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Rabbis' Blog

Inspirational Torah Messages from Chabad Lubavitch of El Paso

A Jew Can Always Learn New Tricks

 

I am told the older you get the harder it is to change.

But this week I witnessed someone close to seventy years old purchase a brand new pair of Tefillin and commit to wearing them daily (except Shabbos, of course) and a friend of mine just officiated at a Bris ceremony for a man who is older than seventy. This readiness to change and grow at every stage in life stems from the core of our identity.

The narrative of this week’s parsha opens three days after Avraham observed the mitzvah of Bris Milah (circumcision) at the age of ninety nine. He was in considerable pain, so G-d arranged for the weather to be extremely hot, deterring travelers from arriving at Avraham’s tent to avail themselves of his legendary hospitality. Avraham was distressed at this turn of events and sat at the entrance of his tent seeking guests to welcome into his home. As he sat there, he experienced a special revelation of G-d.

Over 150 years ago, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom DovBer, was celebrating his fifth birthday and he received a blessing from his grandfather, the third Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Tzemach Tzedek.

During their brief conversation, the young Sholom DovBer started sobbing. He learned in school that Avraham experienced a revelation from G-d. “Why does G-d not reveal himself to me?” cried the four year old to his grandfather.

“When a Jew who is ninety nine years old is willing to do a bris, he is worthy to experience divine revelation,” the Rebbe answered.

This brief conversation expresses the essential power of a Jew. Regardless of a Jew’s spiritual, religious or intellectual level he or she is always capable of desiring an intimate relationship with G-d. Even a small child can demand divine revelation and clarity.

And the way to get it is by always being ready to change and grow in Judaism. No matter how accomplished one may be, it is important to acknowledge there is room for growth and have the humility and boldness to make the change.

When Avraham was ninety nine years old he had achieved greater moral and spiritual heights than we ever will in ten lifetimes, yet he was ready to make the change.

My heroes are the brave men willing to start a new routine of wearing Tefillin every weekday and the brave women willing to kosher their kitchens and adopt new cooking habits. Those willing to set aside time every day to discover new vistas in Torah or take on the challenge of learning to read Hebrew. Undaunted by age and status, they are willing to adopt another mitzvah.

When we make our move, G-d reciprocates by giving us more clarity in life and an abundance of unimaginable blessing for ourselves and our families.

 

This Was Humanity’s Error That Avraham Fixed

 

Living Jewishly is vastly different than what conventional wisdom defines religiosity. The most common method used to measure one's religious devotion is participation in communal worship. Some think annual participation is sufficient to be considered religious while others contend one needs to be more consistent.

But Judaism is different. Open a Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law), the eternal guidebook to Jewish living and you will find rules and regulations for every detail of life. The first words you utter upon waking, the order of getting dressed and how and when to eat breakfast is all delineated in the book about religiosity. Does G-d really care about the small details?

This week we learn of the adventures of Avraham the first Jew. He merited the title because in a society dominated by idolatry, not only did he understand its inherent fallacy and discover the truth of G-d, he shared this clarity with anyone that would listen. He endured unbearable opposition and persecution as a result and it’s important to understand how society deteriorated to the point of worshipping molten images as deities.

In the beginning people merited direct communication with G-d. Everyone understood that G-d is the Creator, but they made one philosophical error. It is unbecoming for the great and omnipotent G-d to continuously be involved in the nitty gritty details of our universe. Once the cycle of nature was set in motion, G-d lost interest and moved on to bigger and better things. After all, keeping track of the many trillions of details in creation is tiring and no one appreciates a micromanager. 

This premise led to a series of philosophical errors which eventually evolved into the primitive and foolish culture of worshipping idols. (Read the full story from Maimonides.)

Avraham challenged this original premise and explained that the notion that G-d tires or chose to delegate duties is an intellectual absurdity. As the creator constantly bringing reality into existence, G-d is surely present in every detail.

He established an enormous hospitality apparatus at the crossroads of civilization, inviting all travelers to benefit from free room and board on the condition they acknowledge and thank G-d for it all. By educating people to find G-d in the mundane functions of eating, drinking and sleeping, he exposed the fallacy of idolatry, diminishing its influence on society with every progressive generation.

It follows that Avraham’s legacy of Judaism is all about revealing the divine in every detail of life, and the way to do so is spelled out in the Shulchan Aruch. Learning the abridged version is a good place to start.

