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Rabbis' Blog

Individually Social

 

Life is a balance between fending for ourselves and contributing to society. On the surface these two ideas are contradictions, but Pesach teaches us how these two extremes complement and enhance each other.

One of the recurring themes of the Seder is the fact that the centerpiece of the Seder is missing. In preparation for redemption G-d commanded the Israelites to prepare a Pesach sacrifice. Each family was to purchase a sheep, tie it to their bedpost for four days, slaughter it on the 14th of Nissan and roast and eat it on the eve of the 15th of Nissan in their homes together with Matzah and Marror. The next morning the long anticipated exodus arrived and the Jewish nation was born.

For generations to come the miracle of Pesach would be commemorated by families and groups offering a Pesach sacrifice on the day before Pesach, roasted and eaten on the first night of Pesach together with Matzah and Marror. Unlike the first Pesach in Egypt, the Pesach sacrifice can only be done in the Beit Hamikdash in Jerusalem, hence this centerpiece has been missing from our Seders for close to 2,000 years. But we continue to learn about it and discover important life lessons for here and now.

There were two categories of sacrifices offered in the Beit Hamikdash: Communal and personal. Communal sacrifices were purchased from the account every Jew contributed a half shekel annually and personal sacrifices were purchased privately.

The Pesach sacrifice is unique in that it had both private and communal characteristics. It was purchased with private funds but was offered in the Beit Hamikdash in large groups and every Jew was obligated to do the same thing at the same time in the same way.

The message is clear. Every individual is capable of and expected to sacrifice their personal interests for the enfit of the community, and the community is obligated to put everything on the line for the benefit of every individual.

Sounds like a contradiction? Perhaps. But the name of the sacrifice is “Pesach” which means to “leap over.” Upon confronting obstacles one needs to jump, and there is no greater obstacle than our personal interests that separate us from each other and from the community at large. We have the power to rise above it all by tapping into our essence, rooted in divine truth, causing all other issues to become irrelevant and disappear as we unite as one.

Let’s focus on tuning into our “Pinteleh Yid” - our Jewish essence - by adding in Torah learning and Mitzvah observance just because, thereby allowing us to unite with world Jewry and prepare the universe for the final and complete redemption.

Time to Focus on Our Own Homes

 

We are living through a crisis like no other. Aside from the horrors of COVID-19 playing out in hospitals around the world and the global economic upheaval, we all have been impacted in some way by the virus. For many, the fact we no longer regularly interact with others in person is a major issue that has made this past week so difficult.

Although we still connect through phone calls and video conferencing, congregating is a simple yet powerful human need that I, for one, will no longer take for granted. But as I learned this week’s parsha, and the Rebbe’s unique insight on the sacrifices offered in the Holy Temple, I discovered a powerful lesson for us in our current situation.

The third book of the Torah “Vayikra” focuses on the various services performed in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem over two thousand years ago. The Korbanot (sacrifices) were the centerpiece of the Temple service and served as a means for the community and each individual to come closer to G-d. There were many different types offered every day, but two of them expressed the essence of what Korbanot are all about.

Every early morning and late afternoon a single sheep was offered, purchased from the monies of the community fund every Jew contributed their yearly half shekel to. These two daily sacrifices were called “Korban Tamid” - which is roughly translated as “the consistent/constant/forever sacrifice.” They served as the foundation of every Jew’s connection to G-d and it was achieved on a communal level.

Getting closer to G-d does not mean we need to sacrifice everything. One single sheep sufficiently represented millions of people, but when offered every day at the beginning and end of the day it was considered the “forever sacrifice.” Even if you are able to give G-d so little, so long it is done at the right time and with the proper frame of mind, the connection remains strong and healthy.

Today, in the absence of a Holy Temple, we can no longer offer physical sacrifices to achieve this connection on a communal level, nevertheless we achieve this closeness in a personal way.

Every Jewish home is a Holy Temple and our personal “Korban Tamid” is the recitation of “Modeh Ani” in the morning, expressing our thanks to A-lmighty for the gift of life. Starting the day with this short and simple prayer, but with the proper concentration and feeling, permeates every moment of our day with our timeless connection to G-d.

Although temporarily we cannot congregate to celebrate our heritage, our divine connection can be vibrant as ever in the privacy of our own homes. Now is a good time to focus on making it real and personal.

