Category Archives: Life

Emunah Shleimah: Faithfulness in Serving G-d During Times He Doesn’t “Make Sense”

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“And Avraham raised his eyes and saw — behold, a ram! — afterwards, caught in the thicket by its horn; so Avraham went and took the ram and offered it up as an offering instead of his son” (Bereishit 22:13).

There is a well-known commentary on Parashat Vayeira that deals beautifully with the topic of emunah shleimah [absolute faith/ faithfulness]. Parashat Vayeira includes Avraham Avinu’s final and most challenging of ten tests (see notes below for a list of the ten): the Akeidat Yitzchak, when HaKadosh Baruch Hu commanded him to take the life of his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice. The famous commentary asks why this particular trial was the most difficult for Avraham. According to a Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah), Avraham “discovered” G-d on his own at a very young age amidst an environment that was steep in idolatrous ideology. This means that his knowledge of G-d had always been initially an intellectual one. Until the test of Akeidah, he had based his faith in G-d solely on HKBH’s rationality. Then all of a sudden, HKBK asked him to take away the life of the one person that will be the continuation of what G-d Himself had promised to him: that Avraham’s progeny will be the ambassadors in sanctifying His Great Name in the world. And even if G-d did not promise him anything, Avraham still found it illogical to have to slaughter a completely innocent person. He could not rationalize why Yitzchak deserved to die (Abarbanel)! [See also Avraham’s dramatic bargaining speech to G-d to save Sodom V’Amorah in the beginning of this parashah.] Thus, for Avraham, the test of Akeidah, probably the only test, that made absolutely no sense, a complete contradiction, and this would seem to merit the questioning of the very basis of his belief in G-d. But it didn’t. Because this is where his emunah shleimah came in. 

When HKBH called Avraham’s name to stay his hand from hurting Yitzchak, Avraham answered “Hineini.” His “here I am” said it all. According to Rashi, this expressed both humility and readiness seen in all those who are totally devoted to G-d. Avraham didn’t fail to see that the ultimate test wanted him to give up that one thing that brought him to know and serve G-d — his intellect — and go beyond it by giving in to the will of G-d.  

For the past half-decade, I have caught myself waging an on-going internal battle between questioning the worth of the values I’ve held for as long as I can remember and the practicality of adhering to said values. The incessant question “why is G-d making it very hard for me to serve Him?” keeps me on edge as I try to the best of my ability to observe the mitzvot in simplicity [temimut]. But after further introspection, I was allowed to see, B”H, that what is most lacking in my avodah H’ [service of G-d] is emunah shleimah. I was so absorbed in the idea of a rational G-d that I had forgotten a very important, if not the most important, principle in the Jewish faith: that HKBH is so much bigger than any human intellect can ever muster. He is bigger than anything else, in fact. Ein Od Milvado [There is none besides Him] (Devarim 4:35). It was a ridiculous presumption on my part to even encase G-d’s wisdom into a very limited vessel such as human intellect. Should a creation be better than its Creator? My incapacity to understand Him, though, does not in any way equate to Him being irrational. Far from it. It just means that, like Avraham Avinu, I have to persevere in my emunah, my faithfulness, in Him as I did during times when He made complete sense to me. 

How do we strengthen our emunah, then? By viewing things in the right perspective.

What is the essence of a Heavenly test? It is “one that forces a person to choose between G-d’s will and his own nature or understanding of what is right” (Artscroll). According to the Ramban, all trials given by G-d are solely for the benefit of those being tested. Similarly, the Vilna Gaon in his Even Shleimah said that the intent of the Torah’s mitzvot [commandments] is to perfect man, to purge him of his middot raot [negative character traits], and in time make them into traits that will help him do avodat H’ as it is intended. We see in all these that the foundation of our faith should be the knowledge that HKBH only desires our good. When everything else seems unclear, at least let this perspective be the only thing that is entirely clear. 

