Rabbis' Blog

You Can Give Blessings Too

It’s Camp Gan Israel time at Chabad and, thank G-d, we are thrilled to have dozens of campers running around having a blast with their counselors doing activities, swimming, field trips, and more. The day starts with prayers, and I am privileged to do “Torah Time” with the eldest group. 

I introduced the 15-minute program by explaining that the proper translation for “Torah” is “instruction” hence every word in Torah is an instruction to all of us at all times and places. This includes all the laws, stories, information and every detail you may find in Torah, and we discuss the lessons we can learn from a different Torah story every day. I know the kids got the message because they crow “Instruction time!” every morning when I walk into the room.

In this week’s parsha we learn about a mitzvah that is ostensibly limited to “Kohanim,” the members of the priestly family descended from Aaron the High Priest.

The L-rd spoke to Moses saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying: This is how you shall bless the children of Israel, saying to them: "May the L-rd bless you and watch over you. May the L-rd cause His countenance to shine to you and favor you. May the L-rd raise His countenance toward you and grant you peace." They shall bestow My Name upon the children of Israel, so that I will bless them. (Leviticus 6:22-27)

This is a tremendous blessing, containing all the goodness we can ever ask for, bestowed upon us from G-d through the conduit of the holy priestly family.

During the times when the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, the Kohanim were obligated to bless all the assembled in the Temple with this special blessing, and the same occurred in all synagogues throughout Israel. This practice continues until today, but its frequency varies between some Sefardic communities doing it every day, congregations in Israel doing it every Shabbat, and Ashkenazic communities outside of Israel doing it only during festivals.

Regardless of the frequency with which it happens, this would seem to be a mitzvah relevant only to the Kohanim. What type of instruction is there here for the rest of us?

The performance of most mitzvot is typically prefaced with reciting a blessing and one must perform the mitzvah immediately after reciting the blessing, otherwise, it would be a “wasted” blessing. The same is true about Torah study. The prayer book provides a list of thanksgiving blessings to recite every morning, concluding with three blessings for Torah study. Since one must study Torah immediately afterward in order not to “waste” the blessings, our sages instructed us to recite the above-quoted six verses from this week’s parsha about the Priestly Blessing.

It’s printed in all standard prayerbooks because Judaism wants us to start our day with an attitude of blessing. Although the ritualistic obligation to bless was commanded to the Kohanim, and they alone do this in the formal settings of the Holy Temple and during official Synagogue services, the ability to bless others is universal. Everyone can share blessings, provided you do so joyfully and lovingly.

Please share blessings as often as possible - we all need them.


My Bat Mitzvah Meditation

On Thursday I turned twelve years old and became a “Bat Mitzvah” - a responsible and dependable Jewish adult. This is such an important and exciting milestone I have been looking forward to and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to travel together with my father to pray at the Rebbe’s Ohel to receive the blessings I know I will need as I embark on my life’s journey as a Jewish woman.

On the flight, my father and I studied a special booklet the Rebbe distributed in the winter of 1992 on the Yartzeit of Rebbetzin Chaya Mushka, after whom I am named. The booklet is a collection of the Rebbe’s teachings about the critical and vital role women play in Judaism culled from various public talks and letters spanning over forty years of the Rebbe’s leadership.

In it, we discovered a letter addressed to the Chabad Women’s Convention which occurred days before the holiday of Shavuot in 1957. The Alter Rebbe, the founder of Chabad and the author of the Tanya declared that a Jew “must live with the times” which means we can understand our divine mission for any given time period based on the lessons we glean from the Parsha of the week.

In that spirit, the Rebbe in his letter to the participants of the convention explained an inspiring lesson we can learn from the common theme of the two Parshas relevant to the weekend of the convention, Bamidbar and Nasso.

In both sections, we learn of G-d’s instructions to Moshe and the Jewish people on how to transport the Mishkan (the divine tabernacle) through the desert as they journeyed towards the Promised Land. Although this process was only practiced many thousands of years ago, it is recorded in the Torah at great length and we learn about it today because it teaches us a tremendous lesson in our daily lives.

Although the Jews were then in a wilderness, in a place with extremely harsh living conditions, they were able to build an edifice for G-d. It stood at the center of their camping grounds and was the focus of their travel formations.

The lesson is clear. Even when Jews find themselves in a spiritual wilderness, surrounded by conditions that are hostile to Jewish life and living, we have the ability to build a home for G-d as the focus of our lives as we journey toward the ultimate goal which is the coming of Moshiach.

Since my Bat Mitzvah day occurred within the week of Parshat Bamidbar and my celebration in El Paso will happen during the week of Parshat Nasso, I feel this lesson is extra relevant to me as I continue my journey. I must always remember that my mission in life is to be a beacon of the light of Torah, Mitzvah, goodness and kindness and transform the spiritual wilderness of our world into a divinely serene garden, ready for the era of Moshiach when peace and serenity will reign for all.

