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Rabbis' Blog

Inspirational Torah Messages from Chabad Lubavitch of El Paso

Sharing Our Tactics

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Some friends of mine facilitated a cool podcast this week about the Mitzvah Tank experience. Starting in the mid-seventies, many large metropolitan areas have been graced with the scene of RVs converted into makeshift synagogues or Jewish libraries parked at major pedestrian thoroughfares.

Chabad rabbinical students man these mobiles, asking passersby if they are Jewish and offer the men to wrap Tefillin and gift women candles to light before Shabbat evening. The moniker “Mitzvah Tank” evolved early on in tribute to the ability for these roving Chabad installations to bring Jewish observance to frontiers previously unimaginable – similar to the role of standard tanks in battle.

Three Jews with diverse experiences on the receiving end of the “Excuse me, are you Jewish?” question, rode along on a Mitzvah Tank to see what makes these inspired young men tick.

They schmooze about Jewish identity, pride and culture, but mainly seek to understand the psychology behind approaching strangers and popping Mitzvahs. Dovid, Motti and Mordechai spell it all out very clearly and I encourage you to hear what they have to say here.

But I’d like to share with you a lesson from this week’s parsha that illuminates an important aspect of what has become a basic staple of Jewish life today.

We learn of the Mitzvah of Nedarim – Oaths. Here is how it works. If one feels it necessary to refrain from all gluten, for example, a firm resolution is often sorely insufficient to keeping this impulse in check. So Judaism provides the nuclear option of making an oath. When an individual makes a proper oath not to eat gluten, it assumes the status of a holy sacrifice for this individual alone. This makes his or her donut munching far more devastating than unhealthy or impulsive behavior. It now becomes sacrilegious!

To be clear, this provision applies only to foods and behaviors permitted in Jewish law. In the event that these kosher things can be physically or spiritually detrimental, the power of the “Neder – Oath” may be invoked.

From a philosophical perspective, a fascinating irony emerges: A powerful way to neutralize the negative effects of something is by making it holy!

How does this all connect to the boys on the Mitzvah Tanks?

Unfortunately, there are many Jews lacking the opportunity to observe many Mitzvot for a host of reasons. So they spend their free time from studies seeking out these Jews to make them aware of how important they are to G-d and how precious their one Mitzvah is to Judaism at large. They are neutralizing the negativity of religious apathy though emphasizing the crucial value of each and every Jew.

Is this a Chabad tactic? No. It is simply the truth.

Winning With the Lottery

A few weeks ago my children asked me to choose a number from one to ten. Sizing up the situation, I realized they both wanted to play with a certain toy and decided that the best way to resolve the standoff was to make a raffle. Whoever chose the number I had in mind got the toy.

I’m not sure where they learned this brilliant solution and I was relieved the loser accepted the results without complaint. Conventional negotiations would have sapped all my energy and everyone would have been miserable. Something about a raffle helps all ages appreciate even the most absurd outcome – just because.

In this week’s parsha we learn of G-d’s instructions to the Israelites how to divide the Land of Israel.

“A tribe with a larger population will receive a larger portion and a tribe with fewer members will receive a smaller portion.”

Sounds fair.

Then the Torah continues, “The Land should be allocated according to the “Goral” – the raffle.”

The Talmud explains that Moshe gathered representatives from the tribes and apportioned the regions based on the diverse topography of the land and the results of the most recent census. Once it was all figured out, a formal lottery was conducted. Cubes inscribed with the tribes’ names were in one box and cubes inscribed with the regions in another.

The representatives were honored to pick out a cube from each box and miraculously the two cubes randomly chosen matched perfectly! They each picked out their tribe and the region they had already negotiated.

What was the purpose of this miraculous formality and, most importantly, how is this relevant to us today?

Our connection to Eretz Yisrael is deeper than a national homeland. It is the “Holy Land” because it embodies the perfection of Mitzvah observance as prescribed in the Torah. In a broader sense it represents the entirety of our collective mission in life; to imbue every aspect of reality with divine purpose and inspiration.

Everyone is given a mission based on their talents, strengths and circumstances. But when faced with certain challenges, regular negotiations stop working and that’s where the lottery comes in.

