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Leadership Lessons and Parsha Insights


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Parshas Ki Sisa: True love is Lifelong Honeymoon

Parshas Ki Sisa:

Dear Friends and Family,

Start off the week with an upbeat song: We got the Torah!

Parshas Ki Sisa: True love is Lifelong Honeymoon

At Mt. Sinai, G-d’s presence was so clear to the nation that it was as if we were coerced to accept Torah. The hard part isn’t accepting the relationship when our feelings are clear and true, but years down the road, when the honeymoon period has ended and keeping the feeling alive takes hard work.

That’s the significance of Purim. Even when G-d didn’t appear with any open miracles and even his name is masked, the Jewish people still gathered together and recognized his guidance behind the seeming horrors and successes of our physical world.

The sin of the Golden Calf was the decision to turn away from a direct connection to Hashem at the very moment of the closest connection. Even though the Calf was a replacement for Moses, not G-d, even though it was simply a tool for those few to connect to G-d, it was a heinous deviation because of how intimate their connection with Hashem was. Imagine if your significant other is waiting for you for a date and you come thirty minutes late because you were talking to their siblings. It’s not that you were doing the worst thing, but your actions and timing were completely inappropriate. In fact, in the proper setting, the Jews were encouraged to direct their prayers to the Aron, which was covered by the Cherubim.

The lesson for us is to recognize where we are right now. G-d is hidden in our world, which makes Purim the most relatable Jewish holiday of the year. But those that hold fast to Torah, who grip tight to Hashem, are striving for that close relationship despite any obstacles. We cannot allow distractions and lesser goods to get in our way. We cannot direct our energy and focus purely to work, or pleasure seeking, or entertainment, if it means giving up the moment of connecting personally.

Everyone has an individual responsibility to make the most of their relationship, to give their all. That’s why the word for love in Hebrew is “אהב” — literally meaning, “I will give”. Rabbi Kelemen explains that a secular marriage is healthy if each person helps the other achieve their goals 50/50 — I take out the trash and you clean the dishes, you watch the kids tonight and I will tomorrow. You be successful in your thing and I’ll be successful in my thing. The healthy Jewish marriage is one in which we are aligned and coordinated, where what I want takes a back seat for what will be best for us. I don’t get a day off if that means you’ll be more frazzled. The focus is on what’s best for us as a unit, rather than what’s optimal as individuals. Thus, the relationship changes the individual — their goals, desires and pleasures change to fit each other.

He explains that one who constantly pursues happiness for himself will always feel the lack, the gap between where he is and where he wants to be. But one who is constantly giving to the other will not be able to think of the lack in himself because he’s thinking how to fill the lack and needs of the other. And as a side benefit, he will achieve a steady state of happiness.

May you be blessed from Purim to Purim to recognize and invest yourself into the most important relationships, the most important activities, and the most important acts of giving, so that you can be truly fulfilled and happy in this world and the world to come.

Shavua Tov!

-Ari Melman


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Purim: How Can We Live as if G-d Exists Without Sensing Him?

Dear Friends and Family,

Happy Purim! Purim is the one day of the year we are Halachically obligated to drink, until we cannot tell the difference between Baruch (Bless) Mordechai and Aror (Curse) Hamen.

* Fun Fact: Is that why J.K. Rolling calls her Wizarding task-force Aurors?

* The gematria of ברוך מרדכי is identical to ארור המן   

:128 +174=502 and 207+95 =502. One explanation is that we must drink until we can no longer do the math. (Rama on Tor).

* Drinking this much removes our da’as and self-control. Our essential character emerges — will we be praising G-d’s wonders, celebrating community and bubbling over Torah ideas, or will we be gorging our bodies, lusting and losing touch with reality? Rabbi Israel Salanter, founder of the mussar movement, used to drink like a pirate throughout Purim but his students saw no change in his extreme enthusiasm or demeanor until the moment he passed out on the table. We should strive for that level of true control of mind controlling the heart rather than letting the body control the heart.

Listen to my newest song, Kodesh LeHashem (Based on Parshas Tetzaveh) here!

I’ve heard from a few people a troubling question:

Purim: How Can We Live as if G-d Exists Without Sensing Him?

Thankfully, Purim is the perfect time to answer that question!

Compilation of Summaries:

First part summary: Purim is the only holiday we celebrate where Hashem’s presence is completely hidden and there are no open miracles. It opens at a party of all the peoples of the world celebrating the failure of Jeremiah’s prophesy, the rebuilding of the Temple, to come true. When the Jews join in, they demonstrated giving higher priority to celebrating man’s power than G-d’s.

Second Part Summary: The stage is now set — G-d is completely hidden from the Jewish people and the world. The Jewish people’s duty is to discover G-d’s Hashgacha/Directing Hand even in the hiddenness. But in attending the party celebrating the Temple’s permanent destruction, they lost their vision. Only one thing can save them: Reflection.

Summary: Our desire for G-dliness brings the light of G-dliness into the world. The measure of the Jewish people’s connection to G-d is their desire to be close to Him. When one studies Torah, they find G-d in the darkness of the natural world, and the darkness becomes lit.

Part 1: The Set-up — Purim Opens Just Like Today

The Purim story opens 70 years after the first temple was destroyed and the Jews were exiled to the 127 provinces that made up the great Persian Empire. Achashverosh the King invites everybody to a massive party, with food and drink tailored to the diverse populations’ needs. There was plenty of Kosher food,and “the drinking was without duress…according to each man’s desire” (Esther, 1:8).

Our Rabbis teach that the Jews set their destruction into motion by attending the party (Midrash Rabbah, Esther 1:7). What was the problem?

The measure of the Jewish people’s connection to G-d is their desire to be close to Him. According to their desire will be their connection.

If the Jewish people value assimilation more than they value closeness to Hashem, that’s what they’ll get.

At the very essence of a person’s being, there can lie only one primary goal, from which everything else is submissive to. If Torah is primary, everything else can benefit that goal. If appealing to the masses is primary, Torah will fall by the wayside when it is inconvenient.

