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Rabbis' Blog

Inspirational Torah Messages from Chabad Lubavitch of El Paso

No Such Thing as a Wandering Jew

 

One of the most enduring caricatures of “the Jew” is the image of a bearded hunchback, holding a sack over his shoulder and leaning on a wanderer’s stick. The exiled wandering Jew.

For many, the fact that our immediate ancestors hailed from faraway lands and made fascinating journeys to the shores of this country or another is a badge of honor and the stuff that great stories and family legends are made of.

Some suggest we are wanderers by nature as our ancestors wandered for forty years in the wilderness before reaching the Promised Land. This impression is patently false.

This week’s parsha provides a vivid description of how the Israelites travelled through the desert as a community of several million strong.

The epicenter of the Israelite camp was the Mishkan (Tabernacle) with all twelve tribes camped around it, three tribes in each direction. A divine cloud hovered over the Mishkan  at all times, and as long as it was there, the Israelites stayed put.

When the cloud lifted, the message was clear that it was time to move to the next destination. Without knowing where they were headed everyone picked up and followed the cloud until it came to a standstill, indicating that they had reached their destination.

No mortal knew how long they would remain in any specific place and where the next journey would take them. “They travelled according to G-d’s instruction (the moving cloud) and the camped according to G-d’s instruction (the halted cloud).”

Our ancestors never wandered; they travelled according to a divine plan.

The infancy of Judaism was characterized by the experience of travelling based on a transparently divine plan to teach us that we are always following a divine GPS.

While you may think that you moved to this city for a job opportunity, or chose that vacation spot for its breathtaking beauty or decided to attend a specific university because you won a full scholarship there - you’re wrong. You are in this very spot at this very moment because G-d has a specific mission that only you accomplish right here and now.

You think your ancestors immigrated from Eastern Europe because they were persecuted and sought a better life across the Atlantic? That may be what they were thinking, but this week’s parsha enlightens us to the fact that they were brought to this blessed country for a divine purpose.

Although where we are is never up to us, what we actually accomplish there is entirely up to us. By utilizing every opportunity to learn more Torah, do more Mitzvot and inspire others to do the same, we live up to the divine plan that brought us to our destination and prepare all of humanity for the ultimate destination, the era of redemption when peace and tranquility will reign for all.

 

 

 

Standoff with the Soviets

It was close to midnight on a hot summer night in 1927 in Leningrad.

The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson was having dinner with his family after a long session of private meetings with individuals seeking spiritual counseling, life guidance and a listening ear, known in Chabad as “Yechidus.” A squad of soviet police led by two agents of the Yevsektzia (the notorious ‘Jewish section’ of the GPU (forerunner of the KGB)) barged into the apartment.

As the leader of the Chabad movement since 1920 he developed and coordinated a massive network of underground Jewish education and infrastructure in direct defiance of the communists’ wishes to destroy all organized religious life in the Soviet Union.

The ruthless Yevsektzia was desperate to bring Jewish life to an end, and one week after Shavuot of 1927 they conducted a thorough midnight search of his apartment to uncover incriminating evidence of “anti-revolutionary activities” and placed him under arrest. He was supposed to face a firing squad that night, but miraculously the worst was averted and due to immense international pressure and many miracles, within a month, on the 12th of Tammuz, he was a free man.

The saga of the previous Rebbe’s arrest and liberation is fascinating and I urge you to read more about it here, but I would like to focus on a short episode that occurred on that evening 92 years ago as described in his diary.

They began their search in the room of my daughters, Chaya Mussia and Sheine, and asked them: “What party do you belong to?”  “We belong to our father’s party,” they replied; “we are nonpartisan daughters of Israel. We are fond of the old ways of our Patriarch Israel, and detest the new aspirations.”

They displayed the type of pride every Jew ought to have. New trends and ideas do not intimidate us, no matter how much brute force or influence their adherents may wield. Torah is eternally true and does not bend to external forces.

The name of this week’s parsha “Naso” can be translated to mean “Lift up their heads.” The mandate for Moshe to inspire the Jewish people to be forever proud of the divine gift they received at Sinai and to march through history with heads held high.

