The Dreidal Of Redemption

Rabbi Gaines Dreidal Of RedemptionChanukah is upon us and in addition to the delectable smell of potato latkas cooking in the kitchen and the beautiful lights of the Chanukiah (Menorah possessing 8 branches) glistening from windows lining the streets, the laughter of children can be heard echoing in the hallowed halls of many a home as they busily spin the 4 sided top we call (in Yiddish) Dreidal. Dreidal (Sevivon in Hebrew) is an ancient game that is simultaneously simple and complex, i.e. simple to learn and play (even a very little child can do it), but complex (profound) in its meaning (even learned scholars contemplate its meaning).

Let’s begin our analysis by first explaining the rules of the game. The Dreidal top possesses four sides, each of which possesses a letter of the Hebrew alphabet. These four letters are called Nun, Gimmel, Hey, and Shin. The rules are are simple. Each player begins with 10-15 coins (sometimes tokens, matchsticks, or chocolates are used), and they each must place a single coin or token into the center, the “pot.” The players will now take turns spinning the Dreidal. If the Dreidal (upon completing its spin) falls on the letter Nun, the player acquires (that round) nothing. If the Dreidal should fall on the letter Gimmel, the player will acquire everything - all the coins in the pot are now his (forcing each of the remaining players to put yet another coin into the pot). If the Dreidal lands on the letter Hey, the player acquires half of the pot. Lastly, should the Dreidel land on the letter Shin, the player places a single coin into the pot. The goal of the game is then this: spin the Dreidal and land on the Hey or Gimmel (the letters that mean “half” and “all”), for only then, when you have successfully collected all the coins from the pot and the other players, is the game over. Naturally, not everyone’s first spin will land on a Hey or Gimmel (the letters that allow you to collect coins from the pot). Most players will be forced to spin again and again before their efforts are met with success.

What is the spiritual lesson?

Chanukah is about the miracle of “transformation,” the conversion of our individual and collective darkness into the very brightest of lights. But such a feat is not easily achieved, for our darkness - our evil - will not yield without a fight. To that end, we must assume that our initial efforts will be met with tremendous resistance, a resistance that will seem, at first, too mighty to overcome. It may even seem that we are powerless against it, that we lack the skill and ability to complete the mission, God forbid. But failure, Dreidal teaches, is never an end, only a crucial step on the path to success. We must be willing to “spin our Dreidal,” to take a chance, again and again until our efforts our met with success. Only then, after our considerable efforts to grow and transform, will we win back all the Divine sparks (a Kabbalistic term for the Divine lights concealed in every point of reality) from the darkness of our lesser selves. This, explain the Sages, is why these 4 letters of the Dreidal: Nun, Gimel, Hey, and Shin (that tell the story of failure and success) possess the same numerical value of “Moshiach” (“Messiah”), both of which equal 358! For it’s only when we are willing to to spin our “Dreidal” again and again, to fight for the light even in the face of darkness and failure, that we will tip the scales of redemption and merit the ultimate  revelation of the Messiah (the ultimate transformation of darkness into light as explained by the Sages).

So play on and remember, your past failures are only stepping stones on the way to ultimate victory. It may be your next spin that wins all!

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Is Hidden Kindness Better?

Rabbi Gaines Is Hidden Kindness BetterKindness comes in many forms, but no matter the chosen expression (the form of kindness one chooses to perform), it all can be classified as one of two types: 1) Revealed kindness or 2) Hidden kindness. Let’s define them. Revealed kindness means “conspicuous,” or, revealed to the eyes of all. Imagine, for example, a man strolling into the City of Hope (hospital specializing in pediatric cancer) and handing the faculty $5,000,000 dollars. I am pretty sure that by dawn, every local news agency would be reporting the benevolent act. And why? Because they were privy to it - they witnessed the giver give his gift. Now what if that same kindhearted gentleman placed the $5,000,000 in a briefcase and had it dropped off by a middleman (he never appears on the scene); would the news run to report it? Well, yes, but there would be no person/benefactor to whom they could point their finger - the giver remains hidden. 

Question: Which act is more Godly, the revealed or the hidden? Be careful, this is a trick question! 

Answer: Both, for even revealed kindness - conspicuous acts of generosity - fulfill the Divine mandate to be kind. That being said, there is a quality to hidden kindness that resembles more closely (in its nature) God! 

