Let him who is convinced that his views are true and right express them . . . at every opportunity . . . without considering how much support or how much opposition he will encounter. Only falsehood is in need of many supporters in order to win the day; falsehood must have the authority of numbers to make up for what it lacks in justification. Truth, by contrast, will always prevail, even if it takes time. Noble, courageous and pure, expressed with all the fiery zeal and conviction and with all clarity of sure awareness, stated again and again at every opportunity, truth will ultimately gain respect and admiration even of those who do not accept it. The only truth that can be lost beyond recall is that truth whose adherents no longer have the courage to speak up candidly on its behalf. Truth has never gone down in defeat as the result of opposition, it has done so only when its friends are too weak to defend it. - R' S.R. Hirsch

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Inside Out

Luke 11:39-40

Then the Lord said to him, "Now you Pharisees make the outside of the cup and dish clean, but your inward part is full of greed and wickedness.  "Foolish ones! Did not He who made the outside make the inside also? 

The CEO of a successful company was getting on in years, and he wanted to choose a successor, one who would help the company continue to succeed, and grow even more.  He had so many great employees, and he found it difficult to choose the right one for the task.

Eventually, he came up with an idea.  He decided to give each of his employees a seed; they were to take these seeds home and plant them.  After a while he would check the seeds' progress and see which employee was able to get the most out of his seed.

One hardworking employee went home and excitedly told his wife about the project.  He fertilized the soil in the flowerpot and watered the seed.  Everyday he made sure to expose it to sunlight and nurture it as much as possible.  But, no matter how hard he tried the seed would not grow.  When he came to work each day, his colleagues would speak about how much their seeds were growing.  But while theirs developed into beautiful plants and trees, his seed was a failure.  But, nevertheless, he continued to work hard.

After one year, when the CEO instructed the employees to bring in their plants, he brought in his. The rest of his colleagues brought in their finished products, one more beautiful than the next.  Embarrassed that he had nothing to show for his efforts, the fellow with the fruitless pot stood meekly in the corner, while the CEO walked around inspecting the plants and trees.  After he examined each of the presentations, he was ready to make his choice.

Listening with half an ear, the fellow holding the fruitless pot nearly fainted when he heard the announcement : His boss had chosen him!

The CEO looked around at the shocked crowd and explained: "One year ago today, I gave each of you a seed.  But what none of you knew was that each of those seeds had been boiled, and were incapable of growing.  The rest of you, so eager to succeed, cheated, and that is why you are holding such beautiful plants in your hands.  But this one fellow here, with the 'fruitless' pot, was the only honest one in the group.  And so, I have chosen him to run my company."

We must learn to be consistently truthful.  Our inside must be like our outside.  When our inside is like our outside, we are like Hashem and we emulate the Almighty, for He is a G-d Who is true and Whose Word is true and enduring forever.

In Psalm 12, David expresses frustration with those who are dishonest and who pretend to be his allies, when in truth they are his enemies.  David speaks of sfas chalokos, smooth talk, in lamenting the tactics of the dishonest and underhanded, while calling for retribution.  He mentions smooth talk numerous times throughout this psalm and even pleads with Hashem to excise all lips of smooth speech.

Rav Samson R. Hirsch points out that the word chalokos has the same root as the word for dividing and explains how the concept of smoothness is associated with the concept of division and separation.  The basic idea is that nothing can support itself on a surface that is entirely smooth.  Hence, David is lamenting polished speech, which is so slippery it offers no support.  It is an apt description of people who employ flattery to gain advantage for themselves at the expense of others.

But those who flatter really live in a fantasy world of disillusionment and falsehood,  Small lies turn into a life of falsehood and although one may convince himself that he can continue to mask and obfuscate his shortcomings through flattery and falsehood, eventually the truth is triumphant as the web of lies and flattery collapses under its own weight as our Sages teach: Falsehood has no feet, nothing to stand on.

Psalm 12:2-3  

They speak idly everyone with his neighbor; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.  May the L-RD cut off all flattering lips, and the tongue that speaks proud things.

This couldn't be more true in the Facebook age in which we live, in which we don't even have the option of a "dislike" button.  Facebook is perhaps the aptest metaphor to describe the current state of our culture.  It truly stands as a symbol for the image-worship with which we are so obsessed.  The fact that it is a multi-billion dollar entity that produces absolutely nothing of value provides, in my humble estimation, even more damning evidence of a pathetic culture in decline.  Social network is the quintessential oxymoron of our age.  It could not be more anti-social.

