Friday, March 30, 2007

Good question!

Why is this night different? Because we ask questions?

Can’t be, Jews always ask questions. We take nothing for granted. We challenge everything, query everything (just observe a Jewish person receive a bill) and question, question, question. We even answer questions with questions- don’t we?

Pesach is not a one-night-opportunity for questions; we’re expected to keep our enquiring mind alive all year round. Rather, Pesach commemorates the birth of the Jewish nation- a nation that is different. “Why is this night different” is another way of saying, “Why is this People different?”

We’re different because we ask questions. While other religions place a premium on unquestioning faith, Judaism traditionally asks, and asks again.

Of the four sons listed at the Pesach Seder, the one who turns up stone last (even after the “wicked” son) is the one who “doesn’t know how to ask”. Rather ask an inappropriate question (as the “wicked” son does) than ask nothing at all.


Because the only way to grow spiritually is to take nothing for granted. If you accept the fact that you’re a slave in Egypt, you can never leave. Once you ask “why should I remain this way?”, you take the first step to personal liberation.

A Jew’s worst enemy is complacency. Questions shake us out of that apathetic state.

So, if you want to make this “night”, your current spiritual state different (better), then you need to start asking questions.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Grow up?

Nobody appreciates childish behaviour in an adult. As adults, we’re expected to do adult things: Act responsibly, react to situations with maturity, be practical- and retain a basic level of cynicism.

When Pesach arrives, we shift focus for a night or two. Seder night is kids’ night. That’s not to say that the Seder is for kids only. Nor does it suggest that the Seder is the only time Judaism highlights children. Rather, the Seder is the time to become a child again.

Traditionally, the youngest child asks the Four Questions. But, if there’s no child available, an adult has to assume the child’s role and ask the questions. Karpas- dipping a veggie piece into salt water- was designed to get the children asking questions. Let’s be honest, it has you asking too. Singing Pesach songs and pondering (or acting out) the 10 plagues have a childish sparkle to them. As you analyze the four sons, you must wonder which of the four you are. And who doesn’t have just as much fun as the kids when it’s time for the Afikomen hide-and-seek game towards the end of the Seder?

The Pesach Seder is not only about entertaining the kids, it’s about becoming a child again.

As healthy as it is to be an adult, there are some childlike traits that are worth trying to recapture. Innocence, naiveté and wild imagination are childhood treasures we should earth up once in a while.

Pesach is about breaking barriers, transcending personal issues and liberating the spirit. To do those things, you need to become a child again- trusting and unafraid to dream.

Babies are naïve enough to make the leap from crawling to walking, and youngsters’ dream they will change the world. Pesach invites us to join this world of unfettered trust and fantastic dreams- and empowers us to make them happen.

Thursday, March 22, 2007


Here's an interesting article that I received this week from Rabbi Shea Hecht:

Just a few short weeks ago one of the many e-mail messages that pass through my inbox caught my eye. The subject line beckoned me to do something to help the kidnapped Israeli soldiers who are still in captivity. I was fascinated. What could I, living in NY, do to help Israeli soldiers taken hostage?

Turns out that this e-mail campaign was an effort that was spearheaded by Laurie Rappeport, a dynamic woman in Tzfat, Israel. The e-mail was forwarded to women the world over and was related to the Mitzvah of Hafrashat Challah, a Mitzvah specific to women.

The women who answered Laurie's call were willing to dedicate the merit of the Mitzvah of Hafrashat Challah to the welfare of the imprisoned Israeli soldiers. These women dedicated the Mitzvah in an effort to affect a positive change in someone else's life.

Unfortunately, the soldiers are still in captivity, but this worldwide effort by women to help these soldiers really touched a chord.

We all have issues that we rally for. We all have some goal that we work for. But the spiritual power of women who get together to make a difference is a power that makes things happen.

My involvement in the political world has shown me this. I have seen the power of lobbyists - and it is a power to be contended with. Two of the most powerful organizations in the United States are Mother's Voices and Mother's Against Drunk Driving. Just the name alone of these organizations is so powerful, and the fact that it is mothers who are fighting disease and drunk driving lends a large measure of credibility.

One source of the power of women is a spiritual one. We are told that the Matriarch's prayed for their children. Particularly the Matriarch Rachel who still cries for her children to this day. Our sages tell us that not only does Rachel present the case of her children's suffering to G-d, she is the one who is answered.

Researching the Hafrashat Challah story brought me to two women in my very own neighborhood, the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn, Yael Leibovitch and Leah Silverstein. They have groups of 40 or more women who weekly dedicate the merit of their Mitzvah of Hafrashat Challah to women who don't have children.

Speaking to Yael was quite an eye opener. Not only did I find out that there are other similar groups in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn and many other areas all over the world but also, that since they started their program over two years ago countless women have been helped. Women who had no children for 10 years and more have given birth after their plight was kept in mind as the merit of the women doing the special women's Mitzvah of Hafrashat Challah.

