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Rabbis' Blog

Listen out for the voice

As a child I was taught a beautiful Chassidic melody composed by one of the legendary Chassidic masters known as the “Shpoler Zeideh.” For many years he journeyed from town to town incognito seeking ways to aid his fellow Jews, whether it was guiding them in living more Jewishly or assisting them in their financial straits.

The song he composed is titled “The voice in the Forest” describing the heart wrenching story of a father searching desperately for his children. 

“Children, where have you been that you have already forgotten about me? Come back home, I’m sad and lonely!”

The song is a description of G-d’s yearning for us to come home. To see through the distractions of life and perceive the truth of existence, that we are here to make our world a more divine space, where goodness and kindness prevails over selfishness and ego.

The days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are called the “Ten Days of Teshuvah” and this Shabbat is called “Shabbat Teshuva.” 

Teshuvah is colloquially translated as “repentance” and the elementary significance of these days of awe is that we all ought to engage in introspection and identify areas of life where we need to improve. But apologizing to G-d for our naughtiness and doing better is important all year round, and these ten days represent something more significant and profound in addition to the basics of cleaning house.

The true meaning of Teshuvah is “to return.” To return to our essence - to return to our truth. From the moment we are brought into existence reality throws every distraction possible in our way and we spend a lifetime sifting through the layers of distractions to discover the path to living in a way that brings ourselves and the world closer to perfection. As we stumble through the dense forest of life we need to listen out for the “call of our Father” imploring us to find the proper path.

During these “Ten days of Teshuvah” this clarion call is stronger, more perceivable and discernable to our souls’ ears. It creates the perfect setting for us to make good resolutions to enter the new year with a commitment to more mitzvah observance, Torah learning and charitable giving.

In this week’s parsha we read how Moshe enjoined Heaven and Earth to bear witness to the eternal covenant between G-d and the Jewish people. The opening words indicate that Moshe was closer to heaven than to earth - more in tune to a spiritual and more elevated reality than the coarse earthly reality most of us are more familiar with.

This Shabbat, as we read these timeless words we have the ability to perceive a higher reality. To hear the “voice in the forest” more clearly and tangibly. To be closer to heaven than to earth. Let’s pay attention to the voice and focus our energy on living more Jewishly than ever before.

 

 

What does unity really mean?

 

We are about to experience the final Shabbat of the year. In Judaism every ending is a stepping stone for a greater beginning and the theme of this Shabbat is preparation for a better and happier year.

On the final Shabbat of every month we bless the coming month during Shabbat morning in the presence of the Torah scroll. This week, however, we will not observe this ritual, and the Baal Shem Tov explained that on the final Shabbat of this month G-d Himself blesses the new month, thereby giving us the ability to sanctify the rest of the eleven months to come.

G-d’s blessing reaches us through the Torah and the Torah reading for this week contains a tremendous lesson for us as we enter the new year and prepare to introduce more divinity into the coming months.

Parshat Nitzavim opens with our covenant with G-d; our commitment to cherish the Torah, observe the commandments, ensure that Jewish tradition continues to the next generation and G-d’s commitment to cherish us as a nation. To secure the covenant, G-d enjoins us to be responsible for each other, to ensure we all live up to our obligations. The attitude of “mind your own business” and “take care of your own obligations” is completely un-Jewish. Every individual is bound to look out for everyone else as well.

Securing a loan through a guarantor only works if the guarantor is on stronger financial footing than the borrower. Would you ever accept a pauper as a guarantor for a loan of any size?

In the case of our eternal covenant with G-d, however, every Jew is a guarantor for every Jew, regardless of their respective level in knowledge or piety, because every Jew has a unique spiritual advantage over everyone else.  Similar to the limbs of a body. While the brain is the epicenter of life, with all of its superiority, it cannot reach its destination without the services of the feet - giving the feet an element of superiority over the brain.

The Jewish nation is a large body. Diverse in nature but inherently united in the combined mission to bring the world to perfection. Some play superior roles to others, but everyone has a unique ability and purpose which makes them uniquely superior over everyone else. This respective superiority makes every one of us a guarantor for each other and obligates us to look for each other.

Be sure your friends and family have what they need to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and that they will hear the Shofar in-person on Sunday, September 20. Doing so creates a conduit for blessing and success and convinces G-d to bless us all with a good and sweet new year.

 

Where Credit is Due

 

Everyone appreciates getting credit for their hard work. An inventor has the right to patent an invention which becomes his or her intellectual property, but if they are employed by a large corporation which provides education, training, salary, benefits, a laboratory and supplies, the invention belongs to the corporation and not to the individual.

