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Rabbis' Blog

Confidence Brings Victory

Thursday, July 18, the 12th day of Tammuz, marks 97 years to the redemption of the previous Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson from communist imprisonment. Arrested at midnight in the summer of 1927 the Soviets decreed he would face a firing squad for the heinous crime of sustaining organized Judaism in the Soviet Union with his thriving network of underground religious and educational institutions. Through a series of miracles, the execution did not happen and he was ultimately released less than a month after his arrest.

In his diary he recorded that as soon as he entered the dreaded Spalerka prison compound he resolved not to be frightened or intimidated by anyone there, and his demeanor throughout his imprisonment reflected that decision. Although fluent in Russian he responded to questions exclusively in Yiddish, demanded his Tefillin and holy books returned to him, refused to be photographed on Shabbat, and even rejected an earlier release date which entailed traveling on Shabbat.

The fact of the matter was that his life was in grave danger and the consequences of antagonizing his captors could have been devastating for his family, his thousands of followers, and all of Soviet Jewry. Why did he behave this way?

In this week’s parsha we learn that as the Israelites neared the Promised Land they encountered two powerful kings, Sichon and Og. Both ruled nations of seasoned warriors, entrenched in difficult terrain and fortified cities. The Canaanite nations paid them a heavy tax to protect their borders from the approaching Israelites.

First Sichon rallied his troops to battle and was defeated in a remarkable maneuver orchestrated by G-d. But as the Israelites prepared for war with Og, Moshe started to worry. Og was a very old man who had encountered our forefather Avraham. When his nephew Lot was captured in battle, Og alerted Avraham to the crisis, which enabled him to rescue Lot from captivity. Moshe was concerned that the spiritual merit of helping Avraham 400 years earlier might empower Og to be victorious.

Therefore G-d said to Moshe before the battle with Og  (21:34), “Do not fear him, for I have delivered him, his people, and his land into your hand.”

The language of Talmud’s description of Moshe’s anxiety about the upcoming battle with Og is specific. “Moshe thought in his heart, perhaps Og’s merit will shield him.” He did not share his concerns with anyone else, nor did his fears register on his facial expressions. He kept his doubts to himself, portraying complete confidence. Only G-d - who reads everyone's thoughts - reassured him not to fear.

Although the previous Rebbe was aware of his precarious situation, he knew that confidence was the correct response. He shared this with us so we can adopt this important lesson in our own lives. Even when the struggle against our bad inclinations or moral weaknesses seems hopeless and there are many reasons to doubt we will succeed, portraying confidence is crucial and is the conduit for G-d’s blessing of victory.

Even if you’re uninspired to do a Mitzvah, do it enthusiastically anyway, as if you are inspired. It’s not being dishonest. This is how you ultimately win. Whatever crisis you might experience internally or externally, think and act as if victory is assured and see G-d’s blessings flow through your efforts.

 

Thirty Years Later: The Rebbe's Continued Presence

Ten years ago, in the summer of 2014, bestselling author Joseph Telushkin came to El Paso for an event at UTEP promoting his newest New York Times bestselling biography: Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, The Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History. Over 400 people attended the lecture and he spent the evening reflecting on how his life had been enriched in the five years he researched the Rebbe’s vast teachings and remarkable life.

Over dinner following the lecture, I shared with him my favorite passage from the book. In the chapter entitled “Leadership After Life” Telushkin noted that after the Rebbe’s passing, Chabad had grown - and continues to grow - exponentially, a phenomenon that defies all predictions. He concluded: The secret of Chabad’s growth since the Rebbe’s death is the secret of its growth during the Rebbe’s life: the Rebbe himself.

He appreciated that I noticed it.

I was eight years old when the Rebbe passed away in the summer of 1994. We traveled as a family to Brooklyn to participate in the enormous funeral. I vividly remember the mood. It was devastating. Later I learned the pundits at the time predicted the demise of the Chabad Lubavitch movement. The movement that emerged from the ashes of the Holocaust and Communist religious persecution and blossomed into an empire of global influence in every aspect of Jewish life will not survive in the absence of its dynamic leader, they said.

The exact opposite occurred. Two days later we returned home and my parents continued their work. In 1986 the Rebbe sent them to El Paso to establish a permanent Chabad presence, to strengthen Jewish awareness and engagement, and to share Judaism’s global message to everyone in town. As a child, I was keenly aware of the all-encompassing influence the Rebbe had in our lives – which only intensified over time.

I’m not unique. Thousands of children my age shared the same experience and thirty years later, the eight-year-olds of 1994 have joined the global Chabad network that has tripled in size since that fateful day and are proudly raising their children under the Rebbe’s influence. During this time Chabad families have moved to places previously unimagined and have transformed spiritual wastelands into thriving Jewish communities. When you ask them why they do it, the answer is the same, even though many were born after 1994: the Rebbe.

But the families living out in the boondocks are just an extreme example of a phenomenon playing out everywhere. Lives are changing and the world is becoming a better place every day because of the Rebbe’s influence.

This influence is not only due to the timelessness of the Rebbe’s lessons and guidance which continues to enlighten millions and enrich their lives. According to Jewish tradition even after the passing of our righteous leaders, their presence continues to be felt in the physical world just as during their lifetimes. And their presence can be accessed and felt through learning their teachings, visiting their holy resting place and joining their mission.

It was never a secret. The growth of Chabad is the inevitable result of the Rebbe’s continued presence in our world, guiding us toward the ultimate redemption through Moshiach.