This fierce pride is our badge of honor and the secret ingredient to our ability to survive under all circumstances, and it can only be nurtured through continuous Torah study and ever increasing Mitzvah observance.

While we are still under the influence of Shavuot and the commemoration of Sinai, find ways to nurture your Jewish pride and share it with family and friends so that we can all hold our heads higher and prouder until we fulfill our collective mission to make our world a divine dwelling, ushering in the era of redemption when peace and prosperity will reign for all. 

 

Are Your Guarantors Lined Up?

 

In anticipation for the Giving of the Torah G-d requested the Jewish people provide guarantors to ensure that the Torah remain relevant forever.

The Jews first suggested our three Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Each one of these spiritual giants were worthy of such an honor and the combined merits of all three would surely convince G-d that the Jews mean business. Alas, this idea was not acceptable to G-d.

The prophets were next in line. In each generation, a righteous leader would inspire the people to strengthen their Torah study, mitzvah observance and participation. These constant reminders will ensure the Torah remains part and parcel of Jewish life. This offer was rejected as well.

Finally, the Jewish Nation nominated their children. They will be educated to live according to the Torah and to educate the subsequent generations as well. Jackpot! G-d accepted this offer and the dramatic events of Sinai proceeded to change reality forever.

Why does education serve as the catalyst for receiving the Torah?

Offering the Patriarchs as a first choice was indicative of the human tendency to rely on the virtue of lineage. We imagine that the memory of an illustrious line of worthy ancestors is sufficient to keep tradition alive. Such a strategy has proven faulty and rarely effective.

The second offer is problematic as well. There is a tendency to designate a select few individuals to be the spiritual conscience of the community. Relying on the wakeup calls of prophets is hardly a way to ensure the continuity of Torah life.

By designating their children as the guarantors of the Torah, the parents committed themselves to an uncompromising standard. Far more than simply training the youngsters in the academic depths of Torah study during school hours, educating a child is a constant endeavor.

Kids are inquisitive and genuine. Successfully educating them demands constant engagement, self-introspection and, primarily, action. The exemplary behavior of parents is the most crucial ingredient in raising proud, passionate and observant Jews.

While lineage and inspiration are certainly helpful, the all-encompassing task of serving as role models and teachers for the next generation is the secret to the eternity of Judaism. And so each year, G-d expects us to renew our commitment to ensure our children continue to fill the vital role of guarantors.

 

Seven Seventy

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The Rebbe leaves Seven Seventy on Erev Yom Kippur 1983. I can be seen in the background near the doorway.

On Wednesday we experienced a historic event 33 years in the making. Laying the symbolic foundation stone for the new Chabad Lubavitch Center for Jewish Life at the Groundbreaking ceremony set the tone for the future of our community.

I was grateful to be flanked by such a wonderful group of friends and supporters and everyone in attendance made a statement of encouragement and enthusiasm of the great accomplishments in store for Judaism in El Paso. It was truly a moment of celebration.

In planning the architecture of the new edifice, much care was taken to serve the needs of our diverse and growing community. A spacious sanctuary, social hall and Judaic library will allow for activities to happen simultaneously in a comfortable and proper manner.

But the entrance will be the masterpiece. The front door is the place where everyone is welcomed and embraced with unconditional love. We therefore chose to build the entranceway in the likeness of Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters, known simply as “Seven Seventy” (its address is 770 Eastern Parkway) because the facade of that iconic building in Brooklyn is symbolic of everything Chabad stands for.

“Seven Seventy” served as the Rebbe’s base of operations and in its hallowed halls he educated and inspired generations of students to dedicate their lives to strengthening Judaism in every corner of the globe. Through its doors entered those seeking clarity and healing together with the curious and the content and everyone left empowered to bring the light and beauty of Torah to another part of the universe. Just seeing the three pointed tops of the brown-brick building is sufficient to elevate the spirit and gladden the heart.

For ten years I was privileged to study at Rabbinical schools in Brooklyn and every day I spent time in Seven Seventy. Unforgettable memories of praying with the Rebbe, observing many celebrations and participating in every farbrengen (chassidic gathering) when the Rebbe taught Torah and inspired thousands for many hours at a time.