It’s hard to challenge such an arrangement since without the support of the corporation the inventor would never be able to develop the invention, and the more the employee produces the more resources he or she will receive going forward.

In this week’s parsha we read about the Mitzvah of Bikkurim. The first of a long list of ritual taxes associated with the agricultural economy in Israel is the obligation to bring first and best of the five fruits the Torah defines as the beauty and praise of the Promised Land (figs, dates, grapes, olives and pomegranates) to the Holy Temple to be given to the Kohanim.

Bikkurim was observed with joyous fanfare. Entire villages would make the pilgrimage together to Jerusalem where they were greeted by the locals with a veritable parade as they carried the fruits in adorned baskets. Arriving at the Holy Temple the orchard owners recited a powerful prayer of thanksgiving to G-d, receiving much blessing in return.

Bikkurim is different from all other ritual taxes. All the rest had a defined obligatory percentage of produce that needed to be given to a specific cause. Bikkurim had no defined obligatory amount but needed to be given from the first fruits harvested that year. Clearly, the purpose of Bikkurim was mainly an important exercise for the giver rather than a tax to benefit the receiver.

After toiling in the orchard for a full season one could naturally feel entitled to pull off the first fig from the tree and enjoy the “fruits of his labor.” Of course many more figs will be donated to many important causes, but surely the first fruits should be enjoyed by the one who worked so hard to grow them.

Bikkurim reminds us that specifically the first fruits belong to G-d, because everything we have is only due to G-d’s blessing. The orchard, the tools, the agricultural knowledge and the energy to roll up our sleeves and get to work is all from G-d A-lmighty. Sanctifying the first fruits is the most powerful way we can remain mindful of where all our blessings come from and become the conduit for many more blessings in the future.

Today, in the absence of a physical Holy Temple in Jerusalem, the Mitzvah of Bikkurim remains relevant in our personal lives. Set aside the first and best hour of the day to pray and learn Torah, give a percentage of your paycheck to charity before using the money for yourself and express your heartfelt thanks to G-d for the gift of life and all that comes along with it. These are joyful exercises that will keep you anchored in the right attitude and make you a vessel to receive overflowing blessings.

 

Marching to Victory

 

Sunday will be a very special day for our community. The inauguration of our brand new Chabad Lubavitch Center for Jewish Life will begin a new chapter in the annals of Judaism in El Paso. It will be a home for every Jew in the region - a place to celebrate, learn, discover and thrive.

Throughout the years since the capital campaign started and the first sketches of the new building were publicized many wondered why the facade is an imitation of the Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn. The brown bricks and three peaks seem out of place in our desert region, some observed.

Shortly after the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe miraculously escaped war ravaged Europe in 1940, the three story building located at 770 Eastern Parkway was purchased to become the new headquarters of the centuries-old Chabad movement, becoming the most important address for Jews around the world, known to all simply as “Seven Seventy.”

Ten years later the Rebbe assumed leadership of Chabad and personal responsibility for the Jewish world and set in motion the greatest Jewish renaissance in a millenium. Seven Seventy is where the Rebbe taught Torah for thousands of hours, responded to a volume of mail rivaled only by the White House and met personally with countless human beings from all walks of life. The revolution of Jewish outreach we take for granted today can be traced directly to Seven Seventy and every Jew in the world knew that it was a place they would be heard, cherished and helped.

In the early 1970s as the Rebbe started sending emissaries to every country, state, city and town with Jews a song was composed in summer camps where the future emissaries were being educated on the importance of committing their lives to servicing the Jewish world.

“From Seven Seventy we’re marching out, on to victory without a doubt…”

The choice of military language to describe the Rebbe’s campaign to create a permanent presence of Chabad in every corner of the globe can be traced to an idea in this week’s parsha where the Torah communicates a host of battlefield laws. A simple question is asked: Since every mitzvah is relevant to every person, at all times and all places, how can the laws of war be meaningful to us in times of peace?

In truth, even when there are no physical battles to fight, there is a constant spiritual battle raging in the world in general and within every individual as well. The war against apathy and assimilation. The battle against ego-centrism, selfishness and materialism.

The soldiers marching out of Seven Seventy are charged with the mission of bringing the light and joy of Torah to every human being to enable everyone to overcome the many spiritual battles we face on a daily basis. The three peaked facade of Seven Seventy has become an icon of the ability every person has to be victorious in sharing the beauty and joy of Judaism to all. We are proud to join the ranks of the close to twenty other cities around the world who host an imitation of Seven Seventy and we look forward to increasing our ability to bring the Rebbe’s message to the entire region.

Thank you for joining us in this mission.

