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Rabbis' Blog

Inspirational Torah Messages from Chabad Lubavitch of El Paso

Here's Why I Live Here

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Quite often we receive calls from Jews inquiring about the Jewish services available in town.

This is how a typical phone call plays out.

“Hi. I’m coming to El Paso for a few days on business. Are there any Kosher restaurants in the area?”

“I’m sorry. We currently do not have any Kosher food establishments in town.”

“I see. Do you have a minyan every morning for Shacharit services?”

“Our weekday morning minyan schedule is Sunday, Monday and Thursday.”

And then comes my favorite question.

“Really? So why do you live there?”

The beginning of this week’s parsha focuses on the Levite tribe charged with the mission of transporting the Mishkan (Tabernacle) throughout the forty years the Israelites traveled in the desert.

There is an obvious, but rarely asked, question about this forty year sojourn. True, the arrival of the Israelites to the Promised Land was delayed for close to forty years since an entire generation expressed a lack of faith in G-d and a disinterest in this special gift. But why did the  nation of several million strong need to spend all those years in a barren desert. Why could they not wait out the time in a more civilized environment?

Our journey from Egypt to Israel was not simply a migration of a people from slavery to freedom. G-d chose us to be His ambassadors to reveal divinity within all of creation. The Torah we received at Sinai is not merely a guidebook to wholesome spiritual living, but a comprehensive manual how to transform a mundane world into a divine dwelling.

In preparation to applying the lessons of the Torah in the real world, G-d illustrated the purpose of our redemption with vivid imagery and experience. Wherever the Mishkan was constructed the barren and lifeless desert transformed into the most fertile and delightful terrain. The Clouds of Glory disposed of dangerous creatures and water that flowed from The Rock caused the entire area to become a green paradise with abundant vegetation.

This immersive experience trained us not to be affected by our surroundings. Instead, we have the power and the obligation to elevate our environment.

Living in large, vibrant Jewish communities where all the religious amenities are readily available is a blessing. But living in a community not yet on that level presents the gift of fulfilling the ultimate Jewish mandate - to cause a spiritual desert to bloom.

That’s why I’m proud to live here.

How to Make a Living

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Our lives are consumed with making a living. Children are pressured to do well in school and savings accounts accumulate college tuition money so they can make it in life. For many it determines where they live, their social circles and their emotional and physical well-being.

This week’s parsha opens with a common Torah refrain guaranteeing the Israelites that they will eventually enter the Promised Land, but this time there is a deeper meaning to the phrase. In the desert all their needs were provided supernaturally. Food fell from heaven, water flowed from a rock and divine clouds protected them from the elements.

Entering into the land of Israel meant a fundamental shift in their lifestyle since the daily miracles would cease and nature will run its course. They will need to grow crops to survive and are taught how to set up their agricultural society in accordance with G-d’s wishes.

“When you come into the Land that I am giving you, the Land should rest a Sabbath to G-d.” (Leviticus 25:2) After six years of sowing and reaping, the seventh year (called Shemittah) is off limits. The land must lay fallow for a complete year.

While allowing a field to rest for a year is good farming practice, it is prudent to alternate between fields. No one in their right mind would abstain from cultivating any of their fields for an entire year. If you don’t plant - you don’t eat. It follows that an entire society putting down the sickle and plough for twelve months is simply ludicrous!

Torah validates the question and provides a fresh perspective on making a living.

“When you will say ‘What will we eat in the seventh year…?’ You should know that I will direct My blessing to you in the sixth year, and it will yield produce for three years.” (Leviticus 25:20-21) No need to worry. Keep Shemita and you will have sufficient supplies to pull you through it.

But there is more to it. Why do you take for granted that you will yield a crop in the first six years? In modern terminology: Is every business venture guaranteed to succeed? Does everyone with a degree land their dream job?

Success is a divine blessing and we need to create a vessel to receive it. But focusing on the perfect vessel while ignoring the source of blessing is like someone who tailors large pockets into their pants to hold money but refuses to go to the bank to draw the cash to fill them.

Therefore the Torah first mentions “the Land should rest” before discussing the six years of work the precede it. When a Jew commits to observing G-d’s instructions from the outset, this causes divine blessing to flow through the vessel - whether it is a field, a job or a business.

Increasing Torah study and Mitzvah observance and strengthening our trust in G-d - the source of all blessing - is the surest path to success.

 

How to be a Do-Gooder

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We all want to be helpful but sometimes unsure where to begin or worry that our efforts may be misplaced and our impact minimal.

Yesterday, Lag B’Omer, we celebrated the legacy of the great Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. A Talmudic scholar of epic proportions best known for being the author of the Zohar and the father of Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism.