Judaism and Materialism Explained

“Am I a bad Jew if I do mitzvot to get rewarded with health and wealth?” Seems like a fair question as many instinctively associate Judaism with spirituality. While the loftiest level of divine service is certainly more altruistic, here is why an attitude of anticipating material reward is certainly not wrong or inappropriate.

In this week’s parsha the Torah states, “If you follow My statutes and observe My commandments and perform them, I will give your rains in their time, the Land will yield its produce… you will eat your food to satiety, and you will live in security in your land… I will remove wild beasts from the Land, and no army will pass through your land…”

Simply put, G-d makes a deal with the Jewish people: do what G-d wants and life will be excellent.

On the surface it seems counterintuitive to motivate Jewish living by promising material benefits. After all, when someone studies Torah properly and is passionately involved in Mitzvah observance,  their interest in materialism is inevitably diminished and physical reward is no longer appealing. The reward doesn't match the deed.

The same could be asked about how the prophets and sages describe the future era of redemption through Moshiach with fantastical depictions of food miraculously sprouting overnight and every conceivable delight and convenience available at our fingertips. Can the divine purpose in creation really boil down to a materialistic wonderland?

The key to understanding all of this is to appreciate this premise: Judaism is not meant to enhance life; it is life itself.  G-d’s will and wisdom as manifest in the Torah is the blueprint of creation and must impact every aspect of our reality - even materialistic delights and conveniences. Torah study is not limited to stimulating the mind’s curiosity and Mitzvot are not exclusively expressions of passionate feelings for divine closeness. Living life according to G-d's divine code of conduct for humanity is meant to elevate and perfect every fiber of our being, even materialism.

War, famine, illness and hatred are an aberration; an indication that our world is not properly aligned with its Creator, and Torah is meant to fix that. The fantastical descriptions of the Messianic era are not petty indulgences in exchange for our compliance, rather symptoms of world perfection.

In that era, everyone will have peace, food and health. Rockets will not fall over helpless civilians, the misery and squalor of refugee camps will end and hatred and malice will cease. Everyone will have access to clean drinking water, disease will disappear and medicine will only serve as a medium to better understand G-d's wondrous creation.

Maimonides declared we must believe this can happen, and anticipate it will imminently happen. Most importantly we must know we are empowered to actively make it happen. For one good thought, spoken word or deed can be the one to tip the scales for the entire world and usher in that blessed era we all so desperately await. May it happen right now!

The best way to reform people

People complain to me about our society's political and ideological polarization, and many blame it on the media. A friend who is a journalist once explained to me that media companies know there is more money to be made by pitting people against each other than by bringing them together, and craft their programming and talking points accordingly. 

While this may seem to be a good business strategy for some, it’s tragic when regular people adopt those habits and speak negatively about anyone who thinks or behaves differently from them. “But how can I just sit back while my neighbor/colleague/relative espouses such foolishness?” people ask. “Are we not obligated to call out such foolishness?”

Recently I heard a story of a 12-year-old orphan who was expelled from several schools in the span of a few months and gave much grief to his struggling mother. Worried no school would agree to accept her son as a student, she requested an audience with the Rebbe and dragged her son with her to the midnight meeting.

After she tearfully described her predicament, the Rebbe turned to the boy and said “Don't you want to make your mother happy?”

“No!” the boy brazenly replied.

“Very good! He only speaks the truth…” the Rebbe said with a big smile.

“That moment changed my life forever,” the boy recalled over 50 years later. The Rebbe’s positive compliment about his truthtelling became the catalyst for the turning point in his young and difficult childhood.

This week’s parsha is called “Emor” which means “Speak!” Although the word is the beginning of G-d’s command to Moshe to “speak to the Kohanim, Aharon’s children,” the fact that the name of the parsha is the one word “Emor,” indicates that there is a general instruction for all of us to speak.

What type of speech can the name of this week’s parsha be instructing us to engage in? Speaking words of Torah is already a separate commandment in Deuteronomy quoted in the famous paragraph of the Shema. Prayer is also a separate mitzvah, so what other “speaking” mitzvah is there?

We are instructed to say good things about people, especially when their behavior seems to warrant the opposite reaction. Not to condone such behavior or ignore it, but because speaking positively about others - even in their absence - is the most powerful way to reveal their inherent goodness. Because speech is a revealing agent. Just like speech reveals your hidden thoughts, speaking of others’ virtues - however hidden - forces them into the open.

Tuesday we will celebrate Lag B’Omer. The famous Talmudic sage Rabi Akiva had 24,000 students who died in a horrific plague because of their animosity and inability to speak positively about each other. The plague started after Pesach and ended on Lag B’Omer, celebrated ever since, to emphasize the importance of always finding the good in others. Because this is the best way to perfect humanity and the entire world and usher in an era of eternal peace and tranquility through Moshiach.

