I’m going to look at the question – What makes Jews special people?
First, I’ll read a verse, from which I’m going to draw some special, Biblical attributes attributed to the Jewish people.
‘’And now, if you will hearken to my voice and keep my covenant, you will be to me a special people of all the nations, for all the earth is mine. And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation; these are the words that you shall say to the children of Israel.‘’ [Exodus 19:5-6]
Here are the topics I’ve derived from Exodus 19: 5-6:
- Am Segula. This Hebrew phrase is important. It describes a person who is chosen and special, but not necessarily understood. The qualities of being chosen and special are beyond our comprehension.
So, this Am Segula, this special nation of the Jewish people is unique because we have an inherent, spiritual capability within each of us. We have a hidden power of survival, self-sacrifice, healing, invincibility and durability inside us. We are a nation with the ability to embrace paradox, to embrace two contradictory arguments and bring them into a whole.
We are a nation with a very special destiny, a glorious destiny. And we have a super-consciousness which is also unique. Though we may not consciously know something, super-consciously, we do know certain things.
Here’s a meditation about being part of a unique and special nation:
Experience the feeling of being part of a nation that is unique and special… Get in touch with the feeling that your destiny is unique and special—something you may not comprehend , but something you just know… Get in touch with the power of Segula—the power of being able to walk through doors and accomplish things, not necessarily because you deserve it, but rather because you are special… feel the responsibility of having a special destiny … feel the responsibility for the entire world somehow on your shoulders… feel how the world was created just for you, and therefore you need to see to it that all goes well and smooth in the world, that all that you hear and see about your people and about the world is a personal calling for you to pray and act and do what you can to help out the situation… be humble in your role and in your destiny knowing that it’s all a gift and a beckoning from the One Above…
These are the elements of being a Holy Nation:
- We are connected to G-d. We are called Yehudi, which is the Hebrew word for Judah, or Judean. It’s one of the tribes of Israel, the central and ruling tribe of Israel. The name of the tribe spells the four-letter name of G-d. So, we’re all about being G-d-connected, all the time.
- We’re all about having our will connected to G-d’s will. If you dig down into the will of a Jewish person you’ll find a will that’s connected to G-d’s. We want to do G-d’s will. Sometimes there are a lot of layers blocking it from our awareness, but if you dig down deep enough you’ll actually find them and even put them to the test.
- Down deep, we know it’s not about us, it’s about G-d. It’s about our deepest ratzon, our will, to do what G-d wants us to do.
Here’s a meditation about being a Holy Nation:
Experience the feeling of being part of a nation that is unique, special and different from all other nations… Experience being a member of a nation that is referred to as the The Holy Nation… Experience underneath all the confusion and other forms of spiritual blockage, your primal motivation to be connected with Hashem… Experience that all that you really will is actually Hashem’s Will… Experience the certainty that all that you engage in, and every effort that you make to control and influence your fate in life is actually Hashem working through you and activating you in order to carry out whatever he wants to carry out –through you.
And finally, we are a kingdom of priests. What does that mean?
- It means to testify and to be witnesses to the fact that G-d is running the world. One of the verses in prophecy mentions that G-d calls his witnesses, testifying of his presence in the world.
- It means we are servants, like priests are service-oriented people. We are here to serve G-d, and like a priest, to serve other people as well.
- It means we are teachers, because priests are people who teach. They teach by example, but they also teach G-d’s will in the world.
Here’s a meditation about being a nation of priests:
Experience the feeling of being part of a nation of priests… feel the awesome responsibility of being the one who gives testimony to the world that G-d exists—that there is in fact nothing more important than G-d—that there is essentially nothing else but G-d… fill yourself up with this role and with the responsibility that it carries to enable others to be connected to G-d, to know G-d, to follow G-d’s ways and will, to reveal G-d where He is normally not found, to teach others how to do all this, how to live this… feel the pleasure and awe in opening up this reality for one other person and for more than one person, and for all of humanity… Feel the awe of the responsibility of your actions—feel that you don’t only represent yourself, but you represent G-d to all whom you encounter—and how being a representative of G-d lifts you up to act in a higher and more serious and passionate manner…
Last week I gave an introduction to this series – Restoring the Glory of the Jewish People. It’s touching on the idea of us being the chosen people, but also to the reality of stepping up into our legacy.
Today let’s start with this – The Jewish people are the ones who testify that G-d is in the world. One prophecy says, “You are my witnesses.” I’d like to point out that besides being witnesses verbally, and talking about G-d, it’s our extraordinary connection to G-d and our living in an above-nature way that serve as our testimony.
Our extraordinary, above-nature living in the world, as a people, involves a number of things:
- It involves our will being connected to G-d’s will.
- Our ideal perception is that there’s nothing else in the world except G-d.
- Our ideal testimony is that where G-d is normally not found, we are witnesses revealing Him to be found.
- We are a people connected so deeply with G-d that, as the Zohar teaches, G-d and Israel and Torah are one, which means we can connect with our souls to G-d and to Torah in any combination, and find each other in that interconnection.
- We are a people whose souls are described in the book of Job as being “a part of G-d above,” which is a hard concept to understand, meaning partializing G-d, but that’s what the words say and we have a very deep understanding of our souls based on that idea.
- We are a people who are promised that G-d will be with us in the exile, and G-d will return with us from the exile. Most of our history involves exile, almost all of it. And we are always connected up with G-d in an extraordinary way, wherever we are.
- We are a people who are very beloved. Our Sages teach us, if a person knew how much G-d loves us, we would be roaring like a lion all day long.
- We are a people who are beloved, and there are parts of Holy script referring to us as His daughter, His sister and His mother, describing the love of G-d that is shared with us.
- We are taught that Heaven and Earth were created for us, that’s how much love sustains our faith and who we are.