What we need to understand is that a social system whose foundation is nothing more than smooth and polished speech i.e. lies, will ruin mankind at an infinitely more rapid pace than any overtly brutal force can.  When falsehood and evil are cloaked in goodness and truth and when the power of human speech is exploited for selfish and pernicious purposes, one will be hard-pressed to discover any vestiges of morality and decency in this world.  

But we don't lose heart for we are assured that the Word of G-d is pure silver, and He has promised to end once and for all the destruction that is engineered through the misuse of the spoken word.  A day is coming when:

Each man will speak the truth to his neighbor and give judgment in the gates for truth, justice, and peace;  when none of you will think evil in your heart against your neighbor and not love a false oath. For all these are things that I hate,' Says the L-RD." (cf. Zechariah 8).

Until that day, may we get busy cleansing the inside of the cup so that the outside is a true reflection of the inside.  May He cut off our flattering lips and may we learn to speak the truth to our neighbor even now.  Anything less is just a beautiful plant whose seed was a lie.  

Friday, September 18, 2015

Teshuvah

Surely, if you improve yourself, you will be forgiven.  But if you do not improve yourself, sin rests at the door.  Its desire is towards you, yet you can conquer it (Genesis 4:7).

Kayin and Hevel (Cain and Abel) were the second generation of humanity.  We are told that while Hevel was a shepherd, Kayin was a farmer.  When they both brought their respective offerings to the L-rd, they naturally brought from their individual areas of activity.  The L-rd accepted Hevel's offering but rejected Kayin's. 

The Scriptures tell us that Kayin was furious when his offering was rejected by the L-rd, and a short while later was asked by the L-rd: "Why are you angry, and why has your countenance fallen?" followed by the verse quoted above.  This verse contains the first explicit mention of repentance (teshuvah) found in the Torah.  The Targum Onkelos interprets the verse:

If you correct your ways, you will be forgiven, but if you do not correct your ways, your sin will await the Day of Judgment - to be collected from you if you do not repent; yet if you repent, you will be forgiven.  

Rabbi Nachmanides (The Ramban) comments: "He (Hashem) taught Kayin about repentance, that it is up to him to repent at any time and he would be forgiven."  It is critical to understand that the Torah views repentance as one of the greatest gifts the L-rd has bestowed upon mankind.

Strict justice would dictate (1) that a sinner be punished immediately after his transgression; (2) that the punishment should be with the full fury appropriate for the person who rebelled against the word of his Creator; and (3) that there should be no way to rectify one's infraction; indeed, how would one mend his error when it has already been committed?  If someone commits murder or has an illicit relationship, how can his action be undone or withdrawn?

G-d's chesed (loving kindness and mercy), however, provides for the above three points: (1) the sinner is given time, and is not immediately punished after his offense; (2) the actual punishment is not fatal; and (3) G-d's kindness provides that sinners be allowed to repent - that the withdrawal of the desire to sin is considered as the eradication of one's actions, not to mention the provision available to all of us in Yeshua the Messiah:

If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.  If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.   My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Yeshua the Messiah the righteous.  And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world (cf. I John 1-2).

There is another important teaching contained in the Genesis verse: Our Sages relate that if you mend your ways you will be "raised"  - even higher than the level of your brother Hevel - because completely righteous people cannot stand in the place where someone who has repented stands.  And even if you fail to mend your ways, do not think that you have lost the chance to repent, because once you open the door of repentance, the sin does not attack as long as you busy yourself with the service of the L-rd.  However, it crouches, lies at your door, and awaits to conquer you as soon as you stop busying yourself with obeying Hashem. 

Hashem's intention is that we have the power to rule over the evil inclination that is present in our flesh.  A sinner should not say, "How can I repent?   I am so distant, full of desire, and possessing a blocked heart."  He has to but truly see and analyze his situation, regret his actions and beseech the L-rd, and his work will be done for him by Hashem. 

We find this concept illustrated when Jacob decided to return to the place where his father and grandfather had prayed.  The Sages tell us (Chullin 91b) that as soon as he decided to turn back, that place immediately jumped towards him.  Lamentations 5:21: Bring us back to you, Hashem, and we shall return.  This means that a sinner need only repent of his actions and truly pray that Hashem will bring him back to Him.  Then, Hashem will have mercy upon him and consider the sinner's return as if he had accomplished it himself, as it says, we shall return.

If our hearts are broken, and we truly regret our wanton deeds and pray to Him, He will give us a new heart, a circumcised heart, so that we can relate to Him in a whole new way, without the barrier of sin between us and Him.