“Emunah [is] not the belief in better times to come, with the help of G-d, but the corollary of an abiding belief in the goodness of G-d — a belief that G-d, in His loving kindness, does nothing but good to man.” — from Guardian of Jerusalem: The Life and Times of Rabbi Yosef Chaim Sonnenfeld

I know it may be a long way to go for me to have the amount of emunah shleimah that is required of me in my avodah H’; but I’m not one to give up. With His help, I will get there. 


Notes:

Avraham’s Ten Trials According to the Rambam (Artscroll):

  1. Avraham’s exile from his family and homeland.
  2. The hunger in Canaan after G-d had assured him that he would become a great nation there.
  3. The corruption in Egypt that resulted in the abduction of Sarah. 
  4. The war with the four kings
  5. His marriage to Hagar after having despaired that Sarah would ever give birth.
  6. The commandment of circumcision.
  7. Avimelech’s abduction of Sarah.
  8. Driving away Hagar after she had given birth.
  9. The very distasteful command to drive away Ishmael.
  10. The binding of Isaac on the altar. 
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Memories of Dad

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To celebrate Father’s Day, I have come up with a small collection of the best memories I had with my dad: some, funny; many, just plain silly; a few, heart-warming. He may have gone from this world, but the 25 years and all the memories within those years that he shared with me will never go away.

To my hero, my role model, my inspiration, to the greatest person I’ve ever known, I miss you and I love you so very much. This is for you. Happy Father’s Day, Daddy.

Lottery Tickets

For as long as I could remember, my dad would always have a lottery ticket. Many nights, I would watch with him on television the replay of the draw at exactly 9 PM. His practice was to bet the same set of numbers every day until that set wins. He told me that many times, he would win small amounts of money for getting 3 or 4 out 6 numbers right; and on three occasions, he actually won significant amounts, two of which were the jackpot. (FYI, these lottery games are not all the same. There are different types: some are more easily won (e.g. 4 digits with a combination of numbers from 0 to 9) while others, much harder (e.g. 6 digits with a combination of numbers from 1 to 49).

One time, I asked if betting every day would be a waste of money. He said that since he already won three times, he had already replenished all the losing bets he bought and still had enough for more.

He was very confident that he would one day win the highest jackpot. The secret, he confided, was to bet the same set of numbers every time. I still remember his last set of numbers; and sometimes, when I feel lucky I would bet that same set hoping that when it wins, I will be able to proudly say: “Those were my dad’s numbers!”

The Walking Encyclopedia

My dad was one of the smartest people I knew. He read voraciously and no topic was too boring or too sophisticated for him. From classical novels to medical textbooks (he was a doctor), he would embrace them all.

His favorite past time was doing crossword puzzles. In my high school, we would have this annual newspaper drive. At that time, we didn’t have any newspaper subscription so I would use the drive to collect all the crossword puzzles I could; and when I got so many of them, I would surprise my dad and give them to him. He would always look so happy and grateful. He would then give me a hug.

My dad was my encyclopedia, dictionary and thesaurus. I remember very few instances when I asked him about something and he didn’t know the answer. Whenever it did happen, he would not let it go unanswered. He would learn about it afterwards. This was especially true when it came to Medicine-related questions.

From him, I discovered that truly learned people are also uniquely open-minded. It is unique for it is the kind of open-mindedness that is rarely seen even in this so-called Post-Modern era. It is the acceptance (as opposed to mere tolerance) of other people’s convictions by seriously learning more about those convictions while still being true to his own. Many today spout this idea yet how many of them actually try to learn about others’ worldviews and at the same time have deep convictions of their own that they would be willing to fight for?

This attitude of his had been especially meaningful for me during the years I was cruising my way through Judaism. Not only was he very supportive of my decision to become Jewish, he was also very involved in the process. Unlike most of the people I had encountered, he was not condescending at all about it. He didn’t think to just try to “accept” it even though for many, it sounded so ridiculous, maybe even bordering fanatical. He sincerely tried to understand where I was coming from and what had drawn me to it in the first place. When he eventually did, he would encourage me all the time by telling me that the Torah has made me into a better person. He would listen to me whenever I would share new insights. And when he found something interesting, he would ask me reading materials about it so he could learn more. Some of those Jewish ideas he found interesting were the laws of lashon hara (gossip/ slander) and the concept of the Jewish messiah. He also never forgot to remind me about his one and only Jewish friend from med school, Ira.

