Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Monday, May 26, 2008

Pirkei Avot - Ethics of Our Fathers - Chapter 4

Pirkei Avot 4:2

בן עזאי אומר: הוי רץ למצוה קלה, ובורח מן העברה. שמצוה גוררת מצוה, ועברה גוררת עברה, ששכר מצוה, ושכר עברה עברה

Ben Azai dizyen Se korién a 'mitzva' livyana i fuyén de la 'avera', ke 'mizva' akarea 'mitzva' I 'avera' akarea 'avera', ke presyo de 'mitzva', 'mitzva' I presyo de 'avera', 'avera'.

Ben Azzai would say, be eager to observe a light commandment and flee from transgression, for one commandment (mitzvah - also, blessing) induces another, one transgression induces another; the reward of one mitzvah is another mitzvah, while the retribution of a transgression is another.

In my opinion, Ben Azzai is stressing the key to staying within a 'positive' & enriching life routine. By performing what he calls 'light' commandments, one prepares himself to do 'heavier' commandments, as well as instilling within himself the 'routine' of doing good. Ben Azzai's stress on 'light' however seems to mean that we shouldn't be judging commandments, as the small ones not only provide the platform for the 'heavier' commandments, but also reward us with more mitzvot.

On a personal level, I remember that what helped me on my path to being more religious was a 'light' request by a good friend at work. They needed one person for a minyan and they requested my presence. I obliged and soon became a regular 'member' of the minyan. Within a few weeks, this 'light' mitzvah had become a 3 day routine and I haven't really looked back since. Repeated positive actions will generally lead to a positive routine, which is what we all strive for in life.

Ben Azzai also warns us of the danger of transgressions, stating one needs to 'flee' from them as one transgression leads to another. The Talmud (Sotah 22a) also delves into this by teaching that if one sins and repeats it, the sin becomes permissible to him. Ben Azzai's solution to the problem of seeing sins as 'permissible' is to flee from them, and in the process, avoiding temptations and transgressions that could form a potentially self-destructive routine.

Routines are like tornadoes and once one's drawn into it, it becomes more difficult to break away. Hence, we should continually prepare ourselves by taking positive steps so that when that tornado approaches, it's one that only benefits and enriches our lives.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Pirkei Avot - Ethics of Our Fathers - Chapter 3

Pirkei Avot 3:12

הוא היה אומר: כל שמעשיו מרביו מחכמתיו, חכמתו מתקימת. וכל שחכמתו מרבה ממעשיו, אין חכמתו מתקימת

El era dizyen Todo el ke sus echas munchas mas ke su sensya, Su sensya se afirma. I todo el ke su sensya muncha mas ke sus echas - Non su sensya se afirma.

He also used to say, everyone whose actions are greater than his learning, his learning will endure; but everyone whose learning is greater than his actions, his learning will not endure.

This short mishnah I think is derived from the famous slogan uttered by the Jewish nation at the foot of Mount Sinai (Exodus 24:7), "We will do and we will hear." The meaning of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa's advice here is your deeds should outweigh your wisdom. In other words, without observing (even when we're unsure why - for example, why pig is un-kosher) the mitzvot, your wisdom can never truly grow. Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld builds on this at

In the Sefer Hachinuch, a master treatise on the 613 Commandments, the author (a 13th Century Spanish scholar; the precise authorship seems to be unknown) offers a profound psychological insight: One who acts a certain way -- whatever his intentions -- will be influenced by his deeds and will eventually become the person he impersonates (Mitzvah 16).

To further build on this, if one studies so much that it prevents him from putting into action what he's learned, what good does it do? In essence, he hasn't learned anything.

Later on in the chapter (Verse 3:22), Rabbi Elazar describes the example given by Rabbi Hanina in the following terms:

One whos knowledge surpasses his works, to what is he likened? to a tree with abundant boughs and scanty roots. The wind blows, uproots it and it lies a prone log ... However, he whose works exceed his wisdom, to what is he likened? To a tree with sparse boughs but abundant roots. Though all the winds in the world come and blow against it, they cannot budge it from its place.