“Tanya has brought an amazing calmness to my life”

This Shabbat will mark 91 years from the birth of my grandfather, Rabbi Gershon Mendel Garelik obm. His birthday reminds me of our wonderful conversations and I’d like to share an episode he repeated often. Just before my grandparents departed Chabad headquarters in Brooklyn to set up a permanent Chabad presence in Italy in 1958, they had an audience with the Rebbe.

In addition to important instructions regarding their arrival in Milan, the Rebbe gifted my grandmother a brand new prayer book, my grandfather a new edition of the book “Tanya” for himself, and a few more Tanyas for several key figures in the Milan community. Then, as if by an afterthought, the Rebbe handed him another Tanya and said, “Perhaps you will find a fellow Jew on the flight to share this Tanya with him.”

Tanya was authored in the 18th century by the founder of the Chabad movement, Rabbi Schneur Zalman, known as the Alter Rebbe. It is the foundational text of Chabad philosophy which compacts four millennia of Jewish wisdom to answer the great personal and existential questions of life.

Immediately upon boarding the flight they were disappointed when they could not find another Jew to pass on the “extra” Tanya, but shortly after takeoff a fellow approached them and said “You look like Chassidim. Perhaps you have a Tanya I can study during the flight?” My grandfather ceremoniously handed him the book saying, “In fact, this Tanya is a gift for you from the Rebbe!”

The man was shocked at the unexpected gift and shared with them that days earlier, in a private audience with the Rebbe, he discussed matters pertaining to his overseas business trips. The Rebbe gave him a Tanya and suggested he study it during his long flights. This was his first trip since then and after takeoff, he was devastated to discover that he had forgotten the Rebbe’s Tanya. The Rebbe’s “afterthought” turned out to be a prophetic gift for a Jew that needed it most.

Several years ago we started a weekly Tanya class at Chabad and here are impressions from some participants.

“G-d’s wisdom is in all creation, yet HE is hidden from us physically. Tanya has given me the tools to be closer to G-d by understanding this concept. Tanya teaches us how to have a relationship with G-d. Tanya has brought an amazing calmness to my life.” - Monica Rubin

“Tanya is the connecting piece that makes the mitzvah circuit complete. It's the deep meaning of the "why we do the mitzvahs, not just "do the mitzvah because I say so". G-d loves that we physically and spiritually elevate the wonderful world he gave us. Doing a mitzvah shakes up the entire universe for good and brings us closer to G-d.” - Marvin Rubin

“It’s a clarifying type of study and I got answers to questions. Sometimes the answers were demanding, but it sure explains things and gave me more understanding and meaning in the mitzvot I do and in general daily Jewish living.” - Amit Toren

“Besides the Torah, the Tanya has been the most important work I have studied. The main reason I say this is threefold: the Tanya encompasses virtually all fields of knowledge, all means of endeavor, and all modes of transmission. Along with Torah, it is the one work that I am convinced I could study every year of my life and not complete. Yet, along with Torah, I find that studying the Tanya helps me feel more completed.” - Rachelle Gomolsky

“Studying Tanya helps me fight my daily identity crisis, a contemporary concept, through the lenses of the mystical tradition of Chabad, in order to feel Judaism and become a better person. Although it was written over 200 years ago, the Tanya is a manual that applies to our often chaotic 21st Century existence. Through the study of Tanya, the central text of the Chabad Chassidus, I found out that I am not alone in my quest to become a better Jew.” - Emanuel Velez


On Sunday, April 30 we are starting Tanya again from the beginning and I invite the entire Jewish community to join us for this soul-nourishing and wonderful learning experience. No need for Hebrew language skills or prior Jewish knowledge. Classes will be held on Sundays at 8:00am in-person at Chabad and on Zoom at

Give yourself the gift of Tanya!

Gps for the soul - Tanya Class.jpg 


The Newly Discovered Sermon

Two weeks ago a manuscript of a 1916 sermon delivered by the Rebbe’s father, Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Schneerson, Chief Rabbi of Yekatrinislav (now Dnipro, Ukraine), was discovered and published for the first time. The content is both painful and uplifting and, most importantly, contains an empowering message for us here and now.

In 1916 Russia was fighting the first world war and every military-aged man from 18 to 45 was forcibly conscripted. Serving in the army was a veritable death sentence for Jewish men at the time, as anti-semitism in the Czar’s army was a matter of course and the threat of being killed by a fellow Russian soldier was greater than being killed by enemy bullets. Evading the draft was punishable by death. Throughout the kingdom hundreds of thousands of Jewish men went into hiding for months, causing irreversible chaos and disruption to Jewish communal and family life.

On the Shabbat before Pesach Rabbi Levi Yitzchok spoke about the paragraph of the Haggadah which discusses the obligation to commemorate Exodus every day. With his brilliant ability to extract relevant meaning from even often overlooked details such as the names of the sages quoted,  he inspired his flock to celebrate Pesach that year with hope for a better future.

