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God’s Shelter

Rabbi Gaines SukkotSunday night begins the Biblical Holiday of “Sukkot,” a 7 day fastidious celebration commemorating God’s protection of the Israelites (via the “clouds of glory”) during their 40 year sojourn in the desert (see the book of Exodus). These “clouds”, explain the Sages, were as if a multidimensional shield that encompassed the people from every side. While in their midst (in God’s care) every worldly concern ceased, for heavenly food (called “Manna”) fell daily, clothes grew naturally (on the body) without the need for a tailor, and enemies (man and animal alike) were driven far away. In short, there was an absolute revelation that “God is one” (Deuteronomy 6:4), not only in the heavens above, but also on the earth below. And this, then, is why the Torah (Bible) commands Israel to build Sukkot (“booths”) and dwell (for 7 days) in their midst, to remind us that no matter where a soul may dwell: north, south, east, west, up (in the heavens) or down (on the earth), God’s providence is found. Hence, we must never be afraid, for when we walk with God (knowing He is with us), deserts blossom, enemies prostrate, and beasts fall. So walk on and remember, you are never alone, not now, not ever.

Happy Sukkot

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A Yom Kippur Insight

DaAti Yom KippurYom Kippur (“Day of atonement”) is fast approaching, and with all its legalistic and procedural complexity aside, there is one simple and beautiful truth we can all appreciate, it wipes the slate clean (negates the taint of sin). But why? Why does Yom Kippur possess such power? Explains the Ari’zl, the revelation of Yom Kippur derives from Keter (“Crown”) above Chochmah (“Wisdom”). Explains Kabbalah, whereas Chochmah is the source of creation (the first word of the Torah, “Berashit”, Hebrew for, “In the beginning,” is translated in Aramaic to mean, “In wisdom,”) Keter is synonymous with the very essence of the soul - our essential being above any and all limitations. Hence, when Yom Kippur arrives, we each tap into “Keter,” that essential part of ourselves that transcends “Chochmah,” creation’s limitations - the origin of “sin” as explained by the Sages. This, in fact, is the deeper meaning of God’s words to Cain (following the murder of his brother Abel), “Sin crouches at the door,” i.e. the possibility of sin exists only at the level called “door,” the gateway into this world. When we the soul enters a body (becomes part of finite creation), it is thrust into a dualistic scheme of good and evil that necessitates the careful discrimination between Godly consciousness and its antithesis. This is hinted to in King Solomon’s immortal words, “God made One thing opposite the other” (Ecclesiastes 7:14). Here, “God,” appears as “Elokim” (in the original Hebrew) whose meaning is “Master of all powers,” i.e. the  source of creation. Simply stated, there is “one thing opposite the other” (good and evil) only, at the level of creation - synonymous with “wisdom” as explained above. Now since Yom Kippur derives from Keter (Crown) above Chochmah (Wisdom),  we can say that for 24 sacred hours, we experience a dimension of Godliness (within ourselves) that transcends all worldly limitations - the progenitor of sin as explained above. In short, “Yom Kippur” is the great and awesome day we experience our truest and most Godly self. Such an experience wipes away the taint of sin, for our true Godly self has no shadow, no antithesis. Such a consciousness opens channels that allows for a truly abundant, healthy, and prosperous year. 

A good and sweet year to all and may you and yours be inscribed in the book of life. 

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God As Partner

DaAti God As PartnerThe Hebrew month of Tishrei is fast approaching and with it, an unusual Rabbinical tradition that insists we do not to bless the month on the Shabbat preceding its arrival. To clarify, eleven months out of the year we bless the coming month by reciting certain verses (in the presence of the Torah) on the Shabbat directly preceding  its arrival. The first day of the new month is called “Rosh Chodesh” (Hebrew for, “Head of the Month”), because it is the “head”, the first, official day of the new month. But not on Tishrei! On Tishrei, the 7th month of the Jewish calendar, we refrain from blessing. But why? Why withhold our blessings from the month that is most saturated with Jewish holidays (four of the eight major Jewish holidays occur on Tishrei)! Considering the richness of Divine consciousness inherent to the month of Tishrei, it seems counterintuitive we refrain from participating in its becoming - via the giving of our blessing.

