We are in a period called “The Three Weeks of Mourning,” culminating to “Tisha B’Av,” literally translated as the 9th of the Hebrew month of Av, which is the greatest mourning day of the Jewish year. Never heard of it before? Don’t worry, neither had I. That’s part of why we are mourning. Officially, on Tisha B’Av, we are mourning the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. But through the years, the holiday has taken on additional meaning.
I didn’t know what the Kotel, or Western Wall, actually was until I saw it on my first trip to Israel when I was 19 years old. The Kotel is a part of the foundation of the Western Wall of the Second Temple, which the Jews built in Jerusalem over two thousand years ago. It is a remnant of Jerusalem’s former glory, when G-d’s presence openly rested on this holy site. The site of the First and Second Temples is the same place where Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac, and where Jacob dreamed of the ladder. It is the direction to which Jews face when they pray, wherever they are in the world. It is the main pipeline where all the prayers are collected and ascend to be answered. It is the interface between G-d and humanity on earth, and this is why Jerusalem is one of the most fought over pieces of land in history.
Unfortunately, the Jews have been kicked out of Jerusalem several times. The Babylonians drove us out and destroyed the First Temple and then the Romans kicked us out and destroyed the Second Temple, bringing us into our current 2,000-year-old exile.
Yet, is not the Babylonians or the Romans who did anything on their own. G-d used them as the conduits to our exile because we were not fitting as a nation to merit His presence in the Holy Temple during those times. In the time of the First Temple, we were engaged in idol worship and baseless hatred of each other. During the Second Temple, we were exiled again because we didn’t learn our lesson and continued to treat each other improperly.
So today, we are reduced to praying to a remnant of the foundation of the Temple to beg for the redemption, when a Third Temple will finally be rebuilt. You might be thinking, “But we have the state of Israel; how could we be in exile?” While we do have a Jewish state, we still do not have a Temple, which means that G-d has abandoned his home on earth, so to speak. As a result, G-d’s presence is more hidden. One manifestation of G-d’s hiddenness is that sometimes we see things perfectly clearly and meant to be, while at other times we are plagued with doubt and confusion.
Still, I find myself thinking, what would reality be like if we were not in exile, if G-d’s presence was fully revealed? I imagine it would be easier to connect to G-d because of a clearer distinction between right and wrong. We are so disconnected from our history as a people that we can’t really relate to a world with a Temple. We are so deep in exile that we don’t even realize we are in exile. This, I once heard Rabbi Doniel Katz say, is part of why we mourn this time of year.
What Can We Do About It?
The true Temple is not the Temple in Jerusalem, but the Temple in the heart of man. When G-d told the Jews to build Him the Mishkan (the temporary Temple in the desert before the Jews entered Israel), He said, “I will dwell within them,” instead of “ within it,” meaning G-d will dwell within the hearts of man, rather than in the Mishkan. From this we understand that the Temples in Jerusalem were external instruments of the inner Temple of our hearts. Thus, when our hearts became corrupted, the outer temples were destroyed as a reflection of that. This principle, of an external, physical reality reflecting internal, spiritual reality, is a recurring theme in Jewish thought. The rebuilding of the third and final Temple in Jerusalem is dependent on the rebuilding of the Temple in our own hearts.
This time of year, we need to think: are we part of the problem or part of the solution? Do we engage in the very behavior that put us into exile in the first place? Do we commit idol worship by worshipping ourselves and our desires above all else? This is 21st century idolatry. For instance, I find myself thinking about this as I debate whether to spend my money on charity or on a new item that I want, but don’t need. What about baseless hatred? Do we talk badly about anyone? Or do we try to see the good in all people and give them the benefit of the doubt?
We need to “step it up” as a nation so that we can merit G-d’s revealed presence in Jerusalem once again. I once heard my Rebbetzin tell her children that every little gesture of trying to reconnect to our spiritual heritage builds another brick in the wall of the Third Temple. We should merit to be those builders.
How To Thrive On Yom Kippur: Three Tips For An Easier Fast
Yom Kippur, one of the most sacred Jewish Holidays of the year, is upon us. As much as we dread the idea of not eating for 25 full hours, it can be an inspiring time to engage in deep spiritual practice. Here are ways you can prepare yourself for the 25 hour fast. These pointers will help keep your stomach from grumblin’ and your breath from stankin’.
1) Cut down on the caffeine For all you coffee/tea lovers out there, your morning cup of caffeine is a must. In fact, some of you are quick to develop headaches/migraines if you don’t have that cup. What to do: Days preceding the fast, try to minimize your caffeine intake as much as possible. Try some herbal tisanes, perhaps. Hydrate. Hydrate. Hydrate. There is nothing better you can do for yourself than to drink. Stay away from alcohol; poppin’ bottles will only make you more prone to dehydration, causing unpleasantness during the fast.