- We are taught that God mirrors the Jewish people doing mizvot in many different ways, and one of the ways is that He wears tefillin, just as we do. Our tefillin speaks of our love for G-d, the verse in the Shema, and His tefillin speaks of His love for us, “Who is like my people Israel?” Even on the level of ritual, G-d is expressing His deep love for us.
- We are connected to G-d in an extraordinary way with regard to our character.
- We are considered to be above the stars, and more numerous than the stars and the sand.
- We are considered to be a nation which dwells alone.
- We are considered to be a nation which, when we ascend, we ascend to the highest heights, and when we fall, we fall lower than anyone else.
- We are compared to various fruits, such as the date palm. Every part of the date palm is has a particular use.
- We are compared to the apple, which has a bud that comes out before the fruit appears. And as a people we said, “We will DO before we said we will listen,” which is parallel to the apple.
- We’re compared to olive oil because it does not mix well with water, and we do not mix well with the nations. The best of the olive oil only comes out when you crush it, and we do our best as a people when we are crushed. That’s when we really shine.
- One of our character traits is holy skepticism. When others may jump up and buy into whatever is being sold to them, the Jewish people don’t necessarily buy into everything.
- We are a people with a tendency to unite the disunited things, the divided things in this life.
- We are a people who, when pushed to say what we really want, will declare we want G-d and His will. Sometimes we have to be pushed to say it and to genuinely desiring it.
Based on these things, here are a couple of meditations based on the above-nature of the Jewish people:
Experience being Beloved by the Master of the Universe… Feel the love and how nothing can stand in the way of this love… Feel the warm glow that encompasses you , knowing that whatever you do, wherever you go, whatever you say—-you are beloved with an unconditional love—with an eternal love—a love that will never be taken away—and even when you fall and do that which seems to be bad and wrong, when all is said and done—it’ll be retrospectively clear that you really intended it to be done for the sake of your Beloved –Hashem…
Experience your unique character as a member of the Jewish people… Awaken your inborn humbleness and your natural uniqueness… experience your faithfulness… appreciate that you know deep down inside that you know of a higher and better way… take great and profound pleasure in the fact that these traits and many more are an inheritance that were experienced by your parents and theirs all the way back to the Patriarchs and Matriarchs…
Experience how you are at one with Hashem, and how He is the source of all that is good in your life … experience how he is the deepest will in your own will… experience that the deepest motivation inside of you is to reunite with Hashem in His infinite womb… experience how you are truly a child of Hashem … experience how no matter where you go and what you do, that Hashem is right there if you call…. experience that you are empowered to the extent that you connect with Hashem… experience how you are at one with Hashem on the deepest level… experience an inner drive to reveal Hashem’s presence in the world –especially where it’s not felt…
I’m starting a new series now, on the untapped essence of the Jewish people. It won’t be comparing Jewish people to non-Jewish people, as that would be politically incorrect, to say the least.
Instead, this is an exploration, and I’ll be tapping into what our destiny is all about, using some sources I’ve put together in the past and expanding on them. My intention is to reveal some things I didn’t see or know before.
In that spirit, I’m calling this series, “Restore The Jewish Glory.” And this will be a little introduction to it:
First, a quote from Ezekiel 36:24-29, “I will take you from among the nations and gather you out of all the countries and bring you into your own land. I will sprinkle on you clean water. I will give you a new heart and I will place in you a new spirit. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and will give you a heart of flesh. I will put my spirit within you. You will be my people and I will be your G-d.”
Second, a quote from the writings of Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak Kook, “Our truth is strong enough, but it is so overpowering and we are still unable to explain it in a clear language. In our inwardness, we understand our ideas and in the course of time our speech will also emerge from its hard exile in which it is confined. Only a people that has finished what it has started can descend from the stage of history, when its vision has already been fully disclosed to the world. Out of the inner depths, the Jewish people will yet sound the same call that was issued by the rock, from which it was hewn.”
The whole motivation of this my new exploration here is this – our historical destiny as a people is at hand. We are a nation of priests, we are a chosen people, we are a light unto the nations, and we are living in a period of time where the great majority of our people don’t buy into these times. They don’t begin to see, understand or know its own greatness and glory. Most of us cannot see that there’s anything special or unique that distinguishes us from other people in world outlooks, not at all.
So, the question is how to approach a subject that is so broad, so sensitive and yet so crucial. How can we hope to do justice to, perhaps, the most important question that exists for our people, and maybe for the whole world? And the answer is, we cannot do justice. It’s clearly beyond our capacity. But G-d can do it through us.
In that spirit then, we march forward, drawing specific topics from the following categories, and maybe we can find our way on this journey and map out some kind of path. Maybe we can develop some types of meditations by taking these ideas, one by one, and exploring what they’re all about.
These platitudes that we are meant to step up into, for the sake of our own destiny and the sake of all mankind present some challenges. Here’s a list of the challenges, the things we must work with:
- What does it mean to be a light to the nations?
- What does it mean to have a heart of flesh?
- What does it mean to be a chosen people?
- What does it mean to be a kingdom of priests?
- What does it mean to be a testifier of G-d for the whole world?
- What does it mean to be a teacher to the whole world?
- How does the land of Israel figure in to all of this?
- How does Moshiach figure in to all this?
- How does our people, the great majority of which are not observant, but very spirited (I would say)… How do they figure into all of this process?
- What is the timing involved in all this, stepping up into our destiny?
Those are a few of the questions, and obviously there are more. But let’s deal with at least one of them now.
We are a light unto the nations. What does this whole idea mean? If we were to do a Light Unto The Nations Meditation, what would it look like?
I think it would sound like this – Allow yourself to step into the future. See yourself as a proud member of a people who understand both the glory and the responsibility of being a chosen nation, a nation of global light-conveyers.
Experience the love inside of yourself that you are very inspired to share with all of humanity.