Stop Predicting and Start Shaping

 

Today a photojournalist came to the new Chabad Center on behalf of a local media site in preparation for an article about the grand opening we will be celebrating in ten days. I had last seen him in April when he came to our home for a Pesach photo-op and as we greeted each other in masks he commented “I hoped we would be past all this by now!”

True. In April most of us thought that by August we would not be walking in public masked up and plenty of experts were predicting the same, but here we are in the midst of the pandemic, making the best of it and growing wary of predictions.

In this week’s parsha Moshe speaks with the people about the nations they were preparing to conquer. The Canaanites were pagans steeped in superstition, witchcraft and sorcery who would divine through sticks, devise omens on premonition and consult with skulls about the future. G-d prohibits us from imitating these practices in any shape or form.

Although the details of their divinations sound primitive, foolish and downright disgusting, their culture developed out of a basic human craving for knowing the future. There are numerous sources in Jewish tradition acknowledging that these practices were effective and the future could be divined through them, but they are off limits to Jews.

“Be wholesome with G-d” Moshe concludes. Don’t try to obsessively divine the future. Instead, trust in G-d completely and accept whatever comes your way. G-d provides us with prophets in every generation who communicate the future to us when necessary, but we are compelled to live our lives based on G-d’s instructions elaborated in the large corpus of Torah literature available to us.

Predicting the future is a comfortable way of making decisions in the present. Investors buying stocks want to be sure they will grow and politicians pay fortunes to pollsters and analysts to predict where the political winds are blowing and who their voters are. Philanthropists commission studies costing in the six digits to determine the next big initiatives to save the world and millions consult with shrinks on the streets holding crystal balls.

Judaism provides us with a context for life that fits every era and every location and by following the Torah guide book for life we know we are doing the right thing. And about the future - our prophets have already ensured us that the purpose of everything happening today is to prepare our world for the era of redemption when there will no longer be war, hunger, illness or jealousy and peace and tranquility will reign for all.

It is up to us to shape that future as quickly as possible through learning more Torah, doing more Mitzvot and sharing this truth with everyone we can reach.

El Paso is going back to school

 

The start of a new school year is normally exciting but next week everyone is entering the new school year with tense apprehension. Everything we know about the mechanics of education has been upended and this coming Monday is going to be a first for everyone in education: the students, faculty and parents. Online education is a fairly new vista for most El Pasoans and the knowledge that everything can change overnight doesn’t make it any easier.

As we rethink so many areas of education it’s appropriate to dwell on the purpose of education as well.

This week’s parsha opens with a profound statement that reverberates in our personal lives every single day. “Behold I (G-d) have given you [the opportunity to choose between] a blessing and a curse.”

After teaching the Torah to the Israelites for forty years in the desert, Moshe communicates on behalf of G-d the hard reality of life. We can be taught everything, but the opportunity to utilize all of this knowledge in a positive and constructive manner is our choice alone.

Knowledge is powerful but can be dangerous as well. Penmanship can promulgate hatred and terror and arithmetic can be used to swindle and cheat. Medical knowledge can be used to save lives or terminate them efficiently and scientific discovery can enhance our quality of life or produce tools to destroy civilization.

For over forty years the Rebbe spoke incessantly of the crucial need for the educational system to have a soul. Children are not computers to be fed information. They are humans endowed with a conscience and a mutual responsibility for their families, communities and the world at large. As parents and educators we cannot simply equip our children with the tools to embark on successful careers, we need to teach them how to choose right over wrong and good over evil. To live lives of service and higher purpose.

To this end the Rebbe was a strong advocate for public schools beginning the day with a “moment of silence.” When school children reflect silently on the purpose of education it has an indelible impact on their moral and ethical perspective in life, with far reaching results. To ensure educators do not advance their personal religious beliefs in the public school classroom, parents inform their children of what values and ideas to reflect on during that minute - another golden opportunity to foster parental involvement in their children’s moral and ethical education.

Today it is mandated in over twenty states including Texas, but the Rebbe explained that this moment of silence, when implemented meaningfully, can have a transformative effect on our youth and change the course of history.

Sixty seconds of silence on Zoom is disastrous and will probably not be part of the curriculum of online education most children are returning to. I know the early morning hours in every household are hectic and no one is looking for more chores, but I encourage parents to ensure their children are afforded the opportunity of reflecting silently for a minute before starting their formal education each day so that the soul of education flourishes as we work together to get through this time period in a healthy and hearty manner.

 

 

Change Your Mind

 

Problems need solutions and ailments need cures but often the first step to fixing the problem is through changing perspective.

