for a burnt-offering and one for a sin-offering.”
The aforementioned relatively small section regarding the birth of a child is immediately followed by a rather lengthy discourse extending to the end of the Torah portion of Tazria and into most of the next Torah portion of Metzora on procedures to be followed in the event of being afflicted by a condition called tzara’at.  Our Sages explained that this malady had outward quite unpleasant physical symptoms that would actually result from moral defects including slanderous speech, conceit and envy towards others, where the thrust of the Torah instructions were intended to alter and turn back the seriously defective causes of its appearance (Babylonian Talmud, Arakhin 16a; see also Rashi on Vayikra 14:1-4).
Included in the instructions for one afflicted with this highly uncomfortable condition of tzara’at was his or her being isolated from the rest of society whereby, away from normal and usual distractions and preoccupations with normal daily routines, the individual, alone with his or her thoughts, can allocate the time needed for proper contemplation and introspection in an attempt to understand the unfolding of his or her current situation and its causes and one’s concomitant behavior which can, in the end, finally correct those actions and outlook that led to this affliction.
Indeed, difficulties, maladies, hardships and afflictions brought upon individuals, according to the Scriptures and Talmud, should be treated as agents for self-correction – not depression, panic or fear.  When times suddenly become difficult and hardship abruptly abounds, we are not to get enveloped in fear.  As the wise King Solomon taught (Mishle 3:25), “Do not fear sudden fright” or as the newly elected U.S. President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt , proclaimed during his inaugural speech the now famous words, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”.  Rather, one should engage in introspection and contemplation on how the hardship can help to understand how to correct one’s behavior.  As our Sages instruct (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 5a), “If one sees that troubles are coming upon him, he should investigate his conduct, for it says [Eikha 3:40], ‘Let us search and examine our ways and return to G-d.’”
Sadly, the entire world has recently been overwhelmed by a plague, or pandemic, of unprecedented proportions that has been plunging scores of individuals world-wide into the claws of ravaging illness and even taken the lives of so many.  This plague has been so severe as to cause governments around the world to impose isolation of its populations and partial or total lockdowns of cities to attempt to stem the perilous tide of this pandemic.  As a result, workplaces, theaters, sports arenas and even synagogues have been shut down, throwing vast populations into unemployment and virtual self-quarantine and isolation within a matter of weeks, threatening the economies of countries all over the world as well as the emotional stability of individuals virtually chained to their homes with practically nowhere to go.  This calls on us, as per our Sages’ aforementioned instructions, to ponder how this horrific situation can help us correct behavioral patterns that may help persuade our Father in Heaven to turn things around.
What then can we learn from all this?  How then can this entire “situation” be an opportunity to learn to better our behavior?  Well, at the very least, many individuals or even societies the world over who until now have been quite lax – to put it mildly – have been prompted to engage for the first time in their lives in proper hygienic practices.  Numerous people and peoples all over the world who had tended to crowd each other and virtually “breathe down the throats” of their fellow man have learned through “social distancing” to curb such habits, thereby helping to preserves the health of others and their own health.  Throngs of humans previously preoccupied with their work and the pursuit of “making a living” or academic or artistic pursuits have been forced to spend much more time at home and learn to better adapt to and enjoy the company of their spouses and children.  So many of us being so severely restricted for so long should help us identify better and increase our sensitivity towards so many of the elderly and infirm whose health situations have always restricted their movements but with not enough consideration given to their plights.  Multitudes, as synagogues have been forced to close, are relegated to pray in isolation, without the pressures of peers who often distract from the task at hand and without being pressured to keep up with others who pray faster, have more of an opportunity to concentrate on their prayer and to think of to whom they are praying and what they are saying.  Scores of individuals forced into unemployment may learn more to identify with people who through no fault of their own become unemployed and are unable to sustain themselves and their families.  And, as synagogues, yeshivas and study halls are indefinitely closed, many, who can no longer rely on routine pre-defined study programs nor escape to trips or other retreats, must learn to think for themselves what to study to heighten their understanding and bond with G-d.  And millions worldwide, seeing how unstable life can be, can be prompted to begin to take life’s positives and negatives into a more realistic light and, therefore, resolve to abandon some of the more deleterious modes of behavior.  And, of course, hopefully, many will appreciate more the ability to visit with friends and family and view the wonders of nature in cities and towns all over the world; and, as so many wealthy and well to do individuals succumb to this disease and even many of them who are no longer alive, we hopefully have learned the value of health over other pursuits.
Maybe the reason that the discourse on tzara’at is so lengthy and immediately follows the subject of the birth of a child is that the subject of tzara’at is so important since it is meant to inspire personal introspection and contemplation on what is right and wrong and what we should do to improve ourselves – something that we should always consider – and this subject immediately follows that of the birth of a child because, from virtually the day that we are born, we need to keep this in mind.
As the isolation of the one afflicted with tzara’at prompted introspection that could lead to curbing negative forms of behavior, may the isolation and restrictions accompanying this horrific pandemic, albeit very difficult, and the many resulting sick and dead being ever so saddening, prompt all of us to proper introspection to change our negative traits.  In line with the verse, “Let us search and examine our ways and return to G-d,” may this unusual experience be a springboard to strengthen our bond with our G-d, with our land and with our people.  May we strengthen our bond with the Al-Mighty and engage in the requisite introspection, and may G-d be impressed by our thoughts and actions and choose to, in turn, curb this entire situation speedily.  May we never again know of such sad and frightening circumstances as we have seen over the last number of weeks, and may the cessation of this experience usher in a better world for all of us.