Was the purpose of the party to celebrate the Creator? Just the opposite. Yirmiahu (Jeremiah) decreed that the second Temple would be rebuilt 70 years after the destruction of the first. When it wasn’t, King Achashverosh celebrated. He dressed in the clothing of the Cohen Gadol, whose significance we spoke about last week for parshas Tetzaveh. The Vilna Gaon explains that when Achashverosh offers Esther up to 1/2 his kingdom, anything more than that would be the Beis Mikdash/Temple. The whole country celebrated the end of the Beis Mikdash, and the supremacy of man’s power over G-d’s.    

When the Jews celebrated with Achashverosh, they chose assimilated life over G-dly life. Hashem was nowhere to be seen or felt, the party was popular and fun and kosher. But in no longer longing for connection to their Creator, they no longer achieved the connection.

First part summary: Purim is the only holiday we celebrate where Hashem’s presence is completely hidden and there are no open miracles. It opens at a party of all the peoples of the world celebrating the failure of Jeremiah’s prophesy, the rebuilding of the Temple, to come true. When the Jews join in, they demonstrated giving higher priority to celebrating man’s power than G-d’s.

Part 2: Explaining Holiday Names — Hiddenness is an Even Greater Sign of G-d than Revelation

Tractate Megilah explains that Purim is likely the holiest day of the year. It’s even holier than Yom Kippur, whose name means “like Purim”, Ki (Like)- Pur(Purim), כפור. Purim makes up the Yom Kippur meal, and is meant to be the best meal of the year, when we’re obligated to have the best delicacies, meat and wine, and provide the same for the poor. That’s because Yom Kippur is the actual day Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with the tablets he carved himself (and the people accepted the Torah under duress), while Purim is the day when the people accepted the Torah willingly. The Maharal explains that the revelation at Mt. Sinai was so powerful, so obviously real that it was impossible to deny. Accepting for forever what exists with blinding clarity in the present is a form of coercion. (Imagine signing a lifetime contract to your favorite company — it’s risky. Luckily for us, G-d isn’t as fickle as any man or company.)

Purim is the mirror image of Yom Kippur. Instead of dressing as simply as possible, we wear lavish costumes and masks. Instead of fasting, we feast. Instead of long, quiet prayer and meditation, we have long conversations, spend much of the day interacting with the poor and drinking wine.

On Yom Kippur, we bring ourselves up to G-d. On Purim, we bring G-d down to us.

The way we connect to G-d is the way He connects to us. Reflected in that is a profound life lesson: The way we treat others is the way Hashem treats us.

Our ability to recognize G-d’s governing the world even in hiddenness reflects our ability to see the good in ourselves and in others. That’s the meaning behind Megillas Esther. Megillah means “Reveal” and Esther means “Hidden”. When we reveal the hidden governing force directing our lives, it builds our connection to Hashem and our recognition of Hashem in the world. That brings G-d into this world.

The name Purim comes from Pur/ פור, meaning lottery. Haman ran a lottery to determine the date to destroy the Jews. His goal was to leave the world to nature. By allowing natural forces to determine the Jews destruction, it would be the ultimate denial of G-d’s governing force.

Second Part Summary: The stage is now set — G-d is completely hidden from the Jewish people and the world. The Jewish people’s duty is to discover G-d’s Hashgacha/Directing Hand even in the hiddenness. But in attending the party celebrating the Temple’s permanent destruction, they lost their vision. Only one thing can save them: Reflection.

Part 3: Bringing Spiritual Light into the World Shines G-dliness in the Darkness

The Maharsha says the biggest miracle of Purim is that Mordechai and Esther still wanted the Beis Mikdash more than anything. As soon as Haman sees they still want it, he decides to destroy all the Jews. As long as Jews can yearn for the return of the Mikdash, of the return of G-d’s primacy over men, then they are a threat to kingly rule.

The Torah frequently contrasts light and darkness. In the beginning, G-d created light — a spiritual light, the true light, the contraction of G-dliness into a physical world separate but inclusive in Him (this concept is the basis of Kabbalah and it’s fine not to understand what it means now.)

By light, we can easily see what’s in front of us. For example, it’s easy for us to walk up an unknown staircase with the lights on. If we enter the staircase in darkness, it’s much more difficult. If we get a brief glimpse of the staircase in light before the lights go out, it’s considerably easier to climb the staircase.

Our duty as Jews is to hold onto the brief glimpses of light we get to traverse through the darkness. Our challenge is to bring light into a world of darkness. Even if we don’t see the light. Even if the darkness seems all-consuming.

As babies, our parents provide our every need — they feed, clothe, and provide us activities. It’s impossible to feel independent from them. Our acceptance of their rule is coerced.

As teenagers, we still live in our parents home but we feel more and more tug from the outside world — it’s easier to separate from their will, to break curfew, to party. This is a dangerous test — but there’s still no denying how important our parents are to us. Without them, we’d be homeless.

As adults, we have to actively reflect to remember the kindness our parents did for us. Otherwise, we can all to easily cut them out of our lives. If that becomes the case, we can easily reach a state where we forget how good life was with them in it, how important they were to our development. The true test of our good character is how well we treat our parents when we no longer need to treat them well to survive.

But those who do treat their parents well in adulthood will attest, you still need your parents to thrive and feel fully alive. To feel connected to the chain of history that spawned you. To know there are people that love you deeper than you love yourself. Outsiders will scoff and try to destroy that closeness, or at least reduce it, and without conviction and regular reflection, its all too easy to lose sight of. But holding on is so worth it.

Now G-d isn’t like parents in one incredibly important way. Parents are human, and some can suffer from human flaws (not mine, of course — they’re wonderful). G-d is the embodiment of good and love and as such, guides us and accepts us with all our quirks. The challenge of discovering G-d is reflecting on our entire lives up until this point, weaving our own Megillahs, and finding the hidden connections that ended up being for our own good.

Oral Torah is described as light to the written Torah’s darkness. For while humans cannot understand G-d’s mind, we can shine light on the passages of the Torah and in doing so, expound on the depth and details in them. This is also how science works — shine a strong light on a tiny area and notice how all the details make up the whole. Or conversely, look at a large whole and see how it’s made up of many tiny details. In our lives, see how our accomplished goals — our families, careers, creative outputs, etc are all made up of many tiny steps along the way, many beyond our control to predict.

