New Essay: The Wisdom of the Jewish Sage

- - Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity - -
- - הִנֵּ֣ה מַה־טּ֭וֹב וּמַה־נָּעִ֑ים שֶׁ֖בֶת אַחִ֣ים גַּם־יָֽחַד - -

- - If only My nation would listen to Me and Yisrael would walk in My ways - -
- - ל֗וּ עַ֭מִּי שֹׁמֵ֣עַֽ לִ֑י יִ֝שְׂרָאֵ֗ל בִּדְרָכַ֥י יְהַלֵּֽכוּ - -

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  • The Wisdom of the Jewish Sage

    Shmuel Katanov

    It's very puzzling how it all played out. The nation of Israel was three days away from the Land of Israel - just go in, and mission accomplished - you are in Israel, Moshe Rabbeinu is a Moshiach, build the Bet Hamikdash and life is beautiful.

    But suddenly people ask for the spies to be send to check out the land. So Hashem says to Moshe Rabbeinu in Parashat Shelach 13:2: "Send men to scout the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the Israelite people; send one man from each of their ancestral tribes, each one a leader among them." So Hashem asked for leaders to be send from each tribe. To date I have read many explanations on this pasuk. But with your permission, allow me to offer you yet another explanation.

    So twelve people go together as a group. The Rabbis say that the ten men out of twelve concentrated on the negative points of the Land, since they had their own hidden agenda, and this was the reason of their downfall - the exile and hardships we are facing today. The other two men - Calev ben Yefuneh and Yehoshua Bin Nun, have tried, but could not overpower the ten men's efforts of slandering the Land.

    But why did the ten men do that? What made them commit such a grievous sin?

    To answer the above questions, we need to look into another story of a different leader - a story of Mordechay HaTzadik - a story of Purim. There's something in this story that can be viewed from a different angle.

    Mordechay HaTzadik was a sage, someone that spoke 70 languages, and was part of the Great Assembly.

    The Megilat Esther says: "Once on a party in front of other kings and his friends, King Achashverosh executed his wife Vashti in a fit of drunken rage. After he got sober, he regretted it, but then realized that he needs a new wife, one that is beautiful and charming. So the King sent his people all over the towns to find a wife that would be pleasing for the King. 

    They gathered lots of ladies for the King to choose from, and this is when Mordechay HaTzadik approached Esther.

    There are many explanations who Esther was to him, one of them says, she was his niece. So Mordechay HaTzadik asked her to become a wife of the King. We don't realize what it meant to her - being married to a non-Jew, she forfeits all the mitzvot that woman should perform, she becomes part of the non-Jewish nation. To our dismay, she agrees...why would she do that? Let's try to understand this as well.

    As the time passes there are comes a man called Haman who didn't like Mordechay HaTzadik, and then he tries to annihilate the Jewish nation, he gets a permission from the King to do just that. The King agrees and Haman starts the process.

    So, this is when Mordechay HaTzadik goes to the Plan B.

    Queen Esther invites Haman to the palace along with the King where she exposes the evil plans of Haman. The King gets furious with the Haman and gives an order to hang Haman and ten of his sons on the gallows. And the King's orders have been carried out.

    Mordechay HaTzadik gets his community together for the attacks of the locals, since the decree was signed and put in motion by Haman, the Jews win the battle and there's a happiness and joy all over the towns in the Jewish neighborhoods."

    Our Rabbis say, that this story is not over yet. Mordechay HaTzadik becomes the King's advisor, thus ensuring that peace and security is guaranteed going forward for the Jews in those towns.

    Queen Esther and King Achashverosh have a son. The son grows up, and becomes the next King after the passing of his father. It is told, that this new king - Cyrus King of Persia, under the influence of his mother allows for the mass immigration of the Jews from the Persia to the Land of Israel to rebuild the Second Bet Hamikdash. He sent the nation with gifts of gold and silver to make a fitting house for G-d.

    Do you realize what has just happened? Did you see the wisdom of the Jewish sage?

    Mordechay HaTzadik asked his niece to marry a non Jewish King, to be a "spy" - where she lost out on all the mitzvot she could of done and ended up living a non Jewish lifestyle. But she was there for her nation in the darkest and trying times. She had saved the nation from the pogroms, overturning the decrees and eventually this led to the rebuilding of the Second Bet Hamikdash and in-gathering of the Jews back in Israel.