Of the many explanations given to explain this mysterious tradition, the Ba’al Shem Tov (founder of the Chassidic movement) offers a most intriguing insight. In his words (to paraphrase), we do not bless this month (the 7th month) because God Himself blesses it! Question: Doesn’t God bless every month? Even if the Jewish nation blesses 11 of the months out of the 12 months of the year (as mentioned above), surely this is only in tandem with the Creator - in partnership with Him. What is so special then about this, the 7th month, that God blesses it alone - without the participation of man? Perhaps the answer lies in the liturgy of  Rosh Hashana (Hebrew for, “Head of the Year”), the holiday that celebrates the Jewish new year (1st day of the month of Tishrei). There, within the pages containing all the prayers, texts, and poems relevant to Rosh Hashanah, we read, “This day is the birthday of the world”.

Question: According to Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah (1st of Tishrei) corresponds to the 6th day of creation - the 6th of the 7 Biblical days of creation (see Genesis). And what was created on the 6th day? Adam, man himself (the world came into existence 5 days earlier on the 25th of the Hebrew month of Elul). Hence, the text should read, “Today is the birthday of man”, not, “Today is the birthday of the world”! Why do we say, specifically, “world”? Explains Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson of Lubavitch (Likkutei Sichot), man’s creation (his arrival) heralds the true “birth” of the world, for it was then the world’s spiritual nature became completely  manifest - courtesy of man’s Divine service. In other words, though the world already existed for a period of 5 days proceeding man’s creation, its “existence” was entirely material seeing as it was utterly devoid of Divine service. The arrival of man, explain the Rabbis, is the “birth” of creation’s true purpose; to be a “dwelling place” for God below - a refined spiritual world openly revealing God’s presence. This process of refinement, or, the converting of coarse materiality into spiritual substance, depends on man’s participation (his prayers, Torah study, and good deeds in particular), as explained at length by the Rabbis.

In Kabbalah (see the Zohar in Genesis), mankind’s participation is likened to the hydrologic cycle, wherein, condensation (clouds proceeding precipitation) forms only after evaporation - the conversion of liquid water into “fine mist” (gaseous water) as known in modern science. Explain the Kabbalists, when mankind serves/arouses (“evaporates”) from below, i.e. serves God, the world converts/changes from physical (“liquid water”) into spiritual (“clouds and fine mist”). These “clouds” allow for the blessing of “rain” - the unification of heavens and earth (revelation of the world’s innate spiritual potential), as explained at length in Kabbalah. Since it is clear (from the above metaphor) that man’s participation allows for the world’s true “birth” - revelation of Divine potential - his arrival is truly its birthday, “Today (man’s creation) is the birthday of the world.”

But this now reinforces our original question: Why don’t we bless the month of Tishrei (considering Rosh haShana celebrates mankind’s birth and, as a consequence of his service, the world’s true “birthday” - its spiritual becoming)? Perhaps we may answer drawing upon an insight from the Imrei Noam (Chassidic/Kabbalistic text). There, he explains, while it is true that mankind’s participation is likened to evaporation (as explained above), without sunlight (the heat of the sun), this conversion (liquid to gas/physical to spiritual) could never happen. And what does the “sunlight” allude to? God, the help of the Almighty (“support of heaven” in the language of the Sages) necessary for man to achieve his goals. Without adequate “sunlight” (heat) it is impossible for water to “rise” - to change from liquid to gas (physical to spiritual) - no matter its desire to do so. It is only with God’s help (adequate sunlight) that we, mankind, can achieve our aim to “evaporate” (transform) “liquid” to “gas” - physical to spiritual.

Perhaps we can now better understand the tradition to omit our blessing from the month of Tishrei - the month celebrating mankind’s creation and his contribution to the spiritual becoming of the world - thus allowing God alone to bless this month (as explained by the Ba’al Shem Tov). It is to remind us that without God’s help man’s efforts - no matter his desire - are fruitless. For just as water can’t rise without sunlight, so too, man can’t rise without God. When we partner with God remembering, “He gave you strength to make wealth” (Deuteronomy 8:18), we form an unbreakable alliance that will, with certainty, elicit a “downpour” (ample blessing) for the new year.

Happy Rosh haShana and may you and yours be inscribed and sealed in the book of life.