Hashgacha/G-d’s governing hand doesn’t need to be obvious for us to accept. When you study Megillas Esther and find the hidden Hashgacha, that’s Oral Torah. At times when G-d hides his face, we must look for the points of hasgacha. The tipping point of the Purim story comes when Achashverosh tries to sleep, and remembers Mordechai. In the darkest, most hidden moments, G-d plants the cure for the affliction.

That’s why Purim is the birth of Oral Torah — unlike any manly wisdom, Torah cannot be gotten from a person’s own wisdom and diligence. If a person believes himself to be independently brilliant, he will always reach the wrong conclusion on Torah. Many of the greatest scholars in Torah wrote that for years they were blocked and slow to understand, and only after pleading in prayer for access to Torah knowledge was it granted and their novel insights unlocked.

When one studies Torah, they find G-d in the darkness, and the darkness becomes lit.

Summary: Our desire for G-dliness brings the light of G-dliness into the world. The measure of the Jewish people’s connection to G-d is their desire to be close to Him. When one studies Torah, they find G-d in the darkness of the natural world, and the darkness becomes lit.

One final point: The Manot HaLevi, author of Kabbalas Shabbas’s Lecha Dodi, wrote a book on Purim for his bride because he couldn’t afford to give her Shalach Manos treats for Purim. He explains: Megillas Esther begins with “ויהי בימי אחשברש” — “And it was in the days of Achashverosh” — our sages explain every time the word Vayehi — “and it was” — appears, it alludes to the language of צר, repression. By contrast, the language V’Hayah / והיה — “and it will be” is a language of Simcha, Happiness. Both have what’s called a Vav Hiphsuk, which transforms the tense from past -> future, or vice-versa. Thus, the former (ויהי) is a future verb transformed to past, and the latter (והיה) is past turned to future.

If the future is nothing but an old past, that’s repression and constraint.

But if the past paints way toward a new future, thats Simchah, that’s happiness.

May you be blessed to hold onto the clarity of past events to paint a beautiful future. With all this in mind, may your Purim be filled with deep connection to friends, family, parents and G-d, uplifting of all our physical and social ties, and a wonderful appreciation of the great goodness that guides our lives. The more we recognize the goodness, the more we bring into the world.

Great Purim!

-Ari Melman


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Parshas Tetzaveh: A Story of Attempted Love — Featuring Clothes and Fragrances

Dear friends and family,

This week, I’m trying out a new format — story telling. Hopefully, this makes the lesson more memorable and relatable, while still packed with the usual depth and sources.

Summary: Building the strongest relationship means giving to them that which purely provides them joy for no ulterior motives. When we discover the gifts our loved ones like most, and give them generously simply to make them happy, then we have a real, beautiful relationship.

Have a Great Shabbas!

-Ari Melman

Parshas Tetzaveh: A Story of Attempted Love — Featuring Clothes and Fragrances

Understanding the power of smell

There once was a man who wanted very badly to please his wife. He was proud of his beauty, which he knew had come into form only because of Her shaping, but She refused to look at him this way. His beauty was marred by eight major flaws, and for each flaw, She asked him to cover up with a beautiful garment of clothing. They were as follows:

Breastplate

Moral Debauchery (source: Tractate Zevachim 88B)

Ephod

Idolatry

Robe

Murder

Tunic of a box-like knit

Arrogance

Turban

Corruption

Sash

Injustice

Tsetse Headplate of gold

Slander

Linen pants

Impudence

The man was ashamed he had made so imperfect the form She had given him, and asked if there was any way he could give Her what she most wanted. Although She had everything, She still loved receiving pure gifts from Him. The gifts She loved most were fine fragrances, so lofty that She could be sure he got no personal benefit from them except from the enjoyment in pleasing Her. With physical gifts, foods and moneys, there was always a part of him doing it for himself — to atone, to make peace, to request greater blessing. But with fine fragrance, all was for Her, and She loved them more than anything.

One day, the man got drunk and offered Her the fragrances to seduce Her. How dare he! The fragrances were for Her pleasure alone, not for granting favors, rewarding or forgiving his poor behavior. She lashed out at the man and his drunken follies were consumed by a fire through his nose. Never again would he try to get personal gain from Her favorite present, Her sweet smelling fragrances.

There were eleven fragrances, ten sweet and one foul. But She only accepted them as one bundle. Even the foul smell added depth and importance to the mix. If the man ever removed the foul spice, She would get angry and refuse his gift, until he made the foul smell feel just as at home as all the sweet ones.

When he lit them, She grew very happy, and they lived happily ever after.

Explanation:

The man in this story is the People of Israel. The woman is the shekinah, Hashem’s presence that rests among humanity.

Originally, Adam and Chava were born without clothing, without shame or attachment to the physical world, and the Shekinah was closer to them then than at any other point in human history. “Hashem blew into his nostrils the soul of life” (Br. 2:7). When they ate from the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they became aware of their ability to separate from Hashem, to find short-term pleasures more alluring than connection to greater truth and happiness. They attempted to cover up their thoughts of separation, covering their bodies with clothing. Out of sight, out of mind. The word begged means both ‘clothing’ and ‘betrayal’. By going after physical lusts, they blinded themselves from elevating all toward a beautiful US relationship. The ME urge overcame them. From then on, humanity needed to wear clothes to keep from lustful thoughts and approach a relationship with their Creator. But though the clothing served as a protection, it certainly was less ideal than their pure state of origin. The Kohen Gadol had to wear these eight garments any time he approached the altar (Ex. 28:4). The holy garments designate both external appearances and inner morality, as King David writes, “let your Kohanim be clothed with justice” (Tehilim 132:9).

All sacrifices were brought to the Korban, the altar. The word Korban comes from the root Karov, meaning “come close” or “connection”. The sacrifices brought the Jewish people closer to G-d. Until the building of the Mikdash after Mt. Sinai, all sacrifices had been completely consumed on the altar. It was unthinkable that a human would eat from the sacrifice given to G-d (Avigdor Miller, the night of history audio lecture). Abel and Noah and Abraham all offered complete animal sacrifices on the altar. But with the Pesach offering, the people who brought the sacrifice ate with it. They turned their bodies into an altar, a connection point with their Creator. Only the Jews, a people dedicated to transforming their minds and actions into vessels of connection with Hashem, were capable of achieving this. And they were only able to as a complete unit — all of Klal Yisrael is thought as one being, one married partner in the relationship with G-d. An individual cannot take upon himself the Pesach offering — he must share it with the community or burn it altogether.