With prayerful wishes that this terrible crisis ends immediately and that we merite very soon the arrival of Moshiach and the era of redemption, when all disease and illness will cease forever.

 

 

Here's what we can learn from the moon as we battle COVID-19

 

No one could imagine a time that synagogues would shutter and all public Jewish gatherings would cease. The current reality is extraordinary and many wonder how it will be possible to celebrate Pesach or if the community can sustain its powerful vibe under these circumstances.

This week, if we would have been gathering together in the synagogue for Shabbat morning services we would have used two Torah scrolls. In the first we would read the final two portions of the book of Shemot “Vayakhel & Pekudei” and in the second we would read the portion titled “Hachodesh” which documents G-d’s instructions to the Israelites about the Pesach sacrifice on the eve of their redemption from Egypt.

The opening statement of the Pesach preparations is the mitzvah of the Jewish calendar. Jewish festivals and observance are determined by dates following the lunar cycle, and provisions are set in place to ensure the festivals are celebrated in the proper seasons. 

In a nutshell, Jewish life revolves around the month-long cycle of the moon, and there is something fundamental we learn from the moon that allows Judaism to thrive under all circumstances

Although the moon was created to illuminate the night, it has no control over how much light it can project at any given time. At the beginning of its cycle it is a thin crescent, and regardless of its best intentions and efforts, the moon cannot get brighter than that. True, every day it progresses and fills up, reaching its fullest potential on day fifteen, but after that it recedes and wanes even if it wished it could remain brighter.

But no matter its current position or capacity to shine, it shines no matter what - fulfilling its G-d given mandate to illuminate the world.

Judaism works very much in the same way. Every mitzvah depends on specific circumstances and even when circumstances limit our ability to observe many mitzvot, we continue to radiate divine light to the world by investing more effort into the mitzvot we are able to observe.

We are a social people and it seems implausible to be vibrantly Jewish when we cannot congregate and celebrate together. As we pray for all those already affected by this terrible virus and for the entire world to heal from its impact, let’s absorb the lesson of the moon and realize that specifically now we have been granted unprecedented opportunities to grow in our Judaism and appreciation for each other.

The blessing of modern technology will allow us to remain united while we are physically apart.

I invite you to join the Chabad virtual community. We will be hosting all of our regular classes and the weekday evening services online as a video and phone conference. Below you will find information about next week’s online events. If you would like to receive regular updates and reminders with the necessary online liks and phone numbers please join our Chabad EP Updates WhatsApp group here: https://chat.whatsapp.com/HIwrzkXNxmO6bs89kySPqu

Stay tuned for our online DIY Passover tutorials to ensure you are ready to celebrate the Seders on Wednesday, April 8 and Thursday, April 9.

In addition, please reach out and check up on each other. If you are in need of assistance or emotional support please do not hesitate to contact us. Together we will pull through this difficult period, hearty and healthy.

May we merit very soon the arrival of Moshaich who will usher in the era of redemption when peace, health and tranquility will reign for all.

Just Listen

 

Have you ever felt compelled to do something against your conscience? It is a terrible feeling when you need to behave contrary to your entire belief system. But sometimes it must be done.

This week during synagogue services on Shabbat we will read the short Torah portion “Zachor” reminding us of the diabolical Amalekite nation who attacked the Israelites after their exodus, for no good reason other than senseless hatred. G-d commanded us to remember the despicable act and to cleanse the world of this evil. In the Haftara we read the story of King Shaul, who was commanded by G-d through the prophet Shmuel to wage war on the Amalekites and ensure nothing remains, no human or animal.

King Shaul obeyed G-d’s command with one caveat. When he realized how prized the cattle and sheep were he reasoned that it would be more appropriate to offer them as sacrifices instead of killing them randomly and he had mercy on Agag the Amalekite king, taking him prisoner instead of killing him in battle.

Destroying everything in one fell sweep seemed to contradict so many Jewish values and Shaul rationalized these slight changes to the divine instruction. After all, Agag and the animals would eventually die in accordance with G-d’s instruction.

But these small changes rooted in his rationalization based on Jewish values proved fatal for Shaul and for the Jews. G-d disqualified Shaul from being King of Israel and Agag sired a child during the last night of his life whose ultimate descendant was Haman, who came dangerously close to annihilating the Jewish people hundreds of years later.