Beloved by All

One of the most remembered qualities people had about my dad was his generosity. He was extremely generous with his money, his time and his effort. I remember my sister’s friends went to him all the time to ask for advice and they would always walk away happy and enlightened. When my friends would sleep over, he would always prepare sumptuous meals for all of us. Our house was all the time open to visitors and people loved being there. He reminded me so much of Avraham Avinu who was the paragon of hospitality and generosity.

Other prominent virtues he had were his loyalty and trustworthiness. When you needed him for anything, he would never let you down. If he told you he would do it, you didn’t have to worry anymore after because it was sure to be realized. He took every person seriously. No wonder he was beloved by all. That’s why he was strongly against traitors and dishonest and unreliable people. Whenever someone betrayed him, he would completely cut off any connection with that person. He just didn’t have tolerance for that.

Nine or so Lives

My dad was a fearless man. He would tell me all sorts of stories of how he cheated death so many times. But he was not a careless man. He would not put himself in dangerous situations deliberately or needlessly (at least most of the time, as any normal person would). Somehow, danger just always came his way.

His first near-death experience was when he was 7 years old. Children are always curious about the things around them and my dad was definitely not an exception. Wires are especially interesting for them. So one day, dad climbed a ladder to reach a long loose wire coming out from a hanging bulb-less socket. The moment he touched it, he lost consciousness. When he woke up, one of his grandfather’s gardeners or farmers (I don’t exactly remember) told him that he saw my dad hanging from the ceiling with only a wire holding him up! The flow of electricity coming out of the wire was so strong, it was enough to keep his body hanging. The gardener/ farmer told my dad that if he had pulled him there a few seconds later, who knew what would have been his end.

Whenever he told me this story (he told this to me numerous times), he would relate other similar experiences. There was the time when he accidentally fell off a cliff while driving with his parents. Another was being on a mini jet plane with his best friend and nephew (who owns a construction and mining company, thus the jet plane) when it had to do an emergency crash landing. Then another when his entire house was literally engulfed in flood water so he had to quickly escape to the neighbor who lived in a house with two floors. Another was the time he was sleeping inside the mini store he owned when out of nowhere, a huge vehicle headed directly and smashed the front of his store, escaping a crushing blow by a hairsbreadth!

Unfortunately, he had apparently used up all his nine lives to be saved from his most important battle with death. Three years ago, he had a massive heart attack that nobody expected. My sister would relate the seeming ordinariness of that day. (I was on the bus coming home from work when it all happened.) He was cooking dinner for my sister like any normal day when he unusually felt very hot and tired. He climbed up the bed and lied down to cool himself a bit near the air conditioner. When my sister checked on him a minute later, he was already having the attack, bubbles foaming in his mouth. She said that all her medical education and training (she’s also a doctor) disappeared as she saw my dad on the brink of death. Our house was a few minutes from the hospital. The doctors tried to revive him for 40 minutes but to no avail. When I was almost near home, I checked my phone and got a very brief message from my sister that dad was in the emergency room because of a heart attack. I was already crying while on the way to the hospital yet still hoping it was nothing too serious. But it was serious and I was too late. He was already pronounced dead when I arrived. It was the worst day of my entire life.

Unconditional Love

Perhaps to most people, the concept of authentic unconditional love is mostly relegated to fiction stories or something only imagined by the idealists. My dad showed me that it is true but that very few people can indeed actualize it.

All my life, I would hear my dad tell me every chance he could get that my sister and I are the best things that ever happened to him. He stood both as mother and father to us and did odd jobs (when doctoring wasn’t enough) just to provide us with the best of everything, but never once did I hear him complain about how difficult his life was (even though from the outside, it looked quite difficult). Only now do I understand why he never uttered a word of complaint. For him, it wasn’t difficult at all. He loved us so much, whatever it was that he did for us was never quantified.