Still, G-d’s favorite preference is not for animal sacrifices but for incense. Midrash Tanchuma (Parsha Tetzaveh, simon 14) explains that Hashem prefers ketores incense offerings over all others. All the animal sacrifices fill the interests of the sacrificer — whether shlamim (peace), guilt, precautionary, or voluntary offering, all were done to perfect the giver. Only the incense were done purely for G-d’s pleasure, as Tractate Berachos explains (Daf 43, amud beis), smell helps the soul but not the body. That’s why it’s allowed, even encouraged, on Yom Kippur to smell spices.

Animal sacrifice is comparable to when a husband picks up groceries, or buys his wife a blender, or takes her out on a date. They are nice, but it’s clear he’s getting direct benefit as well. But when a husband surprises her with flowers for Shabbas, something that most women appreciate in a way most men do not, she knows he got them only in order to make her happy. And that thought makes her happiest of all.

Nadab and Avihu, two of Aaron’s four sons, got drunk on wine and offered incense offerings to Hashem. For their selfish desire to connect to Hashem without the proper clothes or community intentions, for acting as a limb rather than for the whole body, they were consumed. The fire went up their noses and took back the souls Hashem had breathed into them.

We are a community, composed of people of all strengths and challenges, of all intellects and disabilities. We care for each other, and the true test of caring is in how we care for the least fortunate among us. Amalek, the very opposite of Hashem, attacks the weakest first. In contrast, Hashem loves those who care most attentively to the most easily ignored. That’s why one of the 11 fragrances is foul smelling — it represents the part of the community most people would rather leave out. But Hashem makes our responsibility as a community clear — even the bruised and battered play a critical role in defining us, and we must give them equal stand among us. When we do, we bring out the greatest connection we have. In the Niddah cycle of women’s purity, there are 11 days of clear-sailing when a woman is guaranteed clean. In this span, she can have the closest relationship with Her husband of the month (Midrash Yilkati Rueveni parshas Ki Teitze). Every day is precious.

It is no surprise that the word Ketorah means Keter, “connection” (Aramaic, Recanti on Ex. Perek 30) or “to tie” (Tractate Shabbas, daf 61, amud 1). The Ketores are what bind us to Hashem, because we light them purely in order to please.

May we be blessed to serve our loved ones what they most desire, not what we most desire for them. By pleasing them by understanding what they want, may our relationships become ever deeper and stronger.

Great Shabbas!

-Ari Melman

Bonus: Avraham married Ketorah after Sarah died and had many children by her. He sent the children to the East with immaterial, spiritual gifts. Scents are the closest we get to understanding the spiritual world, as they have no physical matter. Is it any surprise then that incense are so popular in the East?

  

Much of the content of this shir came from Zolly Claman, a student of R. Kelemen’s kollel.


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Parshas Terumah: Why does the sanctuary look like a slaughterhouse?

Build a Sanctuary Inside Your Heart

* “They shall make a Sanctuary/Mikdash for Me — so that I may dwell among them (lit. In them). Shelah explains that a person must develop their heart and mind as an altar for G-d, to uplift his soul. These means that once we intellectually believe there is a creator, we must direct our thoughts and activities to bring His splendor into our every moment. The Bilvavi Mishkan Evneh recommends reflecting on the Creator’s closeness and greatness regularly, starting with when you wake up and when you go to sleep, and gradually thinking about the wonders and gratefulness the Creator bestowed on us every fifteen minutes toward even shorter periods. In so doing, we will eventually think of everything through a G-d infused lens, carrying a complete soul throughout all our activities.

*The table in the sanctuary demonstrates the sanctification of our physical and material existence. Bringing holiness to the family table and to the material world becomes the joy of the Jew. Each increased Halachah, each law of purity and diet add levels of refinement and sensitivity to our material existence. The Zohar adds that sharing words of Torah through conversation, and hosting guests, especially those poor in resources or less fortunate in Torah knowledge, raise the table to the level of an altar. R. Yochanan says that now that the Temple no longer exists, the family table serves this function (Menachos 97a).

May we be blessed to make our hearts and our family tables an altar to Hashem, a portal to our love and presence of mind.

Most of the above were taken from R. Elie Munk’s The Call of the Torah: Shemos pgs. 367 & 375

Q: Why does the sanctuary look like a slaughterhouse?

*The Altar of Kelm remarks that the Beis Mikdash/Sanctuary looks like a slaughterhouse. But with the Aron Hakodesh there, since the focus of the korbon sacrifice process is entirely to connect to Hashem, the most physical environment becomes the most spiritual one.

This is one of my favorite novel insights in Torah: Our greatest weaknesses are reflection of our greatest strengths. What we work hardest to overcome becomes our area of greatest expertise and personal growth.

The Talmud writes that one born with inclinations of murder can become the most possible G-d fearing shoket, ritual slaughterer. It also writes, “In the place where a ba’al teshuva stands, a Tzaddik from birth cannot stand”. Our struggles are what shape us. Our worst aspects are our greatest assets. What we are most self-conscious of, we’ve developed great sensitivity toward.

Eckhart Tolle transformed his suicidal depression into a multimillion dollar meditation and staying-present career. Victor Frankl, in Man’s search for meaning, transformed the greatest experience of worthlessness of life into a career recognizing life’s greatness.

Thus, the place for the highest highest of spirituality in the physical world lie in the most physical of environments, a slaughterhouse.

Can you think of where your area of weakness is also your greatest potential for strength?

May you be blessed to elevate your challenges in a way that can make the worst parts into Holy vessels. May you be an inspiration to the world.

Q: Hashem asked the Jewish people for two fixed contributions and one voluntary from “any whose heart motivates him”. Why this pronged system of collecting money?