When this fundamental premise pervades our psyche we can truly appreciate how every encounter is meaningful, nothing is dispensable and even challenges and failures can be purposeful. It all happens by focusing properly and Jewishly on the humdrum routine of life.

Hurricane Noach

Until half a century ago names became infamous only due to bad human behavior. But in 1953 we started giving names to hurricanes and tropical storms and for New Orleans peeps the name “Katrina” is a frightful memory and for Northeast Coasters the name “Sandy” can be traumatizing. Try saying “Harvey” to East Texans and see how it makes them feel...

Of course, there is no need for the Katrinas, Sandys and Harveys of the world to feel self conscious about this since these names are determined by a strict procedure established by the World Meteorological Organization. So there is no insinuation that someone named Katrina had anything to do with the destruction of New Orleans in 2005. But the historic flood that wiped all life off the face of the earth has been named for the man who was instrumental in ensuring that there would be survivors to rebuild the new world.

Every Shabbat, after we read the Torah portion during Synagogue services, we read a section from the Prophets containing a message similar to what we just read in the Torah scroll. This is called the Haftarah.

The section we read in connection with the story of Noach and the flood comes from Isaiah chapter 54 which discusses the redemption of the Jewish people after a long and arduous exile. G-d promises us that exile will never happen again, just as he promised Noach that life will never be destroyed from the earth again.

"For this is to Me [as] the waters of Noach, as I swore that the waters of Noach shall never again pass over the earth, so have I sworn neither to be wroth with you nor to rebuke you.”

Notice the prophet refers to the terrible flood as the “waters of Noach.” Why does Noach deserve to have his name associated with the waters that destroyed life, when he was actually the one to achieve the restoration of life after the disaster?

As I discussed last year, Noach failed to inspire his generation to repent. He spent over a century building his lifeboat without managing to persuade anyone outside of his immediate family to repent. As the face of morality of his time, he was expected to do more to avert the flood altogether. Since he chose not to lead, the flood is on his record.

But in Noach’s defense it is important to realize that humanity in his time was so earthly, coarse and egotistical that sensitivity to the divine was impossible. This is why G-d chose to restart civilization through the purifying energy of water.

The name “Waters of Noach” means “Waters of Serenity” as well. Just as water gathered properly for a Mikva can remove ritual impurity and make someone worthy to enter the Holy Temple, the waters of the great flood purified reality, paving the way for the revelation at Sinai and for Torah to serve as a light for all nations to attain the greatest moral, ethical and spiritual heights. Preparing our world for an era of peace and serenity with the coming of Moshiach.

Torah speaks to us today

 

Although the new year began several weeks ago, this Shabbat we really turn the page and start anew. Upon concluding the Torah reading cycle on Tuesday on Simchat Torah, this Shabbat we start from the beginning once again.

Also, due to the hectic schedule of the high holiday season, many classes were on hold, and now is the time when many communities and individuals restart their learning routines. On  a personal note, this is the time for me to invite the community to join our adult education program with various options for communal and individual learning opportunities. (See here for details).

I am often asked if there are any prerequisites to joining a Torah class. There is a misconception that one need to have been Bar Mitzvahed, have graduated Hebrew school or at least have some Hebrew reading and comprehension abilities before engaging in a Torah setting.

Nothing is further from the truth. Everyone and anyone can join classes or start a private learning session with the Rabbi. Try it and you’ll like it.

There is however one prerequisite to a successful Torah journey, and it is hinted to us in the very first letter of the Torah.

The Torah begins with the story of creation and opens with the word “Bereishis - In the beginning.” The first letter of the first word is a “Bet” which is the second letter of the Hebrew AlphaBet. Would it not have been more appropriate for the Torah to start with the first letter Alef?

Before we get to the answer it is important to know that just as we recite blessings before eating food or doing a mitzvah, there is a special blessing we recite before learning Torah. Here is how it goes:

Boruch atoh ado-noy elo-haynu melech ho-olom, asher bochar bonu mikol ha-amim, v'nosan lonu es toroso. Boruch atoh ado-noy, nosayn ha-toroh.

Blessed are You, L-rd our G‑d, King of the universe, who has chosen us from among all the nations and given us His Torah. Blessed are You L-rd, who gives the Torah.

You may recognize this blessing from the procedure of being honored with an Aliya at the Torah during synagogue services, but this blessing appears in the prayer book in the morning blessings and should be recited by everyone daily before reading even one line of Torah.