Queen Esther, a descendant of Shaul, corrected her grandfather’s mistake thereby saving her people from Haman’s genocidal plot. When she was drafted to the king’s beauty pageant, her uncle Mordechai, the venerable Jewish leader of the time warned her against disclosing her heritage. She endured extreme pressure from Achashveiros and even endangered her life by keeping silent although she could have rationalized that once she was crowned queen, surely her people would only gain by Achashveiros knowing she was a Jewess. Nevertheless she kept silent, never doubting Mordechai’s judgement.

When word of the decree to kill the Jews was out Mordechai signaled Esther that the time had come to reveal her secret to the king and to plead for her people, but she knew that such a move was certain suicide. Appearing before the king unannounced was a crime punishable by death and was certainly not in sync with her Jewish education. But she obeyed Mordechai, the undisputed Torah authority of her time and the rest is history.

Shaul’s "values" based rationale jeopardized world Jewry; Esther’s steadfast obedience saved it.

The lesson is clear. The most important Jewish value is obedience to G-d. If you manage to understand a certain mitzvah, great. And if the mitzvah boggles your mind for now, just listen to G-d because that’s the surest way to doing things right.

 

Goodness is Viral Too

This morning I studied Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) with a friend and we had the great pleasure of completing the entire book after many months of weekly study. The final paragraph of this timeless treasure of Torah insight and wisdom states that everything in our world was created for the purpose of glorifying G-d - our creator.

Fundamental to Jewish belief is the idea that everything is an expression of G-d and can teach us something unique in perfecting our lives and the world around us.

Coronavirus is a big deal and every day it affects more and more people. Countries are shutting their borders, markets are tumbling and world leaders are hard pressed to find solutions. On a personal level, my family members who serve as Chabad emissaries in China were compelled to leave in haste and their communities have been displaced. What can be “glorious” about this uncontrollable nightmare?

The physical, emotional and financial toll this health menace is having on so many is terrible and I pray it all comes to a swift end. But coronavirus is one of the greatest illustrations of an important Torah message that we often find hard to relate to.

The source of the coronavirus is believed to be a "wet market" in Wuhan, China. The poor hygiene created the perfect setting for infections originating from bats to spread to animals sold there. Think of it: a few infected chickens in Central China allegedly caused a public health crisis currently gripping humanity with fear.

In this week’s parsha we learn of the mitzvah to build the Mishkan (tabernacle) in the Israelite camp in the desert as a traveling temple for G-d. Hundreds of years later King Solomon built the Beit Hamikdash (Holy Temple) in Jerusalem which he designed with “narrowing windows.”

Typically windows then were designed to be narrow on the outside and wider on the inside to diffuse the outside sunlight inside the structure. But these were designed narrow on the inside and wider on the outside symbolizing the fact that the Beit Hamikdash is not illuminated from the outside light, rather the entire world is illuminated by the divine light emanating from the Beit Hamikdash.

When G-d communicated the instructions to build a Beit Hamikdash to Moshe He said “Make a sanctuary for Me so that I may dwell within them.” Even in the absence of the physical Beit Hamikdash, twice destroyed thousands of years ago, its function continues through every one of us, and we need to have “narrowing windows;” to be a source of light and inspiration to the entire world.

Never underestimate the impact your one mitzvah can have on the entire world. If illness can be viral, goodness most certainly can be as well. And when we all appreciate this truth and act upon it joyfully, we will prepare the entire planet for an era of peace and tranquility for all, when all illness will cease, with the coming of Moshiach.

 

Giving Every Single Day

Charity is defined as “the voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need.” It is the bedrock of a compassionate society and without charity humanity would be in a lot of trouble. Following this logic, charity or Tzedakah is a response to crisis. Someone is hungry, feed them; a family is homeless, find them shelter; and the list goes on.

Judaism believes that Tzedakah is not a remedy for a societal ill rather an integral part of who we are.

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

There were many wealthy philanthropists willing to foot the bill for the daily rituals in the Holy Temple, but G-d determined that everyone, rich and poor, young and old alike should financially contribute to this fund, to teach us the true meaning of Tzedakah.

Surely there is always a need for the big dollar donations and the gracious generosity of those blessed with wealth, but the mitzvah of Shekalim emphasizes that one need not have millions to be in a position to give or to be obligated to give.

Everything in reality is a giver and a receiver. We are constantly discovering how every detail of creation is part of an elaborate tapestry which depends on everything else to operate properly. The same is true with humanity, since absolute independence does not exist. In the bigger picture, all of creation is dependent on G-d, our Creator to constantly give us the ability to exist.