Exile is a problem and our world afflicted with war, jealousy and evil needs healing and the weeks following Tisha B’av are a time to focus on preparing ourselves and the world for redemption when our world will be perfected for all. The Torah portions we read each Shabbat between the saddest day of the year and the beginning of the new year provide us crucial lessons in how to make this happen.

In this week’s parsha Moshe continues recounting the many details of the forty-year long journey the Jews experienced in the desert before inheriting the Land of Israel. He implores upon them to not forget G-d “who led you through that big and awesome desert, [in which were] snakes, vipers and scorpions, and drought, where there was no water.”

Our national experience three thousand years ago was in fact a beta test for what’s happening now. The desert represents exile and entering the Land of Israel represents redemption. Since the diagnosis is half the cure and by properly understanding exile we know how to neutralize it and usher in redemption, let’s unpack the different adjectives Moshe used to describe the desert.

The first issue with the desert is that it’s “big.” Desolate desert land dwarfs civilized habitation by millions of square miles. The same imbalance is true regarding divinity and morality in comparison to selfish depravity; altruism is certainly in the minority. When the “big desert” becomes “awesome” it’s intimidating and you will struggle doing the right thing even in the privacy of your own home.

“Snakes and scorpions” come next. Snake venom is hot and represents a situation where one is enthused and excited with exile matters. Scorpion venom is cold and represents a situation when one is uninspired and listless about life in general.

Worst of all is when “drought” sets in. Even when one is inspired to search for meaning he or she has a hard time finding the “water” of Torah to quench their soul’s thirst - the harshest expression of exile.

It all begins with seeing the “desert” as “big.” Of course Torah and Mitzvos are quantifiably dwarfed by everything available out there, but Jews are legendary for ignoring the arithmetic and focusing on quality and depth. Rather than ignoring reality we can choose to see it from a more elevated position.

To view the desolate mundane world as a place of opportunity for revealing G-dliness instead of losing ourselves in the crowd by setting aside time from the busy work-day to study Torah, boldly giving charity above and beyond what society dictates and adopting more Mitzvot that initially seem frightening to keep.

The ailments of our fractured and bleeding world can be healed with this simple paradigm shift because it all begins in the mind.

 

 

When you’re supposed to be disobedient

 

We place a premium on etiquette and respect. If you ask someone for something numerous times and are repeatedly rejected, it’s rude to continue asking. But there is an exception to every rule and in this week’s parsha Moshe illustrates an instance where disregarding etiquette is the way to go.

After forty years in the desert the Jews faced grave danger when their water supply suddenly stopped. Moshe struck the rock with his staff instead of speaking to it as G-d had instructed and water gushed forth miraculously. As a result G-d decreed that Moshe would not merit to enter the land of Israel and would be buried in the desert together with the entire generation that had perished during their forty year sojourn.

Moshe prayed and pleaded to G-d to rescind the decree and allow him to enter the land of Israel. The opening words of this week’s parsha indicate that Moshe offered no less than 515 (!) unique supplications to this end and was repeatedly rejected, to the point that G-d warned him not to mention the request again.

There are several questions here. Firstly, why did Moshe continuously pray to enter the land of Israel if G-d had expressly told him it would not happen? Secondly, why did Moshe not accept G-d’s decree as Judaism teaches one must accept everything from G-d with joy? Most importantly, why is it relevant for us today to know that Moshe was rejected so many times?

The Talmud states that Moshe’s handiwork is eternal and could never be destroyed. Even the Tabernacle built by Moshe in the desert was buried and remains intact until today. If Moshe would have entered the land of Israel and built the Holy Temple it would never be destroyed and exile would never happen.

In other words, his entry to Israel would affect the ultimate redemption for all humanity. He wasn’t praying for his own sake, he was praying for the world.

Clearly G-d had other plans, but even after hearing directly from G-d that the time was not yet ripe for the ultimate redemption, Moshe stubbornly continued to pray and demand for it at great personal sacrifice, because when so much is at stake one should never accept reality as it is.

Moshe taught us that praying and demanding for redemption is not merely a reaction to national catastrophe or personal tragedy, but a moral obligation incumbent upon all of us to do everything we can to make our world a more perfect place.

Never tire from asking G-d to bring Moshiach, because it may very well be the next prayer you say or the next mitzvah you do that will tip the scales for the better and affect the perfection of the entire universe when peace and tranquility will reign for all.

(Adapted from Sichas Yud Alef Menachem Av 5751) 

 

 

 

Always looking out for us

 

Stuff happens. Kids misbehave, partners make careless mistakes and neighbors can be a nuisance. If you can keep the peace without making a commotion, that’s great but at one point the time will come for an honest conversation.