During his lifetime the Roman Empire controlled the Land of Israel and their tyrannical rule often interfered with Jewish religious life. He was overheard criticizing the empire and the enraged emperor sentenced him to death. Rabbi Shimon fled to the mountains of Northern Israel and hid in a cave, together with his son Rabbi Elazar, for thirteen years.

When the danger had passed and the decree was annulled, the two sages emerged from hiding transformed men. Thirteen years of non-stop Torah study elevated them to unparalleled spiritual heights.

Despite his superior spiritual status, Rabbi Shimon inquired whether there was any way he could be helpful to the local population. The citizens of Tiberias suggested he visit their town to attend to a matter of significant inconvenience.

In this week’s parsha we learn of the laws concerning Kohanim, the descendants of Aharon the High Priest who would serve in the Holy Temple. Required to constantly be in a state of ritual purity, they are barred from attending funerals or being in close proximity to a grave (with few exceptions).

The main road of Tiberias was off limits for Kohanim because there was evidence that a grave had been lost there. The marker had vanished and no one recalled its exact location. Hence, the local Kohanim were forced to make a long and inconvenient detour to circumvent the suspected grave.

In a miraculous manner, Rabbi Shimon located the grave and the decades long problem was finally solved.

What is striking about this episode is that, upon rejoining society, Rabbi Shimon immediately searched for ways to be helpful and did not wait for an opportunity to impact the entire population. He worked hard to correct an issue that was inconveniencing very few people in town.

This the Jewish ethic of “doing good.” Be alert for the opportunities that abound and don’t wait to solve the global issues that impact many. If your efforts can convenience even one person - be grateful for the ability you have to put a smile on someone’s face.

 

Making Deals With G-d

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From a young age I have had the opportunity to encourage Jews to do Mitzvot. The Rebbe educated us that we must all take personal responsibility for the spiritual growth of every Jew.

The Chabad education system incorporates a robust program empowering youngsters to venture out into public spaces, approach perfect strangers and assist them in doing another Mitzvah. Whether the setting calls for helping someone don Tefillin in the middle of a busy airport, bringing a Lulav and Etrog to the hospital and everything in between.

In the course of this life-long mission I have met Jews of every imaginable stripe and flavor. To be sure, responses to Mitzvah offers have been varied and I’d like to reflect upon a certain type I hear from time to time.

“Rabbi, I’ll do it for you.”

“I’m doing the Mitzvah so that this business deal works out.”

“My health has been better, I hope this Mitzvah helps.”

While these approaches are understandable and do not faze me in the slightest, others have questioned the value of Mitzvot observed for ulterior motives.

In this week’s parshah we learn of the prohibition of Orlah. One may not eat from the fruits of a tree for the first three years after it was planted. In Israel, the fourth year fruits are considered holy and during the Temple era were only eaten in Jerusalem as a thanksgiving to G-d. The Torah then emphasizes “In the fifth year, you may eat its fruit. [Observe this law] in order to increase the tree’s produce for you.”

G-d makes a deal with the Jew: Abstain from eating the fruits of your labor for four years and it will be well worth your trouble.

Why is this necessary? Are we not obligated to observe G-d’s commands altruistically without concern for material benefit?

The famed Rabbi Akiva poignantly explained it this way. The prohibition of Orlah is uniquely challenging as the Yetzer Hara (the Evil Inclination) rightfully protests the unfairness of working so hard and reaping no benefit for so many years. G-d acknowledges this human tendency by indulging us with the promise of tantalizing success in the long term.

This one-of-a-kind deal teaches us a fundamental truth about Jewish observance and spiritual growth. There is no shame in starting the journey for selfish reasons. In fact, the life story of Rabbi Akiva proves the validity of this point.

He was a forty year old illiterate shepherd when the beautiful only daughter of the wealthiest man in Jerusalem offered to marry him if he would commit to learning Torah full time. Unable to refuse such a deal, he entered the Torah academies and eventually became the most important Talmudic sage in Jewish history. Although the beginning of his spiritual journey was transparently selfish, he attained the greatest spiritual heights and his impact on Jewish life continues to resonate today - 2,000 years later.

Don’t let your self-consciousness interfere with your spiritual growth. Find a good selfish reason to learn more Torah and to do another Mitzvah and encourage others to do the same.

 

Finding Hidden Treasures

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Every Tuesday I have the distinct pleasure of discussing the weekly parshah with a wonderful group of people. In the middle of a busy week, Jews with varying levels of Torah knowledge and training, come together to discover new depth in portions of the Torah we read again each year. Some participate online via the Facebook Live stream and we all come away a little bit wiser and more inspired as a result.