This blessing is a crucial reminder for us that Torah is not merely a brilliant scholarly work we received over three thousand years ago, but G-d’s wisdom which is currently being transmitted to us today! “Blessed are You L-rd, who GIVES the Torah” - in the present tense.

Approaching Torah study with this inspired attitude makes it relevant and empowering.

This is why Torah starts with a “Bet.” When reading and understanding comes secondary to and only after reciting and meditating upon the message of the “Beracha - blessing” (which also begins with a “Bet”) the Torah then speaks to us today as well.

 

The Sages called it “The Easy Mitzvah”

 

Eating is an integral part of how we celebrate our holidays, but since we like to kvetch (complain) there is a well known Jewish quip: Pesach there is nothing to eat (chametz-free diet can be tough), Shavuot there is no time to eat (it’s very short) and Sukkot there is no place to eat (gotta eat in the Sukkah).

The Talmud states that eating in the Sukkah for seven days is an easy mitzvah. While there are certainly mitzvot that are easier and harder to observe, identifying one as objectively easy seems puzzling. Plenty of people have a very hard time eating in the Sukkah for various reasons. Rather the sages are intimating that the Sukkah provides us the key to make every mitzvah easy to do. 

Following the solemn high holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, G-d gives us the joyous festival of Sukkot. Not to balance the solemnity of the high  holidays with something light and fun, but to put us in the proper mindset to follow through with our new year resolutions.

Sukkot has two unique mitzvot. Sitting in the Sukkah and reciting a blessing on and waving the Four Species (colloquially known as Lulav and Esrog). Why does the holiday name emphasize one mitzvah over the other?

While Lulav and Esrog is an important mitzvah, Sukkah has several superior qualities.

The mitzvah of Sukkah is constant. The obligation to sit in the Sukkah starts as soon as the holiday begins in the evening and continues to be relevant for a full seven days, 24 hours a day, even on Shabbat. Shaking the Lulav only becomes relevant the next morning, can be done only once a day, specifically during daylight hours and is never done on Shabbat.

When you sit in the Sukkah your entire body is involved in the mitzvah, but shaking the Lulav involves just your hands.

The combination of the Four Kinds is an exotic religious thing. The stuff you do in the Sukkah is the same old regular stuff you do all the time in your home.

Not only does the Sukkah encompass everything about us during the week, it becomes our identity as well. The Torah defines the Sukkah as a Jew’s home during Sukkot and our relationship with home is not predicated on us being there. We identify with it even when we are halfway across the globe. “Hi, my name is ____ and I live in ____.”

It follows that our connection to the Sukkah is not only when we enter it, but wherever we are we can say “Hi. I’m a Jew and I’m a Sukkah dweller.”

The Sukkah teaches us that mitzvot are not exotic extras we need to pack into an already overloaded life schedule; they are home. And just like our connection to home is easy, convenient and pleasurable even if the road back is challenging, our connection to Judaism should be the same.

As we begin sitting in the Sukkah this Sunday evening, reflect on its homey message and see how easy it will be to follow through with all the mitzvah commitments you made these high holidays.

Our Wedding Anniversary

Many wonder why the day of atonement happens specifically ten days into the new year and are surprised to discover that Yom Kippur commemorates a historical event that occured 3,331 years ago connected to communal atonement.

After the Giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai on Shavuot, Moshe ascended the mountain and spent forty days and nights learning the entire Torah from G-d. He descended on the fortieth day holding the Two Tablets engraved with the Ten Commandments. These precious stones, crafted by G-d, were the embodiment of the divine pact between G-d and the Jewish people which had taken effect forty days earlier.

Due to a series of unfortunate events, the Jews crafted a golden calf and served it as a deity, in direct violation of the commandment “Thou shalt not serve any other gods.” Witnessing the obscene idolatry going on the morning he returned, Moshe smashed the holy tablets to smithereens.

G-d was very angry and threatened to annihilate the entire nation and start a new one from Moshe’s descendants. For forty days Moshe stood on Mt. Sinai pleading for mercy until G-d rescinded the decree. He was then instructed to prepare a new set of tablets, bring them up to Mt. Sinai and G-d inscribed the Ten Commandments once again.

In total, Moshe spent three sets of forty days on Mt. Sinai communicating with G-d. If you calculate the dates, it turns out that Moshe descended Mt. Sinai with the second set of tablets on Yom Kippur. On that day G-d forgave the Jewish people for the grievous sin of the Golden Calf, setting the precedent for Teshuva (repentance). No sin is unforgivable and Yom Kippur is the national day of Teshuva, the day that G-d and the Jewish People make amends for all the negative baggage that may have accumulated throughout the past year.