    The wisdom of Mordechay HaTzadik was in the realization, and right assessment of the situation, making the right moves to win the battle in the long run, and make it good and comfortable not for himself but for the entire Jewish nation.

    This is something the Meraglim or the spies in the times of Moshe Rabbeinu lacked. They were looking out for themselves, they were trying not to lose their positions and were more concerned about their fate and not with the fate of the Jewish nation.

    But why? Why Mordechay HaTzadik was able to make the right choices and the spies failed at it? Because Mordechay HaTzadik had a wisdom of the Jewish sage

    How can a person acquire wisdom? There's a pasuk on how to acquire wisdom, which goes like this: Reshit Chochmah Yirat Hashem - The beginning of wisdom is fear of G-d. If one wants wisdom, he must learn to fear G-d, he must fear G-d, without this he will not have wisdom - he will transgress everything under the sun, will make people around him suffer, for which eventually he will be bring judgement upon himself.

    The ten spies that went out to spy out the Land, came back with a bad report - because they lacked one thing - which is a Fear of G-d. They did things to fit their own agenda, and they spoke to support their own story. They were worried about their positions, about things they had, and how their life would unfold, without giving a second thought about the fate of the nation, the people they led and the task they were entrusted with. Eventually, it led the nation to wonder for forty years in the desert and the death of that, older generation.

    The Rabbis say, that the ten spies were fixing the sin of the ten sons of Yaakov Avinu that sinned against Yosef HaTzadik, but they failed. So the rabbis instituted that there are should be ten men every time they gather to pray daily prayers - a miniyan - where that gathering of ten people or the miniyan would have to fix the sin of the ten spies.

    A prayer in the minyan is the search for the right meaning, correction and unification of the goals, desires and motivation to serve the One and Only G-d, where it is done in unity and oneness of spirit or achdut just like it was done back in the day when we received the Torah on Mount Sinai.

    Why Hashem held them liable for the lack of Fear of G-d?
    Because in Talmud Berachot 33b it says: "Hakol Bidey Shamayim Chutz Miyirat Shamayim" which means, "Everything is in the Hands of G-d except for the Fear of Heaven / G-d".

    That's why Hashem has not given us the Fear of G-d - because He wants to see us work for it, since it is there are waiting for us, it is something that's attainable and available, within our reach, and definitely something that should NOT be ignored or postponed for the later years.

    With everything that we been through lately - virus and us being out of the shules and having no miniyanim - it makes one wonder if we have been making the mistakes of the ten spies, being too selfish with no concern for the nation, while forgetting the most important thing that we must posses and work on - The Fear of G-d

    Fortunately we have been granted the opportunity to return to our shules - where we have minyanim, and are allowed to pray together. Let's step up to the expectations that Hashem has for us. The meraglim did what they did, and now, it is on our shoulders and our responsibility to fix the wrong that was done, so we get to the next phase of our redemption.

    It is hard to acquire the Fear of G-d, but it is a worthy cause to invest our life into.

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  • Upon whom shall we depend?

    "When murderers multiplied, the [ceremony of] breaking a heifer’s neck ceased. That was from the time of Eliezer ben Dinai, and he was also called Tehinah ben Perisha and he was afterwards renamed “son of the murderer”. When adulterers multiplied, the ceremony of the bitter waters ceased and it was Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai who discontinued it, as it is said, “I will not punish their daughters for fornicating, nor their daughters-in-law for committing adultery, for they themselves [turn aside with whores and sacrifice with prostitutes]” (Hosea 4:14). When Yose ben Yoezer of Zeredah and Yose ben Yohanan of Jerusalem died, the grape-clusters ceased, as it is said, “There is not a cluster [of grapes] to eat; not a ripe fig I could desire [The pious are vanished from the land, none upright are left among men" (Micah 7:1-2).

    "Yohanan the high priest brought to an end the confession made at the presentation of the tithe. He also discontinued the wakers and the knockers Up to his days the hammer used to strike in Jerusalem, And in his days there was no need to inquire about doubtfully tithed produce."

    "When the Sanhedrin ceased [to function], song ceased from the places of feasting, as it is said, “They drink their wine without song” (Isaiah 24:9).