So the ritual of Tzedakah giving, the dynamic between giver and receiver, is the ultimate expression of our core reality and therefore a mitzvah incumbent on all and should be observed every day.

True, there are times when we are called upon to give large donations; a humanitarian crisis, an opportunity to enhance communal life or to express thanksgiving to G-d for a special occasion. But Tzedakah, in smaller amounts, must become a daily ritual, as a reflection of the constant Tzedakah dynamic playing out in our reality all the time.

So in addition to your recurring online donations and signing checks to your favorite organizations or causes at whichever frequency you choose or giving money to a homeless person you encounter on the way to work, be sure to have a dedicated Tzedakah box within reach so you can give every single day. On Shabbat and festivals when we are prohibited from handling money, the Tzedakah box will remind us to “give” in other ways, such as smiling to another, offering good advice or helping someone work through a dilemma.

Because giving should happen every day.

 

 

The Whole World Needs to be Ready

 

What will it take to perfect our world? The Torah teaches that one day we will live in an era of peace and tranquility, in a world free of hatred and jealousy, cleansed of illness, poverty and hunger. This will all be possible because every organism on earth will be conscious of G-d our Creator and will strive to live in sync with its purpose.

It will be a dream come true and it can’t happen soon enough but we need to prepare for this exciting time today through adopting this divinely inspired attitude to life more often. Is this a task exclusively for Jews?

In this week’s parsha we learn about Matan Torah, the climactic divine revelation at Sinai, which set in motion the ability for Jews to elevate the physical reality through Mitzvot. Whereas beforehand a physical object remained mundane and meaningless despite all the good done with it, all of that changed after the revelation at Sinai. Even the most coarse and mundane physical reality can now be permeated with divine meaning.

It is striking therefore, that the Torah prefaces the story of the events at Sinai with the arrival of Yisro, Moshe’s father-in-law to the Israelite camp. This reunion was so significant, that the entire parshah in which we read about Matan Torah is called “Yisro”!

The Zohar states that Matan Torah could not happen until Yisro converted to Judaism. Why?

Yisro was a man of great accomplishments with an impressive resume. Aside from being a former trusted advisor to Pharaoh, he had served as the highest ranking priest in every heathen institution known to man at the time. He was a deep thinker and his approach to idolatry stemmed from his vast knowledge of nature and even spiritual celestial beings. Considered the foremost intellectual powerhouse of pagan traditions, he was accorded many honorary titles and enjoyed a life of wealth and privilege.

But above all, he was a man of integrity, genuinely searching for the truth, which inevitably led him to acknowledge the fallacy of idolatry and to embrace the belief in the One G-d, Creator of the Universe.

Although many miracles had occurred during the exodus from Egypt, a significant divine revelation unprecedented in world history, it did not empower us to elevate our world to a higher state of consciousness. Subduing the world is not enough, we need to persuade it to change as well.

Yisro’s conversion signified that the world was ready for real change and the revelations that followed provided us the template to prepare our world for a time when G-dliness will pervade every detail of existence. Secluding ourselves in a cocoon of religious piety might feel warm and comforting but our mission is to engage the entire planet and inspire humanity to greater moral and ethical heights, in anticipation for a time that we all wish will begin right now.

Here is why a Jew will do a Mitzvah

 

I always wondered how it is that a person can discover they are Jewish and minutes later be wrapping Tefillin and purchasing mezuzos for their home. This happens in the real world and fairly frequently.

Think of the Muslim family in Turkey who discovered their grandmother was a Jewish shtetl girl who fled the Holocaust and hid her identity, and a month later were sitting at a Seder table celebrating Pesach for the first time in their lives. (Watch their story here.) What’s the deal?

In this week’s parsha, one week after their miraculous redemption, the Israelites faced their greatest challenge as a nation. Their Egyptian masters were hot in pursuit and with the raging sea in front of them, there was no escape.

“Pharaoh drew near, and the children of Israel lifted up their eyes, and behold! the Egyptians were advancing after them. They were very frightened, and the children of Israel cried out to the L-rd.”

It seems perfectly logical that the Israelites prayed to G-d to save them from the terrifying danger, but the Rebbe provides us with a novel insight to the story.

