Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Review of lesson four:

Thank you for joining us for our fourth lesson of Biblical Reflections: Finding Yourself in the Book of Genesis. Here’s a quick recap:

A. Response to Catastrophe

Cain and Abel coped very differently to the tragedy of the expulsion from Eden. Abel became a shepherd. Since sheep graze most of the day, this left him ample time for spiritual pursuits. Cain, however, turned to farming, a far more arduous pursuit. This made him much more vested in the material world.

B. A Philosophy of Gift-Giving

In time, both brothers brought offerings before G-d. Cain’s was rejected, whereas Abel’s was accepted. The gifts diverged in two ways: Cain was the first to bring his offering. However, Abel’s gift was far more generous.

Cain, the materialist, nonetheless recognized that he needed G-d’s assistance in order to succeed in his pursuits. Thus, he sought to “bribe” G-d through bringing such a gift. Yet he found it too difficult to give up the best of what he had.

Abel, on the other hand, felt a strong desire to connect to G-d, but attributed little value to the physical world. Thus it did not initially occur to him to bring such a gift. However, once he saw Cain offering a physical gift, , Abel decided to do the same, and generously gathered the best of what was his as an offering to G-d.

C. Dealing with Rejection

Cain responded to G-d’s rejection of his sacrifice with anger and despair. G-d addressed both emotions. First, G-d explained that there was no need for him to feel angry or blame Abel for his rejection, for Cain was able to control his own fate through his action. Likewise, there was no need for him to despair of ever finding favor in G-d’s eyes, for it within the power of every individual to control the inclination to evil. G-d told Cain that it was up to him to see G-d’s rejection of his sacrifice as constructive criticism, rather than an act of unfair discrimination.

D. The Fatal Argument

Yet G-d’s warning to Cain went unheeded. Cain picked a fight with his brother, and in a fit of range, killed him.

Cain and Abel were different in nature, but had they found a way to bridge their differences, could have made a perfect team, each completing the other. Abel could have provided the spiritual focus while Cain, skilled at laboring, could have provided the material resources for bringing spirituality into the material world. Unfortunately, they chose separate paths, each wanting to be self-sufficient. However, neither world-view was sustainable alone.

E. Justice is Done

Adam was expelled from Eden to return to “the land from which he was taken.” His mission was to fix the earth’s spiritual imperfections. Cain betrayed this mission by abusing the earth instead of elevating it. Adam caused a gap between man and the natural resources of the world. Cain widened the gap by taking the land and turning it into an ally for his crime. As a consequence, Cain couldn’t retrieve adequate sustenance from the earth. He was forced to spend the rest of his life as in itinerant wanderer, constantly searching for sustenance.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Biblical Reflections: Lesson Four - Death in the Family

Lesson four:

During our first three classes, we discussed Adam and Eve, their sin, and their subsequent expulsion from the Eden. We outlined the irrevocable transformation of humanity as a result of eating from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, as well as the quest to reclaim innocence.

This week, we will see the effects of this traumatic event on Cain and Abel, the “next generation.” Both grew up in the shadow of expulsion from the Garden of Eden. The “quick-fix” of paradise had been lost, and it would now be a long and arduous road to rebuilding the perfect world.

How would Cain and Abel cope with such a formidable task? They had to begin by learning how to interact with one another and with G-d. Their approaches were incompatible, and their conflict had catastrophic results. By examining their story, can we learn to avoid their mistakes? I’m looking forward to seeing you for our fourth lesson at the Chabad Torah Centre.

Review of lesson three:

Thank you for joining us for our third lesson of Biblical Reflections: Finding Yourself in the Book of Genesis. Here’s a quick recap:

A. The Downfall and Cover-Up

The forbidden fruit opened the eyes of Adam and Eve to the experience of the external and the physical. As a result, they felt ashamed, a consequence of the soul’s discomfort with the body’s potential to pursue its own desires. To alleviate these unpleasant feelings, Adam and Eve wove “aprons” from fig leaves to cover their nakedness.

But clothing can serve other purposes besides merely covering up what we do not want to reveal. Clothing can also serve to adorn and to beautify. Through their instinctive covering of their bodies, Adam and Eve showed sensitivity to their weakness and a desire to rectify their sin. So G-d crafted form them fitted shirts from fine animal skins as a symbol of their restored worthiness.

