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Wake up and smell the coffee

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Religion

There’s a well-known adage attributed to the founder of the Chassidic movement that bears reflection. Rabbi Yisrael Baal Shem Tov was a hidden mystic who lived in the Carpathian Mountains in Ukraine. Unknown to the world initially, he was taught the mystical and hidden aspect of the Torah by none other than Achiya Hashiloni, the famous teacher of Elijah the prophet.

Reb Yisrael was born into a dark world – the Jewish people’s morale and connection to G-d was at an all-time low – and it seemed that they were at a point of simply dying a natural death brought on by the vicissitudes of exile and immeasurable suffering.

Although he worked undercover at first, Reb Yisrael, who eventually got the title Baal Shem Tov (Master of the Good Name), revealed his teachings to the world and through his wisdom and insight, he revived a weary generation of Jews and caused them to flourish.

Today, the Chassidic movement is alive and well, and through principles of serving G-d with joy, seeing the divine hand orchestrating history, and showing genuine care and concern for one’s fellow, a fresh breath of air was blown into the Jewish people.

One of the famous teachings of the Baal Shem Tov is that everything you see and hear is a lesson in divine service. This world is interconnected, and G-d is found in everything and everyone. Also, G-d, whose guiding hand directs mankind, speaks through the natural. Humans just need to be perceptive and connect the dots.

We have and still are going through a very dark period in our history, and recent events often stop us in our tracks and beg the question: why? What’s this all about?

Now I’m no mystic, nor seer, but I’m compelled to ask the question: what lesson is there to be learnt from what I see and hear? This world isn’t haphazard, and there is a recurrent message G-d is trying to give to us.

For me, two themes immediately emerge.

The first is, “I can’t breathe”. It was initially sparked off by the cruel handling of George Floyd that cascaded into unprecedented civil unrest, and just more than a week ago, we witnessed the tragic, inexplicable loss of 45 holy Jews on Lag B’Omer, whose lives too were extinguished with the words “I can’t breathe.”

The second is the ravaging fires that we have witnessed locally and internationally. Mass destruction has been wrought on institutions of learning and healing, natural resources charred and burned to the ground. Just google “recent fires”, and you will see the world is burning.

What’s happening here, dear Baal Shem Tov?

We are in the midst of the Jewish year 5781 – the numerical value of 81 in Hebrew is made up of two letters, phey (80) and aleph (1). Together, these two letters spell out the world af. Af is nose in Hebrew, the aperture through which we bring in breath and life into our bodies. Af can also mean wrath, anger – a destructive force that ravages everything in its path.

Our world and its inhabitants are in turmoil. Our selfish greed to dominate has trampled on the inherent right of every human being to be recognised as a valuable part of society.

Peer pressure, politics, and man’s animal cravings has extinguished the privilege of every individual to be respected with tolerance, acceptance, brotherhood, and love. The world is screaming, “I can’t breathe!” Life has been sucked out of us, we have been trampled on, we are doing the trampling, and the world is calling out for help.

What happens when we continue to live life in this manner – when it’s all about me and nothing about you? We unleash the fires of dissention, hatred, and intolerance, and it becomes so loud and so overwhelming, it destroys everything in its path and leaves a world burned and charred.

The Baal Shem Tov, however, wouldn’t leave it at that. This viewpoint just engenders a sense of hopelessness and inertia. Reb Yisrael also teaches that everything in life is good, G-d is good, and one must look beyond the surface and expose the divine.

You can take the word af and reverse it – phey, aleph. That’s an acronym for the Hebrew words pla’ot areinu (I will show you wonders). G-d promises us that there will come a time when we will see wonders, we will merit the birth of a world that is filled with love, healing, and connection. The burnt ground will sprout new shoots, new life, and a promise of a better brighter world.

This isn’t pie in the sky. It’s a simple reversal of letters. It’s a simple change of attitude. It’s a commitment to live life on a higher consciousness where we make space for another and we understand that we are really one.

We translate this into action by performing acts of goodness and kindness and doing mitzvot (commandments of the Torah). Each unadulterated act of selflessness and connection brings G-dly light into this world, and it encourages the growth of new shoots.

This weekend, we celebrate the receiving of the Torah on Mount Sinai (Shavuot). This was a wonderous event, where the Jewish people stood humbly at the foot of a mountain and pledged allegiance to G-d and His law. We promised to be faithful servants of the divine and a light unto the nations.

So, the lesson is clear. Let’s douse the fire of wrath in our hearts, let’s stamp out all the faribels we have, big and small, let’s stop trampling on others. Let’s breathe fresh air back into our souls. Let this be the air of a shared common humanity that asks to live in peace with itself, with others, and with G-d!

Come on. Wake up, smell the coffee, a brand-new day is dawning. It’s going to be wonder-full!

Chag sameach!

  • Rebbetzin Aidel Kazilsky is a radio and television host and an inspirational speaker who teaches the wisdom of Torah and applies it to contemporary times.

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Religion

Moving from tumah to tahara

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This week’s parsha introduces us to the detrimental spiritual effects of tumat met, the impurity that comes from being in contact with the dead and the requisite process of purification through the mechanics of the sprinkling of the ashes of a red heifer – the para adumah.

Tumah (ritual impurity) is a prevalent topic in the Torah and in many instances, we are warned to distance ourselves from numerous sources of tumah.

But what is it anyway? The English translation does it no justice (as is the case with most English translations of Hebrew concepts).