A: The Talmud (Megillah 29B) observes that the word Terumah, meaning portion, mentioned three times in the first verse (Shemos 25:1), alludes to three different types of offering as follows:

Amount:

1/2 shekel

1/2 shekel

Whatever heart desires

Used For:

Adonim/ Sockets

Korban/ Altar

Build Sanctuary

Atone For:

Golden Calf

Impurity in the sanctuary

Represents:

Stray from Evil/ Neg.

Stray from Evil/ Neg

Do Good/ Positive

Tehillim/Psalm 34:14 says “Stray from Evil and Do Good.” The simple understanding of this passage is that before you can actively do good, you must first stop doing bad things. So for example, before a person can start being a caring father, he must first stop going to the bar every night and be a present father. Or before a person can start training for a marathon, he must first stop eating solely greasy fast food.

The Ba’al Shem Tov flips it, saying “[To] stray from evil, do good”. In this mindset, actively taking on more positive activities will naturally lead to more good behavior, leaving no time or place for improper behaviors. This one connects with me more as an active way to take control of life.

One of the most defining analogies that opened me up to the world of Torah-observance came from Andrew Penn, a Meor Alumni. He equated life to a bowl of oil. As we fill our life with Torah, we don’t have to actively take anything bad out. As we keep pouring more water in and it flows to the bottom and really connects, improper activities will naturally spill out over the sides. The more we do good, the less room we’ll have for evil.

As part of my personal training to build a sanctuary in my heart, I’ve been thinking of the Creator’s greatness for a few seconds every fifteen minutes. I struggle with a constantly wandering mind, always focussed on the future. But those few seconds of reflecting on His greatness and the privilege I have in my life right now focuses my mind. In short, trying not to think of the Purple Elephant is extraordinarily more difficult than simply thinking as often as possible about far more productive, healthy and important thoughts. Eventually, my brain won’t have room for the Purple Elephant until I want it, when I actively work on that project.

The Tzaddik HaCohen explains “Stray from Evil” as meaning that everyone is judged equally. “And do good” is dependent on how much you do. All of Klal Yisrael gets equal credit for straying from evil, but we are individually judged for what good we add to the world.

The Midrash at the beginning of Parshas Terumah says, with your ingredients, Hakadosh Baruch Hu (G-d, the Holy one may he be blessed) will fill in. The Altar of Revardek explains, anything you can’t reach, can’t accomplish on your own, Hashem will fill in. Do as you see possible with whatever gifts you were given and Hashem will shape it so that it works out. In other words, do all you can and leave the rest to G-d.

Moshe didn’t know how to make the menorah, even when G-d showed it to him multiple times. Finally, Hashem told him to throw the gold into the fire and Hashem will form the menorah. If we prepare and try our hardest, Hashem will keep the light on permanently. Put Judaism and Hashem in your heart and Hashem will fill you with spiritual strength to get through any challenge.

We now have many different tools to understand “Stray from Evil and Do Good”. The more we take on good, the more good we’ll receive.

That’s why the same verse says “Let them take for Me a portion”. They are giving, not taking! But actually, everything we’ve gotten in this world has been a gift from G-d. All the ingredients of our being — our families, our jobs, our strengths and weaknesses, our abilities and handicaps — these are truly G-d’s that we take from Hashem. Thus, even the act of building for Hashem is an act of taking, but it is an an act of taking for G-d, rather than for ourselves. The more we can “take” for G-d, directing our thoughts and our hearts and our resources for G-d, as we say in Shema Yisrael, the more we receive.

May you be blessed to do good all your life.

Great Shabbas!

-Ari Melman


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Parshas Mishpatim: Freedom Is A Heavy Price To Pay

Parshas Mishpatim: Freedom Is A Heavy Price To Pay

Dear Friends and Family,

Summary: G-d made us into a “Nation of Leaders” at Mt. Sinai. Thus the first commandment given afterwards is that accepting voluntary slavery to a human master goes against your very essence. Take charge of your life. Recognize only Hashem as your master, and you will bring out the best in this world.

Have a Great Shabbas!

-Ari Melman

Q: If “Eye for an Eye, Tooth for a Tooth” actually means you pay money for damages, why use such aggressive language?

A: Rabbi Schwab explains it’s in order that people recognize the severity of maiming another human being. Even though the remuneration is money, we can’t think that human limbs, our most literal birthright, are disposable, another price-tagged purchase. Very few of us would give our eyesight even for a million dollars. How much more so if some people felt they could justify damaging others by throwing a few thousand dollars at them afterwards!

May we be blessed to recognize the sensitivity of language the Torah uses, and to follow Rabbinical and Halachic understandings of Torah verses, so that we not fall prey to the danger of devaluing our most important birthrights. May we continue to grow in respect for every other person around us.

Q: Why does the first law after receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai regard boring a hole in the ear of a slave who, upon prospect of freedom, decides to remain a slave forever?

A: How dare you. How dare you mistreat your mind and body this way. How dare you subject yourself to slavery when Hashem chose you as the model of freedom from Earthly and human constraints.

You are a servant only to Hashem. By choosing to be a slave to another human being, you force an intermediary between you and G-d. You were meant to have a direct relationship. Why cheapen yourself?

Rashi explains why the slave has his ear bored when he decides to be a slave forever (Exodus 21:6). The ear that heard at Mt. Sinai, “You shall not steal” nonetheless went and stole, but even worse, the ear that heard “The Children of Israel are slaves unto Me” went and acquired another master for himself. They are my slaves and not slaves of slaves.

One who embraces his new role as a slave has not learned the lesson. Becoming a slave was meant to be a temporary reduction in status, to strive to return to being a leader over yourself and a servant to Hashem. By accepting permanent slavery, the slave refuses the motive to repent. Instead of improving his bad behaviors and character traits, he remains weak-minded and unrepentant.