The Israelites had been promised by G-d that they will make it to the Promised Land. If they had complete trust in G-d and therefore confident that everything would work out for the best, why pray? And if they did not have perfect trust in G-d, and therefore felt threatened by the pursuing Egyptians, why waste time praying to G-d?

Rashi in his foundational interpretation explains that “they seized the art of their ancestors [i.e., they prayed].” Drawing on sources from the Book Genesis, Rashi proves that our forefathers did not only pray to G-d in times of need, rather it was a constant habit of theirs. Prayer was not a means to an end but an end for itself, an expression of their relationship with G-d. Praying was their craft and career and it became a familial trait for Jews to pray.

So when the Israelites found themselves trapped between the sea and the Egyptians, even though they were confident everything would be fine, they prayed nonetheless because praying was hereditary to them.

Exodus was the birth of our nation and every detail of the story teaches us something about ourselves as Jews. Torah study and Mitzvah observance are not only functionary elements of Jewish life; they are imbedded in our psyche as hereditary habits.

It is possible for a Jew to be unaware of these latent habits due to a host of external circumstances. But when afforded the opportunity to do a Mitzvah, the most uninitiated and estranged can quickly agree to do so because it is really more of a homecoming than a curiosity.

So the next time you encounter Jews who know nothing about Judaism or may even seem hostile, be sure to offer them a Mitzvah because it’s what comes most naturally to them.

 

You've Been Drafted

 

As Jews we are sensitive to the way people refer to us. Some titles are derogatory and borne of prejudice while others are neutral and harmless. But when G-d refers to us with a title we need to pay attention.

In this week’s parsha we learn the most important chapter of the story of our liberation: the moment Pharaoh was humbled to the point of allowing us to actually leave Egypt. 

Up until then the Torah refers to the Jews as Bnei Yisrael (children of Israel) or Ivrim (Hebrews). But when the Torah announces that the Jews finally left Egypt, it states “and it came to pass in that very day, that all the legions of the L-rd went out of the land of Egypt.”

No longer just children or descendants of legendary patriarchs or the “first-born son of G-d.” The people leaving Egypt are now “Tzvios Hashem - G-d’s Legions” - in common parlance G-d’s soldiers.

To use the analogy of war, POWs are typically liberated after the war is over and their freedom is symbolic of the end of the struggle. Contrastly, our liberation from Egypt signified the beginning of the struggle.

The dramatic events of Exodus did not happen in order to undo the tragic injustice of the Israelite enslavement. It was in order to draft a unique group of men, women and children to G-d’s army to wage the war on materialism and egocentrism by bringing the awareness of a Higher Power to every place on the globe.

This battle has been fought on all fronts for the past 3,331 years. Every geographical location, every social sphere and every era in history has been impacted by the teachings of Torah due to the devoted service of G-d’s Army.

On the 10th day of Shevat, 1951 the Lubavitcher Rebbe formally accepted the leadership of the Chabad Lubavitch movement by delivering an original chassidic discourse with this singular message: we are the ones who will victoriously end this epic war and we are provided every resource necessary to get the job done. To usher in the era of Moshiach when peace and tranquility will reign for all.

We’ve all been drafted equally at the birth of our nation, but if you are reading this message today it means you’ve been chosen to complete the task Jews of previous generations could only dream of.

As we mark the seventieth year of the Rebbe’s leadership this Wednesday may we all absorb this empowering and humbling message and seek ways to expedite the conclusion of this multi-generational war by increasing our Torah study and Mitzvah observance.

You’ve been drafted and victory is the only option.

 

Is prayer a crutch?

I am frequently asked if prayer is a crutch. There is a prevalent misconception that people turn to G-d when things are bad and wish to contract out their troubles to a Higher Power, instead of taking personal responsibility.

Nothing can be further from the truth.

In this week’s parsha we continue the narrative of Exodus, with a focus on the famous Ten Plagues. Every school child is fascinated by the “creativity” of such an elaborate punishment being meted out to the perpetrators of such gross injustice. But while the plagues were certainly the fulfillment of G-d’s promise to Abraham that the nation who will afflict his descendants will be punished, this is not the entire story.

In every dialogue between Moshe and Pharaoh regarding the plagues a specific divine message is consistently communicated: I am doing this so that you shall know I am G-d.