In the summer of 1986, Chani and I together with our new born son Levi, hailed a taxi to the airport to catch our one-way flight to El Paso - from Seven Seventy. We had the mandate to bring the spirit of Seven Seventy to El Paso and establish a Chabad House for every Jew to feel at home. A space for everyone to celebrate Judaism at their pace.

With your help we have succeeded in doing so and we are proud that the new era of our journey in El Paso will bring a physical likeness of Seven Seventy to our midst.

Thank you to everyone for joining us on Wednesday (check out the full photo album here) and thank you to all who have thus far contributed to the capital campaign. We are halfway to our goal and if you have not participated yet, please consider partnering with us in this auspicious project. Please visit chabadelpaso.com/build for more information about the new building and for dedication opportunities.

I am so proud to be building the future together with you.

 

Demanding Works

 

Society places a premium on patience and politeness. No one appreciates being told what to do or being pressured into anything and we are trained to suggest and advise change rather than demanding it.

If this is true regarding our interpersonal relationships it follows that our interactions with G-d should follow the same trend. That’s why some people were queasy when the Rebbe launched a massive campaign to demand Moshiach’s arrival. “We Want Moshiach Now!” became the motto of the international Jewish Kids Club (Tzivos Hashem) the Rebbe established in 1980 and the Rebbe reiterated its importance at every opportunity.

Some argued that the approach was improper and impolite. How can you demand something like that from G-d? He sent us into exile and will bring Moshiach when He sees fit. Will demanding even help?

On Sunday we will celebrate Pesach Sheini - the Second Passover. Nowadays we mark the day by simply eating some matzah, without the drama of ridding ourselves of all Chametz or having an elaborate all-night seder. But the history of this minor holiday reveals a powerful element of the Jewish psyche that we ought to tap into sooner than later.

One year after the exodus from Egypt, the Israelites were told that on the 14th of Nissan they shall offer the Passover Sacrifice in the newly inaugurated Tabernacle and eat the meat that evening, as they had done one year earlier on the eve of redemption. From then on this Passover Sacrifice represented the birth of the Jewish nation and the eternal freedom granted to us 3,331 years ago.

Since the sacrifice is offered in the Tabernacle or Holy Temple one needs to be in a state of ritual purity. If one were to participate in a funeral and have contact with the dead body, for example, they would need to go through a seven day purification process in order to participate in the Passover Sacrifice and seder tradition.(It is important to note that ritual impurity can happen as a result of doing a mitzvah, such as burying the dead, and it is not indication of wrongdoing at all.)

The coffin of Yoseph, the famed Jewish viceroy of Egypt, accompanied the Israelites to the Land of Israel and his pallbearers were unable to be purified in time for Passover. Although they fully understood why they were barred from participating and appreciated the fact that they were charged with an important mission, nevertheless they approached Moshe and demanded “Why should we lose out from the opportunity to offer the Passover Sacrifice?”

Responding to their demand, G-d decreed that thirty days later, the 14th of Iyar, would be make-up time for anyone that was unable to offer the Passover Sacrifice on time. We demanded it and we got it.

In the absence of the Holy Temple most Mitzvot are impossible to observe. Every extra moment in exile means more time that Judaism cannot function as it should. It behooves us to demand this all change now.

So the next time you say “We Want Moshiach Now” don’t feel self conscious. The more strongly and incessantly we demand it the faster we will get it and usher in an era all of humanity desperately needs - NOW!

 

Reality Check

 

In a world rife with fake news, political posturing and endless amounts of cable commentary one needs to sometimes take a step back and search beneath the surface to see what is really going on.

This is not a new phenomenon. From the beginning of civilization humans have been adept at processing events through bias, tainting their world view to fit a foregone conclusion of how they think things ought to be.

When the Israelites were redeemed from Egyptian slavery G-d wished to redeem their worldview as well, so He brought them to the Red Sea. It was not en route to the Promised Land and tradition teaches us that the Israelites did not even cross the sea to the other side. Instead, they entered and exited on the same side, leaving the Egyptians in the water to meet their just ends.

So why did G-d engineer this miraculous spectacle?

Gazing at the big beautiful ocean one is unaware that beneath the surface a sophisticated world thrives. Whatever can be found on dry land has its aquatic counterpart beneath the waves, but the naked eye cannot see it.