by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – October 28, 2019

A story is told of a group of soldiers who were on leave from the Israeli Army.  This group was given a number of hours, perhaps a day or two, to be away from base.  The soldiers were ordered to return by a given time on a given day.  The soldiers immensely enjoyed their time away, taking full advantage of whatever indulgences came to mind, and lost sight of their return time.  As the time neared, the soldiers realized that they had no chance to return on time.  To try to avoid serious punishment, they devised a plan as a group, vowing to each other that they would all offer the same excuse.  They all got themselves together and returned to base – significantly late.  Each of the soldiers, when asked by the commander for the reason behind his tardiness, declared that he along with his friends, when the return time approached, searched for means of transportation.  The only means of transportation that they could find were some mules!  So their return was understandably delayed.  After all, mules can only travel so fast.  By the time the last of these soldiers was called in by the commander, the last soldier could see that the commander was visibly upset.  In fact, the commander bellowed at this last soldier, “What’s your excuse?  So help me if you tell me that you too could not find any transportation except for some mule!”  Seeing his commander’s anger rising, the soldier responded that this is not what happened to him.  He did not return on a mule.  He, in fact, returned by automotive vehicle!  Bewildered, the commander asked, “Then why did you get back late?”  “Well,” the soldier responded, “I couldn’t go very fast following an entire herd of mules that were on the road!”  That is why he came late to base.  One can imagine what the outcome of this was!
In Noah’s time, all except for Noah and his immediate family indulged fully in all pleasures that came to mind.  Selfishness and self-centeredness abounded leading to the worst forms of decadence and depravity.  No responsibility was practiced.  No concern for anyone or anything other than the individual’s own physical pleasures.  No thought was given to the meaning of their lives or existence that was brought about only a few generations earlier by the Al-Mighty G-d, Creator of the Universe.  G-d asked Noah to occupy his time for 120 years to build an ark in order that anyone who would see him should wonder and ask about it.  When asked, as our Sages tell us in various Midrashic sources, as cited by Rashi (Bereshit 6:14), Noah would proclaim that humanity had “overstayed its welcome” and must return before the 120 years come to an end.  They must return to G-d in mind and in practice, giving up their excessive indulgences and beginning to act with more meaning, with more care for others, with more understanding of the bigger meaning to their existence and their lives.  Unfortunately, no one heeded the message.  No one heeded G-d’s orders to return.  No one paid heed to the final return time that the Commander in Chief, the Al-Mighty G-d, declared for them.  They indulged too heavily in the world’s physical pleasures and, thereby, lost sight of G-d, a higher meaning to life, and to G-d’s holding out His hand, so to speak, to them to give them one last chance.  So they received their punishment in the form of a tremendous catastrophic Flood.
There is only so much that any commander can allow.  Soldiers must show some discipline.  Soldiers must show some responsibility.  Some deviance from the ideal can be tolerated.  But there is a line that cannot be crossed and, when that line is crossed, punishment is inevitable.  Soldiers need to be mindful of this, whether they are soldiers of a given country’s army or virtual soldiers of the army of G-d Himself.  There are regulations that are set forth – for good reason – and those regulations must be heeded, and discipline and responsibility must be maintained – for our own good; and if regulations are wantonly ignored and discipline trampled and responsibility forsaken, retribution must be demanded to uphold the lives of those who do understand the importance of these values.
Noah and his immediate family understood the higher meaning and importance to the life granted them by their Creator.  He understood the secondary nature of life’s physical pleasures to that of higher values such as responsibility to others and caring for others.  As a result, he consented to be G-d’s representative to help humanity as a whole see the error of their ways and get them to change course.  Unfortunately, others did not understand this.  Their indulgences in physical and monetary excesses overtook their minds.  They wanted only more physical pleasures regardless of whom they harmed in the process.  They only wanted more monies and riches regardless of whose rights to their own hard earned money they ignored.  Eventually, their wanton behavior “caught up with them” and they fell into oblivion and Noah and his family were saved.
An amusing anecdote is said of a truck driver driving his large vehicle down a major highway.  In his journey, he was approaching an overpass that had a sign warning that on some of  its lanes the maximum clearance was eight (8) feet.  This truck driver’s vehicle was nine (9) feet tall – and the truck driver knew it!  Instead of switching to a lane that had higher clearance or getting off at the exit prior to this overpass, this truck driver continued on with no change whatsoever and eventually smashed the top of his truck into the overhanging bridge.  When asked why he did this, he responded, “Well, I looked to the right and looked to the left and checked my rear view mirror and didn’t see any police.  So I didn’t think I would be caught!”
Heeding regulations, abiding by discipline and showing responsibility is not a matter of “getting caught” or its avoidance.  Some lose sight of the higher meaning behind such practices.  Such were the practices of the generation of the Flood as well as the aforementioned truck driver.  They are so involved in their wants and desires that they cannot see or understand anything else.  They cannot understand their responsibility to others nor even to themselves.  They lose sight of the bigger picture.  It is not just a matter of not being “caught” or being able “to get away with it.”  As those who put signs on a road have a good reason for the regulations they enact, all the more so G-d the supreme Architect of this world has a good reason for His regulations and it behooves us to show the responsibility in trying to understand the importance of this and heeding His regulations – as Noah did.
We are soldiers of G-d who have been granted life by G-d and also bequeathed G-d’s guide for life, the Torah, to consider higher thoughts and meanings in our existence, to care for others and express responsibility to others and ourselves.  Let us not lose sight of this – for our own sakes.  May we, thereby, not, G-d forbid, meet the same end as that of the generation of the Flood.  May we, thereby, continue to live and thrive as did Noah and his family.

by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – November 29, 2016

In the beginning of the Torah section of Toldot (Bereshit 25:27), we read, “And the lads grew up and Esav became a man who knows trapping, a man of the field; but Jacob was a wholesome man, abiding in tents.”  Regarding these descriptions, Rashi comments that “a man who knows trapping” refers to Esav’s ability “to ensnare and to deceive his father,” whereas Jacob’s being “wholesome” means that “he is not expert” in Esav’s behavior, but, instead, “as is his heart, so is his mouth.”  Rashi sums up, “One who is not sharp in deceiving is called wholesome.”

In contrast to the aforementioned description of Jacob, his actions, on the other hand, as reported in the Torah, would appear to deviate considerably from that of an individual “not sharp in deceiving”!  In fact, throughout the Torah’s anecdotes concerning Jacob’s life and travels, we find Jacob to be rather astute in outsmarting, first, his brother Esav, and, later, his uncle Lavan in utilizing quite clever and, one may say, duplicitous methods!  More puzzling is the fact that Jacob is depicted throughout Jewish literature as the paradigm of truth (see Micha 7:20 et al).  How do Jacob’s seemingly duplicitous actions jibe with his depiction as representing truth?

The Rebbe of Lublin, as cited by Ma’ayana Shel Torah (Bereshit 25:27),   helps to clarify the seeming inconsistencies in Jacob’s character and the depiction of Jacob as representing truth by analyzing the matter more acutely.  He points out that, to successfully promote truth and goodness, one must be in control of his character traits fully, knowing when and how to use them properly, for, at times, one must make use of an otherwise negative trait for good purposes, as our Sages say, “Whoever becomes compassionate when cruelty is in place, in the end becomes cruel when compassion is in place” (Kohelet Rabba, chap. 7).  It is not enough, then, to develop the trait of compassion; one must also learn to control this trait and use it appropriately.  Therefore, Jacob is not only referred to as “wholesome” but as a “wholesome man”.  He was a “man” able to control and master his wholesomeness, knowing when to exercise it and when to put it aside, in order not to be taken unfair advantage of, following in G-d’s ways, as King David (Tehillim 18:27) extols the actions of G-d saying “with the crooked you act perversely.”  This is what Rashi alludes to when he says, “One who is not sharp in deceiving is called wholesome.”  One who does not know at all how to deceive is called “wholesome”.  Jacob, however, although usually distancing himself, in practice and in thought, from his brother’s ongoing pattern of deception and deceit, knew when he needed to “fight fire with fire”.  He knew how not to take the trait of compassion and honesty to self-defeating lengths.  He knew when the situation called for the opposite.  He knew that being compassionate did not include allowing those who are evil and lack compassion to thrive.  He knew that promoting truth did not just mean not to tell a lie even if it meant allowing truth as a whole to be vanquished.  He knew that to promote the proper spreading of real truth, and not let true and wholesome beliefs passed down from his grandfather Abraham to his father Isaac to be snuffed out by his consistently dishonest, deceptive and immoral brother Esav, negative traits, that are otherwise normally to be shunned, need, sometimes, to be employed, with appropriate control.  Jacob represented truth because Jacob knew what it really means to promote truth.

With the crooked, you must be vigilant, not to let them get the upper hand.  Allowing them to succeed will allow evil and wrong to flourish and suppress good and right.  We must learn from Jacob.  We must generally act “wholesomely” with great compassion, caring and absolute honesty, but we must know when and how to suppress this nature when we deal with the Esav’s and Lavan’s of the world who do not know or care what “wholesomeness” is.  Only so can we ensure that the world as a whole will be a wholesome one.  Only so can good succeed and righteousness flourish.

by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – November 8, 2016

The Torah section of Lekh Lekha marks the beginning of a rivalry – a long standing rivalry that continues to this day.  We read in this Torah section that our forefather Abraham and his wife Sarah are childless for many years (Bereshit 15:2-3).  Sarah then offers her maidservant Hagar to her husband in the hope that she may bear him a child in Sarah’s stead, and, indeed, Hagar gives birth to a son, fathered by Abraham, and they call this son Yishmael (Bereshit 16).  Further reading in the Torah concerning this son Yishmael along with commentaries from our Sages tell us of this son’s misbehavior, noticed especially by Sarah, as well as aggressiveness and even violence vis a vis the son that is eventually born to Sarah and Abraham by the grace of G-d Himself (Bereshit 21:9 and Rashi ad locum; Bereshit Rabbah 53:11).

In a recent discussion, the contemporary rosh yeshiva of Baltimore’s Yeshiva Ner Yisrael, R. Yissachar Frand, brought to the fore some noteworthy observations related to the above.

In the Torah, we read (Devarim 21:18-21), “If a man will have a wayward and rebellious son, who does not listen to the voice of this father and to the voice of his mother, and they discipline him, but he does not listen to them.  Then his father and mother shall grasp him and take him out to the elders of his city and the gate of his place.  They shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This son of ours is wayward and rebellious; he does not listen to our voice’…And all the men of his city shall pelt him with stones and he shall die, and you shall [thereby] destroy the evil from your midst.”  The wayward and rebellious son, ben sorer u’moreh in Hebrew, is a young man who has embarked upon on a way of life that our Sages explain will eventually bring him to destruction and bloodshed.  Rashi ad locum, in citing our Sages (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 68b, 71b), points out, “’The wayward and rebellious son is judged based on what would be his end’…The Torah [thereby] says, ‘Let him die innocent [so to speak] rather than die guilty [of having actually committed a capital offense]’.”