This region is mine just because; this mitzvah will happen just because.

I recently saw a clip of Anthony Bourdain’s visit to the Kotel for CNN’s “Parts Unknown”. He admits that he was never in a synagogue and is not a believer. “But that doesn’t make me any less Jewish… Apparently the guys at the Wall don’t think so either.” He was approached by a Chabad Chossid and offered to wrap Tefillin for the first time in his life.

“I am instinctively hostile to devotion… but when they grabbed hold of me and, in such a non-judgmental way [projected that] G-d’s happy to have you – hear you go… man, my treachery is complete.”

The Chossid did not negotiate with Bourdain, he tapped into his Jewishness by lottery – just because.

The Bright Side of Darkness

Life is a mixed bag of experiences. Some more memorable than others, some more pleasant than others and we often struggle to understand the purpose and value of our negative experiences.

This week’s parsha is a study in contrasts that provides us with a straightforward perspective on understanding reality.

We learn about the paranoid Moabite King Balak who hired the vile prophet Bilaam to curse them to extinction. Historically, Bilaam’s words were fatal and had destroyed powerful nations before. The Jews were completely unaware of the dramatic saga of how G-d foiled this fiendish scheme and it was brought to their attention only through Torah’s prophetic record.

Throughout the forty years since the exodus from Egypt, this was a moment when we were truly vulnerable and G-d’s limitless love for us saved us from certain catastrophe.

It all turned out for the best. Bilaam ultimately delivered beautiful blessings to the Jews, rounding them off with the clearest prophecy of Israel’s future stratospheric rise and the arrival of Moshiach ever recorded in the Torah.

In an ironic twist, Bilaam became the harbinger of our redemption and Balak became an active participant in the process of Moshiach’s arrival. His grand-daughter Ruth later converted to Judaism, becoming the matriarch of the Davidic lineage of which Moshiach will be a descendant.

To be clear, evil must be condemned and destroyed and Balak and Bilaam are forever linked in infamy. But the story of the unexpected positive results of their hatred allows us to appreciate that sorrow can lead to joy and defeat can be the catalyst of victory.

Shabbat will be the seventeenth day of the month of Tammuz. It is the anniversary of the tragic events of the Golden Calf and later the day our enemies breached the walls of Jerusalem resulting in the destruction of the Holy Temple. On any other day of the week it is observed as a fast day, but this year Shabbat postpones the fast to Sunday.

The fact that this Shabbat must be observed as a day of celebration and pleasure - notwithstanding the deep sorrow the day’s tragic events certainly evoke - poignantly illustrates how all negativity will be transformed and elevated in the era of Moshiach

Pain is real and we hope and pray to always experience only revealed good. There is no need to justify tragedy or to be numb to suffering. But we must never become despondent in the face of sorrow. Darkness will one day shine brightly and we can do our part today by seizing the opportunities to bring more light into our own lives and to the world around us.

Balancing Publicity and Anonymity

 

Good people do good things and it’s great when others know about it, because credit can be given where credit is due and others may be inspired to do more good as well.

However, Judaism teaches the value of goodness done without fanfare. Heroic acts of kindness done under the radar unnoticed by the greater public.

In this week’s parsha we learn about Moshe’s older sister Miriam and her legacy.

Throughout the forty years the Israelites journeyed in the desert G-d provided them with food from heaven, water from a rock and divine clouds to protect them from the elements. As they approached the borders of the Promised Land, Miriam passed away and suddenly the miraculous well of fresh water that flowed from the rock for 39 years dried up.

The distraught nation of several million strong found themselves in a desert without water, facing certain death. G-d instructed Moshe how to cause the miraculous well to resume flowing, but the brief halt revealed an astonishing fact about Israel’s survival for so many years in the parched desert: The miraculous well of life giving water was all in the merit of Miriam.

For thirty nine years, Miriam’s righteousness evoked G-d’s mercy for the Jewish people to provide them with much needed water for hydration and ritual purity. Nevertheless, during her lifetime this was unknown and unacknowledged. Only after her passing did the Israelites name this miraculous source of life “Miriam’s Well” which remains a cornerstone of her eternal legacy.