Devarim, the fifth book of the Torah, is an account of Moshe’s final conversation with the Jewish people. After leading them for forty years, he gathered them thirty seven days before his passing and communicated a divine monologue containing law, history and inspiration.

But first came the honest conversation. The opening words of Devarim are a brief yet intense recap of all the times the Jewish people rebelled against G-d. They complained when there was a lack of water and whined about the substance of the heavenly bread they received every morning. Standing at the Red Sea they railed against G-d for taking them out of Egypt to die and after miraculously crossing on dry land they got distracted with collecting the Egyptian treasures that had washed ashore instead of marching on to Sinai.

The Korach uprising was a disaster and the rebellion of the spies delayed their entrance to Israel by forty years. Many thousands succumbed to promiscuity with the Midianites and Moabites and the sin of the Golden Calf haunts us until today. 

You would never see this list just by reading the opening verses of Devarim because Moshe implied these events in code. The famed Torah interpreter Rashi decodes the words and clarifies that Moshe did so in order to preserve the dignity of our people. Furthermore, the chosen codes actually imply a defense for the Jews in each scenario.

They complained about water because they were stranded in a parched desert and under appreciated the heavenly bread because it was a transcendent type of nutrition. Trapped between a raging sea and the murderous Egyptians would scare anyone to death and they got so distracted with the Egyptian treasures because one week earlier G-d had told them they must sack Egypt clean of all its wealth.

Korach was a manipulative charlatan who sweet-talked them into rebellion and there was no way they could have known that their handpicked spies would seek to bar them from inheriting the Promised Land unless there was a very good reason for doing so. Moav was a nation with a legacy of promiscuity and living in close proximity to them certainly had an impact on them. And about the Golden Calf, G-d was the one who provided them with all that overabundance of gold and it is no wonder they did foolish things with it.

This is a valuable lesson in discipline and rebuke. Even when the proverbial rod is necessary, be clear that you understand the misbehavior is not chronic or malicious and that your love and devotion is still very strong.

This week Thursday we observe Tisha B’av, the anniversary of the destruction of both Holy Temples and the beginning of our long and terrible exile. Although all the pain and suffering resulted from our misbehavior, we know this is all temporary and very soon, through our increased mitzvot, we will merit to usher in the final redemption when there will be peace and tranquility for all.

(Adapted from Likkutei Sichos vol 14 pages 1-7.) 

 

It’s all set up for you

 

Free will is the foundation of human relationship with G-d. Noone is born knowing how to fulfill mitzvot and Tefillin, Matzos and Shofars don’t fall from heaven. We must make a conscious decision to invest the time and effort to do Mitzvos properly.

So while mitzvah observance may seem to be a one sided investment on our part, a usually overlooked detail in the story of this week’s parsha reveals how G-d is very much involved in the mitzvos we do all the time.

As the Jewish nation prepared to conquer and inherit the Land of Israel, many of the surrounding nations, blinded by their irrational anti-semitism, tried to stop the Jews from advancing. The Emorites battled them and lost, the Moabites hired Bilaam the prophet to curse them and failed, but the Midianites orchestrated an elaborate scheme to seduce the Jews to sin and successfully caused the death of 22,000 men.

G-d instructed the Jews to retaliate and after a brief and miraculous battle Midian was conquered. The amount of people and livestock that were captured as spoils of war was astounding and G-d instructed Moshe to divide the plunder equally between the soldiers that went out to battle and the rest of the nation.

A special tax was to be taken from the spoils and dedicated to G-d. From the soldiers Moshe was to take one five hundredth of the people, cattle, donkeys and sheep and give them to Elazar the High Priest. From the rest of the people Moshe was to take one fiftieth of the people, cattle, donkeys and sheep and give them to the Levites. Since the Priests and Levites served G-d in the Holy Temple, giving them the tax elevated and sanctified the rest of the spoils as well.

Instead of concluding this chapter of the story by simply recording that Moshe followed G-d’s instructions, the Torah, which serves as a guide for eternity, records in minute detail the exact amount of people, cattle, donkeys and sheep the Jews plundered from the Midianites and how much the respective taxes were. Why must we know all these details today?

Reading through the detailed counting of the spoils, something astounding emerges: the hundreds of thousands of individual units of plunder were counted up in even numbers of groups of five hundred and groups of fifty! There were absolutely no extras! Although this phenomenon is definitely not nature defying like Avraham miraculously coming out of a fiery furnace unscathed - it is so unusual  that it could be classified as close to impossible.

G-d set up the Midianite economy in such a way that when the Jews would ultimately defeat them they would have this specific number of people, cattle, donkeys and sheep so that the tax would represent every unit of plunder. Even one extra cow or sheep would render the entire mitzvah insufficient.