Experience yourself filled-up with light, a light that stretches from one end of the world to the other, a light that’s overflowing, a light that’s experienced as wisdom and G-dliness and love and transcendence and healing. It’s a light you’re driven to share with everyone, a light that’s received by one and all, directly and consciously, but also indirectly and subconsciously.
This is what I think the meditation would be about, and it’s not just a meditation, but a type of foresight or vision of what this state would be like. Because being a light to the nations is being someone who, when the world is in the dark, lights up a torch, a light or a beam to light up the path.
How does a person, no less than a nation, do that for the rest of the world? What comes to my mind is that person would need a universal language. We would need to have the ability to talk to anyone about all these things, and as a teacher we must know a language the students will understand, a translation of our destiny, which is Torah, into a universal kind of language of some type. That’s the first thing.
In order to be a superior kind of light, we would need to teach so that a person can come away from our teachings with absolute clarity, to know where to go, what to do, what to say and how to say it, who to be with and why to do it. They would know the answers to what baffles us all, in our private lives and in our national destiny.
That’s the challenge, and being a light unto the nations is probably much more than that.
In the sixth and last chapter of Pirkei Avot, the Saying of Our Fathers, here’s the first saying that spoke to me:
It says that a person who learns Torah lishma, will have amazing, amazing things happen to them, and will also have amazing influences on the world.
So, what does it mean that a person learns Torah lishma? Here is one way to explain it – A person learns Torah, while keeping in mind the purpose G-d had for giving people the Torah. And that purpose is to make the world a better place, and to be an extension of G-dliness, of bringing G-dliness into the world.
When that’s how the Torah is learned, then amazing things happen to the person who is learning.
First of all, he or she becomes the purpose for which Creation was created, and also a beloved friend of G-d. The person is considered to be upright and humble, righteous and royal, a leader and a person who deserves to have secrets revealed to them. The person becomes an overflowing wellspring, raised up above other people, all creatures.
They have this incredible power because they got their purposes right. They understand that Torah was given to make the highest, divine impact in the world. When you learn with that kind of spirit, it’s going to change you and it’s going to change the world, and everybody you come into contact with.
The second one is this – our Sages say that every day a divine voice goes out from Sinai, and it says, “Oy!” to the people who disregard Torah. So, we can wonder, “if this voice comes out every day, why can’t we hear it? And what does it mean to hear it?”
The Holy Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chassidic movement, whose yartzeit is the day after Shavuos, said we DO hear it, every one of us. We’d have to be prophets to hear it, but for us, it’s part of our natural thoughts. G-d is planting it in our natural, organic thinking process, and it’s basically G-d telling us to get it together as the Torah internalizes itself into our thoughts, and tells us what needs to be done to fix up ourselves and the world. So, that’s what’s happening here.
The third one is this – the path of Torah is what most people would call deprivation. For example, you sit on the ground, you eat salt and water and you’re detached from the things of this world. When we do that, we free ourselves up. It’s not that Judaism teaches asceticism, per se.
We’re not talking about going up a mountain and sitting in a yoga position, separating ourselves from the world. To a certain extent we do separate, and it’s good… but here we’re talking about bringing Torah into your life in the most perfect way. When you live with equanimity, when you live with detachment, when you’re not crazy about eating and sleeping and pleasure, and all the rest of the worldly stuff, then your mind and your spirit are free to receive Torah in this way.
There are 48 ways listed here, ways to acquire Torah. Some of my favorites from this list are:
- Be a listener. When somebody is teaching you or talking to you, don’t think about what you have to say back, or what you think about the situation. Simply listen completely to what they have to say.
- Articulate clearly what you want to say. It’s an art to be able to say exactly what you want to say.
- Assist scholars in their study. Our Sages say that the greatest lessons they learn were so not so much the receiving of Torah information from a person, but rather, observing how that person lives and learning from watching them as they live their day-to-day life. It can be a great educational experience.
- Debate with others. In yeshivas there is great deliberation and students talk things out. Yeshivas are breeding grounds for questions and answers. People are always saying, “This doesn’t make sense…” and it’s encouraged. The more questions, the better. We learn from one of the greatest Sages of modern times, the Holy Arizal, Rabbi Issac Luria, who would walk into an everyday study hall with one purpose – to eliminate any doubts at all about everything he had learned that day. He became a warrior of doubts. That’s who he was, that’s what he did, that’s what yeshiva is. You’ve got questions? Ask them and ask them until things become completely clear.
- Learn in order to teach. If you learn just to learn, that’s one level. But if you learn in order to teach, you’ll learn it twice as well.
The next saying is this – if a person is offered a choice between a comfortable, wealthy life where there is no other Torah being actively learned in that place, or a life that involves struggle and poverty, but one which offers a huge amount, a renaissance of Torah, then the choice should be clear. The Sages suggest exiling yourself to a place where there are other people for whom Torah is primary, and there’s talk and deliberation for your growth.
If you don’t, and you go to far-out places that are just “out there,” and they are just comfortable, you may forget all your Torah because you’re not living it, and it may be difficult to be in that comfortable atmosphere for long.
The next one is this – what we can take with us in the World-to-Come, the post life, is not riches or honor or things of this world, but the currency we take with us is our good deeds and our Torah. When a person knows that, they approach Torah differently.
And finally, here’s the way the Sayings of The Fathers concludes by quoting a Sage who said that Hashem wanted to purify and refine the Jewish people, and therefore he gave them a whole lot of mitzvoth. 613 is just the number to start with, there are actually far more than that. Hashem gave them a lot of Torah and a lot of mitzvoth, because the more we have, the more purified we become.
The Jewish people in their raw state, without Torah, are some of the most brazen people in the world. The Talmud lists the most brazen of animals, the most brazen of plants, the most brazen of people, who are the Jewish people who don’t have Torah.
