Rabbi Yossi's Blog

Welcome to Rabbi Yossi's Blog; where you can expect to find thoughts on current events, Torah learning and Jewish spirituality. And of course, some good Jewish humor.

Automatic Reboot?


Have you ever seen those ads for new windows that promise that the new windows will “pay for themselves within 12 months”? Well, an elderly woman once had those wonderful new windows installed. Triple pane, insulation - the works. The company sent her an invoice requesting payment, but almost an entire year had already past and the bill remained unpaid.

When a bill collector finally caught up with her and asked how she plans to pay the bill, the woman expressed indignation, "I was promised that the windows would pay for themselves within 12 months! Why are you chasing me for payment?"

It's just a humorous anecdote but it contains an important message. Often we hear about some unique method to accomplish a goal. It may be a personal goal or work related. Perhaps it's guidance on improving our relationships or raising children. Or it may be inspiration to strengthen our Jewish observance and our relationship with G-d.

It sounds simple, make a certain change and you will successfully achieve your goal. So we make the change, we take the initiative and then, we sit back and wait. Instead of maintaining the momentum and following through on our effort, we allow ourselves the perceived comfort of relaxing and falling back.

Then when we don't reach our goal, we incredulously exclaim, "Hey, it was supposed to pay for itself!" Making a goal is step one, but it needs to be followed with a step two, three and four in order to be effective.

In just over a week we will celebrate the holiday of Shavuot. Over 3,000 years ago our ancestors stood as one nation at the foot of the Mount Sinai and received the Torah from G-d. This experience of mass revelation never happened with any other group of people and has never been repeated in history. It is the singular event that defined us and gave us our mission in this world; to fuse the holy with the mundane and to elevate this world and reveal the G-dliness within it.

In the time leading up to Shavuot, we are each presented with an opportunity to make a positive change with regard to our Jewish observance and practice. It's an opportune time to make a specific goal to advance and strengthen our connection. But it's equally important, if not more important, to ensure we stick with it and follow through on our goal.

How to: Love another as you love yourself

Lag BaOmer Bonfire.jpg

Yesterday we celebrated Lag BaOmer, the 33rd day of the Omer Count. An important theme associated with the holiday is that of Ahavat Yisrael; love of each and every Jew. The Torah says that we should love our fellow as ourselves. It sounds nice enough but is it even possible to accomplish such a thing? How can the Torah command us to have an emotion? Either we have it or we do not!?

Additionally, why does the Torah instruct us in specific detail as to how to treat another, why not just rely on this rule? After all, if we love another as we love ourselves we would never cheat them or steal from them or mistreat them in any other way.

The great sage and scholar Rabbi Akiva, famously referred to this mitzvah as a "K’lal gadol baTorah,” a great rule of the Torah. It’s a general rule but can we even accomplish it?

By Rabbi Akiva referencing it as a general rule, it helps us understand how we can actually fulfill the mitzvah. A “general rule” must include specific details, in this case the details of the rule to “love our fellow as ourselves” are all the individual mitzvahs; don’t steal, don’t cheat, pay workers on time etc. All of the specific mitzvahs detail how we should act towards another; they are the specifics included in the general rule of “love your fellow.” Just like the details instruct how to act, the mitzvah to love is also about how we act.

But there is a deeper dimension to it all and that has to do with another aspect of Lag BaOmer. Lag BaOmer celebrates the passing of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, universally known as the Rashbi (an acronym of his name). He was a great sage and scholar, the author of the famous kabbalistic work, the Zohar. Before his passing he requested that the anniversary of his passing (Lag BaOmer) be celebrated. He lived his life in such a way that when he passed he knew that he had fulfilled his life’s mission, utilizing every minute to the fullest.

The central theme the Rashbi’s life and therefore that of Lag BaOmer, is the inner secrets of the Torah, the deeper dimension of wisdom that is contained in the kabbalistic works.

When we look at another Jew through the prism of the inner teachings we discover that in fact we are all one. On the surface we may be different beings, on the surface we have different goals and different priorities, but when we peel away the layers we realize that in reality we are all one.

When we study the inner teachings of the Torah contained in kabbalah, as explained and elaborated upon in Chassidic teachings, we realize that the entire world - all of creation - is essentially one. As we work to reveal this oneness we will hasten the revelation of Moshiach; the entire benefit of which is that, at that point, the entire world will be cognizant of this Oneness and it will no longer be hidden.


Me? Holy?

Torahs in ark.JPG
Wikimedia Commons

I’ve got an unusual question for you: Are you holy? I said it’s unusual because so many people don’t relate to the concept and their eyes gloss over when they hear the word. “Me? Holy? I don’t even know what that means!”

What does it mean to be holy? It’s an important question because in this week’s Torah portion we are instructed: “Be holy!”

Rashi understands this verse as being a reference to forbidden relations, “Be holy, by refraining from forbidden relations.” In other words, holiness is achieved by creating a border, a limitation. It’s not only about adding, it’s also about limiting and creating the proper environment for holiness.

Seemingly in an effort to clarify exactly what it means, the Torah continues, “Because I, G-d your G-d, am holy.” Great, that makes it better - G-d is holy, therefore I should be too? How does G-d being holy help me become holy? On the contrary I would think that G-d’s holiness, as it were, is out of my reach!

In explaining the continuation of this verse, the Midrash seems to make it more difficult to understand. “‘Be holy,’ the verse states. You might ask,” the Midrash explains, “can you be as holy as G-d? So the verse continues ‘because I, G-d your G-d, am holy,’ my holiness is much greater than your holiness.”

I see, the Midrash is concerned that I might get too full of myself and think that I can be as holy as G-d. So it’s clarifying the matter; just so you know, G-d’s holiness is greater than yours.

Is that all the verse is communicating?

The Chassidic masters explain this commentary slightly differently. It’s not an admonishment to someone who is too full of themselves; it’s not a reminder that we are not able to achieve a dimension of holiness on par with G-d. It’s to encourage those of us who doubt ourselves: Am I worthy? I’m not holy! I’m jealous of my co-worker’s raise and my friend’s new car! I’m not a holy person! I have an ego, and I get angry; I can be selfish and I don’t always go to shul. How can I be holy?

As a response to this the verse continues, “Because I, G-d your G-d, am holy.” As the Midrash explains G-d is telling us, “my holiness is greater than your holiness.” We don’t have to be limited by our negative traits and ill-informed prior decisions, we have the ability to tap into G-d’s holiness.

The message of this verse then is a highly motivating one - “Be holy,” create a space for holiness to thrive by embracing restraint, even in a limited sense according to our ability. “Because I, G-d your G-d, am holy,” through our limited effort we are granted the ability to soar and achieve according to G-d’s ability.

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