He is the reason why the Torah’s assertion that G-d’s love is unconditional is not that too far off for me to grasp. If a mere human, only one of G-d’s creations, could give such a lofty kind of love, how much more the Creator Himself, the Source of all kinds of love!

 

The Non-sense of Arrogance

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Last Shabbat, while looking at the roofs of the neighboring apartment buildings (we live on the 6th floor), my husband and I noticed a group of pigeons drinking from a puddle of water on one of the roofs. A few minutes later, the calm was disturbed when a bigger bird, very likely a crow, showed up. It “crowed” (how much more apt can this word get?) in its usual loudness while it used its wide wings to shoo the pigeons away from the puddle. And so the pigeons did. But before the crow started to actually drink the water, it strutted its body first, head held high, looked to the left and then to right. My husband then commented: “See that gaavah [arrogance]? It has no sechel [sense].”

The rooftop where the pigeons usually go for a drink

The rooftop where the pigeons usually go for a drink. (The crow was not in sight during the taking of this picture.)

The Gemara (Eruvin 100b) teaches that some character traits can be learned from animals just by observing them such as diligence and honesty from ants, modesty from cats, chastity from doves, etc. In the case of our story above, we learn that the crow and many other types of animals are arrogant. Since it is in their nature to have these tendencies, we say that anything that animals do is without sechel. When we refer to sechel here, we do not just mean “common sense” in its simplest context since as was previously presented, animals do have some kind of sense. Thus, having sechel, especially when associated with human behavior, always involves acts and decisions done with wisdom.

According to the Torah, one of the most (if not the most) despicable and non-sense of all behaviors is arrogance for it ultimately leads a person to forget his Creator (Orchot Tzaddikim). Therefore, we are warned that “the abomination of Hashem are all who are proud of heart” (Proverbs 16:5) and that “one with haughty eyes and an expansive heart – him, I [Hashem] cannot bear” (Psalms 101:5).  On the other hand, the value that the Torah exalts the most is humility. The greatest of all Jewish prophets was positively described with only one thing: “Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3).

We might think, it is so obvious why we see in the crow how non-sense its arrogance is. It did not do anything worthy of pride. It was born bigger than the pigeons so what is there to be proud about? Yes, so obvious yet, we see this kind of arrogance all too often in rich and intelligent people. But from this argument, we are also practically saying that it is all right to be arrogant as long as we did something worthy of it. For example, a persevering businessman who had his years of hard work rewarded with wealth; or maybe a studious scholar who after almost a lifetime of toiling in learning finally received honor from his peers for his extensive knowledge. Is there really sechel to warrant arrogance in these cases?

The Torah’s answer is of course no. As the Igeret HaRamban [Letter of the Ramban {Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman}] summarizes it:

For Indeed, of what should man be prideful? If he has wealth – it is Hashem who makes one prosperous. And if honor – does honor not belong to G-d? As it is written: “Wealth and honor come from You” (I Chronicles 29:12) – and how can one glorify himself with the honor of his Maker? If he takes pride in wisdom – let him understand that G-d may remove the speech of the most competent and take away the wisdom of the aged (Job 12:20). Thus, all men are equal before their Creator. In His fury, He casts down the lofty; in His goodwill, He elevates the downtrodden. Therefore, humble yourself so Hashem may lift you.