On the other hand, Miriam was accorded one of the most public honors bestowed on a mortal in the merit of one of her earliest achievements. In an earlier episode, Miriam mistakenly criticized Moshe’s behavior, in a private conversation with her brother Aharon. G-d punished her for this infraction with Tzaraat and she was forced to spend seven days outside of the Israelite Camp.

Despite the fact that her week-long banishment was a divine punishment, G-d halted the journey to Israel until she returned to her rightful spot in the camp. This was in tribute to the fact that when Moshe was three months old and his parents, fearing Pharaohs genocidal decree, were forced to abandon him on the Nile River, Miriam risked her life, waiting at the riverside for many hours to watch out for her baby brother. In kind, the Divine Presence and millions of people respectfully waited for her in her time of need.

Miriam’s story teaches us that we must strike a balance between these two extremes. Publicity is crucial to inspire others to follow suit, but it must never be the motivating factor of the good we do. Anonymity is necessary and nurtures personal humility, but erasing yourself from the public list of do-gooders is detrimental for the greater good.

When is doubt, keep this rule in mind: Publicity that will cause more good to happen is certainly appropriate - and then find something greater to do anonymously.

 

The Door That is Always Open

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This week, a beautiful video was circulated on social media: A compilation of people thanking the Rebbe for his blessings.

The setting was “Sunday Dollars.” Starting on his 84th birthday in 1986, the Rebbe stood in the hall adjacent to his office every Sunday as thousands came to seek his blessing and counsel. The encounters were brief and the Rebbe handed each person a dollar bill to be given to charity.

Many experienced miraculous results and appropriately returned to express their appreciation. These clips are candid and emotional and the Rebbe’s responses inspire me each time I watch.

The Rebbe expected of the beneficiaries of his blessings to report even better news in the future. The couple who miraculously gave birth to children were blessed to have more and the gentleman whose business venture succeeded against all odds was told to make even more money to be used in a healthy manner.

These recorded encounters are a microcosm of the hundreds of thousands who turned to the Rebbe each year for blessing and guidance - by mail or in person. He lovingly handled each request as if it was his singular concern. No person too small, no request insignificant.

Communicating with the Rebbe was an interaction of souls. He saw the core of every person and sought to reveal the divine spark within. This is the intellectual premise for the Rebbe’s infinite love for every Jew and he gifted us this knowledge through his countless Torah teachings so that we too can learn to love unconditionally.

This dynamic continues today. Although the Rebbe’s physical presence has left our world 24 years ago, the unending stream of humanity that continues to flock to the Ohel, the Rebbe’s holy resting place, at all hours of the day, every day of the year, bears testimony to the Rebbe’s continued and ever stronger impact on our world.

The soul is immortal. Every level of Torah scholarship is replete with reference to the fact that the truly righteous continue to live beyond their physical limitations. Today we can communicate with the Rebbe just as before and experience the same joy, hope and refreshing empowerment the people you just watched in the video merited - close to three decades ago. By writing a letter to the Rebbe and having it placed at the Ohel, we access a heavenly door that is always open to us all.

Please click here to learn more about writing to the Rebbe.

As we observe the Rebbe’s 24th Yartzeit this Shabbat, I invite you to learn more of the Rebbe’s teachings and to reflect on how you can participate in the Rebbe’s mission to prepare our world for the coming of Moshiach when peace and prosperity will abound for all.

 

Searching for the Tenth

 

“Can you be the tenth?” The traditional conversation starter whenever Jews gather for prayer services and are searching for a Minyan. Judaism stipulates that certain rituals and prayers may be recited only in a group of ten Jewish men over the age of thirteen.

The convenience or difficulty of gathering a Minyan is not necessarily determined by the size of the Jewish community. Obviously smaller communities have a greater challenge gathering this quorum three times daily, but I have seen many a large synagogue frustratingly search for the “tenth man.”

Why do we need ten for the Minyan?

You might be surprised to discover that the definition of a minyan is derived by way of a series of Torah rules-of-logic that lead us to this week’s parsha.