R. Frand notes that the great medieval Torah scholar R. Eliyahu Mizrachi (c. 1455 – 1525) asks that this implementation of justice in anticipation of future wrongdoing seems to contradict a principle introduced in the following Torah section concerning Yishmael.  We read (Bereshit 21:17) that at the time that the young Yishmael was crying out while dying of thirst in the desert, “And G-d heard the voice of the youth and an angel of G-d called to [his mother] Hagar from the heavens and said to her, ‘…Fear not, for G-d has heeded the cry of the youth as he is there’.”  Hagar is informed that her son will be treated “as he is there,” in Hebrewba’asher hu sham.  Rashi ad locum cites our Sages saying that this means, “In accordance with the deeds that he does at present he is judged, and not in accordance with what he is destined to do.  For the ministering angels were impugning [Yishmael] and saying [to G-d], ‘Master of the World!  He whose descendants are destined to put your children to death by thirst would You cause a well to rise up for him?’  And He answered them, ‘What is he now: righteous or wicked?’  They said to Him, ‘Righteous.’  He said to them, ‘In accordance with his deeds at present I judge him.’”

Imagine, R. Frand comments, had Yishmael not survived this episode what the world would be like! Imagine the suffering that could have been averted, not only that which the Jewish people currently suffers but that the entire world currently suffers at the hands of Yishmael’s descendants!  All this suffering could have been averted had the well in the desert not miraculously appeared in order to save Hagar’s son!  Indeed, this was the argument of the ministering angels to G-d: You will miraculously save this individual whose descendants will kill your children?  And in response, G-d asks the angels whether the son of Hagar is currently guilty or innocent.  After the angels concede that at this particular juncture in his life the young Yishmael was innocent, G-d tells them, “I judge people only based on their current status”.

R. Mizrachi, R. Frand notes, consequently puts before us what seems to be a blatant contradiction: Whereas we kill the wayward son based on anticipated future actions, G-d refuses to harm Yishmael, and even saves him, since G-d only judges an individual based on his current status!

R. Frand points out that a work by the name of Bei Chiyah suggests an answer to R. Mizrachi’s question. Our Sages (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh Hashana 18a) discuss two individuals who had a similar illness or were both accused of the same crime and sentenced to the same capital punishment.   Although both face identical situations, it can happen that one of the ill individuals is cured and the other dies or one of those sentenced to death is executed and the other is freed.  How does this happen?  We are told, “This one prayed and was answered; this one prayed and was not answered.  This one prayed a complete prayer and the other one prayed an incomplete prayer.’”  The answer appears to be that one prayed whole-heartedly with full devotion and intent and was therefore saved.  On the other hand, the individual who had the same illness or the same sentence but did not recover or escape his punishment was lacking in the quality of his prayer.  Since our Sages attribute the dichotomy of outcomes to a qualitative difference in their respective prayers and do not entertain the possibility that one had a positive outcome due to his many merits as opposed to the other’s debits, it is suggested in Bei Chiyah that we see from our Sages that one’s praying a “complete prayer” has the capacity to save him despite the “credits” or “debits” he may or may not have based on his past actions.  A person may have accumulated numerous terrible sins, but the intensity of his prayer can overcome those negatives.  In contrast, one may have accumulated many merits but did not adequately pray at the time of crises and may, therefore, not survive.

It is then suggested that this can help resolve the aforementioned contradiction.  The reason Yishmael was saved was not only as a result of being judged based on his present status.  In fact, we see from the wayward son, the ben sorer u’moreh, that one may be executed based on future deeds.  However, by Yishmael there was another factor, namely ““And G-d heard the voice of the youth.”  Yishmael prayed – fervently.  Consequently, in spite of the fact that his descendants were destined to kill members of the Jewish nation and should have been “judged based on his end,” his intensity of prayer overcame his future faults.

In light of the above, R. Frand concludes that, since the descendants of Yishmael are not idol worshippers and are very serious about their prayers, even praying five times a day – without fail – this would seem to have saved them and given them the means to endure to this day; and, to overcome them, it would be incumbent on us to pay closer attention to our own prayers, treating our prayers with the full seriousness and intensity due them.

May we all turn to the Al-Mighty Creator of the Universe, Who is the only One Who can truly save or protect us from harm, and may we pray for our needs with full devotion, intensity, seriousness and understanding; and may G-d, in turn, bring all our sorrows and pain to an end as He ushers in a new era under the leadership of His servant, the Messiah, may he arrive speedily.

by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – October 14, 2016

On Pesach, we celebrate G-d’s forging us into a free and independent nation with no one to answer to except for Him.  A couple months later, we celebrate G-d’s bequeathing us His own personally crafted constitution for life.  And, as we begin our New Year, we confirm and fortify our recognition of G-d as Supreme Ruler and Master of the universe and all it contains.  This is followed shortly by our self-contemplation and self-analysis of our deeds and thoughts, to recognize those that need correction and to resolve to improve our actions and attitudes.  After we complete this series of special times of the year, we begin the holiday of Sukkot.  During the extensive holiday of Sukkot, we leave our more comfortable and secure homes in which we reside the entire year and move in to relatively primitive huts, called sukkot, eating, drinking, reading and spending time there for the duration of the holiday.

We can gain a certain degree of insight into the holiday of Sukkot by examining a disturbing episode during our ancestors’ sojourn in the desert.  We are told (Bamidbar 21:4-5), “They journeyed from Mount Hor by way of the Sea of Reeds to go around the land of Edom, and the spirit of the people grew short on the way. The people spoke against G-d and Moses: ‘Why did you bring us up from Egypt to die in this wilderness, for there is no food and there is no water, and our soul is disgusted with the insubstantial food?’”.  Our ancestors in the desert became annoyed and complained about the journey and their shortage of food and drink, complaining specifically about themanna they received from heaven – a recurrent complaint on their part.  In response to their complaining, we are informed (Bamidbar 21:6), “G-d sent the fiery serpents against the people and they bit the people; and a large multitude of Israel died.” G-d punished those who complained by sending snakes after them.

We find in Targum Yonatan ben Uziel that G-d admonished our ancestors for complaining about themanna He gave them from heaven in contrast to the snake who does not complain even though he must eat dust every single day of its life (Bereshit 3:14).  Consequently, G-d sent the snakes that eat dust and do not complain to punish our ancestors who complained about the manna He gave them from heaven.

The great commentator known as the Alshich (1508 – 1593), on the other hand, offers a more acute insight into the aforementioned incident.  He suggests that the people did not complain so much about themanna because of its taste.  After all, our Sages noted that the manna tasted like anything a person wished it to (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 75a).  Their complaint was due to the fact that it would only come a day at a time – no sizable amount in advance.  One feels more reassured to receive a salary monthly, bi-weekly or even weekly than one who gets paid by the day.  Having to wonder each day if he is going to be paid can be a source of aggravation.  The people, therefore, complained that they do not like having to get paid every single day.  This made them too dependent.  Every day they must wonder anew whether they will actually receive another day’s worth of food.  Nerve-wracking!  But G-d did this intentionally.  Receiving much in advance tends to lead to a lack of connection between the Giver and His receiver, a relationship that G-d did not want.  G-d wished to deal with us on a daily basis and He wanted us to need to deal with Him on a daily basis.  Consequently, the manna came down one day’s supply at a time.  It was actually this aspect of themanna that our ancestors found annoying that was actually the very cause of it’s happening in this way, the need for us to be connected and to feel dependent (see Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 76a).  As King David writes (Tehillim 145:15), “The eyes of all look to You with hope; and You give them their food in the proper time.”

