Friday, April 27, 2012

Not in my lifetime!

So often, when I discuss the prospect of Moshiach with people they tell me "Not in my lifetime!" I don't really blame them, considering how unspiritual our world appears these days. Ironically, a world with a confused moral compass is no obstacle to Moshiach. 

Whatever picture you have of Moshiach in your mind, I doubt it's of a man ravaged by skin disease.

Yet, the Talmud indicates he will be a "tzara'as" sufferer. Tzara'as is a Biblical/spiritual disease- often mistranslated as "leprosy"- that manifested as an unusual skin rash that could only infect very spiritual people (hence, no tzara'as today). You got it if you lapsed in your connection to G-d. 
When they're positing on what Moshiach's name might be, the Talmudic sages suggest "the leper of the yeshivah" as an option. Who'd have thought that to be a complimentary title to include in the list with "redeemer" or "comforter"?

The plot thickens. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi enjoyed regular study sessions with the prophet Elijah (just think of it as a very advanced Skype session). One day, he asked Elijah when we could expect Moshiach (Elijah's job is to announce Moshiach) and the prophet responded that he should ask Moshiach in person. 

Well, that must have surprised the venerable sage and he asked Elijah where he could expect to find Moshiach. After all, most people imagine he's waiting in Heaven to be dispatched down to save Earth.

Actually, Elijah directs Rabbi Yehoshua to the gates of Rome, where he can expect to find the Moshiach sitting among the lepers- or, more accurately, among those suffering from the spiritual "tzara'as" affliction.

Again, Moshiach is described as suffering from tzara'as. You would think that the man tasked with bringing the world to perfection would be pretty perfect himself, not someone battling with his own defects.
Or perhaps there's much more to the tzara'as story.

Chabad spiritual teachings reveal a whole different perspective on tzara'as. It is a skin disease that mirrors a skin-deep spiritual issue. In fact, the Torah says it afflicts the "skin of the flesh" an uncharacteristic tautology that's there to show you just how superficial the disease is. A rash can be horribly unsightly and extremely irritating, but it is hardly ever life-threatening. An eczema sufferer may well have a robust heart and perfect liver. 
Which may offer us a clue as to why Moshiach suffers from a (spiritually-initiated) skin condition.
G-d put us and the Torah into the world to partner in refining and redefining it. We are here to create a healthy spiritual environment within which peace, morality and yearning for higher purpose will flourish. 

History is mostly a timeline of killing and plundering, which indicates that the world is not naturally aligned with its Divine purpose. For most of history, people distrusted each other, the majority remained (or were deliberately kept) uneducated, second-class and disenfranchised. Our world was unhealthy.
Today, Russians and Americans work together on the International Space Station, world economies are largely interconnected and people link across language and cultural barriers to protect the environment or human rights and to promote peace. Technology has become a central nervous system that links all humanity. The world's internal organs are healthier than ever.
But, on the surface, our world still looks ugly. Life is too expensive, the wrong people are in power, the bad guys get away with their crimes and the average citizen entertains himself by ogling at others' pain or shame. Respect for authority, morals and elders is "last season" and so success is often defined as sacrificing family for fortune. The filthy underbelly of society is consistently coughed up on city billboards, the Internet and in the sanctuaries of politics and religion. 
Watch the news (actually, I believe "don't watch the news") and you'll be convinced that Moshiach coming into this environment is a pipe-dream. Right?
Don't be fooled: Moshiach is a tzara'as sufferer. He has an ailment that looks terrible, but is really quite superficial. By describing Moshiach as a metzorah, the Talmud hints to the world being a tzara'as-place just before he gets here. It will look horrible just before he comes, but it will be a world that has put its fundamental principles (like collaborative governance and economies or fighting poverty, illness and discrimination) in place.
Don't write our world off because of how bad it looks; it's actually a textbook pre-Moshiach environment.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Just the day to have no minyan...