As the Israelites prepared to enter the Promised Land, they requested Moshe send spies to scout the terrain and report their findings. Reluctantly, he tapped twelve men for the mission and sent them on their way.

Their impressions were not unanimous. Ten of them concluded that entering the Land of Israel was certain suicide and roused the nation to rebellion. The other two, Yehoshua and Calev pleaded with the nation to reconsider their new position and confidently and passionately proclaimed that the conquest would succeed with the help of G-d. Alas, their pleas were unheeded and the people wailed for an entire night.

The fallout from the spies’ treason was severe. An entire generation was barred from entering the Holy Land and that night of meaningless sorrow lives on in infamy as Tisha B’av - the day of Jewish tragedy and grief.

The Torah record of G-d’s response to the debacle includes this verse: “How much longer (must I bear) this evil congregation (of spies) who are provoking (the Jewish people) against Me?”

They were a group of ten men and G-d referred to them as a congregation. From this verse we learn that ten men is the definition of a Minyan.

Considering the damage these men inflicted on our people does it not seem inappropriate to derive such an integral element of our religious rituals from their quorum?

Chassidus explains that while their actions had severe repercussions their motives were actually positive. So long the Israelites remained in the desert, their religious commitment and spiritual experience was assured. Nourished by heavenly bread, hydrated by miraculous water and protected by the Clouds of Glory, they were immersed in the divine pursuit of Torah study without distractions. Entering the Land would mark a new reality for the fledgling nation with many distractions and the spies felt that it would cause the spiritual and religious demise of the fledgling nation.

Their conclusion was tragically wrong but their initial motive was noble and expresses an important lesson for all time. Before engaging with the world to reveal divinity within the chaos and turbulence of the mundane reality, one must first be empowered through immersion in prayer and Torah study.

Starting off the day with wrapping Tefillin, giving Tzedakah and spending some time in prayer and Torah study transforms the rest of the day into one of divine purpose and success.

 

Keeping Things Normal

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For generations, the Menorah has been a generic Jewish symbol. As described in the beginning of this week’s parsha, kindling the Menorah was an integral part of the daily Temple service. After the Chanukah miracle, it has become synonymous with sacrifice, celebration and continuity.

Our sages describe the symbolism of “flames” in our relationship with G-d in this cryptic statement:

“G-d says: There are two flames. The Torah is My flame and the soul is your flame. If you preserve My flame (the Torah), I will preserve your flame (the soul).”

On the surface this sounds very intimidating. Follow the Torah, or else…

However, Chassidus reveals the truth of this statement and provides us with the roadmap to a healthy and balanced Jewish life.

A flame needs to be monitored for two opposite reasons. To ensure (a) that it is not extinguished by the elements and (b) so that it does not blow out of control and cause horrific damage.

The spiritual equivalent of a flame is spiritual inspiration. Everyone has a soul, but then there is the “inspired soul” - a burning passion for Judaism and love for Torah. This is a wonderful experience which, if not properly channeled, can have two negative outcomes.

(a) It can flame-out and quickly dissipate. Gyms around the nation fill up during January and are empty by mid February. New Year champagne and fireworks motivate many to commit to a healthier lifestyle but the resolutions last slightly longer than the champagne bubbles and sparkling firecrackers.

The same often occurs with our religious resolutions because our environment and the constant demands of life are rarely conducive to immersive spiritual consciousness.

(b) The intense devotion can destroy relationships and ruin important components of life. The unbridled enthusiasm of finding truth can cause one to behave in ways that are emotionally destructive, physically unhealthy and financially ruinous.

Therefore G-d advises us to “preserve His flame.” Through following Torah’s instructions, things that can be spiritually distracting become spiritually nourishing. When food is kosher, then eating can be a mitzvah. Making an honest living and apportioning charity appropriately transforms everyday work into a holy endeavor.

And lest you think that being a devout Jew is reason to neglect your family, health and financial stability - remember that Torah obligates us to honor our parents, preserve our health and work throughout the week.

Follow Torah’s formula and it will all work out. When we preserve the integrity of Torah - our own inspiration becomes anchored, balanced and enduring.

 

 

 

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.

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