Rabbi Eleazar ben Azaryah said: "I am like a man of seventy years old, yet I did not succeed in proving that the exodus from Egypt must be mentioned at night until Ben Zoma explained it: "It is said, `That you may remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your life;' now `the days of your life' refers to the days, [and the additional word] `all' indicates the inclusion of the nights!" The sages, however, said: "`The days of your life' refers to the present-day world; and `all' indicates the inclusion of the days of Moshiach."

The two Hebrew names “Eleazar” and “Azarya” both mean “the help of G-d.” Any surviving Jewish man able to celebrate Pesach together with his family was only due to G-d’s help. However, because of their harrowing experiences of hiding from the Czar’s soldiers over the long winter months to evade the draft, everyone can say “I am like a man of seventy years old.” The tremendous trauma and suffering are etched in the wrinkled faces of even eighteen-year-old boys. Hence, they ask themselves, “Will I succeed in mentioning the exodus during the night?” How can we celebrate the Exodus from Egpyt this Pesach as a genuine experience of freedom during this unbearable darkness?

The answer to this can be found in the name “Ben Zoma” and his teaching. “Zoma” is etymologically linked to “deep thought” and the sage Ben Zoma was known for his exceptional meditative abilities. One should “meditate” and “remember the day you left Egypt.” The exile our ancestors endured in Egypt was so suffocating and debilitating that until the very end, redemption seemed like an impossibility. Yet, G-d’s salvation came in the blink of an eye and the darkness of night turned into brilliant daylight. Likewise, don’t allow the darkness of war and persecution to extinguish your hope for a bright and better future.

This paragraph in the Haggadah concludes with a quote from “the sages.” One who is truly wise will realize that we are not merely tormented victims awaiting G-d’s salvation, rather “all the days of your life - in the present day world” is an opportunity to “welcome in the days of Moshiach.” When we appreciate that every mitzvah we do brings the world closer to the realization of the divine promise of Moshiach, we can celebrate the festival of freedom with an attitude of genuine freedom that transcends all the limitations imposed upon us by our circumstances, and bring the gift of freedom to all of humanity.

Although today we can hardly relate to the realities of Jewish persecution in Czarist Russia during World War One, the spirit of Rabbi Levi Yitzchok’s sermon enables us to apply the spirit of Pesach to the rest of the year, empowered by the knowledge that we are active players in actualizing the biblical prophecies of Moshiach, when peace and tranquility will reign for all.

Don’t overlook this important Passover preparation

Since the dawn of our nation, Pesach has been the one festival that by definition necessitates extensive preparations. Cleaning the home from all chametz (leaven), preparing flour and water worthy of being baked as Matzah and cooking a proper dinner for Seder night are only some of the preparations necessary to celebrate a kosher, joyous, and meaningful Pesach.

But one crucial preparation which has become more essential today more than ever is woven into the fabric of the storytelling of the Exodus on Seder night - by its absence.

The Haggadah (Seder handbook) delineates the order and the methods of how to observe all the obligations of the evening including the mitzvah of retelling the story of our ancestors’ miraculous redemption from Egyptian slavery 3,335 years ago. The story is meant to be told as a response to the child's curious questions about the many changes of the evening: Why are we dipping so much? Why is the bread of choice only Matzah? Why eat bitter herbs tonight? And finally, why is everyone reclining as if they have not a care in the world?

Even if there are no children present at the Seder, the question-and-answer style remains, because even adults must learn and grow, and the Seder is an educational experience for all. In fact, at my family seders, everyone asks the “Four Questions” after the children had their turn because we are all being educated on Seder night.

Based on nuanced differences between the four times the Torah discusses the Seder-night storytelling, the Haggadah defines four types of children (or adults) present at the Seder table.

There is the devout, studious Jew who cares deeply about every detail of the Seder’s proceedings. Another type is negatively triggered by the perceived archaic nature of the service and fails to see its relevance in 2023. Others are just bewildered and simply ask “What’s going on here tonight?” And finally, there are those who are apathetic to the whole spiel and don’t even bother to ask any questions.

We are obligated to respond to every “type” on their level. Teach the scholar everything there is to know about the Seder, and explain the meaning of true spiritual freedom to the rebel in a way that makes it as compelling as ever in 2023. Don’t overwhelm the simpleton with too many details and be sure to engage the guy who can’t wait for the Seder to end.

However, there is a “fifth child” not even mentioned in the Haggadah. In 1957, the Rebbe wrote an urgent public letter alerting world Jewry to the alarming crisis of the “fifth child” growing each year: Jews who are not even showing up to the Seder. The reasons for their absence are irrelevant and we must do everything in our power to bring them to a Seder table.