Similarly, many commentaries explain the difference between the curse of Adam and Chava and that of the snake.  After the sin of Adam and Chava, G-d said (Bereshit 3:19), “By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread”.  Adam and his male descendants were burdened with the yoke of needing to toil for their sustenance.  To Chava, G-d said (Bereshit 3:16), “In pain you shall bear children”.  On the other hand, the snake is told (Bereshis 3:14), “Dust shall you eat all the days of your life.”  Many ask as to the nature of this curse.  Is this not a blessing for the snake?  Dust is very plentiful.  Consequently, the snake will never be wanting for food.  The answer is, however, that the snake is relegated to an awful fate.  Because Adam must toil for his living, he must stay connected with G-d, maintaining an ongoing relationship with Him.  Every day he must work for a living, not knowing how successful he will be.  This may be a curse, but it is a curse with a hidden blessing.  Similarly, Chava and her female descendants are forced to endure the difficulties and pain of pregnancy and childbirth.  Again, this may be a curse, but it is a curse with an accompanying blessing for, while pregnant, the woman is motivated to pray for her child’s welfare as well as her own.  She must stay connected with G-d.  The snake, however, being told, “You shall eat dust all the days of your life,” suffers the ultimate curse.  He loses any relationship with G-d.  He always has his dust.  He will always have what to eat.  Consequently, he loses the realization that his sustenance is actually G-d given and tends to forget his real dependency on G-d.

As a result, our ancestors, when complaining about their daily sustenance sent down from heaven by G-d Himself, are attacked by snakes.  The people are admonished by the snakes who are really the ones who should be complaining since their sustenance is guaranteed, thereby obviating a relationship with G-d, while receiving sustenance at the Hands of G-d reinforces our relationship with Him.  It is the snake, who knows what it means to have food constantly available and its consequences, who is the conduit of punishment for our ancestors for complaining for having to look to G-d for their daily sustenance.

In view of the above, a new light can be shed on our residing in relatively primitive huts, or sukkot, during the holiday of Sukkot.  Our omni-benevolent G-d assists us year-round to have the means to live in relatively secure and comfortable homes, protected from the elements, allowing us as much comfort as possible.  However, for one week in the year, after we have recognized G-d’s supremacy as Ruler of the universe and after analyzing our actions and thoughts, we are enjoined to set aside our usual secure and comfortable homes for less comfortable surroundings, more simple surroundings, where we are asked to make due with less, reinforcing our connection with G-d.  In so doing, we are forced into appreciating the simple life wherein our “needs” are minimized and we are satisfied with less but our view to and connection with G-d is maximized and we are compelled to engage in it more and more.

As we sit in our sukkot, with the minimum of amenities, better appreciating and dealing with the world around us that our Creator produced for us, we learn better to connect with G-d through the various facets of His created world, fortifying our relationship with Him and our dependence upon Him as we turn our hearts to Him to help us in overcoming the obstacles that arise as we live the more simple life.  As we shake the four species, the lulav and etrog, whereby we symbolize the various facets of creation and all corners of the earth being subjected to our Creator Whom we previously, on Rosh HaShana, declared as Supreme Ruler and to Whom, afterwards, on Yom Kippur, we subjugated our thoughts and behavior to His judgement, we additionally, alter our regular lifestyle to further enhance our relationship with G-d, learning to appreciate more the world that He created for us and increasing our dependence on Him in order to deal with this simpler lifestyle.

The author of this essay was once addressed by a younger individual who expressed the inclination to curtail the festive Sukkot meal in the hut (sukkah) on account of the presence of a number of flies and continue inside the regular year-round residence, to which the author reacted negatively.  Flies, like other nuisances are a natural and common facet of the world that G-d created.  As such, it is in keeping with the spirit of the very precept of the sukkah to seek to deal with this part of the more simple world that we resign ourselves to in order to greater connect with G-d rather than seek to protect ourselves in our own man-made residences that are further removed from our connection to G-d.  Like the manna, where in contrast to our ancestors’ desire not to be dependent on a daily basis for G-d’s benevolence, G-d intentionally fashioned the situation so that this would enhance and fortify their understanding of our dependence upon Him, so too, this precept central to the holiday of Sukkot of leaving the comforts of our year-round residence for the surroundings of a relatively simple and primitive hut, the sukkah, is not something to be easily or cavalierly obviated but, rather, would appear to be intentionally designed to amplify our oneness and closeness with G-d and His creation and encourage our feeling of dependence on Him to help us deal with life as He fashioned it.

May it be that our temporary residences in our sukkot, that help in our appreciating the simple life that our Creator first fashioned for us and help in accentuating our connection and relationship with Him and increasing our feeling of dependence upon Him spill over into the rest of the year, fortifying and strengthening our relationship and connection with G-d year-round and may we truly understand for all the days of the year our true and irrevocable dependence on G-d, subjugating ourselves constantly to His guidance, for our own welfare and betterment and that of the world at large.

by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – October 6, 2016

Every year, after we begin a new Jewish year, as we come to the tenth day of the Jewish month of Tishre, we encounter a very special opportunity in our lives.  In His holy Torah (Vayikra 23:27), G-d proclaims, “On the tenth day of this seventh month [Tishre] shall be a day of atonement.” The omni-benevolent G-d sets aside for us one day in the year, the day of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, that, even if we were too preoccupied on every other day of the year to do so, we are given on this special day the opportunity to consider and contemplate our actions and behavior and, in turn, repent and atone for those actions or attitudes that we find to be misguided.  We are given the chance to correct our behavior and, so to speak, “turn over a new leaf” in our lives – for our ultimate benefit.

Certainly, repentance is not reserved only for the day of Yom Kippur.  In fact, throughout the Holy Scriptures, repentance is mentioned, proclaimed and preached regardless of what day of the year it may be.  We are warned to cease wrongdoing (Yeshaya 33:15, Tehillim 15; 24:4) and we are encouraged to adopt only the path of good (Yeshaya 1:17; 58, Yirmiyahu 7:3, 26:13, Amos 5:14-15, Tehillim 34:15-16; 37:27).  In various ways, we are urged in the Scriptures to repent and change our wrongful ways.  We are advised to “incline your heart to the L-rd” (Yehoshua 24:23), to “circumcise yourselves unto the L-rd and remove the barriers of your heart” (Yirmiyahu 4:4), to “wash your heart” (Yirmiyahu 4:14) and to “make for yourselves a new heart and a new spirit” (Yechezkel 18:31).

Our Sages, too, stress the importance of repentance, regardless of the time of the year.  They tell us that the principle of repentance preceded even the creation of the world itself (Babylonian Talmud, Pesachim 54a), that it reaches to the very Throne of Glory (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 86a) and that it prolongs one’s life and hastens our Redemption (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 86b).  G-d urges us, our Sages relate, to open for Him an aperture of repentance even as narrow as the eye of a needle and G-d will, in turn, open for us gates [wide enough] through which wagons and coaches can pass (Shir HaShirim Rabbah 5:2).

We are repeatedly reminded of the importance to engage in repentance of our misguided deeds, views and attitudes, regardless of the time of year.  We are asked to regret our mistaken actions, renounce our wrongful ways, confess our misdeeds, beg forgiveness for our misbehavior and resolve not to repeat any such actions or thoughts in the future (see Emunot v’Deot 5:5, Chovot HaLevavot 7:4,  Mishne Torah, Teshuva 2:2).

Nevertheless, so many of us are so preoccupied throughout the year with our mundane day to day needs, responsibilities, desires and aspirations that we often find it hard to devote time to regular introspection and contemplation of our daily thoughts and actions.  G-d, therefore, in His great benevolence, does not take us immediately to task for our actions or for neglecting to consider and repent our misdeeds at the time they occur.  G-d, as our loving Father in Heaven, grants us extra time.  He grants us an extension – up to the day of Yom Kippur.  Our lack of repentance for our actions is temporarily waived, until one day of the year.  On all days of the year, our neglect of introspection and contemplation of our deeds is overlooked, except for one day.  All days of the year we are allowed to engage in our personal needs and responsibilities, desires and aspirations, as long as one day – the holy day of Yom Kippur – we put aside everything else and devote our thoughts to honest introspection and true repentance for our misdeeds and wrongdoing.

What a wonderful gift: the opportunity to reconsider our actions, change our ways for the better and draw closer to our Father in Heaven – despite our past misdeeds!  But as we “turn over a new leaf,” we should do so carefully and not damage other sections of the tree.  The wise King Solomon tells us (Mishle 3:18), “It is a tree of life to those who grasp it.”  The path of Torah is a source of everlasting life if we grasp it properly.  In the attempt to nurture one part of the tree that we may have previously neglected, we must be careful not to damage other parts in the process.