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Respecting One’s Parents

DaAti Respecting Ones ParentsThe Jerusalem Talmud (Jewish Oral tradition composed in Israel) teaches, when quoting a Sage that is either living or deceased, visualize the master’s face as if seated before you. By doing so, explain the Rabbis, you connect the novel insight - the teaching of the moment - to its source (the soul that expounded it), thus honoring the Sage from whom it came. Kavod (“Respect” in Hebrew) is a powerful and transformative act that touches everything and everyone. 

Judaism teaches that there are, in particular, 5 whom must be given proper honor: God, parents, teachers, creation, and, oneself. We have already given an example of respecting a Sage (a teacher), let’s now speak about respecting one’s parents, for it is a deferential act that society still, in many places, practices. So high (in the eyes of God) is the duty to honor one’s parents that it merits to be the 5th of the 10 Commandments, “Honor your father and mother” (Exodus 20:12). And what is the heavenly reward for doing so? Concludes the verse, “In order that your days will be elongated,” i.e. extended. Meaning, long life - extended time in this world - is the heavenly gift bestowed for honoring (properly) one’s parents. 

Now comes the strange part, the 10 commandments are written, as explained in Exodus, five opposite five, i.e. five Commandments on a right tablet (Commandments between God and man, e.g. “Remember the Shabbat to keep it holy”) and five Commandments on a left tablet (Commandments between a man and his fellow, e.g. “Do not murder”). Question: Since the 5 commandments on the right tablet are those that relate, specifically, to God and man, why is the Commandment to honor one’s parents written there - it is the 5th commandment immediately following the Commandment to remember the Sabbath? Should it not be written on the left tablet, the side dealing with the core virtues that connect a man to his fellow? Explain the Sages, honoring one’s parents is synonymous with honoring God, for husband and wife are partners with God in the act of creation (man and woman provide the body and God provides the soul)! When we honor our parents by going above and beyond to ensure their every need is met (as demonstrated by many a great Talmudic Sage), we honor not only the “suppliers of the body,” but God Almighty who supplies the soul (for without the body, the contribution of the parents, the Divine soul, the contribution of God, would have no rooting/presence in this world. As such, it could not carry out its Divine mission to create a House for God in this world - by transforming physical/material things into spiritual/Godly acts.) 

How careful we must therefore be when it comes to honoring our parents, for beyond our intuitive sense that they deserve our deepest respect for the time they sacrificed on our behalf is the Torah’s stance that they are actual partners with God - in the act of our creation. May we thus always merit to see (and deeply sense) the Divine in our parents so we may come to truly love, cherish, and honor them always.

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“War Today Will Bring Peace Tomorrow”

DaAti War brings PeaceWarfare seems endemic to the human condition, but why? Why must we fight? Why do we feel the insatiable need to confront, engage, and struggle with ourselves and others? Can’t we all just live in peace? Kabbalah explains that all struggle (physical and spiritual) rectifies “Divine sparks,” or, points of lofty spiritual potential that require our assistance - our engagement - if they are to become “revealed,” i.e. fully manifest to the outside. Explain the Sages, in this world (the physical world pre-Messiah, pre transformation), the “shell precedes the fruit,” i.e. coarse physical consciousness predominates over refined spiritual form. Hence, it is the task of man, explain the Rabbis, to struggle with this “shell” dimension (coarseness of a given situation) until he “cracks” it (discards its desire) thereby giving full expression to the “fruit” - the spiritual truth hidden within the experience. 

Let’s take the example of food. Noe we all must eat, but experience teaches us, it’s how we eat that determines if the food is good (healthy) or bad (injurious). If nutrient-rich foods are carefully chosen and adequate caloric intake is achieved, our bodies rise to achieve their strongest and most robust expression. But if we abuse food, eat contaminated/nutrient-deficient foods at too little or too much quantity, we suffer terrible, sometimes irreversible trauma. Hence, it is up to us to mindfully choose a dietary path that is healthy in both its quantity and quality. Explains Kabbalah, in addition to this physical dimension of nutrition there exists an underlying spiritual dimension (the Divine sparks mentioned above) that, like its physical counterpart, requires “mindfulness” - a selective mind able to discriminate between truth and falsehood - if robust “health” is to be achieved. 