The Talmud describes Yom Kippur as the true marriage between G-d and the Jewish people and the second set of tablets are the eternal marriage contract between us. These tablets remain intact until today, enduring thousands of years of history with all of its ups and downs.

Our marriage with G-d endures because it was reinforced and cemented after the greatest betrayal. Once our marriage survived the Golden Calf it can survive everything, and that’s why no Jew will ever be truly lost. This is why Yom Kippur is the day every Jew feels the need to connect and we must enable this connection to manifest itself in a meaningful and healthy manner.

Everyone talks about the once-a-year Jews, but there is a vast majority that don’t know how to express their Jewishness even on Yom Kippur.

Make the effort to reach out to a friend or acquaintance you feel may need some encouragement, and invite them to join you for services on Yom Kippur. This is the greatest and most meaningful way to approach G-d on the holiest day of the year: Bringing home His long lost children for their wedding anniversary.

 

How can I respect a lowlife?

 

Unity is a fundamental concept in Jewish teachings and culture but can be difficult to observe. When the Torah commands us “V’ahavta L’reacha Kamocha - Love your fellow as yourself,” paying lip service to Jewish brotherhood is insufficient. We are expected to truly love and respect each other as we do ourselves. Everyone.

To honestly live up to this divine expectation, our sages provided us with a fascinating lesson in the first chapter of Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers): Judge every person to the side of merit.

On the surface this seems to be the same idea as the famous adage “Don't judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.” Since everyone lives unique lives, with respective circumstances and challenges, one should therefore never judge another for their poor choices and presume guilt.

But Pirkei Avot says something different. Not only must you not conclude that this person’s poor choices and bad deeds were done out of malice and assume the moral high ground - you should judge this pathetic human being “to the side of merit.” Simply put, realize that his or her bad behavior reflects on something meritorious about them!

What is that supposed to mean?

Rosh Hashanah is the anniversary of the creation of Adam, the first human being, who upon becoming conscious of reality immediately crowned G-d as King of the Universe. But on that same day he violated the one and only commandment he had from G-d, not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, and brought death and destruction to G-d’s perfect world.

How is it possible that Adam, crafted by “G-d’s hands,” did not have the basic self discipline to refrain from eating the forbidden fruit for a few hours? He had so many other delights to indulge in, was he really that desperate?

The Talmud declares “Whoever is greater than his fellow, his inclination (for evil) is also greater.”

Adam’s temptation to sin was so powerful specifically because he possessed such a lofty soul capable of overcoming the challenge. Unfortunately he failed and we feel the impact until today, but the lesson for us is to realize that if someone is capable of stooping so low to commit sins unimaginable to us, it is because their potential is infinitely greater than our own.

Immoral and sinful behavior is never justified, nor should we tolerate it. We must learn to reject bad behavior while appreciating and embracing the great potential of the perpetrator. When we view every person based on their potential, their bad behavior should motivate us to work even harder to help them realize their great potential - which may very well yield results greater than our own.

As we approach the new year, let’s make an effort to reach out to someone who fits the above description and find ways to enable him or her to realize their fullest potential.

 

Don’t give us what we deserve

 

One of the great frustrations with our justice system is the painfully long time one must wait to have their case heard in front of a judge or jury. The upside is that the lawyers have plenty of time to prepare the right defense strategy.

In preparation for the Day of Judgement - Rosh Hashanah we have an entire month of Elul to prepare ourselves by increasing our Torah learning and Mitzvah observance, blowing the shofar every day to put us in the proper mindset.

This Saturday night at midnight our preparations go into high gear as we begin reciting the Selichot prayers every day until Rosh Hashanah. In addition to fixing the past and making good resolutions for the future now is the time to strategize how we will approach G-d on Rosh Hashanah and elicit a positive verdict for a good and sweet new year.

The liturgy of Selichot begins with this verse from the prophet Daniel: “To You, O L-rd, is Tzedakah (the righteousness), and to us is the shamefacedness.”

This opening statement sets the tone for our judgement day defense strategy. We are not asking G-d to consider all of the good things we did this past year, especially in the month of Elul, or to take into account our resolutions for the coming year. We want G-d to give us everything as a Tzedakah, as charity.