Rabbi Melamed sums up the above beautifully, "What is essential is not theory but practice, and that both together constitute the ideal for a person."

On that note, Buenas Semanas ...

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The New US Flag pin

How the Democrats have had fun laughing at George Bush for the last 8 years, and for good reason. Is anyone else then not surprised how quiet they've gone since their brightest hope to return to the White House spoke about the 57 States of the United States of America? And courtesy of the LA Times, the Obama's Pin:

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Is the Israeli government on vacation?

While most of Jerusalem is being shut down for another visit by George Bush, our fellow citizens are being terrorized continually in the South. Today's main stories should be ringing alarm bells for every Israeli politician:

Gaza rocket hits Ashkelon mall; several people hurt
By The Associated Press

A rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, apparently a Katyusha-type rocket, exploded in a shopping center in the southern city of Ashkelon on Wednesday, wounding at least ten people.

According to preliminary reports, three of the injured were in serious condition, two were in moderate condition and at least eleven suffered minor wounds.

40 families leaving Gaza border community after member killed
By Fadi Eyadat, Mijal Grinberg and Yuval Azoulay

Some 40 families from Kibbutz Kfar Aza, near the Gaza Strip, have decided to leave the area.

"We decided to leave the kibbutz until things quiet down, and unfortunately, it will be with white flags," Dudi Doron, a member of Kibbutz Kfar Aza, said Tuesday. "Neither I nor my children will be Israel's hostages. We will come back when there is a solution to life," Doron said.

Last night, like every night since Friday, when kibbutz member Jimmy Kedoshim was killed by mortar fire while standing in his garden, a number of kibbutz members met to discuss plans to leave en masse.

"Its a matter of where to go and not if to go," another member, Shlomi Koren, said. "I don't expect anyone to solve the problem for me. I have to do it myself because no one has shown any willingness to do it."

HELLO!?!?! Our citizens in the South are facing daily warfare and we're spending millions to welcome George Bush? What has this country come to? It's sad that these people are being forced to 'quit' their world because their brothers have forsaken them & because they don't live in 'important' cities like Tel Aviv or Netanya. If these 'border' cities fall, Israel will follow ...

The disengagement really worked wonders, eh?

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Pirkei Avot - Ethics of Our Fathers - Chapter 2

In my last post, Zak S. asked for a more in-depth explanation about why Sefardim read Pirkei Avot during the last six weeks of the Counting of the Omer. So far, I've found three reasons. Firstly, at the end of the Omer, is Shavout (Festival of Weeks) where we celebrate receiving the Torah. In order to be prepared for the festival and the awesome responsibility of accepting the Torah, we study this ethical work to refine our middot (characteristics). On that same note, each day of the Counting of the Omer represents a different midda (characteristic), which can be enhanced by following the advice of Pirkei Avot. Last but not least, when Spring comes along, we tend to spend more time outside doing activities and spending less time on our studies. Hence, as Spring begins with Passover, we start a positive routine of committing time to Pirkei Avot. If anyone has any other different reasons, please feel free to share by leaving a comment. On that note ... back to the project:

Pirkei Avot 2:5

הלל אומר: אל תפרוש מן הצבור, ואל תאמיך בעצמן עד יום מותך, ואל תדין את חברך עד שתגיע למקומו, ואל תאמר דבר שאי אפשר לשמוע שסופו להשמע, ואל תאמר לכשאפנה אשנה, שמא לא תפנה

Hillel dizyen: Non te apartes de el kahal, i non kreas en ti mizmo asta dia de tu morir I non djuzges a tu haver asta ke ayeges a su lugar, i non digas koza ke es imposivle por oyir, ke su fin por se'er oyida, i non digas kuando tendré vagar meldare, kisás non tendrás vagar

Hillel used to say, do not separate yourself from the community (1). Trust not thyself till the day of thy death (2). Judge not thy fellow man until thou come to his situation (3). Say naught that is unintelligible for it is to be understood ultimately. Say not, "When I have leisure, I will study;" per-chance thou wilt have no leisure (4).