To say it another way, when we “eat in order to live,” eat in order to achieve optimal health (the ideal of which is “service of God” as explained by the Sages), we “crack the shell” (the coarse physical consciousness of “living in order to eat”), and reveal the “spiritual fruit” - the Godliness of the act. So too, explain the Sages, with all things permitted by Torah. Explains Kabbalah, in all permissible activities, e.g. eating, sexuality, money, etc, there is found this dualism of shell/fruit consciousness. It is therefore up to us, human beings endowed with a holy soul, to choose the “fruit” over the “shell” (the soul over the body) no matter the experience. But that choice is not so easy, for in this world (as explained above) the “shell precedes the fruit” - our animal psyche tends more readily toward the “body,” the coarse and superficial dimensions of a given experience. It is for that reason we must “fight,” dig deep within ourselves and struggle, in order that we may rise above and “crack” the shell of the moment - “body” dimension - no matter its allure. Once revealed, the “fruit of the soul” (the Godly spark/inner dimension of a given experience) propels us higher and higher until we reach the level called “Shalom” (the Hebrew word for “peace”), the dimension of perfect bonding with God - the elevation of the Divine spark to its source above as explained at length in Kabbalah. 

To conclude: King Solomon famously declared, “There is a time for war and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:8). Question: Why does war come before peace? Explain the Sages, war precedes peace because in this world (the coarse physical world) the shell precedes the fruit! In the language of the Talmud, “Today in this world to do them (to crack/discard their - our experiences - shells), tomorrow (in the era of the Messiah) to receive their reward” (the fruit/soul of the experience). 

Let’s fight then, not with each other, but with our experiences - our intentions. For it’s our intentions that will take us (when properly directed) above the “battlefield” of physical consciousness - consciousness of “shell” - and directly into the blissful embrace of “peace” - the consciousness of “fruit”! So choose wisely and remember that it is you (your intentions) that will determine shell or fruit, war or peace.
Choose wisely! 

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Sanctifying The Senses

DaAti Gate of SensesThe human experience is a complicated one for we are formed from both exogenous (external) and endogenous (internal) forces. Take, for example, genetics; no one asked  for the gene pool “gifted” to them. Some got lucky, others, not so much. Then there are the parents. How did two such messed up people get a license to raise a child? In all seriousness, even the best and most loving of parents pass along an assortment of traumas and poor habits we would all much rather live without. With so much beyond our control (so many contributing growth/life factors beyond our say so), how do we grab the proverbial reigns and take charge of our lives - direct it toward the destiny we actually want? 

The answer is simple: Learn to guard the “gates”. 

Let me explain. 

While it is true that some of nature’s “creative strokes” lie outside (beyond) our freedom of choice, others are very much within our discretion and depend directly on our input. In particular, Kabbalah explains that each of our 5 senses (sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch) comes with a built in “security gate”, defense system so to speak, that allows us to freely “flip the switch” and choose between “opening” the gate (allow the stimuli in) or “closing” the gate (deny the stimuli entry). 

This, according to the great commentator and Kabbalist, Rabbi Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov (Igra d’kallah parshat Shoftim), is the significance of the Biblical verse, “Judges and police you will put in all your gates” (Deuteronomy 16:18). Explains Rabbi Elimelech, had the verse said “the gates of your city”, i.e. “Judges and police you will put in the gates of your city”, I would understand the verse to be commanding the fortification of all city entryways - to prevent a possible attack. But what does “your gates” mean? Answers Rabbi Elimelech, “your gates”, the portals and entryways of your body - your head in particular! To give an example, if our eyes see - lock onto - something inappropriate (something not in our spiritual best interest), we can choose to either: A) Look at and absorb the experience, or, B) Shut the “gates” (close the eyelids) and deny the noxious influence from entering and, potentially, wreaking havoc. Mastering each of the body’s senses, explain the masters, allows for deep and meaningful spiritual development, for only when the physical body is sanctified (beginning with its “gates”) can the soul (hidden deep within) “emerge” - become conscious. 

By sanctifying our eyes, nose, ears, mouth, hands and feet (limbs of “touch”), we create a suitable “dwelling place” for the Creator’s Holy presence. This may just be the only say-so we have........let’s take advantage of it! 

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