As we observe the Rebbe’s thirtieth Yartzeit the Third of Tammuz (Thuesday, July 9) I encourage you to learn more about the Rebbe here. Please do an extra mitzvah, give more charity, and encourage others to do the same on this auspicious day. Learn the Rebbe’s teachings and connect to the timeless truths that continue to shape and galvanize our generation to prepare our world for the coming of Moshiach, when peace and tranquility will reign for all.

I was seven years old the last time I saw the Rebbe

I was seven years old the last time I saw the Rebbe. It was in November of 1993.

From September 1992 through October 1993 the Rebbe participated in prayer services in the main synagogue at Chabad Headquarters (770) from a balcony, and my strongest memories of seeing the Rebbe are from that setting. Additionally, during this period, there were times that the Rebbe sat at the doorway of his room and people were able to walk by and be in his presence for a moment.

In the fall of 1993, I came to New York together with my father for the International Convention of Chabad Emissaries. By then the Rebbe had not been seen on the balcony for over two weeks due to his medical condition. As a child, I expected to see the Rebbe there - just as I had seen him for several weeks during the previous summer - but it did not happen.

On Sunday evening it was announced the Rebbe would sit at the doorway of his room to see the emissaries and their families as they walked by. My father hurried with me to 770 and we joined the line. After several minutes we were inside, walking in the hallway adjacent to the Rebbe’s room. I saw the Rebbe for a fleeting moment and it is my clearest memory of seeing him so close.

I had seen the Rebbe many times before and was privileged to receive dollars, wine, and even a Torah booklet from him. But this was different. This time the Rebbe gave me the most precious gift of being in his presence - so close - when it seemed impossible. But the Rebbe made it possible.

***

The Rebbe is renowned for many reasons. He taught Torah for thousands of hours - published in hundreds of volumes - responded to tens of thousands of letters on every imaginable issue and unleashed a revolution of Jewish awakening across the globe. But the amount of time he spent meeting people in person is of a different caliber than any leader I’m aware of in history.

For thirty years anyone could schedule a private audience with him until the overwhelming demand for such meetings made it impossible. Starting in 1986, the Rebbe stood every Sunday near his office and distributed dollars to be given to charity to anyone who wished to join the line. As the weekly lines grew, the Rebbe did dollar distributions even more frequently, sometimes gifting everyone a Torah book or booklet. When the Rebbe was 89 years old there were weeks he greeted people for dozens of hours. I always wondered why the Rebbe invested so much of his precious time and energy into greeting individuals in such an unprecedented manner.

In the book of Numbers, we learn that toward the beginning of the second year when the Israelites were in the desert, G-d commanded Moses and Aaron to count them. Nachmanadies (Bamidbar 1:45) explains the final tally was not the only goal of this census. The process of counting itself served an important purpose. Every individual Jew stood in the presence of the great and holy prophets Moses and Aaron; they saw his face and heard his name. The personal encounter with these divine agents was a source of blessing and spiritual empowerment for the individual.

With tremendous physical strain, the Rebbe made himself available to everyone who sought to be in his presence, to meet the individual eye to eye because he understood the tremendous potential these meetings could unleash. And the thousands of stories and testimonies attest to the fact that they did.

Even after the passing of the divinely righteous, their impact continues in the physical world just as during their lifetimes. One of the ways to connect to their spiritual energy is by visiting their graves. In Parshat Shlach we learn that Caleb was one of two heroes who bucked the trend and pushed back against the deceptive lies the spies spread about the Promised Land. His courage came from his visit to the graves of our holy patriarchs in Hebron while scouting the land. 

Today, thirty years after the Rebbe’s passing these individual meetings continue to happen at the Ohel, the Rebbe’s holy resting place in Queens, New York. Thousands visit there weekly, and many continue to experience the Rebbe’s love, attention, and even guidance to their most pressing questions. Most importantly they are empowered to grow in their personal lives, to make the world a better place in ways they previously felt unimaginable. I’ve heard scores of stories first-hand and hundreds abound. You can read a sampling of these stories here.

Although one can always write letters and petitions for blessing to the Rebbe at the Ohel via email here (your confidentiality is assured) I encourage you to travel to New York and visit the Ohel. Just as the Rebbe insisted on being accessible to every individual up close, we can be in the Rebbe’s presence today at the Ohel, at all times of the day and night.

The Democratization of Torah

Earlier this week I studied with a friend a foundational text from Maimonides that I think every Jew should read. It is the introduction to Mishne Torah, the fourteen-volume tome that cemented Maimonides’ legacy as one of the most influential Jewish leaders of all time. In the introduction, he lays out the unbroken chain of Torah tradition from Moses until the authors of the Talmud, forty generations and approximately 1700 years later.

From the beginning, the Torah and its accompanying tradition were taught publicly, studied, and preserved by thousands of scholars. But in every generation, one leader or a pair or cluster of leaders were considered the essential links in that tradition. Although the approximately seventy sages named in this introduction are well known from the vast Bible, Talmudic and Midrashic literature, Maimonides records almost no personal details about these sages, aside from one glaring exception. Shmaya and Avtalyon, the teachers and mentors of the famous Hillel are identified as converts and Rabbi Akiva, who is credited with salvaging Torah tradition during one of the most devastating periods of Jewish history is called “the son of converts” as well as two others. Why is this personal tidbit relevant to the chain of Torah tradition, when much more remarkable details of many other sages were omitted?