When Moshe first approached Pharoah with G-d’s command to release the Israelites, Pharaoh brazenly asked “Who is this G-d you speak of?” The zeitgeist of Egypt, the superpower of civilization at the time, was that Pharaoh controls the forces of nature and the zodiac. Pharoah challenged the very notion that there could be a power greater than himself.

The ten plagues were designed to destroy this misguided mindset and set the record straight for humanity. G-d controls every detail of reality and can do with it as He pleases.

But the message is more profound. Water turned into blood for seven days, not only to prove that G-d can change water, but mainly to illustrate that natural water with its ability to bring life to plants, animals and humans only does so because of G-d’s blessing.

The lengthy process of the ten plagues prepared the Jewish people and the world for the revelation at Sinai and our subsequent mission to reveal the divine in every detail of reality. Torah and Mitzvos inform us how to put creation in sync with its creator.

In contemporary terms the message is clear. In order to make a living one must work. But the financial success of any endeavor one may undertake depends on G-d alone. True, one cannot sit in the synagogue, pray for sustenance and expect a million dollars to just appear in the bank account. But the natural pathway to financial success one chooses to follow must be in sync with G-d’s desires in order to be truly successful.

Prayer is the opportunity we have three times a day to be mindful of the fact that everything is orchestrated by G-d. The more we remember this, the easier it is for us to withstand the temptation of considering ourselves the masterminds of our success.

Carve out some more time for daily prayer and seek to be mindful of this important message routinely.

 

Collecting the Stragglers

 

To be the next US president, you just need to get a higher voter turnout than the other candidate. As long as you get a majority of the vote you will be the next leader of the free world. (I know that’s an oversimplification version, but please bear with me.) To lead the Jewish nation, eking out a majority is not enough. It’s actually worthless.

This week’s parsha is overwhelmingly focused on the profile of Moshe, the redeemer and the message of redemption. 

After marrying Tziporah the daughter of Yisro he served as the shepherd of his father-in-law’s sheep choosing the Sinai desert as pasturing ground. It was in the desolate wilderness that an episode occurred which earned him the role of redeemer and eternal leader of G-d’s people.

A young scrawny sheep ran away from the flock. All the standards of shepherding sheep at the time called for Moshe to ignore the invaluable little sheep and to focus his attention on the large flock under his care. Nevertheless, Moshe broke the rules, chased after the tiny sheep, lifted it in his hands and returned it to the flock.

At that moment G-d revealed himself to Moshe at the burning bush, gave him the mission of redeeming the Jewish people and the rest is history. Moshe’s impressive pedigree and previous accomplishments were not enough. Once it was illustrated that to him even a tiny sheep was indispensable G-d confidently entrusted him with His people.

The Haftarah read during synagogue services this Shabbat following the Torah reading is an excerpt from Isaiah which contains the following job description of Moshiach at the time of redemption. “V’atem Teluktu L’echad Echad - you will be gathered together one by one.” Since Moshiach will arrive at a time when Jews will be scattered all over the world, his first mission will be to gather us all together.

There are several expressions for “gathering” in Hebrew, and the choice of the word “Teluktu” provides a profound insight into how Moshiach will gather each and every Jew when the time comes.

The root word for “Teluktu” is “Leket” which is a title for one of the agricultural taxes to benefit the poor obligated by the Torah during harvest. While collecting stalks of wheat into bundles, the one or two stalks that fall out of your hands must be left on the ground to be “gathered” by the poor for them to eat.

Just as the gathering of these solitary leftover stalks of wheat sustain and bring life to the poor, gathering the lone solitary Jews dispersed all over the globe will not be a monotonous chore for Moshiach. It will be the most exciting and satisfying work of all time.

We are all Moshiach’s agents to gather every Jew as we unite in preparing our world for redemption. Although it may seem challenging at times, be like Moshe and Moshiach and find pleasure and joy in reuniting a “straggling Jew” with our glorious heritage.

Want to live forever?

 

“Our forefather Yaakov never died.” That’s a direct quote from the Talmud and you read it correctly. Strange?

The Talmudic sages found it strange as well and asked the obvious questions. Did the Egyptians embalm Yaakov for naught? Wasn’t there a funeral procession that attracted the attention of the world stretching from Egypt to Hebron?

In answer the Talmud declares, “Just as his descendants are alive, so to Yaakov is alive.”

This statement does not merely imply that Yaakov’s memory continues to live on through his descendants. This can be said about every human being. Rather Yaakov’s life today is as tangible and relevant in our world as the lives of his descendants walking on planet earth. What does this mean?