Why does the Haggadah not mention the fifth child? Because by the time we open the Haggadah on Seder night, it’s too late to arrange for the missing Jews to come. We must work on inspiring them to participate well before the Seder begins.

As your Pesach preparations kick into full gear, please don’t forget to arrange for all your Jewish friends and acquaintances to participate in a Seder on Wednesday evening, April 5.

The Chabad public Seder is open to the entire Jewish community and no one will be turned away due to lack of funds. Please help spread the message and ensure that every Jew in El Paso leaves the category of the “fifth child” and has the opportunity to experience authentic Jewish freedom.

Brightening the gray days

The Purim spirit is still in the air as I finish packing away the last bit of supplies and uploading the online album of another amazing holiday. Although Passover will be here in less than a month with all the joy and celebration it brings, I always wonder how to channel the holiday cheer into the plain gray days.

Merriam-Webster defines joy as “the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires.” But Judaism teaches that joy is a religious obligation. King David writes in Psalms “Serve G-d with joy” and divine service is constant, even when life is bleak. Maimonides refers to joy as a “huge service” one needs to work hard on achieving. How is this even possible?

Around Purim 1977 the Rebbe wrote a letter to a woman in Israel who complained about her feelings of worthlessness and the plain drudgery of daily life.

“One of the tips for raising your morale is to reflect on how every single person is G-d’s messenger to do good and increase goodness in the world. Normally this is not accomplished through revolutions and thunderous self-sacrifice. Rather, through living your daily life in accordance with the Code of Jewish Law, and through being active, specifically with activities that society refers to as “gray” and “small.” Helping people around you and educating yourself step by step (without skipping and rushing). This can all be accomplished… on the “gray days.”

In this week’s parsha we learn how the entire Jewish nation was implicated in an idolatrous scandal merely 40 days after receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai. They were on such a spiritual high after experiencing the most epic divine revelation, only to crash into the depths of sin and guilt, endangered by G-d’s threat to destroy them.

Through a series of events that forever lives on as Moshe’s finest hour, which included breaking the Two Tablets and intense negotiating with G-d, disaster was averted and the nation was bequeathed a new set of tablets containing the same Ten Commandments they heard at Mt. Sinai.

Although the Jews failed miserably in keeping the commandments in such a short time, G-d did not change them nor alter the divine plan. Because Jewish living is not exclusive to perfect saints who heard G-d speak at Sinai. Every law and observance is accessible to every Jew, and even on the gray monotonous days, you are able to fulfill your G-d given mission on earth. Appreciating this fact well and living by it, is a sure way to brighten the gray days and live joyfully all the time.

The Reluctant Politician

No one is perfect but common sense and basic decency dictate that when honoring an individual or expressing gratitude for their devoted service, criticism, however true it may be, is inappropriate. Everything has a time and place.

The Megillah (Book of Esther), which was written by Mordechai and Esther, concludes with a tribute to Mordechai who continued serving as an advocate and protector for his people even after the Purim drama. “For Mordechai the Jew was viceroy to King Achashveirosh, and great among the Jews and accepted by most of his brethren; seeking the good of his people and speaking peace to all their seed.”

Why was Mordechai accepted only by most of his brethren and not all his brethren after he saved their lives? And even if there were some Jews who had a negative opinion of him, why must Mordechai include this information in the written scroll of his legacy? Many important details of the narrative were preserved by oral tradition and later included in the Midrash and Talmud, and the details of his negative popularity among some could have been included there.

Our sages point out the verse’s distinction between “the Jews” and Mordechai’s “brethren.” Mordechai “was great among the Jews” - everyone adored Mordechai and revered him for his role in navigating them through Haman’s diabolical plot. Mordechai’s “brethren” refers to his peers and colleagues in the Sanhedrin - the Jewish High Court. He was a central figure in this select group of seventy brilliant scholars, the central governing authority of all Jews even in exile and the nucleus of Torah study and tradition.

Until the Purim saga, Mordechai spent the bulk of his time with the Sanhedrin, preserving Torah tradition, and teaching thousands of students, while his work in the palace was minimal. But after Esther revealed her true identity to the king and Mordechai was appointed viceroy, he was forced to cut back on his Torah study and teaching hours, to attend to matters of state.

Most of his colleagues in the Sanhedrin approved of this change in Mordechai’s schedule for the benefit of Jewish survival. Achashveirosh was still a rabid antisemite, prone to mood swings and easily persuadable, and it was crucial to keep close tabs on him. But some felt it was a shame to lose such a Torah scholar to Persian politics - and Mordechai felt the same. He viewed his ascent to global power and fame as a position to be filled out of a sense of sacred duty to Jewish survival, not the realization of a lifelong dream. He constantly yearned for the day he could once again devote every waking hour to Torah study.