I read about a rabbi last week who described an experience he had at a rehabilitation center for heroin addicts.   He found it incredibly moving.  Here were kids, 16 to 18 years old. Most of them came from broken homes.  Some had suffered abuse when young, others simply neglect. They’d had a terrible past. Trouble was, by seeking refuge in drugs they were going to have an even more terrible future.

He related that the people running the center were amazing, and that they were changing lives.  The rabbi at one point asked the director what it was that the center did for the young addicts that helped them change their lives. She replied: this is the first place they’ve been to that offers them unconditional love. Then she said: We are the first people they’ve met who care enough about them to say "No."

This is what G-d does for us this time of the year. We are sin addicts. We do things we know we shouldn’t, whether it’s taking drugs, or taking liberties, or not respecting others, or blaming someone else when we should be blaming ourselves.  G-d, too, offers us His unconditional love and yet cares about us deeply enough to say "No."

The rabbi later commented about his experience and what he had learned: 

We can carry on for years deceiving ourselves, blaming others for what goes wrong. We are our own infallible counsel for the defense. But there has to be a time when we allow ourselves simply to weep for the things we know we could have handled better. That’s when G-d reaches out to us, as parent to child, and holds us close while we weep together, then He comforts us and gives us the strength to begin again. There’s nothing closer to G-d than a broken heart and nothing stronger than a heart that’s been healed by G-d’s forgiveness.

Teshuvah, repentance, is truly one of the most precious gifts that has ever been bestowed upon us. The future can change because we can change. Who we are is not pre-programmed in our genes. We may not be able to go back and change the past as most of us would probably like, but we can take hold of the present, repent, and act differently tomorrow than we did yesterday.

When Yeshua confronted the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, He not only told her the truth about her situation (i.e. that she had had five husbands, and was shacking up with a sixth), but He told her to go call her husband and come back. What was her testimony as she dropped her water pitcher by the well and ran back into town?

"Come and see a man who told me everything I ever did."  At this special season of reflection and return, may we too have the strength and the courage to come back and see a Man Who has told us everything we ever did.

Happy New Year! 
               

Monday, September 7, 2015

The Lord is My Shepherd

A Psalm of David. The L-RD is my shepherd; I shall not want.  He makes me to lie down in green pastures; He leads me beside the still waters.  He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name's sake.  Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me.  You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; my cup runs over.  Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the L-RD forever.  

- Psalm 23

We shall suffer no want.  Since it is the L-rd, our beloved and faithful shepherd, Who has determined to withhold from us, we do not miss what we do not have and therefore, we do not feel its lack.  Can He not also demonstrate His love and care for us by denying us the things we may desire?  Who is rich?  He who is content with what he has.

He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside the quiet waters.  For wherever He makes us to lie down, there the quiet waters will flow and there a pleasant pasture will flourish for us.  We can therefore be confident that whatever G-d may decree for us is intended solely for our benefit and to do us good at our latter end.

He restores my soul.  Any changes that G-d may determine to bring about in our lives is intended for our spiritual and moral welfare.  If rest happens to be something that will prove harmful to us, He will orchestrate unrest and agitation in our lives.  If restlessness and lack of peace should be harmful, on the other hand, then He will bring about peace and grant us rest once again.

"Lead me in paths . . .," the idea in Hebrew is one of a "circuit" or a "path" i.e. the ways of life circumscribed by His Word, which keep within the bounds of law and order.  Anything outside that "circle" is transgressing the bounds of righteousness.  For His Name's sake.  This does not mean "in order to make Himself a name," but rather, "in order to prove the ways of mercy which are expressed by His Name."  In other words, G-d deals kindly with us, not because of any merits or righteousness of our own, but because of His loving kindness and His mercies which are consistent with His nature.

The valley of the shadow of death.  This describes a valley that is overshadowed by death in which all traces of life have completely vanished and where decay pervades absolutely everything.  Everything recedes hopelessly into the blackest darkness of night that one can imagine.  It is the gloomiest portrayal of disaster that can be expressed.  And yet, David takes comfort in the knowledge that whatever he may receive from the L-rd, be it chastisement (the rod) or support (the staff), is indeed the L-rd's and comes directly from His hand.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of all who oppress me.  In the very midst of the darkest suffering, You give us peace that allows us to rejoice even within the brief moments of respite.  In the midst of life's direst circumstances, He will see to it that we find serenity and calm.  Any situation, once we understand it and know how to use it as a means of drawing closer to G-d, will serve to bring us nothing but the profoundest sense of joy and reassurance.