The only thing that comes for free is Tzedakah. Even a gift only happens when the giver has benefitted in some way from the receiver. But Tzedakah is selfless. The benefactor and the beneficiary may have no prior relationship and still the benefactor gives Tzedakah for no reason connected to the beneficiary.

Selichot reminds us that although it is important to prepare ourselves for Rosh Hashanah, we must always maintain a humble attitude and not expect G-d reward us for our actions. We want Him to provide us our needs this coming year in a way of Tzedakah.

Although this perspective may sound timid and depressing it is in fact the most empowering and encouraging message for us all. Regardless of what we deserve we are aiming for bigger and better. When G-d provides us based on our merits there is certainly a limit. But when G-d provides us based on His ability to give Tzedakah - the possibilities are limitless.

This Tzedakah strategy has ramifications for our approach to serving G-d as well. Just as we want G-d to disregard process and give us beyond all limits, we too should disregard process and commit to increase our Torah learning and Mitzvah observance even when it seems difficult and uncomfortable.

Let’s make our two way divine relationship boundless and limitless as only Tzedakah can be.

 

 

The Dispute that produced a Brilliant Name

Ever felt like a prophet? According to Jewish mysticism, a person’s name is their personal channel for divine energy, so when parents name their child they are having a mini prophecy. Although it is certainly a spiritual experience, not every naming goes over smoothly.

Hundreds of years ago a couple was blessed with a son and the parents were at odds about what to name him. The father wished to name his son for his father “Uri” and the mother wanted to name him for her father “Meir.” Apparently giving two names was not common practice then and finding themselves at an impasse they approached the local rabbi who recommended an ingenious solution.

The name “Uri” means “my light” and the name “Meir” means “to illuminate.” Since both names mean light, he suggested they name their newborn son “Shnei Ohr - Two Lights.” Thus the name Schneur came to be.

321 years ago, on the 18th day of Elul, the Baal Shem Tov hosted a joyous meal in honor of his 47th birthday. Although he was accustomed to celebrating his birthday every year, the devoted disciples perceived something extraordinary about that year’s celebration.

 

The Baal Shem Tov said then that a child was born who will ultimately illuminate the entire world with the brilliance of the revealed Torah (scripture, talmud and Jewish law) and the esoteric Torah (Jewish philosophy and mysticism). This child was the famed Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad Lubavitch movement, known as the Alter Rebbe.

The name Schneur - which means “two lights” - expresses the Alter Rebbe’s eternal legacy. He authored a Shulchan Aruch - Code of Jewish Law - bringing pristine clarity to all areas of Jewish law and talmudic exegesis as well as his groundbreaking seminal work of Tanya which brilliantly articulates the deepest secrets of the Torah so that everyone with a mind can understand and apply them.

The difference between these two lights of the Torah can be understood from the original dispute over the names Uri and Meir that produced the name Schneur. 

“Uri” connotes the idea that the light remains separate from others. The revealed Torah - scripture, talmud and Jewish law - provides light and clarity for us in life, but it is possible to remain separate from it. A Jew can view Torah an enhancement and guide for life, but life and Torah remain mutually exclusive.

“Meir” connotes the idea that the light shine brightly for others to the point that we can own it as well. The esoteric element of Torah -  Jewish philosophy, mysticism and Chassidus - allows us to appreciate how we are part of G-d’s masterplan for creation and we can and must be entirely invested in Torah, since it is our very life.

The Alter Rebbe’s life work brings both elements of Torah together. Every level of Torah can studied genuinely and passionately until you own it and always make sure to share it with others.

As we celebrate the birthday of the Baal Shem Tov and the Alter Rebbe on the 18th of Elul (this Wednesday) I invite you to learn more chassidus and brighten up our world in ways you may have never deemed possible.

 

 

Become a Kohen Often

A man approached the rabbi with a deal. “I'll give you $10,000 and you make me a Kohen.”

The rabbi rejected. “I’m sorry, sir. But I do not have the power to do so.”

“I'll give you $25,000… $50,000… rabbi, please! The price is not important. I must become a Kohen!”

“Why are you so desperate to be a Kohen?”

“My father was a Kohen and his father was a Kohen...”

It’s a funny joke because we all know that being a Kohen is not a promotion one can achieve through paying any money in the world or by being the most pious Jew of all time. It is a matter of fate. If your father was a Kohen then you are a Kohen.

There are three classes in Judaism, and they all depend on family. When the Jewish people became a nation at Mt. Sinai they consisted of twelve tribes and the tribe of Levi was selected to be the representatives in all matters of religious ceremonial life to serve as teachers and mentors for their brethren.