In the concluding verse of the Megillah Mordechai wants us to know, that even when the most sacred duty of protecting the Jewish nation calls for a Jew to engage full-time in the mundane world, he or she must always remember that their natural habitat is in Torah study and the preservation of our glorious heritage.


Making Progress

“Perfection is the enemy of progress.” This quote is attributed to Winston Churchill, but the philosophy it expresses can be traced back to an important theme in this week’s Torah portion called Terumah. Terumah means “to separate” or “elevate” and the biblical narrative opens by describing the materials the Jews should donate for the construction of the Tabernacle, the structure that would serve as a divine sanctuary until the construction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem over 400 years later.

Only after listing over a dozen materials, the Torah states: “And they shall build for me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them.” Why did G-d not explain the purpose of the collection before requesting everyone’s financial participation? To appreciate this puzzling textual order we must first understand the broader context.

Fifty days after the exodus from Egypt the Jews stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah. The divine revelation was so intense that in preparation for it, no living mortal was allowed to touch the mountain destined to play host to G-d’s presence. The people heard G-d speak directly to them and were forever transformed.

Its awesomeness notwithstanding, the Sinai revelation was only temporary. Once the divine shofar blast concluded, the physical mountain lost its holiness and essentially became irrelevant to Jewish life. Our tradition never preserved the exact location of the Sinai revelation and the mountain that was once the holiest place on earth remains a simple mountain today.

The sanctuary was a different story. Once the Israelites built it in the desert, the divine presence remained there in full view for all to see that G-d dwells among us. This holiness transferred to both Holy Temples in Jerusalem and endures on the Temple Mount until today. Why was the revelation at Sinai so fleeting while the revelation in the sanctuary remains eternal?

Although Sinai was perfect, it was imposed on us from above. As G-d communicated the Ten Commandments, all of creation stopped and paid attention and there was no greater spiritual experience before or after. The world was overwhelmed with divine clarity and we stood by as spectators.

The sanctuary was the first time the people were called upon to invest their own time, energy, and money into a divine project, and by doing so started the long and arduous process of refining materialism to become transparently divine. To reveal in every person, place, and thing its intended purpose in the divine master plan for creation - not to stun creation into submission.

To illustrate this point the Torah opens the sanctuary narrative with the appeal for contributions before mentioning the sanctuary itself. Because here is where everyone can participate. No one can give it all, but everyone can give something. However imperfect the intentions of the donor may be, the donation itself represents progress in elevating the mundane to become divine, and only progress - not perfection - invites eternal holiness.

Maimonides declared that even one mitzvah - even if done with imperfect intentions -  can be the catalyst for Moshiach's arrival, who will usher in an era of global peace and tranquility.

Let’s make progress!


Reveal the Holiness Within

A fellow once approached a Jew he met in a synagogue and asked him to point out the “tzaddik” (saintly person) of the congregation. “Don’t ask me such questions. I’m not a regular here,” he responded.

It’s unclear to me why this response bothered him so much, but in any case, he wrote a letter to the Rebbe asking for guidance in understanding the significance or inner meaning of the exchange. Here is a free translation of Rebbe’s answer written in Hebrew short-hand.

“There is an important lesson here. No need to search for the Tzaddik in another Jew. Rather, find the Tzaddik within your own soul. As described in the Talmud, before your birth the heavenly court administered an oath to your soul to be a Tzaddik and you were provided the necessary strength to fulfill this oath. You just need to reveal it practically.”

This week, in addition to reading the weekly Torah portion of Mishpatim during synagogue services on Shabbat, we will read from a second Torah a portion titled Shekalim. In Holy Temple times there was an obligation for every Jew to contribute the value of a half shekel to a communal fund that paid for the daily communal sacrifices in the Holy Temple.

Our sages relate that when G-d commanded Moshe “Let each one give to the L-rd an atonement for his soul…half a shekel,” he had a hard time understanding the commandment until G-d showed him a fiery half-shekel coin taken from under G-d’s throne.

Moshe knew what a half-shekel coin was but he was perplexed by a curious law about this mitzvah. If a Jew refused to donate the half-shekel coin to the Holy Temple the authorities were mandated to seize it from him by force. How could a forced donation serve as an atonement for the defiant Jew’s soul?

The vision of the fiery half-shekel illustrated that the annual half-shekel was not about money or obedience. It represented the Jew’s soul - often called “the flame of G-d”; the essential connection to G-d which can never be diminished nor quantified. Everyone gave the exact same amount and it could be seized involuntarily because at our core we are all the same, whether we accept this fact or not. We only need to reveal the divine flame within.

Certainly, we must seek out role models and learn from teachers and mentors how to be better Jews, but never forget that the essential connection to G-d depends on you alone. And if you encounter someone who has no interest in Jewish living and you encourage them to begrudgingly do a mitzvah, know that that mitzvah is invaluable to G-d and will eventually reveal the passionate Jew within.