This week’s double parsha Tazria and Metzrah focuses primarily on a condition called Tzaraat which has received sloppy treatment in translation. Tzaraat is typically translated as Leprosy, but even a rudimentary reading of the parsha renders this translation a non-starter.

Describing vastly different conditions on human skin, wool clothing, leather couches and stone walls it is certainly not within the purview of a dermatologist and our sages unequivocally state that Tzaraat has vanished from this world after the destruction of the Holy Temple.

Maimonides explains that this phenomenon was a “miraculous” manifestation of G-d’s way to guiding a Jew to repentance. So while the word “Tzaraat” is currently used in Modern Hebrew to describe leprosy, it has nothing to do with the subject matter of this week's parsha.

Realizing this grave inaccuracy led our group to briefly discuss the importance of learning beyond translations. While one who lacks proficiency in Biblical Hebrew should never feel excluded from Torah learning - we need to remember this: If our impression of the subject matter leaves us confused, frustrated or uninspired it is because the depth and truth of the concept has been lost in translation or is inaccurately presented. Once we probe the sources and allow the Torah to speak for itself, we will always find the beauty and depth in every, word, sentence and paragraph.

This lesson can be derived from the subject of Tzaraat itself. A person, garment or home that  was afflicted by this condition was subject to the severest levels of ritual impurity (another Torah subject that is enormously abused in translation - but that's for another time). And yet, when introducing the laws of Tzaraat pertinent to homes, the Torah uses language indicating that it was a divine gift the Jews should look forward to experiencing!

The Talmudists explain that the Canaanites living in the land before the Israelites arrived hid vast treasures in the walls of their homes, hoping to one day return. However, the divine gift of the Promised Land is eternal and includes everything left behind. Therefore G-d caused the mysterious Tzaraat to appear on these homes, rendering them unfit for habitation and condemned to demolition. When the owners broke down the walls they discovered the hidden treasures and were able to make use of their G-d given wealth.

This teaches us a fundamental truth of reality. Every fault can be a catalyst for perfection and tragedy will ultimately lead us to greater things. Let not our mistakes define who we are rather teach us how to be better. As long as look past the “walls” of our deficiencies and inhibitions we will discover the hidden treasures we all possess.

 

Let's Talk About Moshiach

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A Jewish farmer returned home from synagogue and excitedly shared with his wife the content of the Rabbi’s speech. “Moshiach is coming imminently and he will take us all to Israel! Can you imagine? No more problems from the anti-semitic landowner or pogroms from the Cossacks!”

“How can we move to Israel now?” his wife cried. “We just finished renovating the barn and who will look after the animals?”

The farmer’s excitement quickly dissipated and a heavy silence descended upon them. “Not to worry,” said the woman with a smile. “G-d saved us from the Cossacks, He will surely save us from Moshiach as well.”

It is one of the fundamental elements of Jewish belief and yet Moshiach remains a frightening mystery to so many. There is real concern that this enigmatic messianic phenomenon will fundamentally alter their lives against their will. Do we really want that?

What type of world do we truly wish to live in? What type of future do we want for our children and grandchildren? The universal yearning of humanity is for a globe cleansed of war, famine, disease and hatred. Much is being done to achieve this goal, but everyone agrees that there is currently no philosophy or framework that can deliver this lofty goal for the benefit of all humanity.

On the final day of Pesach (Acharon Shel Pesach) we read a section of Isaiah that discusses the era of Moshiach. After describing the persona of the redeemer, the prophet describes the utopic era as a time when “the wolf will dwell with the lamb” and there will be no evil in the world.

How will this be possible? “For the earth will be filled with knowledge of the L-rd, as the waters cover the sea.” (Isaiah 11:9). The main role of Moshiach is to serve as the ultimate teacher for all of humanity. Nations will not be coerced to lay down their arms and people will not be forced to treat each other with respect. Moshiach will reveal the truth of reality to all and peace will be the automatic result. If anyone resists these changes, you will know that Moshiach has not yet arrived.

The message of Moshaich is so relevant on Pesach because the exodus from Egypt was merely the beginning of the long road to the ultimate redemption. The Seder commemorates the accomplishments of the past and the final moments of Pesach are a time for us to focus on reaching the finish line.

The Baal Shem Tov would mark the closing moments of Pesach with a festive dinner in tribute to Moshiach. Rather than simply learning, praying and yearning for His arrival, Moshiach should also be a culinary experience – similar to how the Seder brings the message of freedom to all our senses.

I invite you to join us on Shabbat, April 7, 6:45pm at Chabad for Seudat Moshiach – the dinner in tribute to Moshiach. Discover the real facts behind this fundamental Jewish topic and enjoy some final bites of Shmurah Matzah and other Passover delicacies. If you cannot join us, I encourage you to eat some matzah and toast lechaim on four glasses of wine in anticipation for a better world to come.

