I have been testing the waters, trying to get involved in Judaism. But I feel like I'm swimming in a vast ocean of unfamiliar concepts: Hebrew texts, legal nuances, culture, etc. I'm not sure any of this is for me!
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
There is a misconception that many people have about Judaism, what I call "the all or nothing" syndrome. With 613 mitzvot in the Torah, things can seem a bit overwhelming. People take a look at traditional Judaism with all these different commandments and say to themselves, there's no way that I can be successful at living that type of lifestyle, so what's the point of looking into it or getting involved? Where to start? What to focus on? How to make sense of it all?!
That's not the Jewish way!
Imagine you bump into an old friend and he tells you how miserable he is. You ask him, what's the matter? He says, I'm in the precious metals industry. My company just found a vein of gold in Brazil that's going to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
You say, that's fantastic. Your financial problems are solved. What's the problem?
He says, you just don't get it. Do you realize that this is just one vein of gold? It represents such a tiny fraction of all of the unmined gold in the world. What do I really have, compared with what's out there?
You say, are you nuts? Who the heck cares about what you haven't found yet? What you've got now is a gold mine!
That's the Jewish approach. Any aspect that you learn about, or can incorporate into your life, is a gold mine. What does it matter what aspect of Judaism you're not ready to take on? In Judaism, every mitzvah is of infinite value. Every mitzvah is more than any gold mine. Don't worry about what you can't do. Even if you never take on another mitzvah, you've still struck eternal gold.
The best advice: Relax.
Here's a true story that happened about 80 years ago in Jerusalem.
One Saturday afternoon, a young boy was walking in the Old City of Jerusalem. Suddenly he saw a gold coin on the ground. This was no mere candy money; this was a gold coin! Since it was ownerless he would be able to claim it as his. But there was one problem: The boy would not handle money on Shabbat. Suddenly he had the idea to guard it by putting his foot over the coin - and stand there until Shabbat ended... in four hours!
One hour passed and then another. Things were going well. But then some older boys came along, and said, "Hey, why are you just standing there like that?" He didn't answer them, so they pushed him down and took away the coin.
The boy returned home very very sad. He had tried to do the right thing by observing Shabbat, but wound up losing his gold coin. Later at the synagogue, the rabbi saw the boy and asked, "What's wrong?" When the boy explained the whole story, the rabbi said: "I have an idea how we can fix it. Come to my house when Shabbat is over."
After Shabbat ended, the boy went to the rabbi's house, and they sat down to talk. "I know how disappointed you are at having lost the gold coin," said the rabbi, "so here - I want to give something." And he pulled out of his desk a gold coin - just like the one the boy had found earlier that day!
"But," the rabbi continued, "I'll give you this gold coin on one condition. In exchange, you give me the merit of the mitzvah you did in observing Shabbat."
The boy thought for a moment and said: "Hmmm... If the mitzvah is worth that much, then no deal!"
The misconception that Judaism is all-or-nothing includes the false idea that a person is either "observant," or "non-observant." But that's not true. In fact, here's a secret:
Nobody is observing all the mitzvot.
That's because certain mitzvot only women usually do - like lighting Shabbat candles or going to the mikveh. Other mitzvot only men can fulfill - like Brit Milah. Others only apply to first-born children, such as the "fast of the first born" on the day before Passover. And only a Kohen can fulfill the mitzvah of reciting the Priestly Blessing.
Other mitzvot - like getting divorced with a proper Get - are procedural mitzvot that are only done under certain circumstances, and that one hopes never to fulfill. Finally, there are many mitzvot that apply only in the times of the Holy Temple, laws that in our day are temporarily suspended.
So when we talk about the totality of mitzvot, we'll never do them all anyway! So rather than get overwhelmed with the vastness of it all, better to be realistic about what we can do, and move forward in a positive way.
Let's say, for example, that a person wants to try the mitzvah of prayer. We may go to synagogue and see someone immersed in intensive prayer for one hour. We cannot conceive of how we could possibly get to that point ourselves. That's understandable, especially for one who is not fluent in Hebrew. So it's a matter of knowing which prayer gets top priority - for example, the Amidah prayer.
The Amidah has 19 blessings, and it's very difficult to concentrate for that entire time without being distracted, or one's mind wandering to other things like shopping and checking your email. So the key is to take on a small goal: "I am committing that for the first prayer of the 19, I will not rush nor allow anything to interfere between me and these few words." That goal is realistic and attainable, and one can begin to approach a high degree of intensity and concentration on that one prayer.
What this does is give a taste of the higher goal. All that's needed is to extrapolate to all 19. This is much more effective than starting off by saying, "Today I'm going to pray the entire 19 with great concentration!" - and then after three words, you're thinking about what's for breakfast.
If it's too lofty a goal, then at least taste it once. Break down a huge goal into bite-size steps that are realistic to achieve, and will give a taste of the full goal.