G-d loves us, and he gave us this huge amount of Torah and mitzvoth just to purify and refine us, and it’s why we have so many observances going on, and so many things to do. It’s to mitigate the rough edges on the corners of who we are as a people.
Here are the sayings from Chapter 5 of Pirkei Avot, the Sayings of Our Fathers, that resonate with me:
The first one concerns what wisdom looks like, in its proper form. It advises never to interrupt someone who is speaking, whether you agree with what they are saying or not. Even if you have an opinion, and agree or disagree, let them finish, let them say what they will.
A wise person understands that even though you may be able to predict what they’re going to say, you want to give them a full expression. That will also give you a little bit of time to contemplate. Especially when you’re listening to someone who’s wisdom is greater than your own, don’t pipe up every few seconds. If you have a question, then ask it. But first, hear what they have to say, and give them respect.
Also, don’t reply instantly. Take a minute and think about what they are saying. I think we can identify many issues in our personal lives, historical lives and Biblical stories which came about because people replied too hastily and don’t think about the consequences of their words.
When a wise person doesn’t know something they say, “I don’t know,” or, “I have not heard.” They need to get used to saying those things when necessary, because it is another way of the wise.
A person should have the humility to admit the truth. If you messed up and said something wrong, something bad have the decency to admit it. Be connected to truth, not ego. That’s the first thing I want to share.
The second thing I want to share is just a few words, but it conveys a very powerful message about giving, and there are givers, takers and people in the middle.
The giver is a person who says, “What is mine is yours, and what is yours is yours.” That means, I’m interested in giving, so if I have something, I want to share it with you. But if you have something, you don’t need to share it with me. I don’t need your gifts. I want you to keep it.
The taker, on the other opposite side, is probably someone who is very selfish. That person says, “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is mine.” It’s sort of like the Mafia… “I got my own thing, and what you’ve got, I’m going to take that, too.” So, obviously that is not the good way.
The person in the middle says, “What is mine is mine, and what is yours is yours.” That can be ok, or it can be corrupt, because rather than trying to be a giver and focusing on others, the person is essentially saying, “You do your thing, I’ll do my thing and it will be ok as long as you don’t hurt each other.” This is not really the best philosophy in the world. We have a better one, which is to give, and to help other people have what they are missing.
My next saying is this – A person who is hard to anger and easy to pacify is called a Hasid, or Chasid. This person is calm because he does things beyond the letter of the law, beyond what’s expected of him. Although they are justified in feeling anger when they or their loved ones have been hurt unjustly, nevertheless, because they love G-d and want to live beyond the letter of the law, the world and the people of the world, they are always going to look for an empowering factor in their interaction with another person instead of getting angry.
Even when a Chasid gets angry, for whatever reason, they are easy to pacify, because their natural place is to be a Chasid, a person who is a giver.
The next saying is this – Love that is dependent on some external factor has a catch, which is that when that external factor goes away, the love goes away. The love that is not dependent on anything will last forever. It will make it through thick and thin. This is a huge lesson, because it’s very hard to love people altruistically. People normally love because there are benefits involved. It may be good for them, or they might just love to love, the feeling of it, the attention of it. But to really love in that way does not depend on the way that person acts towards you. That love will conquer all, and it will last forever.
A similar, but somewhat different statement our Sages make is this – an argument that is not for G-d’s sake will not stand the test of time. The two sides will both dissipate.
But an argument in which both sides are doing it for G-d, and even if one side is ruled to be pertinent in a certain time and place, and the other side is not, both sides are called by our Sages, “the words of the living G-d,” and they will have pertinence always, in all ways. That’s an important truth about an altruistic, non-dependent way of seeing both sides of the picture.
Here’s the next one – A person who is a meritor of the multitudes, in other words, what they do with their life is in order to lift up many, many people, and it’s not just a personal, selfish intention, that person is going to be protected from sin and from failure in their lifetime. It’s sort of measure-for-measure, because they are helping a lot of people so they should be helped as well.
G-d is saying to that person, so to speak, “You’re doing it for my kid? Then I will do it for you, and I will keep you from stumbling also.” Let’s say that person does fall into sin, and they would have to go into purgatory or some other horrible post-life situation, but one of their students or a person they’ve helped in this world has made it to the Garden of Eden… how does that look? The teacher is downstairs and the student is upstairs. That situation might provide a ticket for the teacher to get out, meaning he would be protected.
Here’s the next one – One of our Sages, a righteous convert named Ben Bagbag, said, “Turn it around and turn it around because everything is in it,” referring to Torah. This means that when you go deep, deep inside of Torah you find that G-d looked at Torah and created the world. Which means everything in the world is contained in Torah, but you have to know how to fish it out and how to identify all of reality, including its source inside of Torah.
To do that, you have to turn it around and turn it around. Probably the reason a convert picked up on that truth more than someone who was not a convert is because they’ve been there. They have been on the other side and they’ve seen what reality is all about. When they came into Torah they started to feel, “wow, this is a book which is basically a guide to all of reality.” That’s the kind of person who can make a statement like this one, and keep it as a mantra for his life.
Another convert said something very profound, too. He said, “According to the sorrow or the suffering will be the reward.” In this world, in the next world or wherever. There is a justice system implanted in life, so if a person is hurt, they will be compensated in one way or another. If they suffered trying to make good things happen they will be rewarded. That’s a deep insight also, as to the Divine running the world.
These thoughts are from the fourth chapter of Pirkei Avos, Sayings of the Fathers:
The first one is a question. Our Sages ask, “Who is the wise person, the rich person, the honored person and the hero person?”
The wise person is one who is willing to learn from anybody.
The rich person is not the one who has a lot of money, but one who is satisfied with whatever they have.
The honored person is not the one who chases after honor, but one who runs away from honor, and seeks after other people to honor them.