The same is true with our world. Within the reality we call nature there is a divine hand moving everything in the right direction for a divine purpose. Although our fleshy eyes cannot see this, we were gifted the understanding to perceive this truth - at the Splitting of the Sea.

When G-d revealed the hidden world of life flourishing beneath the Red Sea, it was a physical manifestation of a far greater revelation: the divine purpose which permeates every detail of our reality. For a few hours the freshly minted Jewish nation was privy to the ultimate reality check.

3,331 years ago we experienced it naturally for a few hours, but in the era of the ultimate redemption through Moshiach this will become our permanent reality.

Shvii Shel Pesach, the festival which begin tonight, is the anniversary of the Splitting of the Sea, and Acharon Shel Pesach, the final day of Pesach is a time for us to focus on the future redemption. We celebrate the two events back to back because they represent the same idea - revealing the truth of reality.

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

I invite you to join us on Shabbat, April 27, 7:00pm at Chabad for Seudat Moshiach – the dinner in tribute to Moshiach. Discover the real facts behind this fundamental Jewish topic and enjoy some final bites of Shmurah Matzah and other Passover delicacies. If you cannot join us, I encourage you to eat some matzah and toast lechaim on four glasses of wine in anticipation for a better world to come.

 

My Trip to Austin

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On Tuesday I joined twelve fellow Chabad rabbis from across the great state of Texas in our Capitol to participate in the recognition of the Rebbe’s upcoming birthday, 11 Nissan (observed this year on April 16), as Education and Sharing Day in Texas.

In 1978, President Jimmy Carter started an American tradition honoring the Rebbe by proclaiming an annual day of reflection for all Americans. Every US president since has followed this tradition annually in tribute to the Rebbe’s valuable contributions to the national conversation about education.

This year, Governor Greg Abbott signed such a proclamation and both the House and Senate have passed resolutions about Education and Sharing Day.

Rep. Joe Moody from El Paso authored the resolution (HR 1002) in the House of Representatives and, surrounded by fellow lawmakers, explained that the Rebbe taught that education, in general, should not be limited to the acquisition of knowledge and preparation for a career. Instead, the educational system must pay more attention — indeed the main attention — to the building of character, with emphasis on moral and ethical values.

“In 1974, the Rebbe introduced the ‘charity campaign.’ A grassroots campaign to train us all to become ‘givers,’” Moody said. “The idea is simple. Place a box, like this one,” - Moody held up a charity box and placed a dollar inside - “in your home or in your office and start the day by setting aside a small amount to charity. Including our children in this practice, encourages them and will help educate them to have empathy for our fellow human beings.”

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Senator José Rodríguez co-authored the resolution (SR557) together with Senator José Menéndez in the senate and elaborated on the goals of the Rebbe’s charity campaign. “The hope was that adults and children alike could move beyond the value of accumulating charity money and transform their hands into ‘giving hands.’ Goodness and kindness would become a part of life.”

It was a beautiful morning and a meaningful event to participate in and I believe their words speak for themselves. In El Paso, Mayor Dee Margo signed such a proclamation as well.

As we celebrate the Rebbe’s birthday on Tuesday, reflect on how you can make a difference in the lives of others. Add in Tzedaka giving and Torah learning and share these ideas will everyone you know. Approaching Pesach it is certainly appropriate to reach out to Jewish friends or acquaintances who may not have a Seder and ensure they find somewhere to participate.

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Politics Aside

 

We live in a polarized society and many bemoan the fact that the current political climate is tearing apart families, communities and neighborhoods. The Jewish community suffers the same issue and this week’s parsha sheds light on how we can deal with a certain aspect of this situation..

It is only natural for folks to think differently about issues and to feel passionately about their positions. To argue about ideas and respectfully disagree is healthy but things get dicey when we perceive the other’s position as a threat to our way of life. When tempers flare and the condemnations start flying we start to hear expressions like “How can such a person be considered Jewish?” or “There is no value to your participation in Jewish observance.”

Is there justification to this approach?

In this week’s parsha we learn about the laws of “Tzaraat.” Although it is commonly translated as leprosy - it was not leprosy at all. It was a miraculous skin condition for which a dermatologist was never consulted.