As Maimonides articulates the transparent legitimacy of Torah tradition, dating back to Moses at Mount Sinai, he also emphasizes the democratization of Torah scholarship. When it comes to the Torah, pedigree and privilege are non-starters. The only thing that counts is devotion and hard work. Even a convert who has no background in Judaism, or the son of converts who had no opportunity to study until he was forty years old, can become the Torah’s most consequential standard bearers.

When I say “democratization” I mean the idea that Torah is accessible to everyone. It’s certainly not a free-for-all and we can’t make stuff up in Torah. But the ancestors’ scholarship is no guarantee for their descendants’ academic success, and the lack of pedigree is no deterrent to Torah greatness.

In the laws of Torah study Maimonides states: Three crowns were conferred upon Israel: the crown of Torah, the crown of priesthood, and the crown of royalty. Aaron merited the crown of priesthood. (One must be Aaron’s descendant to be a priest.)… David merited the crown of royalty. (Jewish kings are typically from Davidic lineage.) … The crown of Torah is set aside, waiting, and ready for each Jew… Whoever desires may come and take it.

This is one of the reasons the Torah was given to the Jewish people in a desert. Just as no one can claim ownership of the vast wilderness, no family, tribe or clan can claim ownership of Torah. With humility, dedication, and hard work, everyone can succeed in Torah study and contribute to its preservation for eternity, not by shaping Torah in our own image, but by shaping ourselves in the image of Torah. By allowing Torah to dictate our worldview, to guide our choices and most importantly to shape how we live our lives day in and day out.

 

The goldfish prepared me for Shavuot

Last week Chabad’s Gan Israel summer camp started and during the five-week program, close to 40 children will be treated to a first-class experience of fun and entertainment permeated with Jewish pride, spirit, and learning. I am privileged to spend some time with the campers discussing the upcoming holiday of Shavuot.

A few days ago a bowl of goldfish was on their table so instead of sharing my planned spiel, I asked them if they could find a connection between fish and Shavuot. After hearing their creative answers I shared the following story about Rabbi Akiva.

Approximately 1900 years ago the evil Roman empire which ruled over the Land of Israel sought to destroy every vestige of Judaism by prohibiting the public teaching of Torah on penalty of death.  At the time there were no printed books or even manuscripts of Torah scholarship and the only way Jewish scholarship thrived was through public lectures by the sages. Unfazed by the decree and passionate about passing on the Torah tradition to the next generation, Rabbi Akiva continued lecturing publicly to thousands of students.

A shady fellow challenged Rabbi Akiva for ignoring the mortal threat. “Are we not obligated to preserve life at all costs?” he asked. “Perhaps you should stop lecturing publicly until the decree is annulled.”

Rabbi Akiva answered him with a parable. A fox walking on the riverbank noticed the fish swimming frantically to and fro. “Why are you swimming so frantically” the fox asked one of the fish.

“We are trying to swim away from the fisherman's net,” the fish replied. 

The wily fox saw an opportunity for a fine meal. “If you come up here next to me on the riverbank you won’t get caught in the net.”

“For an animal with a reputation for wisdom you're quite the fool,” the fish said. “As long as I’m in the water I can survive despite the danger of the fisherman’s net. But if I leave the water I will certainly die!”

Rabbi Akiva explained that a Jew with Torah is like a fish in water. Abandoning Torah to escape persecution was as false a choice as fish leaving the river to escape the fisherman’s net.

On Tuesday night we will start celebrating 3,336 years from when we received our oxygen. On Shavuos we reestablish our commitment to the Torah which has kept us going for over three millennia. Notwithstanding many trials and tribulations, Torah has always been the lifeline of our nation and our relationship with it should reflect this fact.

May we merit this year to receive the Torah joyfully and meaningfully.

 

Keep this in mind when advocating for Israel

Shortly after October 7th I published an article in the El Paso Times describing the impact the savage massacre in Israel had on the local Jewish community and how everyone can respond to it. Reflecting on the fact that it occurred during the holiday of Simchat Torah when Jews around the world started reading the Torah from the beginning, I pointed out that the first entry of the eleventh-century classic Bible commentator Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (Rashi) provides context to the conflict.

The Bible begins with the story of creation because the day would come when people would accuse the Jewish nation of stealing the Holy Land from others, Rashi wrote. Therefore, the Bible sets down the premise that G-d is the creator and master of the world. He alone chose to gift the Holy Land to the Jewish nation, and there is no need to apologize for being there.

A few days later I received an email from a reader with a simple question: How can a Jewish kingdom in Israel thousands of years ago justify a Jewish presence there today? I appreciated the question because it clarifies two fundamental and interconnected points of the Israel debate. Firstly, all criticism of Israel boils down to one simple attack: Why are Jews living in that swath of land in the first place? Go live somewhere else!

Secondly, this question illustrated how the only foolproof defense for a Jewish presence in  Israel today is that G-d promised it to the Jewish nation as an everlasting inheritance, an integral part of His covenant with each one of our three forefathers Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Every other argument about history, archeology, international law, or the savagery of our enemies, is ultimately flawed.

A close reading of this week’s parsha reveals how this divine inheritance has no expiration date and continues to be relevant even when there is no autonomous Jewish presence in the land.

