Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Seventh Day of Chanukah

There’s a famous question that’s asked about Chanukah.

Why is Chanuka eight days when the miracle only lasted for seven days since there was enough oil to last for one day?

There are many, many answers to this question. I just want to share one of them with you.

There was once someone who didn’t have enough money to buy oil so they used vinegar instead and said, "The same One who commanded oil to burn can make vinegar burn." And…it did burn! We learn from this that the very fact that oil burns is a miracle too and is a reason to celebrate another day of Chanukah.

The natural events in our lives are really miracles and we should realize that just because something is “normal” doesn’t mean it will be that way and when things go right and are they way they are supposed to be, we should thank Hashem!

Today, the seventh day of Chanukah, is a special day for our family-it’s Chaya Gitty’s 1st (Hebrew) birthday. It’s a day to reflect upon this past year and realize that all the things that seem so normal and regular for a baby’s development are really miraculous. There’s no real reason why a baby should smile at the right time, roll over when the books say she should, crawl, coo, and start to talk (and almost walk!) before their first birthday. Who says this is normal? Who says this is the way it’s supposed to be? Why is this the way things go? It really is more than just regular to see a little baby begin to develop into a real person!

It’s a day for me to realize that all the little things that go right, all her milestones at the right times are reasons to be thankful.

She’s had her fair share of doctor visits (okay, maybe we’ve been there too many times than I would have liked) but baruch Hashem they were for regular things-ear infections, viruses and well visits. But she is healthy. We don’t spend our time worrying and running from doctor to doctor…She’s talking more than her brother did at a year, saying mommy, tatty, baby, cracker, all done, bye-bye, she waves her hand, she says moo and baa (!!) and she tries to imitate things we say to her. She is a normal, regular, healthy baby but really…who defines normal? Who says this is the way things should be? When things go the way they should and everything is smooth, it is a time to stop and thank Hashem for the regular things.

And we learn this lesson from Chanukah. The first day that the oil burned was just as miraculous as the next seven days. And that is why Chanukah lasts for eight days instead of seven. To remind us that the things that seem so normal and regular are really reasons to celebrate and be thankful.

So spend some time today thinking about the things in your life that are not out of the ordinary. That are the way they should be. Thank Hashem for the regular, the normal, the routine…because they really are reasons to be grateful.

Bayamim haheim bazman hazeh. Yes. Small hidden miracles happen every day and we should look out for, notice and appreciate them!

Happy Chanukah! And happy birthday CG!

Anyone else have any reasons to share for the famous question of why Chanukah is eight days instead of seven? You can comment, submit it anonymously on the right sidebar or send me an email. If I get enough answers, maybe I’ll post it and share it with all you readers :-).

Monday, December 19, 2011

At the Chanukah Candles

This was posted last year and I mentioned in the comments that I'd post it again this year.

The following question was submitted anonymously using the form on the right.

I know its kind of late to ask being that Chanukah is almost over but I was wondering, what are we supposed to be thinking when the candles are being lit? And even after when you just look at the lights? Also is this a special time to ask to things and is there anything specific we should ask for then?

It's still not to late to get an answer to your question since there's still another night left to Chanukah. I don't know if there's a source for this but I have heard that when the menorah is lit, it is a very special time to daven for anything.

I also heard that one should look into the flames and let the light of the menorah penetrate your soul. Just by looking at the flickering Chanukah lights, you can affect your
neshama. You should just let yourself look...stare...at the flames. It can really impact you very strongly. It helps you get rid of the negative effects of things that you should not have looked at but saw. We live in a world where it is so easy to see the wrong things. Even without trying, just by walking down the street or turning your head the wrong way, images get thrown into your face and then they stay there forever.

So when you look into the flames and you watch the fire dancing, let it talk to your
neshama - it can help get rid of the tumah, the impurity, that may have penetrated your soul when you saw things you should not have seen.

When you stand in front of the menorah, take a few minutes to daven. Daven for those people who have never seen the beauty behind the Chanukah candles, daven for the people you know who are waiting for
yeshuos, who need a miracle to save them. Daven for those who are stuck in the dark and need Hashem to light up their lives with bracha.

It's a special moment that passes by so fast. The menorah is lit, the family gets busy with supper, cleaning or whatever it is. Some people have a custom to stay by the candles for 30 minutes and say certain
tefillos-prayers and specific perakim of tehillim. Whether or not this is your custom, you can definitely take the time to remain by the candles for a little bit of extra time so you can daven for something you are waiting for.