B. Consequences

Through their error, Adam and Eve set into motion irrevocable changes in the nature of their interaction with the world and with each other. While these changes are often perceived primarily as punishments, they are also the natural consequences of eating from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge.

Adam, for example, was forced to start working the land and foraging. Due to the sin, the world became coarser, for good and evil became mixed and intertwined. Although humans were given the task of elevating the G-dly sparks within creation, the sparks within edible vegetation were now harder to reach and purify. If humans would extract food from the land too easily, they would become arrogant and self-indulgent. Therefore, the land now needed to be tilled and cultivated. The challenges in earning a livelihood and bringing for the earth’s produce would induce feelings of humility, thereby making people more sensitive to G-d and more suited for purging the evil that was introduced through the sin.

Eve’s punishment, difficulty in childbirth, was also a consequence of the world’s transformation. Birth marks the marriage between body and soul. Now that body and soul became less synchronized, birth also became a more strenuous and painful process. The relationship between husband and wife complicated. Man and woman previously functioned in union, but after the sin, they lost their natural balance.

The serpent’s curse consisted of being forced to crawl on its belly and eat dust. Since the serpent had attempted to hijack spirituality for its own purposes, it was condemned to live devoid of the need to turn to G-d.

C. G-d’s Perspective

It is a mistake to surmise that the sin set the world off course. Both good and evil are divine creations, and both are imbued with a deeply rooted divine essence. Evil opposes divine will, but only because G-d wills it to do so. Kabbalah gives the analogy of a king who asks a woman to attempt to seduce his son in order to test the strength of son’s character. Just as the woman’s actions are conducted in the service of the king, Satan does his work in order to fulfill G-d’s plan.

Sin contains a hidden goodness that is normally inaccessible, shackled behind unbreakably hard shells of evil. However, a person who sins and repents is able to release these hidden sparks of goodness, for sometimes the sin is itself the impetus to turn away from evil and come close to G-d.

Eve recognized this hidden benefit of evil, though she grossly underestimated the power of evil to swallow goodness in its wake. Women light Shabbat candles as a means of rectifying Eve’s sin, transforming darkness into light.

Next week, we’ll examine the next generation, Cain and Abel, the two sons of Adam and Eve. Each coped with the expulsion from Eden quite differently, and they found themselves locked in a gruesome battle. We’ll evaluate the two conflicting worldviews and their underlying lessons.

Underage Underwriters

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Can we ever reclaim innocence?

Last week, we discussed how Adam and Eve, created by G-d’s own hand, were able to commit the unthinkable sin. This week, we consider the aftermath of that fateful moment.

Immediately, they were racked with shame and regret. The power of evil was unlocked in the world. It was clear that the act had not had the desired consequences. Yet what was done could never be undone. Or could it?

Can we ever reclaim innocence? In lesson three, Adam and Eve are given the tools to rediscover the Garden of Eden. We, their children, have inherited this quest. The path has been long and arduous, sometimes elusive, but we are assured that one day, we shall return to an Eden that is all we imagined and more.

Question of the week by Rabbi Moss

Question of the Week:
I know this sounds petty but I can't stand making lunches for my kids. Every night I am just about to fall into bed exhausted, and just then I remember that I need to make sandwiches. I still do it, but I can't say I do it with love. I guess I feel that much of my life is taken up with mundane things like packing lunchboxes. Must I resign to that fact that my life has boiled down to making tuna sandwiches?

Answer:
Making tuna sandwiches is far from mundane. It is a holy activity. With every lunchbox you pack you are performing a sacred duty, one that dates back to the times of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

In ancient Israel, the Temple in Jerusalem was the focus of Jewish spiritual life. It was the home of G-d in which the cohanim, the priests, and their assistants the Levites brought sacrifices, burnt incense and spent their days meditating and singing to G-d.

This priestly tribe lived a life completely dedicated to spirituality. They did not have jobs, did not own property, but rather devoted themselves to studying G-d's laws and singing His praises. They represented the entire Jewish people before G-d, and through their service they brought down divine blessing for the entire world. To do this, they had to be well educated in matters of the spirit and totally focused on their mission.