This week we conclude the first book of the Torah “Bereishis” with the story of Yaakov’s death in Egypt, which paved the way for the Israelite enslavement by the Egyptians. It is striking that although the theme of the parsha is the death of Yaakov on foreign soil, the name of the parsha is “Vayechi - and he lived.” This is so because Yaakov’s 147 years of life on earth only became truly meaningful after the events following his passing unfolded.

Yaakov’s life was never defined by his physical or material needs and successes. It was all about living each moment to the fullest in the service of G-d and educating and inspiring his children to do the same. The fact that this continued to happen in the morally depraved land of Egypt serves as the greatest testimony to the fact that the morals and ethics Yaakov represents transcend the boundaries of time and space.

In preparation for his passing Yaakov focused on his children and the future. Instead of reminiscing on his accomplished past, he blessed each one of his twelve sons, defining their respective paths of divine service and how they will each uniquely impact the future of Judaism.

The story of Yaakov’s legacy continues to be written today. So long as there is an unbroken chain of generations living life as he expects, regardless of the circumstances, he is palpably here because this defined his life all along.

This awareness empowers us to realize that each time we do a mitzvah or learn a passage of Torah we are embodying the presence of all of Jewish history linking us to our roots. And just as Yaakov succeeded in imparting such an important legacy to us, we must do the same for our children, continuing the everlasting life of Yaakov (also named Yisrael) and then we are able to proudly proclaim Am Yisrael Chai!

 

Responding to antisemitism


Early this week the world was shocked to learn of a sadistic antisemitic attack at a rabbi's home in Monsey during a Chanukah celebration. Coming on the heels of many more attacks throughout New York and New Jersey dubbed a "slow-rolling pogrom" many are asking Jews, especially those who are easily identifiable as Jews, how they feel about continuing to advertise their Jewishness.

Here in El Paso the media asked me if I ever felt threatened due to my mode of dress, and I emphatically responded that in El Paso I have received nothing but respect.

But the heightened antisemitism in various pockets of the world is deeply troubling and the question is how to handle it.

Today I choose not to wrangle with the question of how to deal with antisemites,  because I believe it is more vital to first determine how a Jew should absorb the situation, creating a context with which we can go forward in crafting a plan.

In this week's parsha we learn of the dramatic showdown between Yehuda and Yosef. Yosef was the viceroy of Egypt, credited with saving all civilization from a raging famine - the most powerful man alive. When Yehuda and his brothers came to Egypt to purchase food they were unaware of the viceroy's true identity and when they were unjustifiably detained and falsely accused by the viceroy of spying, they were in serious trouble.

Their situation became intolerably dangerous when their youngest brother Binyomin was framed with stealing the viceroy's goblet and his becoming an Egyptian slave forever became inevitable. There was no good way out of their predicament and all seemed lost.

At this moment of complete despair Yehuda bravely approached the viceroy and delivered an ultimatum: Either Binyomin is returned to his family or there will be war. Although it later was revealed that he was speaking to his long lost brother who would never allow for such a thing to happen, for Yehuda at the moment the danger was palpable and the risk of such a confrontation was real.

Nevertheless, despite being surrounded by the mightiest warriors alive and in the presence of a man who had the legal authority to do anything, Yehuda projected the essence of Jewish pride: Judaism and Jews will never be held captive to any outside force.

Jews are called Yehudim because we each have a streak of Yehuda's bravery embedded in our DNA. When challenged we must remember that hiding under our covers and becoming invisible will never work.

There are haters out there and we must protect ourselves while helping society purge itself of this menace. But until our world is cleansed of all evil we must respond by bravely increasing our own personal Torah learning and Mitzvah observance and making ourselves more identifiable to the world. Instead of becoming captive to outside pressures and intimidation we have the ability to rise above the fray and take responsibility for our Judaism and our future.

We must respond to the darkness of hatred by increasing in the light of Torah and Mitzvos.

My Proudest Chanukah Moment

 

Thursday morning, I had the opportunity to join Dee Woo on KTEP/NPR live radio for the third year in a row for a discussion about Chanukah. During those 55 minutes we spoke about various Chanukah themes and ideas and touched upon the beautiful ARK project encouraging charitable giving among El Paso school children.