Aaron, Moshe’s brother, a member of the Levite tribe was selected to be the first Kohen Gadol (High Priest) and his descendants were ordained Kohanim (priests) to perform the various services in the Holy Temple.

While the rest of the tribes, collectively known as Israelites, received portions in the Promised Land of Israel, with every member receiving personal property for farming, the Levites and Kohanim were not included in this inheritance. They were given 48 cities to live in, but no farmland to feed themselves. They were sustained divinely ordered compulsory taxes paid by every Jew to the Levites and Kohanim on a regular basis.

The Torah in this week’s parsha clarifies why they were excluded from the inheritance. “The entire tribe of Levi, shall have no portion or inheritance with Israel… the L-rd is his inheritance.” (Deuteronomy 18:1,2)

Instead of losing out they were granted the golden opportunity to devote themselves entirely to G-d’s service without a worry in the world. Never distracted by the need to work the fields or keep track of the harvest times and the rain seasons. Their needs were provided for by divine command and they were always prepared to serve.

So aside for their religious duties, the Levites were unique among the people by dint of their G-d given gift to be dedicated to divine service all the time. Seemingly this gift is determined by fate.

Maimonides maintains it is not so. “Not only the tribe of Levi, but anyone whose spirit generously motivates him and he understands with his wisdom to set himself aside and stand before G-d to serve Him and minister to Him and to know G-d… he is sanctified as holy of holies. G-d will be His portion and heritage forever and will provide what is sufficient for him in this world like He provides for the priests and the Levites.”

Everyone can be a Kohen. Not to observe the religious duties Kohanim are obligated in, but to be selflessly dedicated to G-d is a level we should all try to reach. And if you can’t do it 24/7 then five minutes a day is also valuable. Set aside time every day to be a Kohen. Unplug from the world and learn some Torah without distraction.

The more you try it, the more you’ll like it and the more you’ll do it.

How Our Mood Changed Two Hundred Years Ago

 

Historically, these next four weeks were a tense and frightening time in Jewish tradition.

Gearing up for Rosh Hashanah - the day of judgement - the Jewish calendar features the month called Elul, designated as the time for self introspection and correction. We still have a chance to wipe the slate clean by identifying our faults and repenting for past improprieties. Sounds frightening and intense.

A little over two centuries ago the Alter Rebbe, the founder of Chabad radically changed our perception of Elul and transformed it into a time of passionate joy. Here is what he explained.

Jewish mysticism teaches that Shabbat is different than the rest of the week because there is a great revelation of divine clarity in our world from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Therefore, we must unplug from our mundane reality and focus on our relationship with G-d in a formal way. We are prohibited from certain labors and spend the day steeped in spirituality.

The same is true about the festivals and since Yom Kippur is the apex of divine revelation in our world, it is considered the most solemn of days when we must disconnect even from our most basic physical needs throughout the day.

These same sources of Jewish mysticism teach that the divine energy manifest in the world on Yom Kippur is also present throughout the entire month of Elul. This begs the obvious question - why do we not behave as we do on Yom Kippur throughout the entire month of Elul?

Kings and Queens are mostly a relic of the past, but to this day much of humanity is fascinated by royalty and royal life, so let’s employ the analogy of a king and his subjects.

When the king is in his palace he is virtually unapproachable. Even the select few granted an audience must follow royal protocols and dress codes, have limited time and the experience is largely choreographed. Even if their wishes are granted with much pomp and ceremony the encounter is highly formal, certainly memorable but rarely pleasurable.

At times the king wishes to fraternize with his subjects in the fields. He wears plainclothes, available to all and, most importantly, he is in a splendid and happy mood, putting everyone at ease. Although extremely informal, he is still the king and grants his subjects all of their wishes, sans the pomp and ceremony.

With this in mind, the Alter Rebbe explains that on Yom Kippur G-d is in “the palace.” We are expected to follow a strict protocol and meet G-d in the synagogue in a state of detachment from materialism.

But during Elul G-d is in “the fields.” Accessible by everyone, even while steeped in materialism and the humdrum of daily life. All we need to do is make the effort to approach G-d by learning more Torah and observing another mitzvah, and He will surely grant us a good and sweet new year. There is still intense work to be done, but it’s no longer foreign and formal.

Sounds like a happy time to me.

The Many Colors of Devotion

 

I had seen photos of it and heard the story of devotion, sacrifice and bravery behind it, but had never seen it.

