YAAKOV’S PRAYER – the challenge to staying on the good and true

Yaakov, having run away from danger, is heading to his future and to his marriage.  On the way, he dreams a dream, one in which G-d reassures him that all will be well in the end, for him and for his children.  Then…

Passuk Chaf:  “and Yaakov vowed a vow saying, if Hashem will be with me, and will watch me on this way that I am going, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear…”  Passuk Chaf Alef:  “…and I will return in peace to the house of my father, and Hashem will be for me an Elokim.”

 We should have a problem with these few Pesukim [verses].  Hashem just promised Yaakov He would watch over him.  Why is Yaakov then asking for that which he was just promised?  Also, what does it mean, if G-d does X, then I will be good!?  Does that mean if Hashem doesn’t give Yaakov what he wants, then “deal’s off” and Yaakov will not accept Hashem as His Elokim?  We have to really try to understand what is going on in these two Pesukim.

Midrash:  he was not making a deal with Hashem – he was making a vow to keep himself on the Derech [righteous path] and out of danger.  He is saying, not IF Hashem fulfills His promise, but rather WHEN Hashem does so, then he will do something for Hashem.  So let us say a person is in danger, then we can learn from Yaakov and say, When Hashem saves me from the pirates who captured me, I will give $200 to Tzedakah.  That is what Yaakov was doing here – he realized the danger he was going to encounter and made a promise that when he was out of danger, he would do something spiritual as thanks for being saved.

Radak points out that Tzadikim ask for things that are necessity, and not for luxuries.  Yaakov asks for food to eat (not steak, but bread) and clothing to wear and good health.  He doesn’t ask for vacations, jewelry and Lexus cars.    Not too much, not too little, but hopefully somewhere in the middle, is where we want our life to be.  For either end of the spectrum could cause strain on our holding steady in connection with G-d.

RASHI points out that B’Shalom should be read “Shalaym” – that peace is for those who don’t do sin – and Yaakov was actually praying here that he shouldn’t be influenced by Lavan, that he should return Shalaym, as whole in good deeds as when he left Eretz Yisroel.

According to other Meforshim, what we have to see in this Passuk is a Tefillah – prayer –  that Yaakov not get turned away from G-d.  We know Hashem promised Yaakov, as he was now, a Tzaddik [righteous person], to watch over him.  But what would happen if Yaakov would learn from Lavan’s evil ways – that promise of watching him would no longer be valid since Yaakov would not be the same Tzaddik anymore.  So what Yaakov is davening is that Hashem protect him from circumstances which might make folks sin.

He asks for the necessities – Yaakov is scared that if he doesn’t have the bare food minimum he will feel like G-d abandoned him and he will go off the Derech, so he asks Hashem, please, make sure I always have at least food and clothing for I don’t want to become bitter.  Then he asks for “shmira b’derech” that Hashem allow him to continue this path of becoming a good person.  Many times we want to be good and begin to start our journey to Torah observance and then we get all kinds of obstacles in our way – like when we decide to keep  a schedule of learning but then life gets hectic and we are pressured and… – so we have to daven that Hashem “watch us on our way” help us stick to our journey of goodness.  Then, Yaakov asks for “shalom” and we are told he asks for good health – again, sickness can make a person bitter, so Yaakov davens for good health. Last, he asks “Hashem to be for him an Elokim”  When the Torah uses the word for G-d which is the four letter name it indicates middas HaRachamim which is the Attribute of Mercy and the word Elokim indicates middas Hadin which is is the Attribue of Strict Justice.  What Yaakov is asking is that when G-d has to be an Elokim, when judgment is decreed, we want that it should be with the Middah of Rachamim – that G-d should always mix mercy with the Din, because if we got judged with pure Din we would not be able to survive.

That is what these two Pessukim are about, a prayer Yaakov formulated asking Hashem to give him the circumstances which make it easier to have a close connection to Hashem.

Many years ago, on one of the coldest, dismal, just-not-happening days, I trudged through the streets of Queens and came up with this:

 I wanted to dance a jig today / as the snow fell. / I don’t know anything / have no answers to any questions / no clear-cut directions / But whatever way,  / I’m going to clutch to You / not letting anyone unclench my grip. / I’m not letting go.

 As I said, it was many years ago, many problems ago.  When young, you think you are strong enough to hold on no matter what.  The more time passes, the more you can see how life might batter a person’s resolve and shake the very foundation of your soul.

Recently I read a disturbing bit of history of one of the Chassidic giants in what has come to be referred to as “THE Shabbos”.  What happened is unclear fully, but what is apparent from the various versions of the story is that something distressing caused the holy man to snap his connection to G-d for a brief moment one Shabbos.  Suffering is a horrible place to be, and suffering, as we learn from Iyov, can make us bitter against our Creator.