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For This I am Grateful

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In a recent conversation, someone mentioned that gratitude is a gift and a challenge. The more we are thankful the happier we are, but sometimes gratitude can be mechanic. Even the cordial “Thank you” has become a courtesy and sometimes lacks genuine feeling.

This observation allowed me to better appreciate a relatively unknown sacrifice that was offered in the Holy Temple discussed in this week’s parsha: Korban Todah - the Thanksgiving Offering. The detailed instructions of who is obligated to offer this sacrifice gives us a better understanding of how to be properly gracious without becoming cliché.

While the Torah does not specify what type of gratitude needs to be expressed through offering a Thanksgiving Sacrifice, the Talmud distills from Tehillim Psalm 107 four miracles that warrant this mega thankfulness. (a) Surviving a sea voyage, (b) surviving a desert journey, (c) being released from captivity, (d) recuperating from an illness. These are all life threatening situations not faced by the majority of people on a daily basis. Surviving them is a big deal.

To be sure, every breath is miraculous and upon waking in the morning we must acknowledge G-d’s kindness and benevolence to us. But Judaism discourages throwing a banquet or singing special songs of praise for the consistent miracles. The Korban Todah was for the extraordinary and less common miracles.

We experience freedom every day, but Pesach - the Festival of Freedom is celebrated only once a year on the anniversary of our redemption. Celebrating the major miracles properly gives meaning and weight to our appreciation for the minor and more common miracles as well.

Tuesday, March 27 the 11th day of Nissan will be the Rebbe’s 116th birthday. As I studied the details of the Korban Todah this week I realized an interesting correlation between the miracles that warrant this sacrifice and the Rebbe’s gift to our world.

With all the blessings of modern society there is an acute vacuum of spiritual clarity. To use the metaphor of the four above-mentioned life threatening scenarios, our times are uniquely challenged in four ways.

  1. Navigating the turbulent flood of information constantly inundating us (sea voyage).

  2. Finding inspiration to quench our spiritual thirst (desert journey).

  3. Breaking out of negative behavioral cycles (captivity).

  4. Properly identifying the good from the bad (severe illness).

The Rebbe relentlessly and patiently provided our generation with the intellectual and emotional tools to combat these unique challenges. The thousands of hours he taught Torah and his vast correspondence that have been published in hundreds of volumes and preserved in video and audio format continue to be a guiding light for all who avail themselves to these treasures.

For this I am tremendously grateful and the Rebbe’s birthday warrants big celebration to express gratitude to G-d for the miraculous gift of the Rebbe. I invite you to learn more about the Rebbe and his teachings online at TheRebbe.org

May we all experience true spiritual freedom and together usher in an era of universal freedom with the arrival of Moshiach.

Birthday of the Jewish Calendar

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This Shabbat will mark 3,330 years from the day we received our first Mitzvah from G-d.

Before whisking the Jews out of Egypt, it was necessary to introduce some basic elements of divinity to them, so that they should be worthy of deliverance. On the first day on Nissan, 15 days before the Exodus, G-d communicated to Moshe the mitzvah of setting up the Jewish calendar. The Jewish calendar guidelines in place today are embedded in the divine communique to Moses 3,330 years ago.

A year later, on the same day, the young Jewish nation celebrated the inauguration of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) service, in the Sinai Desert. This edifice served as the prototype for the subsequent Holy Temples built in Jerusalem. As Aharon the High Priest concluded the inaugural service, a divine cloud descended upon the Mishkan, representing the permanent revelation of G-d in the midst of the Israelite camp.

Ever since, the divine energy never departed the Jewish scene. Even after the destruction of the Temples, we are capable of creating a space in which divinity is readily apparent.

The fact that these two incidents, the establishment of the Jewish calendar and the inauguration of the Tabernacle occurred on the same day, emphasizes their correlation to each other and their relevance to us today 3,330 years later.

Jewish months are determined by the lunar cycle. The barely visible crescent represents new beginnings and a full moon represents great achievements. The reflexive changes in the moon’s size are due to its posturing in reflecting the light of the sun – the dependable luminary of our sky.

To serve as a platform for Divine revelation one needs to be in a position to reflect G-d’s light as it is transmitted to us through Torah. Through constant study and Mitzvah observance, one can become a conduit through which true goodness and kindness can radiate.

This dynamic also sheds light on how the idea of redemption can be applied and relevant in all times. Humans are chronically shackled to the needs of the physical body. A surgeon performing a life-saving operation, an officer on a search and rescue mission or a scholar in the midst of a major academic discovery all need to pay close attention to their nutrition and sleeping behaviors. An exhausted body can sabotage even the greatest endeavors.