Think about the two
brachos that are said when the menorah is lit. The first one is that we were commanded to light the menorah and in the second one we thank Hashem for performing miracles bayamim haheim, bazman hazeh, in those days and in our days. Think about the miracles, big and small, that you were lucky to experience in your life. And think about the miracles you wish and hope for...and beg Hashem to make them come true!

May your
tefillos at the candles be accepted and may you be able to purify your soul by looking deep into those flames...and may your neshama always feel like a fire - excited and enthusiastic and ready to do all the mitzvos we are so lucky to be blessed with!

I hope this helps!

Also, please can the person who submitted this question comment to let me know that you read this answer and if you still have a question about what I wrote?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Chanukah - Inner Spark

We know that Chanukah is the ‘festival of lights’. One thing you can learn from looking at a candle is that no matter which way you turn it, the flame will always face the same direction-upwards. ner Hashem nishmas adam-the neshama of a person is compared to a candle. No matter where a Jew goes, no matter what situation he is put in, there is always that flickering flame, also known as the pintele yid, burning inside his soul. A Jew may go through all kinds of situations but his soul will always be pointing upwards, just like a candle. Sometime it takes the right person, with the right words to tap into that inner spark – but it is always there.

Here is a small inspiring story about HaRav Yisroel Meir Kagan zt”l, the Chofetz Chaim, that clearly illustrates this point.

Once, a burly, gruff looking, man who had served in the Russian army, entered a Jewish Inn and ordered a meal. When Jewish boys were drafted, it was usually the end of Yiddishkeit, religious observance, for them. The army brainwashed them to worship Mother Russia rather than G-d. He plopped himself down and ate in a most disgusting manner - stuffing an entire chicken down his mouth. It was revolting that this man, a Jew, could conduct himself in so repulsive a manner. The innkeeper and the others present were sickened and embarrassed by this display; though none dared say anything.

The Chofetz Chaim happened to be a guest at that Inn. He saw the young man and slowly approached him. Everyone wondered, what would the Chofetz Chaim possibly say to this man.

What could he say?

Surely this oaf would not listen to any rebuke, even from such a holy man. The Chofetz Chaim asked the man, "Is it true that you served in the Russian army?" "Yes," snorted the man, bracing his defenses for the oncoming tongue-lashing he was fully expecting.

"Tell me," began the Chofetz Chaim, "How did you manage to keep your Jewish identity in those circumstances? So many Jewish boys entered the army, only to eventually give up their Judaism. They are forced to serve for 25 years without any kosher food, Jewish holidays, or any other vestige of Judaism. Yet, when you could have easily gone to any Inn, you chose a Jewish one. You still identify as a Jew. I don't know if I could have done what you did. You are an inspiration. Where did you find the strength?"

The soldier, caught off guard and clearly moved, looked straight at the Chofetz Chaim, "It was so hard, they did everything to pound it out of us - to make us denounce and forget that we were Jews."

The Chofetz Chaim responded, "It is a miracle that you made it through. Now you can begin to learn the Torah and observe mitzvos (religious duties) that you were deprived of all these years."

"But Rebbi (teacher), how can I possibly do that," the soldier, now sobbing bitterly, responded. He continued through his tears, "I want to return to my heritage, but I am so far removed. Surely it isn't possible for someone like me to learn."

"No," said the Chofetz Chaim, "It is still possible. It is always possible. I can show you how."

As the soldier spoke to the Chofetz Chaim, the stones on his heart began to melt. Had the Chofetz Chaim not understood and appreciated this man's perspective, this amazing episode never would have occurred.

What did happen was: from that day on, the former soldier began a path to repentance and as the years went by, developed into an observant, well learned Jew.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Chanukah - What is Bitachon?

HaRav Mattisyahu Salomon Shlita, recently provided fundamental introductory words to the Yom Tov of Chanukah. Chanukah teaches us yesodos, basics, in bitachon. With the mighty falling into the hands of the weak, the many losing battle after battle to the few, a little bit of oil lasting eight days, we learn that natural law, statistics and probability are not relevant to the Ba’al bitachon. What happened in the past is by no means determinative that the same will happen again in the future. On the other hand, bitachon in Hashem does not mean that we are confident that whatever we want to happen will happen. What is bitachon?

The Rabbeinu Yonah teaches that bitachon is hope. When statistics say that something is impossible, K’lal Yisroel still has hope, for Hashem can do anything. What we simply do not know is if Hashem, as the HaTov and HaMaitiv wants it to happen. We don’t know and often cannot see the Tov in events that occur. This is where the next step in bitachon comes in. We believe that notwithstanding our subjective hope, what really happens is all good. One may have davened for what he thought was good for him, but when the opposite occurred, Hashem indicated that in reality what he davened for was not the best for him. When we properly exercise our bitachon, we do not know what the outcome will be, for it depends on the Cheshbonos of the Ribbono Shel Olam.