The Torah enumerates all this in over one hundred seemingly extra words in order to teach us today to never be daunted when facing challenges in observing Mitzvos. G-d has it all set up for us, and we just need to make the right choices.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichos vol. 13 pages 110-113.

Get to know your heritage

 

Today I attended a Covid era Bris. You’d think that being limited to having just the parents, mohel and sandek in attendance would dampen the celebration. Not so. Dozens of friends and family participated via Zoom and the celebratory air and emotion in the room when the child was inducted into the covenant of Abraham was as powerful and intense as any Bris I attended

The secret to our ability to infuse even the most toned down celebration of this important milestone is rooted in the fact that our heritage transcends all limitations of time and space. From the beginning of our nationhood we were told that the Torah and all of its 613 mitzvos are the heritage of every Jew no matter where they may be or how much they know. And this tiny Bris was no different.

It reminded me of a story about Rambam, the famed 12th century Jewish sage known as Maimonides. As the personal physician of the Egyptian sultan he enjoyed much honor in the royal court and his anti-semitic colleagues sought ways to get rid of him and finally one of the king’s closest confidants spun a convincing liable accusing Rambam of treason and the king agreed that he needed to be executed.

However, due to his great love and admiration for his wise physician he sought to find a roundabout way to arrange Rambam’s death. The same confidant suggested that the attendant of the royal lime pit be told that the first person to approach him with the message “Have carried out the king’s orders” should be thrown into the lime pit immediately. The king will then send Rambam to deliver the message to the lime pit attendant and Rambam will meet his end without a public scandal.

The king agreed to the plan and sent the Rambam on the suicide mission the next day. As the Rambam made his way on foot towards the lime pit which was a fair distance from the palace he was approached by a Jew who desperately needed a Mohel to perform a bris on his eight-day old son. The sun would soon set and he was not able to reach the other Mohelim in town.

Rambam reasoned that although he was on a mission from the sultan, surely the commandment of G-d the King of all Kings was more important and he detoured to the Jew’s house where there was a small crowd assembled. After performing the Bris the host insisted he stay for the joyous feast and honored him with reciting the grace after meals on a large glass of wine. The wine had its effect and as he hurried to the limepit he was overcome with exhaustion and laid down to rest for a while.

Meanwhile the antisemitic minister was overjoyed at having signed Rambam’s death sentence he wanted to see the burning embers of his nemesis. Calculating that Rambam had sufficient time to reach the lime pit he himself went to the limepit and innocently asked the attendant if he had fulfilled the king’s orders. To his horror, the man lifted him up and thrust him to his death on the spot.

When Rambam finally reached the lime pit, he realized the great miracle that had occurred in the merit of performing the Bris.

Rambam's greatest contribution to Judaism was  to make every mitzvah in the Torah accessible to every Jew. He authored a digest of all the 613 mitzvot called Sefer Hamitzvot. In 1984, the Rebbe introduced a novel study cycle of Maimonides’ great work on Jewish law and incorporated an easy to follow system of learning all 613 mitzvot in under a year. Yesterday, millions of Jews around the world completed the 39th cycle and today begins the 40th cycle.

You can join the movement and take hold of your heritage by committing a few minutes each day to study and by next summer you will be familiar with all 613 mitzvot!

There are many resources available in numerous languages. Easy-to-read overviews, audio and video classes and a daily email straight to your inbox. There is even an app for it! Click here to find the best way for you to join.

We deserve miracles

 

People have limits. There is only so much a mortal is willing to put up with and when the beneficiary of your kindness fails to show appreciation, it’s inevitable that the kindness flow will dry up. G-d works on a different level.

In this week’s parsha we learn of the passing of Miriam, Moshe’s sister. The loss of such a legendary woman was compounded by the fact that the rock that had been miraculously providing water for the millions of Israelites in the desert for forty years suddenly dried up. It was finally revealed that the water miracle had been in her merit and the nation now faced an existential crisis.

After forty years of dedicated and proven leadership you’d think that the people would approach Moshe and Aharon respectfully and inquire how they will procure water. Astonishingly, a violent riot broke out to the point that Moshe and Aharon fled from the mob into the Mishkan and needed to be protected by a divine cloud.

G-d instructed Moshe and Aharon to restart the water flow by speaking to the rock. As millions of Jews gathered to witness the miracle, Moshe mistakenly spoke to the wrong rock which did not give forth water. Remembering that forty years previously G-d had instructed him to strike the rock and it gave forth water, he did the same now and, miraculously, water started flowing.