Nevertheless, within this physical “exile” we are capable of attaining great divine accomplishments, just as the Israelites started keeping a Jewish calendar while still enslaved by Pharaoh. As long as we are always aware of our potential to reflect the Divine, thus making this world a true dwelling place for G-d, redemption will always be attainable.

Doing Shabbat Right

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Hosting guests for Shabbat dinner on Friday evening is always a source of pride and pleasure for our family. Shainy prepares a delicious spread and the table is set to perfection. One week, a young boy came over with his family and was amazed at seeing the table set as if it was Thanksgiving. 

“Do you do this every week?” he asked.

“Every week.”

“Wow! You guys do Shabbat right!”

His genuine compliment was greatly appreciated but it also got me thinking about what it means to “do Shabbat right.”

In this week’s parshah Moshe communicates to the Jewish people the instructions for building the Mishkan - an edifice to serve as a divine dwelling place within the Israelite camp. In preface, Moshe reminds the people of the importance of keeping Shabbat.

“Work shall be done for six days and the seventh day shall be holy for you - a complete rest from work.”

Lest their enthusiasm inspire them to prepare G-d’s home 24/7, the Torah clarifies that construction of the Mishkan must halt on Shabbat. But there is an additional reason for mentioning Shabbat in this context.

Contrary to common perception, the definition of “work” in relation to Shabbat observance has nothing to do with making a living or physical exertion. In fact, the specifics of Shabbat observance are modeled after a defined set of labors that were employed in the construction of the Mishkan. These specifics are discussed at length in the Talmud and the Code of Jewish Law.

Beyond providing the Halachic template for Shabbat observance, this verse also teaches us the proper Jewish work ethic with one curious grammatical nuance. Why does the Torah employ the passive expression “Work shall be done” instead of the active “You shall work?”

About resting on Shabbat our sages declare: One must regard himself as if all work has been done. One should not only take a break from work - one needs to feel as if there is no work left to be done! How is this practical?

The secret of “doing Shabbat right” is embedded in the passive expression of “work shall be done.” Take the work you do during the week seriously and give it all you got. But the stress and preoccupation that comes along with it is unnecessary, spiritually numbing and emotionally draining. Being mindful that success is a blessing from G-d and that work is merely a natural channel for the Divine blessing to flow into our universe, is a sure way to erase stress and anxiety from the experience.

“Doing Shabbat right” is not limited to observing the relevant laws starting Friday at sundown through nightfall the next day. A peaceful and spiritually uplifting Shabbat depends on a more focused and spiritually balanced work week.

Conversely, when observed properly according to Jewish law, Shabbat redefines the workweek. It’s divine energy permeates every fiber of our being and every moment of our lives allowing us to live up to our greatest potential.

 

Moshe's Enduring Legacy

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Have you ever been so stressed that you wanted to punch a hole in the wall? A new business called the “Anger Room” provides the opportunity to break useless junk in a controlled environment.

Anger management is not my expertise and Jewish law forbids wasteful destruction, but perhaps the popular notion that breaking stuff is a valid stress relief method fuels a common misconception of a fascinating occurrence in this week’s parshah.

During the Revelation at Sinai G-d verbally communicated the Ten Commandments and then instructed Moshe to ascend Mt. Sinai for forty days and nights to learn the entire Torah and receive the Two Tablets containing a written record of the Ten Commandments. These Tablets were entirely prepared by G-d and were miraculous in many ways.

Meanwhile, after miscalculating the day of Moshe’s expected return from the mountain, the Israelite camp was in turmoil. Mixed messages, raw nerves and overall confusion resulted in the unfortunate creation of a Golden Calf which was subsequently served by a number of Jews. The self sacrifice of Chur (Moshe’s nephew) and Aharon’s heroic attempts to quell the rebellion did not stop the disaster from happening. Just forty days after pledging allegiance to G-d at Mt. Sinai, idolatry infiltrated the Israelite camp.

Moshe descended Mt. Sinai holding the divine Two Tablets when he beheld the obscene scene of Jews serving the Golden Calf. Moshe became angry and smashed the Two Tablets at the foot of the mountain.

Far from being a reckless reaction due to an anger management problem, Moshe’s instantaneous decision to break the Two Tablets is considered the most heroic and selfless act ever done by a Jewish leader.

The Talmud invokes the analogy of a King who flew into a rage upon hearing rumors of his bride’s unfaithfulness. A close friend hurriedly destroyed the marriage contract so there would be no legal recourse for the King to swiftly punish the Queen under duress. His quick thinking allowed for a thorough investigation which revealed that the rumors were untrue and the king was forever grateful to his friend for intervening.