Following G-d’s promise that devotion to Torah study and Mitzvah observance will elicit tremendous blessings of success, wealth, health and peace in Israel, the Torah continues with the flipside. If the Jews failed to uphold their end of the deal there would be tremendous pain and suffering, culminating in their expulsion from their Promised Land. “Your land will be desolate, and your cities will be laid waste.” Notice, even after the Jews are exiled from the land making it desolate, G-d calls it “your land.”  Even when we are physically distant, the land remains ours forever.

Beyond the biblical language, our unnatural obsession with the land we lost close to two millennia ago shows that it’s part of our identity as Jews, no matter where we are. The liturgy of our daily prayers, the grace after meals and the design of our synagogues all emphasize our unbreakable bond with Israel. Yom Kippur services and the Passover Seder, the most heavily attended Jewish events of all time, both conclude with the declaration and prayer “Next Year in Jerusalem!” 

Public discourse about Israel is predictable. Detractors hurl nonsense arguments to vilify its very existence and defenders work feverishly to fact-check and counterargue within the parameters of these outlandish accusations. Over 900 years ago Rashi recommended that the best way to legitimize our presence in Israel, especially to ourselves, is by saying the truth: G-d gave it to us forever. Everything else is a distraction. Even if the critics do not share this belief, they will be forced to respect our conviction in our beliefs.

May we very soon merit the realization of G-d’s promise in this week’s parsha “I will grant peace in the Land,” and may this lead to the arrival of Moshiach when peace and tranquility will reign for all.

 

 

Can We Really Trust?

As a preteen, I was in a workshop at school where a volunteer stood on the edge of the table wearing a blindfold and the rest of us lined up next to the table ready to catch him to see whether the blindfolded volunteer was ready to free-fall off the table into our hands. The workshop leader explained that trusting friends, family or teammates is more than having faith in their ability to pull through for you. It means having the highest confidence in their dedication and loyalty to you that you would be willing to free-fall, even without seeing them, knowing they will catch you. 

There is a profound difference between faith in G-d and trust in G-d. Faith is a set of beliefs that can be nurtured in any person with the right education and guidance. Trust is something every individual needs to work on. Can you act upon the truths you believe even when reality seems to contradict them? This week’s parsha gives the perfect example of this.

The parsha opens with laws about agriculture in the Land of Israel. After six years of plowing, planting and harvesting, the seventh year was a national sabbatical and no fieldwork was allowed. This mitzvah is called Shemitta.

You don’t need to be an economist to realize what this means. In a society where almost one hundred percent of the industry is agriculture and import was not a thing, a full year of no fieldwork meant that the entire region would run out of food which is bad news.

The faithful Jew is now in a theological bind. On the one hand, G-d is the omnipotent and eternal Master of the universe and the Torah represents G-d’s will and wisdom. On the other hand, forcing an entire nation to lay down their plows and sickles for a year means they won’t have any food, and people must eat. What gives?

Amazingly, the Torah seems to imply that any rational human being is expected to ask this question. “And if you should say, "What will we eat in the seventh year? We will not sow, and we will not gather in our produce!"

G-d does not chastise the questioner for not having sufficient faith. Instead, the Torah continues: “Know then, that I will command My blessing for you in the sixth year, and it will yield produce for three years. And you will sow in the eighth year, while still eating from the old crops until the ninth year; until the arrival of its crop, you will eat the old crop.”

Simply put, G-d is saying “Trust me!” Even though the mitzvah of Shemittah seems like the entire economy will go into free fall with no hope in sight - G-d has it figured out. If you follow these rules properly, and express your trust in G-d, the crops preceding Shemitta will sustain you for many years and you will be just fine.

A friend opened a small business several years ago and took G-d as a partner by committing to giving one-tenth of his earnings to Tzedaka as obligated according to the Torah. He confided to me that he once needed to send off his ten percent to charity, but realized that if he pressed “send” on that check, his business bank account would be empty. After an agonizing few minutes he decided to send the money anyway, and G-d would need to take care of the rest. Sure enough, by the end of the week, he landed new clients completely unexpectedly and his account has never been empty since. That’s called trust in G-d.

It’s not easy, but nurturing our trust in G-d is the best way to ensure a life of success and serenity.

Time is much more than money

“Time is money,” they say. But is it true? Sure, you can make money at any given time, but equating the two is very shallow. Consider these differences between time and money: Everyone has access to any given moment in time, whereas money is not equally available. No one can take away time from you whereas money can be stolen. And finally, money can be accumulated, whereas time is exactly what it is and there is no way to grow it.

Now that we’ve established time is not money we can appreciate why Judaism insists the most important commodity is time and the most important Jewish attribute is valuing time. Here is what I mean.

In this week’s parsha we learn that on the second day of Passover Jews living in the Holy Temple era harvested an “omer” measurement of barley, baked it into matzah, and brought it as a wave offering in the Holy Temple. From the day that “omer” measurement of barley was offered we are obligated to count seven weeks, a total of forty-nine days, and the fiftieth day is the festival of Shavuot - the day we commemorate the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai and our conversion to Judaism.

This seven-week process is called “Sefirat HaOmer - Counting of the Omer” and today we are at the midpoint of the counting period. Since in Judaism the day begins in the evening, we recite the blessing and count “Sefirat HaOmer” right after dark. On the first evening, we said “Today is one day to the Omer.” On the second day, we said “Today is two days to the Omer.” Last night we said, “Today is twenty-four days, which is three weeks and three days to the Omer.” See all the details here.