Chanukah teaches that “Ain Od Melvado-there is nothing but His Will” is really the metziyus, the reality. In everyday life, this is hidden by nature, but in special moments (such as Chanukah and Purim, and perhaps other special times in a person’s life), Hashem makes it visible. It was a clear statistical impossibility for thirteen people (no matter how able bodied they were) to defeat tens of thousands. Hashem willed otherwise-and the rest is history that we celebrate -which reignites the flame of bitachon within us every year.

HaRav Salomon continues with a beautiful teaching of HaRav Chaim Volozhiner, Z’tl (in Sefer Ruach Chaim to Avos 2:4). There, HaRav Chaim brings the famous Kepital in Tehillim (23)--”Hashem Roii Lo Echsar-Hashem is my shepherd-I will lack nothing.” Dovid HaMelech compares himself to a sheep whose whole existence depends on the shepherd. He leads them in a way that they won’t be injured-all is for their benefit even if they have no understanding. Dovid HaMelech teaches us all to follow the shepherd and feel secure, for even if one may be tired and harassed, he can have full confidence that the shepherd is leading him in the path that is really best. Sometimes we see the good, but often it is not visible. Knowing this, the Shivtecha-the stick that hits me, and Mishantecha-the stick that I lean upon, are really the same stick. Thus, Heimah Yenachamuni-they together assuage me because I have bitachon that everything is LeTova-for the good-for it all comes from the One who is All Good.

At the end of this week's Parsha, Parshas Vayeisheiv, Yosef HaTzaddik places some eminently justifiable reliance on the Sar Hamashkim-after all that he did for him. However, the end was, as the last word of the Parsha testifies-Vayishkacheihu-and he forgot him. [On the other hand, Dovid Hamelech exclaims-V’shavti Bevais Hashem L’Orech Yomim-I look to nothing else and to no one else, other than dwelling together with Hashem for length of days.] With this, Yosef learned that our hallmark for survival in galus among all those around us who in fact do us a favor if they only ‘forget us’-is looking to Hashem for anything and everything. The lesson learned is quickly brought into practice in next week’s Parsha as Yosef starkly and clearly advises Paroah, Biladai-it is not me, it is Hashem who makes all determinations and all decisions, and it is to Him that we must turn-in all dreams, and in all realities!

(Taken from a recent Hakhel post.)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

For Everything a Blessing

Thank you M.B. for emailing this story to me.

When I was an elementary school student in Yeshiva—a Jewish parochial school with both religious and secular studies—my classmates and I used to find amusing a sign that was posted just outside the bathroom. It was an ancient Jewish blessing, commonly referred to as the asher yatzar benediction, that was supposed to be recited after one relieved oneself. For grade school children, there could be nothing more strange or ridiculous than to link the acts of micturition and defecation with holy words that mentioned God's name. Blessings were reserved for prayers, for holy days, or for thanking God for food or for some act of deliverance, but surely not for a bodily function that evoked smirks and giggles.

It took me several decades to realize the wisdom that lay behind this blessing that was composed by Abayei, a fourth century Babylonian rabbi. Abayei's blessing is contained in the Talmud, an encyclopedic work of Jewish law and lore that was written over the first five centuries of the common era. The Jewish religion is chock-full of these blessings, or brachot, as they are called in Hebrew. In fact, an entire tractate of Talmud, 128 pages in length, is devoted to brachot.

On page 120 (Brachot 60b) of the ancient text it is written: "Abayei said, when one comes out of a privy he should say: Blessed is He who has formed man in wisdom and created in him many orifices and many cavities. It is obvious and known before Your throne of glory that if one of them were to be ruptured or one of them blocked, it would be impossible for a man to survive and stand before You. Blessed are You that heals all flesh and does wonders."

An observant Jew is supposed to recite this blessing in Hebrew after each visit to the bathroom.

We young Yeshiva students were reminded of our obligation to recite this prayer by the signs that contained its text that were posted just outside the rest room doors. It is one thing, however, to post these signs and it is quite another to realistically expect preadolescents to have the maturity to realize the wisdom of and need for reciting a 1600-year-old blessing related to bodily functions.

It was not until my second year of medical school that I first began to understand the appropriateness of this short prayer.