Last month I visited the exhibition of the Lubavitch Library in Brooklyn, home to hundreds of thousands of rare books, manuscripts and artifacts belonging to the glorious dynasties of Chassidic Rebbes dating back to the Baal Shem Tov.

The display that caught my attention most was a book of Zohar that had belonged to the Rebbe’s father, Rav Levi Yitzchok Schneerson, the legendary chief rabbi of Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine. This is no ordinary Zohar, since the margins of its pages are filled with his novel interpretations and explanations of the ancient text, in tiny handwriting of red, blue, green and black.

Rav Levi Yitzchok served as the spiritual leader of Russian Jewry long after all other rabbis had either been exiled or murdered by the Communist regime. After the Previous Lubavitcher Rebbe was banished from the Soviet Union in 1927, Rav Levi Yitzchok was the only remaining rabbi of stature to openly fight against the Communist anti-Jewish oppression, ensuring that Jewish observance and education continue to thrive behind the Iron Curtain.

Days before Pesach 1939 he was arrested on false accusations of high treason and sentenced to five years in the remote region of Chi’ili, Kazakhstan - far removed from any semblance of Jewish life or community. For a scholar and leader of his caliber, the isolation from fellow Jews was certainly the most acute and painful aspect of the harrowing experience.

His wife, Rebbetzin Chana Schneerson voluntarily joined him and the most important things she brought from home were several Torah books for him to study. Seeing his delight and pleasure with these treasures she understood that he wished to write down the many novel ideas he developed while studying as he was accustomed to doing back home.

She learned to produce ink from wild berries and Rav Levi Yitzchok diligently wrote until the margins of all the books were filled with his brilliance - in short hand and in multiple colors - published decades later in a five-volume set as his eternal legacy.

He never returned home from exile and a few months after his release, Rav Levi Yitzchok passed away in Alma Ata, Kazakhstan on the 20th day of Av and was buried in a tiny Jewish section of a large cemetery - emblematic of the ultimate spiritual and physical sacrifice he endured for Judaism.

When I saw the pages of the Zohar filled with his colorful writing on display at the exhibition, it dawned on me how this illustrates the ultimate Jewish strength. Even while enduring unbearable suffering and pain, one can continue to be a shining light of devotion, wisdom and leadership for generations to come.

This Wednesday will be the 75th Yahrzeit of Rav Levi Yitzchok. I encourage you to learn more about him, his teachings and his legacy and to be inspired by his message of unwavering faith and devotion under all circumstances.

A Stranger Helped Me Today

 

My car broke down next to the Walmart near the Cielo Vista Mall earlier today because it was out of fuel. I hopped out of the car and approached a perfect stranger walking away from the memorial and asked him if he could give me a lift to the nearest gas station. He gladly agreed.

Andrew is a journalist from out of town writing a story on how educators will speak to their students about the unspeakable tragedy from last Shabbat, as school begins on Monday.

We swapped a few thoughts on the matter and I commented to him that the killer travelled all the way across Texas just to kill people because he was motivated by senseless hatred. We need to respond by doing acts of senseless love and compassion, and this short ride to the gas station for a perfect stranger was a great example of that.

It’s the perfect tradeoff - blunt hate with love. Destroy senseless hate with senseless love.

This Shabbat is Tisha B’Av - the national Jewish day of tragedy and mourning, typically observed through a 25 hour fast, but this year is different. Since the ninth day of Av occurs on Shabbat, and Shabbat is a day of pleasure and rejoicing, the sadness and pain of the observance will be delayed to Saturday night and Sunday.

Although the commemoration of the destruction of both our Holy Temples and other tragedies is delayed - the positive elements and messages of Tisha B’Av are magnified specifically when it occurs on Shabbat.

According to tradition the second Holy Temple was destroyed as a result of rampant hatred and the political bickering that rocked the Jewish nation at the time. People despised others for no explainable reason. Although Torah scholarship flourished at the time and there was no issue with idolatry and the like, the atmosphere was so toxic and tensions ran so high that G-d deemed it unworthy for the Holy Temple to remain in our midst.

That’s why Titus and the Roman legions were successful in capturing Jerusalem, destroying our Holy Temple and banishing us into exile.

But G-d promised we will return as soon as we fix the problems, and the way to correct senseless hatred is by engaging in senseless love.

