Psalm 20

“May God grant you your heart’s desire, and fulfill your every plan.” (20:5)

Is this a blessing or a curse? We want a lot of things, but not everything our heart desires is actually good for us or for the world. We make plans that fail when our desire overreaches our ability to ensure success. Sometimes, the best thing that can happen to us is to be reminded that our plans and our heart’s desires are not enduring, forcing us to take a second look at the priorities in our lives. May your heart’s desire and your every plan be aligned with your very best God-given potential.

Psalm 19

“A groom going forth from the chamber …” (19:6)

Each human soul is a world unto itself, created in the image of God. When two such souls meet under the huppah at the wedding ceremony, there is an infinity of potential. We don’t know what this couple is going to do together, how they will motivate each other to reach their highest potential, if or how they will raise children and what gifts the children will bring to the world. The undeveloped energy is the groom, the sun, going forth from its chamber on its way to bring amazing light into the world.

Divre Harav – February, 2017

Rabbi [Yehudah Hanasi] says, “Be as cautious in a minor mitzvah as in a major one, for you do not know what reward comes for a mitzvah.” Pirke Avot 2:1

I suspect that few of us believe that we receive a tangible, quantifiable, reward for doing mitzvot. I’m not talking about a sense of accomplishment or a sense of satisfaction, but some actual benefit, whether it be finding a better or quicker place in heaven after we die or receiving a material benefit on earth. Rabbi Yehudah the Prince, religious leader of the rabbis of his generation and the editor of the Mishnah, alludes to a widespread believe that the performance of mitzvot carry a reward. However, he downplays this belief. The reward does not necessarily correspond to the act, he says. We should treat all religious behavior as is equally important, whether it be lighting Shabbat candles, putting on tefillin, fasting on Yom Kippur, or feeding the hungry.

The Talmud’s description of the process of conversion to Judaism describes teaching the potential convert some of the major and minor mitzvot, warning him of the punishment for disobeying and describing in general terms the reward of the world to come for the righteous. If he accepts the obligations of Torah, they circumcise him and as soon as possible, immerse him in a mikvah while teaching him some major and minor mitzvot (again). Women are taught major and minor mitzvot while standing in the mikvah, and then immerse. The Talmud never precisely defines a major mitzvah vs. a minor mitzvah, here too assumes that there is a reward for observance, but declines to define the reward.

The “Butterfly Effect,” a tem coined by mathematician Edward Lorenz, is named for the idea that the path and severity of a hurricane could be influenced by minor disturbances in the air such as the flapping of the wings of a distant butterfly several weeks earlier. Lorenz discovered that when modeling weather, small actions can have very large effects. The same idea holds within the social model of a community, local, regional, national, or beyond. We never know how the smallest actions we take might effect larger consequences. Our actions on a small scale might influence others in ways we never anticipated.

Rabbi Yehudah’s message is that all of our actions have significance. We should never think of our lives as inconsequential. At the same time, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that we can manipulate events for our benefit. Ultimately, we are called upon to be holy people and bring holiness into the world through our actions, large and small; to be good, without the expectation of being recognized or rewarded.


Hebrew Words of the Month:

  • Kal – easy; light; facile

Kal has three opposites, depending on the precise meaning:

  • Kasheh – difficult
  • Kaved – heavy
  • Hamur – serious

Psalm 9

“Let the nations know they are human.” (9:21)

To say that we are only human is sometimes used as an excuse for making mistakes and engaging in bad behavior. But to be human should not be an excuse for behaving badly. To be human is to be just a little less than Divine, according to the Psalmist (8:5). Reminding us that we are human is setting a high bar, challenging us to act in a way which reflects our creation in the image of God.

Psalm 8

“The moon and stars that You set in place …” (8:4)

I love looking at the constellations of stars and marveling at the imagination of the ancient astronomers who saw the patterns and named them. It is easy to see why the Psalmist envisioned God carefully setting each celestial object in place. How could such cosmic artistry be an accident? Surely, the magnificence of the night sky testifies to the Creator of heaven and earth. Even though I understand that it might be the case that the human brain simply looks at randomness and seeks order, I choose to look at the night sky and see God’s hand.