True Sensitivity

Storytelling is an integral part of Jewish living. In this week’s parsha we learn how Yisro, Moshe’s father-in-law traveled away from the comforts of his exalted position as noble in Midian to join the Israelites in the desert in pursuit of truth. Instead of launching into a deep philosophical discussion about monotheism, Moshe utilized their first conversation after their ceremonious reunion to share with him stories about the recent redemption from Egypt, the splitting of the sea and the epic battle with Amalek.

My children often ask me to tell them stories and when I’m unable to share lengthy dramatic tales I share short anecdotes that may be boring to their young ears, but contain essential life lessons.

This Monday, the 22nd of Shevat, will mark 35 years since the passing of the saintly Rebbetzin Chaya Mushkah Schneerson, wife of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. She was an incredibly brilliant woman who remained out of the limelight while supporting the spiritual revolution the Rebbe coordinated throughout the world. The few stories we know about her from those who merited to interact with her bear testimony to her tremendous care and sensitivity to every individual.

The Rebbetzin’s Yartzeit is an opportune time for us to learn from her behavior to be better people and here are two short stories I recently shared with my children.

When the Germans invaded France in 1941 the roads were clogged with refugees escaping Paris. Nazi pilots routinely dropped bombs on the defenseless civilians and strafed them with bullets; the journey was an absolute nightmare. Once, during an air attack, the Rebbetzin noticed a man standing on the road, oblivious to the oncoming danger. She pushed him into a nearby ditch and shrapnel and bullets hit the spot he had been standing moments earlier.

When the Rebbetzin related this story forty years later, the home attendant was surprised that she grimaced when she said that she had pushed the man into the ditch. “But you saved his life? Why are you pained by that?” he asked.

“Because pushing someone is inappropriate,” she explained. Even when it was necessary, pushing someone and causing them some discomfort upset her.

In the early 1960s a family who enjoyed a unique relationship with the Rebbetzin was celebrating their daughter’s engagement. They visited the Rebbetzin in her home together with the new bride and groom in honor of the occasion. When she served them glasses of red fruit punch the nervous groom inadvertently tipped his glass on the pristine, white tablecloth. The Rebbetzin joyously exclaimed the spill was certainly a good omen for the upcoming marriage and completely dispelled the groom’s justified mortification. In fact, the soon-to-be father-in-law later commented that she so craftily transformed the faux pas into a joyful moment that he was tempted to spill his own glass after seeing how happy she was.

These two episodes illustrate how Judaism expects us to care for one another. Ensuring another’s material or spiritual well-being is not enough. We ought to be sensitive to each other’s feelings and strive to enable everyone to achieve true inner peace and happiness.

Healing the world

Asaf was a young Israeli boy studying for his Bar Mitzvah in the winter of 1984. Curious about Judaism, he constantly peppered his Bar Mitzvah tutor with questions about Judaism and Jewish history, and was satisfied with the patient and straightforward answers.

One day Asaf asked why the Lubavitcher Rebbe does not live in Israel. “You told me the Rebbe loves the Land of Israel and is so involved with everything that happens here. Plus, the Rebbe surely recites the Amida prayer three times every day in which we beg G-d to return us to Israel. Why does the Rebbe not move to Israel?”

The rabbi advised Asaf to write a letter to the Rebbe requesting a blessing for his upcoming Bar Mitzvah and to include his question in the letter. Soon afterward, Asaf received a letter of blessing from the Rebbe which included, to everyone’s amazement, a lengthy postscript addressing his question. Following is a loose translation from the original Hebrew.

“[In response to your question] regarding where a person lives. The determining factor [in choosing a place to live] is not where it will be more personally pleasant or beneficial, but rather where one can do more good deeds and where one’s assistance is needed most.

For example, a doctor must choose to live in a place where his [healing] services are most needed, and not where he or she hopes to have an easier life.

In truth, every person must “heal” his surroundings, to introduce more light and holiness there. Regarding Jews, the primary mission of every single Jew is to bring more Judaism to their surroundings.”

In this week’s parsha we learn that several days after crossing the Red Sea, the Israelites arrived in Marah and thirsted for drinking water. G-d miraculously sweetened the bitter waters, communicated to them their first batch of Torah laws and concluded: “If you hearken to the voice of the L-rd, your G-d, and you do what is proper in His eyes, and you listen closely to His commandments and observe all His statutes, all the sicknesses that I have visited upon Egypt I will not visit upon you, for I, the L-rd, heal you.”

Torah and Mitzvot are the antidotes to all societal ills and the key to healing a broken world and we are the “physicians” empowered to joyfully “heal” our surroundings with these potent medicines. But to succeed we must be willing to sacrifice comfort and convenience to be in the right place and at the right time, ultimately preparing our world for the healthiest time of all, the era of Moshiach, when peace and tranquility will prevail for all.