When the strange white spot appears on someone’s skin a Kohen determines if it is “Tzaraat” and if the individual is a “Metzora.” A Metzora is considered ritually impure and isolated from the rest of the community until the spot recedes and the Kohen declares him or her cured of Tzaraat.

This miraculous condition is a punishment for speaking “Lashon Hara” - evil talk; gossiping and peddling negative information about people. Since this person caused strife and discord in the community, this person is afflicted with “Tzaraat” and secluded from others until he or she repents and changes their evil ways.

There are times when the Kohen is obligated to postpone seeing the prospective Metzora until a later date. If someone notices these strange spots during a festival the checkup is delayed until after the festival. If a groom notices these spots during his wedding, the Kohen is approached only after the Sheva Berachot - the seven days of the marriage celebration.

Now, the appearance of these spots suggests that this person is a gossiper and a real threat to the community. How can his banishment be postponed?

The fact is that declaring this individual a “Metzora” would disrupt his or her ability to properly celebrate the festival or for the groom to fulfill the mitzvah of rejoicing with his new wife for the first week of marriage. Even though we are dealing with someone who is truly problematic, their mitzvah observance is valuable to G-d and we must be careful not to disrupt them.

Even if you perceive a fellow Jew to be a real troublemaker, there is no license to disqualify a mitzvah he or she does. On the contrary, utilize every opportunity to encourage such a  person to do more mitzvot, because every mitzvah is precious to G-d.

 

Get to Know Yourself

 

Regret is painful. Sometimes it’s about small issues and sometimes it’s about major catastrophes. I once heard a mentor explain that when someone wonders “how could I have done that that?” the honest response is to “get to know yourself.”

This is not an indictment of humanity, rather an embrace of our inherent imperfection and our ability to fix what we broke.

Approaching Passover it is customary to read two Torah portions during Shabbat synagogue services in addition to the standard weekly Torah portion. This week, after reading Parshat Shemini we will read a portion from the Book of Numbers about the laws of the Red Heifer (Parshat Parah) and next week, after reading Parshat Tazria, we will read a portion from the Book of Exodus about the Jewish calendar and the first Paschal Lamb (Parshat Hachodesh).

The purpose for these extra readings during the Holy Temple era was to remind the nation that Passover was approaching and the Paschal Lamb - the most important element of the Seder at the time - needed to be prepared accordingly. Since the Paschal Lamb was only offered in the Holy Temple, and one must be ritually pure before entering, we read about the Red Heifer - the centerpiece of the ritual purification process - a week beforehand.

Why was the reading of ritual purification standardized for the entire nation? Was it assumed that most Jews were ritually impure in the lead up to Passover?

Although the specific need for purification varied, the availability of the Red Heifer ashes for the purification process is considered a Jewish national treasure. Why? Because everyone is susceptible to ritual impurity and everyone must know that - there is a way to correct the problem and then participate in the celebration of our redemption on Passover.

Today, in the absence of the Holy Temple, when ritual purity through the Red Heifer and the offering of the Paschal Lamb is not physically possible, we continue this annual pre Passover tradition, and the joint message of these two readings highlights the key to self perfection and global redemption.

Metaphorically speaking, ritual impurity can be compared to sin and the ritual purification process can be compared to repentance. It is possible for a human being to live a sinless life and never need to do Teshuva (repentance), just as someone can live a life of ritual purity and never need the ritual purification process of the Red Heifer. Nevertheless, Teshuvah is a gift for everyone.

Imperfection is not a liability - it is the first step to perfection. The imperfect are empowered to perfect a profoundly imperfect world and usher in an era of global redemption for us all.

Everyone can do it.

 

And they lived happily ever after...

In many Jewish communities Purim jesters visit homes to enliven the festivities and collect money for worthy causes. They sing a famous Yiddish song-song that roughly translates to this: “Today is Purim, tomorrow no more. Give me a dollar and throw me out the door.”

Today is the day after Purim. Is Purim truly no more?

For the last two weeks we’ve been studying the Megillah at our Tuesday night classes and many were surprised to discover that the miracle of Purim was an episode that extended for close to a year. Often storytellers make it seem as if once Haman was killed the Jews lived happily ever after...