This of course raises the larger question of what it means to be a slave of G-d. Moshe and David were both called eved Hashem, slave of G-d. That’s considered the highest level we can aspire to. The Duties of the Heart dedicates many pages to this topic. One way to think of this correctly is before doing any action, to ask yourself if you would do it in front of your wife and spouse. A low level of serving Hashem is doing so for the sake of the reward (or to avoid looking bad or being punished.) The ideal level is to serve not for the sake of doing the reward. One who completely trusts in Hashem will be beloved by all because trust will radiate off them. They will not depend on others for their happiness, and will have a positive attitude during good times and bad. They will never ask for more than what they’ve been given, and never complain that their lot has come up short. Because they trust in Hashem and that Hashem will provide for them always, they feel beholden to nobody and feel the duty to do good to everyone. They see that many others have far worse material comforts and many who have more are much more miserable, and they will serve Hashem with a complete heart.

We must strive for greatness. We were chosen to be leaders over our own bad traits. We pursue a life of constant self-improvement.

When we are punished, we must identify our mistakes and correct them. We must trust in Hashem and constantly seek to grow. Otherwise, we are slaves to another master. Incomplete souls. And that’s one of the worst fates a Jew could suffer.

May you be blessed to guide your life as a servant only to Hashem, and may you grow throughout your lifetime into an incredible human being.

Great Shabbas!

-Ari Melman

   


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Parshas Yitro: Stand Before Hashem, Awaken the Spiritual You

Parshas Yitro: Stand Before Hashem, Awaken the Spiritual You

Dear Friends and Family,

Imagine you are standing before Mt. Sinai. Thunder and lightning crack through the air. You see the sound of the shofar and hear the sight of the Ten Commandments being formed.

You are standing on holy ground. Having a conversation with your Creator. For this moment, He is listening carefully to your every word, your every request. Only He has the power to make your dreams and desires come true.

Everyone is trembling, afraid to hear His response. Are we pure enough? Are we accomplished enough? But He tells us to ask anyway. “Keep my covenant and be a treasure to Me from among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine. Be to Me a kingdom of leaders and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5-6).

Today, we are commanded to remember every day receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai. We must visualize in our minds as if we were truly there, experiencing it.

That’s because we were there, through the unbroken link of tradition. But the verse speaks in the present tense, “On this day, the Children of Israel arrived at the wilderness of Sinai” (Sh. 19:1). Rashi explains: “What is meant by ‘on this day’? That the words of Torah should be new to you as if it was given today.”   

There’s a concept that all possible varieties of personalities among the Jewish people were present at receiving the Torah. Reincarnation in one concept can be seen through parallel behaviors, seeing aspects of other people in ourselves and fixing the areas they and we are weak in. In such fixing, we learn about and repair ourselves. In this sense, we are connected to those standing at Mt. Sinai. We go through the same struggles, experience the same doubts both personally and communally and learn the same Torah.

Every time we pray, every time we speak G-d’s name, every time we study Torah, we stand at Mt. Sinai.

Imagine. Allow yourself to tremble before Hashem. Fill with wonder and awe.

See your ancestor, who is really you, with all your strengths and all your weaknesses, but on the level of prophesy (Ramban), hearing G-d. This is the spiritual you.

Embrace your spiritual you. You are beautiful. You are a spark of holiness. You are fulfilling the life of the Living G-d.

May you be blessed to tap into your spiritual you and stand before Mt. Sinai, stand before G-d, inspired every day of your life.

Great Shabbas,

Ari Melman

How is “I Am Hashem” a commandment? And why did the Jewish people need to hear the first two commandments directly from G-d?

Q: There’s a major argument whether the first commandment can be “I am Hashem your G-d” (Sh. 20:2). You can’t be ordered until you accept the authority. That Hashem gave the mitzvot is a pre-requisite to believing the mitzvot. Why do Rambam and Ramban list it as a Mitzvah?

A: Rambam: It’s a mitzvah to know G-d — Rambam offers “proofs” in Guide to the Perplexed. Hilchos Tshuva 10/6 writes that a person cannot connect to Loving G-d unless he develops and grows throughout life. Love of G-d is directly related to one’s knowledge of G-d. A person who understands and reflects on science, Torah, and the social fabric of our world in a way that helps him understand the creator will come to Love of G-d.

A2: Ramban: The prohibition of serving other gods is the negative commandment form that comes out of the positive commandment of serving G-d. Not serving other gods wouldn’t have any meaning without recognizing the true G-d.

Most prophets take nature and bring out its ethical content (with metaphors and miracles). Avoda Zara is false ethical content in nature, ascribing ethics to the separate parts rather than the combined whole. A person needs prophesy to realize true ethical content of nature is that nature serves G-d. So the people needed prophesy to hear the first two commandments.

A second level of understanding the commandment “I am Hashem”:

Rambam: Pursuing G-d through the intellect.

Ramban: Pursuing G-d as ethical decider.

Why is humanity born with a desire to pursue ethical and scientific discovery and understanding? Because G-d wants to communicate with us. When we have the proper lens, study is a means of informing us of our creator.

What is so remarkable about this? When we study for the right purpose, to connect to Hashem and become better people, then even if we get the wrong answer, one overturned or disproven by later generations, it doesn’t diminish our fundamental purpose. Because our fundamental purpose is Love of Hashem. Discovering truth brings us closer to Love of Hashem, but even discovering only a partial truth still brings us closer to Love of Hashem.

Secular philosophers can argue for greater truth generation after generation without reaching any sense of correctness or completion, but for Jewish philosophers, the means are the ends! Thinking as critically as they can about Hashem’s wonders of Creation is itself the ultimate goal, and thus every person is capable of coming closer to Hashem.

The first 2 commandments are that G-d wants to communicate with us. They are the means of informing us of our Creator.

The last 8 are what he wants from us. They are a compressed version of every commandment in the entire Torah.

Non-Jewish nations were offered Torah. They said, “I want to think about it!”

No! The Jew says, “Let me do and then understand.”

Rav Soloveitchik says all ethicists agree: When you’re in my house, play by my rules. Otherwise, get out.

If G-d created the world, I must follow his rules. It’s his house. This comes from reflecting on the wonder of Creation and recognizing this as G-d’s house (Rambam’s view).

Hillel said, “That which you wouldn’t want done to you, don’t do to your friend.” Rashi explains that friend here refers to G-d. Hillel follows Ramban’s view of ethical relationships stemming from communication and relationship with Hashem.

Every Mitzvah, every halachah has a intellectual command and an ethical aspect.