Pathophysiology brought home to me the terrible consequences of even minor aberrations in the structure and function of the human body. At the very least, I began to no longer take for granted the normalcy of my trips to the bathroom.
Instead, I started to realize how many things had to operate just right for these minor interruptions of my daily routine to run smoothly. I thought of Abayei and his blessing. I recalled my days at Yeshiva and remembered how silly that sign outside the bathroom had seemed. But after seeing patients whose lives revolved around their dialysis machines, and others with colostomies and urinary catheters, I realized how wise the rabbi had been.

And then it happened: I began to recite Abayei's brocha. At first I had to go back to my siddur, the Jewish prayer book, to get the text right. With repetition—and there were many opportunities for a novice to get to know this blessing well—I could recite it fluently and with sincerity and understanding.

Over the years, reciting the asher yatzar has become for me an opportunity to offer thanks not just for the proper functioning of my excretory organs, but for my overall good health. The text, after all, refers to catastrophic consequences of the rupture or obstruction of any bodily structure, not only those of the urinary or gastrointestinal tract. Could Abayei, for example, have foreseen that "blockage" of the "cavity," or lumen, of the coronary artery would lead to the commonest cause of death in industrialized countries some 16 centuries later?

I have often wondered if other people also yearn for some way to express gratitude for their good health. Physicians especially, who are exposed daily to the ravages that illness can wreak, must sometimes feel the need to express thanks for being well and thus well-being. Perhaps a generic, nondenominational asher yatzar could be composed for those who want to verbalize their gratitude for being blessed with good health.

There was one unforgettable patient whose story reinforced the truth and beauty of the asher yatzer for me forever. Josh was a 20-year-old student who sustained an unstable fracture of his third and fourth cervical vertebrae in a motor vehicle crash. He nearly died from his injury and required emergency intubation and ventilatory support. He was initially totally quadriplegic but for weak flexion of his right biceps.

A long and difficult period of stabilization and rehabilitation followed. There were promising signs of neurological recovery over the first few months that came suddenly and unexpectedly: movement of a finger here, flexion of a toe there, return of sensation here, adduction of a muscle group there. With incredible courage, hard work, and an excellent physical therapist, Josh improved day by day. In time, and after what seemed like a miracle, he was able to walk slowly with a leg brace and a cane.

But Josh continued to require intermittent catheterization. I knew only too well the problems and perils this young man would face for the rest of his life because of a neurogenic bladder. The urologists were very pessimistic about his chances for not requiring catheterization. They had not seen this occur after a spinal cord injury of this severity.

Then the impossible happened. I was there the day Josh no longer required a urinary catheter. I thought of Abayei's asher yatzar prayer. Pointing out that I could not imagine a more meaningful scenario for its recitation, I suggested to Josh, who was also a Yeshiva graduate, that he say the prayer. He agreed. As he recited the ancient bracha, tears welled in my eyes.

Josh is my son.

Kenneth M. Prager, MD
New York, NY


Monday, December 12, 2011

Small Deed. Big Person

HaRav Chaim Ozer Grodzinsky Zatzal, Rav of Vilna, Raban Shel Yisroel.(1863-1940)

A man stopped HaRav Caim Ozer Grodzinsky Zatzal, the Rav of Vilna and the Gadol and Posek Hador in the pre-WWII era, to ask for directions how to get to his destination.

This man was stuttering, so Rav Chaim Ozer not only gave him directions but also walked him all the way to his destination.

The students asked why? R Chaim Ozer answered "If I didn't take him there he might have needed to ask direction again and then he might get embarrassed."


Thursday, December 8, 2011

CG's First Birthday

Today's Chaya Gitty's (English) birthday. She's just a year old but...so much happens in one year. The amount of growth and development I see in my daughter from when she was a tiny newborn until now is amazing. She can already say a few words, she crawls (and her older brother likes to copy her :-) ) and will soon be walking!

I had this same thought when I wrote a post on SB's first birthday but it hit me again this morning. Look at how much a baby changes in the first year of their life. They learn so much about the world around them and develop from a newborn who is unable to do anything but cry, eat and make in their diapers to real little people. Little people who are slowly discovering so much about their own little world. Chaya Gitty is a whole new person already. She's little but she knows and understands so much.

This made me think about how much I did in this past year. How much did I change? I know a lot changed around me and there were so many stories that happened in the past year but did they change me?