    "When the former prophets died, the Urim and Thummim ceased. When Temple was destroyed, the shamir and nopheth zufim ceased. And people of faith ceased, as it says, “Help, O Lord, for the faithful are no more” (Psalms 12:2). Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel in the name of Rabbi Joshua: from the day the Temple was destroyed, there is no day without a curse, the dew has not descended for a blessing, and the flavor has departed from produce. Rabbi Yose says: the fatness was also removed from produce."

    "Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: [the cessation of observation of the] purity laws has removed taste and fragrance, [the cessation of observation of] the tithes has removed the fatness of grain. But the Sages say: licentiousness and sorcery destroyed everything."

    "When Rabbi Meir died, the composers of fables ceased. When Ben Azzai died, the diligent students [of Torah] ceased. When Ben Zoma died, the expounders ceased. When Rabbi Joshua died, goodness ceased from the world. When Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel died, locusts come and troubles multiplied. When Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah died, the sages ceased to be wealthy. When Rabbi Akiba died, the glory of the Torah ceased. When Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa died, men of wondrous deeds ceased. When Rabbi Yose Katnuta died, the pious men (hasidim) ceased and why was his name called Katnuta? Because he was the youngest of the pious men. When Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai died, the splendor of wisdom ceased. When Rabban Gamaliel the elder died, the glory of the Torah ceased, and purity and separateness perished. When Rabbi Ishmael ben Fabi died, the splendor of the priesthood ceased. When Rabbi died, humility and fear of sin ceased."

    "Rabbi Phineas ben Yair says: when Temple was destroyed, scholars and freemen were ashamed and covered their head, men of wondrous deeds were disregarded, and violent men and big talkers grew powerful. And nobody expounds, nobody seeks, and nobody asks. Upon whom shall we depend? Upon our Father who is in Heaven."

    "Rabbi Eliezer the Great says: from the day the Temple was destroyed, the sages began to be like scribes, scribes like synagogue-attendants, synagogue-attendants like common people, and the common people became more and more debased. And nobody seeks. Upon whom shall we depend? Upon our Father who is in Heaven. In the footsteps of the messiah insolence (hutzpah) will increase and the cost of living will go up greatly; the vine will yield its fruit, but wine will be expensive; the government will turn to heresy, and there will be no one to rebuke; the meeting-place [of scholars] will be used for licentiousness; the Galilee will be destroyed, the Gablan will be desolated, and the dwellers on the frontier will go about [begging] from place to place without anyone to take pity on them; the wisdom of the learned will rot, fearers of sin will be despised, and the truth will be lacking; youths will put old men to shame, the old will stand up in the presence of the young, 'For son spurns father, daughter rises up against mother, daughter-in-law against mother-in-law a man’s own household are his enemies (Micah 7:6)."

    "The face of the generation will be like the face of a dog, a son will not feel ashamed before his father. Upon whom shall we depend? Upon our Father who is in Heaven."

    "Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair says, Heedfulness (being aware or alertness) leads to cleanliness, cleanliness leads to purity, purity leads to separation, separation leads to holiness, holiness leads to modesty, modesty leads to fear of sin, fear of sin leads to piety, piety leads to the Holy Spirit, The Holy Spirit leads to the resurrection of the dead, and the resurrection of the dead comes from Elijah, blessed be his memory, Amen." -- Mishnah  Sotah Chapter 9.

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  • Why do we light bonfires on Lag BaOmer?

    Shmuel Katanov

    Imagine it is dark, and there are hundreds of people dancing, and in the middle there's a huge bonfire lighting the excited faces of all the people that are present around it. But let me ask you a question, why do we have this tradition for so many hundreds of years?

    It says in the Zohar: "Rabbi Shimon said: All my life, I've been begging to reveal this secret. And up until today, my request has been turned down. But today, I received permission. I decree that this day does not turn into the night like any ordinary day. This day belongs to me, as I begin to reveal the secrets..." Rabbi Shimon sat down, engaging in the Divine Torah. Rabbi Aba sat down in front of him and took notes... A fire burned around them, and the sun did not set. He revealed hidden Torah secrets from the Kabbalah until he reached the verse "... For there the L‑rd commanded the blessing, life forever." Rabbi Aba said: "Our teacher had not finished enunciating the word chaim ('life') when his words began to become increasingly imperceptible... Throughout the day a fire burned in the house, and no one could come near him because he was engulfed by light and fire."