The concepts of so-called 'good fortune' or 'calamity', therefore, recede into the background and cease to have any meaning for us, for the vicissitudes that we experience in this life can in no way disrupt or disturb the table of spiritual contentment that He has so graciously set before us, right  in the very midst of our enemies and of those who oppress and seek to destroy us.

As long as we dwell on this earth and in the tent of this body, only goodness and mercy shall follow us, so long as our feet remain on the narrow path, pointed in the right direction, and we are headed to the house of the L-rd.  Wherever life may take us, no matter the tragic circumstances that may befall us on the way, may we learn to regard it all as a gift of His goodness and mercy.  And once the days of our lives come to a close, may 'dying' to us be nothing more than a 'return' home to the house of the L-rd forever.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Divine Service

"Because you did not serve the L-RD your G-d with joy and gladness of heart, for the abundance of everything . . ." (Deuteronomy 28:47).

Many commentators explain that this verse provides an explanation for all of the severe punishments that are listed in the remainder of this passage.  In other words, the verse is telling us that the punishments and curses are the result of a lack of simchah, joy, that we should experience while carrying out His Word.  One of our Sages, the Meshech Chochmah, explains, however, that the verse can be read as consisting of two parts.

First, the verse states that the reason for all the punishments is simply because you did not serve the L-rd.  And the reason you did not serve the L-rd was because the goodness and happiness of your heart was only the result of having plenty, a type of happiness that results from material things, a happiness that fills the hearts of much of the unbelieving world, as it is written: "Rejoice not Israel, like the exultation of the nations."  They find their joy in the abundance of pleasure, and this is not the way of one who fears G-d.  As the mishnah states in Avot (4:5): "Who is considered a rich man?  The man who is content with what he has."

Another verse at the beginning of this week's Torah portion:

"So you shall rejoice in every good thing which the L-RD your G-d has given to you and your house, you and the Levite and the stranger who is among you"  (Deuteronomy 26:11).

A person should be happy not so much on account of the actual possessions he has acquired, but with the fact that the L-rd gave them to him.  This fact is surely something to rejoice over.  The punishments come because of the fact that we did not serve the L-rd properly, and the lack of proper simchah is the primary cause of our deficiency in serving Him.

A story is told that after World War II there was a certain assimilated Jew who knew very little of religion, but was nevertheless able to repeat the above verse (Deuteronomy 28:47) by heart.  He was asked: How is it that you are conversant with this verse, but have no knowledge of the more basic verses of the Torah, such as Shema Israel, Hear  O Israel?

He answered that in the slave camps, he and other Jews would have to carry heavy stones up and down a mountain, and there was a pious Jew who was there with him who would constantly say to himself, "Do you know why this is happening to us?  Because of this verse, for we didn't serve the L-rd in gladness."  This pious Jew turned out to be a great Rebbe.  The words of the Rebbe made an indelible impact upon the man, vividly demonstrating that the words of the Torah were indeed true.  If we do not serve the L-rd with gladness, this itself is a cause for punishment.

Why is it that just because we are lacking this 'extra' attribute of of joy in our observance, that we would find ourselves deserving of such devastating consequences?  Our Sages explain that when a person carries out G-d's Word with joy and gladness, this is proof that he is serving the L-rd, demonstrating that he doesn't feel forced in his obedience, but truly understands that there is no greater joy in this world than to serve his Creator.  Such a man understands that this is the true purpose of Creation.

Therefore, simchah, is a key factor in determining if one is really serving the L-rd, rather than just merely following His directives out of a sense of duty without any real appreciation for what he is doing.  In Psalm 100 we find the following verse:

Serve the L-RD with gladness; come before His presence with singing. (Psalm 100:2)

Mankind is called upon by G-d to dedicate himself to a life of Divine service with rejoicing.  For it is only just such a life that gives us true simcha, a life that remains serene and undisturbed in the midst of the tumultuous vicissitudes of outward circumstances which life often brings.

And so we are summoned to serve the L-rd with gladness, and not just within the confines of our houses of worship, but in our day-to-day living.  For it is only when we serve Him in this way, in our everyday lives, that a spirit of joy will accompany us to the house of worship.  We are His creatures through and through, and the sheep of His pasture.  He has made us and He guides us in all of our paths.  For this very reason we submit to Him and serve Him with gladness.

Towards the end of the Psalm we are exhorted to enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise, and to spread the message that G-d is the only G-d and the only One after Whom man should strive in every moment of our lives, which is a gift of His loving kindness towards us.  For He is faithful to guide and direct us away from error and that which leads to death, turning us instead towards the path of life and salvation.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

No Compromise

The Jewish year is drawing to a close and in less than two weeks we will hear the sounds of the shofar calling us to reflection and repentance.  What has this year been to us?  What has it brought us?  What have we become during the course of the last year? 

