Who is Wise?

Today I was reminded of a famous saying: “If someone teaches you just one word of Holiness, you owe him a lifetime of respect”. I use the word Holiness because this very quote is used in both Judaism and Islam, and although what constitutes “Holiness” may differ, the concept remains the same no matter how you are.

We read in Pirkei Avos that the definition of a wise man is one who learns from everyone, but unfortunately, I feel that in the 21st Century, many of us have forgotten that we have something to learn from each and every person who enters into our life. Encounters happen through Divine providence for a reason, and often, this reason is to teach us a unique lesson.

In a way, everyone we encounter is a teacher. They teach us how to behave or how not to behave: how to treat someone in need of help, and how not to. And as a result, everyone is worthy of respect. Sometimes, if someone is a bad influence in our lives, this respect takes the form of terminating a relationship, for our sake and theirs, but every human being deserves kavod.

Without respect for those who teach us how to live our lives- no matter who they are or where they come from- we transgress the greatest Jewish traditions.

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Gut Shabbes! (Terumah)

Today is the first day of Adar. Adar is the month in which we celebrate the joyous festival of Purim, and in fact, the whole of Adar is known as a month of rejoicing and gladness, marked by good fortune for the Jewish people. But that’s not all.

The word Adar is related to the word Adir, which refers to strength and power. Adir, which is used to describe the Jewish people, is connected to the spiritual strength within each of us, to do mitzvos and spread light. This month, as we celebrate the joy of Adar, let’s not forget the power we have inside us, to strengthen our observance and performance of good deeds.

In London, Shabbes candles should be lit at 4:59 PM tonight, and Shabbes goes out at 6:10 PM tomorrow. When lighting your candles, please keep in mind Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Shmuel Yosef ben Soroh Malka, Moshe ben Soroh Malka, Moshe Ben Genya, Moshe ben Hadasa, Chashachana bas Bryna and Golda Shira bas Yenta Ruchel. Thank you, and gut Shabbes!

Making Mistakes

Yesterday, as I was studying this week’s Parsha, Terumah, I was reminded of a fascinating feature of the Mishkan, the portable Sanctuary in which Hashem dwelled, accompanying the Israelites wherever they went. The altar, upon which sacrifices were offered, was made of copper. This raises an interesting question; why was the altar- a Holy place on which one offered donations to Hashem- made of a less precious metal, namely copper? Why wasn’t it made of gold or silver- metals which we know the Israelites possessed?

The answer lies in a central Jewish concept, namely teshuva. When copper tarnishes or becomes dirty, it can be wiped clean, effectively leaving behind a clean slate. Similarly, when we- the Jewish people- transgress, individually or together, we, too, can wipe away our sins and be left in a higher spiritual place than we were before.

In Biblical times, offerings were sacrificed on the copper alter as a form of teshuva, as well as as a regular donation to G-d. Today, we have no altar to make sacrifices on, but we can still do teshuva at any time or place. Rather than making daily sacrifices, we pray three times a day, and as ever, we can wipe away the sins and guilt of the past by making up for our mistakes.

Many people think that their mistakes define who they are. They believe that because they did something wrong, they are automatically a bad person and can’t be forgiven. But the mistakes we make always serve a purpose; teaching us to behave differently in the future. Just like the copper alter in the Mishkan, whenever we become tarnished or unclean, we can always wipe away our sins with true repentance. Repentence doesn’t just involve G-d, or those around us who we have wronged; it begins in one’s heart, with a resolution to do teshuva and become a better person.

As we are frequently reminded by Jewish wisdom, it’s better to sin and repent- and change!- than to never sin at all.

When I Pray

I go to shul twice a week,
And sit in wooden pews,
Clutching a book,
And laughing at the irony of it all.
Why is it, I ask myself,
That I come here to pray,
And yet end up talking instead.
Why is it, I wonder,
That my greatest prayers,
My most heartfelt pleas,
Were not said in shuls-
Not even on Yom Kippur-
But on antiseptic blue chairs,
By hospital bedsides,
Or as I sat on soft carpet,
Weeping at the unfairness of life.
Why is it,
That standing in G-d’s dwelling place,
I only say the words in the book,
And not those in my heart?
Is it fear?
Fear of crying, fear of ruining my mascara,
Fear of Looking Silly?
Is it exhaustion?
At the end of a long week,
Too tired to plumb the depths of my heart?
Is it something else?
Something I can’t name-
Something about being surrounded by people.
Back home,
I clutch the blue Siddur,
With tattered pages,
Smudges,
Remnants of tears,
The evidence of a hundred heartbreaks.
And I resolve,
From now on, when I pray,
I will be this honest always.

Parshas Terumah: Attention to Detail

When I was becoming frum, I asked a lot of questions. I never stopped asking difficult questions, and in fact, one of the reasons why certain rabbonim looked down on me was because they felt that I needed to stop questioning and start accepting “the facts”. I remember that one of the first things I ever asked about was this week’s Parsha, Terumah. Why does it go into such detail? At first, it seemed rather preposterous to me. If the Torah doesn’t waste one word, or even one letter, then why does it need to go into so much detail here? Why do we need to know about the pair of Cherubim and the 48 wooden boards and the 60 supporting posts which were found in the Mishkan?

The answer lies partly in something called hiddur Mitzvah. Hiddur mitzvah essentially means to beautify a mitzvah in an attempt to show our love for Hashem and his mitzvos. It’s the reason why we use a beautiful esrog at Sukkos, and choose the most beautiful Shabbes candlesticks and Chanukiahs. Parshas Terumah teaches us just how ornate and beautiful the Mishkan was, through the lavish descriptions of the furnishings, tapestries and decorations, and the extent of this hiddur Mitzvah can only be communicated with the level of detail contained within the Parsha.

But in this case, hiddur Mitzvah doesn’t just refer to the obligation of building the Mishkan itself. It also relates to the Israelites’ relationship with G-d. The Mishkan was described as a dwelling place for G-d. It was where He resided as the Jewish people travelled through the desert, and was more than mere symbolism. It was a sign that He would accompany the chosen people wherever they went- and the Israelites responded by beautifying His dwelling place to show the extent of their adoration and gratitude.

Additionally, the building of the Mishkan was not some exclusive task, irrelevant to most of the population. It brought the Israelite people together and allowed them to work side by side to form a dwelling place for G-d. The extreme detail and beautification remind us that building a home for G-d is the most important task of every Jew- and it was not limited to that generation. Each and every generation has a responsibility to build a home for G-d and Holiness – right here, and now. When we transform our lives and the places we live into dwellings for G-d, we come one step closer to greeting Moshiach, may He come speedily and in our days!

I am a Shlucha

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When I was younger
I wanted to be-
Needed to be-
One of the women in this picture.
A fighter,
A shining star,
A blessing,
A shlucha.
I was going to be a woman who helped others,
A woman who changed the world,
One Shabbes meal at a time.
I was going to bring peace by lighting candles,
And battle the darkness which befell us.
I was going to be a shlucha.
Now I’m twenty,
Unmarried,
No children,
No chabad house to my name.
I’ve never handed out candles,
On a busy London street,
And I rely on others,
When I should be hosting them.
And yet I am a shlucha.
I am a fighter.
A warrior.
Here against all odds,
Jewish despite the obstacles,
And I have faith at times when I can’t work out why.
Each night,
When I open my siddur and thank G-d,
For the gift of another day,
I know I have helped others.
I’ve forgiven when I want to hold a grudge,
Loved when I wanted to hate,
Given when I wanted to take.
I am like the women in this picture.
I always was,
I always will be,
And you are too,
For each kind act you do.