But they had to eat. You can't study and pray for the world all day on an empty stomach. And so the rest of the Israelite nation would provide the material needs of the priestly tribe. People would bring offerings of food and donations of money to the Temple to support the cohanim. It was a reciprocal relationship. In return for the holy service the cohanim provided, their every need was looked after, and they were free to completely focus on their spiritual tasks without having to worry about paying the bills or doing the shopping. The priests brought G-d's blessing to the people. The people brought them lunch.

Today we no longer have the Holy Temple, and so we do not have the service of the cohanim to bring us blessing. But we have a substitute - our precious children. They are our holy priests, innocent and pure souls who go to school every day, say their prayers and study the Torah without a worry in the world. When children sing their songs and learn the Hebrew letters, their voices reach the highest heavens, just as the service of the cohanim in the Temple used to do in the days of old. And when G-d hears their voices, so pure and sweet, He showers us with blessings and love.

But if children are the priests serving G-d, parents are the supporters providing their needs. When you make tuna sandwiches, you are ensuring that your little cohen will have the sustenance he needs to do his work. When you stretch yourself to pay the school fees and ensure your child has an authentic Jewish education, you are donating toward the upkeep of the Temple, the safe and pure sanctuary in which your child's soul can thrive. And when you give up on luxuries and personal ambitions to be able to support your child's education, you have brought a true sacrifice on G-d's altar.

So next time you mash the mayonnaise into the tuna and wrap up the sandwiches for your holy little priests, remember that you are fulfilling a sacred task, providing their needs so they can learn carefree. As much as you are giving them, they are giving you back far more.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Biblical Reflections: Lesson Three: Paradise Lost (...and Found)

Review of lesson two:

Thank you for joining us for our second lesson of Biblical Reflection. Here’s a quick review of the lesson:

A. The Human Psyche Before the Sin
Before the sin, Adam and Eve were totally engaged in their activities. They were described as naked, but it didn’t feel shame. For Adam and Eve, intimate relations were part of the natural order, void of selfish desires. The experience was similar to eating for the sole purpose of nutrition. The psychological precursor that allows for the development of evil is a sense of awareness of feelings, emotions, and physical sensations- that we have termed as knowledge.

B. The World of Evil Before the Sin
Kabbalah compares evil to a peel. The peel of a fruit provides a vital service, protecting the fruit from insects and environmental hazards. However, when the fruit is ready to be eaten, the peel must be removed and discarded, for it no longer serves any purpose.
The serpent was the embodiment of evil. Originally its mission was to serve and assist the spiritual dimension of creation, just as a peel exists solely for the fruit. The serpent, however, sought to establish its own independence, an existence separate from its intended mission – thereby hijacking spirituality and exploiting it for its own purposes. The serpent was able to take advantage of a vulnerable aspect of creation – the dual nature of humans who are a synthesis of spiritual and physical – which made humans particularly susceptible to serving as a host to evil.

C. The Seduction of Eve
The seduction began when the serpent asked Eve if G-d had really forbade eating from the trees in the garden. In this non-aggressive way, the serpent attempted to highlight a seeming lack in logic – prohibiting the use of a part of creation. All creation is good and has a purpose; prohibiting its use prevents its purpose from being fulfilled.

Eve affirmed the prohibition regarding the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, but added the prohibition of touching its fruits as well. Such an addition represents Eve’s rationalization of G-d’s command, assuming that it was more than a warning to prevent evil – simply a cautionary measure. At this point, Eve had injected her own reasoning into G-d’s command, and the foundation was laid for the sin.

On a deep level, Eve also perceived an immense spiritual possibility for getting to know evil and resisting its allure. She felt it would both deepen her appreciation of good and make her stronger. When Eve passed near the tree, the serpent pushed her – and she touched the fruit. When she nevertheless remained alive, the serpent was also able to convince her that eating would not necessarily harm her.

D. Why Eve?
Both Adam and Eve embodied a divine consciousness and sought to reveal the inherent spirituality in creation. A key difference between them, however, was that Adam was created through fusing two separate identities, the physical and the spiritual. Eve’s being, on the other hand, was spiritually integrated from the moment of her creation.

Adam thus sensed the physical and spiritual as conflicting realms, and he felt a need to conquer and alter it. But Eve saw no such contradiction and thus did not feel an innate urge to change the world. She sought not to transform, but to develop, bringing the world’s inner perfection to the fore.