Most mitzvot involve the usage of a holy object such as a Torah scroll, a pair of Tefillin, or a Mezuzah. Others are intentional actions done with specific objects such as eating in a Sukkah, eating Matzah on Passover, and the like. But during the seven weeks of “Sefirat HaOmer” we are counting the days. Since we count it at the beginning of the 24 hours and have no idea how the day will turn out, we are not even counting the good things we did that day, just the time itself. What is the purpose of counting the days, and how does this process prepare us for Mount Sinai and our conversion to Judaism?

The Torah seldom describes the virtues of our Jewish heroes, but about Abraham the first Jew the Torah declares, “Abraham was old, coming in days.” A literal reading of the words “coming in days” can be understood to mean “He had all of his days with him.” Abraham was awesome because he filled his days with goodness, devotion, and service. Not even one day of his life was wasted. He appreciated the value of time, the gift of time, and the responsibility he had as the custodian of time, and used every moment to its fullest. This is a character trait every Jew is expected and empowered to emulate.

Counting the day as it begins allows us to focus on the amazing gift that has just been granted to us, and be motivated to use it wisely. Doing this for seven weeks sets us on track to making this habitual, preparing ourselves to be our best version of the first Abraham, G-d’s ambassador to bring divine goodness and clarity to the world.


 

How to combat “polite” antisemitism

Antisemitism is a huge problem, but not a new one. Given the obnoxious protests at numerous institutions of “higher education,” I’m getting an uptick of questions about it. Here’s my advice in dealing with one aspect of the antisemitism issue.

The recent trouble seemed to climax during Pesach as millions of Jews gathered around the Seder table to commemorate our liberation 3,336 years ago. An event meant to be a true expression of our current freedom, as the Mishna states, “In every generation, one is obligated to behave at the Seder as if they themselves were redeemed from Egypt.”

In the middle of the story, after describing G-d’s promise to Abraham that after a designated time of suffering his descendants would be redeemed and inherit the Promised Land of Israel, the Haggadah instructs us to raise a glass of wine and say this:

Vehee She’amda! This is what has stood by our fathers and us! For not just one alone has risen against us to destroy us, but in every generation they rise against us to destroy us; and the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hand!

How does this statement enhance our feelings of freedom at the Seder? The fact that our enemies rise against us to destroy us in every generation is not a cryptic sentence. Almost every page of our history tells the story of how nations and individuals sought to do just that, and tragically, millions throughout the ages suffered terribly as a result. Are we really free?

Reading the text carefully we’ll notice the text says our enemies wish to destroy us - not only to kill, hurt, rob, or shame us. They seek to destroy us as a unique people with a divine mission. G-d promised Abraham that no matter how anyone succeeds in hurting Jews, they would never manage to destroy them. Some try to do it violently and others politely, but these are different tactics with the same goal.

Recently this idiotic cancerous hatred was somehow dignified with the official term “antisemitism,” but don’t be fooled by how sophisticated it sounds. And it’s the polite, non-violent, sophisticated-sounding antisemitism that is most common and can in ways be the most devastating.

An incident involving two young people attending my Seder this year can give perspective on what we can do about it.

While having lunch in a school cafeteria a Jewish student overheard a group of students discussing the war in Israel, parroting typical talking points (no need to elaborate) with no intention of hurting anyone in the room. At some point she felt very alone and vulnerable as a Jew hearing what they were saying; the devastating feeling of experiencing subtle and even unintended antisemitism.

But then, as she looked out the window she saw a volunteer walking down the adjacent walkway wearing a large noticeable Kippa on his head. This Kippa-wearing fellow was at my Seder and heard the story from this student for the first time. “You have no idea how proudly Jewish you made me feel,” she said to him. “The way that silly conversation made me feel didn’t matter anymore. I was reminded how I’m part of something very special.”

The joyful Vehee She’amda reminds us that in all circumstances, we as Jews are truly free. The good news is that we - as a people with a divine mandate - will never be destroyed, and as individuals, we can protect ourselves from the polite-sounding vitriol and hatred we may encounter. By remembering who we are, and having confidence in G-d’s promise to us, we inoculate ourselves, our families, and our communities from the spiritual, mental, and psychological devastation antisemitism seeks to accomplish. By being proud Jews and openly observant of our Judaism we neutralize the poison of polite antisemitism.

The better news is that antisemitism is only temporary. Our prophets foretold about the era of Moshiach, when “the wolf will lie with the lamb,” wars, jealousy, and competition will cease and hatred will be no more. Let’s do our part to make it happen now by increasing in Torah study, doing more mitzvot and inspiring everyone around us to increase in acts of goodness and kindness.

 

Just Get It Done

An hour before Pesach started a friend called me from out of town frantically searching for specialty Matzah due to a surprise medical issue discovered in one of his family members that day. Thankfully, with two phone calls, we found some Spelt Matzah in his neighborhood and I was heartened everyone could fulfill the Mitzvah of eating Matzah at the Seder that night.

A few days later I asked him how his Seder was in light of the hectic day leading up to it. “Honestly, in past years I felt more energy and inspiration at the Seder,” he said. “This year it felt more like we were just trying to get everything done.” We talked about it and quickly realized there was something so refreshing about that experience. Although all Mitzvot, especially the Seder can and should be meaningful experiences, Judaism is obligational and not recreational. Even when we’re not in the mood, or distracted by stuff going on in our lives, we just have to get Mitzvot done.