My daughter is part of a group of women who do this same special thing for their classmates. Some of my daughter's classmates are not married and some don't have children. Those who are lucky enough to have both of those blessings pray for those who don't. They have witnessed the tremendous power of their prayers which have been answered when they have dedicated their Mitzvah to help others.

The Talmud tells us that the Jews were freed from Egypt in the merit of the women. And this is not the only place where great occurrences are attributed to the power of women. Throughout history women prayed and accomplished for others - acting as a powerful spiritual lobby. And we can take pride in the fact that it continues even today. To read about the Mitzvah of Hafrashat Challah click here.

Friday, March 09, 2007


This is the tale of two cows. These cows lived at around about the same time, in the same region. Our bovine heroes were related to each other, yet polar opposites. While one cow received all the bad press, the other became a hero.

The first cow, young and undisciplined, created a terrible mess. So, the older, mature cow had to step in and clean it all up. That wasn’t an easy task; the mess was so bad that it dirtied more than just the calf’s stable, it soiled the whole world. Cleaning such a mess should have been an impossible task, but this was an unusual cow- beyond anything we could comprehend. She hasn’t quite succeeded yet, but she’s getting there.

Come to shul tomorrow, and you can meet both cows.

The young, impetuous calf dragged the whole Jewish nation into a spiritual quagmire. We know him as the infamous Golden Calf, subject of this week’s Torah portion.

When G-d gave us the Torah at Sinai, He reverted us to “Garden of Eden” status. We were pure and immune to death. After the Golden Calf debacle, we reinstated our own misguided tendencies- and became prone to death again.

The mother cow empowered us to transcend death and reverse its negative side-effects. She introduced the supernatural tool of purification. To you and I, she is better known as the enigmatic Red Heifer, which we read about in the special maftir that’s added this week at Shul.

As the Midrash puts it: “A maid's child once dirtied the royal palace. Said the king: "Let his mother come and clean up her child's filth." By the same token, G-d says: "Let the Heifer atone for the deed of the Calf"

How the Red Heifer works is something we can never understand- it’s called a chok, a Torah commandment that has no rational basis.

Both cows are part of our daily spiritual experiences. We have our “Golden Calf” moments, when we lose sight of what we should be doing and err spiritually. Whenever we make a spiritual mistake, a part of our soul dies.

This sounds impossible to fix- “What’s done cannot be undone”.

So, G-d gives us the other cow, the one that doesn’t play by the rules. The Red Heifer is a chok, a ritual that we’ll never understand. We do it because G-d says so; because our commitment to Him is absolute.

We need our “Red Heifer” moments, times of total commitment to what a Jew should do, regardless of whether it makes sense or not. In those moments, we bring our soul back to life.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

When the going gets tough...

Get your mask ready, Purim is upon us!

But, with all the festivity, frivolity and fressing, you wonder about the deeper significance of this seemingly raucous holiday.

Believe it or not, it's deep. So deep that most people miss it. "When one enters, secrets emerge", say the Kabbalists. When the whole festival is about wine, it must contain many spiritual secrets.

Here's one:

At the end of the Megillah, we're going to read a cryptic statement, "The Jews kept and accepted...". According to the Talmud, this means that we finally accepted the Torah that had been presented at Mt. Sinai centuries earlier. In other words, when the Jews committed to Torah in the presence of G-d, it wasn't good enough.

At first glance, this really makes no sense. The Jews who left Egypt were highly spiritual people. At Mt. Sinai, G-d Himself appeared and presented the Torah.

At the time of the Purim story, the Jews were not all that spiritual. When the king made a feast to celebrate the downfall of Jerusalem, they attended. Apparently, they were not very spiritually sensitive.

Instead of the miracles of Mt. Sinai, they were faced with the threat of a Holocaust. It seems odd that under such adverse circumstances, they would make a greater commitment than at one of the most powerful moments in history.

Actually, therein lies the message.

To commit to a Jewish lifestyle when G-d is "in your face", miracles are normal, your soul is on fire, and you're in the care of a spiritual giant like Moses, is no big deal.

To be proudly Jewish when life is tough and anti-Semitism is rife- that's an achievement.

Purim reminds us that it is the challenging moments in our lives that bring out the best in us. It teaches us to measure our spiritual progress by how we do when we're uninspired, not by how we achieve when times are good.

Now you can appreciate why the Talmud says, "A man is obligated to get drunk on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between 'Cursed is Haman' and 'Blessed is Mordechai'". This is not a call to drunken stupidity.

Rather, the Talmud wants us to realize that whether your internal Mordechai or your personal Haman is dictating your feelings; whether you're spiritually inspired or apathetic, you can always switch on your inner spirituality.

Have a great Purim!

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