Let’s explore why: 

King David, in his book of Psalms declares, “You who dwell in the secret of the most high, who abides in the shadow of the omnipotent.” (Psalm 91). Question: Why does the verse use the double expression, “Secret of the most high” and “Shadow of the omnipotent?” Why couldn’t the verse have simply stated, “You who dwell in the secret of the most high?” Why are both expressions (“Secret of the most high” and “Shadow of the omnipotent”) necessary? Explains the great and holy Ba’al Shem Tov, “shadow” (in this context of Scripture) means: Emulation, i.e. to imitate the qualities of another. Explains Kabbalah, when we “shadow” something, strive to imitate its nature, we draw closer to it. And what is the “nature” of God - God’s quality - that if we imitate (shadow) it, we can draw closer to Him? In two words: Hidden kindness! But why? Why is Hidden kindness more Godlike? 

Explains Kabbalah, when God created the world He constricted His light (His ultimate revelation) through a series of infinite contractions termed (in Hebrew) “Tzimtzum.” This tzimtzum, explains Kabbalah, allows for the creation of self-conscious existences, e.g. you and me experiencing ourselves, right now, as if separate beings (disconnected from our Godly source). Explains the Ba’al Shem Tov, these concealments set the stage for what is man’s main mission: to transcend self consciousness and find/reveal God (remove the tzimtzum and reveal Him). Since concealment, according to Kabbalah, is where everything begins, it shouldn’t be surprising to discover that most of life’s deepest truths are in fact (initially) hidden. Such is the case of God’s kindness, for the bulk of its expression (in the physical world) remains hidden from our senses. In the words of the Ba’al Shem Tov, “If the sun were to rise and set once every thousand years (like Biblical miracles), we would call it a miracle.” In other words, because the miracles of nature (termed here “sunrise and sunset,”) are hidden, locked away in  endless repetitions of daily, weekly, and yearly cycles, we call them “common.” What we call “common” or “natural” is nothing but our lack of perception, our inability to grasp the truth! Would we truly be able to grasp all the great goodness and kindness the Creator manifests in our moment to moment experience, we would stand in perpetual awe, praising Him day and night without cessation. It’s the hiddenness of the Creator’s loving providence that prevents us from grasping this truth. 

Keeping all the above in mind, we can now  understand the double expression (“Secret of the most high” and “Shadow of the omnipotent”) employed by King David in Psalm 91. When we “dwell in the secret of the most high,” i.e. engage in acts of kindness (called “Most high”) in a way that is “secret,” or, hidden from view, we “Abide in the shadow of the Omnipotent,” i.e. emulate God (who’s kindness is mostly hidden). 

Conclusion: Worry not about recognition of the good that you do, for it’s only when no one sees (is privy to your kindness) that you “touch” (emulate and thus connect to) the Divine. So rejoice in your hidden accomplishments.....they are much greater than you know.

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Always Check The Mirror

Rabbi Gaines check in the mirror“It all started with a chair.” So declared actress Ellen Page in the critically acclaimed film, Juno. Now in Juno, the whole teenage drama (Juno’s pregnancy) unfolds around one irresponsible evening involving, you guessed it, that chair. Was there a message? Most assuredly: don’t leave your teenage daughter unsupervised! As a Rabbi, I must confess, I never thought I would be borrowing a line from a film about teenage angst, but here it goes, “It all started with a chair.” Let me explain.

Two days ago I took my blessed family vehicle to a car wash and like any good citizen, sat waiting in the designated sitting area patiently awaiting my car’s return. Not more then 3 minutes had passed when the most annoying ear-penetrating sound I had ever heard (think car alarm but high pitched) began ringing in the area I was sitting. Let’s just say that any illusion of tranquility was gone in an instance. The seconds ticked by but no one came running to fix the ringing problem, so I did what any annoyed person would, I stared menacingly at the three workers washing the vehicle from which I could swear this blasted evil noise was emanating. Some thirty seconds later an attendant approached me saying, “Sir, would you mind getting off that massage chair, it beeps when you don’t pay?” Naturally, I jumped off that massage chair, apologizing profusely for my lack of discernment. Wow, the whole time it was me. I was the noise! That got me thinking, how often do we hear “noise” coming from others, forgetting altogether to first examine ourselves? How often do we project blame on others for the noise we create? The answer: all the time. See, I told you it began with a chair! 