Reflecting on our conversation more deeply, I realize this is a spectacular post-Pesach lesson for us all. On Pesach, Matzah is the only bread we can eat, and Chametz (leaven) is strictly prohibited to commemorate the tremendous miracle of our swift exodus from Egypt 3,336 years ago. Aside from the absence of leavening, another crucial difference between the Matzah we eat at the Seder and year-round Chametz is that Matzah is plain (just flour and water) without flavor, to represent “the bread of poverty” whereas Chametz is typically flavored.

This eight-day menu change expresses an important soul journey. The flavorful Chametz is analogous to logic and sophistication and the tasteless Matzah represents ironclad simple faith. Certainly, Judaism is meant to be an intellectually stimulating and passionately inspirational experience, but to be real and sustainable it must be rooted in ironclad simple faith, unrestrained by personal understanding or moods.

On the anniversary of our nation’s birth, we purge ourselves from the flavorful Chametz for over a week and engage exclusively with the simple Matzah to ensure our foundations are strong. So our relationship with Torah study and Mitzvah observance should not be hampered by our subjective experiences and we can “just get it done” even when we are not in the zone. But then we must reengage with the sophistication and delightfulness of logic, reason, and feelings so the entire human being can have a wholesome relationship with G-d.

As we relish the familiar delicious taste of leaven Challah this Shabbat, let’s remember the blandness of the Matzah we just finished eating earlier this week, and be sure to get Mitzvot done no matter what.

 

Behind the Scenes at the Splitting of the See

Sunday evening we begin celebrating the final two days of Pesach, known as Shvii Shel Pesach (Seventh Day of Pesach) and Acharon Shel Pesach (Final Day of Pesach) respectively. It will mark 3,336 years to the day the Jewish nation stood at the Red Sea, with the Egyptian army bearing down upon them with nowhere to escape.

At dawn G-d commanded Moses to lift his staff, a mighty wind blew the sea apart, the Jews crossed the parted sea on dry land while the Egyptians who chased after them drowned in its turbulent waters. It was quite a scene that made international headlines at the time and is considered one of the grandest miracles ever displayed by G-d. The grand finale of almost a year long process to securing the freedom of the Jewish people from Egyptian slavery.

While we give thanks to G-d for those tremendous miracles, there is another part of the dramatic story that played out that night which has practical relevance to every Jew today.

Pinned against the roaring sea by the bloodthirsty Egyptian army, the Jews were paralyzed by fear, indecision and worst of all fragmentation. Some insisted on fighting the Egyptians while others moaned it was time to drown themselves at sea both preferring death over going back to slavery. One defeatist group even suggested returning to their wretched slave lives they had just left one week earlier while a more hopeful group claimed it was time to pray to G-d for salvation.

In response G-d told Moses all four groups were wrong. “Speak to the children of Israel and tell them to travel!” At the liberation the Jews were told they were headed to Mt. Sinai in order to receive the Torah. Why had they stopped traveling?

Before anyone knew the divine plans for a miraculous sea crossing, one man took initiative. If G-d said to continue traveling to Sinai, the fact there was a raging sea in the way was of no consequence. Nachshon Ben Aminadav, the leader of the tribe of Judah, jumped into the sea and started walking towards Sinai. His tribe and many others followed his lead and soon there were thousands of Jews jumping into the water with the intention of moving closer to Sinai. When the water reached Nachshon’s nose, G-d instructed Moses to lift his staff and split the sea, and the rest is history.

That night Nachshon set the Jewish standard for Jewish self-sacrifice. He did not seek drama or fame. If G-d instructed to reach Sinai nothing, not even a raging sea would stop him from getting there. Today, more than ever, we are called upon to be like Nachshon. Many Jews are faced with challenges unprecedented in the modern world. Challenges to our Jewish observance, identity and pride.

May this anniversary of Nachashon’s heroic jump inspire us to keep moving in the right direction despite all odds, until we reach the ultimate destination, the arrival of Moshiach when peace and tranquility will reign for all.

 

Encourage children to ask questions, and be prepared to answer them

My children are an inquisitive bunch, and as they grow older their questions get deeper and tougher to answer. Most information I can find on the internet but often their questions demand answers beyond facts and figures. That’s what makes the annual celebration of Passover so interesting for us.

Passover Seder is the longest-running annual family dinner in history. 3,336 years ago G-d instructed the Israelites to have a feast of roasted sacrificial meat, unleavened bread called Matzah, and bitter herbs on the eve of their redemption from Egyptian slavery. This marked the birth of the Jewish nation and the anniversary has been observed ever since with a choreographed festive dinner packed with many rules and traditions.

Storytelling is a major component of the seder schedule and, as biblically prescribed, the story of our exodus is meant to be told as a response to questions asked by children.  “And it will come to pass if your child asks you in the future, saying, "What is this?" you shall say, "With a mighty hand G-d took us out of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 13:14).

This question-and-answer format is so integral to the Passover observance that our sages composed a text of four questions famously known as the “Ma Nishtana” recorded in every Haggadah (Passover seder guidebook). Children have been asking these questions to their parents during the seder for thousands of years: What makes this night different from all other nights? Why do we dip vegetables twice, eat unleavened bread exclusively, have bitter herbs, and eat and drink while reclining?

Placing the spotlight on the children during the most important religious family ceremony of the year has had profound positive ramifications in ensuring our heritage continues through the ages. Preparing them to perform that night is an educational priority as Passover approaches.  