Ever watch how pit-bull owners show off their dog’s tenacity and grip?   I have watched some owners have their dogs bite a stick and then those owners twirled the stick.  The dog gets tossed about, somersaulted, flung, but most of those dogs keep their bite strong on the stick.

We, my friends, don’t have to prove we are pit bull dogs.  Yes, if challenged, we must rise to the challenge and hang on through the tough times.  BUT, we ARE allowed to ask that life not get so hard that it breaks us.  After all, that is what Father Yaakov had davened.

May it be G-d’s will that we always have bread to eat, clothing to wear, health and a clear, open path to secure spirituality.  And in our time of age, I add, please Hashem, also heat in the winter and tuition for our children.

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Jacob’s Ladder – Parshas Vayeitzay – a bridge from earth to heaven

In this week’s upcoming Parshas Vayaytzah, we are taught of the dream of Yaakov, the dream of a ladder that had its feet on the ground and its head reached into heavens.  There are many different messages being told by this ladder.

One of them is that our job is to bridge between physical and spiritual (the ladder had its feet on the ground and stretched to heaven because of that).   In fact, the word Soolam/ladder and Mamon/money have the same Gematriah [numerical value in Hebrew] – our job is to use money and physical gifts as a ladder to higher places, to connecting to Hashem.  If we do that right, angels go up and down, we affect what the angels do.  You see, based on reward and punishment in the world,  the blessings or curses come to the world.  And since the angels are those who carry out the meting out of blessings or curses, our actions are the “ladder” that causes them to come down or go away from our world.

In my life’s journeys I’ve met many kinds of people.  So there are those who keep their ladder laying flat on the ground, both feet and head right in the mud.  They never strive for spirituality, never get away from their earthy desires to do something bigger than self-gratification and never opening their view to see the spiritual.  Not good.  That was not the dream of Yaakov, not the mission of man, to stay with our heads stuck in mud.

However, I also met what I call the helium balloon people, those people who get so enamored in spirituality that they don’t keep themselves grounded.  They don’t engage in being responsible.  And that is a danger, for helium balloons wafting into stratosphere pop.  That also was not the dream of Yaakov, not the mission of man, to completely disconnect from what we have to do down here on earth.  We have to pay our rents, pull our own weights, clothe our kids, be able to engage in life responsibly.

Grounded, two feet on the ground, but aiming with that grounding to be able to bridge the vast distance to Heavens.  That is the dream, that is the goal.

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Responsibility in Youth

[based on a concept by Shlomo HaMelech who says Fortunate/Happy is the man who carried a burden in his youth.]

COSSETTED TREE

 Through the arched window I caught sight of you, sister tree,

Sitting catty-corner to a huge plasma TV

Shading the intricacies of a plush Persian rug

You stood tall in your planter, feeling sheltered and smug

And while you basked in warmth and I shivered from cold

It is hardships I’ve lived through which ensured I don’t fold.

Alas for pampering and for luxurious lives led

For it robs one of skills to survive challenges ahead.

Yes, I have suffered much sorrow on cold gritty streets

learning grace to bow under heavy winter sleets

I’ve had to conquer a gate, engulfing it with tough bark

Propagated a future by seeding Central Park

Whilst you, one day, had your owner jet off on vacation

Leaving a housekeeper to tend to your domestication

Who somehow, someway, slipped her mind, didn’t water you

Oops, your growth is now stunted, your life unable to continue

Next thing you know, you were placed out here next to me

Unable to survive and thrive out here, poor cosseted tree.

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Channeling the Physicality to Capture Blessings

In this week’s Parsha, one of thing we need to understand is why Yitzhok sent Eisav out to hunt for something – Yitzchok realized that Eisav was good with physicality, and he wanted to train Eisav how to harness that talent/hunger for physicality.  For we are able to “capture” or “earn” and use physicality for Mitzvos.  Think candle being burned, wax melting away, to create a flame that rises high.  Physicality can be “burned” to create a fire of spirituality.  Yitzchok therefore, says in Passuk Daled (verse 4):

“Make me a good-tasting food like I like it and bring it to me

and I will eat it so that my soul will bless you before I die.”

 First obvious question:  why is Yitzchok asking for tasty food that he likes?!

A mitzvah has to be done in the best way.  Yitzchok is not asking for “juicy steak” dripping with barbecue sauce because he wants the taste of food.  He wants Eisav to be  busy with Chesed [kind acts] and Kibbud Av [honor of parents].  How is that done properly?  Not by trying to do the minimum, but by putting in effort and thinking it through.  Questions of “what does my father really like?”  “How do I present food to guests in a really nice way?”