The hero person is the one who doesn’t dominate or control others, but is able to control himself, his yetzer hara.
One of the clear messages here is this – most things in life that you chase after will run away from you. But if you spend your time and energy helping others, those things will chase after you, and they will find you. The things which people are running toward throughout their lives – wisdom, wealth, honor and glory – we are being taught to grant them to others or run away from them entirely.
The next idea is this – a good deed, a mitzvah, perpetuates another good deed. And a sin, an aveirah, or a bad deed, perpetuates another sin. I think the lesson here is that momentum is a reality in our lives. Whatever we plug into the airspace of our lives is going to perpetuate more of the same thing, specifically when it comes to going with or going against G-d’s will.
The next teaching is this – don’t despise anyone, because every person has their time. This is a good lesson because we have to understand that G-d sees into the heart of a person, but we don’t see into that place. And G-d also has a time frame for who gets what, whenever they are supposed to get it. So, even if you see somebody you can’t stand, know that G-d has a plan for that person, and they are going to have their hour, or their minute of glory. Like the old David Bowie song said, “We all can be heros… Everybody has their day to be a hero.” That’s part of it
The next saying is this – when we learn Torah, we should learn in order to teach. Or, even better, we should learn Torah to DO. When we learn Torah, we will be able to do and to teach, and much more also.
Here is a lesson in the power of purpose, of intention. Your learning, or anything else in life, for that matter, is not about gaining something you didn’t have before, but it’s about giving it over to others, or making an impression in the world. It cycles into something beyond yourself, and in doing so it has more power. Same thing with making money, making friends, anything. If you let yourself focus not only on the thing itself, but on the effects it can accomplish, you’ll get the thing itself and its effects as well.
The Sages say, “Be a tail among lions, rather than being a head among foxes.” The idea here is that it’s better to hang out with people who are better than you are, and to learn from them, and not be the center and the focus of attention, rather than hang out with people who are lower than you are. It’s not that you are in danger with those people, but you’re not going to be growing. You’re not going to be stretching yourself beyond your limit, your comfort zone, unless your whole purpose is to help out in places nobody else can serve. That’s the difference.
The next saying is this – our lifetime should be a lifetime of preparation for the world to come. When we understand life as, “this is not the end of the line, but only preparation for a world of truth, eternity and divinity,” then we approach this life in a much different way. We’ll be detached from this life, from this world, and we’ll be able to focus more on what’s most important.
The next one is this – our Sages say it’s better to spend one hour in this world improving ourselves, doing teshuva and good deeds, than to spend the entire creation in the next world. On the other hand, it’s better to spend one hour of spiritual bliss in the next world, than the entire direction of this world.
This idea is clear… this world is designed to be the place of self-improvement, of growth. We have a soul, which is completely the opposite of our body, and it has to live with all the obstructions of the body. When we do good things here in this world, the value of it in eternal currency is much more than when we don’t have a body in the future world.
Whereas, the truth and the bliss of the future world is beyond us here and we can’t compare life in this world with it at all, with its different currency.
The next saying is, as I would call it in big, red letters – TACT. It says, don’t try to pacify someone when they are angry, and don’t try to comfort someone when their judgment lies in front of them. When a person is in their moment of humiliation, don’t look at them. Simply look away. All these things are teaching us tact, to really put ourselves in the other person’s place and to leave them alone, to just be silent and wait. There will be a time, later, when we can pacify and comfort them, and raise them up. But not right in the moment. Silence is a very wise thing to give in this kind of situation.
The next thing is this – that wisdom which we learn in our youth is compared to brand, new ink on brand, new paper. Whereas the wisdom learned later in life is like very faded ink on very faded paper. This idea is teaching us that a person has a clean slate when they are new, when they are young. And what they learn goes straight in and stays there for a lifetime.
The Sages say, “Exile yourselves to a place of Torah.” This idea means this – even if you have to exile yourself, even if you’re in a place that’s not so comfortable but there’s a lot better Torah over there, then go there. Once again, if you’re trying to influence people and you’re the only one who can do it, meaning you’re the only one for the job, then that’s a different story.
But, if possible, try to be in a place where there is a lot of Torah being learned, because it will have its influence on you.
And finally, the last one for today is this – “When you respect Torah, people respect you. That’s pretty self-explanatory.
The first one is – Without government, people would swallow each other alive. Therefore, pray for them. The idea here is that we have to realize that, even though we may not agree with the government, unless it’s a horrible, deathly, dangerous dictatorship, we should pray that it has stability, so that people don’t swallow each other alive, only living according to the law of the jungle.
The next idea has to do with when we are sitting around the table – There we should talk words of Torah. Talking words of Torah invites in G-d’s presence, and not talking words of Torah invites in the opposite while we are eating.
Unless we are eating forbidden things, eating is sort of a neutral activity, and while we’re eating we have the ability to either raise up or draw down. So, we see the opportunity to take something as mundane and commonplace as eating, which is something everyone does, and infuse it with Torah learning, which draws G-d into the experience.
The next one is a big one – A person who takes upon themselves the burden of Torah will be absolved from the burden of taxes, and also the burden of going to work. These things are true only to the extent that a person takes on the burden of Torah.
Let’s say a person takes on a 7% burden of Torah, on a sliding scale, then his other burdens are lessened by that amount. We are talking about a spiritual principal here, something that’s going to happen by itself. We’re not talking about Jewish legislation, because that is provided for also when all the conditions of society and the legal system are in place. But we’re not really talking about that.
We’re talking about what’s going to happen when a person takes upon himself the same kind of a burden (this is a heavy idea..) he takes upon himself to earn a living. If you would put that much energy, and discipline, dedication and stability into Torah, then you wouldn’t need to put it into the other things.
That’s a very thoughtful one.