That's not what happened.

Haman cast his lots two days before Passover and scheduled the Final Solution for eleven months down the line. Mordechai and Esther swiftly sprung to action and within three days Haman was hanging from the gallows, but his murderous decree was still very much alive. Since it was signed with the king's signet ring, so long Achashveirosh remained in power the Jews still faced a terrifying end.

Even after Esther begged and pleaded that he rescind the decree, the mighty king demurred claiming it was against “the process.” Once a decree was stamped with the royal signet ring it was unchangeable. For two months Mordechai and Esther petitioned incessantly, until Achashveirosh agreed to issue a counter decree that the Jews should defend themselves on the day they were condemned to death. By no means had the danger passed until they were victorious the next year.

The decree had an interesting loophole. It only targeted “Yehudim” which referred specifically to Jews who refused to become heathens. A Jew that would forsake his or her faith in G-d would be spared death. Nevertheless, not one Jew used the loophole.

It was the first time that the entire Jewish nation faced such a test of faith and they passed it with flying colors.  For a full year, every single Jew clung to the Jewish faith under penalty of death.

It emerges that the miracle of Purim did not only unfold in the halls of power. It was manifest in the behavior of every Jewish man, woman and child for the duration of an entire year. Their deepest connection to G-d was on full display every single day.

More than any other holiday, Purim teaches us that Torah and Mitzvot are not exclusive to special times and places. Judaism is not only relevant on Shabbat and Festivals, in the synagogue, around the seder table or next to the menorah. We are Jews every moment of the day, wherever we are.

Turns out that every day is Purim.

 

Treating Chutzpah with Chutzpah

We have all experienced it and are probably guilty of it to some extent. “Chutzpah” is so ingrained in our social fabric that dictionary.com explains to the uninitiated it can be used to describe audacity, nerve, impudence and gall. I believe the original Hebrew term was so widely adopted, because “chutzpah” really refers to something much deeper and more sinister than simple brazenness.

As this is the Shabbat before Purim, during synagogue services we will read a short portion titled Parshat Zachor form the Torah after reading the weekly Torah portion. These three verses toward the end of Deuteronomy describe the mitzvah incumbent upon every Jew to remember and never forget what the nation of Amalek did to us shortly after the exodus from Egypt.

Literally weeks after the Israelites were liberated from Egyptian slavery, the Amalekites journeyed hundreds of miles from their homeland to wage war with them in the wilderness. The attack was unprovoked and completely unjustified as the Israelites were not poised to inherit their land and posed no threat to them at all. Besides, the Amalekites were well aware that they would lose, so why did they do it?

Our sages compare the Amalekite tactic to the scenario of a boiling hot tub that everyone was afraid to dip into until one nut-job jumped in. Even though he got severely burned, the water was no longer that intimidating to everyone else.

The Exodus from Egypt and the Splitting of the Sea were such monumental events that all the nations cowered in fear and the Israelite morale was at an all-time high. The miraculous display of divine power ensured that no one would dare oppose them as they advanced to Sinai to receive the Torah and then on to Israel to inherit their promised homeland. It also ensured that there would be no internal resistance to the spiritual journey they were experiencing.

The Amalekites sought to disrupt this global perception and to destroy the Israelite morale by launching their suicide attack, and they were wildly successful. This is the epitome of “Chutzpah:” disrupting something positive for no reason at all.

Today the Amalekite nation does not exist, nevertheless we are still obligated to remember them because there is an Amalek inside each one of us. For example, at times one may experience clear divine providence and feel inspired to express thanks to G-d by doing an extra mitzvah or giving extra charity until an internal voice says “Meh, chill out. It was just a coincidence.”

How to respond to such internal chutzpah? With positive chutzpah. Do an extra mitzvah - for no reason at all. Learn some more Torah even if your schedule is overwhelming - just because. Increase your tzedakak giving even if the bank has not been growing lately - simply out of chutzpah.

 

It’s the only language Amalek understands.

 

Warm Dinner on the Road

Earlier this week a friend of mine connected me with a student of his who was moving from the east coast to San Diego, driving through El Paso on Monday evening. Yaakov was interested in learning some Torah with a Rabbi during his trip and my friend suggested he stop in El Paso for a quick Torah class.