So many of us have reversed wrongful actions whereby we have veered off the path paved for us by our loving Father in Heaven.  So many of us regret and resolve to correct misdeeds whereby we have strayed from the path prescribed for us by G-d.  So many of us, as we drive down the road of life, find that we have made a wrong turn and we look to find our way back on to the road.  But, when we drive back on to the road, we must be careful not to run over anyone or anything in the process, thereby causing only further problems for ourselves.  In our zeal to correct past misdeeds, we must be careful not to engage in new ones that may be just as bad or even worse.

The latter day Torah giant R. Elazar Menachem Man Shach (1899 – 2001), among others, related a story of an incident that occurred in the life of the great Torah luminary R. Yisrael Salanter (The Rosh Yeshiva Remembers, pp. 81-82).  A G-d fearing shochet (one who slaughters animals in accordance with Jewish law) once confided in R. Salanter that he wished to stop working as a shochet and, instead, open a store, because of his fear of inadvertently slaughtering an animal improperly and, thereby, causing others to eat forbidden meat.  R. Salanter was taken aback at this thought.  “Listen to what you are saying!” R. Salanter began.  “You have just told me that you do not trust yourself not to slaughter improperly.  Yet slaughtering is an area whose laws are relatively well defined.  After all, the gemara devotes several chapters to the topic, there is a section about it in Shulchan Arukh with extensive commentaries, and a number of works have been written to clarify all the relevant laws.  Moreover, there is only one commandment involved, the prohibition of eating neveilah.  If, on the other hand, you go into business, you have to know many more laws to avoid a whole host of prohibitions: theft, deception, cheating, falsehood, overcharging, taking interest, using false weights and measures, to name just a few.”  Consequently, in one’s well-meaning zeal to avoid wrongdoing, one may, inadvertently engage in actions riddled with even more problems and concerns.

An incident is reported to have occurred a number of years ago during the life of the noted latter day Torah luminary R. Yaakov Yisrael Kanievsky (1899 – 1985), known as the Steipler Gaon.  At one point, over a relatively short period of time, a number of observant Jews in Bnei Brak who were known for their Torah erudition passed away at an early age.  Many found this to be perplexing and upsetting.  So they turned to R. Kanievsky for an explanation.  He responded that, in looking into the background of each of these scholars who passed away, there was one common denominator.  Each of these scholars’ fathers was a survivor of concentration camps who did not have the opportunity to receive a proper Jewish education.  However, after surviving the camps, each father began a new life in the Land of Israel and was determined that his son would receive a proper Jewish education.  Each of these scholars, as a result, received an ample education that their fathers were denied.  However, as the sons became more learned and recognized their own fathers’ lack of knowledge, they began to treat their fathers in a certain manner of degradation.  This, the Steipler Gaon asserted, led to these scholars’ untimely passing.  They enveloped their admirable education in a wrapping of smugness and conceit, not only to others in general, even to their own parents who provided them the opportunity despite the greatest of difficulties.  They ascended the ladder of Torah erudition but descended into the abyss of conceit and inadequate respect for their parents.

Some in their newfound smugness, latch on to a given incident wherein they happened upon a mistake their parents or a given rabbinic leader made to justify their not relying on the judgement of their parents or the rabbi who erred.  Again, a story related by R. Shach  (The Rosh Yeshiva Remembers, pp. 85-86) sheds some light in this respect too.  Tension once arose in a particular community between the rabbi of the town and some of the scholars in the town.  In wake of this tension, the scholars began to view the rabbi’s judgement on issues of Jewish law with a very critical eye and, as a result, latched on to a prior ruling of this rabbi that they considered to be mistaken and attempted to utilize it to prove the rabbi’s incompetence.  The rabbi continued to insist that he was in the right and the conflict intensified.  The rabbi’s opponents sent a telegram to the leading rabbinic authority of the time, R. Yitzchak Elchanan Spektor in Kovna.  Shortly afterwards, a return telegram was received agreeing with the rabbi’s opponents, followed immediately by a retraction from R. Spektor claiming that he made a mistake and asserting that the rabbi was indeed correct.  By feigning a mistake, R. Spektor impressed on the adversaries that even the highest rabbinic authority can make a mistake and, even if such occurs, that alone is not cause for besmirching or invalidating an otherwise erudite rabbi and Torah scholar.  Mistakes can happen even to the greatest of individuals and we should not use such incidents as a license to invalidate another who is otherwise worthy of respect.

One should also note another story related by R. Shach (The Rosh Yeshiva Remembers, pp. 226) concerning the great Torah giant R. Chaim Soloveitchik.  It is told that when R. Soloveitchik sought a new dayyan (rabbinical judge) for his city, he would send a request to R. Chaim Ozer Grodzinski, the famed rabbi of Vilna, to recommend an “expert judge” for the position, explaining that by “expert judge” he meant an individual who was capable of occasionally admitting that he made a mistake.  The great R. Chaim Soloveitchik recognized that an occasional error is not antithetical to expertise in judgement, and admitting such an error was in fact laudatory and in no way impugned that individual’s status as an expert.

It is also worthy to note, as related in the workRabbeinu HaGadol that the great latter day Torah scion R. Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (1910 – 1995) would urge his students to take on public responsibilities, and, when one student wished to compile a work on halakha (Jewish law) but feared misinterpreting the law, R. Auerbach encouraged him, saying: “A person must be very careful when rendering halakhic decisions or when explaining the halakha to others and must express himself precisely.  Nevertheless, his circumspection and fear should not prevent him from writing.”  After saying this, R. Auerbach went on to mention that, when R. Shlomo Ganzfried, author of the famous Kitzur Shulchan Arukh, published the second edition of his work, he made over 200 corrections!

Sadly, many returnees to the Jewish faith do not have observant parents to turn to for guidance and, therefore, must explore and reveal for themselves the proper path to Judaism.  And, as alluded to in the story above, some have observant parents who, for one reason or another, did not have a satisfactory Jewish education, leaving their children, who may have been fortunate to study more than their parents to see the right path to G-d a little more clearly.  But we must still remember to maintain the proper respect due our parents, nevertheless, recognizing the very important role they play in our lives, despite whatever shortcomings they may have.  All the more so, when one has parents who are observant, G-d fearing and learned, raised in G-d fearing homes by G-d fearing grandparents in an environment of G-d fearing Jewish communities of days gone by, one must be all the more careful not to fall into a misguided smugness or conceit that has become prevalent among many in recent generations.  One must keep in mind a comment made by the Brisker Rav, R. Zev Soloveitchik to R. Shach  (The Rosh Yeshiva Remembers, pp. 15-16) that it is “impossible for us to make a comparison between someone who lives today and someone of the previous generation…for they belong to completely different classes.”  According to R. Soloveitchik, those of one generation are lacking even in comparison to an immediately preceding generation.  Times are different, backgrounds are different, experiences are different, influences are different, let alone the extent of life experience that those older than us have lived through, all of which contribute to added wisdom and understanding that strict “book” knowledge cannot always provide.

One should keep in mind that it is good and admirable and advisable and laudatory to turn over a new leaf but do not burn down the tree in the process.  One who has basked in the pleasant shade of a tree and enjoyed its good fruits but wishes to prune it to help it grow better should be careful not to let his cutting instrument damage otherwise good parts of the tree.  A good relationship with caring, thoughtful and erudite parents or rabbinic leaders or Torah scholars or others in the community is to be cherished and nurtured and not to be cavalierly or smugly pushed aside as one marches towards a given goal, even if the goal be laudatory.  One must properly weigh and consider the background and understanding of others who may have much to offer and consider one’s own limited experience and understanding.  One should also take into consideration and sympathize with the pressures that may lead others sometimes to err or be limited in some areas.  Ignoring or pushing such people away who have much to offer us, regardless of their limitations, may only serve to cut us off from a wealth of life experience and understanding that can help us grow, in addition to the hurt feelings of others that we are prescribed by G-d to prevent.  In smugly ignoring the thoughts of others, we stand the very likely chance of creating more problems, as R. Salanter points out, while we seek to solve others.  As we attempt to ascend the tree of life that G-d has prepared for us and, in trying to correct problems along the way, we turn over a new leaf, we must be careful not to do so in such a way that will damage or burn down the rest of the tree.