Next week, we’ll examine the irrevocable changes in Adam and Eve and within the world as a result of the sin – and we’ll discover the incredible power of repentance.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Do Jews Believe in Hell? by Rabbi Moss

Question of the Week:
Do Jews believe in Hell? I am not planning any trips or anything, but was wondering because I have heard mixed reports about this.....

Answer:
We do believe in a type of hell. But not the one found in cartoons and joke books. Hell is not a punishment. It is in fact a great kindness that we are sent to hell.

The prophets and mystics of Judaism described a spiritual place called Gehennom. This is usually translated as Hell, but a better translation would be the Supernal Washing Machine. Because that's exactly how it works. Our soul is cleansed in Gehennom in the same way as our clothes are cleansed in a washing machine.

We don't put our socks in the washing machine to punish them. We put them through what seems like a rough and painful procedure, only to make them clean and wearable again. The intense heat of the water loosens the dirt, and the force of being swirled around shakes it off completely. Far from hurting your socks, you are doing them a favour by putting them through this process.

But put yourself in your socks' shoes. If you would be thrown into boiling hot water and flung around for half an hour, you too would start to feel that someone doesn't like you. If only the socks would know that this is all for their good. Only after going through a washing cycle can the socks be worn again.

So too with the soul. Every act we do in our lifetime leaves an imprint on our soul. The good we do brightens and elevates our soul. And every wrongdoing leaves a stain that needs to be cleansed. If at the end of our life we leave this world without fixing the wrongs we have done, our soul is unable to reach its place of rest on high. We must go through a cycle of deep cleansing, our soul is flung around at intense spiritual heat, to rid it of any dirty residue it may have gathered and prepare it for entry into heaven.

This is no punishment. It may be painful, but it is for our good. Our soul can only shine once the stains have been fully removed.

Of course this whole process can be avoided. If we truly regret the wrong we have done, make amends with the people whom we have hurt, we can leave this world with clean socks.
That's why our sages said, "Repent one day before you die." And what should you do if you don't know which day that will be? Repent today.

Weekly E*Torah by Rabbi Avrohom Altein

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Lag Ba'omer Family BBQ

Understanding Evil

I hope you are enjoying Biblical Reflections: Finding Yourself in the Book of Genesis. The first lesson of our course outlined the purpose of the Torah and creation, the inherent dual nature of man, and the backdrop of the Garden of Eden.

This week, we’ll be talking about evil. We deal with evil all the time: evil intentions, evil actions, even evil people. But there was a time when humans did not have to directly deal with evil. All that changed when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge.

What might have compelled them to make this choice? What benefit might they have seen in dealing with evil? Could challenge and struggle in fact serve some positive purpose?

We’ll be tackling these questions when we meet for Lesson 2 at the Chabad Torah Centre this coming Tuesday.

Lesson two: Heart of Darkness

Biblical Reflections: Lesson Two Heart of Darkness from myJLI.com on Vimeo.

Lesson one recap:

Thank you for joining us for our first lesson of Biblical Reflections: Finding Yourself in the Book of Genesis. We’ve covered a lot of big ideas in this class. Here’s a quick review of the major points.

A. Why Study the Stories of the Torah?

Torah comes from the word hora’ah, which means “instruction.” At first glance, one might expect such a book to contain only laws and instructions. However, the real purpose of the Torah is not merely to convey law. Rather, it is to transform us from within. Torah seeks to mold our character through its teachings. Thus these stories are not simply records of our early history. The stories of the Torah provide eternal insight.

As the “People of the Book,” it is the Torah that has maintained our cohesiveness as a people. Indeed, when we became a people, we did not have language, land, government, or common parentage to unite us (as many other people joined the children of Israel when they left Egypt). We became a nation at Sinai by virtue of receiving the Torah. Our national identity as Jews is intertwined with our spiritual legacy.

B. The Original “Human Genome Project”

We next discuss the dual nature of humans. Adam was made from the most elevated components, more exalted than anything else in creation. The Torah tells us that G-d “breathed a soul into his nostrils,” as opposed to all the other creatures that G-d “spoke” into existence. Breath comes from deep within, and the human soul originates from a uniquely deep “aspect” of G-d’s “inner” being.

Yet Adam also consisted of the lowliest elements of creation. His body was molded from the very earth itself.

Because of this dual nature, humans are empowered to elevate even the lowest elements of creation into a very distinct potential. Yet this dual nature also creates a potential pitfall. Humans are prone to develop a sense of their own self-importance, independent of their purpose for being.