In this short Mishna, Hillel gives us five pieces of advice (numbered in the English translation). Let's look at four of them ...

(1) In essence, Hillel seems to be talking about the importance of staying within a 'Jewish community', a community that should be able to offer you a spiritual home. In my opinion, a Jewish community where you feel comfortable is essential to your development and happiness. Even if one feels that community life is 'unnecessary', Hillel's warning tells us that it is an essential 'pillar' of life.

(2) While this is a difficult statement to understand, I liked Rabbi Meir Matzliah Melamed's commentary on it:

Stay away as far as possible from temptation and sin even if you are very virtuous and have a strong character. No matter how wise, intelligent, or religious a person may be, he may strong into the wrong path.

Hillel, in a strongly worded warning, stresses the need to stay away from evil (similar to what I wrote last week). Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson alters the verse slightly by transalating it as follows: "Do Not Be Sure Of Yourself Until The Day You Die." In my opinion, Schneerson's word usuage urges one to be humble (for judgment comes but after our passing). No matter how well you behave, or how 'good' you are, do not be certain of your true standing in Hashem's 'eyes'.

(3) I find myself judging or criticizing people constantly - it's something that seems part of my nature. Hillel tries to make the task of not judging easier by requesting that we try and relate to a person before judging him. We shouldn't condemn someone's actions until we ourselves, under the same circumstances, succeed in doing the 'right thing'. Ovadiah Bartinoro, one of the greatest commentators on the Mishnah, explained the verse as follows, "If you see your neighbor ensnared by some temptation, do not judge harshly until you have faced the same temptation and mastered it." It would seem that is almost impossible to 'judge' another person as we are never sure what he went through before he committed his act. Sforno agrees with this notion, saying that one can never truly share another's perspective nor be exposed to the factors that influence that person's behavior. Therefore one is forever incapable of judging another. (Bartinoro & Sforno, quoted from here). I guess we shouldn't be criticizing our Presidents & Prime Ministers either, eh?

(4) Simply put, don't procrastinate! Hillel's advice here is not to put off studying (or any important activities) for a later time, for that later time may not come. In a world where we're always focused on tomorrow and our future, we should always take advantage of the available time to do the often neglected activities - be it studying or family time - for we really know not if the sun will rise tomorrow.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Israel ... Then & Now

Click here for a really nice video by for Israel's 60th Birthday.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Pirkei Avot - Ethics of Our Fathers

Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers), one of the tractates contained in Nezikin within the Mishnah, offers moral advice and insights of the leading sages of different generations. One of the customs of the Sfradim & Mizrachim is that we read the six chapters of Pirkei Avot during the last six weeks of the Counting of the Omer. So, as I continue to delve into this amazing work, I've decided to share one quote a week and offer some commentaries on it. The format will be simple - the quote in Hebrew, Ladino & English followed by some commentary on it. Please feel free to add your take in the comments.

*This 'project' is dedicated to my late Nonnou (Grandfather in Italian) Nissim who lived by this tractate. Although he failed to get me interested in it as young boy (I did write the opening few lines for 100 Rand though), he helped plant the seeds that have allowed me to mature spiritually.

Pirkei Avot 1:7

נתאי הארבלי אומר: הרחק משכן רע, ואל תתחבר לרשע, ואל תתיאש מן הפרענות

Nitai el Arbeli dizyen: Aléshate de vizino malo, i non te adjuntes kon el malo i non te desfeuzyes de los males

Nittai of Arbel was wont to say, keep away from an evil neighbor. Have no association with a wicked person, and do not fail to believe in final retribution.