May we be blessed to grow in intellectual and ethical understanding of Torah and Hashem throughout our lives.

God Trusts Women More

Q: What’s the first words G-d tells Moshe on Mt. Sinai?

A: “So shall you say to the House of Jacob and tell to the Sons of Israel” (Sh. 19:3). Rashi explains the House of Jacob are the women and the Sons of Israel are the men.

The Midrash on this verse explains: Speak to the women first because they are closer to spirituality. They have greater emotional intuition and have the leading role raising the children to be close to Hashem. They accept the truth of Mitzvot more readily than men and stay more committed even when they don’t have an intellectual answer on hand to answer the doubters.

G-d trusts the women more because the women intuitively trust G-d more.

Chovos Levavos/Duties of the Heart writes, regarding human relationships, “When an individual is charged with a certain responsibility…and he violates this person’s command, if word of his violation reaches the one who commanded him, it will be the strongest reason for nonfulfillment of that for which he had relied on the other. This is certainly true then of one who rebels against G-d” (P.381 Gate 4/3).

That trust in G-d, the commitment to do and understand at all times throughout history, is stronger in women than in men, and the most important factor in passing on Judaism from one generation.

May you be blessed to stay strong in your trust of Hashem and spread love of Hashem on to the future.

Q: Why is the parsha giving the Ten Commandments named Yitro? He isn’t even present at Har Sinai!

A: He taught Moses to appoint judges for as few as every ten people, taking the vast majority of judicial power out of his hands. Beforehand, Moses was basically an absolute monarch.

The entire premise of Mitzvot is that every individual has the obligation to rule over himself or herself, in order to maximize their humanity and connection to their Creator. To foster that, the Jewish people need a culture that cultivates vast numbers of judicial leaders. Ideally, everyone would be a judge over themselves. Only when they lack knowledge or slip do their peers help them realign themselves.

Rashi says that the episode of Yitro advising Moses to appoint judges comes after the giving of the Torah, even though it appears out of order beforehand. The Torah tells us that for a Torah environment to function properly, every community, every individual must channel their din, their personal checks and balances to grow. Wherever our level of Torah observance or personal challenges, the Torah belongs to the entire Jewish people.

May we be blessed to continually judge ourselves and grow ever closer.

Great Shabbas!

-Ari Melman


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Parshas Beshalach: Song Celebrates Salvation

Dear Friends and Family,

Welcome to Shabbas Shira, the Shabbas of Song. In this week’s parsha, the Red Sea splits, klal Israel sings the song at the sea (the first song to G-d ever recorded), Manna appears, klal Israel gets Shabbas, Moshe hits a rock for water, and Amalek attacks. What a combo!

Summary: Song channeled properly lifts up our Emuna, sense of holiness and community to incredible heights. When we recognize the beauty of each other’s harmony, and we’re all following the same path in different ways according to the variety Hashem has provided in His Torah, together we craft a masterpiece.

Have a Great Shabbas!

-Ari Melman

Parshas Beshalach: Song Celebrates Salvation

Q: Shem Shmuel asks: A Midrash explains this is the first song for Hashem. Why didn’t the Avos sing songs after their salvations (Akeidas Yitzhak, Surviving confrontation with Esau, Joseph living through being thrown into a pit, slavery, imprisonment until finally becoming ruler of Egypt)?

A: The Avos (forefathers) experienced 1. individual salvations and 2. temporary conditions. But if not for Hashem redeeming Klal Israel at that moment, they would have been forever lost, both into slavery and out of their connection to Hashem.

Song represents not only salvation, but shared revelation. A song can be experienced by many people simultaneously, and becomes more powerful the more people join in and experience it. Accordingly, art or a picture gain less from communal experience than music.

When the Hebrews were taken out of Egypt, it wasn’t until the splitting of the sea that G-d made clear his separation of the Jewish people and his designation for all of them to play a role.

The lesson: Song connects people to higher purpose — the more people, the clearer they are in harmony, the better the song.

May we all be blessed to harmonize along G-d’s purpose for humanity.

Q: What purpose does each Jew serve?

A: Rav Kook gives a beautiful analogy. Klal Israel is an orchestra — there are many instruments, many individuals playing each instrument, and many different notes each performer must hit. In this metaphor, the instruments represent each tribe, or unique mode of expression that a class of people has. Some people are more analytical and studious, other’s more giving and helping, other’s more organization and planning minded. Each note represents a different Mitzvah.

Each person gets so much reward for playing their piece correctly. When they are among inspirational Mitzvah observers, then when they hit a wrong note, they notice it and can fix it. In doing so, they come ever closer to playing the masterpiece of the great Composer.

But the real beauty comes when the entire assembly plays together. When the various elements and players and instruments compliment each other, each hitting their own correct notes, and harmonizing with the whole. This is analogous to many different types of Jews, all with very different modes of expression, but in unity in recognizing the central title of the piece as G-d’s Torah.

At Shira HaYam, when Klal Israel sang together, they showed this singular moment of perfect Emuna, faithfulness, in Hashem. They recognized their own greatness to be selected as the ones to perform his masterpiece, and thanked him with complete heart. Their song was the perfect expression of gratitude, love and communal togetherness.

May we be blessed to see the good in every Jew, to constantly grow in our own observance and appreciation of the masterpiece designed for us.

Great Shabbas!

-Ari Melman

Q: What does Amalek have to do with all this?

A: Remember when we talked about Amalek, way back in Parshas Vayeitzei? There, we explained how Amalek’s parents, both racked by doubt on how to understand and live a Jewish lifestyle, became the worst enemies of Hashem and the Jews. Because of that doubt. They were closely connected and invested in the fate of the Jewish people, and they thought they got Israel. As a result, they mocked and attacked and sought his destruction. What Amalek represents is still very much alive today.

This week, immediately after showing such togetherness at the parting of the sea, with every man, woman and child fully committed to following G-d, the Children of Israel test Him. These verses appear back to back:

“Is Hashem in our midst or not?”

“Amalek came and battled Israel in Rephidim.”