Four days before Passover in 1989 the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson celebrated his 87th birthday. It was Sunday, and following his long-standing weekly tradition, he greeted the thousands of people who came to receive his blessing by handing each one a dollar bill to be given to charity. I recently watched a compilation of six conversations he had with parents and children that Sunday afternoon.

The Rebbe asked whether the children were prepared to ask the Four Questions at the seder - a standard pre-Passover inquiry - but then asked whether the parents had already prepared the answers. It struck me that with this follow-up question, the Rebbe was teaching us all an important lesson in education and parenting. If you encourage the children to ask questions you must be prepared to answer them. Although our children are trained to ask a boilerplate text of questions and we will recite the traditional text from the Haggadah in response, we must appreciate that each child is asking something unique, and as their elders, we must be prepared to answer the child and not the question.

When we celebrate liberty children want to understand what liberty is all about, not only through historical facts and figures but through learning from the example of their parents and educators. We must be prepared to answer their questions about living moral and ethical lives, anchored in divine truths and faith in G-d, dedicated to the betterment of society and the entire world.

This is why the Rebbe’s birthday is observed each year as Education and Sharing Day, in tribute to his outstanding dedication to education. A time to pause and reflect on our duty and opportunity to enhance the moral and ethical education of all our children. It’s about creating conversations that matter around dinner tables, in classrooms, and wherever we interact with our young ones.

I am thankful that the El Paso County Commissioners' Court and the El Paso City Council issued proclamations, joining the president, dozens of governors, and numerous local governments around the country in recognizing the Rebbe’s birthday, April 19 as Education and Sharing Day.

Let us reflect on our collective obligation and opportunity to enhance the true education of our children. To serve as proper role models of how we take concrete action in bringing more goodness and kindness into our world. This is the perfect way to apply the cardinal lessons of Passover throughout the year and make a real difference.

In the El Paso Times:  https://www.elpasotimes.com/story/opinion/2024/04/18/apply-the-lessons-of-passover-throughout-the-year-rabbi-levi-greenberg/73338828007/

On ElPasoMatters.org:  https://elpasomatters.org/2024/04/18/opinion-rebbe-menachem-schneerson-passover-lesson-children/

 On AOL: https://www.aol.com/let-us-reflect-obligation-enhance-120112005.html

In Spanish:  https://diario.mx/opinion-el-paso/lecciones-de-la-pascua-judia-mas-alla-de-las-preguntas-20240420-2171745.html

 

What's the deal with hand-baked Shmurah Matzah?

There are two types of Matzah. The round hand-baked Matzah and the square machine-made Matzah. Many wonder about the difference between them and why it’s highly recommended you specifically get hold of round hand-baked Shmurah Matzah.

Both Matzahs are made of the same ingredients: flour and water. However, having the right ingredients is not nearly enough to have a legitimate Matzah for Passover. From the time the flour meets the water the leaven fermentation process starts happening and if the dough is not handled and baked properly, it can become “Chametz” which is Hebrew for “leaven” and strictly prohibited throughout Passover.

This brings us to an important nugget of consumer information: not all Matzah sold in the supermarket is kosher for Passover! That’s right. The companies won’t lie to you. If the Matzah is prepared for Passover, it will say so on the box. If not, it will state that as well. And if there are other ingredients in the Matzah, while it may be kosher for Passover, it cannot be used at the Seder. Check the boxes well!

While regular Matzah is closely regulated from the time the flour meets the water in the baker’s bowl, “Shmurah Matzah” means the regulation begins from the harvest. The wheat is harvested during the summer in dry conditions to ensure no moisture could render the kernels unusable. Every step of the process is closely watched until the Matzah comes out of the oven.

We Jews have been baking Matzah for 3,336 years and for most of that time, the only option was for it to be done by hand. With the onset of the Industrial Revolution, a machine was invented to bake Matzah. While it made Matzah production cheaper and easier, and the product may be consumed on Passover because it is not Chametz, many wondered if the machine Matzah could be used to fulfill the obligation to eat Matzah during the Seder. Here’s why:

Matzah is not just unleavened bread - it’s a Mitzvah food. Mitzvah needs intention and machines can’t think. The people involved in the baking process must focus on the fact that these Matzahs will be used to fulfill G-d’s commandment for us to commemorate the exodus from Egypt. If you dig a little deeper, the spiritual element of Matzah lends itself to personal human involvement and not a cookie-cutter machine process.

According to tradition - when eaten on Passover - Shmurah Matzah represents “food of faith” and “food of healing.” These two crucial areas of life require constant nurturing and monitoring and despite universal dogmas, everyone’s individuality is expressed in them as well. While there are specific textbooks for faith, these beliefs manifest differently in our unique consciousness. While medicine is a textbook-based discipline, every person’s body is different and nothing can replace in-person doctor checkups.

That’s why it’s recommended you have at least some hand-baked Shmura Matzah for the Seder. Allow the experience of true liberty to permeate your body and soul from a rugged human perspective that appreciates and values your spiritual and physical individuality. Please reach out to learn how you can get Shmura Matzah for your Seder.

In these unprecedented times, the messages and spiritual properties of Shmurah Matzah are especially pertinent, and may they serve as a conduit for G-d's blessings of good health, spiritual growth, and material prosperity for us all.

Best wishes for a Kosher and happy Passover.