From a Torah perspective this practice of projecting blame is particularly problematic, seeing as our Sages have cautioned, “Beautify yourselves and only then others,” i.e. first fix YOU, and, only after, others - the greater world. If we constantly blame others, shift the responsibility away from ourselves, how can we possibly do the inner work needed (and prerequisite to) the fixing of the greater world? To remedy this problem, the Ba’al Shem Tov (founder of the Chassidic movement), teaches, “View each and every person as your mirror,” i.e. a reflection of yourself. Hence, if I happen to see (or become aware of) someone else’s inadequacy, I should immediately turn inward and search (until I find) its manifestation in myself. 

To give an example:

Let’s say I become aware that my neighbor  engaged in thievery. Following this “mirror principle” of the Ba’al Shem Tov, I should avoid joining those who would immediately point their finger and condemn, but instead, look to discover where I too share some of that taint. Perhaps, as an example, I am guilty of stealing time, of wasting someone else’s precious time (I was late or I didn’t show up). Perhaps, I am guilty of wasting God’s time, of not using my time on earth wisely - to carry out my Divine mission. Either way, if I search deeply within myself, I can find a way to relate to my fellow. Such awareness not only negates idle chitchat (me speaking badly about my neighbor), but provides a clear path toward rectification - improving myself. 

In short, heaven shows us flaws in others that we may repair (that quality) in ourselves! 

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Finding Your Option B

Rabbi Gaines Option BToday, I woke up in dread. A feeling of loss, of deep sadness, weighed heavy on my heart. For a moment, I forgot that it was day, that the sun had risen filling the sky with light. Though my neighbors were busy greeting one another with a cheerful “good morning,” I could not see them. The birds were circling the trees above busily chirping their morning song, but I couldn’t hear them. Fresh coffee was brewing in my kitchen, its pleasant aroma filling the rooms and hallways of our humble abode, but I could not smell it. It was as if all of my senses had been abducted and locked away in some deep dark basement. But such is the outcome of depression, of fixating on “the bad,” on what is wrong with the world. Often we forget that the achieving (and maintaining) of happiness is less about “perfection” - life unfolding in some imagined perfect order - and more about adaptation, our ability to find an “Option B,” a path that moves us around the obstacle of the moment. In short, from a Torah perspective there is no such thing as a dead end! Please, remove that term from your vocabulary.

What does the Torah have to say?

Nearly 400 years ago, the master Kabbalist, Rabbi Issac Luria of Tzvat (the Ari’zl) explained that all phenomena (physical and spiritual) possess not one but two dimensions: “Chitzoniut” (Hebrew for “External”) and “Pinimut” (Hebrew for “Internal”). Explains the Ari’zl, the external dimension (of a given thing) represents limitation, its definition as far as our coarse senses can measure it. In contrast, a thing’s internal dimension represents its limitless potential - all that it can be in the eyes of God. Life’s depressions arise specifically because we ONLY see the externally limited “Option A” (of a given situation), forgetting, altogether, that a much deeper (limitless) “Option B” exists! Simply stated, we forget that God has already arranged “another path” (an alternate road) by which we can maneuver around and conquer the challenge of the moment.

Ok, so how do I find it?

In short, you must “sweat!” Permit me to explain. It is said of Rabbi Issac Luria (the Ari’zl) that he would immerse himself hour after hour in the study of Biblical law until he would physically perspire (you could actually see the sweat dripping from his brow)! When other Rabbis inquired as to why he would exert himself with such intensity, the Ari’zl poetically explained that surrounding every good “fruit” there exists a “shell,” i.e. surrounding every good truth there exists a barrier obscuring its revelation. “If I do not exert myself,” the Ari’zl explained, “how can I possibly crack the shell?” To the Ari’zl all of life’s questions (the “shell”) no matter the complexity, possess an answer (the “fruit”) attainable - only if you are willing to “sweat” (exert yourself) until the “shell” is broken - the answer is found. Hence, to discover the “fruit” of a much deeper “Option B” (within a given challenge), you must be willing to “sweat” - to exert yourself - until you break the mighty “shell” (the great lie) that suggests you have reached a dead end.