I have heard rabbis and teachers try and compare tumah to a type of “spiritual radiation”, which can affect anyone who comes close to its source.

Another idea which I read a while ago describes tumah as deviation from an object’s designation, while tahara (the opposite of tumah) is the return or recalibration of an entity to its purpose and goal. For example, a dead animal is by definition tamei (impure) while an animal shechted in accordance with halacha, is tahor (pure), and can be eaten by the holiest and most pure Jew around – apologies to all the vegans out there. A human corpse carries the highest form of tumah, as he can no longer fulfil his purpose in this world, namely living and sanctifying Hashem’s name in the world.

But I think the best explanation is that tumah is the erroneous sensation that Hashem has abandoned us. Hashem is all of reality. (The ineffable name “havaya” talks to this concept.) The truth is that Hashem is always everywhere and intimately involved in our lives. When we perceive and appreciate this, we live on a lofty level of tahara and kedusha. However, when we don’t perceive Hashem’s presence because of a death or being in contact with certain spiritually tainted objects, we are labelled as being tamei.

It’s for this reason that a mourner, someone who by definition came into contact with a relative who passed away and mistakenly felt that Hashem had abandoned him, has to recite kaddish publicly in shul and re-infuse himself with kedusha – sanctity and the realisation that Hashem was always there and would never forsake him.

Shabbat shalom!

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Religion

Quarrels and Korach

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I remember once being peripherally involved in a community dispute (a rare occurrence in Jewish life to be sure) some years ago. Discontent had been bubbling for a while, but it all boiled over around this time – parshat Korach. As support was being mustered, one party approached me during the week and asked, “Are you with me, or are you with Korach?” About a day later, I was speaking to the other party, who raised the dispute and asked me, “Are you on my side, or that of the other party, who is clearly Korach?”

In the end I was able, more or less, to stay clear of it (thank G-d), but the nature of that interaction is indicative of the challenge of learning the lesson from our parsha generally. Is the lesson that we should be confident in our position, invoking the wrath of G-d to strike down those who are clearly in error since they disagree with us? Obviously not. Is the lesson that there’s no right and wrong, and it all just depends on your perspective? I don’t believe our Torah is compatible with such moral relativism. The parsha can teach us how to engage in such difficult situations through two-fold analysis of a situation, as we can see with the Korach dispute.

First, look at the merits of the arguments raised by each side. Korach is claiming that Moshe has claimed power for himself, without divine mandate, in order to rule over the Jewish people. Moshe is claiming that he has no personal desire for power, he’s simply doing what G-d instructed. We, the astute readers of the Torah, know that Moshe is correct, that in fact, he shunned leadership at the burning bush, and accepted the position only at Hashem’s insistence. Besides, all of the Jewish people have seen that Hashem entrusted Moshe to deliver the ten commandments, and that he succeeded in achieving atonement for us after the sin of the golden calf. Is it more logical that such a man would attempt a power grab, or that the troublesome former slaves needed a leader with a firm hand on the wheel?

Second, look at the approach of each side. Korach begins by wheeling and dealing – mustering support, putting spin on his position, and using soundbites to signal his virtue. Moshe appeals for de-escalation, reaches out to other disputants Datan and Aviram, and asks for trust based on his history of dedication to the people.

Our cognitive biases, particularly what’s known as the “halo effect”, nudge us to prejudge people and situations and to take sides based on who we like better. But, before deciding who is Moshe and who is Korach, we would be well served by applying these parsha lessons.

Shabbat shalom!

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Religion

How to avoid blindness

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Do you want to preserve your eyesight? Mishna Berura (24,7) quotes an ancient custom that will prevent blindness. Passing the tzitzit over our eyes when reciting the third paragraph of the shema will guarantee that we don’t lose the ability to see. How are we to understand this blessing?

The final passage of this week’s Torah reading teaches us the mitzvah of tzitzit, the fringes we are instructed to attach to the edges of four-cornered garments in order to remember all of Hashem’s commandments. After spelling out the details of the laws of tzitzit, the portion concludes with a seemingly unrelated reminder that Hashem took us out of Egypt.

Egypt is actually the embodiment of the polar opposite of remembering. This was the country that forgot all about Joseph and all the blessings he had brought upon the land, saving them from a certain famine. A generation later, his erstwhile VIP family, who had been invited to settle in Goshen as the king’s preferred subjects, were enslaved and committed to hard labour. This was a blatant display of ingratitude – a total lack of appreciation for Joseph’s contribution.

Instead, the Egyptians turned a blind eye to the plight of the Hebrews around them, never objecting to the injustices decreed upon them by Pharoah. This explains why one of the ten plagues was darkness, a physical manifestation of their ingrate sightlessness. The Hebrew word for this plague is choshech, which is written with the three letters chaf-shin-chet, letters which also spell the words shachach (forgot) and kichesh (denied).

The precept of tzitzit is about remembering – the antithesis of the Egyptians’ behaviour. Hashem took us out of that land, physically and spiritually, removing us from and from us the evil of ungratefulness. The tzitzit, on the contrary, are all about gratitude, a reminder of the 613 commandments given to us after the exodus. (The numerical value of the word tzitzit, 600, added to the number of strings, eight, and knots, five, that make up each of the four fringes, serves as a mnemonic of these obligations.)

Hence, the custom to pass these fringes over our eyes each time we call out the word tzitzit when reading the third paragraph of the shema every morning. This will ensure that we aren’t struck with the blindness of the Egyptians. And, please G-d, the merit of the mitzvah will also preserve our physical eyesight.

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