 

How the Eclipse Contextualizes the Latest Israel Hysteria

As we anticipate the upcoming Great North American Eclipse this Monday the global hysteria over the terrible war Israel must wage now seems to be climaxing and many are anxious about the near future. G-d carefully choreographs everything that happens in this world, and through the Torah, we can at least glean insight into how to contextualize what is going on at all times.

This Shabbat during synagogue services, in preparation for the upcoming holiday of Passover, we will read from two Torah scrolls. In the first, we will read the weekly parsha of Shemini, in the second we will read G-d’s instructions to the Israelites to prepare a Passover sacrifice in anticipation of their upcoming exodus from Egyptian slavery.

This extra section, called “Hachodesh,” opens with the details of the Jewish calendar. One of the most defining characteristics of the Jewish calendar is that it follows the lunar cycle. The year is generally comprised of 12 lunar months (approximately 354 days and not 365 days) and the Jewish dates, which define our holidays and life cycle events, give you an idea of how the moon looks that night. Since Rosh Hashanah is the first day of the month of Tishrei you will always see the tiniest sliver of the moon on Rosh Hashanah eve (if at all), whereas the Passover Seder night, which is on the fifteenth of Nissan, will always have a full, bright moon.

Judaism emphasizes our intrinsic connection to our calendar to the point that the Jewish nation is often compared to the moon whereas the rest of the nations are likened to the sun. One of the most obvious correlations is size: The moon is much smaller than the sun, and Jews have always been and always will be a fraction of a minority in a world of billions. But despite our comparatively meager numbers, we have survived everyone and everything for over three thousand years.

Not only that, the tiny moon can even eclipse the much larger and more powerful sun.

This brings me to the newest developments about Israel. Diving into the details of the latest moral finger-wagging and righteous indignation the world is directing toward us would be a total distraction and wise people should not take the bait. But when nations with overwhelming numbers or with superior resources seek to dictate how Israel can defend itself by claiming the moral high ground and leveraging their physical and financial superiority, it’s understandably intimidating.

The convergence of the solar eclipse and the reading of Hachodesh reminds us that our legitimacy has nothing to do with our population size, resources, or brute force. 3,336 years ago G-d designated us as a luminary with the resilience of the moon to bring the divine beauty and moral clarity of the Torah to all humanity. A cursory read of our long history proves that there is nothing we haven’t dealt with before and nothing can ever destroy us. As the Passover Haggadah so poignantly states: “In every generation, they rise up to destroy us, but G-d saves us from their hands.”

Enjoy the eclipse!

 

Our Most Powerful Weapon

We have a tradition that the Torah portion we read every week is thematically connected to the happenings of the past week or the next week. Today I noticed a beautiful connection between Parshat Vayikra we will read this Shabbat during synagogue services, to the festival of Purim which begins this Saturday night and continues through Sunday.

Parshat Vayikra delineates various offerings brought on the altar in the Holy Temple. There were animal and bird sacrifices, meal offerings and wine libations and each type had a unique procedure and service associated with it. Of course, the practical application of these offerings is only possible when there is a Holy Temple in Jerusalem. But even when we do not have the Holy Temple, we can invoke the blessings and divine energy associated with these offerings through learning about them with the hope and confidence that very soon we will be able to engage in these divine services in the rebuilt Holy Temple.

Here is one of the offerings discussed in Parshat Vayikra. Jews are prohibited from eating the grain of the new year’s harvest until the second day of Passover when a special offering of barley flour was offered in the Holy Temple called Minchat HaOmer.

What is the connection to Purim?

Haman’s genocidal decree against the Jews was signed and sealed two days before Passover. In response, Queen Esther requested Mordechai announce a mandatory communal fast for three days and nights to elicit G-d’s mercy and blessing for success in her mission to plead for the Jews to King Achashveirosh.

There was no Passover Seder that year and instead of eating Matzah they prayed together for salvation. The third day of the fast was the second day of Passover. Early in the morning, Mordechai gathered a group of 22,000 Jewish children and taught them the laws of the Omer Offering which would have been offered that day if there had been a Holy Temple in Jerusalem.

A few blocks away in the royal palace King Achashveirosh had a horrible night. When Haman showed up early in the morning they had a conversation that concluded with the king instructing him to find Mordechai (Haman’s arch-enemy), dress him in the king’s royal robes and crown, mount him on the king’s horse and parade him through the city streets announcing “Thus shall be done to the man whom the ming wishes to honor!”

Crushed and devastated Haman gathered the props and found Mordechai teaching the huge group of children. When Haman realized they were learning about a flour offering offered in the Holy Temple that had been destroyed over a half-century earlier, he asked Mordechai how much flour was offered on the altar. “A fistful” Mordechai replied. “Well, your fistful of barley flour outweighed the 10,000 silver talents I offered the king as bribery for the destruction of the Jews,” Haman said morosely.

Indeed, that morning marked the reversal of fortunes. Haman and our enemies were killed, Mordechai and the Jews lived and we are here to celebrate Purim over 2,000 years later.

The world has abandoned the Jews throughout history, but we’ve survived it all and thrived because we have the most powerful weapon of all: the Torah study of our children. When all seems lost, the most practical and helpful thing to do is to learn Torah with Jewish children. Just as Mordechai reversed the greatest threat to Jewish survival in his time, we will merit great miracles in our time, ensuring the security and safety of all Jews, especially in our Holy Land.

 

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