C. Setting the Stage: The Garden of Eden

The conclusion of our lesson examined the Garden of Eden, its physical and spiritual components, and its nature before the sin. The garden included two special trees: the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Life. The word “knowledge,” in a Biblical sense, implies intimacy with the object of knowledge. At the human level, knowledge implies the existence of something distinct from the knower is internalized and has profound impact on the knower. Thus, knowledge can make humans vulnerable, and that is why the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge was forbidden.

The Tree of Life was comprised of pure divinity, the essence of life. Eating from this tree would result in immortality. Before the sin, eating from this tree was permitted. However, after eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil humans would find that evil was internalized into their very being. Thus, death became necessary in order to purge the evil from the body so that the soul could reconnect with its source of life.

Our first lesson examined creation, man and woman, and their backdrop of the Garden of Eden. Next week we will explore the nature of evil and sin and discuss its effects upon the human experience.

Raising children

To those of us who have children in our lives, whether they are our own, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, or students... Whenever your children are out of control, you can take comfort from the thought that even G-d's omnipotence did not extend to His own children.
After creating heaven and earth, G-d created Adam and Eve.
And the first thing he said was "DON'T!"
"Don't what?" Adam replied.
"Don't eat the forbidden fruit." G-d said.
"Forbidden fruit? We have forbidden fruit?
Hey Eve... we have forbidden fruit!!!!!"
"No way!"
"Yes way!"
"Do NOT eat the fruit!" said G-d.
"Why"
"Because I am your Father and I said so!" G-d replied, wondering why He hadn't stopped creation after making the elephants.
A few minutes later, G-d saw His children having an apple break and He was ticked!
"Didn't I tell you not to eat the fruit?" G-d asked.
"Uh huh," Adam replied.
"Then why did you?" said the Father.
"I don't know," said Eve.
"She started it!" Adam said
"Did not!"
"Did to!"
"DID NOT!"
Having had it with the two of them, G-d's punishment was that Adam and Eve should have children of their own.
Thus the pattern was set and it has never changed.
BUT THERE IS REASSURANCE IN THE STORY!
If you have persistently and lovingly tried to give children wisdom and they haven't taken it, don't be hard on yourself. If G-d had trouble raising children, what makes you think it would be a piece of cake for you?

The ultimate question: What are we doing here?

Our first two JLI courses this year were met with tremendous success, and I am so thrilled to welcome you to our spring semester’s course. Biblical Reflections: Finding Yourself in the Book of Genesis examines some of the most famous Biblical stories: Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, and Noah and the Ark. These stories explore the most fundamental human struggles: the quests for love, purpose, identity, and redemption. We’ll also consider the inner obstacles that threaten these goals: lust, greed, hatred and jealousy.

The stories of the Book of Genesis serve as the foundation for much of the Western canon of literature and have indelibly influenced Western thought. At the same time, our upcoming course will strike a very personal chord as we look inwards into our own lives and our own struggles.

We will begin with the ultimate question: What are we doing here? Many societies discuss how we got here. The Torah answers not only the question of how, but the question of why. By looking closely at the account of human creation, we can also discern human purpose and a sense of the divine mission with which we were entrusted.

I’m delighted that you’ve signed up for Biblical Reflections, and I look forward to meeting you.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Open Letter

Dear JLI Student:

The stories of the book of Genesis are the oldest stories in the world, the stories from which countless other stories have been adapted. They cover the most universal of themes. They talk about the search for love, identity, being, purpose, and redemption. They also address the obstacles that threaten these objectives, such as hatred, jealousy, ambition, lust, and greed.

Our upcoming course will focus on the Book of Genesis and some of its most famous stories: the creation of the world, Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden, Cain and Abel, and Noah and the flood.

As we examine these dramatic struggles together, you will gain insight into the very essence of the human condition. You will also have the opportunity to reflect on how these stories speak to you personally.

We invite you to attend Biblical Reflections and find yourself in the stories of Genesis. Please join us for the first lesson of this exciting course on Tuesday evening, 7:30pm at the Chabad Torah Centre (1825 Grant Ave.).

Sincerely,

--

Rabbi Shmuly Altein
Jewish Learning Institute (JLI)
Chabad Lubavitch of Winnipeg
(204) 414-5624

Friday, May 1, 2009