The nation breathed a joyous sigh of relief, astounded by the miracle of water once again flowing from the rock through Moshe’s strike, but G-d was displeased. The plan was for the rock to bring forth water as a result of Moshe speaking to it, not by hitting it. Consequently G-d decreed that Moshe and Aharon would pass away in the desert without meriting to enter the Promised Land.

There is so much depth to the story and myriads of interpretations and lessons we can learn from it. In 1982 as Israel faced unbearable security challenges in the heat of the First Lebanon War the Rebbe explained that this story illustrates that Jews are worthy of experiencing miracles regardless of their spiritual level.

Think about it: the Israelites in the desert were in such a spiritual rut that they attempted to lynch the saintly Moshe and Aharon who had faithfully taken care of their needs for forty years. Nevertheless G-d wanted these lowlives to experience the awesome miracle of a rock giving forth water as a result of being spoken to, and when Moshe and Aharon denied this experience from them unintentionally, they were severely punished.

This Shabbat marks 93 years since the Previous Rebbe was released from Soviet captivity. The Soviets had sentenced him to death for keeping Judaism alive behind the Iron Curtain, but through a string of fantastic miracles he was freed on the 12th of Tammuz, within a month of his arrest . (Read more about it here.)

As we celebrate our miraculous peoplehood through history may we merit very soon to experience the ultimate miracle - the redemption of the world through Moshiach when goodness and peace will reign for all.

 

 

Here is a photo you should see

 Rebbe with Children.jpeg

Let me describe this photo captured in the summer of 1987 at a “Farbrengen” at Lubavitch World Headquarters. “Farbrengen” is the simple yiddish word for gathering, but in the 250 year old Chabad lexicon it represents the idea of Jews coming together and connecting on multiple levels through chassidic discussion, soulful tunes and brotherly toasts of L’chaim over glasses of wine or vodka.

When the Rebbe assumed the Chabad leadership after the passing of the Previous Rebbe, the Farbrengens he held frequently on Shabbat, Jewish and Chassidic holidays and at times randomly served as his platform to communicate with the world. He taught unique innovations in all levels of Torah scholarship, launched multiple campaigns aimed at transforming the Jewish landscape and shared his approach to critical issues facing the global Jewish community and humanity at large.

In attendance were thousands of people from across the social spectrum. World leaders, pulpit rabbis, businessmen, activists, rabbinical students and curious observers. But this photo reveals a demographic one would never expect to find at such a gathering; dozens of children - on the dais no less!

They were usually hidden from the crowd by the table, but in this photo taken from behind the dais as the Rebbe gestured a greeting to one of the guests sitting behind him, you can see how close these children were to the Rebbe as he communicated to the world. Rather than being a nuisance, they were encouraged to attend even though they were unable to follow the Rebbe’s talks at all.

Much has been written describing the Rebbe’s personal greatness, charisma, leadership, scholarship and impact on the world, but the core of the Rebbe’s mission can be summed up in the Zoharic description of Moshe who led the Israelites to freedom - a shepherd of faith.

As Moshe guided the Israelites through the desert, they experienced miracles on a daily basis. Surrounded by divine clouds and nourished by heavenly bread and water flowing from a rock, the Israelites lacked no proof of G-d. But their faith needed to be nurtured so that when they entered the Promised Land and the daily miracles ceased, their faith would permeate every fiber of their being and every aspect of their lives.

When the late Shimon Peres visited the Rebbe he later shared that on every subject the Rebbe displayed brilliant depth, but when speaking of faith he spoke like a five year old child.

Faith is the core of our identity and must be nurtured at every juncture of life. For the Rebbe, communicating the deepest Torah thoughts or addressing major world crises were all expressions of his role in making our inherent faith more relevant and applicable. In this capacity children are as important as venerable sages in their eighties.

Yesterday marked 26 years from the Rebbe’s passing, yet the Rebbe continues to nurture our faith through his teachings published in hundreds of books, preserved in thousands of hours of audio and video recordings now available in multiple languages, online as well. I encourage you to visit www.therebbe.org and avail yourself to this treasure which continues to transform and empower millions to make our world a better place, preparing it for the ultimate redemption through Moshiach.

Climbing Ladders to Heaven

“What is your ultimate goal here, Rabbi?”

A friend blurted out the question in the midst of an intense conversation about community challenges. I answered him honestly, but I continue to contemplate the question often. Whatever I am doing, is it leading to the ultimate goal?

In this week’s parsha we learn of the dramatic events that lead to the greatest tragedy in our history. The Israelites, poised to enter the Promised Land a little over a year after being redeemed from Egypt, inexplicably demanded Moshe send spies to scout out the land before conquering it.