At Sinai the Israelites made a verbal commitment to G-d and the Two Tablets represented the written contract of their exclusivity. Seeing the Golden Calf, Moshe understood that so long as the written contract remained intact, G-d’s retribution would be swift and complete. Moshe sacrificed everything by destroying the most priceless objects in the world to save his nation from annihilation. His quick thinking paid off, and he ultimately elicited G-d’s forgiveness for their sin and we are here today to tell the story.

This is the profile of a true leader and a powerful lesson in Ahavat Yisrael. To effectively inspire others to embrace more Torah study and Mitzvah observance one must first sincerely and unconditionally care for their physical wellbeing and safety - even at great personal sacrifice.

Purim with Chabad was a beautiful experience. Hundreds of Jews in El Paso were impacted through our various events, classes, publications and private visitations. Thank you to all our sponsors, volunteers and participants for making this all happen.

Complete photo albums will be available online next week. Click here to see photos and read about last night’s Purim in Hawaii as published in the El Paso Herald-Post. https://elpasoheraldpost.com/gallerystory-purim-festivities-in-the-sun-city/

Only the Best Will Do

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Hearing the Scroll of Esther read from a proper “Megillah” (twice) is the core of Purim observance and an entire tractate of the Talmud is dedicated to the laws of this important Mitzvah. 

The Mishna declares that one who read the Megillah “backwards” has not fulfilled the Mitzvah. Practically speaking, if one hears the story from Chapter Three until the end and afterwards hears the first two chapters – it doesn’t count. You need to hear the story from the beginning to end - in order.

The Baal Shem Tov taught a profound lesson from this rule. Using a slightly altered translation, this Mishnaic statement can be understood as follows: “One who reads the Megillah as a story of the past” is missing the whole point of the Purim celebration. This is not only history, it is the story of today. Every line in the Megillah contains relevant messages for every one of us, here and now.

In the opening chapter of the Megillah, King Achashverosh throws a 180-day banquet celebrating his ascent to power and the solidification of his kingdom. After half a year of drunken revelry, he orders another seven-day feast for the citizens of his capital Shushan.

The Megillah describes in intricate detail the setting of this lavish feast. “In the courtyard of the king’s palace garden, with white, green and blue hangings, embroidered with cords of linen and purple wool, on silver rods and marble columns; couches of gold and silver, on a floor of alabaster and marble in rows and circles.”

If the setting impresses you, check out the service protocol. “Drinks were served on golden vessels, each of the vessels differing from all other vessels.” No two vessels were the same. Imagine the opulence!

This vivid description gives us an inkling of Achashverosh’s stratospheric wealth, but is it necessary to understanding the Purim story? Must we religiously read in the synagogue so many lines describing how ancient heathens partied and wasted 187 days on frivolous drinking?

Achashverosh chose to celebrate his reign with such extravagance because he had the resources to do so. Every detail of the party needed to exhibit his vast wealth, down to the rods holding up the courtyard curtains. Had the rods been wood instead of silver, had two of the same wine vessels been used or had the party lasted 186 days instead of 187 days - it would not have met Achashverosh’s true potential.

Clearly, this is not the Jewish ethic of celebration. Rather, the Megillah is teaching us the Jewish ethic of achievement. Aim to realize your fullest potential because “Better than nothing” is not an option. Whether it is about our own Torah study, religious observance, Tzedakah donations or inspiring others to follow suit – we must expect of ourselves the very best.

Examine your schedule and find more time for Torah study. Make the effort to observe more mitzvot regularly and take a hard look at your income to be sure your charity is up to par. Ultimately, you are the only one capable of achieving what only you can.

Purim this year begins on the Wednesday evening, February 28 and continues through Thursday, March 1.

Please be sure to observe the four Purim mitzvot:

  1. Listen to the Purim story read from a proper Megillah on Wednesday evening and Thursday during the day.

The following three must be done on Thursday during the day.

  1. Give charity to at least two poor people or two organizations that care for the poor.

  2. Share a gift of two ready-to-eat foods with a friend.

  3. Eat a festive meal.

Click here to learn more about Purim.

 

Your Birthday is a Big Deal

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I am under the impression that Facebook caused a renaissance or comeback of “the birthday.” Although many people celebrate their birthdays every year, typically children are the ones that have annual parties, complete with invitations, birthday hats, entertainers and decorated cakes. Adults usually celebrate milestone birthdays and are often more self conscious of their advancing age than joyful about it.

Nowadays I receive daily birthday reminders about all the wonderful people in my life and cheerful encouragement from a sophisticated algorithm to reach out and join the virtual birthday party. I believe this is a positive development and it is connected to the month of Adar.