The first day of sixth month of Elul, when Moses reascended the mountain (after the drama of the golden calf) was memorialized as the beginning of our season of repentance and renewal.  We are told that the shofar was sounded during that fateful Elul.  And so we learn that the sound of the shofar brings with it admonition and warning: We are to remain firm in our convictions even if "this man Moses" has departed from our midst, even if we no longer have a visible leader to reperesent G-d's cause before us and teach us  His will.

Remain firm and stay the course even if you find that you have in your midst misguided brethren enamored with Egyptian delusions, inviting you to join the revelry around the idol.  Even if you do not know "what has become of this man Moses", the words of G-d which you were taught "live and remain forever."  They are with you, even now, and they will never leave you.  You must continue to be guided by them.

Where do we find men today in whom we recognize the spirit of G-d?  Where are the men who guide us in word and in deed, like a pillar of fire at night and a pillar of cloud by day?   Where are the men who have the courage to confront us with our sin and smash our various golden calves around which we are wont to dance today?  Are there such men today?  Today, more than ever, we need such men.

We need men who understand clearly that to surrender half the truth is to surrender the truth in its entirety.  We need men who understand that flexibility may be fine for managing one's personal affairs, but it most certainly must not be practiced at the expense of the most sacred personal treasure entrusted to our care i.e. the Word of G-d.  The men who foolishly embrace such compromises in the vain hope of saving the entire cause do not understand that their opponents will only see in their concessions a nullification of the Divine nature and character of the cause. 

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur beckons even the most estranged from G-d's Word to repentance, return, and renewal.  But nowadays, it seems, few are even aware that they have strayed or how much.   The tones of the shofar with its calls of teruah is meant to prepare us for Yom Kippur, with its promise of rebirth and atonement.  The G-d of Israel is not constrained to synagogues and altars.  He does not desire to be remembered only one or two days of the year for a pious ceremony of self-mortification and religious platitudes. 

The Master of the universe, the G-d of all the earth, the G-d of all life, the G-d of every thing that has breath, the G-d of every heartbeat, desires and expects to find His dwelling in all of our thoughts and emotions, in all of our acts and pleasures, and in all of our words and deeds.  Is it not the G-d of Israel who declared:

As truly as I live, says G-d, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but only in that he should return from his ways and live" (Ezekiel 18:23). 

"Thus says the L-RD: "Heaven is My throne, And earth is My footstool. Where is the house that you will build Me? And where is the place of My rest?  For all those things My hand has made, and all those things exist," Says the L-RD. "But on this one will I look: On him who is poor and of a contrite spirit, And who trembles at My word" (Isaiah 66:1-2).

These truths are reflected in every word of G-d.  This time of year and the observance of the High Holy Days of Rosh HaShana, Yom Kippur, and Sukkot should not merely facilitate a "settlement" with G-d and our consciences.  He demands that the entire year be dedicated to His service - not the mere sacrifice of a day or two here and a day or two there as the mood strikes us. 

G-d does not need even one of these days, but we are in need of Him, His help, His grace, His light, His blessing, and His nearness.  We just don't need Him at the beginning of the year  or at the end, but every single day and every single hour; no one day can serve as a proxy for the other, let alone an entire year.

Elevated by the call of the shofar, let us demonstrate the error of those who are enthusiastically dancing around the golden calf.  Let them fully comprehend the futility of their "worship."  G-d abounds with truth and love, and is ever ready to rebuild our broken lives and establish for us a blessed future.  And yet, let us not deceive ourselves.  Let us not think that because we have abandoned Him that He will in His grace adapt or "update" the standards of His Word to the "requirements" of the age or carve a place in it for the rules and maxims we established for ourselves in our apostasy.

 May we not be deceived by the alien elements in our midst who could really care less which god you worship as long as you're "religious" and worship some god - never mind which god, or how - as if we possess the right to select for ourselves a god of our choosing and create our own order of worship, complacently raising an altar and exclaiming, "This is your G-d, O Israel!" 

Men can never choose their god; it is the G-d, Creator of heaven and earth, Who calls mankind to serve Him and do His will.  The shofar still calls us today as it did so long ago at the foot of Mount Sinai in the desert.  A call to deep reflection, repentance, and renewal, where He will graciously forgive our past and leads us triumphantly with the sounds of His shofar across the bridge of atonement to the rebuilt tabernacle of our lives, in great confidence and endless rejoicing.