Reluctantly twelve representatives were sent and upon returning, ten of them declared “mission impossible.” The cities are strongly fortified, giants abound and everything about the land is so strange that attempting to take it would be certain suicide.

Two of the spies insisted their colleagues were terribly mistaken. Yehosua and Kaleiv, appalled that the people had so easily lost their trust in G-d by the foreboding report, courageously attempted to sway public opinion. After reminding them of Moshe’s credentials as G-d’s undisputed messenger, Kaleiv movingly declared, “If Moshe would instruct us to build ladders and climb them to heaven - we would certainly succeed!”

The statement about climbing ladders to heaven sounds like poetic license, but a deeper understanding of this episode reveals that Kaleiv was making a precise declaration, relevant to us today more than ever.

The Israelites were instructed to transform a land inhabited by depraved and immoral nations into a holy land. This is a microcosm of creation’s purpose; to reveal the divine brilliance hidden within the mundane and meaningless reality of our world. To bring heaven down to earth or bring earth closer to heaven.

Ten of the spies worried that the Jews would succumb to the spirit-numbing mundane realities of life settling the land would inevitably present and disconnect from the Torah they had recently received at Sinai. “The land will consume them,” they fretted. Better to remain ensconced in the spirituality of desert life, surrounded by the Clouds of Glory, nurtured by the heavenly bread called manna while studying Torah directly from Moshe.

But Kaleiv proclaimed that since the mission of imbuing divinity into the humdrum of regular life was coming from G-d through Moshe, it was certainly attainable.

In the winter of 1951 as the Rebbe formally accepted the mantle of Chabad Lubavitch leadership, he declared our generation is charged with the urgent mission of ushering in the era of Moshiach. To cause the long awaited redemption to actually happen by revealing the divine brilliance hidden within the mundane and meaningless reality of our world. To bring heaven down to earth or bring earth closer to heaven.

Everything was imbued with this urgency, and the Rebbe educated and inspired tens of thousands of Chassidim to devote their lives to this mission and millions more to get involved as well.

As we observe the Rebbe’s 26th Yartzeit this coming Thursday, the Third of Tammuz, Kaleiv’s immortal declaration serves as an inspiration for us all. Even when the job of revealing goodness in every detail of reality seems impossible and perhaps far-fetched, realize that we are truly empowered to make our world more heavenly by adding in Torah study, doing an extra mitzvah, increasing our Tzedakah giving and connecting with each other in the true spirit of Ahavat Yisrael.

The Rebbe continues to lead and inspire our way towards redemption and we need to keep climbing “the ladder” one mitzvah at a time.

Being a lamp is not enough

 

Being an inspiration to others is a blessing, and although the feeling of sharing a meaningful lesson, heartwarming anecdote or some thoughtful advice is very special, it is far from the end game in the purpose of our creation.

The opening verse of this week’s parsha describes the Holy Temple service of lighting the Menorah, the seven branched candelabra which stood in closest proximity to the holiest spot on earth. The expression used is “Beha’alosecha es haneiros - when you (Aharon the high priest) will light the candles (of the Menorah).”

The way I just translated the verse is true to its general meaning, but if you were to translate the words literally it would read “when you elevate the candles.” There are other words in Hebrew which mean “kindle” and the like, but the Torah chose to employ the word which also means “to elevate.”

The most authoritative explainer of Torah, Rashi tells us the following: Since the flame rises, Scripture describes kindling in terms of ascending. He is required to kindle the lamp until the flame rises by itself.

Technically speaking the kindler can hold the flame to the wick and cause it to shine brightly even if the fire did not catch on to the wick very well. But then the fire would cease to exist once the kindler moves away. Hence the Torah exhorts the Kohen to kindle the wick in such a manner that the flame would ascend on its own without the kindler’s help.

Seems like a simple and self evident idea, but probing into the deeper meaning of the Menorah and its spiritual function, this detail becomes the catalyst for a profound paradigm shift in understanding our purpose in life.

Every Jew is a lamp, filled with fuel and a wick ready to illuminate the world with divine light and inspiration. Our wick is kindled through Torah study and Mitzvah observance, filling the world with divine brilliance, but that’s not enough. We need to be lamplighters, ensuring that all the lamps around us are also kindled, able to illuminate and kindle more lamps.

When the Kohen entered the sanctuary with a light, the service was not complete by just introducing light there. He needed to share that light in a way that the lamps of the Menorah would shine brightly on their own and kindle other lamps as well.

Being the bearer of good cheer and doing good things is not enough. We need to invest time and energy in inspiring others to the point that they are empowered to be an inspiration to many more. Our success is only realized when we elevate another to the point that they can in turn elevate someone else.

 

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