The Talmud records that when the evil Haman cast lots to determine the most opportune month to destroy the Jewish nation, he was overjoyed when the dice landed on Adar. It was on the seventh day of this month that Moshe, the iconic and legendary Jewish leader passed away. Haman concluded that it was a bad omen for the Jews.

He was unaware that the seventh of Adar was also Moshe’s birthday. Haman’s ignorance was his undoing, because the merit of Moshe’s birth was so strong as to cause the entire month of Adar to be a powerfully auspicious time for the Jews, outweighing any negative effects from his passing. This triggered what the Megillah describes as “Venahafoch Hu” - which literally means “topsy turvy” - the ultimate reversal of fortunes. Haman and his sons were killed and the Jewish people were spared - gaining a major holiday from the whole ordeal.

Moshe was a great leader and the spiritual energy of his birthday was able to affect positive change for his people close to a thousand years after his passing. However, the specialty of a birthday is not reserved for the spiritual elite. The birth of every person marks the beginning of a new divine mission in our universe and the anniversary of that day is cause for celebration.

When a baby is born a new soul begins to shine in the world. As the child develops and matures his or her light shines brighter and clearer. This progression of goodness continues to intensify each passing year, and on the birthday it is especially potent.

This is the reason the Rebbe encouraged everyone to celebrate their birthdays in a meaningful manner. Throughout the day be sure to learn more Torah, say an extra prayer and give more charity. Spend some time alone to reflect on the blessings of the past and make good resolutions from the future. Most importantly, throw a party for friends and family. Include them in your special day as you celebrate the mandate you were granted by G-d to make this world a better place.

Today is the first day of the Jewish month Adar. As we enter this joyful month of Purim, I encourage you to mark your birthday on the calendar as the day you will celebrate in a most meaningful manner. Click here to learn more about Jewish birthday observances.

 

Chabad's Real Success

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While society struggles with gender inequality in the workforce and the dearth of women CEOs in America, Brooklyn is hosting thousands of Chabad Women Emissaries (Shluchos) from around the world.  Equal partners in the historic and legendary Chabad Lubavitch imprint on the global Jewish community. The annual convention is an opportunity for them to network, strategize, share inspiration and enjoy each other’s company.

In their respective communities they serve prominent roles in education, leadership and influence. But if you would approach these remarkable people at the conference and inquire about their main occupation, pride and passion in life they will undoubtedly say raising their families and being a homemaker.

It should come as no surprise since they are full fledged members of the Chassidic community and appropriately fit this specific stereotype projected on Chassidic women. But what sets them apart as revolutionaries and untraditional is the fact that they are creating such homes and nurturing such families outside of the large communities that normally facilitate them, to say the least.

The Rebbe addressed the participants of the first International Convention of Chabad Women Emissaries in the winter of 1991 and provided the context which sets apart their unique form of leadership than that of their husbands.

After the Revelation at Sinai, the Israelites were instructed to build a edifice that will serve as G-d’s home. “They will make a sanctuary for Me, and I will dwell within them”.

Our sages note that grammatically the verse should have employed the singular term “in it” - to imply the G-d intends to dwell in the edifice the Israelites would build. However the verse specifically concludes with the plural form “in them” to express G-d’s ultimate purpose and desire in Judaism. We are empowered to transform our private lives and homes into a dwelling place for the Divine. G-d wants to dwell “within us.”

As the mainstay of the home, it is the Jewish woman that has the ability to fulfill this divine wish. This concept eclipses all other considerations and history has proven that proper, healthy and happy Jewish households are the reason we are here today.

Although it is vital to develop organized Jewish communities and services throughout the world, the paramount reason the Rebbe dispatched young couples to every corner of the globe was so that they set up traditional Jewish households and serve as a prototype to the local Jews they encounter and engage. It is a mission that is accomplished primarily through the women and their credit alone.

This weekend I and thousands of my colleagues are getting a taste of what our wives do year round. While the administrative and ceremonial elements of our work may slow down for the next few days, the work of Jewish homemaking never stops.

 

When You Have It All

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A fellow passenger on a flight told me he would like to meet someone who adopted full Torah observance when life was going well. “Most people I know became religious during a crisis or after some type of personal tragedy,” he said. 

Although I had a long list of names for him, I realized that was beside the point. He had just articulated a perspective all too prevalent in our society. Faith and religion is viewed as crisis management tools and religious leaders as de facto social workers.

This week’s parshah teaches us the truth about Judaism.

The legitimacy of our glorious heritage rests solely on Matan Torah, the Revelation at Sinai. Maimonides writes that it is the only reason we believe in the truth of Torah and its traditions.