Besides the obvious, Nittai teaches us a very important lesson here: The effect of detrimental & bad people on us. Around bad influences, we are likely to adapt bad character traits without even realizing it. We can see this being practiced in the Torah by Yaakov Avinu, who twice in Parashat Vayishlach, made major decisions to avoid associating with what he saw as evil. When Yaakov leaves Aram-Naharim, his reasoning to Leah & Rachel is:

I have noticed that your father's disposition is not towards me as in earlier days

One famous Torah commentary offers an additional interpretation. The literal translation of Yaakov's reasoning is, "I see your father's face, and it is not to me as it was in earlier days. In the past, when I saw your father, I saw the evil in him and it repelled me. Now, I seem to be more tolerant of him." By associating so long with Laban, Leah & Rachel's father, Yaakov felt he was becoming callused by his corrupt ways and worried that it would corrupt him. Later on in the parasha, Yaakov twice refuses the help of his twin brother Esau for similar reasons. One other commentary on Nittai's second piece of advice that I liked commentated that the 'wicked person' is in fact Yezer Ha'Rah (the evil inclination).

Nittai's last tidbit of advice is something that I'm sure many struggle with, a question that even Moshe couldn't find an answer for, 'Why the righteous suffer?'. The late Rabbi Meir Matzliah Melamed states the difficulty rather eloquently:

When we see an evil person prospering, and not being punished immediately for the evil he or she commits, do not despair, for sooner or later, those who are evil will receive their just deserts. On the other hand, if good people suffer, and are not rewarded for their good deeds, they should not refrain from keeping up their good works, for reward always comes in time

In essence, what Nittai is saying here is advising the religious Jew how to live: Don't despair, embrace life and love the world and Hashem, and make your life worth living.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Happy 60th

This Thursday night, Israel will celebrate her 60th year as an independent country. So, in honor of this tremendous feat, which has come with many highs and lows, I offer a short picture journey through some of the highs:

David Ben Gurion reads the Declaration of Independence on May 14, 1948

Israeli soldiers hang the flag at Eilat

850,000 Jewish Refugees arrive in Israel after expulsion from the Arab World

Sallah Shabati, with a starring role from Chaim Topol, is nominated for an Oscar and wins a Golden Globe award

Jerusalem is reunited

Israel's famous lyricist, Neomi Shemer

Israel survives the devastating Yom Kippur War

Yitzchak Rabin, Israel's first Israeli born Prime Minister, strolls with Gerald Ford

The Miraculous Entebbe Raid

Tal Brody and Macabbi Tel Aviv with the 1977 European Cup Championship

Izhar Cohen and the Alphabet win the 1978 Eurovision with Abanibi

Begin & Sadat talk peace

Bye Bye Osirak

Ethiopian Jewry arrives home

Russian Jewry begins their return to Israel in 1989

Reuven Atar stuns France in the 92nd minute with the winner in a 3-2 classic. Click here for 10 minutes of highlights

Ilan Ramon, Israel's first astronaut

Gal Fridman wins Gold in Athens Olympics (2004) becoming 1st Israeli to do so

There are obviously some major events I've left out but please leave a comment if you want me to add a specific picture ... Here's to the next 60 ...

Friday, May 02, 2008

Grow Up Son

When I finished the army and moved to Jerusalem, there was a joke amongst the Anglo speaking community that once you were ready for a job, you'd be guaranteed one at IDT Global Services (back then, CSM). At the time, CSM was most likely the largest employer of English speakers in Israel. Today, it will still most likely still hold that title even though the company downsized and purged dozens of employees in the past week. For more on the story, click here for Haaretz' story (which was on the front page of the print edition on Wednesday).

Why am I boring you with these details?

Well, I started with IDT Global services back in January 2005 and a lot of the people who were let go this week were friends whom I had 'grown up' with in the business, friends for whom I did reports (while a Reporting Staffer) for, or helped with payroll queries (while I was a Payroll Staffer). Now these same friends who I used to laugh with, eat lunch with and work out with have been let go and a wave of uncertainity has hit those who have survived the culling. It's not the same company I left two weeks ago when I went on vacation - I've come back to a company where I feel like a newbie and I've yet to adjust to the new reality.

This 'adjustment' is the reason for my blog title. This is the reality of the professional world. Employees come and employees go and while drastic downsizing severly hurts the professional environment you once worked in, it is in one's best interest to not let the shock and concern cloud your ability to perform and come to work with the right attitude. Worrying about your friends and being sad is one thing, but it shouldn't interfere with the necessity to continue doing your work at the highest level possible.