It's never the right day not to have a minyan, but today seemed to fit the theme just perfectly. 

Thank G-d, we usually get the required ten men (and more) in the mornings, especially on special days like Rosh Chodesh. But, today we didn't crack it. Ok, admittedly we had good reason: One fellow's wife just gave birth (mazal tov!), two were out of town (one business, one pleasure) and one of regulars got to bed too late to manage our unearthly reveille. Still, having only half the team show up on a gloomy, wet morning left the other half wondering why they had been suckered into getting out of bed for Shul.

In mid-musaf it struck me that our minyan-less minyan spoke to the essence of the date today: Rosh Chodesh Iyar. Yesterday was the last day of the month of Nissan, renowned for the Exodus miracle and Pesach celebration and themed with the idea that "G-d steps in and makes it all happen for you".

Nissan/nissim/miracles/Divine intervention- it's all great stuff. It's bottled inspiration, available for consumption whether you're ready for it or not. 

Today was the launch of Iyar- month of no major festivals, just the daily business of making sure you remember to count the Omer. Nissan's inspiration is uplifting, but Iyar's personal investment is the stuff that real personal growth is made of. 

If you had expected the wave of Divinely-driven euphoria to launch you out of bed this morning, you would have been a day behind the times. He's handed the wheel to us from this month, so whatever spiritual experiences we have now will be thanks to our own efforts.

I hope another nine guys can motivate themselves into Shul tomorrow morning.

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Shabbos + Pesach = ?

Shabbos + Pesach = Double the spiritual energy!

Shabbos and Pesach coincide this year, but they are really quite different, even opposites. Shabbos is the day G-d rested; Pesach is the day we escaped helter-skelter from Egypt. Shabbos is a day to eat, rest and enjoy; Pesach is a time for matzah, marror and a "long read to freedom" before the meal is served. The two events make an unlikely pair, but if G-d put them together, they must carry a good lesson for us.

Pesach came first, Shabbos next. 
Only after we left Egypt did Hashem instruct us in the once-a-week rest-day. There you have Judaism summarised: Pesach + Shabbos = the whole Jewish experience.

Pesach is the time to let go of the negative, silence the naysayer within and break free of our real or imagined glass ceilings. Pesach is the time to leap from bad habits and unhealthy perceptions; the time to tell yourself you don't have to be a slave to the personality you are embarrassed by.

Shabbos is the time to enjoy, to connect. Shabbos only really happens after you have slipped out of the prison of your fears and failings. Then you have the luxury of being able to pause, breathe and link in to the Source. 

That's Judaism in a nutshell: You can always break free of whatever holds your soul back, and then you can revel in the spiritual beauty of  touching your inner truth.
When Pesach kicks off on a Shabbos, G-d is telling us that we can tackle our tough stuff through a relaxed and comfortable process, unlike the angst and stress of the original hasty departure from Egypt. 
Sounds like a plan :)


Pesach is chock-full of laws and customs, so here's a simple guide to the most important things that you need to know:


Remember to sell your chametz ASAP. You can sell yours online here.

You'll need to clean and "kasher" your kitchen and utensils to be usable on Pesach (some appliances and utensils can't be kashered). Click here for a guide to what can and can't be kashered for Pesach and how to go about it.

Thursday night is time for some good ol' hide 'n seek- with bread. 
Have someone hide 10 pieces of bread (good idea to wrap them to avoid scattering crumbs) around the house (also a good idea to jot down where each piece is, in case you forget). 
1) Grab a feather, wooden spoon, paper bag and candle and set out to find the 10 pieces (and any other chametz you might have missed). 
2) Start with the blessing: "Baruch atah Adonai Elohaynu Melech ha-olam asher kid'shonu bemitzvotav vetzivanu ull biur chametz".
3) Collect all 10 pieces (and other loose chametz) and put it all aside for burning on Friday morning.
4) After the search and when burning chametz, say the "nullification" of chametz (basically: "Any chametz I've missed worthless to me").