We communicated throughout the day and soon realized that he would get here late at night so I suggested he stop for some dinner at our home and continue on his way. Dinner was delicious, the conversation refreshing (we spoke plenty of Torah subjects) and Yaakov left with two cupcakes and some recommendations of online lectures for the rest of the drive.

It’s common for road trippers to find entertainment along the route and I was impressed that Yaakov chose to seek out a Torah class, in addition to the online classes he was listening to during the drive because he wanted the trip to be a Jewish experience: To stop in a town and learn Torah with a real person.

In this week’s parsha we learn of the inauguration of the Mishkan, the tabernacle, which served as a divine dwelling space within the Israelite camp for close to forty years. The final verse describes the divine cloud that hovered over the edifice signaling G-d’s presence.

“For the cloud of G-d was above the Tabernacle by day, and fire would be there by night, visible to the entire House of Israel, at all their journeys.”

The Tabernacle was only erect when the Israelites were encamped. Why then does the Torah use the word “journeys” when referring to their encampments?

Because for a Jew the journey from Point A to Point B is as important and consequential as the point of departure and destination. At every step of the way there are ample opportunities to serve G-d. Whether it is joining a prayer service on the road, learning Torah with a Jew or inspiring a fellow traveler to do more goodness and kindness there is always a chance to make a real impact.

This is the final message of the entire book of Shemot and when we will read this verse in the Synagogue during Shabbat services it is customary for the congregation to announce in unison “Chazak! Chazak! Venitchazek! - Be strong! Be strong! May we be strengthened!”

It is an empowering message yet one that demands much moral strength to apply on a constant basis - but the reward is limitless.

Who knows? Maybe the next time you seek out a mitzvah on the road you will end up with a delicious, warm dinner as a bonus. :)

 

 

Hard Hats Only

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I never thought setting up a fence could be an emotional event, but this Monday was special. A crew of workers set up a fence around the front area of the Chabad property on Escondido and the landscape of Jewish El Paso has changed forever.

The idea of a brand new Chabad Lubavitch Center for Jewish Life has been brewing for many years and the community is abuzz about the campaign for quite some time already, but the simple act of surrounding the construction site was a game changer. We’ve moved forward from the planning stages.

I confess that although I am intimately familiar with the demolition plans, I get excited with every carpet ripped out, every piece of plywood taken down and every shingle knocked off the roof.

The information we read in this week’s parsha Vayakhel is extremely familiar. The construction plans of the mishkan (tabernacle) delineated in the Torah over the past three weeks is repeated almost verbatim, to the point that Rashi, the epic commentator has very little to comment on since all the information was previously explained.

Why the detailed repetition? Beforehand the mishkan was a plan and now the Israelites are making it a reality. Every step of the actual construction is exciting and worthy of mention.

Construction sites are busy places. Many people with diverse abilities and credentials participate in the daily goings-on. But there is one thing that unites everyone on site - the hard hat. Beyond the practical safety concern, I believe the fact everyone is wearing the same hat illustrates a vital dynamic necessary to ultimate success; they are all united for one purpose. Everyone has a specific role, but they are members of the same team.

The name of this week’s parsha “Vayakhel” means to gather and unite. Before Moshe shared the divine plans and delegated responsibilities he gathered everyone together to illustrate how this important goal of creating a divine dwelling within the camp is achieved. First and foremost the Israelites must appreciate and digest the fact that they are a single unit. Not a coalition of diverse tribes and factions, but a community bound together at the core.

This same idea is reflected in the broader mission we have as a nation. We are empowered to reveal G-d in every detail of reality through learning Torah and observing Mitzvot. But to succeed we must appreciate that we are part of a large team and everyone in the team needs to be actively engaged.

So when picking up the tools needed to observe a specific mitzvah, remember to put on your “hard hat.” Be sure to share it with another - because every Jew is wearing a hard hat on the grand construction site of making our world a dwelling place for G-d.

 

Family is Different

On Tuesday we celebrated the marriage of my sister Leah to the wonderful Yanky Baron and it was a beautiful affair.