Lesson summarized:

Only by believing that “God creates the cure before the disease” (Rabbis), i.e. that an Option B always exists no matter the formidability of the challenge, can we rise above our fears to crack the “shell,” the great illusion, that today’s challenge can’t be bested. Such exertion most certainly will reveal the “fruit,” the happiness, of our deepest and truest self.
There is ALWAYS an option B.....find it!

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Does Creation Have A Reason?

Rabbi Gaines Creations ReasonCreation is a great mystery, for neither the philosophical nor scientific schools of thought offer a truly satisfying answer to explain the “mind of God” - the Creator’s reason(s) for our existence, i.e. why we are here! A college student enrolled in an introductory Physics class once asked his professor, “Where did existence come from?” The professor explained, “The Big Bang.” The student pressed on with yet another question, “And what came before the Big Bang” (before space and time?) Answered the professor, “Singularity.” “Can you please explain to me what created the singularity” asked the student? The professor smiled and pointing down the hallway declared, “For that, you should go consult with the theology department!”

Some questions lie beyond our scientific rationale (our logical methodologies), for they touch a place deep within the human experience that our microscopes and telescopes can’t go. In short, they touch a place beyond all space, time, matter, and energy, beyond the constituents of our physical world. They reach the very soul of our existence. One such question has always been, If God is perfect (complete in every way), why did He create? What need is there to create seeing as it adds nothing to Him....He is already perfect? Explains the Rabbinical Sages, “God created because of passion!” Clarifies the great Chassidic Master Rabbi Dov Ber of Lubavitch, “We do not known the reason(s) for this passion (what motivated His passion), only, that there was a passion.” In short, creation is a Divine drive, a relentless compulsion, in a manner of speaking, who’s source lies “above mind” - above all logic. In other words, you and I exist because God in some unimaginable way yearned - above all logic and rationale - for us to be. He wants only us and will have it no other way!

There is a powerful lesson to be learned here.

In the book of Psalms, King David declares, “A world of kindness you (God) have made.” This kindness, explain the Sages, is one with the “mindless passion” mentioned above. You see God’s love (because it is connected to a passion that is above reason) has no limitations; hence, it never expires. This conveys a rather powerful message about love, tolerance, hope, and forgiveness. Namely, there is no place you can fall (no sin that is too deep or dark) that His love cannot reach. You need only call out, “From the depths I call to you” (Psalm 130) and you will be answered. This ability to tap into God’s love, a love beyond all reason, and climb out from the depths of despair, helplessness, grief, and loneliness, is the secret of “Teshuvah,” Hebrew for, “Returning.”

So, return my brothers and sisters and remember, it is you who is God’s passion...He would have it no other way!

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Constructive Conflict

Rabbi Gaines Constructive ConflictHuman-beings are a contentious bunch. Just ask any historian, or better yet, read your daily newsfeed (plenty of evidence there). Let’s face it; we all love a good fist fight, and, surprising as it may sound, the Torah (Bible) actually ok’s it! Explain the Sages, our need to challenge (our competitive spirit) has given rise to astonishing innovations, breakthroughs that have occurred precisely because we stood up and challenged the status quo. From a Torah perspective a little “duality,” a little healthy friction, is useful provided it’s growth-promoting. If so, we must ask the following: When does “constructive-conflict” (growth promoting confrontation) become destructive? At what point is the duel no longer beneficial?

Healthy sparring, explains the Talmud (Tactate Ta’anit), is likened to “Two knives sharpening each other.” To clarify, the friction caused by two “knives” (two sharp minds) “colliding” (disagreeing on a given topic) “sharpens” (matures) both parties regardless of who wins. Simply stated, if conflict is done right - with a Talmudic spirit - the parties engaged will emerge faster, sharper, and wiser. And here lies the great secret to achieving “sagely conflict”: always strive for truth. To constructively “do battle” and grow from a challenge, we must remember that it is never about us (our ego). It’s about discovery. It’s about chipping away at the proverbial stone, the barriers to our clear understanding, and finding the diamond (the spark of truth) within. Such an ability (setting aside ego in favor of truth) is termed “sagely” because it requires years of practice to achieve.

In the words of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, “We pray daily that God will grant us just a moment of authentic truth.” It’s that rare! So embrace your conflicts and remember, it’s only about the truth. 

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