Then, there is the most despised type of arrogance: the one that takes pride in his religiosity or spirituality. This is the kind that most religious people are guilty of in varying degrees. This is the person who feels superior for dedicating his life to serving G-d, observing the mitzvot [Torah commandments], learning His Torah, etc. There is nothing more non-sensical than this type. Rabbeinu Avraham retells a story told by his father, the Rambam [Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon]: “He [Rambam]  heard that, on the night of Yom Kippur, an observant man declared, ‘I don’t know for what sin I should repent.’ My father remarked, ‘What an unfortunate man! If he would only know what he should, he would repent even for thinking he has no sin for which to repent’” (Hamaspik L’ovdei Hashem). We see here that ignorance regarding the truth about one’s self is the main reason a person is haughty when it comes to religious matters. And what is ignorance but a lack of sechel? That is why among the most righteous of individuals, humility is paramount and the most desired by G-d. In the Gemara (Chullin 89a), quoted in Mesillat Yesharim, it states:

[With reference to the verse] ‘Not because you are more numerous than all the nations did Hashem desire you’ (Deuteronomy 7:7), the Holy One Blessed be He said to them [to Israel]: My sons, I desire you, for even when I imbue you with greatness you diminish yourselves before Me. I bestowed greatness upon Abraham; he said, ‘And I am dust and ashes’ (Genesis 18:27). I bestowed greatness upon Moses and Aaron; they said, ‘And what are we’ (Exodus 16:7). I bestowed greatness upon David; he said, ‘But I am a worm and not a man’ (Psalms 22:7).

After everything that has been said, it is now understandably clear why arrogance is a complete non-sense. Wisdom begins when we learn that the more we know, the better we realize how much more there is to know, making all that we already know insignificant compared to what we are obligated to know.

Why Do We Not Recite the Full Hallel on the Seventh Day of Passover?

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(This post is mostly based on Rav Dovid Hofstedter’s essay “Az Yashir” in his book Dorash David on Moadim. And this is just one of the many possible answers to this question.)

The Hallel (lit. praise) is a series of chapters (113-118)  in Psalms that is recited during all Jewish festivals (Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot), Chanukah and Rosh Chodesh. There are two kinds of Hallel: the full and the half. The Full Hallel (all of chapters 113-118) is said on the first night and day of Passover (first two outside Israel), Shavuot, all the seven days of Sukkot, Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah and all eight days of Chanukah. The Half Hallel (chapters 113-114; 115:12-18; 116:12-19; 117-118) is said on all the other days of Passover and on every Rosh Chodesh.

So we see here that on Sukkot, the Full Hallel is recited on all days. Yet on Passover, it is only done on the first one (first two outside Israel), and not even on the seventh day (and eighth outside Israel) which is a Yom Tov. Why is this?

The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni) answers, quoting Proverbs, that we should not be happy at the the downfall of our enemies. Also, the Maharil (Rabbi Yaakov ben Moshe Moelin) writes: “We recite the full Hallel on the first two days of Passover, and subsequent [days] we say it with omissions…. For on the seventh day the Egyptians drowned, and Hashem said, ‘My creations are drowning in the sea, and you are singing a song before Me?'” He explains further that since we do not recite the full Hallel on the seventh day (which is a Yom Tov), we also do not recite it on Chol Hamoed.

But wait, did not the children of Israel sing a song, the Az Yashir, which mentions plenty of reference regarding the drowning of the Egyptians in the Sea of Reeds; and do we not recite this song daily in our morning prayers including the seventh day of Passover?

One explanation is because the song Az Yashir was essentially formed through the children of Israel’s achieving the highest level of faith and trust in G-d that resulted in them deserving to sing this song with ruach hakodesh (divine inspiration; similar to prophecy).

[It is also important to note the tense of the start of the song (Az Yashir Moshe…). We find that it is in the future tense. One interpretation says that at this time, Moses did not agree at first that the children of Israel sing it because at that time, they had not reached that highest level yet.]

Thus, this song is not just any kind of song. When the children of Israel sang it, they were past the reasoning that it was because G-d saved them or because the wicked are at long last being punished. They were only singing it solely for the purpose of describing G-d’s greatness. For this reason, it is acceptable for them to sing it and for us to recite it daily.

So why the Az Yashir and not the Hallel? Are they not both done through ruach hakodesh? Yes, they are. But our Sages decreed that the Hallel should not be said in its entirety on the day the Egyptians died as a reminder for all generations that Moses did not agree at first for the song to be sung since the children of Israel did not reach yet the level that would warrant the seeming “rejoicing” despite the suffering of another of G-d’s creations. Ultimately, we are being taught that the only justifiable expression of praise and gratitude to G-d is when it is solely for the sanctification of His Name.

