Tuesday, May 17, 2011

R' Akiva / Respect.

We are now in the Omer mourning period. We are mourning for the students of Rabbi Akiva who perished at this time because they did not have enough respect one for another.

What's the big deal about respect?
Let's think about it for a minute.

Everyone deserves respect. We all have merit in this world. We all have something to share and to teach from our life's experiences.

Without respect, many negative things may happen between two people. They might not listen to one another. They might not speak to one another. They might not even look at one another. They might not think about one another. They might not help one another. They might even do harm to one another.

Think of what the world would be like if we gave more respect to even one person. We learn, in fact, that in the time of Rabbi Akiva, there was hope for the imminent coming of Moshiach. What can we do now to bring Moshiach in our time? Perhaps we can begin with more respect.

We can start by focusing on a single person. We can greet him with a smile. We can ask how he is doing. We can ask for his opinions and advice. We can thank him for the good he has done. We can recognize his special interests and abilities. We can humbly say we are sorry for not giving him more of our attention.

We can encourage others to give us more respect, too. We don't have to be treated like doormats. We can ask others about how we can gain more of their respect. We can patiently spend time with people to iron out differences.

It takes time to show more respect. It is an ongoing process, at times even a soul-searching process; definitely not something that happens overnight. Thus, we have this mourning period of the Omer to dwell on this.

Like Rabbi Akiva's students, we can study Torah with someone new and we can become friends. "Hillel says: Be of the disciplines of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace, loving your fellow creatures, and drawing them near to the Torah" (Ethics 1:12).

Sunday, May 15, 2011

49 days to refine ourselves

The Jews who left Egypt were so excited about the prospect of receiving the Torah that they counted down the days until it would happen. We relive this experience each year through counting the Omer, the seven weeks from Passover to Shavuot, when we received the Torah.

The Hebrew word for counting is "sefirah". Rearranging those letters can spell the word "sapir", which means "a shining sapphire". On each day leading up to the giving of the Torah, the Jews took time to refine themselves, to make their characters shine. And each year we do the same. From Passover until Shavuot we engage in a forty-nine day process of self-refinement.

Anyone who has tried to work through a character flaw will concede that it is very difficult. The famous scholar Rabbi Yisroel Salanter once commented that it is easier to learn through the entire Talmud than it is to change one ugly characteristic!

G‑d Himself acknowledges this challenge. The Torah instructs us to count forty-nine days. "And you should count for yourselves.....seven weeks," begins the verse, and then the next verse concludes, "...count fifty days". Well, are we counting 49 days or 50 days to Shavuot?

Says G-d to us, "You count 49 steps, you work hard, challenge yourself to go beyond your comfort zone and to weed out those destructive behaviors. And then, [says G‑d,] I will give you a gift; I will do the finishing touches, I will give you the 50th step; the holiday of Shavout", which is on the fiftieth day.

G-d is waiting to help us work through our challenges and He is most inspired to help those of us who take the grueling work of self-refinement seriously. Do your part, and He will do His!

Be holy!

"You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your G-d, am holy."

Can we, creatures of habit bound by natural limits, achieve true transcendence? Or are we ultimately trapped by our own finite boundaries, unable to free ourselves from our very own margins, no more than a leopard can change its spots or a tiger its stripes?

“You shall be holy.” Goodness, virtue and love, as great as they may be, are still part of the system, and thus, bound by its rules, boundaries and parameters. Holiness, by contrast, is more than human. Becoming holy means that your virtue is not only on your terms and your convenience, but going beyond yourself in helping another even when it’s not convenient for you.

By sanctifying our material lives, we transform the confined boundaries of existence into a form of higher energy.

Every moment in our lives we have the choice – which part of ourselves will control our lives? To serve our own needs [even healthy ones] or to serve a higher purpose, by sanctifying life.

In practical terms, being holy means going out of our comfort zone and conventional behavior.

As long as our behavior is defined by the parameters of our natural inclinations and acquired routines, then we remain trapped by the very structure we are following. When we go beyond our comfort zones and do something unexpected, we allow our Divine souls to emerge, freeing us of the shackles of nature’s constraints. In turn, this allows us to sanctify our existence:

So don’t just be good, be holy. Don’t just be human, be Divine.

Omer/ Counting/Time

Don't we all wish we had more time? We'd love to study Torah, spend quality time with our loved ones, and pursue hobbies and dreams which we have always postponed -- but between the duties of work and chores, there seems to be nary an extra moment to devote to these important endeavors.

We are currently in the midst of the seven-week Omer counting period. The mitzvah which dominates these days involves counting time; or, in other words, making time count.

A peek at the history of leisure time will give us some much needed perspective in the area of time management. What are we doing with all the extra time afforded to us by modern technology? To answer this question, most of us need only to look in the direction of some of the other "conveniences" and distractions provided by the very same sciences.

Maimonides writes (Laws of Kings 12:4): "The sages and prophets longed for the Messianic Era... only in order to be free to study Torah and its wisdom; with no oppressor or deterrence."

As the era of Redemption approaches ever nearer, we are experiencing a taste of this awesome possibility. And as time becomes more plentiful, knowledge has also become more accessible by quantum leaps. In times past, the average person needed to trudge to a library or synagogue for study texts; now it is within the means of the average consumer to own a modest personal library and, for everyone, the internet offers so many opportunities to broaden horizons, with hundreds of thousands of pages of Torah knowledge and so many audio classes as well.

As we "count time" this Omer period, let us resolve to make more of our time. The time is there -- the question is only how we will choose to use it.