It is striking therefore, that the Torah prefaces the story of the events at Sinai with the arrival of Yisro, Moshe’s father-in-law to the Israelite camp. This reunion was so significant, that the entire parshah in which we read about Matan Torah and the Ten Commandments is called “Yisro”!

Yisro was a man of great accomplishments and had an impressive resume. Aside for being a former trusted advisor to Pharaoh, he had served as the highest ranking priest in every institution of idolatry known to man at the time. He was a deep thinker and his approach to idolatry stemmed from his vast knowledge of nature. Considered the foremost intellectual powerhouse of pagan traditions, he was accorded many honorary titles and enjoyed a life of wealth and privilege.

But above all, he was a man of integrity, genuinely searching for the truth, which inevitably led him to acknowledge the fallacy of idolatry and to embrace the belief in the One G-d, Creator of the Universe. Together with Moshe’s wife Tzipora, and his two grandsons Gershom and Eliezer, Yisro left Midian and his prestigious position among the family of nations to convert to the brand new religion called Judaism, headquartered in a barren desert.

This event puts Judaism in proper context. It was not only embraced by the Abrahamic family who had recently been rescued from two centuries of persecution and slavery. By what can be perceived as a nomadic tribe wandering in a wilderness, dependent solely on miracles to survive.

Yisro broke all the stereotypes and myths about Torah and Mitzvos. They are not crutches to lean on when life is tough, rather conduits through which we connect with G-d and celebrate life.

Every stage in life is the prime time to focus on our relationship with G-d by increasing in Torah study and doing another Mitzvah. Of course, in hard times it will provide strength and direction. But it is during the good days and successful moments that our divine relationship is best nurtured and cemented.

How Does Chabad Do It?

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Chabad’s success worldwide is a phenomenon that intrigues scholars, journalists, outreach activists and curious Jews alike. Brandeis University’s Dr. Mark Rosen, an expert on Jewish institutions, who recently completed a study on Chabad on Campus concluded the following: “It defies logic. So there must be some deeper truth that’s escaping our understanding and that our social science skills don’t quite encompass.”

While I certainly believe we are regular people doing extraordinary things, Dr. Rosen might be on to something by saying that his rational mind is not capable of explaining it.

The men and women of Chabad are called Shluchim - emissaries. Our day to day functions can  categorize us as Rabbis, Rebbetzins, fundraisers, activists and social workers, but the title we identify most deeply with is “emissaries” - bearers of a message from the Lubavitcher Rebbe. It is the Rebbe and his message that places the work of Chabad on an entirely different social scale.

In honor of the Shabbat of the 10th of Shevat 1950, the Previous Rebbe published a Chassidic discourse titled “Basi Legani”. The Previous Rebbe passed away that Shabbat morning and the Rebbe, his son-in-law and successor, emphasized that this discourse contains the marching orders for the new generation of Chabad.

Exactly one year later, the Rebbe ceremoniously assumed the mantle of Chabad Lubavitch leadership by reciting an original Chassidic discourse on the same theme as the “Basi Legani” discourse his father-in-law had published a year earlier and continued to do so each year. While the specific topics of the “Basi Legani” discourses changed every year, the opening lesson and its monumental message became the running theme of the Rebbe’s leadership and perhaps the secret of the unprecedented renaissance he unleashed.

The discourse opens with a quote from King Solomon’s Song of Songs (5:1): “I have come to my garden, my sister my bride.” Our sages explain, when the Israelites built the tabernacle in the Sinai Desert and divinity became permanently manifest and revealed in the physical edifice, G-d clarified that this was not a new phenomenon. It was a homecoming. G-d’s presence had been manifest in this physical universe before Adam committed the first sin.

Think about that for a moment. Social science perceives the world as chaotic, corrupt and devoid of divine purpose. A veritable jungle where the weak fail and the mighty prevail. An entity becoming increasingly broken and in need of fixing.

“Basi Legani” proclaims that the original pristine state of our universe is a divine paradise and remains so. All the chaos and corruption, while very real and tragic, are man-made distractions caused by humanity’s obsession with self and survival. While ego and evil are real problems that need to be dealt with, they are not inherent in G-d’s creation. The world and its inhabitants are not faulty. Rather, our perception of it is tainted. And as long as we remain cognizant of this truth, every obstacle can be transformed into a stepping stone to greater heights and every competition can be harnessed to generate more good.

Everyone can be Chabad. I am not referring to the dress code and the like. The Rebbe’s mandate to view the world for what it truly is and to share this idea with others is a gift for anyone willing to embrace it. I encourage you to learn more of the Rebbe’s teachings and to join the team joyfully preparing our world for the imminent era of Moshiach, when peace and prosperity will abound for all.

Click here to learn more about “Basi Legani” 

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