2) Did I mention HYDRATION? The difficulty we experience during the fast is not usually linked to lack of food; rather, it is the lack of fluids. Best choices: You can never go wrong with the good ol’ H20. Experts suggest drinking EIGHT 8 oz cups of water per day. Try to reach that goal or even surpass it by drinking more the day of. Eat your way to hydration by eating up plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables that are naturally full of water. Some of the most hydrating foods include: Cucumber, iceberg lettuce, celery, grapes, tomatoes, watermelon, green peppers, and spinach, to name a few. A handful of these ingredients mixed together sounds like a delicious salad, no?
3) What to eat the day of? On the day of the fast try eating balanced meals. For the meal before the fast, eat a proper meal that includes protein, carbohydrates, and plenty of vegetables. Eating more carbohydrates will help make you feel fuller longer (you can never go wrong with potatoes, pasta, and bread). Try to avoid salty and spicy foods as much as possible. The over-consumption of salt causes thirst because the body requires more water to absorb the extra salt. Knowing that we won’t be able to eat for 25 hours drives us to eat as much as possible before the fast begins. However, do yourself a favor and try not to eat a heavy 5 course meal fit for a Prince. The more you eat, the more water is needed from the body to digest it.
Now, you are fully equipped to a have a meaningful fast! May we all be inSKRIBED and sealed in the Book of Life!
My Worst (Or Best?) Rosh Hashanah
Two years ago, I had the privilege of spending my first Rosh Hashanah in Israel. That first morning I woke up to my roommate getting dressed. It was only 7:30 a.m. but I remembered one of my mentors telling me that since Rosh Hashanah is Judgment Day, it is best to make it to shul on time. I pulled myself out of bed.
My friends and I were amongst the first women in the shul that morning in Ramat Bet Shemesh. The natural light poured into the tall windows and beamed onto the white walls. Everything looked so pure. All that could be heard were the whispers of people’s morning prayers.
I found the clock; we had about five hours of prayer ahead of us. An hour or so into the service, I began to squirm. I glanced at my friends. Their heads were buried into their siddurs (prayer books).
I flipped to the back of the siddur and saw that we had about two hundred pages to go! As time went on, it was becoming harder and harder to sit still and focus. I heard myself think, “I don’t want to be here.” Then louder, “I want to leave!”
I looked around, paranoid that someone heard me. Then I realized how silly I was. My friends might not have known what I was really thinking, but G-d did. I couldn’t hide from Him. And what’s worse, I was being judged today. Suddenly it felt like all of the growth I accomplished in the past year didn’t matter because today, deep down, I wanted to leave and go home and read in bed.
I tried to ignore these blasphemous thoughts and continue praying, but a battle raged in my heart. Finally, I decided to engage my feelings of resistance. “O.K., Jenna,” I told myself, “You can leave. No one is stopping you. If you could call a cab right now and leave, what would you do?” I imagined the yellow cab waiting on the dusty road outside the shul. Then, as I imagined myself getting into the cab and driving away, a quiet voice within me said, “No!” What was that? I thought.
There were two voices within me: the yetzer hara and the yetzer hatov.
In one corner of the ring: the yetzer hara. The yetzer hara is our “evil inclination,” the voice within us that is aligned with our basic, animalistic desires. The yetzer hara always speaks loudest and always speaks first.
Yet Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski points out that the essence of our yetzer hara is not its desire for physical pleasures, but its desire for freedom. I felt constricted that day in shul, with a long script of prayers I had to recite. Me, who had chosen to come to Israel that year to deepen my connection with G-d. Who knew that the Sages had written these holy prayers with Divine inspiration, a secret formula so to speak, to connect with G-d on the deepest level. Yet I still felt that this day was being thrust on me. Today of all days, which was about crowning G-d as our King and part of me just wanted to break free.
In the other corner of the ring: the yetzer hatov. The yetzer hatov is our “good inclination,” the voice within us that is aligned with our spiritual aspirations. It is the voice that wants us to be our best selves, aligned with G-d’s will. It is the quieter voice. Deep down, when I gave myself the theoretical option, I could hear myself say that I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to be right there, in the last row of the crowded shul, praying to G-d from the bottom of my heart.
When the shofar blew, there was silence. I could hear my friend sobbing into her siddur. I was exhausted; I felt like Jacob wrestling with the angel. I turned inward and said the only words I could say with total honesty: I want to want good, I told G-d. Please send me the blessings I need to be my best self, to achieve my purpose. G-d: I want what You want for me this year. I repeated this over and over again. The cry of the shofar awoke the cry in my heart. I want to want good. Help me, please.