On Friday morning incinerate the ten pieces and other chametz you don't plan to keep. You also may not eat chametz from mid-morning on Friday ( can give you the correct times for your location).

Firstborn boys (or the dads of boys under 13) should fast on the day before Pesach (Friday). That's to remind us that G-d spared our children when he killed the Egyptian firstborns. 
You can dodge the fast by coming to Shul in the morning to hear a "siyum" (conclusion of a tractate of Talmud), which is a reason to celebrate (and eat).


We add "Hallel" (thanksgiving prayers to G-d) to the regular service on the first two nights of Pesach.

On first night, have everything ready to go before you head off to Shul. That way, you can get down to business ASAP when you come home.
On second night, you may only start preparing for the Seder after Shabbos ends (so take it easy on Shabbos afternoon).


Place 3 Matzos on top of each other and the Seder plate above them, "bone" on the top right, egg on the top left, "maror" in the centre, "charoset" on bottom right, "karpas" on bottom left and "chazaeret" at the bottom (centre). (Pic courtesy of

Bone = roasted chicken neck with most of the meat removed.
Egg = hard-boiled or roasted.
Maror and chazeret = romaine lettuce and fresh horseradish.
Charoset = ground nuts, apples/ pears & wine (pasty, not wet).
Karpas = slice of raw onion/ parsley/ boiled potato.


Kadesh (a.k.a. Kiddush) 
Each person says their own brocha for the wine, even if they don't say Kiddush. This is the first of the four cups. The person saying kiddush needs to include the Shabbos and Pesach sections.
[Each of the 4 cups = full cup, in one shot, leaning to left. Minimum cup size is 90ml.]

Wash your hands (three times on the right, three on the left).
Say no Brocha.

Dip the onion/potato/parsley into the salt water.
Say Baruch... Borei Pri Ha'Adama and eat a little- just a little.

Break the middle Matza in two.
Put the larger piece away for the Afikoman.
Leave the smaller piece between the other Matzos.

Pour cup #2 and read the story of Pesach (Discuss its contemporary relevance).

Wash your hands (three times on the right, three on the left).
Say the normal Brocha for washing hands.

Say the Brocha for Matzah (same as for bread), while holding 2½ Matzos in both hands.

Say the special Brocha for Matzah (Boruch... al achilat Matzah), while holding only the top 1½ Matzos in both hands.
Lean to the left and eat about 1½ Matzos (minimum 3/4 of a Matzah) from the top & middle Matzos.
Try to finish this Matzah in 4 minutes.

Say the special Brocha for Maror (Boruch... al achilat maror).
Eat about three medium-sized Romaine lettuce leaves with some raw horseradish.
Dip the Maror into Charoset.
Don't lean.

Eat 1/2 of the bottom Matzah with about three romaine lettuce leaves and horseradish.
Dip the Maror into Charoses. Shake off the Charoset.
Lean to your left while eating.

Shulchan Orech
Eat some of the boiled egg, dipped in salt water.
You made it! Now you can eat the meal (or can you? After all that Matzah...)
This is also a great time to discuss the Pesach story and its modern message in detail. 

Bring the afikomen out of its hiding place and enjoy another 1½ Matzos (minimum ¾ of a Matzah).
Lean to your left.

Pour cup #3 of wine as well as Elijah's cup.
Sing the benching (grace after meals).
After benching, drink the third cup, pour the fourth cup and open the door for Elijah.

Praise G-d for all his miracles.
Drink the fourth cup.

G-d has accepted our Pesach Seder. 
Next year in Jerusalem!

On first day Pesach, we say a special prayer for dew. 

From 2nd night Pesach, start counting the Omer, 49 days of prep for Shavuot and the Giving of the Torah. The seven weeks of Omer-counting are a time for introspection and personal development.

Chag sameach!