May we all properly repent and atone our misguided thoughts and actions, correcting our wrongdoing without causing other misdeeds and, may we, thereby, succeed in rising to greater and greater heights in our path to approach closer and closer to our Father in heaven, our benevolent Creator and Master of the Universe.

by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – September 22, 2016

A concept central to the holy day of Rosh HaShana that marks the Jewish New Year is, as found in the second mishna of the tractate Rosh HaShana, that “On the first of the year, all humankind pass before Him.”  The Supreme Being, sole ruler and Creator of the universe, sits, so to speak, in judgement over all members of humanity.

In this vein, we also find that our Sages (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh HaShana 8a) interpret the verse (Devarim 11:12), “The eyes of the L-rd your G-d are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to year’s end,” to mean that, at the beginning of the year, G-d determines what is to transpire at the end of the year.  At the beginning of each year, in accordance with our deeds until this point, G-d judges what course of action He is to take.

In accordance with the aforementioned concept, we are obligated to recite during this day’s prayers ten biblical verses that express G-d’s position of rulership over the world.  By doing so, as our Sages describe (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh HaShana 16a), G-d instructs us to “proclaim Me King over you.”

Central to our approach to Rosh HaShana, the beginning of the Days of Awe that terminate with the holy day of Yom Kippur, is our understanding our position in this world.  G-d is the omniscient Master of the Universe.  He created the universe, without any personal benefit.  Having created the universe, He knows and understands every part of it.  He keeps the universe running, without any personal benefit.  And, as part of the universe’s running, He has presented us, without personal benefit, with His set of rules and regulations how to best benefit from our existence in this world.  If we do not fully recognize and appreciate the rules He established, G-d must adjudicate an appropriate course of action.  We are expected on this day of Rosh HaShana to express, emphasize and internalize the concept of G-d’s supremacy and have an awareness of our being judged by the Supreme Ruler of the Universe.

Unfortunately, many of us do not seem to fully appreciate G-d’s supremacy or that we are sitting in judgement before Him.  Too many of us just muddle through the day’s prayers and many of us beat our chests and yell out “amen” to the blessings recited during the holy days of Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur but once the prayers are over and the Days of Awe are completed continue to act in the same way as before!  Too many of us wallow away precious time, day after day, that could be used to study and learn more of G-d’s teachings to better understand what He expects of us!  Too many of us will arrive promptly and stay to the last minute when out for an evening’s entertainment but will saunter in to a minyan (prayer quorum) after prayers have begun and rush out before all prayers have completed.  Too many of us will take great care as regards the condition of our cars, our furniture or our appliances but will disregard the shabby condition of our prayer books, our tallit or tefillin bags or our Shabbat candlesticks!  Too many of us act deceitfully, thinking that no one is looking or able to “catch” the deceit; but G-d is above us, has instructed us otherwise and is looking at us!  How can so many of us do what we do?  An answer can possibly be found in an anecdote reported in the Talmud (Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 28b) regarding one of the greatest of our Sages, the Tanna R. Yochanan ben Zakai.

Before his passing, the great Sage’s students came to visit him.  When they stood before him, they asked that their dear mentor bless them.  In response, the great Sage R. Yochanan ben Zakai wished them that “the fear of Heaven be upon you as the fear of flesh and blood.”  Surprised, his students asked about this comparison.  No more than the fear of flesh and blood?  The Sage retorted, “Were it so.”  Would it only be so that we would feel the fear of G-d at least as much as we feel that of our fellow man!

In bygone days, many would imagine the fear we feel towards flesh and blood individuals of authority and, upon understanding our position of lowliness towards the Al-Mighty Creator, transpose that feeling in respect to Him in a way that one’s feeling of awe and respect towards G-d was readily palpable.  In today’s day and age, however, there is such a rampant lackadaisical attitude to authority itself that there is a serious lack of any semblance of feeling among many of us of fear or awe or respect.  Law officers, judges, government representatives, parents, teachers and principals as well as spiritual leaders are rampantly belittled, ridiculed, ignored and treated with an unprecedented level of disregard rarely seen generations ago.  Moreover, so many, regardless of their limited knowledge, understanding and experience, talk and act – unabashedly – as equals of others significantly older and more experienced, others who have studied and absorbed much more.  Consequently, in accordance with the incisive words of R. Yochanan ben Zakai, as the feeling of fear or respect due fellow human beings diminishes, it would appear that the feeling of fear, awe or respect readily due the King of Kings, the Omnipotent Ruler of the Universe also begins, sadly, to pale and be diminished.

As we enter this next Rosh HaShana, may we all regain our bearings, in a permanent and palpable fashion, in truly understanding our position in life and in this world, and treat the matter seriously.  May we understand and internalize G-d’s position as ultimate Ruler as well as our caring Father in Heaven, Who like any father must assess His children’s actions and sometimes mete out appropriate punishments to set them straight.  May we truly recognize His Kingship and truly understand that we are being judged by Him.

In His ultimate benevolence, the Al-Mighty G-d created this world and formed human beings, after which He presented rules whereby they could thrive; and, at this juncture, G-d judges whether each individual that He brought into this world is doing that which he ought to and, if not, decides what action should be taken.  May we all internalize this message and proclaim proudly, meaningfully and sincerely the words of our Scriptures (Tehillim 10:16, Tehillim 93:1, Sh’mot 15:18), as recited in our daily prayers: “G-d rules, G-d has ruled, G-d will rule for all eternity.”   May we all gain full awareness and understanding of our position in relation to the world at large and, most importantly, in relation to G-d, for our own sakes, and may we, thereby, merit only reward from our Supreme Ruler and Judge this coming year and in all coming years thereafter.

by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – May 27, 2016

The venerated father-in-law of this essay’s author, R. Hersh Rosenhan, one of the earliest devoted students in America of the illustrious Torah luminary R. Aaron Kotler, who imbibed much of his beloved mentor’s wisdom, has voiced on various occasions an apparent anomaly.  At the beginning of the Shemona Esrei prayer, one beseeches G-d, “My L-rd, open my lips, that my mouth may declare Your praise.”  This is after one has already completed numerous recitations of verses and / or blessings replete with praise to the Al-Mighty.  Why do we first beseech G-d to help us express our praise to Him only at this point, later on in our prayer session, when we begin the Shemona Esrei?  Why do we not beseech G-d much earlier on when we first begin our prayers and blessing?  The answer suggested is that we have no difficulty initially finding what to say in praise of G-d.  There are many verses to be found praising the Al-Mighty.  However, after we begin expressing all sorts of verses and blessings that revive our understanding, as it were, of how magnificent is G-d’s Being and His Presence and we begin to realize His unfathomable greatness, we start to find ourselves at a loss to continue to properly express our praise for Him as we attempt to personally address Him, so to speak, at the beginning of the Shemona Esrei.  It is after our minds have been saturated with an abundance of understanding of G-d’s greatness that we find ourselves overwhelmed when we personally approach Him for the Shemona Esrei, and we search for a way and request His Divine assistance to do so properly, nevertheless, for the love of G-d, to proceed further to express His praise anew.

The late prominent spiritual leader of Jerusalem’s religious community, R. Yehoshua Leib Diskin (1818 – 1898), once reported of a horrifying incident that occurred when he was young.  While still a young man, he and his father R. Binyamin Diskin, formerly rabbi of Grodno, Vilkovisk and Lomza, heard a report of Torah scrolls having been burnt.  Upon hearing such heart-rending news, R. Yehoshua Leib, yet in his youth, began to weep.  His father, on the other hand, older and more seasoned at the time than his young son, overcome by the tragic news, as he saw it, of scrolls containing the beloved words of our beloved Father in Heaven going up in flames, immediately fainted.  Saturated with love for his Creator and the Supreme Ruler’s personal manuscript, R. Binyamin Diskin found himself overwhelmed, in light of the report, to the point of fainting.