No More Opting Out

Several hours before Kol Nidrei I was delivering honey cakes to friends and supporters as a traditional gesture of blessing for a sweet new year. When I finished my list and had one cake left in the car I called my father to ask if he had anyone specific in mind. He suggested I visit an elderly couple on our mailing list with whom we’ve had little connection all these years.

“Who knows? Perhaps they’ll appreciate a surprise visit and the honey cake before Yom Kippur,” he reasoned.

When I arrived at the address on my list I was greeted by the elderly gentleman. As I handed him the honey cake and explained its significance he invited me into the home for a chat.

“I’m a very bad Jew, and that probably won’t change. In fact, I never had a Bar Mitzvah in my life!” he goodnaturedly quipped.

Throughout the pleasant conversation about his childhood and how they moved to El Paso, he constantly expressed the above theme so I asked him if he would like to do the mitzvah of Tefillin.

“Here? Now?” he asked incredulously.

“Why not?” I replied.

“But I don’t know how to use them. Will you help me?”

I needed no further invitation and within a few moments, my new friend was wearing Tefillin for the first time in his life. He and his wife cried as we recited the Shema together and my surprise visit became a long overdue Bar Mitzvah celebration.

Unfortunately, his health deteriorated and he passed away a few months later. Only recently one of his children pointed out to me how providential and meaningful it was that his Yartzeit occurs in the week of Parshat Bo - where the mitzvah of Tefillin is mentioned for the first time. The mitzvah he was so proud to finally do shortly before his passing.

But I think my late friend’s connection to the story of this week’s parsha is even deeper. Parshat Bo describes the final steps in the long process leading to the exodus from Egypt. One of the less-known facts of that miraculous occasion is that eighty percent of the Israelites did not leave Egyptian slavery because they did not want to leave their homes to follow Moshe into the barren desert.

G-d did not force anyone to leave Egypt and participate in the journey to Mt. Sinai and Jewish nationhood, and whoever opted out died several weeks before Passover. However, from then on, opting out of Judaism became impossible. No matter how far a Jew may run from Judaism, he or she will eventually come back home. Because the redemption from Egypt made every Jew inherently free from the spiritual distractions of external persecution or internal apathy.

When provided the opportunity, the “Pinteleh Yid” - the Jew’s core essence will shine forth and joyfully embrace a mitzvah like a long lost child.


Immeasurable Impact

Often people invoke their parents when celebrating great personal achievements. Graduating valedictorians, bridegrooms, athletic champions, and even newly inaugurated presidents will mention those who welcomed them to the world and nurtured them to adulthood. There is typically no connection between the parents and their children’s specific achievements, but sometimes the connection is profound.

This week’s parsha opens with G-d’s instruction to Moshe and his brother Aharon to approach Pharaoh once again with the divine message “Let my people go and serve Me (G-d) in the desert.” The first time they delivered the message it boomeranged terribly for the Jews, and now the two brothers made the herculean effort to follow through with the mission.

The Torah then suddenly breaks from the narrative to record the family trees of three Israelite tribes with a specific focus on Amram and Yocheved, Moshe and Aharon’s parents from the tribe of Levi. The section concludes “That is Aharon and Moshe, to whom the L-rd said, "Take the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt with their legions. They are the ones who spoke to Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, to let the children of Israel out of Egypt; they are Moshe and Aharon." Why was this introduction to these two legendary brothers recorded in the middle of their mission and not in the beginning?

In G-d’s original instruction to Moshe the Israelite elders were meant to join him as a delegation to Pharaoh. Perhaps it would look awkward for two solitary people to represent many millions of Jews requesting freedom and initially, a group of seventy venerable sages joined Moshe and Aharon as they approached the royal palace. However, one by one the elders backed away. Pharaoh was so ferociously intimidating, the mere thought of being in his presence, let alone demanding freedom, filled their hearts with dread. By the time they arrived at the palace, Moshe and Aharon stood alone.

How did they have the courage and bravery to do it? They got it from their parents.

Their mother Yocheved had a long history with Pharoah. About a year before Moshe’s birth the Egyptian astrologers foretold that a boy would soon be born who would liberate the Jews from Egyptian slavery. Determined to nip this threat in the bud, Pharaoh commanded Yocheved, the chief Israelite midwife to kill every Israelite male baby at birth. With tremendous sacrifice, she refused to comply and even bravely talked him down from the devilish plan.

When Pharaoh then decreed all baby boys should be drowned in the Nile, Amram, the Israelite leader at the time, after a brief hesitation, inspired the Jews to continue having children by doing so himself. Moshe was born shortly afterward. 

Amram and Yocheved’s courage did not only have the short-term impact of ensuring Jewish continuity, but it also primed their children to make similar choices eighty years later with monumental consequences.

Always remember that your mitzvot today can be the catalyst for tremendous good for generations to come.


Looking for older posts? See the sidebar for the Archive.