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.


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.

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!

Gut Shabbes! (Mishpotim)

In this week’s Parsha, we learn about lending money. Not only are we obligated to lend money to someone in need of a loan, but it is in fact considered a form of tzedekah. Donating money to someone, enabling them to get through the day and put food on the table is a huge mitzvah; but enabling them to help themself is even more important. This is where loans come in; although it may be easier to drop coins in a box, or give a one-time monetary gift, a loan allows someone to change their life independently, and hopefully end up in a position where they can repay you, as opposed to feeling dependant on the gifts and whims of others.

The Parsha reminds us not to ‘act as a creditor’ towards people who owe us money; no matter how much we want our money back, we can’t harass the person we loaned money to. The whole point of granting a loan is to help others, and not to help ourselves benefit financially. For this reason, charging interest is forbidden. This mindset doesn’t just apply to loans. It should apply to all the acts of kindness we do in our lives. We shouldn’t help others expecting something in return, whether it’s money, power or their gratitude. Instead, we should remember the laws of giving loans, and give with the aim of empowering others and pleasing G-d. After all, when we make G-d’s creations happy, we make Him happy too…

In London, Shabbes candles should be lit at 4:46 PM tonight, and Shabbes goes out at 5:58 PM tomorrow. When lighting your candles, please keep in mind Chaim Elozor ben Baila, Moshe ben Genya, Moshe ben Hadasa, Moshe ben Soroh Malka, Shmuel Yosef ben Soroh Malka, Chashachana bas Bryna and Chaya bas Perrel. Thank you, and gut Shabbes!

Parshas Mishpotim: Strangers and Enemies

Think back to the last time you felt out of place. Maybe it was your first day at a new job, or in a new shul. Perhaps it was when you went on holiday and realised your mastery of the native language wasn’t quite what you thought it was. Or possibly, it was somewhere where you shouldn’t have felt like a stranger at all- maybe you were among friends or family who are supposed to include you, and yet you still felt like the odd one out.

For me, I don’t need to go too far back to remember the last time I felt like a stranger. To tell the truth, I have spent my whole life battling with feeling like a black sheep, something which I have written about extensively in my articles about feeling unwanted. In many ways, being- or feeling like you are- unwanted and unloved is quite similar to being a stranger, and so this week’s Parsha, Mishpotim, speaks to me in a truly unique way.

In the past, I have been privileged to write and teach about Parshas Mishpotim, and each and every time I am equally taken aback by the verse, “You shall not oppress a stranger; for you know the feelings of a stranger, since you were strangers in the land of Mitzrayim”. I don’t quite have the words to describe how much this means to me. The imperative to remember the slavery in Mitzrayim doesn’t just apply to the generation who were enslaved there: it applies to each and every one of us, for as we remember in the seder each year, it was not just our ancestors who were freed from slavery, but us ourselves and all the generations to follow. And in the context of this week’s Parsha, I truly believe that the reminder of slavery and the exodus is meant to teach us empathy. It’s one thing to tell a people not to oppress strangers, but it’s another to remind them that they, too, were strangers not so long ago, and have no right to treat anyone as if they’re inferior simply because they’re new or different.

If you’re having trouble envisaging slavery in Mitzrayim, just return to the example which sprung to mind in the first paragraph of this article. Remember that time you felt lost. Alone. Out of place. You, too, were a stranger, and you likely felt an uncertainty and pain, longing for someone to alleviate your suffering by extending the hand of friendship. And that’s exactly what the Torah is telling us to do, rather than allowing prejudice or self preservation to cloud our moral judgement and allow us to mistreat somebody simply because we can.

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about inclusion and welcoming strangers. Evidently, this topic hits close to home for me: but this time, I’d like to incorporate the teachings from the previous verses in Parshas Mishpotim. We are taught, “If you see the donkey of your enemy collapsing under its burden, and are inclined to desist from helping him, you shall surely help along with him”. For many of us today, this doesn’t immediately seem relevant, as we tend to live in big cities and are unlikely to encounter donkeys, but in fact it ties in closely with the teaching about the stranger.

Too many times, strangers are shunned due to fear and ignorance. We, as humans, naturally fear the unknown- that’s why so many are scared of the dark- but with this comes a common prejudice against people who are unlike us. We feel inclined to shut them out and make an enemy of them, and just like the man refusing to help his enemy’s donkey, we justify our refusal to help the stranger with our vilification of him. Too quickly, the stranger becomes the enemy and we have an excuse not to help him.

The Torah warns us that no matter our own personal fears and feelings, we are obliged to help another in need. After all, we have all been strangers at one time or another, and we owe it to those who helped us- and G-d Himself- to reach out to strangers and make friends, not enemies.

The Rebbetzen

Today is the Yahrzeis of the Lubavitcher Rebbetzin.

When I first came to Judaism, and began exploring the texts and traditions which I would later immerse myself in, I was isolated from the Jewish community. I had no connections to the people and places which I would later stumble across on my journey; all I had was books and the Internet and a desire to learn. What I was really lacking was a Jewish role model- and then I came across the Rebbetzen.

Of course, I never got to meet this amazing, strong, inspirational woman, who died years before I was born. But as I discovered more and more about her, the more fascinated I became. I remember a story about how she saved a man’s life, by pushing him out of the way of an explosion, and when lauded for this act, she simply responded, “True, but I pushed another Jew, and for that, one must do teshuva”. Her selflessness shone through her words and deeds, and I found myself longing to be like her.

The Rebbetzen changed the world through kindness. She quietly touched hearts and minds by making everyone feel like a close, personal friend of hers; no matter who they were or what they believed in. And later, while many of my peers began to carry pictures of the Rebbe, I secretly wanted a picture of the Rebbetzen- something I never found, perhaps because of her distaste for the limelight.

Since then, I have been zoche to meet and be influenced by a number of amazing Rebbetzens. But on Rebbetzen Chaya Mushka’s yahrzeis today, a part of me still wishes I could have met her.