The renowned R. Yisrael Meir Kagan (1839 – 1933), known after his famous work Chafetz Chaim, was a man fully immersed in thought and study of the Al-Mighty and His Torah.  So devoted was he to G-d and His teachings that the Chafetz Chaim would keep an accounting of his actions every day to ensure that he would not stray even for a minute from giving his full attention to His beloved Creator.  One day a student found him pacing around nervously and appearing utterly distraught.  Upon the student’s questioning as to what was troubling him, the Chafetz Chaim explained that there 15 minutes that passed that day that he could not account for. For the love of G-d and his complete devotion to Him, the Chafetz Chaim was overwhelmed by the thought that he may have been lax in his devotion for even 15 minutes.

As we approach the very special holiday of Shavuot, when G-d Himself presented the Children of Israel with His holy Torah, we should contemplate upon our own devotion to G-d and His Torah.  How many of us can seriously claim a semblance of the devotion to G-d and His Torah described above?  How much do we truly appreciate the role of G-d and His Torah in our lives?  And to what extent do we express our appreciation and love for G-d and His Torah in our actions?

Every Sabbath, in synagogues world-wide, observant Jews recite a special prayer describing the great appreciation incumbent upon us towards G-d beginning with the Hebrew word nishmat: “The soul of every living being shall bless Your Name, L-rd our G-d, the spirit of all flesh shall always glorify and exalt Your remembrance, our King.  From this world to the World to Come, You are G-d, and other than You we have no king, redeemer, or savior.  He who liberates, rescues and sustains, and is merciful in every time of distress and anguish, we have no king but You!  … G-d of all creatures, Master of all Generations, … Who guides His world with kindness and His creatures with mercy.  The L-rd neither slumbers nor sleeps.  He Who rouses the sleepers and awakens the slumberers, Who makes the mute speak and releases the bound, Who supports the fallen and straightens the bent, to You alone we give thanks!  Were our mouth as full of song as the sea, and our tongue [as full of] joyous song as its multitude of waves, and our lips [as full of] praise as the breadth of the heavens, and our eyes as brilliant as the sun and the moon, and our hands as outspread as the eagles of the sky and our feet as swift as hinds, we still could not thank You sufficiently … for even one of the thousand thousand, thousands of thousands and myriad myriads of favors, miracles and wonders that you performed for our ancestors and for us.  You redeemed us from Egypt, L-rd our G-d, and liberated us from the house of bondage.  In famine You nourished us, and in plenty you sustained us.  From sword you saved us; from plague you let us escape; and from severe and enduring diseases you spared us.  Until now Your mercy has helped us, and Your kindness has not forsaken us.  Do not ever abandon us, L-rd our G-d.  Therefore the organs that you set within us and the spirit and soul that you breathed into our nostrils, and the tongue that you placed in our mouth, all of them shall thank and bless and praise and glorify, exalt and revere, be devoted, sanctify and declare the sovereignty of Your Name, our King.  For every mouth shall offer thanks to You; every tongue shall vow allegiance to You; every knee shall bend to You; every erect spine shall prostrate itself before You; all hearts shall fear You; and all innermost feelings and thoughts shall sing praises to Your name, as it is written: ‘All my bones shall say, L-rd who is like You? You save the poor man from one who is stronger than he, the poor and destitute from the one who would rob him.’  Who is like unto You?  Who is equal to You?  Who can be compared to You?  The great, mighty and awesome G-d, the supreme G-d, Creator of heaven and earth; we shall laud, praise and glorify You and bless Your holy Name, as it is said, ‘Of David, Bless the L-rd, my soul, and let all my innermost being bless His holy Name.’”

When we recite the above, do we realize what we are saying?  Do we appreciate the intent of these words?  Do we understand their meaning?  How many of us who purport to be staunch followers of G-d and His Torah recognize the ramifications of what we are reciting?  Do we realize the extent of our dependence on G-d and his part in our lives; how much we owe Him and how much love is due Him?  Do we realize the magnitude of the Torah, dictated and presented by G-d Himself and the resultant love due its teachings?  Do we understand that, for the love of G-d, we are expected to exert every limb of our body to express that love?  For the love of G-d, how could we not make every effort to delve into and explore everything we can about G-d and His Torah every spare moment of every day of our lives?  For the love of G-d, why would we not want to study, as much as is humanly possible, every component of G-d’s teachings – Torah, Scriptures, Talmud, Halakha etc.?  For the love of G-d, would we not want to study and understand G-d’s precepts as much as possible to properly follow and obey His wishes?  For the love of G-d, when we engage in prayer to G-d, how can we divert our attention from the Al-Mighty and digress into banal chatter?  For the love of G-d, when praying to G-d to furnish us with our needs, how can we give Him anything less than our undivided attention?  For the love of G-d, when speaking to G-d in prayer, how can we not make a serious effort to think about the words that we are reciting?  For the love of G-d, how can we not take a few extra minutes necessary to clearly enunciate the words that we say during our prayers, rather than quickly mumbling the words?  For the love of G-d, how can we not savor the time that we have to address G-d in prayer?  For the love of G-d, when we are sitting in the synagogue waiting for the next set of prayers, how can we not search out the nearest sacred book to study or pull out a pocket sized version that one carries regularly?  For the love of G-d, when we go to a doctor’s appointment, how can we not bring along a sacred book to study while waiting our turn?  For the love of G-d, in appreciation of Him, how can we not cherish every word that we express to Him in prayer?  For the love of G-d, in appreciation of His Torah, how can we not strive to take advantage of every possible “free” moment to explore more and more of His teachings, to absorb more and more of His teachings and to seek to understand more and more of His teachings?

In his youth, a brother-in-law of this essay’s author once approached the great Torah luminary R. Yaakov Kamenetsky to ask for a blessing from him that he become a talmid chakham (Torah scholar).  R. Yaakov responded with a smile, “And would you also want to study?”  The meaning of the response was not lost on this brother-in-law or on his brothers – the other brothers-in-law of this essay’s author – all of whom continually exert significant efforts and continually achieve significant heights in their study of G-d’s works.  If one truly appreciates G-d and, for the love of G-d, wishes to ingest His teachings, one must perforce want to expend and invest the effort to do so.  As any good relationship demands work, the investment of time, energy and thought, to nurture the relationship, our relationship with G-d demands it all the more so.

It is with very fond memories and great appreciation that this essay’s author recalls the example that his exceptional father set for him as he was growing up.  The dear and revered father of this essay’s author, R. Shaul Kaniel, closely devoted to the late great rabbi of Jerusalem R. Tzvi Pesach Frank (1873 – 1960), raised in the hallowed environs of Jerusalem’s Old City a century ago surrounded by and replete with legendary Torah scholars, who imbibed lessons from all his teachers, would regularly demonstrate in his words as well as in his actions the need, for the love of G-d, to invest much time, great energy and boundless thought in doing what he needed to do for the sake of G-d.  Despite what many would take for granted or the popular view may have been, he would not allow himself to mindlessly be dragged along to act in a way that he was not convinced was the true expression of what is expected of him by G-d.  He knew that, for the love of G-d, it was demanded of him to act with total and honest conviction to explore, absorb and contemplate G-d’s teachings and, thereby, implement as best as possible what G-d expects of him.

As we enter again the glorious holiday of Shavuot marked by the One and Only G-d, Creator of the Universe, in loving kindness, bequeathing His illustrious teachings to mankind, we should make a special effort, for the love of G-d, to contemplate the ramifications of this event and the holiday that commemorates it, and, consequently, redouble our efforts to invest the time, energy and thought incumbent upon us to enjoy our relationship, as it were, with the Al-Mighty to its fullest for the sake of the ultimate betterment of each and every one of us.

by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – May 6, 2016

As the 18th day of the Hebrew month of Iyyar approaches every year, hundreds and thousands of Jews in Israel and even many from abroad prepare for what is seen as a joyous trek and stay in the northern Israel city of Meron at the location of the grave of the famous second century Tanna, R. Shimon bar Yochai.  Buses are chartered and cars are driven from all parts of the Land of Israel and even planes are booked from different parts of the globe to join the annual festivities of the Lag BaOmer celebrations at the eminent Sage’s tomb.  Large masses of food are consumed and hours of dancing are engaged in.