As we observe Tisha B’Av and especially in light of El Paso’s shocking tragedy this week, let us focus our energies in reaching out to others, offering a helping hand and a kind word. Increase in Tzedakah giving, especially in the frequency of your giving. Set aside a Tzedakah box at home and at the office and make charity a permanent and consistent aspect of life.

May our combined efforts usher in the era we are all so desperately waiting for, when peace and tranquility will fill the world with the coming of Moshiach, even before we observe the fast this Sunday.

Being Free

 

Often we get frustrated when presented with new challenges. 

“What did I do wrong? Why do I deserve this problem?”

Instead of investing all our energy in finding a solution to the problem, it is often more tempting to engage in self pity and rage at the fact that the day is not going as initially planned.

The second parsha we will read this week, Parshat Masei, opens with a complete itinerary of the forty-year Israelite journey through the desert, from Egypt to the outskirts of the Promised Land.

“These are the journeys of the Children of Israel as they departed from Egypt.” (Numbers 33:1)

On Passover the Israelites did not embark on a direct flight to Israel. There were many stops and delays on the way until they finally made it to Israel.

Why then does the Torah preface the itinerary by referring to all the journeys as departures from Egypt? Since they departed from Egypt only once it would have been more accurate to call them “journeys to the Land of Israel.”

The Hebrew name for Egypt is “Mitzrayim” and appreciating the root meaing of this word provides the answer to our question.

“Mitzrayim” means boundaries and limitations. On Passover we did not only leave a geographical location called “Mitzrayim,” we were empowered to break through any type of limitation we may ever encounter in our lives. Our ancestors did not reach the Promised Land on the first trip to teach us that life is a constant reality of breaking through limitations. Every juncture in life presents an opportunity to prove our freedom and every day we are presented with new challenges to overcome, to act upon our freedom once again.

Although the goal was to reach the Promised Land - a reality where divinity was apparent and revealed in its full glory - the real story to tell was how we got there. Because every journey was another Exodus.

During the terrifying years of Communist persecution the Previous Rebbe once said: “Fellow Jews! Take advantage of the opportunity to sacrifice for Judaism. One day you will be free to practice Judaism without trouble and you will pine for the days when Judaism came with a price.”

We must not place ourselves in challenging situations, but when the challenge presents itself, realize its potential to make you truly free.

 

 

We're Pouring Concrete!

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It’s been some months since the bulldozers arrived at the construction site of the future Chabad Lubavitch Center for Jewish Life and today we reached the milestone of welcoming the cement trucks. Early this morning our dedicated construction team starting pouring cement for the concrete footings of the sanctuary, social hall and kitchen walls.

How appropriate that the foundation of our future Chabad House is completed this week, since the parsha of Pinchas contains a special lesson reflected in the now drying cement.

A question was once posed in the Study Hall of the Mishnaic sages: What is the most important verse in the entire Torah?

As could be expected, “Shema Yisrael” the foundation of Jewish faith was proposed as well as “Ve’ahavta Lereiacha Kamocha - Love your fellow as yourself” was an obvious candidate.

But then Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi proclaimed that the most important verse in the Torah is the one which communicates our obligation to offer two communal sacrifices every day in the Holy Temple, known in Hebrew as the Korban Tamid. “The first sheep shall be offered in the morning and the second sheep shall be offered in the evening.” (Numbers 28:4)

The assembled scholars and students were so taken by this proposition that they unanimously agreed the seemingly simple verse about the daily sacrifices surpasses the foundation of our faith and the cardinal rule of Jewish living in prominence.

Why?

There is only one mitzvah incumbent upon every Jew to fulfill every single day: The two daily sacrifices offered in the Holy Temple. Obviously this mitzvah is only practical at a time when there is a Holy Temple in Jerusalem and every Jew observed the mitzvah by proxy, through donating a half shekel every year to the Temple coffers. 

No other Mitzvah must happen every day; rain or shine, weekday, Shabbat and Holiday. It is the epitome of Jewish consistency - and that’s what Judaism depends on. Not every day does one succeed in fully relating with the deep philosophical meditation of “Shema Yisrael” nor manage to properly act upon the all encompassing brotherly love it leads to. But when Jewish action happens consistently, regardless of personal mood or current social trends, it provides the concrete foundation we need to keep Judaism alive forever.

A Chabad House is a place for every Jew, every day and every occasion. How apropos that its foundations were laid during the week that we learn of the most important verse in the Torah extolling consistency.

Please partner with us in building the future of Jewish life in El Paso and let’s commit ourselves to doing another mitzvah more consistently, cementing Judaism into every day of our lives.

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