When I put my daughter to sleep tonight and sang to her, my eyes filled with tears and I began to cry. I couldn't finish the song. I just looked at her precious little eyes staring right back at me, sweet, innocent eyes and let myself cry. I cried tears of appreciation and tears of hope. I looked at her with such appreciation and gratitude to Hashem for giving me such a sweet, soft princess of a baby. It such a bracha to be blessed with such a gift. And I cried tears of hope for the future...and I davened. I davened for her to be good in every sense of the word, to have good friends when she grows up and to always be happy.

Every parent wants their child to be happy. Do we begin to realize how much our parents do for us and to what lengths they go to try to make us happy? They make decisions based on how they think it would affect us and always have our good, our ultimate good in mind. We should appreciate all they do, speak to them with respect and realize just how much they do for us.

I once heard that Hashem put the parent-child relationship into this world so that we could learn how to relate to Him. Just like a parent does so much for a child but the child cannot fathom how much the parent really does, so too, Hashem does so so much for us and we can't even begin to imagine how much He really does for us. Of course it takes no effort on His part to do all that He does but do we realize how much we have to be grateful for? He keeps us alive and healthy and gives us so much bounty. Family to care for us, friends to have fun with, so many choices of foods to eat...every little detail of our lives, every little and big blessing all comes from Him. Spend some time every day saying thank you to your Father in Heaven!

A birthday, from the very first one, can be used as a day to think about and thank Hashem for all the blessings and good things He has given you. I am so lucky to have a daughter as precious as Chaya Gitty and I hope to continue to feel this deep gratitude to Him for all the good Hashem will continue to shower upon our family.

Any sprinkles left on the cupcake? (She's too little for a whole big cake :-D)

Monday, December 5, 2011

Know Your Worth

If the image of Jacob's ladder was not the most spectacular prophetic vision ever, it certainly comes close. In his dream, Jacob saw a ladder planted firmly on the ground yet reaching all the way into the heavens, and as he watched in utter fascination, he saw angels ascending and descending the ladder.

Then he wakes up, and lo and behold, it was all a dream. Jacob is shaken, and he reacts rather strangely. How can it be, he laments, that I am in the presence of the Almighty and did not even know it? No expressions of transcendent joy. No ecstatic expansion of the mind as a result of his sublime prophecy. Just chagrin. Why?

Our Sages tell us that he was mortified that he had actually slept in such a holy place. But even this does not fully answer the question. After all, what is so terrible about sleeping on hallowed ground? And if it was really such a terrible transgression, why did the Almighty reward him with this prophetic dream?

The commentators explain that Jacob was disappointed because he had missed an extraordinary opportunity. Had he known that he stood on hallowed ground, had he known he was actually standing in the presence of the Almighty, he would have concentrated on having an even more intense prophetic encounter with Him. But he had been completely oblivious to his surroundings. Indeed, he had gone to sleep!

He could have risen to incredible spiritual levels. He could have attained the most profound prophetic insights. He could have penetrated the deepest secrets of the universe. But he went to sleep. He did have a phenomenal prophetic vision in his dream, but that was where it stopped. So much potential unfulfilled. Such a great opportunity lost. It is little wonder that Jacob awoke disappointed.

A young man came to study in the academy of a great sage. He listened to the sage expound his thoughts and was amazed at their profound wisdom. He bent over the revered texts and pored over every single words in awe. A feeling of humility swept through his soul.

"Oh, what a nothing I am," he muttered under his breath. "What a miserable ignorant nothing."

The sage overheard his words and called him closer.

"Young man," he said, "why do you consider yourself a nothing?"

"Because I am weak, a salve to my physical needs and desires." "I see. And why did you come here?"

"To learn from you."

"If you wish to stay here and be successful," said the sage, "then you cannot consider yourself a nothing. After all, if you are truly nothing, how can you possibly retain wisdom? No, my young friend. Humility is a very good trait, but know your own worth. Know the sublimity of your soul and give it what it deserves."

In our own lives, we sometimes fall asleep on hallowed ground. Driven down by the pressures of everyday life, we can easily fall into the trap of deprecating our own worth.

We consider our shortcomings and our failures, and we tell ourselves we have no business setting our sights very high. But this is a serious mistake.

Never sell yourself short. You are hallowed ground. You possess a holy soul that is a spark of the divine. You are endowed with incredible spiritual treasures and resources. You have a kind nature and a generous spirit.

Most important of all, you are a descendant of the patriarchs, a custodian of the holy Torah here on this world. Your potential is incalculable. You have it within your grasp to reach for the sublime. Don't fall asleep on the job. Don't wake up disappointed after it is too late. Open your eyes and experience the exhilaration of fulfillment.

Taken from Rabbi Naftali Reich at www.Torah.org