Despite all the unbridled revelry, some Torah luminaries over the centuries have questioned the extensive demonstrations of joy exhibited on this day.

One to have questioned this day’s proceedings is the Torah great R. Moshe Sofer (1762 – 1839), known as Chatam Sofer.  In his responsa (Yoreh Deah 233), he writes: “I know and I have also heard that nowadays the generations have improved and people come from afar seeking G-d in the holy city of Tzfat [Safed] on the day of Lag BaOmer…Although their entire intent is for the sake of heaven, and their reward is undoubtedly great, I would prefer to be one of those who refrain, so that I should not need to be there and deviate from their custom in their presence, and I should not want to join with them in this.”  He goes on to say that it is incorrect “to institute a holiday on a day that is not the anniversary of a miracle and is not mentioned by the Talmud or the poskim anywhere in the literature, not even by an allusion or a hint.”  Finally, after citing justifications, according to kabbalah, for observing Lag BaOmer, he concludes, “Nevertheless, as regards to making it a day of celebration and lighting of lights, and especially in a designated location that becomes a focus of attention towards which everyone turns, I do not know that it is permissible.”  Therefore, while he does confirm cause for observing the day as celebration, he expresses a question of the extent of the joy and celebration exhibited.

An even greater objection was expressed by the noted Torah scholar R. Yosef Shaul Natanson (1808 – 1875) in his responsa Shoel U’Meishiv, sec. 39: “On the contrary, for the death of a righteous individual and scholar, one should fast…and how can it be that a holiday should be celebrated over the death of our great teacher R. Shimon bar Yochai…[and] much could be said about the practice of burning clothes [at this grave]…This violates the prohibition of bal tashchit [unnecessary destruction of property]…But what can I do?  For, as a result of our many sins, they will not listen to the voice of their teachers in this matter…But it is clear that in the days of the Ari [R. Yitzchak Luria (1534 – 1572)]…what they did at the grave…was none other than Torah study, prayers and supplication…And it is apparent that the Bet Yosef [R. Yosef Karo (1488 – 1575)] and his circle would not have allowed people to behave in [this manner].  It was only after their time that the custom spread, and afterwards it was believed to be an ancient custom and people were afraid of punishment, heaven forbid, if it were neglected.  However, I will stand as a guarantor for them that if they would take the same money and support the poor of Israel with it, this would be more appreciated by R. Shimon bar Yochai and would be ‘a benefit to him and a benefit to the world.’”

Similar objections to the aforementioned have been raised by the great scholar R. Yosef Rafael Chazan (1741 – 1822), in his work Chikre Lev (Yoreh Deah 11), and by others.

Since the above objections were expressed, a number of arguments were offered to fend off these aforementioned contentions and assert the veracity of the celebrations practiced at Meron, including that of the former Rabbi of Tzfat, R. Shmuel Heller, in a pamphlet entitled Kevod Melachim, as well as that of the rabbis of Tveria (Tiberias), cited by R. Chaim Chizkiya Medini (1834 – 1905) in his Sdei Chemed (Asifat Dinim, Eretz Yisrael, sec. 6).

Perhaps the warmest assertion that summarizes the feelings of the rabbinic proponents of the Meron celebrations can be found in a mid-20th century work entitled Hilula D’Rashbi, written by R. Asher Zelig Margolies.  After citing a number of sources confirming the custom of visiting the grave of R. Shimon bar Yochai in Meron, the author continues to proclaim: “It is impossible to describe the greatness of the day of joy and ‘exultation with trembling’ (Tehillim 2:11) that occurs in Meron on the day of Lag BaOmer – one can actually see that it is a day of joy for the upper worlds and the lower…it is actually a joy like that of the world to come.  Some who are there sing out and rejoice, exult and delight in dances of holiness…others stand embraced in sacred emotions, pouring out their souls in unceasing streams of tears near the holy burial sites of R. Shimon bar Yochai and R. Eliezer, his son.  Elsewhere, dressed in tallit and tefillin, men pray together.  Others sit on the sacred floors and study [the kabbalistic writings of] the Zohar and the Tikunim and the Idarot.  Others pour out their souls in the recitation of Tehillim…and group by group they sit down to friendly feasts in holy joy.”

One might describe the arguments and assertions for and against the celebrations of Lag BaOmer in Meron as a question of joy.  What seems to be apparent from all the rabbinic discussions on the matter is that, even those who staunchly advocate the continuation of these celebrations, they are meant to be, as R. Margolies describes, “feasts in holy joy,” or “exultation in trembling.”  These celebrations are meant to be expressions of joy mixed with deep emotions of awe.  These celebrations are not meant to be hedonistic and mindless indulgences of purely material and emotional gratification.  They are meant to be saturated by prayers, recitations and study of holy writings and “sacred emotions.”  It is with this in mind that one is to approach the question of joy and the expression of such joy on this special day.  One must decide whether what one chooses to do is an outcome of intentions and emotions that are “sacred” and “holy” and not otherwise.  May we all act and behave in a manner that is directed by more sacred and holy intentions and emotions, the outcome of which can only redound to our own benefit and that of those around us.

by Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel – March 25, 2016

After Joseph’s being exiled to a foreign land, enslaved, falsely accused of a crime and imprisoned, we read (Bereshit 41:14), “And Pharaoh sent and summoned Joseph, and they rushed him from the dungeon.”  Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, had a disturbing dream that could only be interpreted by Joseph and, subsequently, redeemed Joseph from all his travails – with great haste.  In a matter of hours, Joseph was no longer the poor unfortunate exiled young slave and prisoner in a foreign country.  He became virtual ruler over that entire country, second only to its king.  The entire matter of Joseph’s redemption was “rushed.”

Joseph’s redemption was, then, a precursor to a later more widespread and magnificent redemption of all the descendants of his father Jacob, also known as Israel, a redemption that is celebrated to this very day by Jews the world over during the holiday of Pesach (Passover).  After Joseph passed away, the country that was saved at his hands turned on his family, its descendants and the descendants of his brothers, engaging them in forced hard labor.  For many years, the cruel enslavement of Jacob’s descendants continued with no solution in sight, until one day.  One day, a special descendant of Jacob had an amazing encounter with G-d Himself and hastily, in virtually “no time,” the long enslaved Children of Israel are rushed out of Egypt.  We read (Sh’mot 12:33), “And Egypt imposed itself strongly upon the people to hasten to send them out of the land.”  In the end, again, the entire matter of redeeming the Children of Israel was hastened.

In Matzmiach Yeshuot, a work written some 100 years ago by R. Menachem Mendel Ravitzky, the author suggests that the aforementioned verse and the related narrative regarding Joseph’s sudden redemption can teach us a very important lesson.  Similarly, this lesson can be reinforced by the narrative surrounding the redemption of the Children of Israel from Egypt.  Upon reading of Joseph’s rushed redemption, reinforced by the hastened redemption of the nation of Israel, we are reminded of a statement found often in Jewish literature that, consequently, takes on a very real and palpable meaning – “Yeshuat HaShem k’heref ayin” (the salvation of G-d arrives in the blink of an eye).

No matter how much misfortune the Jewish nation may experience, no matter how much calamity or hardships the Jewish people may encounter, when the time is right, as long as we remain stalwart in our loyalty to G-d and our heritage, as did Joseph and our earliest ancestors, redemption from all our sorrow can be swift, whereby, in one relatively swift motion, all our past anguish can be a distant memory, as Joseph’s enslavement and imprisonment in Egypt and as our ancestors’ former enslavement at the hands of the Egyptians.

When we celebrate during this holiday of Pesach, we should not treat it as but a commemoration of what once was.  We should, rather, consider the events surrounding Pesach as a message of what one day will yet be.  When G-d so decides, all of the hardships, calamities and persecution experienced by the Jewish people, can be but a distant memory, wiped away suddenly in one swift motion – “in the blink of an eye.”  Redemption can be swift.  We must, however, stay close to G-d and follow His wishes.  Then, as He did before to Joseph and our ancestors, He will one day do for the Jewish people again.  May that day come speedily, when G-d will send His messenger, the messiah, to finally redeem His people and bring them their final salvation.  May it happen speedily in our time.