There was someone named Rebbetzin Newhouse, of blessed memory, who got a set of fine china, really expensive dishes, not because she wanted it for herself, but because she felt that when she had to host guests she wanted to do it regally, like a queen.  One day, a painter was hard at work painting her home, and she realized he’d been working that many hours he must be famished.  So she cooked him a gourmet lunch, put a tablecloth down, and served him, on her fine china.  She put the effort and thoughts and did the Mitzva FULLY beautifully.  That is what Yitzchok was trying to train Eisav to do – look at how he’s instructing him so we can learn how to do Chesed right – make sure the Chesed you are doing is one that the person will appreciate (food they will like), make sure you deliver it to the person you are doing it (bring it to them).  Do it regally like Rebbetzin Newhouse, a queen in how you present your deeds.

Next question we should be asking in this verse is what is this talk about “soul blessing”?  If Yitzchok wants to give a Bracha [blessing], give a Bracha.   Why does he need all these preparations?  If I want to bless you, all I have to do is open my mouth and say, “may you all merit to build beautiful Jewish homes”.  There, I blessed you.  Why did Yitzchok have to do all this charade of asking for steak in order to bless Eisav?  The answer, according to Rabbeinu Bachya, can be found in the word “my soul” – Yitzchok wants to have Ruach HaKodesh [divine inspiration] while giving the Bracha – he doesn’t want to just bless, he wants Heaven to agree to the blessing.

Ayn Hashchina Shruya Elah Meetoch Simchathere is no Ruach HaKodesh/divine inspiration unless a person is in a state of happiness (just an interesting point, you also cannot have Ruach HaKodesh while you are being lazy).  We know that the Nevi’im [prophets] often listened to music to get to a point of Simcha so they could get Ruach HaKodesh.  Why didn’t Yitzchok use music to try to get into that mode of happiness that would bring Ruach HaKodesh, and instead asks for food to do it?  Music can be a very spiritual thing.  Eisav, however, is lusting for a physical bracha.  He doesn’t want to inherit Nevu’ah – he wants to inherit Eretz Yisroel, the land, and wants a blessing to be a rich person.  So Yitzchok decides to use physical gifts (tasty food) rather than spiritual ones (like music) to get into a good frame of mind.

Okay, folks, there you have it.  The quick lessons from this verse:  we must train ourselves to do our utmost, perfect our kindness.  We must learn to channel physicality to create spiritual fire.  And we must remember to be in a state of happiness, whether using food or music or both, so that we can have a direct open line of communication to spirituality.  Only with Simcha, come what may.

—————-

An interesting note to those who had a hard path in life or are in current stress situations, therapists often talk about a coping box/book, whereby you figure out what can put you into a better mood and help you cope through pain.  Then use those things as tactics when stress is overwhelming.  It’ll be different from person to person.  Some girl I know, for her it is flowers that does it, smelling it and observing it.  For others, it might be sitting in a patch of sun like a contented cat.  For others, it might be massage.  This week’s parsha seems to tells us the same thing is within spiritual realms — to get to a place of happiness, figure out the physicality that might get you there, for it will help you get to a greater place in spiritual connections.  So, go ahead, if you need that herbal tea, or that dance around the room, or a good hearty humor chuckle — by all means, use it to pull out of any funk.  As I said before, Only With Simcha, Come What May!

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Eisav, Yaakov, Marshmallows and Eternal Gratification in Parshas Toldos

They were born, two boys, twins, Yaakov and Eisav; but they had vastly different natures.  Yet, as you learn the Torah Portion of Toldos and you see with what nature Eisav was blessed, it seems to you, perhaps, that the cards were stacked against Eisav – he had this burning desire for physicality and strength.  However, we are taught Eisav and King David looked alike and had the same personalities.  Both were passionate men.  Ah, passion, it could be used two ways.  Eisav pandered to it and gave in to his huge desires and Dovid didn’t.  Anyone born with a bigger desire for evil, has a bigger chance at being great.  Eisav could have been Moshiach if he worked on himself and fought his desires, if he harnessed his appetite for physicality and used it for spirituality, but Eisav liked instant gratification and refused to discipline himself for anything long-term.

“Eat, be merry, for tomorrow I die,” is Eisav’s motto.  This is what he says: what do I need spirituality, let me have instant pleasure. Soup down my throat.  Now.  In fact, did you ever wonder, why did Eisav have to ask Yaakov to pour the soup down his throat?  What was wrong with his own two hands?  Eisav was actually pleasuring himself as he conducted this whole transaction – he was so wrapped up in gratifying himself, he wouldn’t even stop to feed himself.  Gimme, gimme.  I deserve.  I want.  All nerve endings need pleasuring now.  That is the wrap-up of Eisav’s approach to life.