After playing a short Chanukah song performed by the Tzlil V’zemer children’s choir, Dee asked me a question I never expected.

“What about Jews living in remote areas who do not have the opportunity to participate in synagogue services regularly and feel isolated from the broader Jewish community? How do you reach out to them and bring them into the festivities of Chanukah?”

I was struck by the poignancy of the question since, although millions of Jews are celebrating Chanukah throughout the world in one way or another, there are millions more who are completely uninvolved with the holiday and may not even know what Chanukah is all about. Not only in remote areas, but in the heart of communities such as Brooklyn and Los Angeles, surrounded by the most impressive displays of Jewish pride and observance, there are so many Jews who are unfortunately completely tuned out.

“That’s why I’m having this discussion on live radio,” I answered. Mainstream media seems to be the best way to broadcast the Chanukah message in a way that is accessible even to those unable to participate in communal celebrations thereby including them in the Chanukah festivities.

Leaving the studio I was dissatisfied with my answer. Is that all I have to offer to a Jew in a remote town without a Chanukah celebration to participate in? I decided to do something about it.

During the spring I had met Jack (a pseudonym) from a small town in Pennsylvania. An unfortunate family tragedy brought him to El Paso for several days and we connected during his stay. He wrapped Tefillin for the first time at Chabad and over the last eight months we’ve been in touch sporadically.

I called him on Thursday afternoon, wished him a happy Chanukah and asked him how he’s doing.

“Glad to be in the final week of a really bad year, rabbi.”

“Jack, you had a tough year. Let’s make the final week a brighter one by doing a special mitzvah.”

“I’m listening.”

Turns out he has several menorahs at home but hasn’t lit them in many years. He immediately made a detour to a local store to buy candles and called me back when he had five candles set up in one of his menorahs. I recited the blessings together with him and after lighting his five candles he sent me a photo of perhaps the only brilliant menorah in his small town in Pennsylvania. It was my proudest Chanukah moment of 2019.

You can have such a moment as well. Think of a Jewish friend or acquaintance who can use some friendly encouragement to join the Chanukah train and nudge them to light a menorah. We have three nights left to share the inspiration and joy of Chanukah, and you can make this Chanukah your proudest one yet.

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Control Your Environment

 

A friend of mine shared this idea a few days ago: Ensure you live life as a thermostat, not a thermometer. I thought it was brilliant and found a connection to this week’s parsha as well.

The genesis of our nationhood is attributed to our three forefathers Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov. The third, Yaakov is especially relevant to us as evidenced in the fact that our national name is Bnei Yisrael (Yisrael is the name G-d gave to Yaakov later in life) and our national homeland is called Eretz Yisrael.

The fact that Yaakov’s twelve sons fathered twelve distinct tribes indicates that each one of them set the tone for their respective descendants, while the lives of the three forefathers set the tone for all Jews equally.

Yosef is an exception. Although he is one of the tribes and was not the grandfather of a Jew descended from Reuven, every Jew is connected to Yosef. The historical reason is because Yosef saved the entire family of Yaakov from perishing during the severe famine we learn about next week in parshat Miketz, but he lived his life as a thermostat and this is a lesson we all need to learn equally.

In this week’s parsha we learn how Yosef experienced perhaps the worst trauma one can ever endure; being sold into slavery by his own brothers. To make matters worse, he was eventually sold to an Egyptian of exceptional moral depravity and, after being accused of a crime he never committed, was thrown into prison as a common criminal.

Throughout this drawn out ordeal he never lost his faith and was an inspiration to everyone around him. While serving as administrator of his master’s estate everyone knew he was a believer, because of his impeccable behavior and his constant talk of G-d. After enduring the defamation of a nasty libel and wrongful conviction he remained a source of cheer and optimism to his fellow prisoners.

While hindsight is 20/20, there was no way of knowing at the time that he would eventually be installed as viceroy of Egypt, save humanity from famine and be reunited with his family. For thirteen long years Yosef’s life was a tale of abject misery and he could have easily throw in the towel, assimilated to the Egyptian way of life and climbed the ladder to success by acquising to his master’s immoral demands. Noone would know or care anyway.

Instead Yosef became a shining example of devotion to doing what is right because G-d is everywhere and cares about what we do. When we tenaciously overcome the hurdles placed in our way and are a source of inspiration to others even when things are bleak, we are then granted the opportunity to inspire and impact the entire world in comfort and with dignity.

 

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