On Dreams and Gratitude

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I remember at the age of 15, it was the time I had already laid out a plan for my future life. It was the time I knew exactly — in general terms — who and what I wanted to be. Surprisingly (or not surprisingly), after 13 years, my list of dreams has not changed that much. And thank G-d, after a whole LOT of waiting, I am finally living most of those dreams.

But as with any kind of life, it is always never as you expect it to be. Many times, I find myself extremely sad of present circumstances; nostalgic of the life I have left behind; doubtful of the rightness of the choices I have made; and fearful of the future that seems so bleak and unwanted.

And then, I get a reminder.

 

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It cannot be denied that there is happiness in gratitude. The Mishnah says: “Who is rich? He who rejoices in his portion. For it is said:  ‘When you enjoy the work of your hands, then you shall stride forward and it shall be well with you’ (Pirkei Avot 4:1).” Who rejoices in one’s portion? Only the one who is grateful. In Rabbi Shimson Rafael Hirsch’s commentary on this mishnah, he says: “…a man’s craving for more and more may well grow to such excess that the lack of what he does not now possess may actually mar his joy in whatever he does have at present. Yet it is precisely this joy in what one possesses, this contentment with one’s portion that constitutes the only genuine treasure and the sole true happiness in life; without it, even the richest of men will remain poor in the midst of all his wealth.”

Where was I 13 years ago when dreams were just dreams yet I was so hopeful? What happened to that person who kept on praying for strength and patience until those dreams come true? Where is that part of me that did not stop working for and looking forward to those dreams? And now that I actually find myself in that future I have only dreamt 13 years ago, I cry because I did not expect it to be so difficult?

No! I will not be an ingrate! At least, not today.

 

 

Passover, the Time of Our Freedom

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Later tonight is the first night of the Festival of Passover. It is probably the most exhausting of all Jewish holidays primarily because of the added dietary restrictions (no chametz or leavened foodstuff) to the already complex kosher laws. Interestingly (or should I say ironically?), it is also and more notably known as the Time of Our Freedom (Zman Cheiruteinu). In a historical and/or literal sense, it is the celebration of the Jewish people’s actual freedom from Egyptian bondage some 3000 years ago as related in the Torah’s second book, Shemot (aka Exodus).

So what is interesting about that, you ask? It is what happens next after the Jewish people became “free.”

We all know that famous line “let my people go!” repeatedly told by Moses to Pharaoh. But that line is actually incomplete. And Moses was only relating a message from G-d. The full text says “let My people go that they may serve Me” (Shemot 7:26). This, I believe, is how the Torah defines freedom.

When we think about it, the freedom we perceive we have is really just an illusion. When it comes down to the bigger things, we are granted without any control at all. We neither have the freedom to choose our parents, nor our physical attributes, nor our mental capacity (among so many other things). We are not even free to choose to be born!

So does that mean we are not free to do anything? I think the only freedom we really have is in our moral choices. “Moral” may mean a lot of things to a lot of people. For me, it has to be a G-d-given and thus absolute morality.

This Passover, we Jews celebrate the opportunity G-d has given us to be free from all other things — from our inclinations and addictions, from our habits and attitudes, from our regrets and fears — so we may serve Him. Most people might say that rules and more rules are stifling; that having to follow 613 commandments is more slavery than freedom.  I say there is nothing more freeing than knowing what exactly it is you are supposed to do and that you find great meaning in accomplishing it.

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P.S. I have also taken the meaning of this Passover lesson to finally start this new writing project. I have had this wordpress account for a long time and have planned and written several unfinished drafts to put in it. But as you can see, I never got around to posting any of them. So today, on the eve of this amazing holiday, I choose to free myself from laziness, unproductive perfectionism and fear of rejection and criticism.