In Jacob's famous dream, God shows him a vision of a ladder reaching toward Heaven. Spiritual growth, like climbing a ladder, must be one step at a time. By setting small, incremental goals, we are encouraged by the periodic success. To make the plan foolproof, make your initial goal something you know you can reach. Tasting success will bolster your confidence and determination, and you can use this energy to strive for higher goals. Remember, the longest journey begins with just one step. And what goes in slow, will remain.
I have been studying the Book of Samuel and I was really shocked when I read the story of David and Bathsheba (II Samuel 11). How could David, King of Israel, take another man's wife like that?! Wasn't he supposed to be a holy person? Did he really slip so far?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
You are right that the story, after a cursory reading, appears shocking. The Talmud, however, makes a sweeping statement regarding David's behavior: "Whoever says David sinned is only in error" (Shabbat 56a). As critical as the Torah was of David's terrible slip, it was not nearly as bad as it seemed, as we'll see now.
The Talmud explains that it was standard practice for Jewish soldiers to divorce their wives before going out in battle – lest they disappear in war and their wives become permanently unable to remarry. This was the practice throughout Jewish history until as recently as World War II. (The Israeli army considered adopting the practice as well, but decided against it because it would be harmful for the morale of the soldiers. In any event, the possibility of disappearing indefinitely in distant lands is much more remote today.)
As a result, King David technically did not commit adultery. He took an unmarried woman. My teacher R. Yochanan Zweig likewise points out that when Nathan the Prophet afterwards came to criticize David, he depicts David's sin as one of stealing (in the metaphor of the rich man who takes the poor man's one little lamb). David sin was one of taking what he should not have, but not, God forbid, one of actual adultery.
Even so, such behavior was infinitely beneath the king. Bathsheba was hardly a single girl free for the taking. Naturally she would have remarried Uriah had he returned home. And for this God was exceedingly critical of David. For a man as great as he, such an act was tantamount to true adultery. And the Torah, in its typical emphatic style, describes David's sin in such a light – a description we might have taken literally had our Oral Torah not elucidated the matter for us further.
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 107a) makes another fascinating statement about David's sin, which sheds much light on the true characters of the people involved. It states that Bathsheba was destined for David from the Six Days of Creation but that he took her as an "unripe fig." David rightly sense that Bathsheba was meant for him, and in fact, the future King Solomon would eventually be born from them. (The Talmud describes further how she became exposed to him via a fluke – an errant arrow which broke the window behind which she was bathing.) David, with his divine inspiration, knew that Bathsheba was meant for him. (There is a Kabbalistic notion that David was a reincarnation of Adam and Bathsheba of Eve.) But the time was not ripe. He acted too hastily on his correct instincts.
The Talmud elsewhere (Avodah Zarah 4b) writes that David's sin was actually extremely atypical of him. God made the trial unnaturally hard for him. Under normal circumstances David should have withstood it. God ordinarily gives people challenges they are up to handling. But in this case God made it especially hard - and He did this so that David would show the way of repentance for all future generations. David spent his remaining years in an almost constant state of repentance, saying that his sin was before him constantly (Psalms 51:3). (Of course David did have free will and was certainly faulted for failing his test, but God did give him a harder challenge than He normally gives people. Challenges are to make us grow, not to crush us and (virtually) bring us to sin.)
Finally, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 107a) explains that God did this to David in part because David specifically asked God to test him (Psalms 26:2). David wanted to show his love, that he could aspire to the level of the Patriarchs. From this the Talmud derives that we should never ask God to test us, allowing us to prove ourselves. God knows when the right time for tests are.
So yes, David sinned and the Torah was quite critical of his behavior. But the sin was nothing like the simple reading of the Prophet implied. As always, one can understand the full meaning and import of the Torah only after studying it in light of the interpretation of the Sages.
I heard that the Temple Mount in Jerusalem is leaking and that there is great significance to this event. Can you tell me more?
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
Rumors have been circulating that a trickle of water has started to flow from under the Foundation Stone on the Temple Mount. Media reports say that it is impossible to locate the source or to stop the flow.
According to Jewish tradition, the Foundation Stone is the holiest spot on earth. It is the connection point between Heaven and Earth, and is referred to by the kabbalists as the "umbilical cord." Furthermore, it is the site of the binding of Isaac, and the site of the Holy of Holies in the Temple. (see Pirkei D'Rebbe Eliezer 35)
So what's the significance today?
The Talmud (Yoma 78a) writes that in the Messianic era, water will begin flowing from the Temple Mount. The water, originally a trickle, will gradually increase until it becomes deep enough to immerse the impure. As the prophet says: "On that day there will be a spring opened up for the House of David and for the residents of Jerusalem, for cleansing and for purification." (Zechariah 13:1)
The recent reports are difficult to verify. The Foundation Stone is 13 by 17 meters in size, and it has steps leading down to a large cave. The room around it is even bigger. It would be like asking someone to find a trickle of water in a large convention center.
In the meantime, keep checking the Western Wall Camera (http://www.aish.com/w/) and let us know if you detect anything!