The next saying is about a person’s deeds, meaning what they do. If their deeds exceed their wisdom, their deeds will endure. When their wisdom exceeds their deeds, meaning they are just theoretical, those deeds will just fade away. They won’t have endurance.
The next saying is sort of a mind-blowing idea, and I anticipate huge questions on this one –If a person is pleasing to their fellow human, that’s a sign they are pleasing to G-d. And, the opposite is true as well. We can see some lowdown human beings who might win celebrity or popularity contests, but they appear to be sort of horrible human beings…. How can G-d love them?
That’s the kind of question you should ask. And the kind of answers you should search for may come from deeper questions, such as, “Is this person really pleasing for the right reasons, or not?”
The next one is – A person should receive everybody with happiness. Just be a good person, emanating goodness. That’s how we should deal with people, although it’s not always easy or even possible. But it’s a maxim for life.
The next one is – The way to ensure wisdom is to be quiet. Silence aids wisdom. In other words, not only do you receive wisdom when you’re silent, but the best way you receive wisdom is to be able to hear what others are actually saying. That’s how you get wisdom from other people. And after you’ve heard what they say, you should be silent and let your mind process it as well.
The next one is – A human is beloved because they are created in the image of G-d. We have to understand that there’s an aspect of G-d that’s unfathomable and therefore, unknowable. The aspect of G-d with which G-d has let Himself be known is one which is in sync with human beings in the world. It is a universal image, that of the human being. Because of that image, a human being is holy and beloved.
This explains some Jewish laws, such those regarding the treatment of the dead, which are really for the benefit of the living. Seeing a dead body too long after death desecrates the image of G-d. The human has to be a body with the soul inside it, and that’s the source of the beloved-ness of the image.
The next one is – When there is no Torah, there is no income. And the opposite is also true. In other words, if a person has no income, Torah is going to be hard to come by as well. A person needs words of Torah to make it happen. If there’s no Torah, when they should be learning Torah, when they should be engaged in that activity, then their lives won’t be blessed with the income to deal with it.
The last one for today talks about the value of time. It basically says, the description of living in this world is like this analogy – The store is open, and we can borrow on credit, but we must pay back what we borrow. When everything is taken into account at the end of our lives, we will see exactly what we owe. The judgment is, in fact, a judgment of truth… the truth of what we owe.
This analogy teaches us that we cannot think we’re entitled to everything we get. This life is not about entitlement. Some people feel entitled to everything; they want it and they expect to get it.
Our Sages teach us this is not true. This world belongs to G-d, and if you choose to do what you should do, some of the world can belong to you, too. Start by recognizing G-d, and by being a good person, but if not, just remember G-d holds us accountable for whatever we receive, and for our very lives, in general.
It’s all about appreciating every minute of our lives, and every possession we own as precious to us.
Now I’d like to address the second chapter of Pirkei Avot, The Sayings of Our Fathers. These are some of my favorite sayings, the ones that resonate with me.
The first one is – three things keep a person away from sin: an eye that sees, an ear that hears, and knowing that all your acts are recorded in a book. This was a way one of our Sages said that we need to have visualizations, in order to keep us in line, in order to keep us from doing stuff we don’t want to be doing.
It’s very common to quote this saying at people’s funerals, because it represents fear of G-d, a fear of heaven. It’s like being a video. If we understand that our words and actions are recorded, 24/7, just as though we’re on a video recording, and from my interaction with people who have had near-death experiences and see a “video” of their lives as the time of their passing, we can’t foolishly think we’re getting away with anything. It’s all there, and it’s all clear. We have to be aware of that.
The second thing is that we need to be cautious of the ruling authorities. They only befriend you for their present interests. At first they appear as friends, but in a time of distress for them, they are not likely to stand by as a friend. I think it’s interesting our Sages picked up on this one ‘way, ‘way back when. We tend to think this is a modern, political dilemma we’re experiencing currently, meaning leaders failing to represent the people who voted them in, and deferring instead to their own interests.
Our best response to this behavior is to keep a healthy distance from the ruling authorities, and to take heed if you are in the position of authority. Politics makes for strange bedfellows, as they say, and when you think the other person is on your side, but it’s a question of political power, you’d better look out. So, this wisdom goes ‘way, ‘way back.
The next one is this – make G-d’s will your will, so that G-d will make your will His will. That’s a tricky one.
In other words, if you do what you can, if you study G-d’s will and try to adapt it to yourself, you are likely to wind up doing what G-d wants you to do. That’s the natural effect, the payoff, so to speak. It goes on to say that you should nullify your own will in the face of G-d’s will, which means, as a result, that G-d will nullify the unfavorable will of others toward you. In other words, your will may be done.
In a nut shell, we are talking about connecting up your will with G-d’s will. Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan says that when a person fuses his will with G-d’s will, his potential for transforming the world into a heavenly kingdom is unlimited. You become G-d’s right-hand man or woman, and your power to get things done becomes unlimited. That is one way to live a miraculous and above-nature life.
The next one is this – Don’t think that you’re ever through learning. No matter how old you are or how much you know, it’s possible to do something really stupid to mess up your life. For example, Yochanan the High Priest, who lived back in the days of the Holy Temple. He was the High Priest, the holiest man in the land, the one who granted forgiveness in the Holy of Holies once a year, going where no other man was allowed to enter.
But in the 80th year, he lost it. He got involved with certain types of fallen groups, and he took on their philosophy and lost what he had. We all have to understand that every day is a battle with our evil inclination, and that no matter how old and weak we become we can lose it. We have to be on our guard at all times.
The next saying is this – a shy person will never learn and a stringent person will never be able to teach. That idea is pretty self-explanatory, but we should understand that you have to be a sort of nudnik to property learn. It’s hard.
You’re sitting in any situation and you find that the one who comes out ahead is the one who is asking questions. Judaism, perhaps more than any other religion, encourages us to constantly ask questions, to see other sides and get clarity. We are a nation of holy skeptics. We will question and keeping questioning anything that is not clear. If you question, you will learn. If you won’t question, you won’t learn.