    Why was the daylight extended until he finished teaching? The Bnei Yissaschar explains that it was to signify that all the lights of the world were created for the Torah. Our bonfires mirror the sunlight that shone in honor of this special day.

    Another explanation - the bonfire that is lit, it is the fire inside every individual that maybe have been extinguished and is rekindled once again so this person will carry this light and light others, who maybe were not present at the bonfire event or feel down in their serving of HaShem, so they can also feel the excitement, see the beauty and taste the sweetnes of Torah and mitzvot.

    But there are may be another explanation which I would like to present to you today.

    Interestingly, if you ever been on this event either in Meron or in your neighborhood, you may have noticed that people are holding in their hands a small jug of oil and some have candles and during dancing they throw them into the fire, why do they do that?

    The reason we hold Sefirat HaOmer is because Rabbi Akiva's students did not treat each other with respect, they did not see eye to eye, could not agree with each other's opinions and did not accept each other's differences. As a punishment, they started dying, and on the 33rd day they stopped passing away.

    From the first day of Omer to Lag BaOmer we count from 1 to 33 days, where Kabbalistically they represent different Kavanot. But in simple terms, we are required to work on our middot - the character traits, during this time of the year, and day by day become better people and be better then we used to be before.

    So here we are, dancing around the fire, and holding our jug of oil in our hands, and suddenly we see that guy, yes that guy that did bad to us, spoke bad about us, or caused us to lose money or other things - simply someone we can't stand. So what do we do? Rabbi Akiva's students died since they mistreated each other, and we are not supposed to repeat their mistake, and we need to fix the situation - make the Tikun. But we can't, as we are circling around the fire, it throws different shadows that make that person more unbearable and causes much agony to us.

    There's a story in the Zohar of the day when Rabbi Shimon came out of the cave. "When the father and son left the cave they passed a field where they saw Jewish farmers working on the land, they said, "Imagine people giving up the sacred study of the Torah for worldly matters!"

    The moment they uttered these words, than all the produce of the field went up in smoke. Then they heard a heavenly voice saying, "Have you come out to destroy My world? Go back to your cave!" They returned to the cave for another twelve months, and left it again, only after they heard the same heavenly voice calling them to leave.

    Seeing a Jew carrying two bunches of myrtle, rushing home on Friday afternoon, they asked him what he was going to do with the myrtle.

    "It is to adorn my house in honor of the Shabbat," the man replied.

    "Would not one bunch of myrtle be sufficient to fill your house with fragrance?" they asked.

    The stranger replied, "I am taking two bunches, one for 'Remember the Shabbat day' and the other for 'Keep the Shabbat Day holy.'"

    Said Rabbi Shimon to his son, "See how precious the mitzvot are to our brothers! Despite all the decrees and persecution of the Romans, the Jews still observed the commandments and especially the Shabbat. Rabbi Shimon and his son felt greatly encouraged."

    Many times in the Zohar, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is referred to as butzina kadisha - "The Holy Candle" since he brought to light the secrets of the Torah, and was able to rise to the levels where he was able to have a different outlook on life.

    This is when we realize that 33 days of Omer that we been counting, have not done their job and we still have a lot to fix. And at that moment, one thought gives us hope, that we still have another 16 days of Omer left to work on our middot. And that moment before throwing a jug of oil into the bonfire, we say our prayer: "Ribbono Shel Olam, please accept my small jug of oil and make it a Butzina Kadisha - 'the holy candle' that should join the grand fire and make my flame be part of it. Just like Rabbi Shimon was able to change his view of the world, to accept everyone and become the holy candle, so I should be able to do the same, since a bonfire is a collection of flames that dance together in unison and make one flame, a big bonfire - so is the community, that has all sorts of people as each individual flame burning away in one big fire called Life".

    As the Shavuot approaches, we have the remaining 16 days to achieve that level of Butzina Kadisha - "The Holy Candle" and truly become one flame and be together as one community and one nation - Ba Lev Echad and Guf  Echad - One in Heart and One in Body and to accept the Torah once again on the night of the Shavuot as One Nation under G-d.

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