(Shemos 17:7-8)

The moment the people begin to doubt G-d, Amalek appears to attack them and prey on that doubt. The nations of the world were terrified of klal Israel after the Exodus. They saw that Hashem was with the people and powerful enough to defeat the biggest empire around. But Hashem’s allegiance to the Jewish people is reflected in the people’s allegiance to Him. Duties of the Heart asks in the fourth gate, Trust in G-d (c.3),

“If, however, one relies on the Creator while at the same time he rebels against Him, how ignorant is such a person, how weak is his mind and his intellect! For he can see that [in human relationships], when an individual is charged with a certain responsibility by another person — who either commands him to attend to one of his affairs or cautions him about something — and he violates this person’s command, if word of his violation then reaches the one who commanded him, it will be the strongest reason for nonfulfillment of that for which he had relied on the other.

Thus Avos 2:4 writes, “Do His Will like your will, so that He will do your will like His Will. Nullify your will before His Will, so that He will nullify he will of others before your will.”

The Midrash describes G-d as previously standing, and only after the song of the sea, was he finally able to sit upon his throne, as his throne only then became sturdy enough. What’s going on?

The answer comes in the final Rashi of the Parsha. Verse 17:16 goes, “For there is a hand on the throne of G-d; Hashem maintains a war against Amalek, from generation to generation.”

Why is the word “Throne/כסא” spelled without the א, as כס? Rashi says, “Hashem swore that His name is not whole nor His Throne whole until the name of Amalek will be completely eradicated.”

When a person stands, he holds himself up completely independent of his surroundings. When he sits, he trust the chair is built sturdy enough to support him.

After the splitting of the sea, when klal Israel sang with complete Emuna for Hashem, they showed complete trust and willingness to accept Hashem’s leadership and will. A King only takes the throne when He has a people to rule. Finally, Hashem had a people who completely trusted him and who he could trust to support His Throne.

That’s the big danger of Amalek. When klal Israel wavers in commitment, Hashem doesn’t feel comfortable sitting down and coming down to us. If He stands up, then He rules independent of the Jewish people and we get less reward from helping Him. Our song builds and shows our connection to Hashem.

May we be blessed to connect to Hashem with song and complete Emuna, so Amalek can never break us down.

Great Shabbas!

-Ari Melman   

Q: Can’t songs be bad too?

A: There’s a famous story in the gemara of Chazal (Our wise ones, may their memories be for a blessing) debating whether Shir HaShirim, King Solomon’s love song between the Jews and G-d, should be canonized due to it’s graphic romantic imagery. Rabbi Akiva said, “All songs are beautiful, but Shir HaShirim is the most beautiful of all.”

Rav Kook clarifies by explaining there are many different levels of song, as follows:

א

ב

ג

ד

ה

1

2

3

4

5

Self

Nationalist

Humanist

World-concerned (focused on animals/environ.

Communal bound with Hashem

  

Most songs are written in the first four levels. Level one is entirely self-focussed — my concerns, my desires. This is beautiful for the base desires and clarity of expression it shows. Only with some level of passion can a person grow, and even passion focused on the self is a starting point. Apathy is the most difficult point from which to grow.

Level two is for people focused on a very specific community, to the exclusion of others. Rabbi Moshe Weinberger says the early Zionists had an unbelievably beautiful passion to restore the land of Israel. But they were so focussed on establishing the political community that they abandoned the family values, the observance of Mitzvos, the love of the community from which they’d came. Most of the establishers were young men with small or non-existent families, and the culture they created became extremely antagonistic toward Torah-Observant Judaism. Their desire for a community of their own caused a split. Thus, it corresponds to the second day of creation, the splitting of the waters, the only day G-d does not describe as good.

Level three is the communion of head, heart and body. It focuses on the global concept of bringing humanity together. This is beautiful when channeled correctly, but it leans too far toward Chesed without din, freedom without constraint. As a result, it is constantly in flux, and can lead to excessiveness.

Level four is concerned with the physical world even more so than humanity. These people might define themselves by their concern for animals or the environment. While it’s critical to care about the world, excessive care specifically on that area can easily lead one to resent human beings, who as a population are causing untold destruction to the world. A person might care more about feeding starving children in Africa than about feeding their neighbor, and turning a blind eye to their neighbor in need. Caring too much about things that aren’t the highest priority is simply another way to be cruel to those in your vicinity and power to help.

Level five is the symbol of womanhood in Judaism, the bond between G-d and the world. Shir HaShirim is level five. When physical actions are directed toward fulfilling G-d’s vision of the perfect community. When poetry and community come together. The Hey is symbolized by a Daled with a Yud in the middle; hence concern with the physical world recognizing that G-d is inside and leads the plan. This keeps us on the straight path.

One more point: The first appearance of musical instruments is in Breishis 4:21, “The name of his brother was Jubal/(יובל); he was the first of all who handle the harp and flute”, which Rashi explains, “to play music for idolatry”.

The Midrash explains at first, people prayed directly to Hashem. But as they became more consumed by their labors, they transitioned to, in their minds, emissaries. So they prayed to the clouds when it rained, and prayed to the grain when it grew.

Music has the power to transition us between the physical world and the spiritual world. It exposes a person’s inner essence. For this reason, a woman’s singing voice is considered an extremely important part of her beauty, capable of elevating those she shares it with to untold heights. Similarly, we greet Shabbas with song and sing at every Shabbas meal in order to further elevate ourselves further away from physical beauty and into spiritual beauty.

Miriam was introduced as Shifra/שיפרה, who as a midwife helped Jewish children into the world against the orders of Pharaoh. The letters of her name spell Shir Peh, “the song of my mouth.” If our mouths filled with the songs of creation, we would elevate song to the highest heights.

But music used for idolatry or physicality has the opposite effect, encouraging people to suppress their connection to Hashem.

That’s the root of the word Jubilee, also the reference to the Jubilee year, the 50th year in Israel when all slaves are freed, all debts are cleared and all land is returned to their original owners.

The very person that corrupted music by removing it from Hashem is commemorated forevermore as the force that returns the land as Hashem intended it, thus showing that all other forces, and all other humans, have no real power before G-d. And that is truly something worth singing about.

May you be blessed to be spiritually uplifted by your music and carry the song of Emuna with you throughout your life!

Great Shabbas,

Ari Melman