There was a psychological study, aptly titled the Stanford Marshmallow experiment, which involved, yup, delicious pillowy sweet marshmallows.  Oozing goodness.  And put right in front of some nosh-loving children.  The point of the study was to test the children’s ability to defer on pleasure and see whether there was any correlation with future success.  So, there sat the children and the marshmallows, in a room affording a view to researchers.  In front of each child that mmm-mmm-good marshmallow was plunked down, right there, tantalizingly sweet right under their nose.  The children were told that if they wait and don’t eat it, they would get another one in a while.   Think of that – control yourself and double your pleasure.

The researchers left the room.  Some children gobbled up the nosh right away.  Some kept poking at it, smelling it, nibbling off its corners.  And some children ignored the nosh and earned the reward of a second marshmallow.  The children were then tracked to see which ones finished high school, which went to college and which ended up with good lives.  It was found (is it surprising?) that children who controlled their desire for the instant nosh were the ones who ended up successful.  Wanting instant gratification is a weakness.

A person who lives in this world only thinking of the pleasures of Olam HaZeh [the temporal world here], like Eisav did, is a bigger idiot.  Good people know we ought at times to deny the instant pleasure because when it comes to Olam HaBah [the next world which is eternal], the pleasure there is greater and we would be idiots to trade a great thing for something stupid just because it’s instant.  An example often given by the late Rabbi Noach Weinberg, ZT”L:  eating ice cream is a pleasure.  Saving a life is a greater pleasure.  If you had to choose between the two, which would you do?  Give up the ice cream- that cool delicious instant feeling of coldness sliding down your throat?  Of course – cuz you know the pleasure of saving a life will last a lifetime.  Eisav refused to self-discipline in anything.  He wanted pleasure – he wanted it now – he wanted it physically, which is why he ended up with no spiritual or emotional pleasures.

Yaakov, his brother, on the other hand, knew how to defer, to wait things out, to channel and harness his passion and keep it in check.  In fact, he was able to wait for the love of his life, working toward his marriage, because he knew how to wait things out.  Those willing to harness passion, control their desires and trade instant gratification for greater things, those are the ones who end up with the ever-lasting pleasures.

After all, instant soup is quite bland.  Instant world is blander, yet.  Go for the real deal, the real lasting spiritual pleasure.

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Why G-d Loves Prayers of Righteous

In this coming Shabbos’ weekly Torah portion, we learn of the childlessness of Yitzchok and Rivka.  We are taught they did not have children right away, just as Sara, and later Rochel,  did not, because Hashem wanted to hear their prayers.

Why?  Is it cruelty – my child is so cute when he cries so I let him cry?!  No, that isn’t it.  It can’t be that with G-d.  He doesn’t let us suffer just to see how cute we are when we cry.  There must be something else of why He wants these prayers.

Prayer is a very powerful thing – it brings blessing to the world.  Therefore, when righteous people pour out sincere prayers, not only do they become a better person and merit getting what they are praying for, but also their prayers change the world and help others who aren’t as good as them.

Think of a faucet wedged closed.  A strong person strains against the tap, again and again, until finally it yields and turns.  The water gushes forth.  And those who were thirsty, but were too weak to maneuver that faucet on their own, they get to drink from the same waters as the tap turner.  The righteous open the spigots of blessings, bringing Heavenly bounty into this world.  Up to them is the heavy work of getting those faucets running.

That is why Hashem wanted to hear the prayers of the Tzaddikim, to bring good to the world.

When Yitzchok was born, we are taught that the whole world laughed.  Why?  Because the blessing of having children, once “turned on” for Sarah, helped many ladies who did not have children.  So Rivka’s prayers were not just for herself, but for the whole world.

And I sit here and hope that all those who are yearning for help like me are straining all their spiritual muscles to daven and cry, for who knows which one of us in our times is the Rivka who can turn on the spigot of blessings.  Pray and cry, for yourselves, for me, for the world.  We need the blessings in our lives, sorely need them.

 

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Prolifer – (and Sara was the epitome -she lived every day of her life)

When the alarm clock rang this morning

I glared out at the new day dawning

“Yuk,” said I, “what a botheration

“to endure a new day’s frustration.”

Pro-choice?  Shouldn’t I be the one to choose?

But, alas, life doesn’t allow for much muse

Reality dictates that one must awake

For if not, one’s livelihood is at stake

And though we might love covers over our head

Most of us can’t afford a day in bed

We cannot end our days before they begin

We’re forced to cope with its contractions

Carry the morning full term until eve

Suffer with its aches and petty peeves

At the end, though, you often can say

Thank G-d we hadn’t aborted our day.

—————–

Rabbi Akiva was once teaching his students when he noticed some of them drowsing off.  He banged on his shtender [lectern] and said, “chevrah, I want you to know something.  Because Sara lived 127 years, Esther many years later got to rule over 127 countries.”  His students perked up and stayed alert and awake.  What they had been told is that each day, each hour, each second has a potential that will be rewarded.  And they didn’t want to snooze through any of life’s opportunities.

 

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