And the teacher must have infinite patience. That’s what makes a teacher a teacher. They have to understand it’s not about furthering themselves, but to give over that knowledge to others, and to repeat it over and over, possibly hundreds of times.
Another saying is this one – in a place where there are no people, try to be a person. In a place where there’s no mensch, where there’s no proper, respectful, human being, you be a human being. I’ve run into this in my life many times, and it’s a directive regarding Jewish leadership and what it’s all about.
Our leaders don’t run for office, they run away from office. But they will step up when necessary, when there’s nobody else willing to do the job. That’s what leadership is all about. We don’t want it, but we will do it if we have to do it.
The next saying is this – a person who goes above and beyond, who does an inordinate amount of one thing will have the result of something else, both negative and positive. For example, a person who is a glutton and eats too much meat will have worms in their body when they pass away. A person who collects an inordinate amount of possessions will have a great deal of worry in their life. A person who has an inordinate amount of gathering Torah will have a great deal of life in their life. A person who is inordinately charitable will have an extraordinary amount of peace in their life.
Here’s the next one – Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zachai was in a discussion with a number of his students about what trait is the one that encompasses all other traits. They agreed that the #1 trait is a good heart, because a good heart contains all the other good traits, such as being a good friend, being a good neighbor, and being a person who sees what’s going to come from their actions. A good heart contains all the other good traits. A good heart is the essence of what a human being is.
The next one is this – the nature of a true scholar, a true Sage, is one who has an abundance of the element of fire. True scholarship, true Torah is passion. Therefore, you have to understand that when you’re playing with fire you can get either warmed or burned, helped or harmed. Keeping a healthy distance means you’ll get warm, but it you get too close you’ll get burned.
And the next one is don’t make your prayer redundant or habitual. Make your prayer full of true, heartfelt connection to G-d. Our Sages say it’s better to pray a little, tiny bit with heart than to pray a whole lot without it.
And the next one is don’t be evil in your own eyes. This is such an important one today. People put themselves down in place where they shouldn’t, and they lift themselves up in places where they shouldn’t. Here we’re talking specifically about, in your own eyes, understanding that there’s part of yourself that is a holy soul. Don’t put yourself down. You have something to say which nobody else can say.
And the last one for today is about the preciousness of time. Our Sages say, “The day is short, the task is great, the workers are lazy and the reward is great.” We’ve got to know that every second counts. So, don’t be a waster of time. Time is the most important thing, because this life is full of jewels to be corrected at all times, and in all ways.
What I want to do right now, since we are in the period between Passover and Shavuot, is to follow the tradition of studying one of the six chapters of Pirkei Avot, The Sayings of The Fathers, each week of this period. It’s one of the richest, most universally-accepted treasure troves of wisdom we have. Everybody, no matter what their background, can appreciate The Sayings of The Fathers.
It’s a collection of the sayings of the Sages during a certain period of Jewish history. Each Sage would contribute one, two or three sentences, reflecting their thoughts or their mantra, their perspective on life. They are beautiful sayings, so what I’d like to do now is to share the highlights of each of the chapters traditionally studied each week.
So, let’s begin…
The Sages say, “Acquire for yourselves a friend.” This phrase begs interpretation. In Hebrew, the word used for “acquire” here is usually used to express monetary acquiring, or purchasing. So, it could be translated, “Purchase for yourselves a friend.” That’s one take on the word, which can be explained this way – the value of a good friend is beyond value. A good friend is worth, if you had to do it, payment for their time. Basically, what you can share with a friend, you can share with no other, which makes it priceless.
One of the most outstanding examples in my life is an incredible friendship I had for 14 years, and we had a mastermind partnership together. We would share each other’s dilemmas, and take turns counseling each other. Doing so, we came up with a huge database of tools, which we have both been using, up until today. That’s what came from such a friendship because we went straight to the heart of what a friendship is all about.
Another way to read these words, “Acquire for yourself a friend,” can be derived from the spelling of the Hebrew word for “acquire.” It’s spelled the same as the word for “pen.” So, another way of reading this phrase is, “Make your pen your friend.” Which, of course, means to write stuff down so you won’t forget it.
When you’re walking through life, and invariably amassing life’s wisdom as you go, the lessons and the treasures, you don’t want to lose track of them. There are so many gems, there’s so much good stuff, and you want to acquire as much as possible and keep it. Like a kid in a candy store, you want to grab as much as you can, in your mouth and in your pockets to take with you.
So, “Make your pen your friend” means you want to keep what you learn and what comes to you in writing. And, the more you write, the more you’ll see you need to write. That’s my experience. Becoming an obsessive writer is a wonderful thing.
The next saying I want to comment on is this – “We should judge everybody favorably.” It speaks for itself, but there are deeper meanings, too. In Torah, we have a mitzvah to judge others as being “in the right,” regardless of our opinion. We want to look at people favorably.
We look at people favorably when we receive them favorably with a big smile, and judging them favorably. When they see us accepting them and treating them favorably, then they will be favorable toward us. See them with a good eye and they will be good, which is also good advice for raising children.
The next saying is, “I found nothing better for the body than silence.” Note that this doesn’t say, “better for the soul,” it says “better for the body.” From our Sages in other sources we learn that the way to acquire wisdom is to be a silent person. If a person is talking all the time, they are never going to learn. The greatest Sages learned the art of listening, and they knew that silence was a very pristine, holy place. The more silent you are, the more receptive you’ll be.
That kind of silence is good for the soul; it’s good for wisdom for the soul.