The Jewish wedding ceremony is conducted under a Chupa (canopy) with a plethora of nuanced customs all meant to emulate (in various ways) the wedding between G-d and the Jewish Nation at Mt. Sinai 3,330 years ago. The event called “Matan Torah - The Giving of the Torah” was not merely the communication of ideas and laws; it was the moment we became one with G-d.

On the surface, G-d gave us the Torah to enable us to reveal divinity in every detail of reality and to live life on a divine mission. If this is the case, give us the book, teach us how to learn and apply it and wish us luck in their mission. Must we really be married to G-d to succeed?

Following “Matan Torah,”, Moshe was summoned to ascend Mt. Sinai and remain there for forty days and nights to learn the rest of the Torah - 603 more commandments and their myriads of details. The Israelites miscalculated Moshe’s ETA, panicked when he did not return on time and were manipulated into creating a Golden Calf and serving it as a deity, in direct violation of the most serious prohibition against idolatry.

G-d was enraged and notified Moshe that the nation would be wiped out and a new and improved nation would emerge from Moshe’s descendants.

Moshe would hear nothing of it.  “If they are not granted forgiveness, erase me from your book (Exodus 32:32)”. In other words - kill me first. He did not justify their catastrophic sin nor did he seek to minimize its severity, but he valiantly declared that the destruction of the nation would happen only over his dead body. (Read more about this in last year’s message).

G-d relented but stipulated that the Divine Presence would cease to dwell in the Israelite camp for their own safety. If the Divine Presence dwelled within them, another sin would be fatal. An angel would lead their journey to the Promised Land instead.

Moshe was not satisfied. He continued to pray and beseech G-d to dwell within the nation in a revealed way. “If Your Presence does not accompany us, we would rather not go up from here to the Land (Exodus 33:15).”

And about the high risks of further sin and further divine vengeance - this was Moshe’s answer: If they will sin again - G-d will pardon them again!

This is the bottom line of Moshe’s argument. The Jews did not enter into a behavioral relationship with G-d. We became family. This is not to suggest that the rules can be taken lightly, but our relationship is not terminated due of bad behavior. Family finds a way to work things out.

Nurture a loving relationship with G-d through learning more Torah and doing more Mitzvot, and if you mess up on the way, know there is always a way forward.

My Phone went Swimming

It happened. The unthinkable. My phone fell into water for 5 seconds.

Seems like not such a big deal - but it was. Most of the features worked except for voice calls. Ironic?

The little water that seeped into the forbidden territory of my phone’s innards upended my morning schedule and I found myself in the nearest T-mobile store trying to get myself back on the grid.

Thankfully the phone was insured, but a replacement would take time to arrive and I needed  something ASAP. The helpful and well informed sales rep advised me to first file the insurance claim and only then switch my sim card to a new device. Otherwise the insurance company satellite won’t pick up the correct signal from the damaged phone.

Long story short, I didn’t ask too many questions, followed their advice step by step and less than an hour later life was back to normal.

In this week’s parsha we learn how Aharon and his sons were ordained as the Kohanim (priests) to serve in the Mishkan that was being constructed in the desert. Only they and their descendants are authorized to offer sacrifices and incense and to execute a host of other rituals observed in the Holy Temple.

They were inducted into the service by offering a specific formula of sacrifices and were ordered to wear a uniquely tailored uniform. The details were so important that the Torah reiterates the induction must be done in “this specific way” which leads our sages to state that “if Moshe omitted anything of all that was stated in the Torah dealing with this matter, Aharon and his sons would not be invested to be kohanim, and their service would be invalid.”

Plain and simple. If the formula is not followed accurately, the Mishkan is a waste of time.

Allowing a few drops of water to invade my phone caused it to malfunction. Had I rushed to switch my sim card to a substitute device before submitting my insurance claim I would lose out on the benefits of the plan. So I was glad to follow the sales rep's advice which made for a hassle free experience. My newly installed water heater was useless because the wrong valve was open and an email I recently sent was never delivered because I typed .con instead of .com in the address.

The same is true about Judaism. There is a specific formula to Torah study and mitzvah observance and it is crucial to do it right.

No need to panic. Mitzvot are fairly easy to observe when done accurately and Torah wisdom never conflicts with reality when understood in proper context.

The formula works.

 

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