That year, I left shul feeling like a failure. Looking back, I realize that I was a spiritual champion. Just because I struggled to engage in the long day of prayer did not make me any less holy than my friends. If anything, my merit was in my struggle.
Despite the voice within me that wanted to leave, I chose to act upon the voice that wanted to stay. As Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller says, we are an accumulation of the choices we make. By acting on the voice that wanted good, I was one step closer to becoming my best self. With each good choice we make, Rebbetzin Heller explains, choosing good becomes easier.
I bless us all that we should be empowered to make the right choices in our lives and we should be written and sealed in the Book of Life for a healthy, happy, and sweet new year!
Pesach: Why We Really Eat Matzah
It’s that time of year again. When you’re stuck eating that stale saltine cracker for a week while your non-Jewish friends say, “Matzah? I love that stuff!” Yes, everyone’s favorite unleavened holiday is fast approaching. But why do we eat matzah during Pesach?
Because when the Jews were leaving Egypt in haste,
they didn’t have time to let the bread rise.
Okay… so it turns out that’s actually not true.
What? No! They told me so in Hebrew school!
Yeah, it makes for a nice story. But it’s a little more complicated. Let’s look at the Torah, Parshas Bo. The plague of darkness has just happened and God is telling Moses about the next plague, the death of the first born. God then gives Moses the first commandment in the Torah, the mitzvah of Rosh Chodesh. This would make it the first day of the month. (Shemos 12:1)
God then continues to give Moses the commandments of the Pesach offering (you know, slaughter the lamb, blood over the door). “[T]he fourteenth day of this month, [all of Yisrael] shall slaughter it–“ (Shemos 12:6) He continues:
“This day shall be for you a [day of] remembrance… It is an eternal statue that you must celebrate it. You must eat matzos for seven days…” (Shemos 12:14-15)
God had just told Moses that in two weeks they would leave Egypt and that they would be eating matzah for 7 days. They had plenty of time to let the bread rise. In fact, the Jews were eating matzah long before the exodus. They ate it the entire time they were slaves in Egypt!
So matzah is the bread of our affliction and we ate it during our slavery? Wouldn’t the moments after leaving Egypt be the perfect time to eat bread?
As stated by Rabbi Denbo, “If Pesach is all about freedom, eating matzah on Pesach is like paying taxes to England on July 4th.” There’s obviously something deeper going on. Let’s look at the difference between matzah and bread. Their ingredients are essentially the same: flour and water.
But bread has yeast!
Both doughs have natural yeasts. Adding yeast just helps the leavening process to occur faster and fuller. It is even possible to make bread without adding yeasts. What makes the yeast do it’s thing is time.
Judaism doesn’t consider freedom to be sitting on a beach in the Bahamas drinking a Corona. Freedom is about being able to accomplish what you want to accomplish. There are going to be restrictions when you are on that path because there are only so many hours in a day and you have to make choices. But that’s okay. Restrictions are different from distraction.
Because climbing a mountain gives you meaning in life… I guess.
Pesach is about sitting down, deciding your priorities in life, understanding what you need to do to accomplish those priorities, and ultimately recognizing the things that hold you back. Those are the things to which we are still slaves. Ego, procrastination, lack of unity, grudges from years past are prime examples. Pesach gives you the opportunity to take those things and declare, “I want to be free of xyz.”
A very accomplished person is always busy. Very busy. Taking meetings, answering emails, spending time with family, helping those who need it. They do not waste time. They aren’t sitting idle.
I said the difference between bread and matzah is time. As stated by the Rav himself, Rabbi Denbo, “In order to make bread, the dough is left to sit and rise until it gets all puffed up. By Jewish law, the matzah is not allowed to sit at any point during the process. From the moment the making of the dough begins until it is baked, the entire process can not be more than 18 minutes.”
Matzah is the perfect symbol for not wasting time. So on Pesach, we eat the bread of our slavery, because it was when we were slaves that we were driven. We were unable to waste time. We accomplished so much! And because of the miracles of God in Egypt, we can tap into that drive once again. Only now, we can use it how we choose to. Imagine having unwavering focus paired with an overflowing ambition to achieve what you want to achieve.
That’d be true freedom.
So this year, when you are getting ready to eat the matzah, think about that thing you want to be free from once and for all, that thing that has been holding you back. Then take a big, dry, crunchy bite… of freedom!
For more of Bejamin’s Torah blog posts please visit: Sixdegreesofkosherbacon.com
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