But we have a very loud, annoying, bodily voice inside us. And it’s talking without us even realizing what it’s saying. And it’s telling us to do a bunch of stuff that’s not good for us, not good for our body. But if we choose to be quiet, and to listen to what the body is saying, on both the good side and the bad side, we could probably avoid most doctors and medical care. Our body poised and ready to teach us what tastes good, what is good for us, and whether we are healthy or not. If we need to know how to get well we need to listen to the body.
We also need to listen to the spiritual body, which helps us distinguish between messages that are good for the body but not for the soul. Silence will help us distinguish between the two and take the right path between them.
Another saying… Actually, there are a number of sayings that teach us about not chasing. The general idea is when you don’t chase things, or honor, or money, or fame or glory, those things will chase you instead. If you want to be a person who is honorable, run away from honor. Then honor will chase you. If you want to be a person who is rich, run away from wealth, and the wealth will chase you. If you want to be a person who is popular, run away from popularity, and popularity will chase you.
Our personal experiences bear this out, especially for teenagers who are in the game of people-chasing a lot. But then there are a lot of older people chasing money, too. This is a golden rule, one of the gems of our Sages – When you run away, things and people will chase after you.
Another saying is, “Make yourself a Rav.” In Hebrew, “rav” can be loosely translated as “mentor.” So, this saying means, “Get yourself a mentor.” The root word “rav” in Hebrew means “a lot,” which adds to our understanding. We need to get mentors who have a lot of life experience, not only in a particular area, but it a wide variety of life experiences.
It can also mean, “Make yourself a mentor.” You can be a mentor for yourself, and that includes making every friend you have in the world a mentor for you. You can begin to relate to people as wellsprings of spiritual and intellectual knowledge. When you make everyone a mentor, they will be very happy to guide you.
A famous saying from Pirkei Avot is, “If I’m not for myself, then who will be for me? If I’m only for myself, then who am I?” Let’s take a look at this saying, although the plain meaning is simply profound – If I don’t take care of myself, then I’ll have to depend on other people. But if I connect to myself, then I will profoundly be able to connect to other people. And if I’m only for myself, then, who am I? I am simply a selfish kind of person.
There’s a balance we need to strike in this life, and that’s what our Sages are telling us about. Yes, you need to connect to who you are, but then you need to channel it to others.
And there’s a continuation of the same saying which says, “If not now, then when?” Again, the simple meaning of this saying is profound. It means we should avoid the normal, human tendency to be upset about the past and to worry about the future, which means we are not living here and now. Our Sages are telling us to understand that if we’re only putting attention on the past and the future, we’ll never be in the “now.” We’ll miss it. In actuality, life is all about the “now.” This is a plug for being both mindful and present as well.
Our Sages say, “You should love Shalom, and you should chase after it. This has nothing to do with politics here, it’s about Shalom, which is peace in the G-dly sense, or the ability to make peace with paradox. It’s about making peace with things that normally cannot be made peace with. We should seek to make peace with things we cannot normally bridge ourselves to, which includes making peace at home, between husband and wife, as well as between ourselves and other people.
It’s not enough to just be a person who loves peace. We have to be proactive and chase after it, in order to find peace where it is normally not found.
What I’d like to do is speak about the end of the Passover holiday, which is basically concerned with the crossing of the Red Sea.
On the seventh day of Passover, in history and energetically in our lives right now, we crossed and crossed the Red Sea. That crossing was affected by a whole different level of Divine Providence, which the Kabbalah refers to as ATIK.
ATIK is the highest of the sephirot, a type of Divine Providence that super-cedes, in a miraculous way, everything that happens to us as human beings. It’s what G-d put into practice in all the miraculous events that happened – Passover, Red Sea, manna, Mount Sinai, the ten plagues – the whole kit and caboodle was ATIK, meaning “shifting oneself, or move yourself over,” in Hebrew.
It means putting yourself into a different state of receptivity, and to believe in miracles as a person who is in sync with miraculous, Divine Providence. That’s what was demanded, and it’s what’s demanded of us in crossing the Red Sea, which represents certain death. Historically, the Egyptians were chasing us. They were more powerful. It was a nation of warriors chasing a nation of slaves, and of course there was the sea. We were not a nation of Olympic swimmers at all, and there were also wild animals to contend with, as well as accusers in heaven.
When the people started screaming, G-d asked us, “Why are you screaming?” And the people replied, “We were screaming as slaves, to get out of Egypt, and so we’re screaming now, too.”
But G-d said, “No, this is different, this is about action. It’s about trust in G-d, which is even higher than screaming or prayer, and which is demonstrated by action.” We had to put our money where our mouth is, and just jump into the sea.
Essentially, G-d said, “I’ve never told you to jump in the sea, and I know it doesn’t make sense, but I’m telling you to trust the process, trust Me to do it.” He told us everything would be ok, and it was ok.
So, we leaped into the sea, in an impossible situation. That leaping into the sea is parallel to many situations in our lives and in our history. It’s a leap when Esther, in the Purim story, said, “If I’m lost, I’m lost. If I die, I die. But I’m going in to talk to the King, and to tell him not to commit a holocaust on my people.” Esther was willing to give herself up and leap into her sea, and it worked, and she won.
That’s how it happened for Esther, and for Moses, and for others who were willing to make a nothing of themselves by trusting in the process and trusting that G-d would get them through.
It’s the same for us, for our process, too, as we leap into an impossible situation. When we do that, and to the extent we do it, that’s how we bring on miracles. We bring on miracles by shifting ourselves in a reflective, mirror-like fashion, which shifts the way G-d looks down upon us as well.
We parallel these historical, Biblical happenings in our lives whenever we have no choice but to totally give it up to G-d. When that happens, G-d sees we are completely self-nullified in that situation, and then the “crossing of the Red Sea” type miracles will happen to us. But first we must leap. We must close our eyes and go with G-d in a whole, different way, not the normal, day-to-day, reward and punishment kind of way. This super-cedes all of that.
That’s what the seventh day of Passover is all about.